A rotten day for a good ride

Saturday (3/29/14) was a no-good, awful, very bad day.  It was also the day for my first 300 km brevet, riding with the Harpeth (Nashville, TN) randonneurs.  The weather forecast called for showers overnight tapering off by mid-morning.  Instead, it started raining about 6:00 in the morning as I loaded the bike onto the car rack, and continued for another six hours.  That meant, instead of warming up, the temperature started out in the mid-50s and went down from there.


I think there were nine of us at dawn starting from Leiper’s Fork.  It was raining, as I mentioned, and there were more fenders on bikes than I’ve ever seen before.  Rolled out of the parking lot and onto the road, turning left.  The cue sheet in my Ortlieb map case was dry, but after making the left turn out of the parking lot I was trying to wipe the raindrops off the plastic so I could read the sheet.  People behind me started shouting, “Turn here! You missed the right turn!”  My navigation skills were off to a good start.


Shortly afterward, Jeff and Don started looking at their GPS and both of them had problems with their downloaded routes.  I started thinking, I get to be the default navigator!  Oh, goody!


The route was fairly flat, for middle Tennessee.  I think the total climbing was only 7,000 feet or so for 190 miles.  As we climbed over the ridge into the Duck River valley, I thought, “This would be pretty if it weren’t raining, foggy, and the end of winter.”  But it was – all three.  Lots of soggy ground to see, no leaves on trees, no buds, the dreary end of winter.


Two of the guys were riding pretty fast, and the next three gradually separated from us last four.  We saw them leaving the first control as we got there, and didn’t see them again.  John looked at the weather and decided he wasn’t prepared for another three hours of cold rain, so three of us (Jeff, Don, and I) pressed on.


We missed a turn; I didn’t see the road sign and hadn’t been paying attention to the distance.  Jeff remembered the name of the road we were supposed to turn on, but he missed the sign, too.  When we hit a main road (maybe US 41A?), I might have turned right to go down to the next road, but Jeff is the RBA, and the rules say you must return to the course where you left it, so we did a U-turn, back-tracked, and got in some bonus miles.


It looked like this front stalled a turkey buzzard migration – or else there were a dozen doing big circles around a couple of stupid bicyclists! because the buzzards were everywhere.  The three of us were riding “brevet together” – sometimes drafting in a line, sometimes abreast, sometimes just in sight of each other.  I was leading when I came upon a real turkey, a big tom.  He saw me and started running away, and then he spooked and flew off.  What a marvelous, big bird!


By the second control at Bell Buckle, TN, we were all soaked.  (By the way, one of the pleasures of randonneuring is the small towns you get to visit.  (Kind of like the time I decided to see where that road went, and when I got home and looked at the map, I’d visited Bucksnort, AL!)  All of us grabbed some plastic bags to wrap around our feet.  It kept the wind out of my wool socks.  I had a dry wool base layer, but I wasn’t terribly cold while riding, so I left it in the bag.


Coming out of Bell Buckle, the road was rough and wet, and we were riding straight into the wind.  The wind would knock my wheel off course, I’d correct, the tires would slip a bit, and it was like riding on marbles.  We zigged and zagged, sometimes straight into a 20 mph wind, sometimes turning behind a hill or into some woods so the wind was quartering or even a slight tail wind, for the next 30 miles.  Gear down, conserve your strength, keep riding!


When we got to Lewisburg, the next control at 90 miles in, the three of us stopped for fine dining, Wendy’s style.  Baked potato, chili, and hot coffee times 3.  Yippee, warmth!  The rain had dropped off about 10 miles out, and I noted that most of my clothes were dry, except for my feet and my butt. I was generating enough body heat to stay warm while riding in just my light tights, mid-weight poly long sleeve jersey, and jacket.  I didn’t want to put dry socks under wet shoes, so the socks and wool t-shirt stayed in the bag again.


Jeff was pretty fatigued, so he decided to take a short cut: 40 miles into the wind to head home.  Don and I were doing all right, and this was the first 300 km brevet for both of us, so we pressed on to the second half of the course.


