Monday, June 11, 2018

BRB, as I saw it



Ringed by Severna Park Peloton super volunteers, BWI overnight control


This isn't a fancy writeup, just the facts (mostly).

At 0500 on 31 May 2018 my fellow riders and I launched from the Leesburg VA Best Western on day 1 of the inaugural edition of the DC Randonneurs Blue Ridge to Bay 1200K.  51 riders, including 5 females, attempted the ride, which had a time limit of 90 hours 27 minutes.  Spoiler alert: all 5 females finished in time.

The weather at the start was foggy/misty, and only got worse as time went on.  After a couple of turns I found myself in familiar territory – eastbound on the W&OD Trail, the final leg of my last 6 fleches and at one time my bike commute to the Pentagon.  We moved at a rapid pace, which got me a bit overheated because sweat was not evaporating much.  Soon we arrived at the Key Bridge Marriott, the “happiest place on Earth” for any DC Rand fleche rider as it has been the finish line for many years. For the first time in over 20 years I rode to it but did not pull into its parking lot.

We pressed on down the Mount Vernon Trail, made one quickly-corrected wrong turn that sent us under vice over the 14thStreet bridge and rolled onto the Washington Mall, still largely in one group.  The first control was at the Washington Monument, where we were pleased to find Ed F. and Mary G. snapping photos of us and generally supporting us however needed. We then rolled on to the Lincoln Memorial, where we encountered Roger H. yelling directions on how to get headed towards Georgetown and Bill B. ready with the camera, as always.



We got to Georgetown, where I tossed my first cue sheet into a trash can and helped a couple of out-of-towners pick up the Capitol Crescent Trail.  Once on the trail we encountered a detour, and I helped a large group ignore bogus directions from a construction worker and get headed in the right direction.  We headed up the trail for several miles until we departed at a special control set up by the organizers (in case you needed anything to eat or drink at this point, which I did not).

Continuing north through the Montgomery County suburbs in light rain, we crossed the Beltway on the Bethesda Trolley Trail, which I had seen many times from my car, and through a mind-numbing series of residential neighborhoods with numerous turns.  My open lunch control was a McDonalds in Olney MD, where I found Hamid A.  Being still in contact with him, and having ridden to this point with Bill F. from PA Rand, I was wondering why I was in such fast company.  Call it the starting surge, it didn’t last much longer.

Although we were pretty much one big group up to this point it was inevitable that, with this open control with people going various places and finishing up at different times, the big group would fragment - and it did.  I headed out solo to continue northward, and recall seeing Gardner D., Theresa F., Steve S. and De’anna C. inbound for lunch as I left; all of whom I would end up behind later in the event.  Northward I went, through the familiar Gettysburg area and then towards South Mountain.  I rode with Jeff L. for a part of this, and eventually ended up in a larger group including Gardner and Theresa with whom I would ride for most of the rest of the event. It began raining harder as we started the climb to Big Flat, which was perfect for me because “my engine runs hot” and the rain kept me cool – just riding in shorts and a jersey.  There is a false summit on this climb and several in our group were fooled by it and even by another descent before it.  At the summit many stopped to put on more clothes to warm them for the long descent, but I just bombed it wearing what I had on. I was happy to be almost cold.  At the bottom we controlled at the Shippensburg PA McDonalds for dinner. 

As darkness fell upon us enroute to the overnight control in Shepherdstown WV our group grew to about 10 riders, and I spend much time talking to Jeff N. from Texas.  Somewhere along this stretch Theresa stopped suddenly and we all slowed until she caught up. She said she saw a kitten on the side of the road.  Once we got going again I heard a loud “MEOW” in the group, and a fellow rider told me she had it in her vest. For the next hour or so we heard from the cat periodically. Arriving at the Shepherdstown overnight control at the Quality Inn, we were met by “super volunteers” like Shab M. and John M. who could not do enough to get us settled and fed. I was assigned a room with Jeff L., who let me know that he was dropping out and that I’d have the room by myself the next night, which was convenient.  That next night when I returned I found a nice note from him wishing me luck on the rest of the ride.

Gardner, Theresa, and I departed for day 2 at 0630, having gotten 2.5 hours of sleep. They almost left without me – having been told (erroneously) by several people that I was already gone. They left the kitten behind in their room, but it was gone (to Theresa’s surprise) on our return later that day. While we were riding the housekeeping staff heard the cat meowing and reported it to management, who contacted the volunteers for an animal fee.  The volunteers resolved the situation by finding the kitten a good home, which was what Theresa was intending to do all along. 

I wasn’t feeling all that strong that morning as we headed south.  The stop in Berryville VA for snacks helped a little. We continued south into Front Royal, rolling into town down a steep descent which ended with Gardner and I at the bottom without Theresa.  I told Gardner I saw a small turtle in the road fly past my field of view and guessed that she stopped to rescue it.  She did.  We ate lunch at a BP station, where I tried a three-pronged approach to nutrition: something substantial (tuna sandwich), something sugary (ice cream), and a sugary drink.  For the rest of the event this “holy trinity” of nutrition worked great to keep my energy level high.  The tuna sandwich was a risk.  It was pre-made, with no “sell-by” date on the package, but I needed it and chanced coming down with food poisoning while climbing to nearly 3400 feet on Skyline Drive. Unlike the day before, this climb was going to be in bright sunshine. To stay cool, I filled both my drink bottles with ice cubes as much as possible, the topped off with Gatorade. I filled my 3 liter Camelbak with ice cubes, which melt over time to provide a constant flow of ice water. We finished up lunch, rode to the Shenandoah National Park entrance, paid our $15 apiece, and started our ascent.

The climb was challenging and pretty constant.  The annoying bit was that on several occasions, after gaining many hundreds of feet of elevation, the road pitched down and we would give back a couple hundred hard-won feet.  I was getting low on fluids as the summit approached, and eyed the many springs pouring out water along the road.  Much as I wanted to drink from them I stayed away, only realizing later that I could have taken advantage of them not to drink but to cool off by letting the gushing water pour over me. Eventually we arrived at the highest point of the ride, Hogback Overlook, where Bill B. and Nick B. were waiting with water and Bill’s camera. 

