Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tappahannock 200K

I completed the Tappahannock 200K brevet Saturday. Temp at the start: 16 deg F. High during the day: 36 deg F. Total elapsed time: 11hrs 57 min. It was my first time participating in an organized randonneuring event, in this case a brevet of 200K distance. It was organized by the DC Randonneurs and sanctioned by Randonneurs USA. This course is billed as one of the easier brevet events in the DC area as the sum of all of the hills climbed is less than many of the other similar events held each year. But "easy" is a relative term. The sport of randonneuring is by definition about endurance and long distances, and I found the day to be one of the most physically challenging things I've ever attempted. I had a lot of fun and felt great about successfully finishing under the time limit of 13.5 hours.

The area between Ashland, VA and Tappahonnock, VA has some beautiful countryside. With the recent snow still dusting most of the farm land and the bright, sunny day, the views were spectacular. The route was almost completely on rural back roads with light traffic. If it wasn't rolling past a farm, it was running through dense woods or crossing bridges over many small creeks and one or two larger rivers. Here are some pictures taken by Clint P

The start was at 7:00 am sharp at Ashland Coffee and Tea in downtown Ashland, VA. The coffee shop graciously allowed everyone to park in their lot for the day while we were riding and provided a great place to warm up after the ride was finished. 31 riders set out for the day's adventure. This included two couples riding tandem bikes. 14 of these were from our own Severna Park Peloton, quite a turnout. 28 of 31 finished successfully, including one rider who finished with 2 min to spare!

After the start, the group naturally began to break up in to smaller groups by rider ability and the pace they are comfortable maintaining. Rather than the entire group riding at the pace of the slowest rider, this lets everyone enjoy the day at a pace he or she is comfortable with. Chris Lane and I had agreed prior to the ride that we would stick together for the whole event. Some of the pairing and partnering that occurs is spontaneous, some is planned as in our case. As the day progressed this proved to be a very wise decision for both of us.

The temperature at the start was about 16 or 17 degrees and at 7am, the sunrise would not occur for almost another half hour. The first challenge Chris and I encountered was our frozen water bottles. We had added a bit of anti-freeze (a capful of bourbon) prior to the start. I'd tested this approach riding around Severna Park in the mid 20s and it worked quite well. But it was another 10 deg colder at the start this time and we didn't use enough. A gas station / country store at approx 20 miles let us thaw out the bottles and refill with warm water. The sun was up by then, the day was warming a bit so this got us through to the first control point at mile 45.

The first control at the Courthouse Market in King and Queen's Courthouse, VA gave us a chance to grab a snack, adjust our clothing, refill the water bottles, etc. I also had a cup of hot chocolate. The controls are required stops around the course where you have to stop and get your control card signed and the time noted. Some courses use what's called an information control, a trivia question you have to answer by stopping to read a historical marker or similar bit of information you could only get by actually being there and seeing it for yourself. This course originally included one information control, but the route was changed at the 11th hour to contend with a bridge closed for construction and a section of unpaved road deemed unsafe for a bike in frozen conditions, so the information control was eliminated. Despite our best intentions, our "quick" control stop lasted over 20 minutes. Then we were back on the bikes, 28 miles to the next control... and lunch!

The first 45 miles of the route were heading East from Ashland. After the first control, it turned North towards Tappahannock. It was around mile 48 that we discovered the wind was blowing from the North-West. Up to this point it had been at our back when we were in the open areas. We were feeling really good about our 15+ mph average pace and hoping to finish before dark. NOT!!! The NW breeze would now work against us for the Northerly and Westerly legs of the course, which also were the most hilly sections. This is where it became more challenging. Chris and I took turns leading and following each other in to the wind. The lead biker takes the brunt of the wind while the following biker enjoys a slight wind break and works a little less strenuously. The other challenge we saw on this leg was frequent short sections of road still covered in snow and ice. Most were passable if you coasted over them and avoided any sudden braking or turning, but you had to pay attention to see them coming or risk a fall. One or two icy spots on steep, up hill slopes required us to get off and walk the bike across the ice.

At the second control, Java Jack's in Tappahannock, mile 73, we were pleasantly surprised to find Janet, Bill, Theresa and Gardner (all SPP members) just sitting down to lunch. We thought they would have quite a bit longer lead on us, but they weren't immune to the wind either and had also stopped to fix a flat. So the six of us ate lunch together. The food, and the warm restaurant were wonderful. But we were all a little anxious for the service to speed up so we could get going again.

Mounting up we discovered Bill had a flat, and I found that the spare gloves I'd brought along were no longer in my bag!! It appears I left the top of the bag unzipped leaving the first control and they must have fallen out somewhere along the ride. This was a real bummer. Now I had to wear the lobster claw mittens the rest of the ride. They are great mittens and had kept my hands and fingers warm even in the very cold early morning temps before sunrise. But after 75 miles they were quite clammy inside with perspiration, ugh. A few more minutes to fix the flat and the six of us set out together.

The westerly leg from Tappahannock continued to be breezy and hilly towards the third control at the Sparta FastMart convenience store in Sparta, VA at mile 97. The six of us leaving from Java Jack's together stayed in loose contact through the next two controls, bunching more tightly in some sections to take turns in to the wind and spreading out over a bit at other times. It helped that we could all keep tabs on each other in the event of a break down or other problem, though fortunately nothing like that occurred.

It was these last few legs of the course where Chris' and my decision to ride together proved most important. We've both been biking less than a year. We
both started biking to loose excess weight and we're both still working on that goal. This was a big, big effort for both of us. It was the longest ride either of us had attempted up to that time. We were tired, hungry and it was very cold outside. We still had 55 miles to go. During these last 55 miles we alternately took turns leading in to the wind, reminding each other to eat and drink, and otherwise providing much needed moral support as the effects of cold and fatigue grew. It proved to be an effective partnership. I look forwarding to teaming up again on another adventure.

After the Sparta FastMart the route turned south, finally the wind was aft of the beam!! But the intermittent snowy and icy patches continued to require careful attention to the road ahead as the last hour of daylight faded. We arrived at the last control point, Dick's Country Store at mile 114 just after sunset. Only 14 miles left to go!! We agreed to keep the last stop as quick as possible. Get the card signed, a quick sip and a bite of snack bar and get going. Fortunately this leg was flat and the roads were clear, no more snowy patches. The wind had died completely at sunset but the temp started dropping back below freezing.

Traffic picked up on VA Hwy 54 as we approached Ashland and the finish. We reached the city limits and could start to see traffic lights and other signs of civilization. Next we heard the train whistle and knew we were very close, maybe 2 miles out. Then we could see the finish. But..... the RR crossing lights started flashing and the arms came down. 100 yds from the finish we had to wait 5 more minutes while Amtrak stopped to let passengers on and off the train! Then we finally rode in to the coffee shop to the victorious applause of our friends in the SPP and other riders from DC Rand.

It was a day of firsts and new accomplishments:
  • It was my longest ride to date - 128 miles.
  • It was my coldest ride to date.
  • The first time I saw the sunrise AND the sunset from my bike on the same day.
  • Congratulations to Janet B who finished her R-12 award, completing her 12th brevet in 12 consecutive months.
  • Congrats also to Dan Oldale who was riding his first brevet as well. He was the first of the whole group of 28 to finish!

It was a very good day.

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