There were a few more hills outside Lewisburg, including one with two “steps.”  I rode up the first, then said the heck with it and walked the second.  Fortunately, we didn’t miss any more turns.  The ridges provided a wind break as we continued to work out way west and northwest.  Bradford pears and daffodils were blooming, some of the daffodils in large patches.


One of the turns was just past a railroad overpass, and a train was coming as we turned down the hill.  I waved at the engineer, who tooted back.  I laughed and felt like a little kid again.  I think it startled Don, who was a few yards back and had just turned.  We continued up the ridge on a rough road.  From the ridge, we could see valleys and foothills out beyond the leafless trees.


The cue sheet said the next road was going to be rough, with gravel, chip seal, and potholes.  Fortunately for us, when we turned at the top of the ridge Screamer Road was newly paved and pleasant to cross the ridge.  Unfortunately, when we started down the other side, there was a spot where they should have put a drainage tile in.  In the downhill curve was a 10′ stretch that was everything the cue sheet warned us about, potholes in patches on patches with scattered gravel to boot.  We made it across safely, and continued into Mt. Pleasant.


I’d hoped to get through Mt. Pleasant and onto the Natchez Trace Parkway by sundown so we didn’t have to worry about navigation, but it was getting dark as we rolled into town.  (Never saw the sun, so I guess it went down at the end of the day!)  Don suggested a sit-down meal to refuel, which sounded good to me.  I didn’t feel like I could eat much, though, so when Don ordered a piece of hot fudge cake I passed.  He offered me some of his, and I can say Mt. Pleasant Bar and Grill has one of the best I’ve tasted.  I think the hot fudge was made in house without anything that ever saw corn or corn syrup.  It was superb fudge, and there was a lot of it.  I had a hard time limiting myself, but this time I managed to listen to my stomach saying “Enough!”


Back on the road, we had to pay attention to two turns in the first mile.  From there, navigation turned out to be easy: ride to the end of the road, over a ridge in the dark; turn right, ride to the end of the road; turn left, and get on the Trace heading north.


There was a stiff but short climb to get on the Trace, and then a longer stiff climb (for this late in the ride) shortly after we got on the Trace.  Once on top, I started feeling pretty good, and as I looked down at the cue sheet, I saw we’d officially ridden 150 miles, and the next control was at 160 miles.  I took the lead and pulled for a while, and then Don and I traded pulls for a while.  I sort of spotlighted one deer with my helmet light, and it turned around and headed back into the woods.  Don didn’t get so lucky; as he was leading five deer decided to cross right in front of him!  After about 10 miles, I had started to flag, and I asked Don (who’s ridden this part of the Trace before) where the Gordon House was.  He told me it was a ways further.  I double checked the cue sheet, and it was at 168, not 160, miles.  Old eyes, tired eyes, smeared sheet?  Didn’t matter, we were getting tired by the time we got there.  I felt like I’d digested all but half the hamburger patty from supper, and burned everything I’d eaten (including that lump of half-digested hamburger!).


We convened for a bit in the heated rest room when we reached Gordon House, the penultimate control.  I tried to send a text home, and ended up walking to the end of the covered picnic area waving my cell phone over my head to get a signal and get the message out.  Finally, refueled and re-watered, we pressed on.  Up again out of the Duck Valley, the wind was down to a gentle breeze on the ridge top, which was very welcome.


Traffic had been light all day, but it was almost non-existent on the Trace.  I counted 15 cars in 41 miles before Don’s wife drove up looking for him.  We were within 2-3 miles of the finish by that point, so we finished the last few climbs and coasted in.  I’d hoped to finish by midnight, but given the circumstances, I was happy to get in shortly after 1:00, in 18 hours.


