Sunday, April 27, 2014

Giving Back

Most of my readers have done some kind of sporting event -- either a "t-shirt ride" or a 10K run or a marathon or a longer brevet -- where they had support. Maybe the support was a rest stop, with people handing out food and drinks. Maybe it was just a table with cups full of Gatorade and people handing them to you as you ran past. If it was a brevet, it was probably a control staffed with folks who had been there preparing food, stocking supplies, fixing bicycles and their riders, and maybe tucking randonneurs and randonneuses in for the blessed relief of a three-hour nap before they ventured forth for another 200+ miles.

Have you ever staffed one of those rest areas, tables, or controls? If not, then I have two things to say to you:
  1. For shame!
  2. How sad!
For shame because ... well, duh. Nobody should just take -- you've got to give every so often. If you don't, it messes up the natural balance of the universe.

And "how sad" is because it's a ton of fun. You hear great stories, see some bizarre stuff, and get to experience the joy of helping somebody succeed in accomplishing something that is really, really, really hard.

Saturday, Jeff and I paid it forward by supporting the Tennessee 400K out of Cookeville. We had ridden the route the week before, so we were already official. All we had to do was stock the hotel room with food and supplies -- much of which was provided by Gran Fondo Cycles in Nashville (a.k.a., the Greatest Bike Shop in the Universe) -- and then check everyone's bikes Friday night for lights and whatnot. Saturday morning, we all assembled in the parking lot and I gave them last-minute instructions. Since we were up anyway, Jeff and I decided to go out with them and do the 200K route.

As we had started at 5 AM, it was dark for the first hour. The sun was just coming up as we approached the descent down towards the Roaring River, but we couldn't see it -- neither the sun nor the river -- thanks to a thick fog.

It was cold riding along the river, of course, but the group rode hard. Tom Gee -- an almost legendary cyclist in both randonneuring and racing circles -- had come out, along with his teammate Justin Lowe. Also in this pack were James Buttrey and Mark Young, who also race and are well-known speed demons of the Harpeth Bike Club.

Barry Meade had come down from Hopkinsville, KY, and was in this fast pack, as was John Pasch. They made it easy for Jeff and I to almost coast as we rode the first 30 miles in a little over an hour and a half.

The 200K follows the old Avery Trace race route, while the 400K goes up towards Red Boiling Springs. Jeff and I were sad to turn off to stay on Hwy 135 and lose the group, but I was kind of glad to get a chance to slow down.

By the time we got to the top of the climb on this road, the fog had lifted. There was a light breeze blowing from the south, and you could tell it was going to be a gorgeous day.

We stopped briefly at the first control, Cherry's Grocery in Moss, TN, and then headed for Celina, TN. There, I scarfed a couple of sausage biscuits at the Dairy Queen before we continued up Hwy 52. Since we were not "official" (we would be getting credit for last week's 400K on this day, and couldn't be doing a 200K on the same day), we went directly up Hwy 52. The shoulder was good and the climb was more gradual than the "real" route, but it cut out two kilometers. Since this 200K was actually 202K in length, modifying it this way would be an acceptable change.

Soon, we entered Standing Stone State Park.

Going over the old stone bridge there, I tried to get a picture and dropped my camera. Since I had to stop to pick it up, I decided to take my time and get a decent picture of the little park just down the hill.

It took me a few miles to catch up to Jeff after that. We made good time on Hilham Hwy, and were in Gainesboro about 10:30 AM. We stopped at the Subway control and each had a sandwich, and then retraced our route back into downtown Gainesboro where they were having a classic car show.

Jeff and I found this funny, since there had been a car show in Sparta last week when we went through there on the 400K.

The climb out of Gainesboro is tough, but the descent on the other side is the immediate payoff. We had not gotten to enjoy many of the other descents on this route, thanks to fog and whatnot, so this was a real joy.

We were both riding strong and feeling good, and we maintained a brisk pace all the way to Granville. Just before that little town on the Cumberland River, we ran into another cyclist, Eric Carlile, one of the Masters racers with MOAB. Jeff and I know a number of the MOAB guys from Nashville, and Eric joined us for a fast but pleasant climb up Hwy 96. He then pulled us at just under 20 mph most of the way down Hwy 70.

We turned off at Baxter, coming back to the control via Buffalo Valley Road. As we passed the Odd Fellows Cemetery, I looked at my watch and saw that we could almost finish in under eight hours.

Since that "almost" would have required a horrendous amount of hard work, we just did our best and finished in 8:20. We were pretty satisfied.

