Wednesday, June 20, 2007

No PBP for you, says USCIS.

Ever dreamt of something for a long time? I am sure you have. Now imagine yourself having done everything in your power to accomplish this dream. You have trained in the rain, climbed hills, done some tough brevets, ate less to lose weight, read numerous ride reports, tried different foods on the bike to better your performance and spend less time at the controls, talked about it to everybody in your family till they walked away, planned your life around it.. the works. You feel good, and you are about to submit your application for said dream. You probably figured out that this dream that I am talking about is PBP. Now imagine your dream shattered because of something completely unrelated to your ability to ride a bicycle.

Immigration. Along comes the USCIS and blindsides me. In the first week of July, my wife and I are eligible to apply for one of the final stages of permanent residence in the US (I-485, for the immigration geeks). Normally, this would be a well-controlled process (by using a complicated system of priority dates), and processing times were reasonably predictable. Now, the USCIS in their infinite wisdom decided to open the flood gates, and allow everyone to apply, which means "Official receipt" dates are unpredictable. Normally it would be 4 to 6 weeks, but is expected to be delayed because of the flood of applications.

How does this affect you, Narayan, you ask? Well, I cannot travel outside the country until I get an official receipt from the USCIS. Which means I cannot travel to France for PBP. So, no pains au chocolat, no "bon courage", no adoring public, no middle of the night coffee stop in France, for me. Yesterday was one of the most disappointing days of my life. And I don't take disappointments very well. Those of you who don't have to worry about such mundane things as Immigration, are lucky ones indeed.

I suppose I could make all the plans, register, sign up for ride cancellation insurance, and then if I don't get the receipt by the 15th of August, cancel all plans and recoup what I can. But I am not sure I want to go through that nerve-wracking experience. I have a lot of friends who are going to PBP. I feel quite happy for all of them. I will follow their progress online, and live vicariously through them, and rejoice through their successes. But, being so near and yet so far, is very depressing.

This is a disaster. And I am so bummed. Unless one of you knows how to pull strings inside the USCIS. :)

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

SIR 600K: Rollin' Rollin' Rollin'

Pictures are here...

I was right; it was a personal worst for the distance, but somehow, someway, I think this was a personal best. Read on...

Have you ever seen that ad that goes "Rollin' Rollin' Rollin'"? That is what the entire weekend of June 2, 2007 felt like. One giant roller coaster, except that on this roller coaster, you had to work on the uphills yourself, pushing the wagon up some tortuous rises. And some incredible scenery: the infamous Tahuya Hills. Monsters to be experienced only on fresh legs, but sadly, the organizers this year, in a well-advised attempt to train us for PBP and recreate the conditions from Carhaix to Brest, threw in these hills after 494 km. If you can do it after 220, you can do it after 494. Well, if you are aiming to go for PBP, you should be able to ride hills like the ones in PBP, so my whining was kept to a minimum. I had realized on the 1000, that difficulties are placed on rides not to be sadistic, but to give us better training. Attitude can be such a wonderful helper sometimes.

Ever since Mark had told me that this would be the course for this years 600, I started thinking about how I would go about do finishing this ride. My initial reaction was "no way". Past troubles at Tahuya, the recent poor performance at the 400, and a general lack of confidence in my climbing abilities, all pointed to 2 days of pain. I didn't give much chance of besting my PR (36:42, 2006 Olympic Peninsula 600) , and had no particular time goal. All I wanted to do was see the Island Country Inn, within 1op, within the time limits. I shared my nervousness with Allison, who was in the unenviable position of never having been through the Tahuya Hills. It would be one tough introduction for her. Allison was all courage, unlike Mr. Quacking-in-his-boots over here [pointing to self]. I had dawdled a tad at all the controls on the 400, and I was determined to keep my control stops short, even if meant riding alone for long periods of time. I needed all the help I could get.

