Keeping the Wheels On: The DC Randonneurs 600K

Mary and I took a break from the longer brevets last year, mostly because of the 4 a.m. starts and being at new jobs that required us to be fully functioning on Mondays. This year we were able to plan ahead and made time for the D.C. Randonneurs 400K in May and the 600K this last weekend.


Another fun weekend on the bike. Photo courtesy Mary.


There is a joke in randonneuring about randonnesia — where you forget the discomfort of the most recent big brevet enough that you sign up for more (I’m sure a version exists in all endurance sports). We had a version of that going into this year’s 400K and 600K, which is a good thing. We approached them with renewed enthusiasm for overcoming the logistical, physical and mental challenges.

We didn’t suffer too much on the Frederick 400K on May 20. It was the hillier version of the two that DCR ran this year, but we prefer hilly over flatter rides. You can see our GPS log from the event here.


Outside Hancock, Md on the 400K


We finished in a solid 20:09 overall, falling short of the goal of taking only an hour rest per 100 miles, but there was a lot of climbing in the morning and some headwinds in the afternoon. We’re about an hour slower than our best performance of years past for the distance, which we could approach with less time off the bike. Maybe next year.

After having ridden 600Ks over the years, I’ve concluded our strongest rides come on the shorter brevets. Our legs tend to be heavy after riding the fleche and the 400K in particular. The overnight sleep stop on the 600K also makes a big difference — the better we feel on the first day, the sooner we arrive at the overnight and then get out on the road again.

This year we had a solid if not spectacular 600K. Here’s our recap. You will find our 600K GPS files at Garmin Connect: Day 1 and Day 2 (note: we turned the Garmins off for long stops), and my photos at Flickr.


The weekend forecast called for the lots of sunshine and warm temperatures, possibly hitting the upper 80s. We got home early from work on Friday and had dinner before driving out to Warrenton, Va. to the start hotel, the Hampton. Ride organizers Kelly and Josie Smith greeted us in the lobby just as they were packing up from the advance sign-in, along with Eric Williams and Emily Ranson keeping them company.

We had no drama getting set up, which involves hauling the tandem off the car, getting it into the room and attaching the front fender, little bags and electronics, and stuffing in our rain jackets and other gear. As we have this spring, I had my Garmin Edge 1000 GPS computer up front and Mary had a Garmin Edge 810 on the rear top tube, both with OSM Cycle maps. We also carry USB batteries to recharge on the go; I ran mine off the battery the whole day and recharged Mary’s once along the way.

I made up custom courses in nine segments on RidewithGPS earlier in the week (see them here), and had those loaded on both Garmins. I like to break up the route in case one of the Garmins has a problem and shuts down, so that I don’t have to reload the entire route file. Plus, we get the Garmin fanfare noise and little “You Win” notice when we reach the end of each segment. Every little morale booster counts on these rides, haha!

One bummer was that our fleche team captain and fellow coffee stop afficionado Jerry Seager had to skip the event because of work commitments. We missed his good cheer.

An Early Start

The usual 20 or so of us attending DCR rides these days gathered for the 4 a.m. start. Having a Sheetz store nearby was helpful; Mary and I got a faux-cappucino to share and a breakfast sandwich for me. We also ate some Hippie Crack granola I brought from A Baked Joint bakery in D.C., which went down surprisingly well in middle of the night with soy milk. We both put on arm and leg warmers and light caps, but left our cold weather gear in our bags.


Check in desk


Kelly and Emily were getting folks signed in, with help from David Ripton helping with lights inspection.


Quiet anticipation


Right at 4, Kelly quietly sent us off into a cool, clear night.


John and David ready to go


Compared to when I first started riding, riders are definitely more visible in the night. The quality of reflective gear and lighting has advanced a lot. It looked like a wall of white and red (some of the battery taillights were actually too bright) coming from the riders ahead of us.


Roger and Bob


We rode with the front group as long as the rollers allowed, about 20 miles, as we steamed over the green hills and valleys toward the first control at Somerset, Va., mile 60. There were no services until there, but at this stage of the brevet season we can easily ride that far on pocket food and breakfast. We rode a bunch of miles with Bob Counts and Roger Hillas after the sun came up, as one gorgeous Virgina countryside vista after another came into view.


Randos converge on Somerset


At Somerset the first group was still there, which meant we had kept up a good pace. I got some little country ham sandwiches and bottled ice tea, my go-to rest stop drink.

When we went to leave, Mary’s Garmin had shut itself down. It restarted fine, but reset back to zero so she had to add 60 miles to her distance total the rest of the day. The unit saved the lost segment data to internal memory and I was able to join it with the rest of the day’s track when we got home on Sunday.

On the way to the control at Dyke, mile 81, a driver slowed to warn us about a dog that had bitten a rider ahead, and then an ambulance passed. We were worried. It turned out to be a cyclist not on our ride, but we were saddened that somebody got hurt. At the control we learned Roger had talked to the fellow — “he was bleeding all over his Sidi’s,” Roger said, but said he wasn’t in bad shape.


Theresa Furnari arrives at the Dyke store


Caleb joined us for the run to Crozet, mile 103, over the high point of the ride in the Appalachian foothills. We got there just after 11 a.m. and went to Green House Coffee by ourselves and had sandwiches, espresso and treats. Everybody else did the rando thing and went to the convenience store. It felt good to sit down and catch our breath in a relaxed setting. The nice staff filled my Camelbak with ice, too.

Mary in Crozet

A good rest stop in Crozet


The air was hot as we departed. The cue sheet did not mention any more stores until mile 178 (there were a number of them, I should have recalled) so we stopped again at Brown’s Store, mile 127, to get more ice for our Camelbaks, fearing we’d run out of water.

Jack Nicholson, Bob Counts and Pat O’Connor rolled up and took our surplus ice, and Gardner and Theresa pedaled past, showing strong time discipline.


It’s hot! Time for more ice.


The terrain leveled off, we had a hot tailwind and by mile 164 I was overheated.  We stopped at the friendly LJ Store, where I got an emergency Snickers ice cream bar and ginger ale.

The Wheels Come Off

At Louisa, mile 178, I was in distress. I was nauseous and grouchy. The new Sheetz had a sitting area and I took a 20-minute nap while Mary fretted about my situation. Normally my stomach never bothers me. Dehydration, I think, was the culprit and nothing was appetizing, even though I had consumed more than 100 ounces of fluids in 60 miles. I didn’t think to get something moist and easy to digest, like a banana.

I finally managed to drink another ice tea and we decided to go to the control at Orange and see if I could recover.

We spent an hour in Louisa, which put a 30-minute dent in our plan to get to the overnight by midnight. Most of the people in our ride orbit were now ahead of us, not to be seen again today. It was definitely a low moment, not knowing if more trouble was ahead.

I Am Focused

The cooler evening temperatures and easy terrain made a huge difference, though. By 20 miles later in Orange, mile 199, my appetite had returned and we ate at McDonalds. I recovered and we rode steadily, though I was fighting drowsiness and saddle soreness at the end and counting down the miles.


Appetite returns in time for McDonald’s.


About an hour out from the overnight stop, blearily riding along and not paying attention, I said loudly, “I am focused!” Mary was naturally perplexed. I said I was declaring myself focused on getting to the hotel with no missed turns. This exercise seemed to work, though I had to repeat it occasionally, which became a bit of running joke.

