D.C. Randonneurs 400K Checkout Ride

This past Saturday, Felkerino and I hauled ourselves out the door over to Frederick, Md., to begin the more uncivilized half of the randonneur series– the rides that start at 4 a.m. half. This year, we agreed to organize the club’s 400K so we have the pleasure of getting up at this hour two weekends in a row. Awesome!

Fellow randonneur and volunteer Lane G. met us at the ride start, an International House of Pancakes (IHOP). Why IHOP is international is beyond me unless it’s because of the French toast and Belgian waffles. We dallied a little over breakfast and did not end up making it out the door right at four. Even though checkout rides are the real deal, it was hard for our little group of three to have the same sense of urgency of purpose that brevet day offers.

Because our start has been re-routed from previous years, we spent the early morning miles checking cues and testing my abilities to pedal and write at the same time… in the dark, even! As we moved along and the first light of morning peeked over the horizon, I noted one of the benefits of being on a checkout ride. Because we were not with a group, we had the freedom to look around and really soak up the view around us, rather than mind all the bikes and bodies flanking us. It was nice.

Sunrise on the 400K checkout

The absence of a pack of riders also meant that we could not enjoy the momentum a group offers. We noticed this throughout the ride, as we never wondered who might be ahead or behind us. There was no pressure to push and see if you could catch anyone. There was no one to catch. By the same token, there was no need to play any Jedi mind games about the people behind us, as they weren’t there either. Just Lane, Ed, and me pedaling the day away on our own terms.

Fortunately for us, the weather for this ride could not have been better. Low humidity, a full day of sun, and light breezes. The temperatures started in the forties on Saturday morning, reached the eighties in the heat of the day, and drifted back into the fifties for the evening hours. It was a perfect day (and night) for bike riding.

I find this 400K so enjoyable because it’s really a course that makes you feel like you went somewhere. Several somewheres, even. We pass through Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania on this ride. Pretty cool, no?

Starting in Frederick, we rolled to the Potomac River, and climbed away from it into rolling Virginia horse country until we reached Snickers Gap, at around mile 42. Snickers Gap is a short stabby climb followed by a longer less steep climb that is made challenging by taking place on the trafficky VA7.

Descending Snickers Gap. How sweet it is.

This part of the ride always makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something good for the day and the mighty descent off of Snickers Gap down to the Shenandoah feels like a worthy reward.

The following section of the route, miles 46 through 73, covered lush green rural roads that wound us through West Virginia to the Shepherdstown Sweet Shop.

From there, we left the gentler farm roads behind and started entering choppy tree-lined territory. Up down up down, bump bump bump. Some of these roads could use patching! They were beautiful nonetheless. Just when I thought the steep rollers were getting to me and I was going to need a break, we re-entered Maryland and reached the town of Hancock, which abuts the C&O Canal. It’s also the home of C&O Bikes, where the owner has been SUPER nice about welcoming randonneurs and signing control cards over the past few years.

Annual control card signing at C&O Bikes

After following the C&O for four miles, we exited and headed back to the roads. The terrain was now less tree-lined and more exposed. After a few miles on this stretch we were in Pennsylvania, and the big rollers were back to prove it. I didn’t lose heart, though, the valley views were quite pretty. And there are a lot of beautiful old barns on this segment. It’s nice to check in on them every year, see how they’re holding up to the elements.

Big rollers ahead. And some pretty barns. You’ve been warned.

After a while the rollers gave way to a long (by East Coast standards) steady climb up Cove Gap at around mile 128. The effort of the ascent was totally worth it. After reaching the top, we began the sweetest and fastest downhill of the ride, where Felkerino and I hit a sustained 52 miles per hour.

The rollers didn’t totally dissipate after Cove Gap, but they did become a little less big as we pedaled through Pennsylvania farm country. (The cows still looked the same as they did in Maryland, though.)

Pennsylvania cows on the 400K

As we rode toward Shippensburg at mile 163, the rollers mellowed out. After eating dinner at the Shippensburg Diner and leaving the town behind, Amish country emerged. We reached this segment of the ride in late afternoon. It was stunning. Some people were winding down for the day, others were trying to fit in that last bit of farm work before the sun disappeared. No cars passed us; the only traffic we encountered was horse-drawn buggy and bicycle.

Fieldwork in Amish country on the 400K

The climb up Pine Grove Furnace at around mile 183 was the last big effort of the day. In previous years, Felkerino and I ascended this climb in daylight, but because our group was not that swift, we managed it in the dark. That’s ok, we just dialed in and climbed away, trying not to recall all the moments where we could have moved more efficiently through the course. The stars shone and I looked up occasionally to try and guess where Leo and Orion might be hanging out.

Another zippy descent followed the big effort through Pine Grove Furnace. We rolled through orchard country and descending rollers over to Gettysburg at mile 206. Gettysburg at night is mysterious and a pinch solemn. Always beautiful to ride through.

At mile 208 or so, we controlled at the Gettysburg 7-11 with the knowledge that the hard stuff was behind us. Yeah, there were still over 40 miles to go, but we were close, and we had nothing but mellow roads in our future.

Oh yeah, we can do this.

As we departed Gettysburg on our checkout ride, we were treated to a fireworks display in a nearby town. Then gentle rural roads twisted and turned us pleasantly back to Thurmont and Frederick.

The path back to Frederick had minimal car traffic, no wind to speak of, and a sky replete with constellations. If my butt hadn’t been hurting so much and my body hadn’t been so stinky from the day’s effort, I might have found this part of the ride romantic. As it was, I appreciated everything the night had to offer.

The new route back to the finish at the Hilton Garden Inn worked well. Little traffic, and simple cues. Mile 251 and we were in. I’d managed to be up for just over 24 hours. Eek.

We’ve enjoyed planning this ride, though I am just now starting to see how much work goes into the brevets. There are just so many things to do. Organize volunteers for the various ride duties. Check cue sheets. Prep the controls for riders. Make sure that construction or other changes that might have occurred can be worked around. Arrange for pre- and post-ride food. Thanks to everybody who regularly takes on these tasks, particularly on the longer rides when the windows for rider arrivals gets so large.

I’m looking forward to the weekend, and to seeing some of you off on this beautiful course!

3 thoughts on “D.C. Randonneurs 400K Checkout Ride

  1. Nice report, Mary. Sure do appreciate all the work of you and Ed for this ride (Lane, too!). I have never gotten over 47 mph myself. Must require a lot of trust and coordination to hit 52 on a tandem. One small correction, I believe. The descent west from Snicker’s Gap is to the Shenandoah. –Dave

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