Monday, August 23, 2010

Foggy Four Hundred and other things that go snort in the night

This past Saturday was the Apple Valley 400k.  The 400k is my very favorite distance and this ride in particular was my first brevet ever.  This year was a re-route to cut a little climbing and add some scenic sections so I was quite happy to be able to ride.  Also, Rick from the fleche earlier this year was riding and it's always nice to have friendly faces.  The weather was predicted to be excellent.  What else could I possibly ask for?  This really did turn out to be a great ride, though not quite the one I was expecting.  But I will always remember it for the night ride and our encounter with the strange, snorting "possum".

It started from the AmericInn in Apple Valley at 6:00am on a VERY foggy morning.  Rob gave all his announcements standing on the bed of his pickup in the fog.  I remember thinking at the time that it was sort of like a surreal kind of randonneuring revival with him waving his cue sheets in the air, "let there be no detouring on highway 52 or suffer the wrath of the RBA!"  Maybe you had to be there.

So we started off.  The prediction was that the fog would clear around 9 or 10 am so I was quite happy to pedal off.  As we rode out of Apple Valley, I couldn't help but noticed that large groups of riders were staying together.  In fact, about a dozen of us were together for the first 30 miles to the first control in Cannon Falls.  I couldn't really say who they were or exactly how many there were because I really couldn't see more than out 10 feet in front of me.  This had everything to do with the thick fog and some to do with the fact that I had to take my glasses off due to water accumulation and without them, I can only see about 10 feet.

At Randolph, Rick and I were the only ones to make the turn and wound up leading for the 5 miles into Cannon Falls (at least there were no turns and the blind really can lead the blind at times).  I wondered about the irony of so many missing a turn that the two people with really bad vision made.  I have been on this section before so I know that it is very pretty and quaint with lots of farms. Of course, they were hiding.

The fog rolled in - can you see the bike ahead?

At Cannon Falls, we ran into Rob, who told us that he couldn't even see every one's lit tail lights.  I turned my amped up Dinotte on after that.  IronK bought it for me because it really can be seen from orbit.  I picked up water and ate a Clif Bar.  The humidity was about 95% and it was starting to get hot.  It was at this point that I realized that we were going quite fast for a 400k.  My average speed was 17.5 MPH!  Several people commented that we would be tuning it down soon since no one wanted to burn out early.

We then said goodbye to Rob and pedaled off to Goodhue, 23 miles away.  Here it got fun.  The fog continued to obscure everything in sight.  About 7 miles down the road, Rob had warned us about a road that had some packed gravel.  It turned out that today, it was being paved.  At least 10 trucks were lined up on the road and about 20 of us waited at a flagman to pass.  He had a long discussion with his counterpart on the other end about "low boys", "hot bellies" and some other things I didn't quite catch.  He then waved us through, though I thought he had sent us just about the time the other guy was sending something up the road.  If you have never descended on a bicycle through the fog and realized that a 10 ton truck full of tar was headed straight for you, you are really missing out on some of the great fun of the sport.  Indeed, as we descended the hill on REALLY fresh pavement, here came a tar truck and some really big flatbeds.  We rolled with it and it was a little like playing Indy 500 for Atari.

About 5 miles out of Goodhue, I realized that I was still averaging about 17 miles per hour.  I dropped off the end realizing that either my hamstring would burn out on a hill or my blood sugar would crash at about 10:00 pm that night.  As it was, I'd ridden too hot for too long already.  It isn't often that I do a 3 hour half century on a 400k.  I arrived 60 seconds behind everyone else and felt a bit less tired.  I then tried to compensate by eating fig newtons, a Naked drink, a V8 and another Clif bar.  Others were marveling at how quickly we were going.  By this time it was closing on 10:00 and still the fog was as thick as ever.  I really started wishing that I could see, but fortunately I knew this part of the route and my GPS beeped if I got off track.