We arrived to the hotel at mile 255 at 12:40 a.m., not far off our usual 400K pace.

Kelly and Josie had a nice spread of hot and cold food going in their room. Caleb was there taking a peaceful nap in advance of heading out into the night. After some chicken soup for me and chili for Mary, we got almost three hours sleep.

Day 2

We arose in the usual randonneur fog after short sleep, ate the last of our granola and got some bananas from Kelly and Josie (yep, still at work!), and checked out of our room. By 5:10 a.m. we were off just before first light, and I felt back to my usual self. I like the exit from Warrenton on this route because it trends downhill, making the initial miles go by without a lot of effort to start. Unsurprisingly, my Garmin advised me that my recovery status from my last ride was “poor.” Gee, thanks for that.

Our ride to Fredericksburg was pleasant though we had no sighting of any riders. I’d see a red light ahead in the dark but it would always be a driveway reflector.

The genial clerk at the 7-11 at mile 279 said some folks had come through about 40 minutes earlier, which we assumed was the first group that had slept. We saw from Instagram later that Caleb and Paul Donaldson had ridden out first.

We stopped to move a turtle off the road. It protested wildly about being picked up, but I got it into the ditch before it clawed me.

At Fredericksburg, around 9 a.m., we stopped at Hyperion Espresso for today’s sit-down meal and coffee. The air conditioning was delicious too. I was hungry enough to eat a cold tofu and cole slaw sandwich, which would be well off my radar, but that was all they had outside of pastries, and it tasted great.


Not a convenience store.


The ride though the Fredericksburg Battlefield is always a highlight and we enjoyed the tree-lined, peaceful Lee Road and the little dirt footpath connector section. No randonneurs were anywhere in sight so we presumed we got passed at breakfast, and that was that.

We learned later that Roger Hillas saw us up ahead at one point before the battlefield but we caught a traffic light and he got stopped.

At Spotsylvania, mile 325, the sun was blazing. Choosing the Fasmart to control just on the edge of town, we bought a big tub of cold potato salad and cold ice and cold drinks. If it was cold, it looked good.


Potato salad. Hot weather food.


We were cheered up a lot when Roger rode into sight and turned into the parking lot, but then he made a quick U-turn and rode away, apparantly not seeing us at all. Oh well!


So long Roger! Photo courtesy Mary.


The chains were driving me crazy with noise, so I oiled them, but I forgot to reapply sunscreen to myself, so it was a half-victory on the tasks list. I suffered some sun exposure by the end but didn’t burn, but it was an risky mistake.

The Invention of RandoBall

There was a lot of Sunday morning traffic over the next 14 miles to the information control at the church at mile 338, on twisty and hilly roads. Everybody was nice to us, but it was pretty stressful. The traffic let up after that, yay.

At the church, Mary shot a couple of baskets, including a nice layup, and we enjoyed a shade break. Our progress was good and there was no more stops over the next 45 miles. We had plenty of fluids and food, and set our sights on the finish.


383 miles and two points.


Our aches and pains were piling up, though, which made the last miles a challenge. My big pain points were the heel of my left hand, which stays on the bars most of the time while I shift the rear gears,  my seat from compression soreness, and my left big toe, which was throbbing for no real reason.

We had some breeze, thankfully, and kept up a decent rolling pace, taking just one shade break.


Shade and some personal care on Summerduck Road. Photo courtesy Mary.


I liked the routing at the end via Courtney’s Corner, Shipps Store and Elk Run roads. It’s a peaceful stretch with good shade. After the usual turns and hills into Warrenton we arrived at 3:55 p.m. for a total run of 35:55. That’s a fine outcome for us, especially given the ride was 383 miles. For the record, we passed the the 600K distance, 375 miles, at 3:18 p.m.

Kelly texted us earlier and asked that we give him an arrival time so he and Josie could order pizza, and there it was in the room, still hot, along with plenty of cold drinks and other snacks. Nice going team! He also came down to greet us.


This year’s 600K was a return to form for us. As the years go by, keeping up with past performances is the primary goal for me.

It was unusual to not see anyone for all of Sunday other than the random sighting of Roger.  The ranks of the regulars have dwindled for DCR rides and it appears there is too much separation on a 600K for groups to form. I hope this trend changes.

Big thanks go to Josie and Kelly, and to Bill Beck and Emily  (with Kelly) for riding the checkout over Labor Day weekend. Also big thanks to Nick Bull, our hard-working brevet administrator, for managing another long spring series.

Our next big event is our annual summer trip, this year a 1,000-mile unsupported tandem tour from Albuquerque, N.M. to Boulder, Colo. starting July 1. The brevet and fleche miles should come in handy in getting over the summits out there.

Tech Notes

Our Avid BB7 disk brakes were annoying on this ride, with the disk pads tending not to retract fully on the front wheel for awhile after hard braking, skimming the rotor. This is unusual. I hope it’s just time for new cables and housings. We also had our rear shifting start to get clunky at the end. I’m thinking of going from 9-speed to 10-speed shifting, which we have liked on our other tandem for a few rides so far. I’m still sticking with bar end shifters, though. No matter how sore or cold my hands get, I can always shift them.

Our tires, Panaracer GypsyKing GravelKing 32mm smooth tread, remain a mixed bag. They roll and corner really well and mount easily but are stiffer than our standby, the 32mm Panaracer Pasela PT. I presume they are made that way to ward off sidewall cuts. It was noticable on the rougher roads in central Virginia. Maybe I’ll lower the pressure as they are less likely to pinch flat. (Sorry folks we are not going tubeless).

My new Voler Black Label shorts were a fail on Saturday. I’m between sizes and moved up to large after finding the medium was too tight, but the chamois was too big and caused some chafing. They are going back. I pulled out a pair of my Voler Caliber shorts for Sunday, which were fine. I’m not a big fan of the move to compression in sports clothing and I think Voler has taken it too far in their Black Label line.




2017 Fleche: Team Once in a Blue Moon

It’s been a week since our six-person, five-bike team Once in a Blue Moon rode 226 miles in 24 hours on April 22-23 as part of the D.C. Randonneurs 2017 fleche, and I’m just now getting my head clear to post our story, so forgive the tardiness. It’s worth it to get a story that isn’t clouded by sleep deprivation, I hope.

In case you are unaware of the fleche, it’s the main team randonneur event of the year. Teams of up to five riders or bikes (tandems count as one bike, yay!) make up their own route that covers at least 360 kilometers (223.6 miles), with 24 hours to finish and no stops of longer than two hours, so you can’t race and finish way early.

Interested? Perplexed? Shocked, even? Typical for randonneuring, there are a bunch of rules, see them here. In sum, it’s a long ride with time limits, just like other randonneur rides, but you get to make up your own route and have to finish together.

I tried to get this post out earlier in the week but needed time to process the whole event and catch up on my sleep.  I always think I’m back to normal from the fleche after just one or two night’s sleep, but it always takes longer.

The Fleche: What the Heck is That?

We like the fleche but mostly during the ride and after. In advance the concept is daunting.

The fleche is run on or near the Easter weekend so spring weather is a given. Riders have to bring night/cold/wet weather gear, and of course learn how to stay awake in the wee hours. They also have to get to a remote start, if a point-to-point route is chosen to the designated finish at the Key Bridget Marriott in Arlington, across the Potomac River from Washington.

