The DC Randonneurs chose the Shenandoah Valley route this year for the club’s 600-kilometer brevet, which has been one of our favorites in the past. We didn’t experience it the same way we remember, however.
Why? The main difference, we think, was the timing. Because the club is staging its first-ever 1200K randonnee – the Blue Ridge to Bay – on May 31, the club brevets were scheduled earlier and slightly compressed in order.
The 600K usually comes after Memorial Day and three weeks after the 400K brevet, but this year it was just two weeks later. Mary and I felt only barely recovered from the 400K, not to mention the crazy hilly Mother of All 300Ks brevet two weeks before that.
With more than 20,000 feet of climbing on the Shenandoah 600K, our only hope to put up a decent time would be to cut down on our rest stops, which is always a good approach in randonneuring where the clock is always ticking.
Day 1: 243 Miles of Ups and Some Downs Too
The forecast called for high temperatures in southern Virginia, in the upper 80s to low 90s, and chances of rain. A small group of us, just 15, lined up at the 4 a.m. start at the Econo Lodge in Middletown, Va., where the club has been staging Shenandoah Valley brevets for a number of years.
The group included a number of familiar faces and a few in from Pennsylvania, notably Bill Fischer, a regular, and De’Anna Caligiuri, who drove in from Pittsburgh. Ride organizer Roger Hillas sent us off into the warm night.
Mary and I rode our Spectrum tandem, loaded up with just spare food and minimal rain wear. I continue to be mightily impressed by the light thrown by the Busch & Muller IQ-X generator light, powered by a Schmidt disk front hub. I only needed my Exposure Lights Diablo light on my helmet for twisty downhills, otherwise we had a ton of usable light on the road.
We were cruising along ahead of the bunch when for no apparent reason the timing chain derailed on an uphill. Usually the only reason that happens is a twig gets thrown onto the timing chainring. It was dark, so we’ll never know. Everyone nicely asked us if we needed help, but owning a tandem means knowing how to fix this stuff and we waved them on.
I got the chain reinstalled without loosening the eccentric but the front and rear arms were not perfectly aligned, a tooth off or so, and out came the tools. Ten minutes later we were on our way, but everyone was well up the road and we’d not see them again until the first control at mile 65.
That said, the ride down Fort Valley Road was as gentle and peaceful as ever. The sun rose over fog covered fields and the Appalachian foothills, revealing how green the Virginia countryside had become as spring pushed out winter.
We caught up with other riders at the KOA campground control, nestled among a cruel set of tough rollers. Paul Donaldson was there with water and cookies. He revealed that he had a cooler of watermelon slices with him but we all agreed those would be better at the overnight control.
You may recall that I had rear shifting problems on the 400K. Last weekend I replaced the cable, which showed corrosion, and housings. I thought everything was working, but my efforts were an utter failure. Shifting was unreliable, with chain jumping, especially on the crucial next-to-biggest cog under pressure.
My only recourse was to switch the Microshift bar end shifter to the friction option. This was a last resort but necessary. We’d have to be super-careful about centering the chain on every cog, no easy feat on a 9-speed setup, but we’d be able to stand up on the pedals without worrying about the gear slipping.
The run to the next control, Jake’s Convenince, took us over the rolling small hills under bright sun through Bridgewater, where we stopped for drinks and bananas at the 7-11. Traffic seems to be increasing around the town; we had to be on our guard all the way in, though we had only a couple of close shaves.
New residential development was notable and Bridgewater appears to be the latest small town in rural Virginia where roads are becoming more congested.
Traffic lessened by the time we stopped for lunch at Jake’s, mile 109, where other riders were moving briskly to resupply. Mary got a Subway footlong sandwich for us to share while I grabbed a bag of ice and ordered a soy cappuccino from the espresso counter, which was decently smooth.
The heat was definitely rising and we rode off into the hard work of the day, nearly 90 miles with a ton of climbing to the southernmost point of the day in Buchanan. A steady headwind was in our faces as we headed south, riding with Mike Martin, De’Anna and John Mazur.
We actually felt pretty good after the climb up to Goshen, mile 150, one of the best parts of the ride along the Maury River. We’ve been on this section for a lot of years now and every time we find the tree-shaded road through Goshen Pass a treat and suprisingly easy to ride, even though the road rises.
Temperatures were hot at the BP store control at Goshen and it showed on the riders’ faces. Cold drinks were popular, and ice cream sandwiches, if you are Mary Gersema.
By the time we got to the southernmost control of the ride, in downtrodden little Buchanan at mile 196, the massive climbing on this section had pretty much destroyed our legs. My lower back also ached on and off. Mary’s knee was aching as well.
The ultra-steep and aptly-named Big Hill Road summit was painful (we were reduced to serpentine movement at the top, having run out of gears), but it was just part of many miles of slow going before the downhill run to Buchanan. At least the terrain was beautiful.
