As is always the case with the DC Randonneurs, check in was a breeze and there were ample supplies of food and drink to help us store up some energy for the day. I was very pleased to finally meet Mary, local cycling heroine and author of the blog, Chasing Mailboxes. Mary was running a marathon during last year’s brevet so her husband Ed (a blogger himself and regular contributor to the DC Randonneurs site) rode solo – something unusual for him as he usually rides a tandem with Mary. I was pleased that Ed remembered me from last year’s trip. After reading Ed’s trip report, I would learn that this was the eighteenth consecutive year he has rode at least one official brevet and the ninth year he and Mary have ridden one. Wow.
My streak is now at two.
After some brief instructions on the route and potential hazards, we were off. This began the first phase of the ride, which I shall call:
Here is the dilemma I face on most rides: pacelines are really really good but I generally don’t last very long. I knew from last year the lead group would probably set a good pace and I wanted to be part of it. I also knew that they would eventually spit me out the back. No worries. The trick for me was to figure out the best time to bail – that point where the faster speed of the paceline was outweighed by the increasingly high amounts of energy I needed to use up to stay with it. Last year, this point came at Mile 18. I hoped to last longer this year.
A mistake I often make is to timidly stay at the rear of the group. This is not a great place to be as the group expands and contracts like an accordion. This means the riders in the rear spend equal amounts of time hitting their breaks and sprinting to stay in contact with the group. Also, if there is a break between groups, anyone sitting in the back is forced to stay with the slower group or try to sprint to catch up with the faster group. This happened to me last year and I tried to sprint the gap. I failed and was exhausted in the attempt.
Now it is important to point out that randonneuring events are not races. Time is a factor but you are very much running against an established standard, not each other. That said, I am pleased to report that I was the lead cyclist for the better part of five miles in the early going. I’ve never done that sort of thing before and it was exhilarating. As far as personal performance goes, this was the highlight of the ride. Everything goes downhill from here.
You’ve been warned.
We zipped through a sunny morning, exhorting the sun to rise in the sky more quickly. Steady speeds of 20+ mph were maintained and I happily was holding my own at the spot where I sat up last year. I managed another seven miles before surrendering. We had lost several riders already and there were only nine left in the group that pressed on without me, including Ed and Mary on their tandem. I was happy to have lasted that long and believed I saved about 25 minutes over how long it would have taken me to ride that length solo.
I eventually hooked up with another solo rider named Cory, who regaled me with stories about life in Japan (he served in the Navy) and a fascinating cycling tradition in California where a massive number of cyclists take to the road every New Years Day and ride incredibly fast. Traffic lights, stop signs and trailing police are routinely ignored. I offered up the Air Force Cycling Classic as a humble, more safe, version of that event and he seemed intrigued.
After crossing the Rappahannock River we lumbered up the hills on the far side and eventually made it to the Locust Grove control at Mile 48. It was beginning to warm a bit and I swapped out my winter gloves for regular full fingered ones. I stored the winter gloves in my new saddle bag, which received more than a few compliments. My bike barely drew a glance, but the bag impressed. Interesting.
I was in good spirits as I left the control. My energy was high and I was ten minutes ahead of last year’s pace. I shoved off alone for the Wilderness Battlefield and entered into the next phase of the ride:
On every organized ride I have ever been on, there comes periods where you are by yourself on the road. I’ve ridden for many miles by myself, often out of sight of another rider. Sometimes I’ve gone as long as twenty miles like this. Little did I know at the time, but I was about to ride the next 80 miles alone. Apart from brief conversations at control points, I would spend the next six and a half hours alone with my thoughts.
Fortunately for me, I am a very interesting person.
I’ve explained these battles in the past and won’t bore you with the details again. Wilderness Battlefield Park is a narrow strip of land with a road running through it. Much of the land is forested and occasional markers are placed alongside to describe an important aspect of the fighting. After four miles, I left the park, pedaled past the site where Confederate General James Longstreet was mistakenly shot by his own men (the Confederates had a habit of mistakenly shooting their better generals) and made for Spotsylvania Battlefield nine miles away.
The roads were mostly dry and the temperatures had warmed to the point where the early morning ice was no longer an issue. There was definitely more snow in this area than in Bristow, despite being fifty miles to the south. The sound of generators running in some of the homes was evidence that power had not yet been restored.
Spotsylvania Battlefield was right where I left it one year ago. There are a few more roads in this park than the Wilderness. The major road I was on runs in a loop past several key parts of the battle. I stopped at an “information control” and answered a question based on one of the historical markers.
After that, it was time for lunch. I was very hungry and the town of Spotsylvania was only three miles away. I pulled into a 7-11 and pondered my options. I eventually settled on a sandwich and the free bottle of Mountain Dew that came with it. There were a few other cyclists there, grabbing something to eat. Mostly everyone kept to themselves.
I sat in the sun on a sidewalk and thought about the ride so far. I was at the halfway point with a pace exactly like last year’s. The day was becoming quite pleasant but I wasn’t going to take off my winter jacket just yet. I read cheerful texts of support from my wife, drained my soda, and saddled up for the rest of the trip. It was beginning to dawn on me that this would be done by myself as no groups of cyclists seemed to present themselves they way they usually do for me.
Beating last year’s time would be challenging, but I believed I had a good shot as I was considerably lighter than last year and presumably in better shape. Check back here to see if I actually did it.