Despite terrible weather, this was a very good course.  Controls were well spaced, so we rode 30 miles, refueled and resupplied, lather, rinse, repeat until done.  I didn’t have any major problems with food, water, salt, or cramps.  Maybe the weather wasn’t so bad after all?  Besides general fatigue and tight leg muscles, my only physical complaint was a twinge in one knee, probably from riding long and ending up in a chill breeze (around 40°F).


It was a learning experience for me.  I barely pushed hard at all, except on a few climbs. Didn’t worry about speed because of the weather, but I never came close to closing time at any of the controls.  Perhaps I should do some speed work before the 400k in a few weeks to build up a bit more time to spare and climbing capacity.


It was a rotten day.  It was a good ride.  I had fun!

First Brevet: Doing Everything Wrong (and succeeding anyway!)

After a tour this summer, and a couple of centuries, I drifted for a bit, until I decided to try my hand at a brevet (see description here for more information on what this is, or here for even more details).  I signed up for the Market Square/Fall Colors 200k, which was a 200 km ride in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains.  That’s about 125 miles, if you measure in the English system (which the English have abandoned to us Americans).  All to be ridden in one day; 13.5 hours, to be exact.  There are longer rides, with longer times cutoffs, but that’s a good start.

For a ride of this length, I figured there were four keys.  Can’t do much about my weight in the last month, so that leaves drinking enough water, ingesting enough salt, and eating enough calories to keep going.  Well, I went 0 for 3, 0 for 4 if you count the weight thing, and still made it!  Training, well, no rides in the last week since we were on vacation, but that counts as tapering for the ride – except maybe for the walks in the woods.

I woke up a bit later than planned, pfutzed around for too long getting everything squared away, and was running late to the start, so I skipped a fast food breakfast.  That’s OK, I was eating very well for the last few days.  There were 15 of us, by my count, rolling out of Knoxville early in the morning (do the Congresscritters who mess up daylight time ever get up before noon?), and quickly into the suburbs and then the countryside to the northeast of town.  There we found decent roads, without much traffic for the most part, a view of Mount LeConte, and some hills.  It was overcast, but we didn’t see the haze from the Oklahoma dust storm that had covered the area the day before.  It was pretty chilly, I’d guess around 50°F, so I had on my tights, jacket, warm headband, and long gloves.

Passing one house, a couple of little yappy dogs came out to give chase.  No problem, they’re little dogs, and we’re rolling downhill.  Until a big white bulldog cross comes down off the porch, and angles down the driveway to catch us!  I yelled as he hit the edge of the pavement, and twitched my steering, which was apparently enough to throw his calculus off just enough that the dumb dog hit my rear wheel.  I felt the impact to the wheel, but didn’t stop to look.  When Jeff, the rider behind me, caught up, he asked, “What happened back there?”  He told me the dog looked like he was out of it.

Jeff and Dave had GPS to navigate by, while I had a cue sheet.  The people who put this ride together did a super job of laying out the rides, and printing the cue sheets; the cue sheet was always right, but…  There’s a problem with both of these, and it has to do with how the road builders never seem to be able to line up roads just right.  West Smith Rd. runs into Tom Smith Rd., and 37 feet up or down the hill John Smith Rd. comes into the other side.  Hard to navigate with the cue sheet, since it’s hard to read, comprehend, and remember “West Smith Rd., 3.7 mi; Turn R to Tom Smith Rd., 40 feet; Turn L to John Smith Rd., 2.5 mi” when you’re trying to keep you speed up.  But the GPS is a toss-up; sometimes it says turn L, sometimes R, and at least half the time it gave you the second direction to turn first.

We came into the first control, where we had to get our brevet cards signed and timed.  This was a good time for speedy nutrition — called a fried cherry pie and some Oreos, and some water for me.  Back on the road, and I missed a turn but caught it quickly.  Jeff and I turned around and got back on course, but we didn’t know if Dave was ahead of us or if he blew the turn.  Silly mistake — stay straight and ride on the flatter road, but by this time we saw the turn up and assumed it was our route!  More ups and downs, wandering near Pigeon Forge, out on Walden Creek Rd, and turned up the hill — of course, it’s got to be uphill.  Traffic was about as heavy as I’d like to ride in up this hill, with no shoulder, but enough turns to keep everybody’s speed reasonable, and the traffic was still light enough to let them get by.  The postman was pretty impressive — I was doing a pretty good pace, and he still managed to stop at the mailboxes, flip the lid down, insert mail, flip the lid up, and drive off before I caught up to him for about a half a mile.

