Monday, May 18, 2009

Ephrata, Washington 400k Brevet

Your intrepid author at the top of Loup Loup Pass
My quest to ride a super randonneur series took me back to the State of Washington-this time to the small town of Ephrata which was the start/finish for the Seattle International Randonneurs' (SIR) spring 400 kilometer brevet (actually a little longer than 400k at 254 miles).

SIR is one of, if not the, largest randonneuring groups in the USA. I knew from reading websites, ride reports, articles, and message boards that they would put on a first class event. I was also excited that I'd be able to share the experience with a large group of riders. I wasn't going to be disappointed.

Due to a lot of stuff going on in the area, I ended up having to book a motel room in Moses Lake, which is about a half hour from Ephrata, so it was an early 3:15 a.m. wake up call. I parked a block-or-so away from the ride start in a public lot next to the railroad tracks. As I was putting my bike together the Amtrak Empire Builder pulled up to the station next to where I was parked. I took this as a good omen. I'm a minor train enthusiast and had the pleasure of riding the other half of the Empire Builder (the train splits in Spokane) from Whitefish, MT to Portland a couple of years ago. It was very cool. So despite my haste to get ready, I had to take a pause to admire the train. My family would have been in awe of my nerdom at that moment.

The weather was supposed to be warm and sunny all day, but given the dry climate in this part of Washington, the air is usually chilly when the sun is not up. The reports from the volunteers who pre-rode the course last weekend advised that we should bring some warm clothing despite the forecast. I am very grateful for those reports because I probably would have left some of my cool weather gear at home. I was glad I had it.

About 50 riders pulled out of the Travelodge parking lot at 5 a.m. With such a big group it was easy to draft along with the peloton-something I hoped to do for as long as possible to save energy. My plan was working to perfection as I cruised effortlessly towards the Moses Coulee when suddenly the road disappeared! Between the pre-ride and brevet the last four miles of pavement through the Coulee was completely torn up. It looked like many of the riders had wider tires and bomb proof wheels which allowed them to keep riding-slowly. I have skinny tires and typical road bike wheels-I have no idea if either would hold up to gravel. That along with my relatively unsure bike handling skills resulted in me walking for almost all of the four mile construction zone. At 3 miles per hour I easily lost more than an hour, but at least my bike and my body were intact.

Karel Stroethoff from Missoula caught up to me as I reached the pavement on Highway 2. Karel and I rode much of the 300k in the Tri Cities together two weeks ago. I knew he was signed up but I didn't find him at the start. I was glad to see him-we Montana randonneurs are a rare species (2 of the 3 current Montana RUSA members were on this ride).

The first checkpoint was Farmer (which looked like it consisted of one building and a cemetery up the road). Here I got to meet Mark Thomas who is the former RUSA President and current Seattle Regional Brevet Administrator (RBA). Mark writes an informative blog that I've followed for the last couple of years. He along with several others were volunteering their time to take care of us at various checkpoints along the route. Mark-being ever attentive-vigorously warned us (tongue in cheek) to look out for the gravel as we pulled off the highway.

Karel and I left Farmer together and rode on nice roads with little traffic-with the exception of a couple of rednecks in a pickup-who told us they were number one with their horn and middle fingers.

After some rollers and an uphill trend we got to the top of McNeil Canyon and a sign that warned of a 12% grade. The view of the Columbia River from the top of the hill was amazing, but I didn't ponder it-I was reaching for my brake levers. I'm a chicken descender anyway, but I've never gone down a hill this steep that was this long. Karel on the other hand had much more faith in his ability and equipment and quickly disappeared around the first bend. I figured I would see him again either crumpled in a heap at the bottom the hill or at the next check point in Pateros. I took the descent gingerly-though I was conscious of riding my brakes too hard. I didn't want to heat them up and pop a tire (not sure if that can happen or not, but I sure didn't want to find out). A car passed me and I immediately smelled burning brake pads. Intellectually I knew the smell was from the car, but it made me worry about my brakes even more. I may have been having less fun than a handful of cyclists who were trying climb up the hill! I later heard that some of the riders were touching speeds of 50+ mph!

I got to Pateros just before about 500 motorcycles descended upon the town. It was quite a site as they blocked off the side streets to let the bikers come through. There must have been some sort of mini-Sturgis thing going on in the area as we saw motorcycles all day long.