Rick at Goodhue - He has really cool hammered fenders
The next section, between Goodhue and Plainview, is one of the hillier parts of the route.  4 of us, Rick, Andre, myself, and a very interesting guy from Madison, hereafter known as Dreadlock Guy,  started off together and toned down the pace to 15-16 mph.  We chatted for the next 10 miles and I wound up giving Andre my backup map.  It turns out that he had brought the 200k cue sheet and Rob had also accidentally given him yet another copy of the wrong cue sheet.  I had mine laminated in double sided sections.  It's a habit I picked up after my last 400k and it really is nice to not have to worry about wet or crumbling cue sheets.  $1 at Office Max and you are set to go with an indestructible cue sheet that doesn't flap in the breeze.

The big hills started at this point and I let the others go on since I still have to climb slowly from my lame hamstring.  At Millville, I stopped to see if I could help Mark O and Mike A.  Mike's hub had caved in and he and Mark were attempting to come up with some kind of on the spot repair.  Mark has ridden enough brevets to encircle the planet at least 4-5 times and is the only one besides myself who has an one-the-go chain whip in his bag (called a hypercracker).  They were able to get Mike at least to Plainview (the next control) where his wife brought him a new wheel (ah, the joy of being a rando spouse).  I talked to Mark briefly before letting him continue climbing at his own pace instead of my wimpy one.

When I got to Plainview a bit after noon, Rick was at the control.  We chatted and I bought a bunch of food.  We then both headed for Subway where others were waiting.  I decided at this point that I was in a more social mood so I took my food with me.  Sometimes, it's really nice to not be totally anal about rushing controls.  Bob, who I rode with last month in the 600k, was there along with Dreadlock Guy who had broken his cleat, and some others.  We ate and discussed the various ways to make his foot stick to the pedal - duct tape, super glue, etc.  In the end, he decided to rough it out on the broken cleat instead.  I amused, at least temporarily, by reading the nutritional info off my Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie (see previous blog entry for details); this is my new favorite rando food dubbed by the group as "The Calorie Bomb".  I'm sure many would possibly give us an F in time efficiency, but it's quite late in the season and I don't think any of us were riding for a new record.  I always appreciate a good laugh.

So we all powered back up slowly for the 30 miles from Plainview to Stockton.  At this point, the fog finally lifted and the steaming hot sun made its first appearance.  The next section had some hills through Whitewater State forest and I again dropped back to enjoy the climb on my own.  Mark O and Mike F caught up to me and we rode on and off for a few miles until some shouted "Secret Control!"

First, there wasn't a secret control, but at least 5 bikes were pulled over next to a really odd looking metal scaffold and a guy carrying a big leather harness (no, not that kind of leather harness).  It turned out the owner was offering free zip line rides.  I don't know how many go by his setup since it's on a country road in the middle of nowhere, but wonders never cease.  As soon as he found out it wasn't a secret control, Mark O was gone like a shot.  I stopped long enough to take this picture.
Randonneurs ready for zipping
Okay, I considered my options briefly, but I was having to climb slowly and I decided that if I broke my neck on a brevet while not riding, it might qualify me for a Darwin award or something worse.  I opted out and Mike F and I attempted to catch up to Mark, who remained tantalizingly close but never caught.

Mike and I had a nice ride through rollers and down a screaming hill to Rollingstone, which is a very quaint little town with several bars and lots of big houses with porches.  Then we hit what may have been the hardest part of the ride: the hill out of Rollingstone.

