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

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