Gardner and me climbing Skyline Drive

After a short stop to enjoy the view we did the long, wild descent into Luray VA for the next control, followed by the climb over Edith Gap into Fort Valley. This was probably the longest steep climb of the whole event, and we all ended up pushing our bikes up the grade.  While doing so the skies just opened up in a torrential downpour, which kept up during the steep descent into Fort Valley, making it very challenging. The rain continued as we rode through the valley, and at one point was so heavy we could not see or brake.  At that point we stopped briefly to take shelter but found none, and donned additional clothing. A few miles down the road we found a covered picnic area where we sheltered for a few minutes while Gardner called the Shepherdstown control to ask about weather (it was bone dry up there), then continued to the Front Royal control and points north. 

It was during this stretch that I briefly considered dropping out of the event.  We had done a hell of a lot of climbing that day, and now were getting dumped on mercilessly in the dark.  The fun had just about drained out of it. At one point I saw a sign that told me I was closer to my car (at the start in Leesburg) than I was to the overnight control, and I indulged myself in thinking about riding to my car, driving home, and sleeping in my dry, warm bed.  I felt like I needed a small sheltered break to get my stuff together.  We found it on the picnic table on the covered front porch of the Locke Store in Millwood VA. The place was closed and darkened, but when we sat down a lady came out and asked what she could do for us.  After we refused several offers, it seemed she would not take no for an answer, so we accepted a bag of potato chips.  I took a 10 minute nap to clear my head while the others chatted. During this time the skies really opened up and I was glad we were there. When the rain subsided, we rode the final 38 miles back to Shepherdstown control.  The elevator was busted, so the super volunteers carried our bikes up to our rooms.

I got really lucky on my day 3 wakeup. The alarm clock in the room went off at 0700, but my iPhone did not.  After investigating I found that I had set my iPhone to PM vice AM, and my former bunkie Jeff must have set the room alarm clock before he left.  My bar tape was unravelling pretty badly after all that climbing and rain, so I did an emergency repair with duct tape. Gardner, Theresa, and I departed at 0730 after 3 hours of sleep. I didn’t have time for breakfast, so I stuffed a pocket with bananas and bars and ate breakfast during the first hour in the saddle. There was comical moment just a few blocks from the control when Gardner and I turned left on Duke Street to cross into Maryland while Theresa turned right to head back to Front Royal.  It turned out that the control staff had inadvertently given her the previous day’s cue sheet. We rode through familiar spots like Gapland and MarLu Ridge and headed for the Chesapeake Bay.  I have yet to find a flat east-west bike route through central Maryland, and this one was really hilly.  Mid-day we got dumped on again, but it envigorated me by cooling off my engine. I felt it rev up and I was off the front of a fairly large group in pouring rain until I stopped to wait. One of my Planet Bike tail lights went into my cassette at this point and was shredded, but it had gone bonkers the night before because of water intrusion (a design problem), so I didn’t really care. That night I had texted my wife Christine, who was volunteering at the next night’s control, to ask her to put an extra tail light in my drop bag. We rode across the state, and eventually found ourselves departing the BWI trail enroute Annapolis when a car suddenly appeared honking its horn. It was Christine with John and Janet B., who had tracked my iPhone on the “Find Friends” app.


Theresa, me, Kelly S., and Gardner. Tracked down by my phone

After a quick roadside conversation we headed to the bay.  These roads were our “home field” as Gardner put it, but after 3 days riding my rear end was feeling rough spots I had not noticed on local roads before, like the road just after the Eastport Bridge. It was a real hoot to ride our local everyday roads as part of a 1200K.  We did the loop around Bay Ridge, crashing a big party that was food on one side of the road, live band on the other.

Night was falling, as was some moderate rain, as we departed Annapolis for Crownsville, when I noticed that my helmet “map light” was dead.  I couldn’t find spare AAA batteries in my Camelbak (I found them there after the event), and the convenience store at Crownsville Rd and Defense Highway was closed. Some teenagers in search of cigarettes were equally disappointed, but were impressed that I was riding in the dark in the rain.  As our group of about 6 rode Bell Branch Road eastbound the skies dumped on us yet again, but it just made me feel better again by cooling me down so I rode on wearing just jersey and shorts.  At the summit I told Gardner I’d ride ahead in search of batteries. He pointed out that the High’s on Muddy Creek Road was a few miles ahead and told me to try it.  He also asked if they should look for me there, and I said yes. Headed south on Rutland Rd I found Tom and Mark from MN sheltered under the Route 50 overpass.  I set a fast pace for the High’s store, and found what I was looking for there.  I waited about 25 minutes for the rest of the group, but only Tom and Mark showed up.  I decided to continue on with just them.  Just before we left an ambulance went by, headed back up the road we had just come down.  I found out later that the other three – Gardner, Theresa, and Kelly S. had stopped for a flat and someone who saw them had mistaken their roadside activity as a medical emergency and called for help. Tom, Mark, and I hit the final controls for the day and arrived at the BWI overnight control around 0400.  I was expecting the easy approach that I was familiar with, but the routing instead was towards Patapsco State park and over challenging terrain. Christine watched the maneuver on Find Friends and thought I was lost at that point - I was not happy on arrival.  I hung out with my Severna Park Peloton buddies staffing the control and stayed up sharing stories later than I should have.  The store-bought lasagna was out-of-this-world good, as was the beer. Until this point I had skipped the nightly beer offered at the controls, but during this day I was told that drinks along the route were common during Paris-Brest-Paris, so I decided to start getting used to it.