The next stretch along the Methow River was my lowest point of the day. I started out of Pateros riding with Karel again, but soon had to let him go. I just couldn't seem to muster any energy. This was troubling. I was still well under 100 miles for the day and had a long, long ways to go. I figured I'd be stronger on the first half of this ride and if I was to fall apart it would be when I reached the heretofore uncharted distance of 200 miles. I finally came to the realization that the temperatures were probably somewhere around 70 and I was drinking as if it were in the 40's or 50's-as my training rides have been. I backed off a little more and slogged into the next SIR manned checkpoint near Twisp and headed for the water jug. After a long stop, and turkey sandwich, and some more fluids I set out to conquer Loup Loup pass.

I felt a little better when I left the checkpoint but I was already in my granny gear at the foot of the climb. However as the grade increased to a steady 6% I kept up my cadence and momentum. The food and fluids at the last checkpoint must have kicked in because I started feeling much better as I chugged up the hill. Before too long I made it to the top along with several other riders, including Eric Vigoren. We stopped for obligatory photos and to take a little break.

The descent of Loup Loup was much more fun for me than McNeil Canyon. Though the road surface wasn't as nice, the grade was a manageable 6% on the top half and 5% on the lower half. It was a fun cruise to the flattest part of the route through the towns of Okanogen and Omak. Our next checkpoint was a c-store in Omak. A nice local gentleman came out to talk to us about what we were doing. He told us the rest of the way to Ephrata was easy-even the big hill before Nespelem would be no problem (I don't think he's ever tried it on a bicycle though).

The ride out of Omak on the Columbia River Road was very nice as far as pavement surface and scenery. But it was also hilly and breezy. I hit my second low point on this stretch. I started doing math in my head and tried to predict when I would get done. At one point I had worked it out that I would miss the last checkpoint closing time by 2 hours! After a few miles of panic I realized I was miscalculating and time wasn't going to be an issue as long as I kept at it. Before long I came upon a SIR "secret control". A cup-o-noodles was offered that so hit the spot I couldn't even believe it. It's amazing how the right food at the right time can really lift your spirits.

Buoyed by the cup-o-noodles I made short work of the 2 mile long 10% climb away from the Columbia and back up to Highway 155. It was now dark, the crickets were chirping, frogs were croaking, a coyote was yapping somewhere off in the distance, and the occasional (drunk?) redneck was screaming some undecipherable gibberish as they roared past on the highway. I followed the bright tail lights of Joe Platzner all the way to the Grand Coulee Dam where we were caught by Matt Mikul. Matt rode his bike to the ride start from North Bend, Washington the day before! I was pretty amazed.

We got to the last checkpoint before the end after another steep climb away from the dam that I also felt fine on and were greeted by encouraging volunteers with steaming bowls of potato soup. Once again the soup hit the spot!

Joe had been battling stomach problems and a stubborn leaky tire for much of the route. He wanted to take it a little easier as we rode out the final 56 miles to the finish. This was absolutely fine with me. We cruised along under a multitude of stars on what was a very dark night. Other than a rare passing car the only sound besides our own chatting was the croaking frogs. We could faintly make out a steep cliff to our left and a body of water to our right. The air temperature fluctuated drastically. Every now and then we would hit a cold air pocket that really woke us up. After a while Joe Llona came along-his headlight looking like an approaching locomotive-then Matt, who must have "smelled the barn" as his tail light quickly disappeared up an approaching hill.

The sky was starting to light up and the song birds were beginning to sing as we took the home stretch between Soap Lake and Ephrata. I often notice song birds on pre-dawn departures. I've never noticed them at the end of a ride. I had been at it for almost one complete lap of the clock! As I got my brevet card signed for the final time back at the Travelodge I heard a train horn honking-probably the Empire Builder again. Yep it had been a long day. However, the euphoria of finishing such an event is so addictive...I'd do it all over again-no question!

A weigh in on Monday morning showed I had lost about 4 pounds. I think that confirms my suspicion about my hydration issues. Something to work on for the next one.

Many thanks to all the SIR volunteers who put on such a spectacular brevet. The scenery was amazing, the weather was great, and the support at the checkpoints was tremendous. I met many nice people on the route and at the checkpoints. I know I'll be back to ride with them again.