The morning started early for me, after a tossy-turny 6 hour sleep; doubts about my ability to finish this ride kept me in a state of nervous upheaval. Shane and his wife Chantel came to pick me up, and the three of us made our way to the start in Downtown Seattle. Chris Ragsdale processed my ride entry, and I asked him if he had done the pre-ride. "This is a long one, man", he said, "I think I am going to sit this one out". Not only was this man fast, he was also smart! I couldn't say the same thing about the 70 or so folks at the start today. We wouldn't sit this one out, but rather fight to finish. For some like me, the fight would be harder than for most. There was a prize at the end, a much sought after PBP-qualifier. I met all of my usual friends, all of them smiling, and looking forward to the ride. Paul Johnson looked awesome on his brand-spanking-new Tournesol, a beautiful and very lovingly put together steed that Paul was inaugurating on this ride. The wait was almost too much to bear.

Start to Buckley

After some 20 minutes of nervous milling about, it almost seemed a relief when Peter Beeson gave us our pre-ride instructions, and we set off. The first few kilometers were on roads that used to be my commute route when I lived in Bellevue. The legs felt good, with the two day rest that I had given them helping greatly in rejunvenating them. The terrain was rolling, with the easier-but-narrower approach to the I-90 bridge avoided, and a more rolling approach used. The tone for the ride had been set. The lights downtown kept us in huge bunches, until the I-90 bridge, where we started stretching out. The I-90 bridge was cool, but here was where most people passed me and I would be alone again, until another wave of riders would catch up. Over Mercer Island, and near one of the first lights, I hit the front wheel of Steve Davis, and promptly - with a yell - crashed, and scraped my knee. No problem, my pride was more hurt than my ego, and when I stopped to examine why my front brakes didn't work, I noticed that I had forgotten to attach the brake cables, after taking my bike off of Shane's car. :( Oh well.

I rode mostly alone on this stretch, passing quiet roads with no or low traffic brought us to our first control, the AmyP/Mark/Wayne Secret Control, where Wayne stamped a nice bear claw on to my control card. I left quite quickly, and as I was leaving Mark said something that would stay with me throught the ride: "See you at the finish", he said. What a wonderful ego-boost that was! Thanks, Mark. I almost think he sensed the doubt in my body language. :)

A lot of folks passed me right after the secret control, and one of them was Jerome, from Canada, who was wearing the same Maple leaf "Goose" jersey that I planned to wear tomorrow. Wool and heat don't mix (some South Indian wisdom for you). More quiet roads, up and downs later, we were at Buckley. Paul, Peg and Allison were already there. I went into the store to get some water and get my card signed, and upon seeing me, the cheeriest of store folk, a little girl [Kayla] of no more than 10 years, ran up to the counter and signed my card in a little "K.F", while proudly looking at the clock to prove that she could read the time. I was quite moved by this experience; sometimes we are faced with grumpy clerks, or people with a fake smile on their faces, but to see someone with unmistakably genuine joy on their faces, bounding up to see me was a moving experience for sure, and I shall look forward to visiting the Boise Creek Grocery Store many times over. Hopefully the little girl will be there.

Buckley to Eatonville

The four of us [Peg, Paul and Allison] made a quick getaway from the control having fed and watered ourselves. I mixed 2 more packets of Sustained Energy, and it was going to be interesting to see how these babies hold up to the heat. The day was beginning to warm up, slightly, and we formed a nice paceline that rotated every few minutes or so.

Now, on our rides, we make turns towards many a town, named after different things, persons etc. However, one of the coolest town names that I have ever seen was on the next turn on to Orville Road: "Electron". My photographic talents do not include taking pictures of signs on the move, and I flubbed it. Oh, well. While on Orville Road, we espied a road climbing to the sky, to a new housing development. It looked very steep, and Peg commented that the only reason that we were not heading to that road was because Mark Thomas had not yet figured out how to include that road on this cue sheet. Beware, it is a bit of a beast. Temperatures had climbed quite high, and it was now uncomfortably hot. I didn't put any sunscreen, figuring out that my natural protection would kick in.

Some pleasant sections and a hot climb brought us all together to Eatonville, where Peg's better conditioning came out as she beat us all to the control. I got Peter Beeson to sign my card, and while the rest of my friends sat down for a meal, I refilled my water bottles, and took off for the next control at Packwood.