The next morning I was a little rushed, after only 2.5 hours sleep.  After getting dumped on so many times I decided to lube my chain in my hotel room bathroom before heading out.  While doing so I was called by Mike B., one of my buddies staffing the control, checking to see if I was awake.  I was one of the last riders still there, and had not made an appearance yet.  He had already called Christine to ask if he should wake me at that point of let me sleep, but she didn’t know. When I got to breakfast I found out Theresa and Gardner had come in so late that they just showered and headed back out onto the course, a little ahead of me.  I departed solo at 0845 in light rain, blowing through both a stop sign and a red light closely monitored by policemen (who didn’t react to my traffic violations). After a few hours I spotted a familiar figure on the side of the road – it was Gardner, having just abandoned due to a couple injuries.  He had a car on its way to pick him up, so I gave him a couple of Janet's homemade chocolate chip cookies to munch on while he waited. Shortly after I left him the skies opened up yet again, so I called Gardner to tell him I had spotted a house under construction near his location without garage doors – a perfect spot to shelter. This day – the final day of the ride – was cooler and I immediately donned my rain jacket at this point. Charging down the road I caught a group of about 6 with Theresa, De’anna, Rudi M., Jimmy A., Emily R., and maybe others. They told me the forecast was for falling temperatures all day, and I wished at this point that I had brought my rain pants instead of leaving them in my drop bag as I had the rest of the event (check the weather next time!) We went to a Burger King in Damascus MD as the open control, on our way to hypothermia, and adjusted our rain gear for the rest of the ride.  I asked the staff for plastic garbage bags with which to fashion rain pants with my duct tape, but they did not give me any.  We helped Rudi adjust his clothing to keep him dryer/warmer, and headed on. Theresa and I ended up by ourselves by the time we got the Poolesville MD control, where I bought a box of small trash bags as a just-in-case. We also saw a sign that said White's Ferry was closed. We found out later that was due to flooding on the Potomac River.  We eventually caught the rest of the group, and also spotted Andrea M. from DC Rand pacing riders in her minivan with the window rolled down to talk. I remember asking her opinion about the Volagi she owned as I am in the market for a new bike.  She stopped at one point to give Theresa and me hugs and to offer me rain pants she had in the van, but they were impossibly small in the waist. 

Later that afternoon Theresa disappeared from the group without my notice when she stopped to remove some rain gear.  I saw a couple of guys associated with the event in an SUV along the side of the road and gave them her description so they could check on her, but they were unsuccessful. When I got to the Lovettsville VA control Gardner was there waiting for Theresa to arrive, which she did about 20 minutes after me.  She had called him because her cue sheet had gotten pulped in the rain, and he had texted her a picture of the sheet and went to meet her with another. I promised him I would not lose her again.  Theresa, Steve, and I departed together and stayed together from there to the finish, with night falling as we reached Purcellville VA.  Near the end of the ride Theresa seemed to get really loopy, asking where the hotel was, so we adopted a formation with Steve in front, Theresa behind him following his steady red tail light, and me behind Theresa just watching her.  We rolled down Dry Mill Road (not the W&OD) to Leesburg, and rolled up to the finish at 2235 (52 minutes to spare) to be met by a decent-sized crowd of volunteers and recent finishers. I immediately tossed my bike into my car and went inside to eat, drink beer, and party with the other riders until we shut the place down after midnight. Only 2 riders finished after us, but only 33 of 51 1000K/1200K starters finished this very challenging ride, so we were happy just to have made the time limit.


 Steve and me.  So glad to be done.
  

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Team Chain Reaction Flèche 2018

Note 1:  A well planned trip tends to be less eventful, as this was. This may be a bit dry.
Note 2: In February Team Chain Reaction (TCR) had 7 members 
Note 3: Every year, the weekend before fleche, TCR calls all its controls to ensure they plan to be open during fleche.
During the week before fleche the weather forecast was horrible.  5 inches of snow was predicted for most of TCR’s route on Saturday 7 April, which would have been unrideable.  After some discussions within the team and with fleche organizer Bill Beck, we discovered we had the minimum number of riders allowed for fleche (3 – Clint, Margaret, and Jack) available for a Friday start and a finish Saturday before the snow started.  But doing so meant that Earl and Pat could not start with us.  Previously both Mike and David had moved to Dan’s team because they were shorthanded, and Earl hopped over when we changed our start date, completing the reduction of team size from 7 to 3. After a little while it dawned on us that not starting on Saturday meant we no longer had to start at 7AM because there was no longer any 7AM Sunday arrival for breakfast.  Since we had spouses picking up in Arlington at the end of the ride, we gave them a bit of a break on getting up early on a weekend morning by delaying our start/finish to 8AM.
We were quite surprised/moved by the number of people who showed up for our start – we must have been outnumbered 5 to 1.  Margaret was on her first fleche, and received much ribbing about not having the flexibility of abandoning the ride without DQ’ing the team.  

We rolled out of the Big Bean at 8AM sharp under overcast skies and cool temperatures, and had an uneventful first leg.  One thing we hadn’t realized about a Friday start was rush hour traffic – something fleche usually doesn’t encounter – but it was mild and it was over by the time we left Benfield Blvd. We rode past Jack’s childhood house (only TCR members know where it is) and hit our first control at a brand new Royal Farms in Largo MD at mile 31. For this year's flèche Jack eliminated all controls that didn’t have both seating and restrooms (bye-bye 7-Elevens).  

We continued through the rest of Maryland, finishing with one of the high points of the route: a very nice ride along the Potomac River at National Harbor, then crossing the Wilson Bridge, then riding along the Potomac in Virginia towards Mount Vernon.  We stopped in Fort Hunt to shed a layer as the sun came out and warmed us. Perfect riding weather – warm with soft sunlight filtered by thin, high clouds. Headwinds were predicted, but were light at this point.
We pulled into our second control in Lorton VA at mile 65 for lunch – Paisano’s Pizza. The young guy behind the counter asked Jack “Hey, are you the guy that called last weekend about a group of bike riders stopping here?” – the first time that happened in 8 TCR fleches.  There were many food options at this shopping center, so Jack and Margaret got burritos at Chipotle and ate them at Paisano’s with drinks from Paisanos just to be fair. On the way out the employee asked the usual questions about how long the ride was, expressed the usual disbelief at the answer, and made a comment about how his best riding years were behind him (at about 30 years of age).  Jack assured him his best years were ahead of him.