This hill isn't that steep, or even that long.  But the slight wind was behind us and there was no shade.  The sun wailed down like a heat gun and at one point I considered walking, but realized that the bottom of my shoe might melt  if it touched the pavement.  Sweat ran off me like a river, and that doesn't happen very often.  About halfway up, a man and his wife were pulled over on the side of the road loading rocks from the cut of the hill into their truck.  I wonder if that is really legal, but I didn't stop to ask.  Mike was stopped at the top of the hill but I rode past since my brain was close to melting and I was nearly out of water.  He caught up to me about 3 miles later and we proceeded down another screaming hill to the control.
The descent is just along the side of this hill, it looks so benign in this picture
Mark was at the control already and we marveled at the hot conditions.  I drank a V8, a chocolate milk and a blue slurpee, which made my entire mouth blue for the next 40 miles.  Everyone else showed up about 15 minutes later with stories of the zip line.  Fortunately, no broken bones - maybe I'll try it next time.  By this time, it was about 4:00 pm.  Time to get going home, we were halfway there.

Mike F and Mark O climbing out of Stockton
The climb out of Stockton is really very pretty, not as steep as some, but it's long and is followed by lots of rollers.  Several people passed me on the climb and I had a nice talk with Andre about first bikes and being an adolescent cyclist.  At this point, we turned north and discovered that, indeed, there was wind on this day.  Andre went ahead and I rode with Rick and Price, from Iowa.  Price is just the type of guy I really like to happen across in a headwind: he has a big frame and can pull for a long time.  Chivalry is not dead.

Price, the pulling machine
We rode into Elba, which has a really beautiful old style church, to the sound of head banger rock'n roll coming from a log cabin.  No town festival, just some guy having some kind of time.  I separated from the group as we climbed out of Elba alone for sometime.  Somehow, I managed to pass Price and I caught up to Rick just outside Plainview.  We ran into Andre who suggested a departure from gas station food and Subway: a real chinese buffet.  Again, the anal randos might call us fools, but Price, Andre, myself, Rick, Richard and Dan all had a really nice Chinese meal full of rice and salt (everything a growing rando needs).  I ate 2 plates of fried rice, especially after realizing that I had a crusty salt layer on my face from the heat.  It was great.  Sure we blew an hour, but it wasn't like we were going to do anything else more fun if we go in an hour earlier. 

Knowing there was climbing coming, I took off a bit before the others.  Turns out that even fried rice needs digestion time and I was pretty slow for a few miles.  Some others passed me in a line, but I was having a little cramp and decided to let them go ahead.  Mark O and Mike F passed me, but I caught up to them at Millville, just as the sun went down.  Mark assured me that Millville to Hammond was a beautiful section.  I was glad we saw it because he was right.  At dusk, my picture didn't come out well but here it is.

Along the Zumbro River
We reached Highway 63 and paused as Rick and Price caught up to us.  The 5 of us wound up being together for just about the rest of the ride.  By this time, it was very dark and it's always a good idea to bunch up for night riding.

Just outside Mazeppa, Rick had a flat and all of us stopped to provide lights to fix it.  It was here that we had "the encounter".  I decided that while Rick change the flat, I would avail myself of the very nice patch of cornfield.  So I stepped off the side of the road and ambled into the dark for some illusory privacy (how private can it really be with 4 men standing 20 feet away).  As I paused with my shorts in a somewhat compromising position, something snorted quite loudly behind me.  Understandably, this was a startling event causing me to draw the attention of those 4 men standing 20 feet away; sometimes you just can't get the kind of solitude you really want in a cornfield in the dead of night.  As we finished the tire, whatever it was continued snorting at us from some unseen position.  Being a city dweller, I have no idea what it was.   Someone said it could be a possum.  Really are possums that big?  Whatever it was, it was getting distinctly more snorty until we finally rode off into the night.  Several have postulated everything from deer to coyotes to wild pigs.

The section from Mazeppa to Zumbrota had a few hills and we nearly missed a turn on a hill which I was just as glad not to miss (thank you Mark and GPS).  We rolled into Zumbrota at about 10:30 after being lost for awhile after an old arrow detoured us.  One of the riders that I knew was at the control looking somewhat sickly.  I asked and he said he thought he have passed a kidney stone.  Normally, I wouldn't mention a detail like this, but really this is the pinnacle of the randonneuring spirit: how many men can say that they would ride on even with a kidney stone.  That is dedication at its finest.

