Wednesday, April 11, 2007

SIR 300K Ride Report

My old physics professor used to warn his students that a particularly difficult upcoming exam would "separate the goats from the sheep." To this day I'm not 100% certain what he meant by that, whether it is better to be a goat or a sheep and which creature has a stronger grasp of quantum mechanics. And while I'm sorry to say that I've retained little of what that man was trying to teach me about physics, twenty-nine years later I still remember his words and apply them to my life.

On Saturday, April 7th 2007 one hundred cyclists showed up to ride the Seattle International Randonneurs 300 kilometer brevet. A brevet is a kind of test, a rider has to cover the chosen course on a chosen day within a certain prescribed time. This is not a race, although some riders are trying to complete the course in the least time. Others are testing their limits to see if they can finish in anything less than the maximum allotment of twenty hours. For some riders, 300 kilometers is the farthest distance they have ever ridden a bicycle in a single day, while others are veterans of longer distances. But this course, which begins and ends on Bainbridge Island and circumnavigates the Hood Canal, is known and named for the hills in the desolate Tahuya region between Belfair and Seabeck. The Tahuya Hills are what separate the goats from the sheep.

Friday's weather had been gorgeous and warm and the human mind tends to remember the sunny days of spring and forget the rain. Experience tends to make randonneurs a cautious bunch but a few under-dressed and under-fendered folks look like they've been suckered by some rays of hope in the weather forecast. As we wait by the Bainbridge Bike Barn for the 7:00 AM ride start, Jon Muellner tells me he'd driven down in rain from Port Hadlock to Bainbridge, the route we will be riding. At 7:00 AM, we roll out into the rain.

My plan for the day is mediocrity. In the past I've tested my limits by riding the Tahuya Hills on a fixed gear. Years ago I learned that while I don't have a speedy nature, sloth also grates on me. So, like any good Taoist, I seek the middle way. The day's limit is 20 hours but the fast folks may complete the course in something much closer to 10 hours. I will listen to my inner turtle, who is slow but steady, and ride at what I've found to be my natural pace, something that lets me ride and do the basic rando stops and cover 100 kilometers in five hours.

With the light rain and a temperature around 50 degrees, it is actually quite nice riding weather for those of us used to the Pacific Northwest. As we roll north, the field of riders splits into smaller groups and single riders as we each sort out according to our speeds and natures. At Port Hadlock I get my control card signed and purchase a pint of milk and three chocolate chip cookies. As I'm munching my snack, Ron Himschoot rolls up. "What are you doing here?" he says, somewhat accusingly. "Uhmm, enjoying the day?" I reply. Ron's been in the club since sometime in the Paleozoic era and he's a very nice guy that he masks with a kind of gruff exterior. He also tends to believe that almost everyone else is faster than he is, a thesis that has been proven false on many occasions. "It's just you're one of the fast guys," Ron says, "I hardly ever see you on these rides." Rather than launch into an analysis of how not-fast I am and how not-slow he is, I finish my cookie and say, "See you down the road."

Pulling out of Port Hadlock, Albert Meerscheidt, explains weather forecasting to me. "You see," he says, "a 40% chance of rain means it's going to be raining somewhere in the forecast area. And if we are out riding, there is a 100% chance that rain is going to be falling on us." Profound observations like this are the key to the club's camaraderie.

One of the fellows I think of as one of the "new guys" (I'm pretty sure his name is Chris) and I are riding along the chipseal of Center Road when an enormous bullfrog saunters across the road in front of us. Wildlife sightings are always a highlight of these trips for me. Already today, when I'd been feeling noble for getting up and out the door at 4:15 AM to ride to the ferry, I'd seen a beaver swimming up the river in South Bellevue. Randonneurs may rise earlier than students of Zen, but I guess beavers go to work even earlier. And frogs have their own agendas.

Chris's bike is a beautiful old Raleigh, decked out in nice rando fashion with the kinds of things you can get from places Rivendell and Velo Orange -- extra long hammered Honjo fenders, canvas bags, shellacked bar tape. His bike is a nice contrast to my coroplast & zip-tie aesthetic.

Chris and I chat about bikish things, equipment and chipseal, riding in traffic and mud flaps, but he's just a bit faster than I am here and he drifts up to chase down Wayne and another rider. I spin along, thinking about frogs and philosophy and sheep and goats.

A bit before Quilcene I see Tom Mage walking along side his bicycle. I start to do the standard "got what ya need" call out but I see he clearly has a problem beyond the circumstances anticipated by my fairly paranoid on-board tool kit. The left crank fell off Tom's bicycle and the outboard cartridge bearing, seeing its one chance for freedom, rolled away to points unknown. Tom and another rider had searched without success and now he is walking and coasting his way to Quilcene. A phone call had already been made and rescue in the form of Tom's helpful girl friend is on it's way. I take a blurry picture with my soggy pencam and ask Tom if he needs any food or anything (I try to be prepared and had both Gummy Worms and Peanut M&Ms). Tom is cheerfully resigned to his fate, and assures me he is fine and sends me on my way.