We continued into Virginia, taking on the big climb of the day (climbing out of the Occoquan River valley) with little difficulty.  Traffic in Dale City was worse than previous fleches because of the weekday, so for the first time in many years of riding this route the team exercised the option of riding the bike paths that run along the route.  This route was planned many years ago to use roads with bike paths running alongside (just in case), but because Saturday traffic is lighter we had not exercised the bike path option until this year.  As we rode through Dale City the predicted headwinds arrived, and started to become a bit onerous.  Clint spent more than his share of his time at the front.
Following our next control at the Woodbine Winot Stop (a BIG improvement over Aden Grocery, a tiny bait shop with a porta-potty) at mile 81 on the edge of civilization, we headed into the Virginia countryside. Headwinds were now challenging, particularly for Margaret who was experiencing leg fatigue and a stabbing shoulder pain but keeping thoughts of quitting to herself at this point, but still better than 5” of snow would have been.  The biggest issue on Fleetwood Drive, which is a quiet 2-lane country road on a Saturday, was a continuous line of afternoon rush-hour traffic that made no sense for that location. As best we could figure, this was traffic heading southbound out of Manassas bypassing I-95 by going behind Quantico, and was flowing with us.  Safety concerns led Jack to move to the back and blast this line of traffic with his very bright Dinotte tail light.  At one point we pulled off the road, and could not get back on because there was no break in the traffic. We eventually forced our way back in by pulling in front of a car to force it to stop.
Because of the headwind and because this was our longest stretch between controls (45 miles), we made an unscheduled stop at a Subway in Elkwood, the only such service other than Aden grocery along this stretch. On the way out Clint’s Boa shoe closure broke, which was quickly repaired with some of Jack’s duct tape which had been in his tool kit unused since LEL. 
After a quick dinner at Subway in Culpeper at mile 126, 

we had finished riding southwest and headed towards Purcellville which was 61 miles to the north.  The headwind had become a (lighter) tailwind, it was dark, and the terrain is particularly lumpy along this stretch. Along the way we hit our Warrenton control along the way at mile 151, 

and rode down Main Street Middleburg. We had close encounters with herds of deer, and some of the dark descents on roads without lines to mark the edges were a bit scary.  To entertain us on this long stretch Clint played some Taylor Swift and Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes from his phone. We hit our control at the Purcellville McDonalds at mile 186 around 1:30AM, then hopped on the W&OD trail to head for the finish. At this point the wind was now from the north, and it was cold.
We arrived at our 22 hour control, the Amphora Diner in Herndon at 4:02, giving us nearly the entire 2 hour maximum time to stop in one location.  Each of us ordered what we wanted and napped on our own booth benches, which were large and comfortable.  When we came out at 6:00 it was cold and it was sprinkling, and we headed for the finish.  
With just a couple miles ago we found our fan – a guy Jack works with clapping for us on the side of the trail who knew we’d be in the area.  
With 27 minutes and about 1.5 miles to go we passed a Giant, the first open business we had seen for miles:
Clint: I gotta go! (departing the trail)
Jack: We’re a mile and a half from the finish – can’t you hold it?
Clint: I’ve been holding it for 5 miles!
So Jack and Margaret stopped and waited. And waited. And started to freak out (thinking about recent fleche riders who had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the final few miles of fleche). Finally, after almost 10 minutes Clint rejoined the team and off we went.
A couple of blocks from the finish, the trail was blocked by a construction barricade. Afer a moment of panic, we rode the wrong way down a street parallel to the trail, then realized that we were actually on a walled off section of that street that was set as a temporary trail.  In the final block the normal trail reappeared and we hopped onto it and into the parking lot off the finish, the Key Bridge Marriott.  
TCR traditionally takes a victory lap around the parking lot, but not this year.  We needed a receipt from the hotel before 8 AM, and we weren’t sure how (normally, for the Sunday finish, the fleche organizer sees you finish and nothing else is required).  We quickly parked our bikes, ran into the lobby and looked for a source of a receipt.  Spotting a Starbucks, we ran into there, only to find a long line.  We asked those at the front of the line for their receipts, explaining our just-completed ride, but all viewed us with suspicion.  While the cashier fumbled with the register to try to get us a receipt, Clint ran out to the concierge desk to ask him.  He wanted to gererate a receipt, but was told by his supervisor not to do it. Instead, he signed a business card and wrote the time on it . On the second try he got the time right – AM, not PM.  By then the Starbucks cashier, with some help, produced a suitable receipt: 7:47AM.
Clint’s wife and Margaret’s husband arrived and drove us home.

 Stats
Mileage: 233
Time: 23:47
Riding time: 17:29
Max speed: 34 mph (Kellys Ford)
https://ridewithgps.com/trips/21917974

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

LEL

Our Story of London-Edinburgh-London 2017
by Jack and Clint
I got out of the Uber and helped the driver empty it.  He gave me a “good luck” and drove off; leaving me on a gritty London sidewalk, in smelly bike clothes, going on 29 hours with only 30 minutes of sleep, with my CamelBak, drop bags, bike frame, and two wheels. Alone, behind my Airbnb, my nice expensive gear in a heap - having just completed the ride of my life. –Jack

Riding the 1400KM London-Edinburgh-London (LEL) was something we had been planning for about two years, ever since we got spots in the early registration in 2015. Riding for Severna Park Peloton (Severna Park, Maryland, USA): Chip, Jack, Clint. Hoping to join us (but couldn’t): Mike C and Scott C.

Jack: This was the only item on my bucket list. I had been looking forward to it ever since I discussed the event with Susan Otcenas at dinner before the 2014 Lap of the Lake (LOL) 1000K. I had even gotten my boss to guarantee that I could have the time off, even if it meant he would have to give a major presentation for me.  I have to say I have never planned and prepared for something more carefully, or devoted so much time and money, into anything that did not involve family or work before.

LEL was fully supported, with controls about every 30-60 miles that provided great food, drinks, showers, beds, massages, mechanical assistance, and drop bag opportunities.  You were allowed 2 drop bags, and since the route was essentially out-and-back, you had up to 4 opportunities to access your stuff, change clothes, restock on supplies, etc.  With 9 controls in each direction it’s important to carefully select those two controls!

Our main objective was to maximize riding during daylight hours in order to catch the scenery, and to minimize riding in the dark to avoid having to navigate strange and sometimes bad/narrow roads with an unfamiliar signage system.

Because of the drop bag rules, our desire to minimize night riding, and the 10:45 AM start time we were assigned, we sent our drop bags to Louth and Brampton.  Louth would have us stopping just after dark on the first day, a short day of riding followed by a short sleep stop. That would set us up to ride during daylight and sleep during darkness for the rest of the Event. Days #2-#4 would each be ~190 miles (~300K), with nights #2 and #3 both in Brampton (reaching Edinburgh between those nights, with Brampton being analogous to Loudeac in Paris-Brest-Paris).  Night #4 would be Louth again, then finish the next day (hopefully), or thereafter.




