So there I was, zipping through the streets of Fairfield, Pennsylvania, hoping my depleted energy reserves after 69 miles of climbing would be sufficient to help me outrun an approaching thunderstorm.
I’ve outrun storms before. It’s kind of a cool notion, that you can actually outpace a force of nature while riding a bicycle. However, this storm seemed to have me in its sights. The skies darkened and the wind picked up. As I passed a local fire department, I noted the siren was wailing. This was troublesome as sirens are often used as a tornado warning. Even more perplexing was this same fire department was being used as a rest stop for the Civil War Century riders and there were many cyclists leaving the parking lot and continuing their ride. A fire department that was sounding its siren as a tornado warning surely would not let cyclists leave its parking lot, would they?
I certainly hoped they would not and that the siren was for some other inexplicable reason. Maybe they were cheering on the cyclists. In any event, I pressed on and quickly left the town for the countryside.
The wind picked up. I’d guess that gusts were over 40 mph and would occasionally push my bike to the side. One gust caused some acorns to fly off a nearby tree and pelt me. That hurt. After about three miles, the heavens opened and a thunderstorm of epic proportions ensued. Once again, I was trapped in a large storm while on a ride. I attempted to use my iPhone to find a weather radar which would tell me how serious a situation this was. I learned that the touch screen on an iPhone doesn’t work well when torrents of water are flowing onto it. I put it away in a ziplock bag and pressed on.
It got worse. Thunder crashed around me and the mid-day sky looked like dusk. It started to rain sideways. Winds were steadily over 30 mph and gusts had to be around 50 mph. This was not good, about as bad as I have ever experienced on a bicycle. I could only see a few hundred feet in front of me and was looking for shelter more substantial than an oak tree. After about half a mile of this, I came across a gentleman who was closing up his barn. The building had a porch and I shouted a question to him over the wind, “Could I please use your barn for shelter?” He graciously gave me permission and I am in his debt.
So now I had shelter and there was a fairly good chance I was not going to die. Things were looking up. Still, I was completely soaked and my fatigue from six hours of mountain cycling had not abated. I plopped myself down on a plastic chair and enjoyed the view. Amazingly, I saw five people who cycled past in this deluge. I never saw their bodies or ruined bicycles, so I presume they made it out of there. I know this: they were crazy.
As I sat there, waiting for the storm to abate and wondering what sort of fool rides through a potential tornado, a funny thing happened: I started to feel better. After twenty minutes, the storm had subsided, the skies cleared, and I felt remarkably fresh. For the first time in about two hours, I believed I might finish this ride in decent shape. In some odd way, the break enforced by the storm may have been just what I needed to recharge my batteries. I headed out into a light sprinkle and saw two different groups of cyclists emerging from nearby garages. It looks like the good people of McGlaughlin Road helped several of us cyclists on this day.
The ride into Gettysburg Battlefield was mostly downhill and in a slight sprinkle. For me, this would be the highlight of the ride. I’ve been to Gettysburg many times over the years. There are many fantastic stories associated with this battle, way too many to share in this space, and the park-like setting is always very inviting for a visitor. I’ve never been to the battlefield on a bicycle. When I spied Big Round Top and Little Round Top from about three miles away, I picked up my pace like a horse who smells the barn.
Fought over three days the summer after Antietam, Gettysburg is often described as the “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy. With Robert E. Lee’s defeat, the South lost their best chance to win the war. Approximately 50,000 casualties were suffered during three days of combat. I entered the park from the west and traveled past The Wheatfield, which saw 30% casualties among the 20,000 soldiers who fought there on the battle’s second day. Some of the wounded managed to crawl to nearby Plum Run and soldiers downstream reported the stream ran red with their blood. Recalling these stories, I suddenly didn’t feel so bad about my personal condition.
I made my way northward along the Federal lines, passing by monuments I knew very well – regimental markers placed where a particular unit fought, Father William Corby – who blessed the Iron Brigade before it launched its attack in the Wheatfield, and several state monuments including a nice one from my home state of New York. Of course, the Pennsylvania Monument is the largest and it dominates the Union Center. Despite the recent storm, there were still a few people sightseeing, though far fewer than one would expect on a typical Saturday.
Just past the Pennsylvania Monument is one of the battlefield’s key points – The Copse of Trees. This small grouping of trees is what 15,000 Confederates marched toward during the doomed Pickett’s Charge on the battle’s third day. The attackers suffered 50% casualties, a rate that is almost unimaginable to this career army officer. The original trees still stand today and are part of a nice display. Imagine my surprise when I saw what the storm had done.
The large tree limb missed a period artillery piece by inches and the marble statue by a few feet. The only thing that appeared to be damaged (apart from the tree) was the iron fence which surrounds the trees. I spoke with the gentleman pictured above and learned he had spent the storm in his car on Little Round Top, about a mile away. We both grabbed some acorns which were all over the place as a result of the storm. With a little luck, one of them will sprout and I will have a descendent of these trees growing in my yard.