Next came the fun part. We got cleaned up and ordered pizzas, and even each ate a couple of slices before the first of the fast guys came in. Tom and Justin got to the hotel about 2:30 PM (152 miles in nine and a half hours -- not too shabby) followed by Mark and James about 10 minutes later. Mark and James had missed the turn to the information control in Standing Stone State Park, so they said that they would not be official finishers. Nonetheless, they wanted to ride the remaining 100 miles, and said that they would find a way to stretch it up to 250 miles ... just because they wanted to.

See what I mean about volunteering? Where else would you find somebody who wanted to do this kind of thing without any award or medal or certificate or even a t-shirt? Basically, they were riding for no other reason than the fact that they would know in their heart that they had done it.

Barry came in with Mike Corley and Bob Butsch, who were riding the 200K. While Mike and Bob got cleaned up and headed home, Barry ate some food and rested a few minutes before going back out to finish the 400K. John came in about this time, too, as did Glenn Hemstedt. They all ate some pizza, pretzels, sandwiches, and whatever else they could find, drinking cokes and water and Gatorade while recharging tired batteries, and then headed out back to the course.

Jeff and I were napping an hour later when Glenn came back, saying that he'd had enough. We started to try to get him to eat something and go back, but we could tell that he was pretty fried.

About 6 PM, Don and Ken Ward came in, followed almost immediately by Jeff Sammons and Russell Morris.

There was more pushing of food and drink and supplies, talk of how much they were enjoying the route, tales of confusing turns and irreverent dogs, and then out they went again. Unfortunately, Jeff Sammons stayed, saying that he had enjoyed enough of the course for one day.

Patrick Lamb had slept late and missed the start, so he was the last rider to come in to the hotel. Jeff and I had driven down to Spencer just before he came in, but Jeff Sammons was still at the hotel. It would have been difficult for Patrick to finish in time at that point, and he dropped out then.

Meanwhile, Jeff and I waited about half an hour in Spencer before Don, Russell, and Ken came in.

They were in very good spirits, in spite of having just finished the tough climb up Yates Mountain Road.

We had brought sandwiches, drinks, and other supplies. The three took a break and ate before putting on cold-weather gear and heading back out. Jeff and I then drove back to the hotel, where Tom and Justin had just finished the 400K.

They had actually made it to the McDonald's in Smithville as night was falling, but badly needed food there. If not for the hour they spent eating and resting, they probably would have finished in under 18 hours.

They had just left to get some sleep when John came in, also in good spirits.

Tom and Justin had seen Mark and James at the McDonald's, and John thought that he had seen them, too. They came in about 15 minutes later, and told us that they had ridden down Hwy 135 to get the seven miles that they had lost earlier in the route.

They may not have been "official," but they were real.

Almost immediately behind them was Barry.

He said that the rollers on TN-288 had worn him out. He would have stopped at the McDonald's, but there was a piece of dried-out chicken at the convenience store in Spencer and he had -- regrettably -- eaten that.

We knew that we had a few hours before the final three riders came in, so Jeff and I turned out the lights and slept. Almost exactly at 5 AM -- 24 hours after they started -- Russell, Ken, and Don came in.

We gave them some food, too, but they were pretty beat and left quickly for their rooms. Jeff and I then managed to get a few more hours of sleep before all of us went to Grandma's Pancakes, down 135 from the hotel, for a big breakfast.

It was a very full weekend, and one that left all of the riders with memories that will last a lifetime. They all appreciated the work that had gone into designing the route, organizing the ride, and the support that Jeff and I had provided at the hotel and on the road, and thanked us profusely.

Of course, they didn't need to thank us. Jeff and I have been on the receiving end of support enough times that we were just paying back people around the world, whose names we never knew and certainly couldn't remember had we been introduced in the delirium or exhaustion. Sometimes I can remember faces, or the taste of a hot bowl of food someone gave me, or the feeling of sitting down on something other than a saddle, my legs briefly pausing their incessant pedal-pumping. But I will always remember the feeling that somebody was out there willing to give up the only thing that any of us really have in this world -- time -- so that I could succeed, where alone I would have surely failed.

NOTE: If providing support like this is something that you think that you might want to do, we are hosting a 1500K Grand Randonnee on the Natchez Trace from September 22-28. We need any help that we can get, so if you've got some time go to our website and sign-up.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Highs and Lows

Saturday, Jeff Bauer and I did the second of our back-to-back 400Ks, pre-riding the one that will be hosted by the Tennessee group on April 26. This one started in Cookeville, TN, and was a little shorter (only 253 miles, rather than the 262 in Georgia last weekend) and with less climbing (13,000 feet rather than 20,000 feet). But it was still a 400K, and it proved plenty tough.

