Saturday, May 4, at 5 am is the start of the Leesburg 400K. The route starts at the Leesburg Days Inn, an ultra-seedy motel off of Highway 15; heads north to Gettysburg after crossing the Potomac River once; after crossing two state lines (Maryland, then Pennyslvania); and after crossing one mountain range in Catoctin State Park. The first control comes at mile 67 just before a brief tour of the Gettysburg battlefield. 11 of us start together.
(The map is here. The Garmin cuts out 15 miles before finishing, which explains the start/finish disconnect.)
It is cold at the start! Garmin reports 46 degrees as the low, but I would guess closer to 40, and before the blood gets pumping it is hard to keep warm. I have left the gloves and leg-warmers behind, so it is two hours before I can claim to be comfortable. The hills are not bad on the northward leg, although the Catoctin Range crossing is several miles of constant upgrade with some short steeper sections, perhaps reaching at the worst a 12-15 percent grade. A must repeat on this leg: Route 77 descending the northern side of the Catoctin Mountains. Nothing steep, but good quality road surfaces, nice shade, a pretty creek, winding turns, and few cars make for several miles of excellent pedaling and descending.
The ride divides quickly into D__, me, B__ (from Connecticut) and BB__ (from the DC Randonneurs) -- and everybody else. For the rest of the day we have no idea how the rides are going for the rest of the crowd. BB__ stays close enough to D, B, and me that we see him arriving as we leave the first two controls, but we then lose track of him after the Sharpsburg control at Mile 116. B__, from Connecticut, is a very gracious chemical scientist working in the pharmaceutical industry, who made the jump from ultra-running to randonneuring when his hips started going bad.
Leg 2 heads south from Gettysburg to Sharpsburg, passing through the Antietam Battlefield just before reaching the Sharpsburg control at Mile 116. On this leg we cross the range again in the opposite direction, with the primary climb's coming on Jack's Mountain Road. Jack's Mountain Road is reputed to be a real climb, but perhaps because of its coming that soon in the ride my memories of it are not bad. On the other side, after re-entering Maryland, the long straight descent on Rte. 491 is a hoot. Perhaps 5 miles of good pavement and wide shoulder and consistent speeds above 35 mph.
D, B and I have a real lunch at the Sharpsburg Battle Market. Like at Gettysburg, we rest perhaps too long -- but we are moving well and the controls are sparse, so it does not feel careless.
(Here is the ride data. Somehow we average 17 miles per hour moving on this hilly route. One does not need better proof that downtime at controls kills a fast ride! The total climbing is, as always, subject to dispute. The GPS file I use suggests 17,000 feet. My data says 14,000 not including the last 15 miles, which might believably have included 2,000 more. D's GPS says 18,000, which is consistent with 17,000 for the real ride plus extra for our detour.)
On the third leg we again cross the Potomac, this time going south from Maryland into West Virginia, somewhere not far west of Harper's Ferry. We follow Rtes. 9 and 1 for 20 or so miles before re-entering Virginia near Winchester. We take a quick break in Winchester for a soda -- 55 miles between controls is getting long at this point -- and D and I then lose B on the final 18 miles into the Strasburg control. This stretch is fast. Including the 10-15' break in Winchester we required about 3:15 for the 55 miles from Sharpsburg, MD to Strasburg, VA.
Somewhere on leg three I notice how well the bike is performing. A quick aside with regard to the Gunnar rebuild.
The new groupset is excellent. It must be a combination of a recent tune job and new components (teeth not worn down, springs still wound tightly); the shifts are crisp and land right on target each time, even under load. My only complaint is difficulty cross-chaining and hitting the 50-25 gearing, but with the ease of shifting chainrings it becomes a non-issue with a little experience. I also found some difficulty shifting when my hands went numb later in the day from cold and fatigue, but I was able to find a work-around there too.
The tires and tubes (28C Grand Bois, Vittoria Latex) are either simply awesome or I am having an unexpected and unwarranted fitness moment. I go with the former. As evidence, despite my being no extraordinarily aerodynamic descender, I constantly am passing my companions on coasting descents, despite their carrying much heavier loads. 90 psi front and 95 psi rear made for fair comfort on all roads until the very end.
Conflating the tire quality is the new fork. In theory the carbon fork should provide much of the comfort benefits that I attribute to the 28c tires with latex tubes. The forks also lighten the bike by a full pound vis-a-vis the former steel forks.
And the fit is perfect. One change from the picture on the blog: I have aero-bars mounted with small risers above the drop bars. So the drop bars are set down an inch or more from being level with the saddle, but the fore-arm pads are approximately level with the saddle. The aero position is positively comfortable, and -- if my ease of handling winds relative to my riding companions is any indication -- is still sufficiently aero to warrant the name.
After chili and an orange soda at the RBA's house, we leave Strasburg (Mile 171) at 6 pm. B arrives shortly before we leave and tags along. There is enough light that D and I ride without lights and still wearing sunglasses almost until we reach the final mediate control in Marshall. We are slowing down, but still making good time; that 42 miles takes 2:45. By Marshall (Mile 213) I feel dazed.