So 6 of us left the Zumbrota control and rode the final 60 miles back.  The major hills were all behind us and the last 30 miles back to Cannon Falls were gentle rollers.  The nearly full moon was a real treat as well and, sure enough, the road crew had completely finished paving the road that we had ridden through earlier in the day, not a hot belly in sight.

At Cannon Falls, we paused briefly but by this time, it was 1:30 am and I was ready to be done.  I always buy something at controls but this time, I was in such a rush I got into line with nothing.  Not wanting to break a habit, I grabbed the only thing close by: a blow pop.   Bob, Rick and I left Mark, Mike and Price and headed out.  We had put on some night gear at Zumbrota, it was getting a bit chilly in the low spots.  Unhappily, the fog had returned by this time.  I had to take my glasses off once again and it's really quite hard to be in the dark and nearsighted.

There is a bar outside Randolph and we got there just at bar close.  Several rather drunk people milling along the side of the road asked if they could borrow our bikes.  I have never had that happen before for sure.  About 5 miles later, a car was pulled over on the side of the road for yet another scene (really, they should have a soap opera about these people in Randolph).  A couple was having some kind of domestic dispute and the girl had gotten out of the car, run to the other side of the highway, and was yelling at the boyfriend, still in the car, that he was, in fact, an ass and some other things.  Really, the human drama that you find on a brevet in the dead of night is not to be missed.

About 5 minutes later, the other 3 caught up to us and we finished the last 15 miles together in the fog.  Nothing else really happened except I nearly turned wrong about 4 times due to inability to read and Mark boldly led us, incorrectly, around a traffic circle to dead end in a parking lot.  At least we were only a few feet off course.

Sign in at the AmericInn was bittersweet, the end of a brevet is always a sad/glad thing for me.  Let's face it, by the time you complete 250 miles, you are darn tired and at this point it was 3:50 am.  We all said our goodbye's somewhat quickly.

I will have the pleasure of riding with Bob at least one more time this year at the Apple Valley 600k in September.  Hopefully, Rick and some others will make it as well.  Still 3 brevets to go here in Minnesota.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Swans in Oz: Training with the Birds and the Wind from Hell

Most of the time I don't write up training rides.  But this one was different.  I haven't had my schedule coincide with Shredder's all summer, and he loves this route.  Of course, even he hadn't done it in weather like this.

For 2 weeks Minnesota endured a heat wave of titanic proportions.  Something like 10 days above 90 with dew points in the 70s, severe thunderstorms that brought no relief, nights in the 70s, etc.  I could have roasted a rack of lamb in my car during the day.  This past Sunday was the first day without major heat and humidity for a long time and all the cyclists were drooling over the weather report as though it were made of fudge sauce.  Finally, an end to the oppressive heat was in sight!  Of course, a front strong enough to push heat like that away must have some juice of its own: this one had wind.

I got up at 5:30 am and readied for a 7:00am start.  Course' about 5 'til 7, I got a phone call - "are we meeting at 8" asked a somewhat caffeine deprived voice?  We didn't leave until 45 minutes later.  I have to say, needing arm warmers and knee warmers was quite odd after practically wanting to shed my clothing for the past 2 weeks.  As we pulled onto the main road, the wind was already strong.  The loop we planned would take us northwest for about 50 miles, then north for about 15, then back east for 20, due south for 30 and angle back in for a total of 138 miles.  All the hills were to be in the latter part of the ride.

We stopped at 8 miles at a Caribou coffee in Wayzata.  A town right on Lake Minnetonka, Wayzata is one of those lovely lakeside towns that could be the setting for some kind of tv show on Scy Fy: everyone is just too beautiful and rich to not have something weird going on "just underneth".   But the coffee is good.  At that point, the wind was already a killer and it was 8:30am.  Thinking back to the wind on Day 2 of the Cascades, I suggested that we reverse the loop.  Do the hills first in the wind and leave that 50 mile flat part for the return (when we would have a tail wind).  Shredder agreed, he hadn't ridden this ride in reverse before.  I still maintain this was a sound tactic.