A side note here: I designed this route, but have never successfully ridden it. The last time we held it was 2011, and I had an issue that had never before come up, and has thankfully never come up since. But I always wanted to see what it was like to climb Yates Mountain Road with 190 miles in my legs. I gotta tell you -- it wasn't easy, but it wasn't that bad.

We had driven out to Cookeville on Friday evening, staying at the Key West Inn there. After a quick dinner, grocery shopping, and getting the brevet cards printed (I had left the ones that I printed way back on Monday at home -- doh!), we turned in early to get enough sleep for the 5 AM start.

It was chilly when we rolled out, and we had to stop twice in the first 10 miles to reseat the bead on my front tire (you know how when the pavement gets decent and you start noticing that regular "whump - whump - whump" of your wheel ... yeah, I had that twice). For the most part, I had dressed warmly enough with knee warmers, arm warmers, and jacket, but wish that I had worn the thick glove liners. Jeff, on the other hand, has never lived in Florida, so seemed fine in just arm warmers and vest.

Sun coming up on the plateau

The sun was coming up as we approached the great descent from the plateau on the newly paved Hwy 135. Once down in the foggy valley and riding along the Roaring River, however, the temperature dropped 10 degrees. A group of eight young fawns crossed into the woods right in front of us, their hooves skittering across the pavement as they watched us with wide panicked eyes.

Cumberland River heading towards Whitleyville

It stayed chilly as we passed by the edge of Gainesboro, following the Cumberland River as we headed further north. I finally warmed up as we started the climb back up out of the river valley on the other side, and was feeling good when we rolled into Red Boiling Springs just after 8 AM.

Covered bridge in Red Boiling Springs, just after "downtown"

We crossed into Kentucky to the first control at mile 55, stopping at the convenience store in Gamaliel for biscuits and supplies. I asked the lady at the store, and she confirmed that the town name is pronounced Guh-mel-e-uh. Note to riders next weekend: Their choice of biscuits was limited, and in hindsight we should have stopped at the second store.

The wind had not bothered us much up to this point, but we felt it as we started going east on Hwy 52. The going was tough until we got to Moss, TN -- home of Honest Abe Log Homes -- where the road turns a little more south.

Honest Abe Log Homes HQ

We stopped briefly at a store in Celina for more fluids, then continued on towards Standing Stone State Park. There, you descend to cross over a one-lane stone bridge, then do a tough climb back out of the valley. Just as you finish climbing, you turn left on Beach Road and go back downhill for just over another mile before you head for an information control.

Not a great picture, but this is the waterfall just before the info control

As we started down the steep hill, there was a pick-up truck full of teenagers following three other teenagers on what looked like makeshift "Big Wheels." They would frantically go down the zig-zagging descent, somewhat controlling their tri-wheeled contraptions. Jeff managed to get past them, but I held back and watched as they slid out and crashed on a couple of the turns. I wish that I could have gotten a picture, but it's a steep descent and I had my hands full just controlling my bike.

After the information control, we had to climb back up again before continuing on thru Hilham, TN. There, we turned on Hwy 85, where the wind kept us cruising along back to Gainesboro, for another quick convenience store stop for more fluids.

Jeff grabs some shade at the convenience store in Gainesboro

The wind did not make the climb out of Gainesboro that much easier, but that climb is almost immediately followed by a fun downhill.

Descent down TN-53 from Gainesboro

Soon, we were in Granville. There's a great store here for ice cream, but we were on a mission and barely paused as we zoomed through.

Bridge to Granville

The road here continues along the Cumberland River.

Jeff riding by the Cumberland River

The temperatures by now had finally hit what I consider a comfortable level -- the upper 70s -- and it felt great to cruise along these quiet, fairly flat roads.

Granville Hwy -- lake on left after river on right

We stopped about five miles past Granville at Keeler's Market, again just to eat some packaged food and fill our bottles. Then, we climbed on up to Hwy 70, ending up at the Post Office in Chestnut Mound (a standard control on the Watertown 200K).

Chestnut Mount Post Office

Hwy 70 rolls along the plateau here, but it goes east. Since the wind was out of that quadrant, we had some tough going for the next few miles.

View north from Hwy 70 -- must have been a fire

Eventually, we turned off Hwy 70 in Baxter, taking quieter roads in to the Key West Inn. It was really nice to have a hotel after 150 miles, and both Jeff and I took quick showers before changing into clean cycling clothes. I also scarfed some of the cheese bread that I had brought with me on Friday. It was filling, but I was definitely ready for a hot, sit-down meal.