This year our team had two randonneur newbies which added another bit of extra uncertainty – though they did fine! More below.  A team must have at least three bikes finish together for an official result, but the goal is always to complete the ride with nobody dropped, and optimally riding as a group the entire way.

Sunny skies in Cumberland for our arrival


Lastly, there is always the threat of bad weather. It’s rare that there is no rain somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic on a fleche weekend, and usually some winds. Every team (this year there were seven that attempted the DC Randonneurs event, five were successful) throws the dice in deciding their general direction regarding the weather. Last year half of 10 teams abandoned because of a massive cold front from the northwest with gusty winds.

This year we started in Cumberland, Md., at the northern end of the C&O Canal Towpath where it meets Great Allegheny Passage Trail that links Washington with Pittsburgh. Mary and I drove out Friday morning in a rental minivan with the Spectrum tandem, which isn’t allowed on the train because it’s too long – the tandem, that is!

It fits!

Clean, for the moment


Cumberland has an Enterprise franchise that accepted a one-way rental, and a staffer drove us back to the hotel, which was nice.

Our Team

Team OIABM was drawn together by our English pal and captain Jerry Seager, who loves to provide cue sheets in proper European kilometers instead of miles, finds restaurants for meals, and looks for mountains and dirt roads to liven up the proceedings. For the second year in a row Jerry had us start from a town on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited line, which has bike service, so that our team could ride a point-to-point route without arranging a shuttle.


Bilal and Natasha in Cumberland


We and Jerry were the holdovers from our team last year. Rando stalwart Eric Pilsk joined us this year along with newcomers Natasha Calderwood and her partner Bilal Zia, who Jerry recruited. They are very active cyclists in the DC racing/cyclocross scene but not randonneurs, so they were green to the brevet cards and middle-of-the-night riding thing.

The makeup of the team brought its own stresses, because it would be our first ride together, but also made it interesting to see if we could come together on the road.

Eric and Jerry at our first stop in Corriganville, five miles into the ride


To meet the minimum mileage, Jerry devised a question mark-style route that initially sent us in the opposite direction from Washington, which was kind of strange, but hey this is randonneuring so just follow the route, OK? Joking aside, devising a fleche route is not easy, and we’re indebted to Jerry for doing the work.

See our GPS track and data at RidewithGPS and see Jerry’s route at Ridewithgps.

Basically, we took the GAP Trail towards Pittsburgh over the Eastern Continental Divide and then left the trail in Meyersdale for some gruesomely hilly & gravelly/scenic riding to Bedford for lunch. From there we turned south through the steep but lovely Laurel Highlands, landing in the early evening in Hancock, Md.

Pointing our wheels to the southeast, the remaining highlights were:

  • rolling back roads to Shepherdstown, W. Va., (for a planned dinner at the Blue Moon Cafe, hence our team name);
  • a few flat and muddy miles on the C&O Canal Towpath to a Potomac River crossing at Brunswick, Md;
  • more back roads to Leesburg in Virginia;
  • the finish in Arlington via the paved W&OD and Custis paved trails.

Friday Arrival in Cumberland

The forecast for the weekend was ominous, and that left us with some dread on Friday, with cold rain forecast for most of Saturday and all of Saturday night. Our hopes were pinned on the chance that the rain would somehow miss us.

Mary and I got into Cumberland under sunny skies and light breezes, an ironic touch. I forgot my knee warmers at home but we found some nice Endura ones at the friendly nearby Cumberland Trail Connection bike shop, right by our Fairfield Inn hotel.

We had just one gear scare. I brought my Sidi road shoes by mistake instead of my mountain shoes. They are set up with Shimano SPD road cleats so we tried them out on the tandem and they worked fine with our dual-sided SPD pedals. Using only SPD pedals on our bikes paid off this time.

Saturday: Rain at the Start

We met at 7 a.m. for handshakes and photos under heavy cloud cover in Cumberland and sped off to the early control points that were needed to verify our route. We had our rain gear handy and it would come out in short order.

Our humble start point

Eric in Cumberland

Steep hill into Frostburg

Us, in Frostburg, mostly dry

Bilal and Natasha in Frostburg


Light rain started after Frostburg where we picked up the GAP Trail. By the time we were over the Continental Divide there was steady cold rain, and we were shivering. At the Sheetz store in Meyersdale we put on all of our cold weather gear and rode off in drizzle that seemed to be getting less intense. Before long the rain stopped completely, which was great news.

Natasha and Jerry on the GAP Trail. Courtesy Mary G.

The Continental Divide on the GAP Trail

Bagging that turkey on the GAP Trail


Best of all, the rain did not catch us again on the entire ride, as we stayed behind the cold front moving toward the southeast. It was chilly, especially on the downhills, and cloudy, but that was so much better than rain.

Dirt Climbing with Eric and Jerry


We still had a lot of ups and downs to conquer in the first century. Jerry has a knack for finding steep dirt lanes and on this day he did not disappoint. We took on a few including Schoolhouse Road on the way to lunch in Bedford, and the appropriately-named Hill Road that took us over McKee’s Gap into Hancock. We added these to our annual list of fleche grievances.

(Tech note: we enjoyed good traction with our new tire choice, the 700×32 Panaracer Gypsyking Gravelking file tread model. We’ve been using Panaracer Pasela PT 700×32 for years).

Crazy steep Schoolhouse Road


Jerry is also good at finding better lunch spots. This time we enjoyed the farm-to-table restraurant Horn O Plenty in Manns Choice, where Mary and I each had a Monte Cristo sandwich – a ham-and-cheese on French toast – which must have had 1,000 calories, and we didn’t leave any behind. The staff was really great too about getting us our food fast. Eric shot past the place (it was easy to miss), but he returned with five bonus miles and they got him fed in fast order.

Big Lunch at Horn O Plenty


The many hills in the area offered fantastic views but they came with a downside for a fleche team with a tandem included – we became well strung out.  The fast downhill speed of the tandem (48+ m.p.h. on one hill) pulled us away from the group and we rode a number of the miles by ourselves, with Eric coming up from time to time on the ascents before we’d fly off again. Jerry,

Natasha and Bilal were out of sight behind us somewhere, which made us worry, but we figured there would be a regrouping in Hancock. Temperatures remained in the 50s, not ideal but warm enough.

Up in the Hills courtesy. Mary G


We arrived at Hancock way behind schedule, at about 6 p.m., or 11 hours for the first 115 miles, and the rest of the group was some minutes back. We were barely making minimum overall speed for an official finish. Not good!

Dinner was not happening at the Blue Moon in Shepherdstown – the restaurant would be closed at 9 long before we got there, and Natasha’s stomach was acting up, keeping her from getting nutrition and slowing her progress.

There was some consternation at this point about our team prospects. We decided to split up, with Bilal and Natasha taking some extra time to see if she could recover. It was sad but we had to move on if there was to be any chance of making an official finish.

The Reunion and the Magic

Along the way to Shepherdstown, riding by ourselves, we got off course for a couple of miles. After returning we noticed bike lights ahead and eventually caught up to Natasha and Bilal, who had gotten past us. Natasha was so surprised to see us that she initially thought we were some other tandem couple riding around in the dark!

