Saturday, January 2, 2010

Polar Bears on Bicycles

No, not a Vegas lounge act or the catchy name for a new sit-com on TV about a group of 20-somethings, this was a 200K brevet on New Year ’s Day.

If you read here much you know that we were planning to ride SIR permanent number 0202 on New Year ’s Day. Actually I started this out with an invite early last month to several friends who had better sense (and other commitments) than to say yes so figured it would be a ride of solitude. One thing lead to another, word got out, and by Thursday night 6 other people had said they would be along. That sounds well and good but then there is the getting up at oh-dark-thirty, donning the armor and then trudging off to the battle ground. Some folks in the Seattle area had to arise at 4:00 am for the 6:30 start, followed by a rainy drive south on I-5. It seems among many it is particularly challenging to make your prep and head out for a ride in a driving rain, (I know it is for me) so these folks get points for sticking with it.

As I raised the Garage Door at 5:00 the drive way glistened with rainwater, but nothing was falling from the sky. The light cloud cover was scudding along at a fast clip to the north and the clouds were backlit by the Blue moon I knew was hiding above. I stepped out and looked back at the bright spot where the moon loomed above and just as I did so a hole in the clouds drifted by and there for a moment was that big wheel of blue cheese moon. Not necessarily a good omen, but a nice start to what was going to be a long day for me.

As I pulled into the Top Foods Parking lot there was an SUV with a bike on a rack, fenders, lights, a sure sign of an anxious randonneur. I went in to test the plumbing and coming out saw a rider heading out the car. It was Lyn, we introduced ourselves and wit plenty of time in hand commenced the methodical process of sorting through collections of gear trying to guess what would be the best match for the day.

The weather man predicted a high of 48 for the day, with rain all day and head winds on the way home. I expected temps to be at least 10 degrees colder at this time of the morning but it was obviously much warmer. It was also not (yet) raining. As riders started showing up from the north they all reported that it was raining hard in Seattle and environs. Oh joy, we would be headed into a cell or a front with wind that would bring weather to us from the south as the day wore on. When James showed up he said the current temp was 50 degrees, a small blessing.

Seven of us rolled out smartly at 6:30 AM. I advised them all that I was sure to be slower (a lot slower) than all of them and to not wait or worry for me. I’m slow but durable. We rolled along amiably for the first few miles, this part when it is like this is always very pleasant to me. I like hearing the rides talk softly in the dark, wheels whirring, lights blinking, a few bursts of laughter as the legs warm up. Sometimes it’s off to the races at the gun; not necessarily bad, but definitely different. After the first info control things started to stretch out and by the time we hit the on ramp to 101 I could just see a collection of little red lights off in the distance.

In less than 5 miles on the route we were into the rain and it pretty much rained, or rained hard, or poured for the whole ride. There might have been a stretch or a moment when it didn’t rain, but if so, that moment is lost to me.

Into Hoodsport I encountered James who had decided to abandon. I stopped at Hoodsport Coffee Co and had a quad Americao. I ordered a triple but she asked if I wanted the 4th on the house. Sure I said, I didn’t figure it would cause any problem; it was 50 miles round trip between here and Brinnon with only the Eldon Store in between. I tried to be quick but the locals wanted stores. The other riders had been through earlier so I made a point of letting the proprietor know how much this little oasis is appreciated by randonneurs, and explained a little about randonneuring and SIR. Here I thought about Adrian. I’m sure this is just the sort of spot where he would take a little time off the bike: good coffee and good fellowship with friendly folks.

Beyond Hoodsport the wind did build through the morning such that by the time I was half way to Brinnon there were white caps all the way across the Canal. The Breeze was singing in the trees; It started out with a solo ballad, but in short order it was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing Onward Christian Soldiers, with a freight train in the background for effect.

I kept my stops few and short and arrived at Brinnon about noon holding an average speed of between 12 and 13 MPH. For this ride I had the Garmin along and it is set to miles as opposed to Kms on the Sigma. It gave me a start a few times when I looked down at the stats and then a sense of relief to realize that there was no need to convert to miles (always a lower number)

The route back took its toll: Boreas and Harpies joined forces to throw what they had at me. In the beginning I obsessed on the numbers, constantly wiping the rainwater from my glasses and the Garmin screen to see how rapidly my average was falling. It’s a rookie mistake and only serves to add anxiety to the list of things that draw your attention from the real work at hand. Fortunately the old ways kicked in and I fell to just watching the road ahead to assure I didn’t roll over any tire eaters. In addition to the requisite radiator clamps, tail light lenses and bungee cords there was a wealth of limbs, twigs, and cones freshly strewn along the way. I thought about how I would do if I had to fix a flat or work on a mechanical. I had my hands full (get it?) just keeping the bike on the road and in the right gear. I am a firm believer that people can do anything but this was a test worth avoiding.

