Monday, June 16, 2008

The ORR Covered Bridges 400

This is a very late ride report. Very late indeed.

Photos are here

The past few years - two to be precise - I have been lusting after the Covered Bridges 400K brevet run by the Oregon Randonneurs that takes you on a tour of - you guessed it - a few pretty covered bridges. I missed out in years past, but this year I made it a priority, and saved myself for this ride by DNFing the SIR 600. Not. I was going to do it even if I had to crawl to the finish, but the DNF just helped matters some. I rested my aching knee and it cleared up finally on Friday, so my wife and I set off for Portland under crystal clear skies. We stayed at our friends house in Beaverton.

The weather was for clear skies and warm temperatures. There were a fair number of riders at the start, with a very high number of recumbents. Portland of course is renowned for its cycling diversity, but this was my first real introduction to it. I met Ken Carter (for the first time), Gary Prince (on his first 400), John Vincent, Susan France, Paul Whitney, Brian List and Dan Fender, who had ridden down to Portland from Olympia a few days prior. Brian, Dan and I rode last years Oregon 400 together from start to finish, and I was looking forward to Dan's humour, if I could hang with them.

Coming in with a semi-functional knee, I was determined not to push the pace at all and enjoy a more pedestrian pace. The route was advertised as being without much climbing, and visions of cracking 21 hours danced in my head, and if I could keep my controls short maybe just maybe I could set a personal record for the distance. After a few words from Susan, we headed out, and as everybody took off quickly, I picked a faster-than-normal-for-me pace as my knee felt fine and found myself in a group consisting of Brian List, Dan Fender and Paul Whitney. We were on a busy road for a while, but cars were courteous and there were enough numbers of us for cars to be oblivious. The turn onto Champoeg Road (pronounced really weirdly) brought about welcome respite from the behemoths.

I find myself able to hang with Paul Whitney on the early part of most brevets, but finishing with him has proven elusive so far. Even last year, when I possibly was in the best riding shape of my life, I still could not finish the Tahuya 300 with him, as he took off early from Seabeck, wanting to catch the earlier ferry [he ended up missing it]. We rode along the blissfully quiet roads, admiring the scenery and talking, and the miles flew by. We watched Brian and Dan make a right turn on the wrong road, and Paul and I almost followed them, but seeing a woman headed straight we checked out route sheets only to notice that they had gone down the wrong road. "I should have known those two would get lost", said Paul, fully conversant with their wayward ways. We continued straight along on Case road until the correct turn on St Paul Highway, which was marked. I telepathically thanked the woman who went the right way. I suspect it was Lynne Fitzimmons.

We rode over I-5 and through a sleepy Gervais. The store was closed, but I had a stash of food to dig into, and kept riding on. We spotted a rider stopped near Howell Prairie and wondered if she was ok, and after her reassurances we kept on. We saw another bicycle , so there must have been another rider in the vicinity paying closer attention to the water needs of some plants! Shortly after this we were at the first information control at the Gallon House Covered Bridge. Took off some clothing and took some pictures (my first covered bridge!), and we set off again for the next control.

We rode through a barely waking Silverton, and were boosted by a nice tailwind for the stretch into Sublimity, but the rollers did slow us down. John Vincent was riding strongly, and we weren't able to close the gap between us at all. We finally caught him at Sublimity, but he was just getting out of the gas station, and we were getting ready to stop at Safeway to get some water and make some phone calls. I used the restroom and Paul made some phone calls. I helped a woman with a child with getting her cart, and Paul remarked that I had done my good deed of the day. A randonneur aims to please! The temperature was warming up, and I took off my leg warmers and my jacket. Ahhh, wonderful warmth. I set off knowing full well that Paul would catch me.

The route sheet warns about Cole School road and the warning is well deserved. Since I was alone, I didn't have to suffer Paul as witness to my pathetic climbing skills. The first one was not hard, but the second one took a bite out of me. The descent down Richardson was something to cheer about though, and I made it to the next info control in no time, where I met Dan and Brian. More pictures of Schimanek Covered Bridge, more bridge ogling and more ribbing from Dan later, we headed for the next control where we were promised a coffee shop. Somebody must have been joking. I saw quite a few riders heading back from the bridge, and we cheered each other. I found myself alone to the Hannah Covered Bridge, but Paul, Brian and Dan weren't far behind. A short while later I was at the first control at Scio, being accompanied by Paul, who caught me a touch before the control. I am sure he relished riding at his own pace for while.