Toward the end of Walden Creek, the road started to kick up pretty good.  I think I did the whole 350 miles last summer on the Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive without needing my granny gear, but granny and I got very well acquainted on this stretch.

Finally to the top of the ridge line, and downhill for a while — except Miller Cove Rd. didn’t seem to descent nearly as steeply.  Beautiful scenery, quiet (if rough) road, and a wonderful ride into Walland.  We stopped for food and drink, but Dave wasn’t here.  Just as we got ready to leave, he pulled up — he missed the turn just like we did, but he had disappeared up the road before we got there!  Before we left, I changed to lighter gloves and headband, and took off the jacket, but there was a good breeze, so I left the tights on.

Just out of Walland Center, we started climbing Foothills Parkway.  I found out later that the rangers, visitor centers, and motel clerks were recommending that people skip Cades Cove and drive up Foothills Parkway instead — wonder how bad the zoo was in the Cove!?  It’s about 9 miles of climbing, 1700 feet, with a bit of a dip in the middle.  Gorgeous; the leaves were at their peak starting maybe 1,000 feet above the valley floor, with oranges, yellows, and bright reds of the oaks seeming to glow.  Did I mention the sun came out near the top of Walden Creek Rd.? Early in the ride there were some nice views of the Tennessee Valley to the north.  I don’t know what the official visibility was, but you could easily see 20-30 miles, to the top of the Smokies, and later over Fontana Lake and the ridges south of there.

North towards Maryville

Climbing.  My good friend granny gear got a lot of use (again).  I finished all my water, and the potato wedges I’d brought from lunch.  I had salt deposits on my jersey and my tights.  If the turkey buzzards I’d seen earlier in a field had wanted salt, I’d have been out of luck!  Most of the traffic was reasonably well behaved, although there were a few jerks who must have scared the descending motorcyclists, and the one biker who felt he needed to honk at us with his really wimpy horn to make sure we knew he was passing.  Really?  You didn’t think we could hear the glass pack racket?  Finally made it to the top, after a couple of stops, and took a quick picture just over the top before falling off the mountain.

Pig and the Smokies (and a stupid camera lanyard, sorry!)

Down to the bottom, cruised along the shore of Chilhowie Lake, with the wind blasting from the front quarter.  Despite the sunshine, it was a bit chilly.  My wool jersey was soaked in sweat, and warm except where the wind blew through it.  (Where did the wind go when I was going east??)  I got into the control with something like 7 minutes to spare, although I think that was off by the hour we waited for sunrise — the Daylight Savings thing again.  Chugged a root beer, gobbled down something, filled one (only one!) water bottle, and took off with Dave.  Note inadequate fluid and salt, and probably not enough calories either.

Dave and I had a good ride back.  We took turns going off course and getting each other back on course; I don’t think we ever missed a turn by more than 30-40 yards, but we must have missed 4-5 like that.  There was some steep stuff on the back side, but I didn’t think the course was that bad.  It was just that I was trying to cramp on both hamstrings, and both quads, and my left had started to cramp.    After a while, we found a church with a spigot; we drank some, filled both bottles, and I popped a second Nuun (more salt!).  Things were looking up.

More lovely roads, but not much flat.  Mathematically, I guess there has to be a stretch of flat between uphill and downhill, but on much of this stretch, and most of the whole route since leaving the French Broad the other side of Pigeon Forge, if you put two wheels the length of a bicycle apart, they’d both be rolling.  In opposite directions on the “flat” parts.