One can sight-see for only so long on these rides. While not overly demanding, there is a time limit to arrive at the various controls. I therefore broke off from monument chasing, pedaled out of the park and headed north into the town of Gettysburg, where I eventually pulled into the next control point – a 7-11 store. I must have made quite an impression to the people inside, who gathered around me and asked where, exactly, I was during the storm. I told my story with as much embellishment as I could reasonably get away with and impressed everyone with my report about the downed tree limb at The Copse of Trees. Outside the store, I met up with another Randonneur named Rodney. We would end up cycling the remaining 50 miles together.
Rodney is an experienced randonneur raised in Wisconsin and recently moved to Virginia from Illinois. He has been on brevets and lengthy tours in those states and many others but this was his first event with the DC Randonneurs and his first brevet in some time. He rode a nifty steel bike custom-made by Seven Cycles out of Massachusetts. I’d never heard of the company and he happily told me a bit about them. Apparently, they are big into Titanium and lightweight steel and they custom build almost all their bikes. Neat.
We rode westward through town and made our way to the Confederate lines, where we discovered the road closed due to more downed trees. The presence of trees on a road didn’t deter some drivers, who attempted to bypass them and became stuck in the mud. The presence of Rodney didn’t deter the driver of an RV, who almost ran him over as he gunned his engine to get out of the mud. We quickly got through the mess and pressed on past the large statue of Robert E. Lee and the Virginia Monument and onward past a statue of James Longstreet, Devil’s Den, and up onto Little Round Top. Rodney was the first person I cycled with at any of the historical sites and I am afraid he had no choice but to hear my ramblings about the events that transpired at each location. He was very polite and pretended to be interested. After a few miles, we exited the battlefield on its Eastern side.
I looked at my Garmin. 40 miles to go.
The rain had stopped by this point but the skies were threatening to the west. Another band of rain was moving our way. We made a good pace as the ride was mostly downhill and we repeatedly thanked our good fortune that the winds had subsided with the passing of the cold front. We were pushing against a modest breeze and not the strong gusts of a few hours ago. We made decent time but I could feel myself beginning to drain once again. The excitement of being at Gettysburg had faded and all that remained was the long slog back to Frederick.
At my request, we stopped for a rest in the town of Detour (Mile 108) at a small village store called, sensibly enough, The Village Store. There, we chatted with an elderly man who was fascinated with our bikes and stated he used to enjoy riding a bit in his youth. Rodney tried to convince the man that if you are well enough to walk, you are well enough to cycle. Perhaps he made a convert. Despite the pleasant conversation and the intake of food/drink, this stop did not have the recuperative effect that the stop during the storm or the one in Gettysburg had. I believe I had simply reached the end of my endurance and the remaining 26 miles would be a gut check.
I was right.
The gradual downhill ended and a series of rollers ensued. Roller after roller and roller. Normally, these are kinda fun to ride: you zip down one hill and dance up the next using the momentum created from the descent. In my current condition, I usually handled them by coasting or pushing slightly and then slamming my into my bottom gear, whereupon I battled to reach the top. I had been fighting cramps off and on for the past four hours. Every hill brought on a cramp. It started to rain again. Life was hard.
Along the way, Rodney lost his cue sheet while attempting to change it on the fly. This meant he had no choice but to stick with me, which was a pleasant situation for me, at least. I was responsible for reading and remembering the directions to the next turning, but my memory skills were fading fast. I could remember the name of the road we were looking for but would usually forget which way we needed to turn. We would stop at the intersection where I would once again consult the cue sheet, then point out the right way, announce the next street we would turn at, then forget the direction. This went on for about ten miles.
Finally, we made it to the day’s final challenge: Ball Road. Only three miles from the finish, this road features a climb of 200 feet over about 3/4 of a mile. If you’ve been paying attention, you will know that this is not a significant climb compared to all the others I’d been over this day. We took a break at the bottom while Rodney got his reflective gear and lights turned on (it was getting dark). Then we set off.
I’ve been cycling regularly since 2010. I’ve logged over 7,000 miles. I have never gotten off my bike for any challenge. Ever. But halfway up that hill, with cramps in both legs, I tasted bile in my mouth and gave up. I walked my bike up about a hundred yards then remounted near the summit. It was not my greatest moment, but I do believe had I continued I may well have passed out or at the very least vomited while riding my bike. I didn’t want to do either of those things, so I guess I made a good decision.
The final mile and a half was an easy ride up Urbana Road to the Pizza Hut. Rodney and I checked in with an official time of twelve hours and three minutes. That’s well before the maximum time of 13.5 hours but much slower than my previous 200k time of 9:40 on a much flatter course. I was hoping to finish within 12 hours, so I pretty much hit my mark. We then sat down inside the restaurant, enjoying some pizza and soda and chatting with other finishers about the ride while trying to not let on that my legs and feet were cramping on and off. The main topic of conversation was “Where were you when the storm hit?” The group clapped in congratulations as we arrived and we did likewise for cyclists who finished after us. It is a nice tradition that separates the DC Randonneurs from other “non-club” organized rides I have been on. After a few minutes of conversation, I packed up the car and headed home. It was time to sleep.
Thus concluded the 200k Civil War Brevet. My Garmin informs me I rode 134. 4 miles, climbed 8,763 feet and burned 5,201 calories: all personal bests. My top speed was 44.6 mph – my second fastest time on a bike. Except for the Marine Corps Marathon (which I ran in 1993), this was the hardest physical thing I have ever accomplished.
I’m looking forward to the next challenge.