And so it came to pass that I found myself in Frederick, MD, with 33 serious cyclists for the DC Randonneurs’ 200 km brevet (pronounced Bra-Vaye, for those who haven’t bothered to learn French). How serious were these cyclists? As I have discussed elsewhere, a 200 km ride is one of the shortest distances these people cover. Many ride far longer distances and for a nice report of what a serious randonneur endures, I commend to you this post. As for myself, I considered the upcoming ride to be my toughest attempt to date. I had ridden 200k with the Randonneurs last March, but this ride would feature twice as much climbing with strong winds and possible thunderstorms in the forecast. My goal was a simple one – finish.
After signing in at a local Pizza Hut and receiving a short briefing, we were off toward the first of four battlefields of the day – Monocacy. It was here in 1862 where Union forces famously found a copy of Robert E. Lee’s Special Order 191, detailing his plan to invade the North. Using this information, Union General George McClellan exclaimed, “Now I know what to do! Here is a paper with which, if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home.”
McClellan intended to march westward toward Sharpsburg, MD,where he expected to meet Lee’s army as it crossed the Potomac River. Although Sharpsburg is only 30 miles away from Frederick, there are two rather significant terrain features between the two towns – Catoctin and South Mountains. Our route would take us along one of the roads used by Union forces, who fought their way uphill against a delaying force of Confederates. In 1862, the men fought in wool uniforms on dirt roads. I had a bicycle, asphalt roads, and all the liquid and food I could ask for. And nobody was shooting at me.
Piece of cake.
We pedaled at the rather sedate pace of 17 mph, much slower than the club did in my March ride. I suspect the more experienced riders at the front were conserving their energy for the climbing to come. I know I was. My strategy was not to impress anyone on the climbs. That was not possible to begin with and to expend energy I would need later while simply trying to make a good showing would be foolhardy, in my view. I just wanted to survive with as much energy as possible. The worst of the climbing would be over by Mile 67 and I could then enjoy the rest of my day in relative peace.
At Mile 12, we hit Mar-Lu Ridge and the “sedateness” ceased. The steepest climb of the day was mercifully the first one. It was only a little more than a mile, but we climbed 450 feet. The little pack of riders split up as we struggled to reach the summit. For the first time that day, I put my bike in its bottom gear and grinded my way to the top. I would get to know my bottom gear very well before the day was through. This was also the place where I maxed out my heart rate at 180 bpm – 100% of my capacity, or so the people at Garmin would have me believe. I think they’re about right.
After gently rising for the next eight miles, I came across our second major climb of the day: Gapland Road. This was a “mere” 310 feet over two miles from the slumbering town of Burkittsville to Gathland State Park. I traveled this portion of the ride alone, with most of the group ahead of me and out of sight and a handful trailing behind me, again out of sight. I was alone in my thoughts, which tended to center on just when would this &^#$%! climb be over. At the top of the climb, I found the monument to war correspondents killed in war which Folksnake often mentions. The site also served as a rest break for the Civil War Century which was being run out of nearby Thurmont. There were a handful of strong riders there, being part of forefront of a group of 1,000 (or so) riders I would encounter over the day. There were lots of bugs in the air and I really didn’t enjoy being around food I wasn’t permitted to eat, so I beat a hasty retreat and began the descent into Sharpsburg.
On my way down, I contemplated my Garmin, which informed me I had climbed 2,000 feet in 20 miles. I have never climbed more than 5,000 feet in a single ride and I had almost done half that in a mere 20 miles. No wonder why I was feeling a bit knackered. As I came down the mountain, the sky cleared and a beautiful morning developed before me. I eventually came upon Nick, who I knew as the organizer of the March brevet. We exchanged pleasantries and were quickly joined by Mike. Both Nick and Mike are experienced riders who knew the area well. It was nice to have some company and to learn what to expect up ahead. We pedaled into Sharpsburg, just on the edge of the Antietam battlefield, and made a mandatory stop to get our control cards signed by a cashier at a convenience store. I also grabbed some more sports drink, some water, and a cup of mixed fruit. Yummee.