We made Ellejoy Market, the final staffed control, just before dark.  Dave excused himself to one of the other customers with, “We just bicycled 100 miles, we’re kind of stupid.”  On goes the reflective gear and the lights.  Down goes the quart of Gatorade, the V-8, and the iced honey bun.  Food of the gods!  Note fluid, salt, and calories.  Refilled bottles again.  Dave pulled out a chocolate bar and shared it with me.  Thus refreshed, we rode off into the gloaming.  In the dusk it was nice riding, as it was possible to ride the rollers — pushing at the bottom, popping over the top, and coasting down the next hill.

The route was really great, in that we were in the country until we got to within about a mile of the football stadium right before halftime.  Of course, that had something to do with getting out the granny the last 3/4 mile of the ridge.  It was pretty dark by then, but we were going pretty slow until we hit the street lights of the city.  An easy coast down to — one last booger of a climb! and we had made it to the end.

I didn’t make it before sundown.  But I finished in 12 hours 41 minutes.  I believe the bit about 10,000 feet of climbing.  (Surely there’s an easier 200k to start with?)  Then again, the first century I completed was 3 States 3 Mountains, so this is in keeping with my “find a challenge”  mentality.

The next time I do a long ride like this, I’m going to remember to drink enough, eat enough, and keep my salt balanced.  Yeah.  And I’m going to lose that extra 20 pounds.  Right.  Just like I was going to do those things on this ride!

Do it again?  Maybe.  It may take more than 12 months to forget how hard this ride was.  But there’s other rides that don’t push the envelope quite so hard.

Kudos to Bob for his hard work setting this up; and special thanks to Dave for shepherding me safely to the finish!

Does it matter?

The sausage has been made in D.C., and now we get to see it.  The new conference transportation bill apparently eliminates some funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects, which has organizations like Adventure Cycling, American Bikes, and League of American Bicyclists up in arms.

Does that matter?  Well, in my town, we’ve seen signed bike routes go up.  One goes across the second-worst (IMHO) crossing of a major north-south artery.  One was well known as the best bike route across town by most local cyclists before the signs went up.  A couple of other routes have white lines painted up to the difficult intersections, where you’re supposed to take a transporter beam across the right turning traffic to go straight, or they stop with a “Bike Route XX ends.”  Not very helpful.  All in all, besides the expense of the signs and paint, no changes were made to the roads, and certainly there’s been no education of law enforcement.

Oh, we have a new bike path!  It goes from a parking lot on the north end of town across a field and up the hill.  There is stops.  In the middle of the woods.

Call me an old grouch, but I don’t like bike paths or bike lanes.  In my experience, most have at least one of four major shortcomings:

  1. They are poorly engineered.
  2. They are poorly maintained.
  3. They go places that aren’t useful for transportation or touring.
  4. They are flat out unsafe.

One might add #5, it costs an awful lot of money to do a good job building and maintaining a bike lane, and these are fiscally restrained times.

I would say the only decent, useful bike path we saw on our TransAm was the one through Breckenridge, CO, and the quality plummeted when we left the town limits.  Alma to Fairplay was unrideable because of poor maintenance, and the Frisco bike path was unsafe because of steep climbs, limited sight distance, and of course the fact it turned into a driveway.  Neither would ever be considered for a safe cycling route except for the fact that somebody called it a bike path.

So we’re not building any more of these monstrosities?  Whew, what a relief!

The part of the bill I really regret is that managers of federal roads can now ban bicyclists far too easily.  Where were the major organizations when that was considered?  AC’s advice was to lay low, they and LAB were doing quiet lobbying.  It was completely ineffective.  Why are we all staring at bike paths, anyway?  Look at Adventure Cycling’s routes.  Out of 41,000 miles of routes, I’d guess 37,000 miles are on ordinary streets and roads.  (2,500 of the difference is the Great Divide mountain bike route, which is apparently a mix of dirt roads and trails, connected by — wait for it — ordinary streets and roads!)    Give us back our access to the roads, and let anyone who wants to ride in a bicycle ghetto lobby for it locally, I say.