Two days before the start (Friday) we all arrived in London - Jack and Christine flying in from Baltimore, Clint, Sherri, & Nicole after a UK cruise from Dover, and Sherri’s sister after a week in Paris.  We all checked into an Airbnb in London, where the non-riders played tourist during the ride.  After assembling our bikes we went for a spin through London just to make sure everything held together.
 
The elevator in the Airbnb building was a little tight

Shakedown on the streets of London

On Saturday morning we took the London Underground and an Uber to register at the start location at the Davenant Foundation School in Loughton, a suburb northeast of London.  We picked up our “route cards” and filled our drop bags with the stuff we brought.  Each drop bag was color coded for its control, so the accumulating bags provided a living histogram of rider preferences. We were not alone in our Brampton strategy, as was borne out by the number of pink Brampton drop bags. There were so many pink bags that there was also a truck filling up with them when this photo was taken.

The histogram. Brampton is pink






















Jack and Clint with their two 5 lb drop bags filled to the max

We managed to catch up with most of the 10 DC Randonneurs (Washington D.C.) riders at registration.  Here we are with DC Rand President Mike W.


Jack, Mike, and Clint

Sunday morning was the start.  We posed for a quick photo and left the Airbnb for a train ride to the start.
Departing our Airbnb in SPP team colors

During a previous business trip to the UK, Jack had ridden the London Underground from the Airbnb to the start to scout it out. Confidently, we took our bikes to the Dalston Junction station and Clint bought a ticket (Jack had his “Oyster Card” pass).  After some quizzical looks from the ticket seller and question about our destination we headed down to the platform.  Right as we got to the platform an excited employee came running down to us.  At first it seemed he was going to tell us we would not be allowed to take our bikes on the train. Jack had checked out the bike rules – technically we weren’t allowed to have bikes on the train between two of the intermediate stations later on our route, but the LEL organizer had responded to a query from Jack that this rule was rarely enforced. Instead, the employee told us was that one of the three trains we were going to ride to the start didn’t start running on Sunday morning until a couple hours later.  Jack missed this detail in his scouting because he had scouted on a Friday morning, and the previous day’s trip to register was on Saturday.  The employee’s intervention was clutch – he saved us from an ill-fated trip that would have had us miss our start, and got us on an acceptable alternative.  The only glitch in the planning, but no blood no foul.

We got to the start and were soon called into the start box just prior to 10:45 along with the other 50 riders in our start group, all of us whose rider numbers started with “R”.  As background, riders are pre-grouped in blocks of 50 starting with letter A at 6:30am.  B riders launch at 6:45, etc.  This would be important later to gauge our progress as we “caught” lower letter riders who started before us, and the later letter riders who caught us. The gate opened at 10:45 and we rolled out onto the course. 

Jack: The first few kilometers were completely familiar although I’d never been there before.  A US cue sheet will instruct you how to turn at an intersection by providing the direction of the turn and the name of the road to turn onto. In the UK, road names are not always present at an intersection. Instead what you frequently get is a signpost that tells you which town is down each road at an intersection.  As a result, the LEL “route sheet” has an extra column called “signed” to tell you what you might find on a sign pointing down that next road.  The route sheet also uses some different abbreviated instructions from what is commonly used on a US cue sheet.  For example:

0.3
SO @ X [A1121] !CAUTION! BUSY ROAD
(Brothertoft, Langrick)
B1192
27.7
5.3
R
(Sibsey, Frithville)
B1184 Armtree Road
33.0

To prepare for LEL, I had ridden the first few km on Google Street View back at home with the route sheet in hand to ensure I could navigate and the route sheet and the signs along the way all made sense.

The first control, St Ives, was 100K down the road.  The “R” group pretty much rode as a pack through gently rolling terrain.  However, after one turn there was some confusion as a couple of the lead riders suddenly stopped as if it was a wrong turn.  This caused the whole group to hesitate for a moment, however Clint and I were confident of navigation and kept up our speed.  Suddenly we were ahead of almost the entire group, then pretty much off the front. The group ride ended there, but losing the group was not a problem because of a nice tail wind.  The prevailing winds typically provide such a tail wind here, and a corresponding head wind for the return trip.  Our ride plan factored this in. Based on actual progress during LOL, our ride plan had us averaging (not including nightly sleep stops) 20 kph overall before stopping in Louth for 5 hours (all other sleep stops 6 hours), 17 kph until Edinburgh, and 15 kph for the return trip to account for anticipated fatigue and head winds.  We were flying and we felt great. We hit the first control and had a quick meal – the cornish pasties were outstanding. The organizers tell you to label your shoes, because controls are usually schools with wooden floors that you can’t walk on in cleats.  People have lost their shoes to other riders who mistakenly have left in the wrong shoes.

Imelda Marcos’ closet

We continued to fly with the wind at our backs, ahead of plan.  Staying on or getting ahead of plan was important because we had booked hotels at our Louth and Brampton sleep stops for two reasons.  Although they provided air beds, controls were frequently overwhelmed with the number of riders looking to sleep during LEL 2013.  And LEL 2017 had 50% more riders than LEL 2013.  Also, controls could not guarantee charging connections or Wifi.  Essentially none of the hotels you find along the route have a 24 hour front desk, so if you arrived after about 10-11 PM you might not get to check in. We had hoped to get ahead of plan, and it was happening.  At one point along the way we encountered Bob C. from DC Randonneurs, who snapped this picture of the two of us.


We were soon in an area known as the Fens, a low board-flat marshy area with beautiful canals and views.  The ride was playing out exactly as envisioned – fast and flat through the Fens. It was playing out so well that we were catching earlier groups: Q, P, O, even one rider from L!  Nobody from a later group passed us.