Meanwhile, Jerry and Eric found a pizza place in a shopping center near Hainsville and we had a happy gathering. Natasha’s appetite returned, we got plenty to eat, and set out in good spririts. The gentle terrain kept the group together and the miles flew by.

There was conversation. There was laughter. We stuck together and got into Sheperdstown late but happy.

Racing to the Finish

The night ride was foggy and damp but mostly uneventful, except for a chance meeting with the Severna Park-based Four Guys and Another Guy team at Harpers Ferry. Our group stopped under the pedestrian bridge across the Potomac River after midnight, only to hear people clomping down the spiral staircase above. Another happy meetup!

After some pleasantries they sped off east while we took the C&O south, splashing through the puddles, toward our next control at Knoxville outside of Brunswick, Md.

Eric in Knoxville


Our final goals were a 7-11 control in Leesburg, and then our last control at Amphora diner in Herndon, which we had to reach by 5 a.m. We knew it was going to be close. After getting confused in an apartment complex trying to get on the W&OD again in Leesburg that required a bit of bushwhacking, we rode hard to get to Amphora, and made it with about 10 minutes to spare.

After a 20-minute rest we trundled out toward Arlington, and a randonneur team time trial formed. We arrived with seconds to spare at 6:59 a.m.! It was a joyous moment after a long and at times tough ride.

Team portrait at the finish. Courtesy Mike Wali.


Final Thoughts

There is a lot of talk in cycling these days about epic adventure rides, particularly on gravel. The fleche, at least when Jerry is making up the route, is a great way to experience the long miles, night skies and remote roads right here in the Mid-Atlantic. This year’s edition was particularly challenging and an official result wasn’t always a sure thing. Our team pulled together in the dead of night and made it happen, and for that I’m proud of them and us.

It was a pleasure to ride with Natasha and Bilal, who remained calm and resolute throughout.

And, as always, special kudos are due to Mary, who rode with her usual aplomb. I’m always glad to be part of our tandem team.

Mary and Me. She looks much fresher. Courtesy Mike Wali.

DCR Many Rivers 600K Brevet: No two rides are the same

MG and I took a break from the longer brevets last year, but we didn’t think that would make much of a difference when we started the D.C. Randonneurs’ Many Rivers 600K brevet on Saturday in central Virginia.

Early morning over the soft hills toward the Blue Ridge.

Early morning over the soft hills toward the Blue Ridge.

Our approach would be the same as in the past: we’d try to complete the first 241-mile day by 11 p.m. and get back on the road by 3 a.m. for the 136-mile second day. We mostly expected the same results, meaning an early afternoon finish on Sunday.

Well! The good news is that we got around the double-loop course from Warrenton, Va. just fine, with a finish of 36:01. In randonneuring, the only goal that matters is completion within the time limit. For a 600K you get 40 hours, so, all good there.

But, our result is more than two hours slower than in 2012, when we rode the same course in 33:55, in much hotter weather. You’d think we’d maintain the same pace in the perfect springtime weather conditions we experienced on Saturday and Sunday, with moderate temperatures, light winds and dry air.

The difference came down to additional time off the bike, and a little bit slower pace.

In 2012 we rode 24:26 and had a rolling average of 15.5 mph. This year we rode 25:12 and had a rolling average of 15.1 mph.

That’s 46 minutes additional in the saddle and 80 minutes more stopped time — not much over 1 1/2 days. Still, in a pursuit based on time limits, randonneurs tend to think a lot about their time result, and we’re no different.

See all of our data and course tracks at Garmin Connect: Day 1 and Day 2.

I have a full photo set on Flickr as does MG. See mine and hers.

We’re still sorting it out, but we’ve got a couple of theories. In 2012 the ride was on June 9-10, which gave us more time in the spring to get in shape.

As I said, it was much warmer then — I recall Saturday temperatures were in the 90’s that year, compared to the 70’s this year. That made the Sunday predawn hours warmer. This year had a cold start both days in the 40s.

The other factor was second-day fatigue. All of our additional time and slower pace came on Sunday’s 136-mile loop to Fredericksburg and back. We returned to the start/finish hotel for the overnight stop at the same time as in 2012, about 11 p.m., but we spent more time in the hotel, and took more stops around the course. I think we re-started at least 30 minutes later, close to 4 a.m.

There was a mild headwind on the second half of the Sunday loop which also added to our time, though I can’t say how much.

So — enough with the data! The upside in all this was that we enjoyed some excellent companionship along with way, especially on Saturday. We teamed up with Brian Rowe, David Givens (both new to randonneuring) and Rick Rodeghier for the Saturday afternoon and evening run back to Warrenton.

Rick, David, Brian. Good folks.

Rick, David, Brian. Good folks.

All three were in good spirits and we enjoyed the fresh perspective of Brian and David. They and Rick were all on randonneuring bikes with 650b wheels and fenders, and held a good steady pace. We had a satisfying sit down dinner in Louisa, Va. at the Roma Italian restaurant (great service!).

What's missing from this bike? A front derailleur.

What’s missing from this bike? A front derailleur.

The night run to Warrenton was spectacular, despite the steady grinding ascent in the final miles, with a blazing sunset and lots of good conversation. Our new generator hub and lighting system (Schmidt front disk hub, Schmidt Edelux 2 and Secula Plus tail light) lit the way.

Mike Martin and John Mazur were also in the vicinity, and we ate dinner and rode some of the way with the ever-debonair Roger Hillas, whose front derailleur had broken. He calmly rode with the chain on his small ring and laughed it off as no big deal.

Waiting on a train.

Waiting on a train.

We joined up with them earlier at the Howardsville Store at mile 122, after tagging along with the fast folks for the first 70 miles until the bigger rolling hills near the Blue Ridge put us off the back. The Big Cat tandem can only do so much when the profile trends upwards.

Away in the distance, the front group rides off.

Away in the distance, the front group rides off.

The event organizer Bill Beck was there at Howardsville, taking photos, and we had fun joking around. Barry Benson, MG’s co-worker, arrived with her cycling gloves, which had fallen out of our rear bag. Barry gets a gold star.

Bill executed a perfect power slide to get the shot.

Bill executed a perfect power slide to get the shot.

It was always nice to see Bill. He makes us feel like rando-celebrities with his flattering shots and all-around good cheer.

Barry found MG's gloves on the course. Thanks Barry!

Barry found MG’s gloves on the course. Thanks Barry!

The other highlight of the morning was the espresso and gourmet sandwiches at the Green House Coffee in little Crozet, Va. where a group of us gathered (the speedy crowd chose other, more expedient establishments).

A welcome stop in Crozet.

A welcome stop in Crozet.

Randonneur yard sale in Crozet.

Randonneur yard sale in Crozet.

Mitch Potter told us a little about his tricked-out flat-bar Pivot 29er bike that he was riding in anticipation of installing big tires and riding the Tour Divide offroad race in the Rockies. It was quite the rig, with the snazzy 1×11 SRAM system, with a single chainring crank and a huge 42-tooth large rear cog.

Mitch on his Pivot.

Mitch on his Pivot.

A better shot of Mitch's bike. By MG.

A better shot of Mitch’s bike. By MG.

