DCR Northern Exposure 400K: Back to the early days

MG and I rode the D.C. Randonneurs 400K brevet last Saturday, May 3 on the new Northern Exposure route from Frederick, Md. into south-central Pennsylvania, returning on the east side of Gettysburg.

The route was certainly new to MG, and most of the club, but for me and some other veterans it was a return to the old, fearsome Doubling Gap 400K from the 1990s. That one was a route to be respected: massive climbs, twisty descents, and lots and lots of short, sharp hills.

It was my first 400K, in 1997. I thought it would never end, but I got back to Frederick with a good group of veterans. Now I’m among the regulars, looking around at all the new folks. It’s always good to see first-timers.

This route would be much the same as the old one, but for the revamp DCR route designer Crista Borras deleted the anxiety-filled climb up Doubling Gap Road and made some other good changes. Doubling Gap was steep, shoulderless and straight with a guardrail, the summit visible the whole way, cars whizzing past. I don’t miss it.

What never gets easier is the middle-of-the-night starts. I’ve done the 4 a.m. start plenty of times, but my work has been particularly stressful this year, and I’ve had little time to think about the brevets. Saturday arrived way too fast and I worried about having a good ride.

Another rando adventure starts at a Waffle House. Courtesy Bill Beck.

Another rando adventure starts at a Waffle House. Courtesy Bill Beck.

Our friend and expert randonneur/photographer Bill Beck got this one of us. We ate at the Waffle House and despite being at once bleary and nervous, I was ready to go. MG was nervous too. That’s the way of the 400K, for most of us it’s the longest one-day ride of the year.

Our goal, generally, is to finish our 400K rides in 20 hours or less, by midnight if not sooner. That gets us off the road before the bars close and I start getting drowsy in the wee hours. To make that goal we have to start strong and keep moving. An honest challenge, as MG likes to say.

We almost beat the midnight hour, getting in at 12:07 am. Our riding time was 16:53, with 3:14 off the bike. That’s about 45 minutes more than our nominal target of an hour of stopping time per century.

See all of our data at my Garmin page. The rest of my photos are at my Flickr page.

The extra stopping time came at a rest stop at McDonald’s near the end of the ride, about 17 miles out in Thurmont, Md., for coffee. Our riding companion Matt H. of Harrisonburg, Va. needed some caffeine to stay awake, and we did too. That stop made for a safe finish, so no regrets there.

I’ll tell the rest of the story in photos.

Gathering at the Days Inn

Gathering at the Days Inn

Here we are, in a parking lot at 4 a.m., with a field of 45 riders. Spectacular weather is expected, but it sure is dark right now.

Leaving Frederick, last time we'd be all together

Leaving Frederick, last time we’d be all together

Rolling through downtown Frederick, Md. A split would quickly form on the way out of town as the faster riders made the most of easy riding until the first big climb at Thurmont, about an hour away.

No brevet is complete in Pennsylvania without a Sheetz stop.

No brevet is complete in Pennsylvania without a Sheetz stop.

We’ve made it over the first two major climbs and most everybody stopped at this Sheetz at mile 62, even though it was not an official control. It was strictly grab-and-go, but I got this photo of Paul D.’s Rivendell Hillborne bike. MG and I had coffee and ate sandwiches, and took a cheese sub with us to eat later in the ride.

Catching up to Mark and Damon

Catching up to Mark and Damon

For most of the day we rode with Matt, who was here without his pal Kurt R. We intersected Mark and Damon but otherwise saw few other participants.

Matt was good riding company and kept us entertained with tales of the bike scene in Harrisonsburg and with some good conversation starters, such “what was your first concert, and your most recent?” Mine were either Olivia Newton-John or the Doobie Brothers (mid-70s) and Kraftwerk (last month).

The grocery store at East Waterford, mile 108. Courtesy MG.

The grocery store at East Waterford, mile 108. Courtesy MG.

Our lunch stop came at mile 108 in East Waterford, Pa. We had a choice of the pizza place or the grocery store. The store had a deli counter, and made wonderful sandwiches on pretzel rolls. They also had free cake samples. Did I mention the free cake?

This little guy wanted to run with us.

This little guy wanted to run with us.

Southern Pennsylvania has fewer unleashed dogs compared to Virginia and West Virginia, but we did get chased hilariously for a few hundred yards.

Later in the afternoon we turned south and started climbing again.

Matt coming down from Sterrets Gap. Courtesy MG.

Matt coming down from Sterrets Gap. Courtesy MG.

This was typical of the day — Sterrets Gap near Carlisle, Pa.

Cameras! Cameras! Cameras! Courtesy MG.

Cameras! Cameras! Cameras! Courtesy MG.

MG got this shot of me and Matt.

Ultimate Obligatory Cow Photo

Ultimate Obligatory Cow Photo

The route was in the heart of dairy country. A few of us on the ride got this same obligatory cow photo shot.

MG was strong and sure all day.

MG was strong and sure all day.

Our teamwork over the years on the tandem has been pretty solid, in large part because MG is a strong finisher and keeps us moving as the day turns toward night. She takes interesting photos too. See her set from the ride at her Flickr page.

Storms blew in late in the afternoon but mostly missed us.

Storms blew in late in the afternoon but mostly missed us.

The predicted showers materialized before sundown. We avoided a soaking, but others did not.

I struggled with concentration, but got down the road in the end.

I struggled with concentration, but got down the road in the end.

Throughout the day I wondered about why we do these rides, especially as my legs and eyelids got heavier. These are typical thoughts during the 400K, which seems so daunting even if you’ve done a few before.

I’m grateful to MG and Matt for making the miles disappear, and by the finish it was all worth it. This is a tough course and I’m proud to say we completed it in good spirits.

My thanks for a successful completion go to MG, Matt and our fellow riders for getting out there with us. An additional and hearty thank-you goes to event organizers (and tandem riders) Cindy and John, and their helpers. They were encouraging, organized and had hot pizza and plenty of snacks at the ready when we arrived.

The 400K is a tough ride to run because of the long hours and overnight duties starting the riders and then waiting for the final finishers. Great job you two!

Next Saturday we cap off the spring randonneur season with the D.C. Randonneurs 600K brevet from Warrenton, Va. a double loop through the central part of the state. See you there?

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6 thoughts on “DCR Northern Exposure 400K: Back to the early days

  1. Hi, Ed,

    Enjoyed your story. I _loved_ this ride, it was so much fun to do a ride where I went into the mountains “beyond” that I’ve wondered about for years. See you at the 600. This will be my 10th ACP 600. It’s amazing how much “nerves” still come in to play :-)

    Nick

  2. “That’s the way of the 400K, for most of us it’s the longest one-day ride of the year.”

    I’m new to randonneuring, and the 400K followed a 300K in MA in April, and a 200K in PA in March, And yes, the 400K is the longest one-day ride by far I’ve done not just this year but ever (by 100K). Even though completing a 200K apparently defines one as a “randonneur,” I’ve read that the 400K is the real crucible of randonneuring, 22 hours later, I think I understand.

    On the bright side, I finished. I also learned a lot. We Brooklynites don’t have near enough hills on which to practice, so if I am to continue in this endeavor, I need to venture off Long Island. I also learned that new is not necessarily better. After a rather literally pain-in-the-ass ride, I returned to my bike store and bought a Brooks saddle. In three rides since, its worth is self-evident.

    Thanks for the recap, and congrats on a good ride and a better experience.

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