Flying through the Fens

We arrived at the Louth control at 9:21 PM then went to our nearby hotel with our drop bags, over an hour ahead of our ride plan and with over 9 hours “time in hand” (buffer ahead of the pace to make the time cutoff). The hotel was one of those British deals with a pub downstairs and rooms above it.  We checked in with the bar maid, who we asked about arranging to get into our room on the return trip if we arrived after the bar closed that evening (our plan had us arriving at 2:00 AM).  She was not very knowledgeable/helpful on this point, so we just headed for our room for a short night’s sleep.  The room was up several flights of narrow stairs, and the last one involved a turn too tight to get out bikes around, so we just stashed them as best we could on the floor below ours and got to our room, showered, and slept 3 hours until 2:00 AM, then got up and got ready to roll.

Jack:  I didn’t sleep much, because I just wasn’t all that tired from the short first day. When I bent down to fasten my shoes water was spraying everywhere around me.  It turned out I had lost the bite valve on my Camelbak somewhere, and even sitting fairly upright on the bike caused water to run out the tube.  So I drank down the Camelbak quickly and gave up on using it.

We took our drop bags back to the control, got something to eat, and took off around 3:00 AM Monday. 

We made an impromptu coffee stop around sunrise, and shortly afterwards crossed one of the landmarks of the ride, the Humber Bridge. It’s the eighth longest suspension bridge in the world, and the longest with a bike lane.  As the sun rose on the River Humber…


Scenes from the Humber Bridge

We continued on through the Pocklington and Thirsk controls.

Brunch in Pocklington

Jack: the second day was a bit demoralizing for me – I was slow.  Clint wanted to latch onto the groups that passed us, but I didn’t have the legs to hang on.  So Clint stayed with me throughout the day, as we were passed by what seemed like hundreds of riders, with letters towards the end of the alphabet, and then double letters (AA, BB,…).  I started to doubt my prospects for finishing, and contemplated sending Clint down the road without me (along with my AWESOME Wahoo GPS that was keeping the two of us on course).  However, at a control later in the day we were told that the majority of riders were still behind us, which salvaged my spirits.

One of the more annoying bits of terrain along the way was in the Howardian Hills AONB (area of natural beauty).  Lots of short, steep stingers around a large estate known as Castle Howard.

Castle Howard

The Barnard Castle control was memorable.  Not only is there a beautiful castle ruin along the way and the a beautiful control building, but we met Shab, wife of Hamid A. (another DC Rand rider) volunteering there.  She couldn’t do enough for us, even getting Clint head-of-the-line privileges for a much-needed neck massage.

The Barnard Castle Control

Shab could not do enough for us

Clint felt much better after the massage

We then headed for the big climb of the ride, Yad Moss, a crossing of the Pennine mountain range that cuts across England. The summit is around 2000 feet, with a climb that’s not overly steep but long and relentless.

Nearing the summit, sunset on Yad Moss

From Yad Moss we descended into the town of Alston, doing about 35 mph when we were passed by a guy on a recumbent that must have been doing 50 mph. Good thing we held our lines.  It seemed really steep…more on that later. 

A few miles later we were in Brampton for our second sleep stop, 15 minutes ahead of plan with 10 hours time in hand.  It had been an excellent day, not as slow as it seemed. What made it even more excellent was our sleep spot for the next 2 nights, The Oakwood Park Hotel. 


Jack: Thank God I had also checked Google Street View for the hotels because there is no sign along the road, just a long winding driveway into the darkness, leading to a stately-residence-now-hotel.  I recognized the concrete posts at the beginning of the driveway.

In previous emails our hostess Wendy mentioned that we’d get there too late for dinner so she would put food in our room.  Boy did she ever.  Lots of sandwiches, chips, fruit, cheese, etc. for dinner, and more for breakfast for when we got up.  All included. “Would you guys like some lagers?”  We looked at each other like “well…should we??”, but ultimately decided to skip the beer.  Another LEL pair checked in a little later. 

After a luxurious 4 hours of sleep, we got up at 3:00 AM Tuesday and got ready for another day of riding.  We had the luxury of staying in our room again the next night, so we just left our drop bag stuff in there and headed north for the third day.

It wasn’t long until we reached the Scottish border, where we found ourselves in a daisy chain of picture taking.  Upon reaching the sign you would find the last rider to arrive and ask them to take your picture. As you were about to leave the next rider would arrive and ask you to take their picture, etc., etc.

Progress!

We pressed on into Scotland, passing solemnly through Lockerbie thinking about Pan Am flight 103.  Then onto the Moffatt control.  We were riding well, moving quickly through light rain and fairly level terrain.  The sun came out by the time we took on the next big climb of the ride, the Devil’s Beeftub, so named because rustlers used to hide stolen livestock behind the big hills. Sheep were everywhere during LEL, and were particularly thick here.

If we count sheep to fall asleep, what do sheep count? Answer at the end

We got over the Beeftub with little trouble and stopped for coffee in the tiny village of Broughton, cheering on our fellow riders as they rode by.

Coffee stop enroute to Edinburgh

Before we knew it we found ourselves at the halfway point, Edinburgh.  Jack had visited this control, Gracemount High School, two years before just to see what the halfway point looked like, and here we were.  One of the other Severna Park Peloton members, David K., splits his time between Maryland and Scotland.  He had us keep him apprised of our progress, so he could meet us at the control.  He also asked us what we might need, so when we got there he handed Jack a replacement bite valve for his Camelbak and Clint some lube and a rag for his chain.


Edinburgh!  With David!

There was another big climb leaving Edinburgh, on the B7007, to over 1200 feet.  The Edinburgh control was not in downtown, but if you looked over your right shoulder as you were grinding up this hill you could see into downtown and see such landmarks as Edinburgh Castle and Arthurs’s Seat.  The ride back to Brampton was a series of climbs as well as beautiful remote valleys that invited you to forget the pain and the fatigue and the clock long enough to “stop and smell the roses.”

If you get too wrapped up in riding, you might just miss it

We were a bit disappointed to not find the sheet cakes and scotch at the subsequent Scottish controls that LEL 2013 ride reports delighted in, but we got over it.  Perhaps the hardest rain of the whole trip hit us here.  It wasn’t torrential, but it was the only time that rain got into Jack’s waterproof sock covers.  The other showers we encountered were short-lived, light, and wind driven. Most times, if you decided to stop to don rain gear the rain would stop almost immediately. We felt way over-prepared for the rain encountered this trip, but learned later that had we been a couple hours behind our pace we would have encountered some real deluges during LEL.  We soldiered on towards our second night in our Brampton hotel.