Sunday was another story, still a good one, but I was pretty shelled from Saturday and had the hardest time getting up. I finally arose at 2:45 a.m. after three hours sleep. Consequently our planned 3 a.m. departure ended up at 3:55 am, and we arrived in Fredericksburg, mile 288, after 8 a.m. — about four hours to cover 46 miles. I was dragging, and so was MG. We were consuming everything we had to get some energy going.

These espresso beans may have saved our ride.

These espresso beans may have saved our ride.

Mike Martin was again in our orbit. We got caught up at the first control of the day around dawn and talked about how tired our legs felt. After another stop at the second control on the outskirts of Fredericksburg (after something of a struggle to maintain momentum), we rolled into downtown in bright sun and immediately saw the Marine Corps Historic Half marathon taking place.

Historic Half Marathon underway in Fredericksburg, Va.

Historic Half Marathon underway in Fredericksburg, Va.

After cheering the runners for a few minutes I spied Hyperion Espresso, and so yet another half-hour passed off the bike as we revived ourselves with very fine espresso and muffins. This stop got us whole (despite some misgivings about stopping yet again) and back on the road in much better spirits.

The moment that turned our Sunday ride around.

The moment that turned our Sunday ride around.

At that moment Brian, David and John Mazur rolled through town. We caught up to them for the segment through the Fredericksburg Battlefield. Rick had been spied fixing a cable in the hotel parking lot when they left, so he was somewhere behind on the course. Hey Rick, we missed you!

John in the Frederickburg Battleground. Not on tandem this time.

John in the Frederickburg Battleground. Not on tandem this time.

MG and I decided we better get moving if we were ever going to finish without falling asleep on the bike. We pulled away after Spotsylvania, mile 317, to ride solo the rest of the day, tackling the pesky headwind. I had periods of saddle soreness and my left knee would hurt if we pushed too hard, and I started counting down the miles.

Randonneuring high life, in Spotsylvania.

Randonneuring high life, in Spotsylvania.

How far to the finish?

How far to the finish?

Almost there. Just 30 miles to go!

Almost there. Just 30 miles to go!

My eyes. My eyes.

My eyes. My eyes.

The route was intensely lovely, however, and we savored the verdant countryside views and forest lands in the final hilly miles near Warrenton. We again intersected with Mike, who was doggedly riding solo. I thought about how this event has us climbing into the town, a high point in the area, not once but twice. I guess it builds character.

Mike Martin leads us toward Warrenton.

Mike Martin leads us toward Warrenton.

After a somewhat serious push to get in to Warrenton by 4 p.m., we had to settle for a minute after the hour. Oh well! Our pal Lane G. was running the finish control at the Hampton Inn and got us checked in and had pizza waiting, with more arriving quickly — the two most important jobs when tired, hungry riders show up. Thanks Lane!

Lane checks us in. MG's got a pound of pollen in that eye.

Lane checks us in. MG’s got a pound of pollen in that eye.

MG is writing a post on our full randonneur series this year, so stay tuned for that at her fine blog, Chasing Mailboxes.

We made it. Still awake (barely) and still smiling. Photo by Lane G.

We made it. Still awake (barely) and still smiling. Photo by Lane G.

I also want to extend our thanks to DCR brevet administrator Nick Bull for all his work in getting the series organized, to Bill Beck for a well-run 600K, and Mike Binnix for keeping the food going in the overnight control room.

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?

A Brevet in Amish country

Sometimes a change of scenery makes all the difference. MG and I have been riding familiar roads around Washington these last few weeks after our summer Colorado tour and thought it might be good to ride somewhere else within driving distance.

That led us to the Pennsylvania Randonneurs Silver Spring 200K brevet from Christiana, Pa. This loop tour takes in the rolling farm hills of southern Pennsylvania in Lancaster County, with a run into northeast Maryland.

Our route. We rode clockwise.

Our route. We rode clockwise.

See my photos here and MG’s here. The route and our performance statistics can be seen at my Garmin page.

Tom Rosenbauer and me. Tom was riding with us today.

Tom Rosenbauer and me. Tom was riding with us today.

Andrew gives pre-ride comments. Cool enough for warmers.

Andrew gives pre-ride comments. Cool enough for warmers.

The start was just close enough, about 110 miles, to drive up and back the same day. It was an early start — leaving home at 4:15 a.m. — but we got there in plenty of time to get ourselves organized and the tandem ready. Organizers Andrew Mead and George Metzler got our group of about 20 out on the road right on time at 7 a.m.

We wanted to finish in 10 hours but also knew this was a very hilly route, with more than 9,000 feet of climbing over short, steep rises all day. The toughest hills were in the first half, including the wall that is Douts Hill Road, but the second half was only rarely flat.

Our approach to keep moving was one we picked up from our cycling friend Josh S. and his wife Doreen: don’t sit down at the stops. It works well, in that standing around reminds one to depart soon enough.

C.J., Clair and those obligatory cows.

C.J., Clair and those obligatory cows.

The weather was just about perfect. We were treated to bright sunny skies, light breezes, low humidity and highs in the low 80s.

Just past the Conowingo Dam, not a cloud in the sky.

Just past the Conowingo Dam, not a cloud in the sky.

As for the ride itself, the first five miles trended down and we rode away from the group but were caught before the first control at Port Deposit, mile 31, by the faster riders. From there we spent the rest of the day leapfrogging with Bill Olsen, Clair Beiler, first time rider C.J. Arayata and Eric Dahl.

The randonneur lifestyle. Eric, C.J. and Clair.

The randonneur lifestyle. Eric, C.J. and Clair.

Bill just completed the Granite Anvil 1200K randonnee on Aug. 25 and is headed to Colorado this week for the Last Chance 1200K. He was in full get-there brevet mode and left us at the next-to-last stop at Mount Joy, mile 85, while we ate sandwiches in the warm afternoon sun.

As is typical being on the tandem, we’d fly away on the downhills. Our riding companions would catch us on the uphills. We’d all ride together on the flats.

C.J. and Clair on another quiet road.

C.J. and Clair on another quiet road.

During all this MG took photos of the barns with tobacco leaves drying and Amish farm families working the fields. We rode around the occasional horse-drawn carriage and shared the Sheetz convenience store patio with a number of Amish teenagers who ate pizza before piling back into a van.

Except for a couple of short stretches, the roads were not busy. That’s a testament to a well-designed route.

Cutting the grass, the old-fashioned way. Courtesy MG.

Cutting the grass, the old-fashioned way. Courtesy MG.

Tobacco drying. Courtesy MG.

Tobacco drying. Courtesy MG.

Andrew came out to meet us at the second control, a gas station that had closed, with some drinks and snacks. Thanks Andrew! We love roadside oasis support. The Coke was just what we needed.

Andrew and this cooler of cold drinks.

Andrew and this cooler of cold drinks.

We finished right before 5 p.m., and made our 10-hour goal. The hills took it out of our legs, so we were more than happy to be done. George Metzler generously grilled hamburgers and sausages for the returning riders at his house near the start.

We had a very nice time visiting with George and his family, and our fellow riders, before the drive home. Sleeping in our own bed was much nicer than a hotel.

Tom R. finishes at dusk.

Tom R. finishes at dusk.

One of the best post-ride dinners you could ask for. Courtesy MG.

One of the best post-ride dinners you could ask for. Courtesy MG.