I have read a few of Lynne's postings on the Oregon Randos discussion list, and this was the first time I got to meet her. She looked about mid 30s to me, and I was shocked to read that she has two grown kids (whose allowance she is cutting off, the heartless woman!). The store's walls were lined with bicycles, and the riders included Dan and Patti Austad, John Vincent, myself, Paul Whitney and others I am forgetting. This is where the 400 and the 200 diverged, and after digging into the communal water and Frito's supplies, we took off again for parts unseen around 11am. We were making good time.

A uninspiring RR crossing info control later, we were at the Hoffman Covered Bridge, and then shortly afterward at Larwood. The control questions all involved the colour of zipties put down by the pre-riders of the course. Very novel idea! I left Larwood before everybody else, but shortly after the bridge, I saw huge amounts of riders and it wasn't until the turn onto McDowell Creek Road that I summoned the courage to ask what ride they were on [Strawberry Century]. Wonder of all wonders. Lots of people of all abilities littered the route. The riders at the front of that ride looked miserable, while the ones at the end looked happy. The roads that we were on now were clearly the favourites of some local riders, because there were Dan Henry-like markings on the route that we were taking. Pleasant Valley Road took us again along the river, and more riders, now the tailend of the riders went by in the opposite direction. The loose dogs mentioned in the route sheet were absent, and I for one didn't rue their absence.

A huge group of riders was still at the control and I felt a surge of hope. Maybe I would be able to hang with somebody and have some company for the night. A rejuvenating stop at the Sweet Home Thriftway served as the springboard onto the next section, but shortly after Terrace all the usual suspects - Dan, Brian and Paul - passed me. Paul tried to stay with me, but I released him from bondage, and asked him to go find Brian and Dan. After a few more minutes Paul peeled off to catch Brian and Dan. This was the worst stretch of the ride for me. The slow climb up to the "summit" of Marcola was agonizing and I was slow slow slow. I regretted not having the power to stay with the three of them, and my poor conditioning. The road had a wide shoulder and almost no traffic and I suspect I had a nice tailwind, but these niceties were lost on me. I did however make it to the "top" and then bombed down the other side, but alas, my fellow riders were long gone when I got to Earnest Covered Bridge. A very short stop later, I proceeded down to the Mohawk Post Store.

Just before the control I spied a Turkey Vulture sitting on the road feeding on a dead carcass. He (it?) heard me coming and flew away, and I could not take a picture. Paul, Brian and Dan were just leaving the store, and I met Jane and Chris on recumbents. I had an Ice Cream and a Snickers bar, and the 'bents set off for Harrisburg. I was pretty sure I heard Dan mention that they were going to stop in Coburg for sandwiches and I was confident I would catch them there, and they would slow down anyways for the night, and so I would be able to ride with them!

Alas, Coburg came and went, and the wind was now a terrible crosswind as I made my way over to the chipseal of Coburg Road. Having experienced the nasty headwind on US 12 a week ago, this was nothing, and I mentally kept telling myself that the wind was not strong. I put my head down and plodded on at a pretty pathetic rate, but I did make forward progress and I am happy to say no thoughts of quitting entered my head. As the years go by, my mental strength seems to be waning, and I find that the only thing that saves me is company.

I got to Harrisburg, and found Jane and Chris at the control. Chris told me that Jane was in bad shape, and that she could not keep any food down. I bought some water, ate some food and when I met Jane I told her to avoid Cola Drinks and try some Sprite or Ginger Ale, as that settles my stomach, and may work for her too! I then took off to find the public restrooms near the river. After a short break, I circled back to the store, but the recumbents weren't there. Figuring that they were gone, I set off for Peoria all alone. The wind was still strong, but the sun was now in his last gasp for the day. The route was completely flat and the river flowed to my left as I continued to ride on the drops in an attempt to beat the wind.