Jack: it was here that my most regretful part of the ride happened.  I was getting very sleepy, and told Clint that I wanted to go straight to the Oakwood Park Hotel and not check in at the control until we returned our drop bags the following morning.  We would arrive 30 minutes ahead of plan, with almost 10 hours time in hand, so we didn’t have to check in upon arrival.  Besides, the hotel was before the control.  Clint said he was concerned that those who were tracking us on the LEL website, which displayed our arrival at each control, would be concerned that we had not checked in at Brampton that night. But we never made a decision on this.  Later, when I spotted the hotel’s unmarked driveway, I turned in and told Clint to turn, but he did not.  I then yelled to him, but he kept riding towards the control.  Figuring he had decided to go to the control first, I went up to the room.  Clint arrived about 20 minutes later, although the control was only a couple blocks away.  He had not heard me and had gotten lost. 

Back in the room we feasted on restocked sandwiches, fruit, etc. and enjoyed the breakfast Wendy provided when we awoke.

Some of Wendy’s hospitality

We departed the hotel at 5:00 AM Wednesday, checked in to the Brampton control, and returned our drop bags.

Jack: Clint and I joined two other riders coming out of the control and were rolling through Brampton when I noticed my legs were in trouble again.  Even on the gentle hills in town I could not keep up with the other three riders.  Remembering that Yad Moss lie immediately ahead of us, and how steep the Brampton side seemed as I coasted down it two days ago,  I saw no way that these legs were going to get me over that 2,000 foot ridge today.  Despite the despair, I decided to give it a go.  If my legs finally gave out, I’d just turn around and coast back into town and find a ride to London.  So off we went. Little by little we ascended Yad Moss.  Calista P. from DC Randonneurs passed us on the way up, which was a welcome surprise. As the summit came into sight, what started as despair was becoming jubilation.  I knew we were going to finish this ride – everything else that lie ahead seemed trivial by comparison. Something else that came into sight was a small white van on the side of the road – a makeshift café.  Clint asked me if I wanted to stop for coffee, and I was ready to celebrate conquering Yad Moss, so we did.  We learned later the roadside café was run by “audax legend” Drew Buck, who had been shadowing the ride, appearing from time to time along the way.  He was like the “Banksy of LEL” – appearing briefly along the route on several occasions then disappearing again.
Atop Yad Moss.  We got this!

We coasted down the back side of Yad Moss, and rolled into the Barnard Castle control.  We were both feeling a little sleepy, so we decided to experiment with control sleep facilities for the first time.  We got air mattresses in a dark gymnasium, complete with a pillow and a blanket that was cheap and rough but felt great.  It took 5 minutes to fall asleep, and 15 minutes later when we were awakened it felt like we had been sleeping much longer and felt much better.  At the next control in Thirsk we did it again, this time for 45 minutes, and felt good about it again.

Between the naps and just wearing down over 4 days of riding we started slowing down and falling behind our plan. Over that day we had been emailing the Louth hotel, trying to arrange an after-hour check-in for this evening, and they agreed to let us in if we told them when we’d be getting there, but now it looked like we would not arrive there until about 4:00 AM, way too late for me to even ask.  We asked if we could cancel, and they let us off the hook.  A better plan seemed to be to spend this night on an air mattress in Pocklington, which we reached around 9:00 PM.  Time was becoming a problem, as we were now 1.5 hours behind plan, time in hand had dwindled down to 5 hours, and we were stopping for 6.  The gymnasium there was a wonder: 300 mattresses in the dark and quiet - excellent sleep. We slept from 9:30pm - 2:00am and were rolling by 3 AM Thursday.

We once again crossed the Humber bridge at dawn - the bright sun to the east, and the wind (more on that coming up) and a perfect rainbow to the southwest.  Soon we were hit by a pretty good shower which, if you considered the rainbow and wind direction in combination, you could have predicted.  But like most rain on our ride, it ended about the time we donned rain gear.

Humber Bridge, southbound

Just before Louth, our original sleep destination, we spotted someone laying in the grass on the side of the road.  As we went by we recognized him as Pat O. , another DC Randonneur, so we circled back to see what was going on.  He said he was suffering from Shermer’s neck and was giving it a rest.  When we continued to the control, things were getting challenging.  We arrived with only 1:20 time in hand. We retrieved our drop bags for one last time and got showers, a change of clothes, and as always something to eat. We later learned that Pat abandoned due to neck issues (couldn’t turn his head to see traffic).  We were also bummed that Mike W. and Bob C. abandoned, as did Jerry S. due to food poisoning just 30 miles from the finish.

The wind intensified as the day went on.  The forecast was 40 mph, and it felt and sounded like it. Our perception of speed started to distort -it felt like you were going over 20 mph, when your cycloputer said you were only doing 12.  We just soldiered on, determined to get to the finish, before the time cutoff (or otherwise).  That afternoon Clint had an urgent need for some ice cream, so we pulled off the route onto High Street in Horncastle and found a place.  There was no place to sit so Clint sat on the floor and had a milk shake, to the amusement of the proprietress.

Table for one

Further down the road Clint needed some caffeine, so he ducked into a business that might (he hoped)  have some coffee or Coke.

Jack: I continued down the road looking for coffee or Coke for Clint.  After about a mile I found nothing, and stopped to wait for Clint to reach me.  He showed up about 15 minutes later, having found no caffeine other than some caffeine goo he was carrying. He rode by with a couple other riders. Unfortunately, because of a few seconds delay in getting rolling, I could not close the gap into the headwind.  I tried for a couple miles, but could not get there.  Then bad went to worse, when the train crossing gate at Hubberts Bridge closed between Clint and me for about 5 minutes.  When it opened, I was alone.  I rode solo for several miles, or so I thought until I looked behind me and saw 4 riders lined up behind me. When I stopped pedaling for a periodic stretching of my sore lower back, they went around me and took off.  Several miles later things got much better - a large group of Spanish riders came by and I jumped on.  They kept to themselves, speaking excited Spanish amongst themselves, but seemed OK with hangers-on like me hitching a ride.  They swept me along to the Spalding control, arriving just seconds after Clint did.  Time in hand was only 1:12.