Turning southward, a tailwind helped us all but fly down to Sparta. A number of people had asked if we were part of the bike race there, but we missed all of the action.

This is Sparta!
We did, however, keep seeing classic cars on the way. Once in town, we realized that there was a rally of these, and everyone was sitting around, listening to "American Graffiti" music, and showing off their shiny engines.

There were dozens of cars like this ... or cooler

We considered stopping in Sparta for food, since it was the last option that I knew of for a hot meal; however, we wanted to make maximum use of the daylight, and opted instead to push on for Spencer and try to find a meal there. We zipped through the countryside south, and got to Yates Mountain Road just before sunset.

Jeff crosses TN-285 to start up Yates Mountain Road

This is the signature climb of the ride, with some very steep sections off and on for just under two miles. You know that the worst of the climbing is over when you pass the cemetery; unfortunately, you may feel that you should be checking in then.

Trying to get a picture of the sunset from the top of the ridge

It was almost dark by the time we got to the control, another convenience store. As I had feared, they did not have any real food there, and Jeff and I were forced to make do with microwaved frozen sandwiches and bags of chips. I ate slowly, resting a bit and feeling a blue funk come on, and then put on tights, jacket, my thick glove liners, and ear warmers. Although everyone else at the store seemed to think that it wasn't that cold, I was now feeling chilled and grumpy.

We took it easy in the dark on the curvy descent down Hwy 30, and then Jeff missed the right turn on Laurel Creek Lane. I yelled and whistled at him, then waited for a minute for him to realize that I was no longer behind him and come back. After his bonus mile, we started up the rollers along Laurel Creek before passing through Rock Island Park. Then came another series of brutal rollers on TN-288.

I'm not sure if the rolling hills there were that tough, or if I was just in a bad state of mind, but I could not seem to move with any kind of speed along this stretch. It took us over three hours to ride the 35 miles to the penultimate control in Smithville.

Fortunately, as we got into this town, we found that both Sonic and McDonald's were still open and serving hot food. Ordinarily, I would have chosen Sonic, but since that's a drive-in and we were both a little cold, we opted for McDonald's. It turns out that this McDonald's is open 24 hours, so the riders next weekend will have a hot food option no matter what kind of pace they are riding.

I felt so much better after a burger, fries, and Diet Coke. It was cold as we headed out of town, but at least I felt like talking again and the long climb back up to Old Baxter Road passed much more comfortably. Soon we were back on Buffalo Valley Road heading towards Cookeville, and managed to get back to the Key West Inn just after 2 AM.

Bikes loaded up Sunday morning for the drive back to Nashville

This ride had more ups and downs than last weekend, and Jeff deserves a medal for putting up with my crankiness for so many hours. Just like last weekend, all of my contact points felt beat up -- my toes felt particularly sore -- but I think I could have gone out and ridden again the next day if needed. Nonetheless, I am glad that there is not a day at the Cascade 1200K that is longer than 210 miles, just like I'm glad that the sun is up until almost 10 PM there that time of year, and comes up by 4 AM. If I can just ride primarily in daylight, and get a hot meal in there somewhere, maybe I can avoid the randonneuring blues.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lumpy Proving Grounds

When manufacturers test stuff, they usually take it to the breaking point. If it's a car, they put a test dummy inside and bash it into walls and pillars, drop weights on it, slam into it with huge steel wedges, and then measure the destructive forces to see whether the test dummy would have survived the crash.

Today, I feel like that test dummy. The scientists have yet to determine whether I survived.

Earlier in the week, Jeff Bauer suggested that doing the 400K out of Dawsonville, GA, this past weekend would be fun. The weather was looking perfect, and we planned to ride the Tennessee 400K out of Cookeville the weekend after. Back-to-back 400Ks -- particularly when you start with one of the hardest 400Ks around -- is good training for a 1200K like the one we plan to ride in June.

We drove down Friday after work, got as much sleep as we could, and headed over to the start at the parking lot of a grocery store at 6 am. Eight of us were riding the 400K, but there were another 10 riders there to do a 200K whose route followed the first part of ours to Helen, GA. The Regional Brevet Administrator (RBA) for Georgia, Kevin Kaiser, was calling the 200K "The Lumpy 200K," but I suggest renaming it "To Helen (and) Back."

It was dark and chilly as we headed down quiet roads and into Dahlonega. Much of the group stayed together for almost 10 miles before the fast folks disappeared. Jeff and I have both done this route a couple of times before -- Jeff on geared bikes, fixed-gear bikes, and a tandem -- and we knew that it was best to settle in for the long haul.