Peoria Road goes by a bird sanctuary, and I saw quite a few species of birds, chirping, eating, flying and hunting all over the place. The 19 mile stretch took forever though, and halfway through the stretch I stopped to put on my leg bands, my jacket and my vest. I pulled down the pit zips to allow better air flow as it was still a warm evening. I called Susan for clarifications at the Orleans Road turn, and was helped out by both Susan and a local teenager who told me that Bryant was straight ahead, and I shouldn't hit the Railroad tracks. I forgot where I got caught by Jane and Chris, but when I asked Jane how her stomach was doing, she called me a "Life saver". I was happy to have been in a position to help her, and now I had somebody to ride with me through the night. We got to Albany around 10.43, and found to our horror that the store was closed. We begged the manager to allow us to shop for food and water, and he relented, and I bought two bottles of Gatorade, and 2 Snickers bars for the road ahead, and then we set off again for the finish.

Jane and Chris are very strong riders and they stayed with me as we got to the town of Independence, where nothing was open except the Bar. We went in and were treated to a surreal scene of drunk people, loud music and a kind bouncer who signed our cards for us. I was accosted by a rather drunk Mexican man, talking to me in Spanish figuring I was hispanic. I had to tell him that I was from India and not Mexico. We were brothers in skin colour, if not linguistically.

I thought we had 6 more miles to go to Independence! Riding with company makes the miles melt away, I said, and Chris responded that those were the longest 6 miles of his life. We turned back the way we came, and I got dropped before Salem. On a stretch of particularly well lit road, I was pulled over by a cop who wanted to find out if I had seen a severe damaged Black Honda go my way. Of course he pulled me over ever-so-gently saying "I am sorry to bother you". Ah, sometimes the Police are so kind. Not one word about what I was doing riding my bicycle in the middle of the night. Of course, once I saw the well-lit stretch I figured that I was in Salem but that was not to be. When I finally did get to Salem I hated riding through town. There were no shoulders on the road, and it went through the heart of Salem. I thought of the fast riders who probably rode through this stretch in heavy traffic and as I comfortably coasted through the night in the traffic free roads.

It took me forever to get out of the lights of Salem, but the lights of Salem had performed a very valuable service. They kept me awake! When I hit the darkness sleep started to become a problem. Had I been a smarter man, I would have socked away a Starbucks DoubleShot in my bad as a way of warding off the sleep, but alas, I have no such distinctions. Half way through the River Road stretch, I saw little peeks of red come out from behind the ridges. This gave me a great boost of energy, and that helped me ward off some loose dogs that strayed onto my path to see what I was all about. That helped!

I was confused about the left turn towards St Paul, and stopped for some Gatorade and Snickers, and who do I see but Chris and Jane again. They had stopped at the 7-11 to get some Soup as Jane was bonking. We rode through the desolate stretches again, and I was dropped again before the downhill stretch into St Paul. It was daylight now and traffic started flowing, even if in fits and starts. One final crossing of the great river, and I finally got to the finish, and found out that Jane and Chris had also just finished. They must have stopped again someplace as I had been dropped fairly convincingly on River Road. Susan France was at the finish, and she babied me with food and drink, and made arrangements for me to take a nap. I was the last finisher, and so was responsible for her staying up as late as she did. I thanked her for her help and apologized for being so slow. She even moved my bike to near my room!

I was happy to be done. A Shower and a nice nap later, I found my way back to Beaverton.

The best way to get over a DNF is to get back on the bike and complete another ride again!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Spring 600K: Three little letters...


I read a wise man's discussion list posting when I was new to randonneuring that the memory of failing due to lack of time was pale in comparison to the haunting memory of quitting a brevet. I am here to report that the gentleman knew what he was talking about. I quit the SIR 600k at Naches, having called Jeff Tilden about 5 miles prior, with knee pain and cramps in my legs. And I now highly regret that choice. It pains me greatly that all these volunteers spent all this time, money and effort into ensuring that we had a good ride, and I wasted their effort. This one stings!

My whinefest follows...


I was still sore from a fairly strenuous hike the Sunday prior, and was in two minds about starting the ride, as my legs didn't feel fresh at all. I made a day-of-ride decision to show up at the start. 50+ randos were gathered around, and I registered. Brad Tilden's dog greeted the riders, albeit with a stick in his mouth. A sign of things to come!

