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!