by Jon Gardner
The gathering of bodies and machines in the crisp April chill before the 200K brevet was like a reunion with old friends. There was RAAM veteran Keith Krombel, and Nancy Guth, UMCA John Marino Competi- tion winner, and her husband, John, who pulled me along in my very first 600K. Out of a hotel room and desperately looking for the keys to his van came Bill Alcorn, a Paris-Brest-Paris buddy who entertained us on the '99 600K by bunny-hopping roadkill. Then there were the folks I ride with more often: Chuck Wood and Crista Borras on their tandem; Ed Felker on his English-built randonee bike; Rudy Hewitt with his kilt and plastic totems; the dean of the D.C. randonneurs, Ken Zabielski; and Doreen Chaitt, Lynne Kristianson and others who plan on completing the 24-hour fleche ride this weekend as the all-female "Randonettes."
It was an unfamiliar setting for me at the start of the 200K. After seven years of starting at the Warrenton, Va., Howard Johnson hotel, our regional brevet administrator Jim Kuehn brought us to the Holiday Inn Frederick-Fort Detrick in Mary- land, where we've started the 300K and 400K in recent years, for the 200K. It was a new course, and those of us who ride locally knew it was going to be a challenging day. In place of the steady rollers of the Warrenton route, the new route would present us with bigger challenges almost from the start. It took us straight west from Frederick immediately, climbing us over Catoctin Mountain, through the Middletown Valley, and then again over South Mountain, in the first 10 or so miles. It wouldn't be until we crossed Maryland Route 67 in 14 miles that we could be sure the initial climbing had ended. It left us very little time to warm up before the hard work was to begin---but I still kept hoping that maybe today would be the day to improve my personal 200K best of 7 hours, 33 minutes---not that this is a race or anything, but I do like to challenge myself. I came prepared: My eight-spoke Spinergy Rev-X wheels, (even knowing the risk of a flat, given that they require tubular tires), two spare tires, only a small repair kit, and two extra bottles of water to get me through the afternoon without stopping. My food was Sustained Energy meal replacement and Hammergel, with a couple of emergency Clif Bars in my jersey pockets.
A long, multi-colored streamer of more than 70 bicycles rolled out of the parking lot and toward our first challenge of the day. Keith quickly moved to the front, caught a green light that the rest of us missed, and was out of sight before long. After a left turn onto Alt. U.S. Route 40, the casual early chatter was replaced by shifting gears and labored breathing as we ascended the stairstep of Catoctin Mountain. I found myself at the front of the main group with Bill Alcorn, who didn't seem to be bothered by the incline. A descent into Middletown followed, where we were caught by followers, including Crista and Chuck, and then a left turn off Alt. 40 toward our South Mountain climb, where we passed the monument to Union Gen. Jesse Reno, who died during the vicious Civil War Battle of South Mountain. Bill declared that he needed a lower low gear, but we stayed together over the top as the rest of the riders dropped back. We zoomed into the next valley all alone. Soon after crossing Route 67, Bill complained of a soft rear tire and had to fix it. Crista and Chuck rolled by once again trailing a group of six or seven cyclists, and I made a decision to keep rolling with a fast group.
The wind was picking up as we spun toward the Potomac River, passing through Sharpsburg and the Antietam National Battlefield (historical note: Even though it was a draw, Antietam was important in two ways: 1. It kept England from allying with the South, and 2. It emboldened Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation). There was some effort at forming pacelines to help us recover from the wind, but it was largely disorganized. Occasionally, somebody with a sincere desire to lead would blast to the front much faster than the group was moving, forcing the rest of us to accelerate in order to keep pace. We crossed over the Potomac into Shepherdstown, W.Va., and onto the rolling hills parallelling the river. Chuck and Crista took command of the pacemaking in the wind, their tandem power providing a steadier pace over the ups and downs of the West Virginia panhandle. But on a quick turn at the bottom of the hill, they pulled up short, complaining of a soft rear tire. We stopped briefly in a church parking lot to check it out. Chuck decided his tire was fine, but his brand-new, tandem-ready, aerodynamic 16 spoke Bontrager wheels were flexing more than his standard wheels in the hard turns, making it feel like his tire was flat. We rolled on, and, finally, on the long, flat, windy River Road, with a view of the Potomac through a line of trees, we got a good rotating paceline going---each rider taking his brief turn at the front before sliding to the left and falling to the rear. In what seemed like no time at all, we had put the seven miles of River Road behind us, and we were at the bridge crossing back over the Potomac to the halfway controle in Hancock.