So we wound northwest out of Wayzata, past a golf course (anyone thinking devil worship here?) and out onto the western rollers to Delano.  This section is basically rural with many hobby farms whose cows and donkeys look like they eat better than I do.  The wind was getting quite a bit worse, but otherwise, the weather was perfect: 60s with bright sun.  Then "pop goes the tire".  Shredder lives up to his name once again.  As we pull over and yank the rear tire, he first tries to convince himself that the stem just wasn't screwed on well enough.  We pump it up with my road morph and hear hissing from a huge hole that needs a boot.  "This is a brand new tire!" Of course, when you have brand new tires is always about the time you ride through a massive glass field.  We boot the tire and get going again, stopping in Delano about 2 miles later.  It's here that I make my first mistake of the day: failing to estimate just how long it will be before we have another stop.  It's about 10:00am and we fill bottles, I eat a Skor bar.  I think we will be stopping in Rockford, not realizing it's only 5 miles up the road and that we won't stop there.  I also have only one package of Clif Shots.  We are heading into a section with about 20 miles of heavy cross winds followed by 25 miles of heavy headwinds.  Should have eaten up half the store.

After Delano, we wind north to Rockford.  Rockford is another pretty town right on the Crow River.  We pass Lake Rebbeca Park, which is always very pretty.  Thanks to the many thunderstorms, everything is lush and overgrown.  I am sad to see that one of the roadside farms has hacked off their overgrown arbor.  Last summer, it was full of grapes and plums that hung over the road and were a nice snack.  None of that ever again, instead we see only a worn fence.

It's River Days in Rockford and we can just smell the saturated fat as we ride into the park alongside the Crow River.  There are all kinds of food options here, but I breeze right by (must have still been full from the candy bar).  A church group is singing a hymn right in the middle of it.  Shredder warns me to avert my ears, lest I burst into flames (evangelicals sometimes don't like us lesbians).  I try to be nonchalant in my spandex.  As we pass the various stands, I am struck again by the Stephen King'esque booths.  One is actually full of dolls just staring into space, the old fashioned kind with the moving eyes.  Now that is something you just don't see on every bike ride.

We climb out of Rockford on a steady hill and see a juvenile bald eagle circling on the wind.  The river valley had been a shelter from the wind, but it's back in full force now.  We press on for about 10 miles passing farmland and wetlands interspersed with each other.  Before farming, this area was probably crane territory and it still has lots of birds.  It is here that we pass our first batch of swans.  The road is north-south and sits atop a levy with water coming right to the edges.  2 full sized Trumpeters, one banded, float serenely on the water with 6 large cygnettes.  They are within 20 feet and are unconcerned about us: must be the spandex.  We stop and watch them, amazed at how big the cygnettes are.  Probably all of them will at least take off on the migration.  I have a thing for swans being somewhat of an ugly duckling myself.  Course, I'm still waiting for the "turn into the beautiful swan thing"  maybe that comes at 50.  The swans finally glide off into the cattails and we continue on.  We amble our way around, side stepping the town of Buffalo Lake and staying on nice rural roads with rollers.  The wind is so strong that it keeps us riding tilted.  We stop at Bebee Lake for free water (but no food).  2 days ago we would have been swimming here, but the lake is rough and only a few brave souls are out on the beach in a 20-30 mph wind.  One water skier makes about 5 attempts and gives up.

We are approaching Monticello and I am getting hungry and ready to stop.   About 3 miles out of town, Shredder suddenly turns left.  "We don't actaully go through Monticello," he says,"the next town is only about 25 miles and the easy part is over".  The wind hits me dead in the face and I nearly stop from the resistance.  I wonder how long the next 25 miles will be.