We set off across the Fens towards St Ives.  The flat lands were indeed windy, but the winds were starting to slacken as the sun began to set. At St Ives time in hand had dropped to 1:00 and we still had 119K to go in this howling headwind.  Things were looking dicey.

We set off for Great Easton, stopping almost immediately at a Shell station / Costa Coffee. As it was after hours, the attendant was behind bulletproof glass and served the coffee via one of those armored bank drawers. Many other riders stopped and joined us. We then found ourselves on the most amazing bike path. A flat and straight cross-country affair with little white lights on its edges like an airport runway.  It was a pleasure to ride on, and we were on it for many miles.  We soon found ourselves riding through Cambridge on a summer evening, students walking about everywhere taking in the nightlife. Impressive architecture everywhere.  Departing the city, we were alone on a small road when suddenly they returned – the Spaniards!  We hopped on and took off.  In the group was a nice lady from Ireland – an English speaker who chatted for miles and miles.  Every so often all the Spaniards would stop together (nature break?), leaving the hangers-on to ride in a small group, then catch us and carry us along further.  The roads were interesting, much of the way was nothing more than a paved goat path with lots of gravel on it, over rolling hills.

We rolled into Great Easton at 1:47 AM Friday, with time in hand increased to 2:04 thanks to the Spaniards.  We knew we had this ride in the bag now, over 6 hours to cover just 48K (30 miles). We felt so good that we decided to take a 30 minute nap there. It was the smallest (30 beds) and noisiest (a guy talking on his cell phone, people carrying on a conversation) of any sleep spot we had visited.

Jack: I needed that nap.  During the day before I had developed something you might call “sideways Shermers”.  My head hung to the left, although it didn’t hurt to do so.  During the ride to Great Easton, because of the tilt to my head, I started hallucinating that all the bikes ahead of me were leaning to the right.

We got going on the final leg.  We took it easy, knowing we could slow-roll it all the way in. The sun was coming up and Friday morning rush hour traffic into London was starting on motorways we over-passed.  Then, we were into the final turns and the finish was in sight. 

Jack: I could not believe we were back where we started.  It felt like we had never left.  When I thought of all that preparation that went into this and the challenges we had overcome, I have to admit I choked up a bit as I rolled up the final street. As soon as I got off my bike, I felt like a bouncy house whose fan had just been turned off.  Like I was crumpling up, like it was finally OK/possible to feel as tired as I really was. 

We checked in one last time, handing our route cards to the volunteer …

and he handed us our finisher medals.  Wow, what a feeling of accomplishment!  890 miles since Sunday. Our ride plan had us finish with 6 hours time on hand, but we had used up over 4 hours of that margin because of uncertainties: the wind, not knowing the fatigue that came from riding that far, both more than anticipated.


The one element of planning we had not really finished was how we were going to get our bikes, drop bags (which were at the finish), and other stuff back to the Airbnb 13 miles away.  At the last minute we called an UberXL, but none were available.  So several of us each called a regular Uber, one rider and one bike per car.

Jack:  Everyone else got a good-sized Uber that picked them up along with their stuff and took them home. Me, I got a guy in a minivan who refused to take me.  He said this was an Uber XL job, and despite me pointing out that there was no Uber XL available and that my stuff would easily fit in the minivan, he cancelled my Uber request in front of me and drove off.  I summoned another Uber, and a guy in a Mercedes E class sedan showed up.  I immediately told him that it wouldn’t work because of my bike, but he insisted we try.  By taking both wheels off we got my bike in his trunk.  Off we went, to drop me off on that London sidewalk. I did my best to get my wheels on, but didn’t really get the chain on the cassette. It didn’t matter.  I called Christine and she came down and helped me get my stuff up to our Airbnb.  When I got there everyone was awake. They asked me if I’d do it again and, having just ridden for 5 days with only 30 minutes sleep in the previous 29 hours, and I barked “definitely not!”  But it’s been a couple of weeks now, and I now think it would be cool - what an adventure!  (That’s what they call “rando-nesia”)

Dinner and the theatre the day the ride ended. 2 hours sleep in the last 45, but somehow we stayed awake all evening 
 
Took the Wahoo to the theatre so Clint could play with it before he flew home the following morning. Christine was not pleased

Clint: Hats off to Jack for capturing so much detail I forgot.  This was my longest ride at 1400K (890 miles), more than PBP and Alaska (each 1200K), and more than the Lap of Lake Ontario (1000K) we did twice.  We finished with a comfortable cushion of about 90 minutes under the max of 117 hours 5 minutes with no flats or other mechanicals.  Jack’s awesome Wahoo GPS and his careful review of the course before riding it helped to keep us on course, preventing any bonus miles.

This was a very well supported event with about 1650 riders from all over the world.  The scenery was awesome and the volunteers (hundreds of them) took excellent care of us.  At each control we had to park our bikes, remove shoes, check in (scan control card, time stamp, and initials) and sometimes scan out, fill water bottles, use restroom, eat, sometimes nap, find drop bags (at 3 controls), shower once in Louth, find shoes, find bike (amongst hundreds parked on the racks), find next cue sheet (every control started on a separate sheet at mile 0), load the next GPS file (my Garmin rarely worked), locate Jack at his bike, turn on bike lights if dark, then find the exit from control parking lot.  Then you wonder, “did I forget anything?”  Is there time to use the wifi to send the picture and a short caption to SPP and a “we’re fine” text to both spouses?

This was also a brutal LEL.  The normal attrition is about 20%, but as of this writing it was somewhere between 36% and half the field that didn’t finish within the time limit.



Olaf Storbeck captured an image of us crossing Yad Moss and posted it on his blog

The whole trip (Disney UK cruise, week in Paris seeing the Tour arrive, sightseeing in London, then riding LEL for 5 days) was a dream come true, another checkmark on the bucket list.  Although the ride was over, we still had to fetch an Uber, clean and pack our bike & gear in the bike box back in the Airbnb, shower, get a wonderful massage, take a nap, dinner with wives and family, and stay awake for the show, Kinky Boots.  The next day we were back in Baltimore, dream over.
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Answer to the question: what do sheep count to fall asleep?  LEL Riders

We can't claim credit for that joke. That was told to us by Guy Roefs, somewhere between Yad Moss and Edinburgh
Clint and Guy