Thanks to all the Pennsylvania Randonneurs for hosting us so graciously. We hope to see one and all here in D.C. soon.

Greg Conderacci’s 2010 Miglia Italia: You, Too, Can See Italy on 200 Miles a Day

Our own Greg Conderacci has written about his successful completion of the scenic 1001 Miglia Italia randonnee this summer. That’s 1001 miles, folks, miles. Take that, LEL!

Greg in the Italian mountains

Greg was among a small but successful American contingent. He finished in good shape in 5 day, 4 ore, 37 minuti. I try to imagine riding PBP, then another 400K. This is a big, big ride.

Greg, at the finish. Still standing!

Greg found the ride visually stunning during the day, but visually lacking at night — lacking in cues, that is. Still, he and the rest of the field, fueled by mounds of pasta and olive oil, found their way around the course for a successful completion. (For another perspective, have a look at American rider Veronica Tunucci’s story at the Randon Google Group list.)

Congratulations to all the finishers!

Italian Lessons: You, Too, Can See Italy on 200 Miles a Day…

by Greg Conderacci
Nov. 26, 2010

If Paris-Brest-Paris is too easy, too French and too crowded for you, there’s always the 1001 Miglia Italia – 1001 miles around Italy with the climbing equivalent of two times up and down Mt. Everest.

Do you want breath-taking scenery? It’s there at every turn. Quaint little mountain towns with castles centuries older than the United States. Storybook countryside laden with ripening grapes, olives and sunflowers. Dazzling vistas of villages nestled against a Mediterranean as blue as the sky.

Do you want Powerbars and Gatorade at the controls? Ha! How about mountains of fresh pasta, prosciutto and melon, crusty bread with extra virgin olive oil – and even beer and wine? Or, how about a bowl of cold rice with small chunks of mystery meat? You get both.

Do you want a US-style cue sheet, with well-marked roads with names and route signs providing a clear sense of where you are? Sorry: you’ll need to borrow some Italian tapes from the library and learn enough of the language to find your way in this beautiful maze.

The key insight for the 1001 Miglia Italia is that it is much more than a bigger brevet. For the Italians, it is the ultimate test: the longest Randonee in Europe. For an American, it is a 1,000-mile exercise in navigation under duress. You see, there are few route signs in Italy on back roads and almost no posted road names. The scenery is beautiful, but it’s hard to pick out landmarks – especially at night.

Although I was actually only lost once, I often felt that I was. The impact was like a dragging brake. It made me move more slowly and carefully. It drained energy that could have gone into turning the pedals.

The impact of confusion about direction became clear – right from the 9 pm start. About 300 riders roll out in waves of 30, about 10 minutes apart. A handful of other Americans and I are in the second wave.

The Italians in the pack tear down the road at more than 25 mph – as if the race is 25 miles and not 40 times that long. We let them go, but as soon as their taillights disappear into the night, we begin to worry: “Is this still the right road?” Instantly, we start to ride slower, groping our way through the night.

At the next roundabout, the wave of riders who started behind us catches up – and splits in half – each taking a different road. Now, we are really confused: dead stop. We are less than half an hour into the race and we are already trying to puzzle out the way.

Often, we ride through towns whose street pattern was created by oxcarts and trod by the Roman legions. In these villages, the streets can run in every direction, with no clear main road. This instant multiplication of choices abruptly slows progress, especially in mountain towns. The reason is clear: risk. One wrong turn and a fast 20-minute descent could easily lead to hours of extra climbing.

The best way to think about Italian mountains is that they feature both the steep pitches of the Eastern US hills and the length of the Western US mountains. In other words, after every bend in the road, there is more climbing. At one point, it took six hours to go just 45 miles.

What goes up, must come down and the Italian descents are, well, interesting. For the most part, the roads are narrow by American standards, corkscrewing down mountainsides hairpin after hairpin, with no shoulders and, often, no guardrails. If you go off the road alone, especially at night, and you are gone, gone, gone. A clear road on this side of the hairpin is no guarantee that the coast is clear beyond it. Sometimes, a bus is inching its way up pothole-infested grade – straight at you.

A grave temptation is to go without sleep. As I soon discover, what Italians call a “dormitorio” does not mean you’re sleeping in a dorm. I had counted on sleeping at the controls, but the accommodations were often Spartan – unheated, un-air-conditioned tents, sweltering gyms or locker-room floors. One control provided comfy bunk beds with clean sheets – but no showers.

At first, I try skipping real sleep and just dozing briefly. By the fourth day of the ride, I have gone almost 90 hours and ridden 800 miles – on about 10 hours of sleep. I am becoming very, very stupid. I am having difficulty remembering even the simplest things. I am cranky. Whenever I feel lost, I am tending to panic. I stop repeatedly to ask directions. I am having difficulty clipping my feet into my pedals.

I know I need to check into a hotel and sleep, but that’s not easy to find on the mostly rural route. I find some bed & breakfasts, but they are closed. Finally I beg my way into one and collapse for six hours, moving myself from the first third of riders to the last third, but I don’t care.

It’s a far cry from US 1200ks where the organizers sometimes reserve hotel rooms for the riders in advance. Indeed, the Italians only provide the bare minimum of bag drops – two – and that means carrying at least one change of clothes on your back, if, like me, you have a bias for changing your kit every day.

And you often can’t get away with just a change of clothes and a little rain gear. Although most Italian towns have public drinking fountains where you can reload your bottles, the towns can be far between – especially in the mountains when a few miles can take hours.

In the US, there’s always a 24-hour 7/11 around the corner, but there’s no such thing in Italy. Restaurants will stay open late, but there’s no place to find food from about 10 pm to 8 am. If you ride through the night, which I did three times, you’d better carry enough food and water.

Although I rode hundreds of miles with the Italians, I didn’t communicate much with them. They take this ride much more seriously than we ex-pats. For them, it is very much a race, with the finishing group riding the circuit in about 3 days – an amazing feat.

Of course, they are very heavily supported. I rode with one Italian whose mother was waiting along the road to wash his clothes and put him up for the night in the family RV. Many of the Italians were riding with just two water bottles – which would have them carrying about 10 pounds less gear than I was.

It’s a clear advantage to “understand” the country, much the way we “know” a lot of the routes in the US. For example, it’s a big deal to know which towns are likely to have a hotel, where the water fountains are, which hills can be descended fast and which should be done slowly (the Italians did them ALL fast), how challenging the next 100 miles will be, how busy the roads, the hours of the stores along the route, the actual conditions of the event-provided sleeping arrangements, etc. The organizers did a good job of describing the stages, but it’s one thing to read about it and another to do it.

Fortunately, the organizers were reasonably relaxed about details on what can be a bewildering countryside. I don’t know of anybody who short-cut the ride, but several riders took “long-cuts” because of being lost. The main goal was to get to the next control. In some cases, the organizers flexed the closing times a bit. There was only one secret control.

The first two American finishers were women: Suzie Regul, a Californian who works for a cycle touring company in Italy, and Iditabike Veteran Catherine Shenk. I rode many miles with both of them and there were incredibly strong. After the ladies came Dave Thompson, a Canadian who lives in the US and rode with us, Robert Brudvick, me, Rick Blacker, Mark Roberts, Hamid Akbarian and Veronica Tunucci.