Nick and Mike left a few minutes before me, so I was once again on my own as I entered Antietam Battlefield. Fought on September 17, 1862, our brevet ride was almost 150 years to the date of the battle. There were 23,000 casualties at Antietam, the largest single-day loss in American history. The carnage shocked the peoples of both sides of the conflict, though clearly not enough to resolve the issue as the war would continue for three more years. I parked briefly at a corn field where some particularly savage fighting took place and pondered what the scene must have looked like 150 years ago.
A lovely ride through the battlefield park ensued. In short order I came upon another important spot, The Sunken Road, where Confederates surprised advancing Yankees with devastating effect. After several assaults, the Federals broke the Confederate line. There are period pictures of the corpses of Confederate defenders, stacked like cord wood in this road. Nowadays, the road is preserved with two post and rail fences and an observation tower overlooks the scene.
The battlefield ride was quickly over and it was once again time to climb over the ridge in order to get to Gettysburg. The next 35 miles are a bit hazy for me. Generally, they involve one common characteristic – me going uphill. There was a long gentle climb through the town of Boonesboro, which seemed to be having some sort of civic event that I couldn’t quite fathom until a passerby flagged me down and asked directions for the reenactment. Why she thought I would know such a thing is anybody’s guess and I was sorry to disappoint her. My thoughts quickly returned to roads with names like Mountain Laurel Road and Mount Lena Road. I have long ago figured out that roads with the word “mountain” in them are always troublesome, and this ride would prove to be no different. I was grateful for the fact that a stiff breeze would be at my back for most of these ascents.
At this point I found myself intermingled once again with the Civil War Century riders. Whenever the Randonneurs route veered in a slightly different direction, they would shout to tell me I was “off course.” In a few miles, our paths would once again converge. As I huffed and puffed on a particularly steep stretch, a friendly rider passed me by and said, “Halfway there!” For him, perhaps, but not for me. When I informed him that I still had 75 miles to go, I don’t think he believed me. He smiled and said, “Well, have a nice ride!” and was off.
At Mile 52, I made my way onto Raven Rock Road and confronted the day’s longest climb – 750 feet over six miles. The grind was a steady 5-6% grade with almost no pauses. It was tough work and it sapped my strength. The sun was shining and temperatures were in the mid-80s when I once again happened upon Nick and Mike, who had paused to put on some sunscreen. We chatted a bit and both cyclists offered encouraging words to me. I knew the worst of this would be over in 15 miles and concentrated on somehow reaching that point. Eventually, me and my bottom gear reached the summit and some descents ensued.
A word about descents is now in order. Riding downhill is fun; of that there can be no doubt. But when you’re riding downhill at speeds around 40mph on roads you do not know in a state of near exhaustion, the potential for disaster is always present. I forced myself to concentrate as I flew along country roads, waiting for loose gravel or potholes that would ruin my day. Fortunately, I found no such thing and was happy to be nearing the town of Fairfield when I happened upon the final, gut-wrenching climb of the mountains.
It occurred on a road named Sunshine Trail. Let me just say that to give such a name to a road that inflicts so much suffering is borderline criminal. This lovely treat, at the end of 65 miles of climbing, features 300 feet of ascent over a mile with two false summits to add to the fun. There were century riders strewn about the hill, most of them chugging away but a few of them walking their bikes up the rise. Knowing this was the last major effort of the day and a rest was only a couple of miles beyond, I steeled my resolved and lumbered to the top.
Having finished 69 miles, I pulled into a convenience store at Fairfield and found a small band of Randonnneurs finishing their break. Among them were Nick and Mike, who stayed a bit and chatted with me while I ate my turkey sandwich. I was thoroughly wrung out and couldn’t imagine how I would ride another 60 miles. I felt like I had just finished a century, but sadly had done far less than that. My legs felt like lead. As Mike and Nick headed out, I decided to stay for a bit longer to rest, stretch, and somehow find some energy.
Then in the gathering gloom to the west, I heard thunder. Yikes.
Quickly, I gathered my things and struck out for Gettysburg, about 12 miles to the northeast. The rest would have to wait. I needed to see if I could outrun this storm.
Does Steve find the energy to finish the ride?
Does he avoid the thunderstorm?
What other silliness might transpire between here and the end?
Stay tuned for the second and final part of the DC Randonneurs Civil War Tour 200K Brevet!!!