Eatonville to Packwood

Not wanting to spend too much time here, I continued into the mid-day heat on Center Road. Eric gave me some grief for leaving my friends, but I knew that they would catch me before I got to the next control. The day was hot and and the stretch was pretty, until we got to SR-7 where the scenery kicked it up a notch. I started suffering some hot foot on this stretch which slowed me down, and forced me to pull up more than push down. Several randonneurs were stopped at a store to get refreshments: I recognized Shan Perera and Thai. The stretch to Kernaghan was pretty scenic, and had a nice wide shoulder, which made riding even more fun. Several people had asked me if I had ridden Skate Creek Road, and it took me a few miles to figure out why.

The road starts off with a board proclaiming that you are entering "Gifford Pinchot National Forest", and while this is a recipe for beauty strips and clear cuts, this road was very different. Chipseal of coure, but the scenery was stunning. There was a creek running to the left of us, and the road ever so slightly climbed up, thn levelled off, only to climb again. Allan DeCamp pulld up alongside and rode with me for a while, and then passed me, dancing on his pedals. I passed by a deer standing right next to the road, whch was completely startled by my arrival.

The coup de grace on this road was the close up shot we got of Mt. Rainier. I stood there just drinking in the view in front of me. The day was clear, and the view was splendid without the debilitating effects of smog. We finally started the descent into Packwood, and I hammered along. It is always fun to descend. I saw Ray McFall and his friend sitting next to a creek dousing their feet in cold water. That sounded like fun, but I plodded along.

Just before Packwood, Ray, his buddy and Jon Muellner all caught up to me, and dropped me. We pulled in to the Packwood Control, a little past 2p.

Packwood to Morton

I made the mistake of reading the pre-ride report, and Mark's ominous words "you turn a corner, and get punched in the face" turned true. I ate a candy bar, drank some water, mixed up some Sustained Energy, and then took off. Ray and his friend, took off barely 5 minutes after getting into the control, and it was too bad that I missed them. Jon Muellner left 15 seconds in front of me, but I could not catch him and he slowly pulled away. The wind was quite strong, and the sun was beating down on us. I yelled at Jon, but I don't think he could hear me above the din of the traffic and the distance. I put my head down and started plodding. Speeds were low and hovered near 17-18 kmph. I was going to have to suffer through nearly 34 miles of this. Would make for a long afternoon.

Luckily after a few miles, Jon pulled over to take off his socks. I proposed taking turns pulling to Morton, but Jon refused to let me pull. "I will tow ya", he said, and like a wounded dog, I just put my head down, and sucked on his wheel. I apologized a few times for not being able to pull, but my guilt was short-lived. Jon pulled away, and even with the reduced effort, I could not stay on his wheel. I asked him to not slow down for me, and Jon pulled away, his blue Orca jersey vanishing off into the distance.

I spotted a rider up ahead, and slowly caught upto him. Surprise of all surprises, it was Bill Dussler. He looked a bit tired, hardly the Bill Dussler I saw on last years 1000k. I rode with him for a while, but he pulled away from me on a hill. Proves that a hobbled Mr. Dussler can still dust me. The few miles before Morton were hell because of the wind and the longish rollers that we encountered. I was quite happy to pull into Morton at a little past 5.30p. That was a tough little stretch.

Morton to Centralia

Quite a few randonneurs were here. Thai and Shan mentioned that they had been there for about 45 minutes. Bill and I just slumped in a chair. Some of them were eating inside the Subway (?). I just filled up my water bottles, ate a King-sized Pay-Day bar, and took a breather. Allison and Peg pulled in about 5 minutes after me; Paul Johnson was strangely missing. Bill and I made phone calls (Yaay for "The new AT&T") to our respective homes, and took off. I saw Paul pulling into the control.

There were still rollers, and Bill left me, slowly pulling away. I battled the winds and the rollers on US12 until Jon Muellner joined me. Jon is a cheery guy, an ancien. Ever eager to learn from the masters, I engaged Jon in gentle conversation. We yakked on, about PBP, its atmosphere, the challenge of this route, sleep strategies, drop bags, and the conditions. Just regular randonneur talk. I however was going through a low point. The rollers and the hot feet, coupled with my getting dropped at the first hint of a climb, were forcing me to reevaluate my PBP goal.