I had ridden in Italy before, on a guided tour, and, after the 1001 Miglia, rode a few hundred more miles out of a beautiful Italian “bike hotel” on the Adriatic. It is my favorite place to ride. The scenery is dazzling, the food is even better, and the Italians are welcoming and warm. I know I’m going back, but probably not to ride the 1001 Miglia again. It’s just too darn difficult.

Yet for all of its unique challenges, the 1001 Miglia is an amazing experience, especially if, like me, you can trace your DNA to the very hills that you are climbing. We rode within a few miles of the town where my grandfather grew up – more than a century ago.

As the ride progressed, I could feel myself becoming a little more Italian – a little better climber, a little better descender, and a lot more relaxed. It was the ultimate Italian lesson.

Kelly Smith’s 2009 Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee

Intrepid tandem duo Kelly Smith and Mary Crawley took his tandem up to Massachusetts for the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee, the D2R2, and gave it a shot. Kelly wrote up their experience in a short story.

2009 Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee
by Kelly Smith

(see photos at Kelly’s Photobucket page).

I have mentioned to many in the group that Mary Crawley and I were doing the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee: This sounded like the most unusual and difficult ride of it’s length around, and the pictures linked from the website were fascinating. Mary was up for it so we signed up and I began to plan how to rig the tandem.

I removed the fenders and mounted the largest tires I could fit: 42mm in the front and 40 in the back. I chose smooth centers with side knobs, running 70 psi in front and 90 in back. Comfort was not a problem, and they handled well. I also replaced my granny ring with a 26 tooth to better tackle the unbelievable grades promised.

Last week we met at Michaux State Forest in Pa for a test ride on the dirt forest roads and ATV tracks there. This was a blast and a tough ride on its own, but uncovered a problem. Riding the brakes on a super steep descent resulted in the rear tire blowing with a blast that made our ears ring. Fortunately I’d brought a spare and we were able to finish, and I called around the LBSs to find a drag brake. Larry Black had one, they are out of production, and he generously offered to mail it to me on faith that I’d send a check.

So, set with big tires, low gears, and a drag brake I set out Friday at mid-day. I picked up Mary a little after 4 and we headed up to Deerfield. Naturally, trying to cross the New York metro region in late afternoon and evening didn’t go well – we got in a little after 11.

We often say we a ride is an adventure, but assume we can do it. Well, a real adventure can go either way :-) In a nutshell, the D2R2 170 km course is unbelievably hard. I’ve ridden some rides that claim to be climbing challenges, and some of those on the tandem, but this just puts them all in the shade.

The start was at a big tent in a field on the outskirts of Old Deerfield, a Williamburg type restored area of town filled with beautiful 19th century buildings. The start opened at 6 and we rolled out at the back of a group of a hundred or so bike. An amazing number of people were riding regular road bikes with 23mm tires and standard gears! Also saw many people on cross bikes but using skinny road tires, don’t know why.

We were slow on the climbs, of course, but for the first half we were still among riders who looked like they had it under control. I wasn’t confident enough to descend quickly, which cost us a lot of time. The new drag brake I installed was a godsend for making it down the extremely steep dirt descents, but about 1/2 way into the ride, it began sticking frequently when released. For the rest of the ride, we had to stop many times to release the brake manually.

We also began having chain suck trouble about 1/3 of the way in and had to stop repeatedly to clear jams. By mile 86 the chain was so bent that I had to replace a link; after that, we were not confident to continue riding the steep hills with it. Since we were looking at 1/2 hour or more of night riding and missing the finish cutoff — even assuming that we had no more problems — we decided to cut the ride short.

With the ride back to Deerfield in the valley, we had 96 miles total in just over 12 hours. Without the mechanicals we would have had time to finish, but it would have been very tough, as there were several more hard climbs to go, including a 20% section.

Some details:

There was a fun section of maybe 1/4 – 1/2 mile that was all torn up by heavy logging equipment. They had dumped soil in to fill and then driven over it so you had huge puddles, rocks, branches, steep sided mud holes, etc., wall to wall. It was double track, but so ripped up that it rode like single track. Sometimes you could feel the rear end slip sideways. You had to stand and shift your weight to maneuver. We were pleased with ourselves to clear that section without stopping. At the next intersection we met a group of rides on skinny tire bikes that had ridden it without putting a foot down. Amazing!

We had to walk one climb, about 200-300 yards the organizers described as 27%, and it looked like it. Don’t know if we could have handled the grade, but it was also narrow with deep gravel in the center and on the sides. There were piles of dirt and gravel here and there where cars or trucks had spun out and dug holes. People were walking too. We had to cross the center ridge a couple times, then tried to dodge a walker and came to a stop. No starting back up on that grade!

Amazingly we saw people riding up the hardest bit. Not everybody for sure, but some. We saw a couple walkers on the next one, not as steep but over a mile long. We made that one.

The cue sheet is interesting in its own right. Check out some of my favorite lines:

0.25 9.05 LEFT onto Pine Hill Rd – dirt, ignore Road Closed sign
0.00 9.05 Caution: pigs, dogs, etc. often in road here

0.00 28.80 CAUTION: wicked downhill next mile – steep, rutted, narrow, stony

0.90 34.05 RIGHT onto Mountain Rd – 15% climb next 3/4 mile
1.05 35.10 LEFT onto South Heath Rd – super steep (so what was the 15%?)

0.20 36.40 Continue straight – road becomes gnarly

Anyway, it was an experience but extremely difficult. Unbelievable displays of strength, skill, and confidence by people riding the dirt on road bikes like it was smooth pavement.

Oh yes, beautiful area, hours without seeing any cars (or pavement). Beautiful Greek Revival houses in the middle of nowhere, friendly people, long drive to and fro.

I think this is a unique event to test yourself on, still small and friendly, but do not underestimate it.

Kelly Smith

Granite Anvil 1200K Update: Can-Am Award and Photos

Three DCR regulars joined the field at the inaugural Granite Anvil 1200K last weekend, and I neglected to mention in my earlier post that two of them — Carol Bell and Bill Olsen of New Jersey — earned the Can-Am Challenge Award with their successful completions. The award goes to randonneurs who complete 1200K randonnees in Canada and the USA in the same year.

Also bagging the award was Aussie randonneur Hans Dusink, the past Randonneurs Mondiaux president, who rode with us on the Woodbine Wallop 200K. He, Carol and Bill completed the Gold Rush Randonnee in California in July before taking on the GA this month.

Fellow DCR Granite Anvil finisher Maile Neel has put up a big set of photos from her ride. Check them out at her Flickr page. Nice work Maile!

Max Huffman’s Alaska 600K: Six Cues to 600K

To get the cobwebs out of TDR’s legs, let’s enjoy D.C. Randonneur Max Huffman’s story of his June 27-28, 600K ride with the Alaska Randonneurs. He rode with his brother Sam, a teammate of mine at the Oregon Randonneurs fleche in 2007. Also, be sure to check out RBA Kevin Turinsky’s photos and report at the Alaska Randonneurs site.

Randonneuring in Alaska (or, Six Cues to 600K)
By Max Huffman
July 8, 2009

With the impressive feats regularly described on this list-serv, I hesitate to record this minor personal triumph.  But the Alaska 600K, which I rode June 27-28 with my brother Sam (an Oregon rando), was such a remarkable destination ride, I wanted to recommend it before anybody’s travel plans are set for next year!