It didn’t help that we had to carefully shift all the time, which slowed our momentum on the uphills. We were pretty gassed by the South Buffalo Market at mile 184. Even though it was just 11 miles from the control, we stopped as we always do at this little country oasis, as did the folks riding around us. For the five miles leading up to it all I thought about was getting a cold Coke. And so I had a cold Coke, and it was perfect.
A lady inside warned us that her feisty little dog would come out and bark at us up the road, and it did as promised. Nice going little guy!
At Buchanan we saw the first rider, Mitch Potter, leaving town and talked with departing riders Bill and Chip Adams before wolfing down chicken sandwiches and fries at the dirty but serviceable Burger King/Exxon control. De’Anna, John and the rest our nearby riding group filed in as we inhaled calories. We got insulted on the way out of town by some redneck in a pickup truck just to make the Buchanan experience complete.
From there the night run to the overnight control was pleasant under warm skies with a slight tailwind, though we had no company. Bigger turnouts in the past had meant some fellow riders to talk with. We heard later it rained all night up in Middletown, but we were spared, stars visible over us.
After the control at Buena Vista, where we saw John and De’Anna, Mary and I did our best imitation of a time trial on the shallow ascent up to Vesuvius. We were trying for a midnight arrival at the overnight hotel but had to stop to fix a front wheel flat about five miles out, when we picked up a staple in the gravelly construction zone.
More bike work in the dark – this day ended as it started.
John and De’Anna passed us at that point and we arrived just behind them at the Raphine Confort Inn at 12:15 – close enough.
Roger and Paul were there with our drop bags, hot soup and Roger’s homemade lasagna. Nice job guys! Mitch had come and gone to go sleep outdoors up the road. Bill and Chip had checked in, and so did we. The bed and shower were marvelous.
The Day After the First Day
Second days on a 600K are always an unknown in terms of how the body responds. Will we carry over the aches and pains from the day before? Will we fly like the wind? Usually, we end up somewhere in the middle, with a bit of the former and occasional stretches of good form as the end nears.
Chip and Bill rode out with us at 4:40 a.m. after Roger served us more lasagna. I ate a couple of Clif Shot blocks with caffeine in lieu of actual espresso. I appreciated the quiet roads as we clunked through the gears, and we had nice rolling ride as the sun rose. Our legs worked pretty well, that was a relief.
At the Junction Convenience store, mile 274, Mary and I stopped for egg sandwiches as the local retired guys showed up for their morning coffee. I managed to get down a cup of coffee heavily diluted with hot chocolate. It was drinkable, and it woke me up. Desperate times!
Returning through Bridgewater, we caught up to Bill at a construction zone afer seeing Chip and Mitch saddling up at McDonalds. A stop at the Dry River Store was sad and hilarious, as the folks in charge were in a noisy panic over refrigerators not working while at the same time trying to get their loose dog to run back across the road to them.
They were nice though and gave us water at the sink. I bought some chips and didn’t notice they were expired. Mary told me later it was just by a couple of months. Calories!
The new routing from Singers Glen to Broadway was definitely less busy, a good thing, but definitely gruesomely hilly. My shifting was barely adequate and I managed to drop the chain a couple of times. Mary was sweet about the whole thing and we got through.
I dreaded the hilly run down VA42 and Back Road to the finish, but both were actually pleasant; we had a bit of a second wind going. Our longest stop was at Larkins Store, mile 346, where we saw Bill, Mitch and Chip. Lunch, such as it was, consisted of a half pound of potato salad, a Snickers ice cream bar and bottled ice tea.
The final miles were punctuated by a close call on the short but intense section on VA55, which was busy. Traffic was moving fast in both directions. We hugged the right side most of the way but moved over into the lane for the left on Clary when a group of cars came over the hill toward us.
I somehow missed an oncoming dark SUV that was much closer than I wanted. Luckily the driver slowed just as I committed to the turn and it wasn’t a panic situation. We made it unscathed, there was more than enough room, but I was shaken.
We’ve decided to stop on the right at Clary in the future and wait for traffic to clear before crossing. It was a wakeup call, for sure.
Mary got me settled for the final nine miles to the finish at mile 375, at 3:12 p.m., for a 35:12 finish. That’s not bad for us these days, especially after a tough brevet series. Roger had pop and ordered pizza for us and we hung around to greet fellow riders, get cleaned up and take little naps before driving home. We’ve learned not to drive right away.
Our 600K this year was an effort of determination, and a good test for us as we plan for the Coulee Challenge 1200K in August. It’s good to know we can still put in a successful ride without having our best legs.
Many thanks go to Roger and Paul for the terrific support, and to our fellow riders for keeping up the good cheer along the way.
And best of luck to riders taking on the Blue Ridge to Bay 1200K, including Roger and Paul as pre-riders, and others we rode with this weekend!