The skies threatened, but didn't open up at the start. I rode in a big pack, but lost them all to the hill on Black Nugget Road, and further lost them when my wife called barely 5 miles into the ride. I had forgotten something very important: a bye bye kiss. I caught up to and passed Bill Alsup just before Novelty Hill Road, but had to stop and don my helmet cover and rain pants when the rains came down in earnest. Ron Himschoot and Don Jameson stopped along with me, and we all changed. The next few miles can only be described in one word: miserable. The rains were coming down hard, and I was mostly dry save for my hands, which were wet from my gloves letting water in. Eamon Stanley passed me just before the two lumpy bits on Ben Howard Road, and I slogged along at a pedestrian pace, until Skykomish, facing headwinds every now and then, but mostly just regretting not riding much in the past 8 or 9 weeks. I was slower than normal, but I had a bank of an hour and 45 minutes at Skykomish. This was to be my biggest comfort margin throughout the ride.

Skykomish to Leavenworth

I didn't stop here for very long, but did buy a Pay Day bar, and ate my on bike food stores. I left Bill Alsup at the control, because I could not afford to waste one moment. The climb up the pass was slow and I thought back to the last time I climbed Stevens: We had a roaring 30mph tailwind that pushed me all the way to the left hook. This time progress was slow, and just before the hook, I pulled up with a severe cramp in my left leg. Bill had passed me a few miles earlier and I saw him pull away, and disappear. Resting for about 5 minutes alleviated my cramp and I continued on, slowing down further. I had to stop a few times to wring out the water from my gloves. Ugh! This is when the first thoughts of quitting the ride entered my head. On a 600, I aim for 3 hours of sleep at night, and based on the amount of time I was giving back on these climbs, I didn't have a chance of sleeping that much. My goal was to make up 15 or 20 minutes per leg and somehow get to 3 hours of a bank. I made it to the top [I forget the time now], but I was the last one over. The first few miles of descent were cold, but I was dressed to the core anyways, and just bombed down the other side, pedalling every now and then when I felt the speed come down.

The skies really cleared about 2000 feet down the summit. Living on the west side of the Cascades does stink! The weather was spectacular here. I warmed up, and got to Leavenworth with about an hour and 35 minutes in the bank. I had passed Bill somewhere, but told him I would be at the Subway. We met there, had food and set off again, after about 15 mins.

Leavenworth to Ellensburg

The first few miles were a nice downhill to the turn onto US 97, but soon after we were buffeted by headwinds, but not for long. I felt really strong on the initial bit of Blewett Pass, which means that I able to maintain my momentum. I left Bill behind, but my wife called a couple of times to report some trouble, and Bill caught and passed me on my second or third stop. Brad drove down to check up on us. That was very nice of him. This however led me to believe that the summit was closer than it actually was. The last 5 miles to Blewett were total torture for me. I thought it was 3 miles but it turned out to be 5 miles, and we finally got to the top at around 7.47p [To compare, Urs Koenig to the overnight control at 8p]. Brad Tilden nursed us back to health, and I took off again, bombing down the descent to the left turn to stay on US97. In hindsight, I should not have stopped at the top, and just continued on, as I didn't feel the need to eat. That may have saved me 15 minutes.

The descent was windy but I enjoyed it, making myself small and going down to the drops. I dispatched the long uphill with relative ease, thanks to the wind. I did notice that there was a flat alternative that we didn't take! This stretch featured a lot of tumbleweeds. The descent down that road to the plains was something I will remember for a long time. A road with a surface like butter, a rip-roaring tailwind and a overweight rider all contributed to a smashing 40+ mile per hour descent. I knew I had to turn right at some point however, and the flags were pointed full east, which was not a good sign, but I lived in the present, milking the downhill for all it was worth.

The directions regarding Faust Road confused me and I took a couple of minutes to make sure I was headed the right way. When I pulled off my glove, the liner inside and the outside of the glove separated, so I spent 10 minutes trying to finagle that thing back in. Didn't work. I just rode on with my fingers shoved into whatever slots I could find. Ugh! I remembered Brad telling me up at the pass that he would meet me in Ellensburg and I rode slowly through town, and finally stopping for food at the Shell gas Station near the end of town. The time was 9.55. I had an hour and 48 minutes in the bank. My record of having 3 hour sleep breaks on overnight rides was going to be history now.