We got our brevet cards stamped at C&O Bikes, where I bought five bottles of water to refill my Camelbak and to mix a new bottle of Sustained Energy. Crista and Chuck, loyalists to Real Food(tm), rolled back to the Sheetz in Hancock, while the rest of our group posed for photos for the owner. I wasn't too keen on waiting for C&C to eat, even though they promised a quick sandwich, yet the clicking of our group in the final stretch before Hancock made me want to wait for their strong pacemaking skills, especially since the next stretch was a flat 10-mile stretch on a bike path. A well-organized group could easily up its average speed on that leg. Meanwhile, Rob from Richmond's wife, herself a two-time team RAAM crew member, had driven up from Frederick to give him support. I accepted her offer to tote my wind vest back to Frederick then rolled over to use the restroom, and learned that Chuck indeed needed to change a tube in his rear tire. No sense waiting ... so I rounded up our crew and headed back to the bike shop, where our return trip to Frederick began.
On the trail, we made some lame attempts to organize a rotating paceline once again, but there wasn't nearly the cooperation, so Rob, Peter and I took up the responsibility of pacemaking for the group. Despite the occasional swirl, the expected tailwinds pushed us along the 10 miles of bike path at close to 20 mph. Emerging into rolling terrain at the east end of the bicycle trail, I sensed myself weakening.Although I was pushing the pace for our group, my chest was beginning to feel tight. It might have been the wind, or the spring allergens, or dust, or perhaps the fact that it was really the first warm-weather ride of 2003, but taking deep breaths began to be a struggle. But it was a war of attrition out there. Glenn fell of the pace, although I'm not sure if that was voluntary. Bob struggled off the back on a hill, causing us to drop our pace to allow him to attach himself once again. I mentioned that it might be wise to back off, knowing that the hardest climb of the day awaited us on Md. Route 77 just after we passed the century mark. Despite a healthy tailwind at this point, I struggled through a physical and emotional low spot, sipping water, gel and Sustained Energy carefully to keep my strength up and my mind sharp (my big tip- off that I'm starting to bonk is when I start to complain or develop a bad attitude). After a brief spin over the Pennsylvania border near the appropriately named State Line, Pa., we pointed our front wheels toward Smithsburg and the climb that awaited. In Smithsburg, more attrition: Three of us, Peter, Bob, and Red DeRosa, needed water. While my Camelbak was low, I had two spare water bottles, so I was ready to roll on, and given my general weak and blown feeling, I was going to need to keep rolling. Rick and Rob both continued with me.
What is it about Bethel Road? Never quite uphill until the very end, it is always psychologically daunting for me. So close to home, yet with just a little bit of uphill grinding left. It looks flat, but I always see my speed dropping ever so low. The ride is never over until Bethel Ts into Yellow Springs Road and I can begin the final descent into Frederick. After the left turn onto Yellow Springs, I caught sight of Rick in my rear-view mirror. He caught up, and then we roared into Frederick and the Holiday Inn, finishing in 8:22---the second group of riders to arrive. I was not disappointed in my time. As I began swapping stories with the later arrivals, I realized everybody was slow, even Keith Krombel, whose 7:31 finish was 45 minutes or so off his best. The consensus was that this 200K was a lot harder than the Warrenton 200K--- Jim estimated its vertical change at more than 8,000 feet, compared to the 6900 feet in Warrenton. This 200K route was about six miles longer, too, because of a re-route around a low-water bridge in West Virginia that curiously was under water.
Anyway, thanks to Jim Kuehn for a great route and superb organization, as usual, as well as to my ride companions for the day. See you at the 300K May 3!