Let me just say that waking up at 3:00 AM for a bicycle ride is not the sort of thing I normally do, but that is precisely what was required in order to be at the Hampton Inn in Warrenton for the registration and bicycle inspection in the DC Randonneurs 300K Brevet.
There was no sign of the morning sun when we shoved off at 5:00 AM. There were 31 riders (including those riding on tandems). It was a chilly 48 degrees and a brisk breeze blew into our faces as we headed north toward I-66. After a few miles, we strung out over several hundred yards. The tail lights on the bikes in front of me made for a pleasant sight as the cyclists pedaled off into the dark.
The group broke up quickly. There was a small band of us still together when I noticed everyone stopping on the side of the road. It turns out it was a secret control. Randonneurs carry a brevet card with them and log their arrival at “controls” which show they actually were on the course and on schedule. Just to keep things super honest, the ride organizers will occasionally throw in a control that is not announced beforehand. I was the last person to line up to get my card signed and by the time I put it away so I wouldn’t lose it, I looked up and I was alone. Off I went in the faintly growing light of the new day.
After pedalling through the sleeping town of Marshal and crossing over a nearly deserted I-66 I settled into my rhythm on Cresthill Drive, which would feature a series of rollers gradually leading me uphill toward the Appalachian Mountains. The scenery was fantastic and I was happy to be handling the climbing chores early in the ride. I came across a fellow named Dave, who became my companion off and on for the next forty miles. It’s always nice to strike up a conversation with a fellow cyclist and Dave has been at this for many years. It was good to pick his brain.
I tried to pace myself as we went through small towns with names like Flint Hill, Washington, Hawlin and Peola Mills. Taking it easy and eating/drinking properly would be the key to getting through this day, I thought. The last of the major (well, major to me anyway) climbing would finish just before our first official control in the town of Syria, around Mile 63.
I trudged up three miles of the final climb to be met by the ride organizer, George, who was happily snapping pictures of each cyclist as the reached the crest. I was not at my most radiant moods but I gathered myself as best I could and posed for a picture.
A windy mile long descent into Syria was fun. I then pulled into Control #1 – a convenience store of the type that one can only find in the country, preferably in a place with no cell service like Syria. It had no bathroom but the old “store” across the street – which was open and appeared to be drying hundreds of beets from the ceiling – had one. It reminded me of restroom facilities I have seen in places like Haiti and other war-torn parts of the world. It was not hygienic, is what I am saying, and I shall leave it at that.
It was starting to warm up a bit and it was time to shed a layer of clothing. I removed the helmet cover which I had bought specifically for this ride. I swapped out my full finger gloves for half finger versions and I very cleverly popped the clear lenses out of my glasses and put some darker ones in. In short, I felt like I knew what I was doing and I belonged out here. It’s nice to feel prepared.
The next fifteen miles were a hoot. The road was downhill, away from the mountains, and it ran along a stream which was quite pretty to ride beside. My apologies for not taking any shots of that. I was too busy horsing around with self portraits and gimmicky photos like the one below. I did manage to take a shot of the road, sans stream.
All good things come to an end and this pleasant portion was no exception. Eventually, some climbing was involved. I was up to 80 miles now, making this the second longest ride of the year for me. Knowing that I had another 108 miles to go was sobering. It was approaching noon and I had been at this for seven hours now. I planned a lunch in the town of Gordonsville at Mile 101 and it couldn’t have come soon enough. I was knackered. I pulled into a Subway sandwich shop that had several Randonneurs finishing up their meals. I texted a pic of myself to my wife, who wrote back, “You look tired.” She’s a very observant person.
It was good to see some of the gang and we chatted a bit over our food. It turns out two of the other four people there were named Steve, in addition to myself. I held a quick vote and agreed it would be easier for everyone if all club members just went by the name Steve. Remembering names is too difficult when you’re tired.
Lunch had precisely the effect I hoped for. The rest and the meal did wonders for my energy levels. I shortly came upon Louisa Road, a delightful gradual downhill with the wind at my back. For seven miles, I flew along at speeds over 20 mph. Let me say this about the my Madone. It is absolutely the wrong bike for long distance rides. The tires are too thin. The geometry is too aggressive. The carbon frame makes attaching anything such as lights, fenders, or bags problematic. The gearing is all wrong (most of the Randonneurs I talk to favor triple cranks with their better ability to climb). But the Madone was built for speed and that is what I was doing now. I reeled in several riders who simply didn’t have the top end I had due to fatter tires, heavier loads or whatnot. It was fun going fast, even for just a bit.