Ellensburg to Naches

I think I was the first person to stop at this gas station because the counter person didn't recognize the card. I sat down for 10 minutes and ate HALF of my Candy Bar [NOT GOOD] and took off. The first few miles of Canyon Road had rumble Strips, and I rode to the left at first, unsure of the riding conditions. Traffic was practically non-existent, but I rode comfortably. Eventually the rumble strips went away, and I was able to ride in great peace. The river flowed idly by lit by the moonlight, and the soft silhouette of the mountains in the background dotted by the occasional house or farm was a great sight. And the stars! OH the STARS! Being a city boy means too much light pollution. Two shooting stars! Not the massive ones like the ones Paul and I saw near Pateros a few years back, but good ones. About 5 miles from the end of Canyon Road I saw two lights flickering in the distance, and thought somebody had flatted. It turned out to be Matt Mikul and Jennifer Chang taking a break. Jennifer gave me some very nice treats from Trader Joe's, and we set off.

The hills on Canyon Road separated us, but we regrouped at Selah. Now, I thought there was going to be a good stop somewhere here and was riding to make it there. That point however was not anywhere near where I was riding. I had no power for Pleasant Hill Road, which true to its name had a hill, and this is where my left knee started hurting, and the cramp in my right leg was back with a vengeance! I lost Matt and Jennifer. I wasnt going to get any sleep, my legs were cramping, and my knee started throbbing again this time with a vengeance. The flat portion of Mapleway offered no succour. I stopped to call the organizers, but my cell phone battery was dead! Did I heed this sign? Of course not.

Matt and Jennifer, bless their hearts were waiting for me at the turn, and I mentioned my cramps and my knee pain to Jennifer and Matt, and told them I wanted to quit. Jennifer gave me Electrolytes to calm down the cramping, and offered to ride with us, but faced with the ghastly wind and the knowledge that a 25 mile climb where I would lose all my time lay ahead, my resolve was gone. I now knew that I would not get any sleep. I was a bit daunted by this prospect. I told them that I had mentally checked out. Jennifer gave me her phone, but my ride buddies would not let me quit. They offered to slow down and draft to save me from the wind. So, we continued on along these truly nasty rumble strips, but despite their reduced pace, they pulled away. Oh, if only I had thought to eat!

I think I was lost mentally. The wind was horrid, and I could not see the point in continuing. My knee was now yelling at me full force, and I just stopped riding. I forgot the cardinal rule of brevet ending: EAT before you decide. I had a Half a candy bar, a bag of Sustained Energy and I still didn't think of stopping to eat. How completely stupid! All those years of reading ride reports was to avoid precisely this situation. But, I didn't recall any of those words of wisdom that I had so ravenously coveted. I left word with the organizers that I was planning to bag it.

Shortly after, Mark and Jeff Tilden pulled up, and I told them I was done. I am quite surprised now that Mark didn't try to knock some sense into me. Over the years, he has given me a good look in the eye or a real positive word, and that gave me confidence that I could do it, even as I doubted my own abilities. I must have looked really really bad. They loaded me up in Mark's car and we drove back towards Ellensburg to check on Bill Alsup, who had just gotten into Ellensburg after taking a while to figure out a nasty flat. He decided to bag it too, and we headed back to the "secret" control on US12, and checked up on several riders. The fact that I quit didn't grate on me as much as it does now. At the lodge, I met Allison again after a long time, and saw several riders sitting there, probably getting ready to head out. I would get my three hours of sleep after all, but not the way I wanted to earn it.


Jeff Tilden us woke up with a cheery "Breakfast is served", and we all headed out to the main cabin, where I met Paul Whitney, who had also DNFd. Mark Thomas remarked that I had the classic signs of regret on my face. That was true! We left after some tricks to get Bill's bike up on Shan's roof rack.

We checked up on the riders climbing White pass: Peg Winczewski, Lesli Larson, Matt Mikul and Jennifer Chang. We waited for them at the turn off to Cayuse, where I met another old friend, Paul Johnson, who comforted me about my DNF. We saw the last few riders off and headed for home, passing several as they were climbing spectacular Cayuse Pass. It was cold and foggy at the top, and several riders were also descending the pass. Ron Himschoot stopped to talk to us even as he was putting on a second skullcap! Shan Perera drove me home, and the regret began in earnest.

The Oregon Fall 600k is my only chance of continuing my Super Randonneur streak (now at 2 years). Paul Whitney the organizer, promises to make it reasonable! I have no plans to ride the Jan Heine 600k. No way, Jose! My poor heart cannot withstand another DNF. However, one thing is certain: the next time they run this ride, I am going to hammer this course into submission.

I am planning to ride next week's OR Covered Bridges 400 as penance. As of Thursday, my left knee still hurts, even when I walk.