Maybe I just wasn't good enough? I don't know what I was expectin out of myself, but I think I hoped to do better, and not feeling 100% physically was draining me a bit mentally. So, I confessed my doubts to Jon. "I am re-evaluating my goal of doing PBP", I said, and good old Jon was aghast to say the least. "I say, Why not? You will be fine, I think", and then offered up his rationale for why I should do PBP. I caught some very gentle flak (when I mentioned this to Wim Kok, he said I deserved to catch flak). This was my second 600, and I really should have recognized a low point and plodded my way through it. What can I say? I am a slow learner.

As there were some unmarked sections of road here, we rode together, Jon riding well below the speeds he was capable of, perhaps sensing that I was going through a low-point and wanting to keep me energized. His company, and his talk, worked, and I gradually lifted myself from the low-point. Oh, I forgot to mention, the stretch to SR-508 was rolling. No flats in sight.

Peg and Allison were using a restroom, and Jon pulled over to use it too. I soldiered on, and pretty soon Allison and Peg caught up to me. Peg was (playfully) mad at me for not riding with them, and I didn't pick up on her teasing. (I apologized, we rode together to Elma, and all was forgiven). In chatting with Peg, Allison and Jon, I had mentioned a goal of getting to Centralia by dark, but at the speeds we were going, that was looking remote. I think darkness will strike halfway on Centralia-Alpha road, I surmised. Peg is all confidence: "The Tahuya Hills are overrated. If you got a granny use it, no problems", she says. Now, I wish I could say the same thing.

Centralia-Alpha road had some steep pitches. The first one was particularly steep, a rather rude introduction. Subsequent stretches saw the three of us leap frog each other a lot. Eric mentioned in his ride report that some of the pitches were as punishing as the Tahuya Hills, but in all honesty, even though we climbed a few ridges, it was not quite the Tahuya Hills. About 10 miles into this road, we stopped to dork ourselves up with reflective vests and legbands. Peg and Allison sported Sam Browne belts, and the three of us set off again. A rider passed us, but I don't remember who it was. Might have been Allan. I nearly hit a deer on a wicked descent, but I yelled out aloud and the deer bounded away.

Just before the turn onto Salzer valley road, we came upon Don Smith, who stated that his ride was over because of a wonky knee. Peg rode with him, and I pulled away, knowing that we would meet up in Centralia at the worst, and sure enough, barely 2 minutes after I pulled into the gas station, Peg, Allison and Jon pulled into. The time was near 10p [approximaton].

Centralia to Elma

Bill Dussler was here, and he was napping. I ate something here, and I don't know what. Jon Muellner arrived, and stated that he was going to take a nap. Bill, Peg, Allison and I resolved to ride together, and left around 10.25p. I would have left early, but I wanted some company to ride at night. We formed a nice orderly paceline, and took nice pulls. We even picked up 2 riders, and the 6 of us took turns at the front. The pace hovered near 20 kmph, with some familar stretches of road (from the Fleche).

Allison saved our butt once, spotting the left turn on to Cemetery road, when all of us barelled through, and we were back on course. Shortly afterward, about 4 miles from the control, Owen Richards and I got dropped from the pack. Owen is one of the creators of the route, and it was funny to hear him say that both organizers DNF'd on their pre-ride. Apparently they got in late, slept in late, and missed the first control on day 2.

We pulled into Elma around 1.15p, and ate some food, courtesy of Melinda Morrow and Max. After setting a wake up time of 4.45a, Bill Dussler and I left for the same room, after handing our bikes over to Fred Mulder. I showered, and then hit the sack around 1.35a.

Day 2: Elma to Potlatch

I woke up with a start, and looked at the watch, and the time was 5.15a. Bill was already dressed and putting on his shoes. I had overslept by 30 minutes, the wakup call no doubt botched up the hotel, who probably just merged the two wake-up calls together. Steve Hameister was also asleep, and I dressed hurriedly and quietly, and set off for the lobby aronund 5.35. Ate some more food, and then set off around 5.50a. Jon left about a minute ahead of me, but he stopped to put on some more clothing, and I kept going.