Past Quilcene the rain seems heavier as I climb Walker Pass. Walker Pass isn't much of a climb but coming down the other side, I'm seriously debating stopping at the espresso stand. I decide to forgo this stop and just a bit later I see the SIR sign board and a bunch of riders pulled over for a secret control. I fill up my water bottles and share some Gummy Worms with some other riders. Even though I have stated on many occasions that I am not a nutritional role model, enough of my fellow randonneurs have adopted my fueling strategies that if I'm too far back in the pack I may find the mini-marts have been cleared of their supplies of chocolate milk and PayDay bars. So I make sure to have a stash of food with me at all times and Gummy Worms are my current favorite.

The weather is nicer by the canal and the rain is lighter. When I pull into Hoodsport at 1:45 PM, I stow my heavy gloves and unzip the arms from my jacket/vest. I snap a picture of a very muddy John Kramer at the control (John made a serious miscalculation and took his unfendered bike on this ride). I buy some chicken strips, a pint of milk and a banana and head south.

At the southern edge of the canal I turn east and follow SR-106 and SR-3 to Belfair. One of the problems with this route is that it has an easy bailout. Once you get to Belfair, it's very easy to choose to go north to Bremerton and hop the ferry back to Seattle. This is what separates the goats from the sheep. The sheep head north and take the easy way out. The goats turn west again, ride to Tahuya and then wander their way back home through the hills. I still don't know if it is better to be a goat than a sheep, but today I am a goat. I head west.

Kay's Corner is an intersection of two roads at the southern edge of the Tahuya Hills. Back in the early days of SIR, this control point was unmanned and each rider would prove they'd passed this way by extracting a little sticker from a plastic baggie hidden at the corner. But over time the club has grown and now Kay's Corner is staffed by volunteers who have a big tent set up with comfy chairs and a camp stove and potato soup which turns out to be one of the finest things I've ever eaten. Of course, the finest food I've ever eaten is a mini-mart hot-dog that I had at 2:00 AM at a gas station in Stanwood, so my culinary reviews are suspect at best. But all the randonneurs seem to agree that the potato soup is damn good.

It's just past 5:00 PM when I roll into the Tahuya Hills. I've ridden these hills many times and I know that they will slow me but I also know that I'll get through them. This is a land where low gears do come in handy and I make use of the gears I have. Last year I was testing myself here, today I'm just riding my bike.

It is just getting dark at 7:43 PM when I pull up at the Seabeck Landing General Store. The folks who run the store are wonderful, keeping the store open late for us, making extra sandwiches and offering words of encouragement. I fuel up with a mix of coffee and chocolate milk, which I use to wash down a bag of Cheetos. I explain one of my slightly gross nutritional rules of thumb to Jim Sprague, "I taste my own sweat and if it tastes good, I know I need Cheetos or Pringles." This is the kind of stuff you don't learn in books. This is what you learn in the Tahuya Hills.

Chris and I are getting ready to pull out of Seabeck at the same time. We've pulled on our reflective gear and turned on our lights. I glance down at my cue sheet and see my cue sheet. Chris glances down and sees darkness. "I'm beginning to see why you guys use helmet lights..." "Yeah," I reply, "they come in really handy for spotting road signs, too." I fill him in on the route ahead, "Anderson Hill Road has three hills on it it. A big one, a heck of a drop and then another hill that is big but doesn't seem to bad and then one last one that's just awful. But then that's it and you're pretty much done with the climbing. A few more little things and you're back to Poulsbo and Bainbridge and you're fine." Chris heads out while I'm eating the last of my Cheetos.

I pass him on the first Anderson Hill climb. He's missed a shift and is walking. I'm still marveling at the wonders of low gears and derailleurs, and for the Anderson Hills I'm sticking to my low gear and not bothering to upshift for the screaming descents. Coasting and spinning and some very slow spinning get me up and over the last three big hills of the night.

The rest of the ride is nice. Clear Creek Road is frog central at this time of year. I don't see any of the creatures but the sound of frogs fills the air. In the old days the Tahuya 300K finished up by following SR-3 up to Poulsbo but over time SIR refined the route to have more frog roads and fewer freeways. The refined route through Poulsbo sticks close to Liberty Bay before finally joining SR-305 just five kilometers north of the Agate Pass bridge.

My goal of five hours per 100 kilometers would mean that I'd finish a 300 kilometer ride in fifteen hours. It's just about 10:00 PM now, and I'm not quite done. But my cyclecompter is telling me I've ridden 300 kilometers since 7:00 AM and then I realize that of course our rides are rarely a perfectly round number. In the case of this ride, it's actually 308.5 kilometers.

It's 10:17 PM, when I finish. There's a ferry at 10:30 PM but the finish line is at the comfy Island Country Inn and Mark Thomas has the final checkpoint stocked with pizza and refreshing beverages, so I don't feel like rushing off. I snack and drink and chat with the other riders as they come in. I run through the calculations, I was just ever so slightly too fast to be perfectly mediocre. There's always room for improvement!

Pictures here:

Results here: