See the fancy title I used for this ride? I can do this because I am now officially a Randonneur and entitled to use the arcane acronyms of this exclusive club. Here’s how it happened:
We gathered at the Caribou Coffee in Bristow to register, pick up our control sheets (more on that later), prep our bikes and grab a bite to eat before setting out. I do not like coffee – a distinct problem when traveling with the cycling set – but mercifully the store offered juices as well. I was very pleased to meet so many friendly people who introduced themselves and chatted about the club. I was pleased to see John pull up with his Surly and I feel it necessary to report to anyone hoping to find him on the street that he is regrowing his beard. Without his bike, I doubt I would have recognized him.
At the appointed hour of 7:00 AM, we gathered in front of the store and were given some pre-race (technically, this was a race) instructions. There were about forty riders total, which I learned later was a good-sized group. With the administrative portion dispensed with, we were off into the pre-dawn fog, accompanied by a few shouts of, “Allez!”
I immediately noticed a difference in these cyclists in that they followed the rules of the road. I was beginning to see the difference between the “open” organized rides I have been on and a club ride. Firstly, people take an interest in you and welcome you into the group. Secondly, people are held accountable for following the group’s rules. Both were positive changes, in my view.
We zipped along on roads I know very well from my weekend jaunts. We passed through Nokesville and headed southward into Fauquier County. There was a significant mist to the morning and this was especially troublesome for those who wore glasses. I chatted with a few riders while the pack moved along at 20 mph. Eventually, the sun began to peek through the morning clouds and I could tell it was going to be a very warm day. For now, though, my vest and arm warmers were very welcome.
At Midland Road (Mile 22) I made my first mistake. Our merry band broke up as a few cyclists peeled off to duck into a convenience store. I was in a group behind this break and we slowed to make sure nothing unfortunate happened. Then the four riders I was with decided they didn’t want to try to catch the lead group. Then I decided to try to bridge the gap by myself. That was my mistake.
I sprinted very hard and actually closed about half the distance for a brief while, but I never reached the back end of the group. After two miles of sprinting, the pack had disappeared down the road. I was now by myself with nothing to show for my rather significant effort. I learned once again that bad things happen to people at the back of groups and if you really want to stay part of a pack, stick near the front.
After crossing the Rapidan River and entering Culpeper County, I had some hills to climb. Fortunately, I was aware of this fact in advance and had steeled myself for the chore. On the whole, this was a very flat ride with “only” 4,400 feet of climbing over 130 miles. This area was the most challenging of the day and I put my head down and got it over with as best as I could. Occasionally, I would happen across a rider or get passed by someone, but this 20 mile stretch was largely a solitary affair for me. My glorious 18.2 mph average pace was now closer to 15 mph.
When I reached Route 3 – a busy highway connecting Fredericksburg and Culpeper – the group of four that I left on Midland Road reeled me back in. One of the riders was a man named Jim, who was riding a recumbent bicycle at a very impressive pace. I don’t know a great deal about recumbents, but in my experience they don’t zip along for 40 miles at 16+ mph.
At Mile 42, I ate my first bug of the year.
When we pulled into our first “control” at Mile 48, I was ready for a break. It was warming up and it was time to shed some layers. I also needed to wipe my sunglasses, which I had stowed on my helmet in the manner of cool roadies everywhere and thus accumulated a great amount of moisture during the morning fog. At a control, it is also necessary to get the proprietor to sign your “control sheet,” thus proving you actually made it to the designated point within the alloted time. In return for this favor, it is customary to purchase some items, which I was happy to do. We took a brief break at some picnic tables, arranging our cue sheets to depict the next leg of the trip, swapped a few stories, and built up some energy. It was here that I met Ed, the “other half” of Mary’s cycling tandem at Chasing Mailboxes. Sadly, Mary was not present today and Ed was on a more traditional machine.
It was only a few miles from the control to our first battlefield – The Wilderness. Fought in May, 1864, this was a particularly brutal affair fought mostly in close quarters due to the difficult wooded terrain. To get to the battle, the Federal Army marched over the old Chancellorsville Battlefield and discovered many skulls and other bones that had been dug up by animals or exposed by erosion. During the battle, the brush was accidentally set on fire and hundreds of wounded who could not escape were burned alive. It was nasty stuff, and I felt compelled to stop at several of the markers to learn more. This did not help my overall time but it did make the ride more enjoyable for me.
After The Wilderness, it was off to Spotsylvania and the second battlefield of the day. This battle was fought about a week after the Wilderness, as the Federals tried once again to get between the Confederate Army and Richmond. Before reaching the battlefield, I stopped at a site commemorating the accidental wounding of James Longstreet by his own men, which occurred at the end of the The Wilderness and almost exactly one year to the day from when Stonewall Jackson was killed by his own troops about 1o miles from this location.
While puttering about a monument to the mortal wounding of Union General Sedgwick (Commander, 6th Corps) at Spotsylvania, a rider named Chris pulled up to ask if I was ok. Chris and I had chatted earlier in the ride and seemed interested in the history I had to relate (or at least he was very polite about my ramblings). We rode together to the “information control,” a place on the battlefield where we had to answer a question to prove we were there. Jim joined us on his recumbent and we eventually came across the site – a question about the Mule Shoe Salient which the Federals attacked. I already knew the answer to the question, but dutifully waited until arriving at the marker in question before filling out my control sheet.
Jim, Chris, and I pulled into Spotsylvania a little before noon. We had covered 69 miles in less than five hours. Suddenly, finishing the ride in under ten hours seemed very possible. The day was fantastic and it felt like summer was in full swing despite it still being officially winter. Spotsylvania was an “open control,” meaning we could pull in to any store in town and get our sheet signed. We just needed to keep our receipt to prove we were there. I carefully placed my receipt in the ziplock bag I was using to store my control sheet and credit card, then sat down to enjoy my convenience store lunch of a chicken sandwich and Gatorade.
After lunch, we moved to the third and final battlefield of the day, Chancellorsville. This was chronologically out of sequence from the first two, but there was nothing to be done about it. Chancellorsville was fought a year before the other two battles and was the site of Robert E. Lee’s greatest victory. I rode through the battlefield last September and you can learn more about it here. We just dipped our figurative toes into this field in order to answer another information control question which I already knew the answer to “Question: What was the battlefield named after? Answer: The Chancellor family home.”). Since lunch was only forty minutes ago, this was a short stop and we were once again on the road, heading back to Kelly’s Ford over the Rapidan.
It was about here, at Mile 80, that things began to lose their luster for me. I knew this would be the case; the battlefield tours were over and all that remained was getting back to the finish line. And that was 50 miles away. I also knew that the road we were on was hilly for the next seven or eight miles with little to catch the eye apart from a lovely drive past Hunting Run Reservoir. There were five of us at the Chancellorsville Control, but shortly after restarting three of them were off in the distance. I was left with the companionship of Chris, who happily discussed anything I was interested in talking about as we took on the hills in the increasingly hot day. I am in Chris’ debt.
We stopped for a rest break at the Rapidan Bridge, where I ate some Clif Shot Blocks. These babies were absolutely key for me. I ate a packet faithfully every hour – except for when I had already eaten at a control. Every time I downed a packet, I felt much better for several miles. It may be psychosomatic, but I don’t care. It worked.
Shortly after leaving the bridge, Chris realized he hadn’t flipped his cue sheet and he stopped to do so. I was going to stop with him, but he insisted I continue, saying he would catch up. I didn’t like leaving him after he had faithfully stayed with me but he was insistent. I was fairly certain he would be right back with me in a few miles. I didn’t see Chris again until the final control at Mile 111 – the Handymart where I regularly stop on weekend rides.
I was pretty well spent at this point, but the level terrain and the fact I knew every nook and cranny of this part of the course greatly aided me. I knew when to conserve my energy and when I could push things a bit. I managed 16.2 mph pace on the last 19 miles, which was quite satisfying to me. In Nokesville, I came across Barry, another cyclist completing his first-ever Brevet. Barry’s from Frederick, MD, and I’ll most likely be heading up his way for the club’s Gettysburg 200K brevet this September. Barry informs me that there are many more hills in his neck of the woods, a statement which I now have six months to ruminate on.
Barry and I pulled into the Caribou Coffee finish together with a finishing time of 9:40. I never thought I would be able to go so quickly, especially given my dalliances at the battlefields, but the weather was fantastic and the fact I knew many of the roads was very helpful to me. I signed and turned in my control sheet and enjoyed the nice after party, which consisted of pizza, sodas, cookies, fruit and other goodies. It was a nice way to finish a great day.
I don’t think I’m ready to take on some of the more ambitious events of the DC Randonneurs, but I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the group and hope to join them again this September when they take on South Mountain and the battles of Gettysburg and Antietam. Until then, Bon Route!