Sam and I grew up in Alaska.  We went there last week to visit home, to cycle through the long daylight hours, and to travel roads through the interior of the state that we had ignored when we were younger. I was not highly confident.  Since I first joined the D.C. Randonneurs in 2007, longer brevets have presented me a substantial hurdle.  I rationalized that even if I quit at the second turn (see the following paragraph), it would be my strongest ever ride.

The cue sheet had six cues, occupying one quarter of a page.  That makes the route sound more complicated than it was.  In fact, there are two turns on the Alaska 600K.  Ride Highway 4 north, take a right on Highway 2, and take a second right on Highway 1.  The end comes when you reach Highway 4 again.

The Richardson Highway runs from Valdez to Fairbanks, and the ride picks it up at Gakona Junction.  For much of the 140 miles to Delta Junction, where it meets the Alaska Highway, the Richardson follows the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  The first half of that leg winds through forests of black spruce, stunted by the harsh interior Alaskan climate; perma-frost bogs; countless lakes and streams; and meadows of lupine.  We rode in a near-constant, sub-40-degree drizzle.  Before the first control at Paxson Lake, 56 miles, in, four cars passed us.

After 75 miles the Richardson encounters the Alaska Range.  Alaska Range mountains rise from close to sea level, and mountain passes are commensurately low.  Our highest point on the ride was about 3200 feet, total elevation gain a trivial 13,000 feet, and no climb involved more than about 500 feet of elevation gain.  Pedaling past Summit Lake, the mountains rose with their magnificent white mantle of snow – much of it fresh that week – and the burden of countless unnamed icefields draped over their shoulders and lying across their laps.  And for a wonderful 20-mile stretch, the clouds lifted and the road surface dried.

On the descent from the pass, the wind stirred up by the mountains hit us with its full force.  Pedaling hard down a 2 percent down-grade, we struggled to make 12 miles per hour.  Buzz, a cyclist from Anchorage, showed his strength riding into that headwind, and soon was out of sight.

The wind let up, and we enjoyed some warmer weather on the short climbs over the next 20 miles.  During this stretch Andy, riding a recumbent, passed us on a long straight-away through Fort Greely, an Army Base-cum-missile site.  We arrived in Delta Junction, mile 138 on the ride, at about 4:30, and checked in with RBA Kevin Turinsky.  At 5:30 we departed Delta Junction to the southeast following the sign reading “Tok” and “Canada.”

We rode this stretch with Buzz, settling into the quiet as the late afternoon turned to evening and the light traffic evaporated.  This stretch of highway is mostly flat and mostly straight; the scenery uninterrupted interior Alaska taiga.  Buzz flatted twice, the only two flats for the group on the entire ride.  After 61 miles we reached the Dot Lake control, where Kevin and others waited.  Andy was gone by the time we arrived at 9:30.  The evening chill was setting in, and I was soaked through.  But Tok was only 47 miles distant, and somebody had told us it was mostly downhill.

Moose come out at night.  We saw three full grown cows, one with a calf, on the next stretch of road.  The sun started to emerge and pink sky appeared to the north.  (Recall that at that latitude, on June 27, sunset comes sometime around midnight.)  Cars were nearly non-existent.  We did not move fast.  By the time we hit Tanacross, 12 miles short of Tok, all three of us were sleepy. Thankfully Buzz had planned to stay the night, and had a room in Tok he was willing to share.

We were awake at 6:30.  A full sit-down breakfast with Buzz was a real treat.  Kevin stopped in to check on us before heading to the second-to-last control at Chistochina.  Sam and I followed Buzz out of town – Andy, who had stayed in Tok as well, was already gone – and Buzz set a monster pace for the first 15 miles.  Before long, I and Sam independently decided to let Buzz go.  We saw him and Andy again at Mentasta Lodge, where (once again to Sam’s chagrin) I insisted on a sit for a cup of coffee.

The last 200 kilometers on the Tok Cut-Off from Tok to Gakona Junction was the hilliest part of the loop.  It was also the most dramatic scenery, though that is partly because the clouds had finally lifted and we could view the Wrangell mountains in all of their glory.  (Amazingly, even with the sky clear, I could not see Russia in the distance.)

After Mentasta we flew through Nebesna (which comes at the bottom of the ride’s fastest descent) at about mile 300.  I was by now riding mostly out of the saddle due to sores.  We shed wet outer clothes and dried off in the sun, the temperatures finally reaching into the 60s.  We caught up to Andy and Buzz in the hills south of Nebesna, and met them again, with Kevin, at the Chistochina control.  The last 33 miles is mostly a blur.  We climbed the steepest hills of the ride, which were mercifully short, and followed a low plateau through thin spruce forests, then took a quick descent in a hailstorm to the town of Gakona. We found the car at 5:30, 35 ½ hours after leaving it.

The group gathered at the bar at Gakona Lodge for a beer (Alaskan Pale Ale, of course) before splitting up.  Kevin is a new RBA, for the first time permitted to hold a full series, and is extraordinarily energetic.  This ride will be repeated, but he talked, too, of a possible 1200K sometime in the future.  If he holds it, I hope I can qualify.

Max Huffman

Wet here, wetter at the PA 400K

While later finishers on the D.C. Randonneurs 300K last weekend were blasting through driving rain and sheltering from lightning, our randonneuring brethren faced the same conditions, over another 100K, on Tom Rosenbauer’s PA Randonneurs 400K.

DCR members Kelly Smith, on tandem with the unstoppable Mary Crawley, Chip Adams, and New Jersey’s own Bill Olsen were among 23 finishers. Tom reports on his excellent site that later finishers were out in the rain for six hours or more. He calls it “a gritty, character building experience, to say the least,” and who’s to argue?

I like that Tom posts his own report and adds comments and reports, so we can compare the organizer’s view with the experiences of the riders. Invariably, the riders are a lot more descriptive of the hills!

Tom’s doing a great job and it’s worth the drive if you can get to one of his rides.

Here is an excerpt from a story on the ride by John Dennis:

Leaving Pottstown, we still had a tad under 36 miles to cover, which at 12 mph would take us another 3 hours or well after 3am. It was not a happy thought. I was running on fumes and I wrongly assumed that Dan was using the back-up copy of his cue sheets. If I had known, he was still using his first set, I would have asked for his second copy. Dan had programmed the course into his Garmin GPS and he explained that once on a given road, we could ride willy-nilly until the Garmin warned him that the next turn was coming up, whereupon he could then read the details from his Garmin or on his cue sheet or both. It all sounded like technology at its best. But then we arrived at the intersection of Smith Road and Swamp Pike. The cue sheet instructed us to turn left onto Swamp Pike from Smith. The problem was we had reached Smith while already traveling on Swamp Pike. In our fatigued state, we were totally flummoxed by this development. We had no map and the one or two cars that passed us by were clearly not stopping. We dithered and I felt a bone-numbing tiredness start to creep into me. Finally, I mustered up the imagination to pretend we had just reached Swamp Pike from Smith. Duh! I made the indicated left turn, traveled the 0.0 miles indicated and, voila, there was our next road waiting for us, Steinmetz. We could practically have swung a wet dead cat to it from where we had been dithering.