I was riding just at the edge of too cold. Soaked through, even in wool whenever I stopped even very briefly I was chilled and soon shivering. At Hoodsport on the return leg I elected just to get water and keep moving. Cold as I was I figured with the climb out of the Skokomish river valley just ahead, I’d soon be warm. 5 miles down the road at Potlach better thinking prevailed and I pulled over under an awning to put on my thermal vest and turn on the dangle light that hangs from the locker loop on my raincoat. The route ahead included increased traffic between Shelton and Olympia and in the dark and rain, with intermittent stretches of inky black punctuated by clusters of retail roadside lighting I didn’t want to disappear from the field of view of speeding (hung-over?) motorists.

That stretch was nerve wracking and more so as it was along here that I had my obligatory bonk. Remember that speedy thinking back in Hoodsport…just get water and move along smartly? Another lesson re-learned: eating on the bike is not about now, but about an hour from now, or maybe even two hours from now. Well, here I was an hour up the road, wobbling left to right on a shoulder with traffic whizzing by at 60 miles per hour mumbling to myself. Sure it was a hill, but that’s no reason to be riding at near track stand speed. “BONK!” leapt to my consciousness. I pulled over, leaned the bike against a guard rail (thank you DOT for a bench and a bike stand) and rummaged in my front bag. I came up with a Clif Mojo bar I had bought at the start that morning, just for the receipt. I like these because they are not too sweet and not too nutrient dense, help me avoid nausea. They are also pretty dry so I also grabbed a bottle and plunked down on one of the guardrail posts. There in my slightly addled state, in the dark, in a driving rain, with soggy full finger gloves, I contemplated food, just on the other side of a nearly impenetrable protective wrapper. Comically I thought, why don’t they do like the airlines do: “In case of emergency, pull string to remove wrapper”?

Once I got that down I looked again and found the perfect solution: Dried apricots and a ziplock half full of salty cashews. This was manna. The apricots were perfect: not too dry and a little tart, the salty cashews were the perfect coda. I’m blessed in that if I catch this early I usually come out of it quickly and in less than 10 minutes I was bounding up the hill in double digits again.

Finally I was at the Steamboat Island exit and on to deserted country roads for the next few miles. It was here that I narrowly averted disaster. There is a short segment that takes you down a short and progressively steeper one way lane which ends with a stop sign and hard right. This little stretch transects a thick wood and on this moonless, rainy night it literally was pitch black. This is home ground for me, I’ve ridden it hundreds of times so I know what to expect. For whatever reason, instead of stopping at the sign, I let it go and shot across Madrona Beach road and was on to a steeper gravel drive way diving down toward to water. Judiciously braking, sliding, and correcting brought me to a safe if exciting upright stop. Well, at least I know I’ll be wide awake for the last miles into the finish. It would not be an SIR event without a nice little vertical gift at or near the finish, and the climb up Mud Bay road serves to get the blood pumping.

I finished with a strangle hold on the Lanterne Rouge, but much to my surprise (and I must say delight) there were Joe and Lyn waiting to welcome me in. They finished hours earlier and were determined to stick around for my arrival. I tell you, Randonneurs are the nicest people.

For me in ways, this event is a metaphor for riding PBP. I’ve done that twice; once was sublime, the second time was ‘character building’. This brevet was character building in many of the same ways.

It took a fair amount to get there. Not so much compared to flying half way round the world with a bike in a box, but compared to riding off the back porch on a sunny Saturday afternoon, it looks a little more like commitment. And no matter the conditions, riding and finishing PBP always requires a fair amount of commitment.

The pluses are still the same, just at a different scale: You are riding with friends. 7 compatriots is a different scale than 4,000 of your closest friends but riding with others, even just a few, is a quantum leap from rolling along in cold wind and rain solo. I don’t know if misery loves company but I am certain that misery is easier to vanquish when you ride with others. It is hard to whine when others are going through the same thing, and at the same time it is hard to make light of your miserable conditions when you are alone. I thought about some of my friends down in SoCal; They organized a 200K brevet for the season starter on Saturday. My friend Greg emailed to say that there were 67 participants registered, and the weather forecast was for 72 degrees and sunny.

Sorry, no pics, this just wasn't that scenic.


  1. Hey Dr. C,

    Thanks so much for getting us going.

    Your title made me laugh. I had a change of clothes in the car. As I trudged, dripping, over to the bathroom to get changed, I passed a very dry, warm guy sporting a "Polar Bear Club" sweatshirt.

    I think I may have smiled a bit.

    See you soon.

  2. Polar Bear Sweatshirt? For shame, he should have been sporting a P Bear tanktop at least, if not a singlet!

    Looking forward to riding with you all again soon(I'll get faster)!

    Dr C

  3. Good to see you back out in the thick of things, Dr. Sorry I couldn't make your ride this time around.

    Good job on the finish.