I had slightly less than 2 hours in the bank, and the next 2 controls would be my only opportunity to bank some more time. My legs were a bit tired, but not so tired as my first 600. The route to Potlatch was very familiar to me, as I had navigated this stretch on last years 400, for a bunch of 5 riders. I was alone on this stretch, Cloquallum road was foggy, but had no traffic, and was a wonderful stretch of road. After a short climb on 101, there was a roaring descent down to the level of the Hood Canal, and Potlatch.

Potlatch to Kay's corner

I don't remember the exact time now, but it was shortly before 9a. Ralph and Carol Nussbaum were just leaving the control, but there was quite a gang there. I saw Albert Meerscheidt, which is kind of a mini-accomplishment for me, because I never see him at any of the controls on any brevets. Peg and Allison arrived shortly after, but I didn't wait for them and bogeyed on. SR 104 is a nasty stretch of road, with dreaded chipseal, and a mine-field of glass and small pebbles that would have to be navigated to get to Kay's corner, but it also had some nice views of the Olympic mountains.

I stopped to take a picture once, but otherwise I continued on, till I experienced a difficulty pedalling. My front tire had gone soft. I always get a flat on SR-104. As I sat down to fix the flat, everybody passed me, and I thought surely I must be the lanterne rouge. I took the tyre off the rim, and proceeded to scan for the miscreant, which turned out to be a truck bead. I thanked Wayne Methner for that little tip, reassembled my tyre and took off.

Arrived incident free at Kay's corner at around 11a I think.

Kay's Corner to Seabeck

On the 300 this year, I had arrived, mixed up 2 bottles of Sustained Energy, and had taken off, all in the space of 5 minutes. There was a huge gang of randos here and I sat down to eat something, after mixing up my bottles. Greg Paley took some pictures of the group, and offered food and a disinfecting wipe. Awesome help at this control. The other person at the control, walked around with an assortment of foods, offering them to us at our seats, allowing us our rest. Paul left ahead of us, but after a 10 minute break, I set off with Albert Meerscheidt, Michel Schonfeld, and Tom. My legs were not tired, but they were not fresh as daisies either, but I was determined to plod through them.

Tahuya River Road is coarse chipseal, and I tried my best to enjoy where I was. A nice sunny day, with nice mountain views to go around, and low traffic roads. I have lost my fear of Tahuya River Road, but it still bites people. Paul had a flat just into this road, and after making sure he was okay, we kept moving. I was riding with Tom, and we tried to ride through as much shade as possible. Not weaving across the road, but just riding through the few patches of shade that we encountered.

Dewatto Road is another story. It packs quite a wallop, and progress was very slow. VERY very slow. The great thing about Dewatto road is that when you do get to the top, you get some nice views of the Olympics, and then that wicked descent down to the Canal. You are gifted with a short flat stretch, and then the horror begins. I never remembered such nasty rollers on any of the 300's that I have done here. It was just hill after blasted hill, and I made my way over them the best I could, bombing down the downhills, and trying to climb without shifting into my granny.

Deja Vu all over again on Seabeck Holly Road, as each roller made us think that we were near the monster hill, but no, it would flatter only to deceive. This was a tough stretch, but we had lots of shade. Albert and Mitchel would pull off at the first instance of shade, and I realized that the heat was getting to them. When I finally did arrive at the bottom of Holly Hill, I stopped to take a picture. I think Steve Hameister was ahead of me at this point, and he climbed the hill before I could start on it. I started with great apprehension, knowing that the next couple of minutes would be heck-on-earth. All bad things do end, and I finally "summitted" only to be treated to more darn climbs. Jon passed me on this stretch, spinning away from me, as I tried my darndest to stay with him. The route sheet mentions this as a 10 mile stretch and that is a darned lie. It is more like a 15 mile stretch.

Finally, the great descent into Seabeck, except this time, it didn't really seem like a monster descent, and the winds off the water offered some relief from the heat of the day. I arrived at a little past 2p, having taken a solid 3 hours to do the 30 mile stretch. I had not banked any time, but I had not lost any time either and that served as a nice morale boost.