We began Woody Gap, the first long out of Dahlonega, with Julie Gazmarian and Andy Akard, but Julie soon disappeared as she went to catch up to her husband, Paul Foster. We chatted with Andy until the top, but he stopped there to change some clothes and we rolled down towards Suches.

The day was about perfect -- temperatures starting near 50 and rising during the day to the upper 70s, with a mild wind out of the south that rarely hampered our progress and usually nudged us along. Jeff and I climbed Wolfpen, and then zoomed down the swoopy roads on the other side. With all of the climbing, we were averaging just over 12 mph by the time we got to the first control.

Julie and Paul were still at this store. I ate a quick fried pie and refilled my bottles with Gatorade while Jeff did the same, and the four of us rode together over Jack's Gap and to the base of Unicoi Gap. Jeff and I paused to take off arm- and knee-warmers for this climb, while Julie and Paul headed up. We caught up with them at the store in Helen, and we started up Hwy 356 together before they went off the front for the last time.

The route from here heads to a series of Army Corps of Engineer lakes that, collectively, are called Lake Rabun. People were out having fun on their boats and at their stately summer homes, and we really enjoyed the gorgeous spring views as we worked our way over the rolling road.

Near the last of the lakes, Jeff had a flat tire. We pulled into a driveway to fix it, and I realized that I was very hungry. I had a candy bar from the store control, so I ate that hoping to boost my flagging energy stores. It was tough going the next 20 miles, but we made it to the Clayton control about 2 pm and I was happy to scarf a Wendy's triple and large fries before we headed down Warwoman Road and the long climb up to Highlands, NC.

We had just started the 12 miles on Hwy 28 when Jeff had another flat (this one on the front tire). We found a shady spot to fix it, and Jeff said that it was too bad that it had not happened about five miles further up, when we would be sorely needing the break. I sat down for a minute anyway -- he may not have needed the rest, but I certainly did.

The climb has some steep sections, some easy sections, some breaks where it's level and some breaks where you actually descend, and then about five miles of unending suffering. Four of the faster 400K riders zoomed by as we grunted our way up, calling out encouragement. By the time I saw this sign, I was almost too tired to be happy.

In town, Jeff and I took another break for some ice cream and soup. We then filled our bottles again and began the descent back down the road on which we had come up. About a mile into this, we passed Chris Kaiser pushing his recumbent bike up the hill. Jeff had commented earlier that this is a nearly impossible route for a recumbent, and it turned out that Chris abandoned soon after this point.

The wind was briefly in our faces as we headed down Walhalla Road, but was fading with the last of the day. Generally, the trend here is downhill, and we got to Walhalla, SC, with enough daylight to put on more clothes and reflective gear.

For the past 75 miles I had been plagued by little twinges in my right leg that felt like harbingers of an impending cramp, but as the temperatures dropped and the roads leveled out these fell away. Jeff and I made good time passing back into Georgia through Westminster and on to the control in Toccoa, and hit the Waffle House in Demorest about 1 am. The place was hopping with young adults, either from an area prom or a convention at a Christian ministry in town, but they were well-behaved and Jeff and I had no trouble finding a seat. I had some hash browns and a Diet Coke with vanilla, hoping that the caffeine would keep me awake for the long dark hours and 50 miles between us and the finish.

The roads were wonderfully quiet as we cruised along here, listening to the night cries of birds and enjoying the full moon shimmering amongst thin high clouds. We stopped twice to make sure that we were on the right roads, suffered up a hill they call "Baby Brasstown" and another long climb that looked and felt like a full-blown Gap but apparently doesn't rate a name, and finally passed through Dahlonega again to the cruel rollers of Auraria Road.

Somewhere in here, I was telling Jeff about the last time that I had done this ride, saying that about this point I went into "git 'er done mode" and just wanted the ride to be over. I was tired, but didn't feel that I was in any danger of falling asleep thanks to how much my legs and the bicycle contact points hurt. I knew however that, once again, I just wanted this ride to be over. Jeff said he felt the same, and we were each ecstatic when we finally returned to the parking lot just after 5 am, handing our cards over to a sleepy Kevin Kaiser.

Exhausted as were were, as we rode back to our hotel we noticed that the Waffle House next door was open. Jeff and I couldn't help ourselves, and we stopped for "second breakfast" of more hash browns (scattered, smothered, covered, diced, and peppered for me) and jalapeno biscuits.

After this 400K, the Cascade 1200K may not exactly be a cake walk, but I'm pretty sure that there will not be a given day on that ride which will seem as tough. This test crash dummy will apparently live to get the spit kicked out of him again.