This stretch includes 10-15 miles of fast empty pavement along Highway 55. It is a treat. I sit in the aerobars and feel the tires float over the smooth tarmac as the light fades and traffic zips by on the parallel but separate Interstate 66. We also enjoy a low concrete bridge over the Shenandoah River, which in wetter springs is famous for stopping riders in their tracks as water rushes over the bridge, forcing them to wade their bikes through 100 yards of ankle-deep water in the dark -- a misstep carries the penalties of a dunk and a swim downriver! This spring is drier and we three encounter the bridge while it is still daylight.
We turned on the taillights not long after leaving the Strasburg control. No problems there. We add the headlights with 5 miles remaining to Marshall. Shortly thereafter my DiNotte flutters, telling me the batteries are low. Huh? After only 1.5 hours of use on the low setting this morning? I have left it plugged in (though off) all day, and the instructions teach the unit drains the batteries even when not on. I had assumed that meant over the course of several days, not several hours! The lesson must be to unplug the lamp when not in use, which is not terribly inconvenient but does require attention.
A second lesson is to wear a head-lamp. Reading the cue sheet in the dark is a challenge and I find myself stopping and lifting the bike to read street signs. Too, a head-lamp is a convenient way to carry a backup light. I had known this already, but the headlamp is easily left out of frenzied preparations. I think on the 600K in four weeks I will wear the second DiNotte on the helmet. If the lights are for the most part used singly, a third set of batteries (one set of back-ups) should be ample.
The last leg is from Marshall to Leesburg, via the posh hamlets of Middleburg and Purcelville. We leave Marshall at around 9:05 with 38 miles to go. I report to P__ that I am pretty sure we will make it by midnight; we have been riding far too strong to fall off to below 13 mph. We see B again, having lost him on the prior leg; he rolls into the 7-11 as we are preparing to leave.
The importance of the lighting becomes clear after Marshall. Having replaced the batteries with some from 7-11, I am now afraid to run the lamp on anything greater than low power. That makes reading the road difficult and impossible at high speed, so bumps I would have avoided now add to the discomfort from 16 hours of riding. It is also impossible on any but the best road surfaces to ride on the aero-bars (because of the sacrifice in control), so I lose the only remaining comfortable position. Sitting in the saddle and resting on the handlebars is simply miserable. And without a head-lamp I sacrifice my cue-sheet reading.
We have a route-finding SNAFU leaving the control, placing us several miles off-route before we discover the problem. Even as we violate a fundamental tenant of randonneuring by taking the shortest path to re-joining the route (instead of retracing to our point of deviation) we add 8 miles to the ride, plus at least 15 minutes sorting out our predicament.
This part should be fun. It is dark, quiet, not too cold; the cars are gone and the ones we do encounter are exceedingly polite; the climbing is not trivial but nothing I haven't done before; and the nutrition strategy has worked remarkably well on this ride, so my energy is up. But by Purcelville, which we reach just before midnight, the miles and the stress of riding blind in the dark leave me wanting to be done; because of the detour, we have covered a very hilly 400K already. I celebrate by sitting against propane tanks while D calls for backup.
So on the home stretch we violate a second randonnuering tenet. C__, who is meeting us at the end with pizza, beer, and a ride back to DC, pulls in behind us and lights the road ahead for the remaining 5 miles. So that's what it would have been like riding with two lamps on full power! And that's what it would be like in a sanctioned ultra-cycling event!
Partly it is better roads but largely it is the better light; I can once again sit in the aero bars and we roll at a good pace to the end. The computer has been out since well before Purcelville so I do not know our finishing pace, but the final _46_ miles from Marshall, including route-finding and my rest at Purcelville, took a not-shameful 3:40. (My guess as to riding pace has been about on.) We are back at the Days Inn at 12:45 am. C, true to her word, offered beer and pizza. I choose to take my carbohydrates purely in liquid form.
Packing light worked well. I carried only a frame bag, basic tools, and three tubes.
I will pack less food the next time and buy more on the way. I will fill the extra space with (1) slightly more warm clothes, and (2) two extra battery carriages loaded with charged batteries for the DiNotte lights.
No changes needed to bike fit. Maybe a saddle change; I will see how the new WTB saddle performs and may experiment with it on the 600K.
Electronics: D had an external battery charger that was billed as sufficient to fuel two iPads to full charge. That could easily keep the Garmin running for a full 1200K. No small sacrifice on size and weight, however, so I wonder if there is a smaller unit. The Garmin may have to stay behind on longer rides.
Riding with others is interesting. We genuinely enjoyed riding with B. Later in the day our pace was faster, but he could catch up again at the controls. Leaving Marshall we probably should have waited a minute or two longer for him to refuel and to join us (we already knew B did not dally at the controls). If nothing else, a third eye on the cue sheet might have saved us 8 extra miles and in the dark our speed advantage would be minimized. B did end up finishing before us, despite riding somewhat more slowly earlier in the day. There is also the unsurprising phenomenon that after spending nearly 16 hours riding with somebody you sort of feel awkward leaving that person behind.