Seabeck to Port Gamble

The owners of Seabeck General Store are great supporters of the club. I bought a liter of water, and a Pay-Day bar and sat down to escape the heat of the day. I used the restroom, and set off immediately with Jon, who then proceeded to drop me on the first climb out of Seabeck. I made the turn onto Anderson Hill Road, and knew that I was going to be punched in the mouth.

I remember this road, only as 2 descents and a third climb. Blame it on the night riding on the 300 I suppose. The route sheet also mentions that this is just a 2.7 mile stretch. The first descent and ascent were not bad enough, but the second descent was tough, because you can see the horror that awaits you on the other side. I bombed down, tucked in and pedalled like a madman, and that was good enough to get me to the middle of the second hill, wherupon I shifted into my granny and held on for dear life, as traffic zoomed past at 50 mph. Not much fun, but I somehow crested the second one, but Olympic View Dr was not to be found. I waited here for a while for Steve to catch up, and then the two of us would have a little conference and make sure that we were not lost. Steve however was late in arriving, so I flagged down a pickup and asked him if I had missed Olympic View Dr. He replied that it was further down the road and sped off. I dumped all the plastic and metal cans that I had been lugging since Potlatch (don't like to trash) in one of the recycling bins there, and waited for Steve.

Steve had just walked up the hill, a really smart thing to do, considering the traffic volume. We rode together, and finally saw the next turn. The next few turns are wel known to me, and we stayed together till Pioneer way, which we usually take for a short distance on the 300. However, this ride would take us all the way on Clear Creek/Pioneer. This road featured short and longish rollers, that really tested my patience and my resolve. I asked Steve to go on, but he kept saying "I will ride with you just a little bit longer", and never did pull away. I suspect I was going through a mini-bonk here, but riding with Steve helped, we both got into the Port Gamble control at around 5p, I think [not sure].

I had whined [earlier] about doing these hills afte 200 odd km. It was something completely different after 500k in one's legs.

Port Gamble to Finsh [Island Country Inn]

Jon Muellner had gotten to the control earlier and remarked that he fully expected me to at least appear as a blip on the radar behind him, but he never saw me. He was drinking a V-8 and eating a Chocolate Ice Cream. I got my card signed, bought a bottle of Gatorade, and left immediately, barely 5 minutes after I got in. Peg and Allison arrived just as I was leaving, but I did have 2 others who left in front of me, that I could possibly catch. I almost did catch upto them on the turn to Port Gamble Road, but they pulled away on an uphill.

I am very familiar with Port Gamble Road. This road has such blasted chipseal that my E6 was knocked off its moorings and crashed into my front wheel, when I did the Hood Canal North Permanent last year. So, I made the turn with a huge amount of dread in my mind as to how I would work on this section.

I must say I was quite surprised. I almost caught up to the two guys in front of me, but they pulled away on a steep stretch. I stopped to call my wife and tell her how I was doing, and also called Shane to tell him to go on home without me (I would just catch the bus home). I looked at my watch and it said 6.20p. Did I have a chance at a personal best? Probably not. I crossed Gunderson Road, and if you look up Port Gamble Road climbs this really steep ridge, and it can be demoralizing, but I climbed it with not too much trouble.

Crossing Agate pass was not bad as I managed to catch a break in traffic. The smell of the barn egged me on, and I started hammering the last stretch home. I was doing excess of 30 kmph in stretches, and for a while it looked like I would get a PB, but it was not to be. I finished in 36:52, beating out Jon Muellner, who tried to chase me down, but was 4 minutes too late. :)

Mark Thomas, Duane Wright and Mark Roehrig were there at the finish. I could have scrammed for the 7.10 ferry, but chose to sit down, eat something, and take the next ferry over. It was great fun greeting all the riders as they came in, and we all left in one big bunch for the ferry. Many congratulations were offered and praise liberally doled out on the ride over, before separating in Seattle.

I was quite happy with the way I rode on day 2, unlike my first 600, where I limped my way in. I take a lot of positives from this ride, though I need to work on speed and climbing.

End result: J'ai qualifié pour PBP!