More Ride Photos Here

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

I hope it's enough

On Sunday, May 10 I successfully rode my "Search for Plummer's Gold" route for the second time. The route is quite challenging with three progressively steep climbs over Harrsion Hill, Norris Hill, and Virginia City Hill. The latter being a 10 mile-long monster of a climb-possibly one of the toughest hills in southwest Montana. At 147 miles and an entire lap around the Tobacco Root Mountains, it's nice long day. The purpose of the ride was to get some good solid training in for my third brevet of the year-a 400K (250+ mile) ride out of Ephrata, Washington scheduled for the next weekend (May 16). The route of the 400+km ride looks to be incredibly scenic (as most of Washington is) and challenging, including Loup Loup Pass-which is pretty famous among long distance cyclists-and Grand Coulee Dam. I'm looking forward to the ride. I just hope I have enough gas in the tank to finish it-I've never gone over 200 miles in one bike ride so this will be a new personal record. If I can complete the ride within the 27 hour time limit, I will have completed three of the four brevets in a super randonneur series (200k, 300K, 400k, and 600k)-leaving the 600k for later this summer.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Desert??? Region 300km Brevet

According to Wikipedia, the Tri Cities area of Washington annually average only about 7-8 inches of precipitation per year. So in anticipation of some nice warm sunny weather, I signed up for the first ever offering of the Tri Cities 300 kilometer (187 miles) brevet-scheduled for Saturday, May 2 out of Richland, Washington. The organizer of the event, Paul Whitney, set up the ride under the auspices of the Oregon Randonneurs.

Actually the expected weather was a small factor in my decision to do this ride. Despite being about 539 miles from Belgrade, this brevet is currently one of the closest such events to my house. The timing was also about right-any earlier and I don't think I would have the fitness to do a ride this long (without suffering greatly). Any later and I would run into scheduling difficulties for the 400km and the rest of my summer activities.

Our "spring" here in Montana has been frustrating. After a relatively dry winter, March came along and dumped a bunch of snow on us along with its usual blustery weather. The snow, cold, and winds continued into April-leaving anyone into warmer weather outdoor activities-like road cycling-in very grumpy moods. I did manage to get some miles in on the bike in between (or during) storms, including my own 200km permanent two weeks prior. I'm not in peak form by any means, but good enough to get through a 300k.

I arrived in Richland at about 4 p.m. on Friday. Temperatures were pleasant and it was breezy-just what I expected. However, the weatherman was warning that rain showers were on the way-not only for Richland, but pretty much throughout the region. So I'm thinking, given the dry climate, a few sprinkles here and there maybe.

A group of about 15 riders met up in the Albertson's parking lot in Richland on Saturday morning under cloudy but non-threatening skies. As we rode along the mighty Columbia River I met and visited with Karel Stroethoff from Missoula. Karel and I represent 2/3 of the active RUSA members from Montana. As one rider pointed out-we Montana randonneurs are an endangered species so we better be careful.

After crossing over the Columbia, touring past some of the rail yards of Pasco, and getting our cards signed at the first check point in Burbank, we left the cities behind and cruised east into the rolling countryside. The sun looked to be trying to burn through the clouds and temps were fairly comfortable-especially compared to what I've been used to. I was feeling good and we made great time to the second check point at the grocery store in the small town of Waitsburg.

We rolled out of Waitsburg and immediately hit a stout climb on the back roads toward Walla Walla. This part of the route must be pretty popular with the local cyclists. There were frequent road signs warning motorists to watch for bicycles and the road was marked for a previous or upcoming road race. After the big climb, it was a downhill trend the rest of the way to Walla Walla with some good rollers in between. It was also starting to drizzle a little-then a little more. Before long I couldn't see through my clear glasses so I pocketed them. For some reason I had the bit in my teeth and was pushing hard-stupidly not stopping to put on my jacket. It's only about 20 miles between Waitsburg and Walla Walla so this stretch didn't take very long, but I got to Pioneer Park, which was the next control, soaking wet. I didn't feel cold on the bike, but once stopped I started to shiver a little. Not good when we still had over 100 miles to go!

Karel and I headed out of Walla Walla together and soon caught up to Martin from Seattle. The road offered a wide enough shoulder, but traffic was fairly heavy and the rains were coming down pretty hard now. Every big vehicle that passed us gave an extra splash. Somewhere in this stretch-either in Walla Walla or Milton-Freewater, Oregon we went past a group trying to hold a car wash fundraiser. They had a car all soaped up-even as it rained. I loved the dedication.