Eventually, the downhill became an uphill and the route turned northward and back into the wind. At Mile 120, we stopped at yet another lonely country store near the town of Oakland for a control. Inside I found three local men holding court near the front. They were sitting in chairs, passing the time of day amongst themselves and moving the conversation quickly to whatever passing thing occurred. They were a slice of Americana is what they were. They had just finished interrogating a local lady who regaled them with the story of the 5K run she completed earlier that day when they turned their attention to us. When they learned we would be riding almost 200 miles today, their reaction was as predictable as it was complimentary. Most people, even fellow cyclists, have a hard time imagining cycling such a distance. It’s always a pleasant moment to bask in their admiration. I then stepped back outside and stared at my bike. We had another 68 miles to travel together and it was time to get after it.
Northward we went until we hit our final control in the town of Orange (Mile 133). The cue sheet was a little confusing to me with several quick turns in the small town. Fortunately, I chose wisely each time and made it out of there with no navigational challenges. Shortly outside of town, I turned on to a road named Clarks Mountain Road. As a rule, I try to avoid roads with the word “mountain” in their name. This was a somewhat tame affair and it afforded some nice pictures in the late afternoon.
I should mention I was once again alone at this point. After Orange, I was pretty much by myself for the last 55 miles. I wanted to move as fast as possible while the sun was still in the sky and everyone else seemed more comfortable with riding at night. At Mile 153, I stopped briefly to say goodbye to BOB (“Bright Orange Ball” – an Army nickname for the sun).
By this time I was back in my cold weather gear, clear lenses in my glasses, reflective vest/ankle bracelets on, and lights on. I sailed downhill toward the Rappahannock River in the gathering gloom and could maintain a good pace since I knew these roads well enough from previous brevets and my own excursions. At the Rappahannock, I paused for a final picture at dusk.
This was Mile 164. I had long since past my personal best for distance on a single ride but was feeling rather good considering the circumstances. That would shortly change as I was about to experience night cycling while extremely fatigued.
Remember those pretty country roads in the pictures above? If not, please take a moment to refresh your memory. See how they have no markings or even a shoulder? See how there are no buildings to give you any ambient light? Now imagine roads like this cloaked in darkness. That was what I was cycling through, trying to find my way home. I fully expected to be struck dead by a passing drunk driver (or inattentive teen) at any moment. If I was somehow able to survive that, it would almost be guaranteed that I would become completely lost and not realize my mistake until I turned up in West Virginia or some such place.
Compounding my anxiety was the fact my cue sheet warned me three turnings were easy to miss. What joy. I crawled at speeds well under 10 mph, desperately searching for hidden roads while trying to make sure every passing car – most of whom blinded me with their brights turned on – did not kill me. Compounding matters was my increasing exhaustion. I had managed my pace and nutrition well, but the fact remains I had been cycling for about sixteen hours after getting up at 3:00 AM. I had difficulty remembering the cue sheet instructions, which caused me to pause at each turning and triple check them with a flashlight to ensure I was still on track. It was slow, tedious, and stressful work.
Since I am typing these words, it is obvious that I survived the ordeal, although I can’t say I am excited to repeat it. I was so nervous at one point I pulled off to the side to wait for other cyclists. After ten minutes, nobody arrived so I shoved off again on my own. I was even treated to a .3 mile stretch of gravel at almost the very end. Loyal readers will know that I detest gravel roads and my skinny tires gave me plenty of excitement as I slowly made my way over the ruts and stones.
I checked in with a finishing time of 17:40. After sharing some pizza and some stories with the Randonneurs who were still there, I made my way home, driving on roads similar to ones I had just cycled and wondered what my reaction would be if I stumbled across a cyclist clinging to the edge of the road. Shock and exasperation, most likely. I made it home around midnight and quickly found my bed, 21 hours after the whole affair began that morning. I had traveled 188.8 miles, climbed 10,600 feet, and burned 7,750 calories. It was certainly a day to remember!