Every long ride has a low point where the rider really wonders if it's all worth it. The stiff headwinds, drizzle, and long hills on the way out of Milton-Freewater were mine. I was burning up the road at 7 mph in my granny gear wondering if I would ever get anywhere. Fortunately, the climbing and wind did let up. The sun also started to show itself and before long I was on a fun descent into Pendleton. On the edge of town I caught back up to Karel who fared much better on those long steep hills than I did. He was talking to another cyclist (I think it was Dan from Washington) who's drive train had pretty much swallowed itself. He was going to see what he could do and maybe find a bike shop-it didn't look good for him to continue the ride. Karel and I proceeded through Pendleton in search of food and someone to sign our cards (Pendleton was an open control). We settled on a little pizza place to stop and take a break. As we pulled in we saw two recumbent riders on our brevet a little ways up the road starting to head out of town.

New York Richie's Pizza proved to be an excellent choice. The two recumbents had just stopped there so the girls behind the counter already knew what we were all about and happily signed our cards. Just as Karel and I were sitting down with our drinks Martin came in and joined us. The food was good and my mood improved considerably.

The sun was out now and the temperatures were in the upper 60's. Karel, Martin, and I rode along with the Umatilla River in a scenic little canyon. Across the river to our left was green alfalfa fields and pasture, and the to the right was the canyon wall. There was almost no traffic. I think we got passed by more freight trains on the parallel railroad tracks than we did cars. Since we were going with the river the grade trended downhill so at times we were cruising along at around 20 mph. The ride was suddenly fun again. We caught up to Dan in the canyon. He had somehow cobbled his drive train together enough to keep going-but with only one gear. He was going to ride it out.

We were fully warmed up as we left the canyon. Martin pulled over to shed a layer and Karel and I kept going towards the next checkpoint at Umatilla. We rode through the town of Hermiston and to a little bit busier back road. The sun was still out, but a huge black cloud to the southwest was overtaking it (and us) very quickly. It started raining just as we left Tesoro c-store in Umatilla.

To get back into Washington we had to cross a big bridge over the Columbia next to an impressive dam and spillway. Unfortunately, the rain made what would have been a great photo opportunity impossible. I was so disappointed not to get a shot going over that bridge.

Between Umatilla and Richland is a massive hill which I had scouted with the car the day before. The thought of climbing this hill with 160 miles in my legs was in the back of my mind the whole day. I think I psyched myself out thinking about it. It turned out not to be so bad. It was long and never ending, but not severely steep. I was even able to go for a ways in my middle ring. But after about 5 miles or so I was feeling pretty spent and had to drop my pace to keep from totally blowing up. Karel, on the other hand, just kept right on chugging and before long he was a distant dot on the horizon.

As I steadfastly spun up the hill in my granny gear the rain nearly stopped and the sky looked to be clearing off to the west. I still had the good sense near the top to put on my vest and reflective sash over my jacket and prepare for the quick descent into Richland in the fading light.

The lights of the Tri Cities were an amazing site from the top of the hill. I took the descent gingerly as my cold tired hands didn't always react well to grabbing the brakes and my coordination felt a bit stiff. As I made the final turn about three miles from the finish the rains started falling again with a vengeance. I think the hardest part of the whole day was getting my bike and all my stuff back in the car as the rain poured over me. I couldn't wait to get to the motel and turn the heater on full blast.

Paul mapped out a terrific and interesting route. It would really be something in all pleasant weather. However, given that I don't ride all that often in rain, this was a valuable learning experience. I learned some important lessons about my equipment and clothing-what worked and didn't work. I am definitely a better cyclist and randonneur for having done this brevet.

My fitness is steadily improving. I climbed better on this ride than I had on my permanent two weeks ago. It's something I just have to keep working on.

A special thanks and kudos to the Oregon Randonneurs and Paul Whitney for organizing the brevet. I hope to get back to the Tri Cities for another one someday. Also, a huge round of applause to our vigilant volunteer Cathy. Her husband Gary was on the ride and so she looked after us, met up with us at the park in Walla Walla, and took our cards at the finish. You just can't say enough good things about folks like that.

Ride Photos Here