The answer is: long.  This is a hilly section with large rollers, at least the rollers give some break from the windiest part of the day (it's now noon and we have managed only 40 miles in 4 hours with the strong winds and 3 stops).  It's very pretty though with more wetlands, though there are white caps on some of the bigger ones.  I eat my Clif Shots and wonder about how long this can feel.  But I amuse myself by appreciating the sights.  I am careful here though, my hamstring starts feeling the pressure of the climbing coupled with the wind: this was the combo that eventually tore it to pieces in the Cascades.  I vow this will be different and back off as needed.  As we crest a hill, vultures are near motionless in the air at about 10 feet as they swarm some roadkill.  I haven't seen vultures up that close in flight before; it's a real treat.

It's about an hour and a half later that we hit Clearwater Lake and turn south.  The wind is so strong that flag poles are bending.  Clearwater is a large lake and it's full of 2-3 foot swells, not a boat in sight on the water.  We wind around it, bending the bikes to stay upright.  Annandale is still 5 miles aways and we continue west fighting the wind as we go.  Fluffy cumulus clouds skip through the sky.

It's about 2:15 when we chug into Annandale.  I haven't been to this town and on a Sunday afternoon, most of the bars are closed (there are at least 6 of them on Main Street).  We find a Holiday gas station, which appears to be the local hangout du jour.  We stop for food.  I was famished.

If you have never been starving in a gas station, you can't really appreciate how good truck stop food actually is.  I got a chicken salad sandwich, a big bag of potato chips, V8, peanut butter cups and, on a whim, a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie.  It's  a few minutes later and I peruse the wrapper of the cream pie.  The thing is the size of a 3 inch oatmeal cookie.  BUT, it has a whopping 410 calories!  I read on, 66 grams of carbs, 15 grams of fat (4.5 staruated), 3 grams of protein and 8% of my daily iron requirement for a low, low price of 75 cents.   This is even cheaper than a quart of chocolate milk (which I have also been known to drink).  Sure there's enough saturated fat to up my cholesterol count about 10 points,  but fortunately mine is only about 140 anyways. 

We chow outside on a picnic table.  I eat everything and try to call IronK (she's on her 3 round of chemo and it's time for those pesky mental tests to make sure the chemicals are eating her brain too much).  I leave many messages, but she doesn't call back - kind of odd.

At least we only have about another 5 miles of westerly travel. Then the wind should become our friend.  At Annandale, we are at around 64 miles and it's taken almost 6.5 hours to get there.  My legs ache from the effort and I do some quick yoga to stretch them.  We take off again and just outside of town, we see our second batch of swans.  This set is also just near the road, hidden in a gulch.  They have 5 cygnettes all beginning to turn white.  Really cool to see.

We pass a really cool motorcycle sculpture at a farm about 5 miles down the road.  The farm is off a roller and usually Shredder just whizzes by (going the opposite direction).  But we are climbing into the wind and we take a short break to admire it.  Then we finally turn south for 5 miles and head back east.

If you have never fought wind and suddenly had the tables turn, it's a real treat.  We went from working hard to make 12 mph to easy cruising at 25.  Of course Lance probably rides at these speeds in the wind, but I imagine that I have a rocket mounted on my chainstays and feel good anyways as we begin the trip back.  It's just outside the town of Cokato that I nearly encounter death by schnauzer.

Dogs hate me.  I don't know why.  This one came out of nowhere through a soybean field. Ususally, I just speed up and as soon as I hit the property line (e.g. the territory), they quit.  Not this one.  It just kept coming and fast.  I looked over my shoulder and it was catching up quick.  About this time, we hit a big grinding roller.  Not really what I want to sprint on.  Of course, the dog is still going so I go too.  I race up the roller, he matches my speed (this dog must be on crack).  Shredder starts laughing, I tell him that it's his responsibility to slow down and get bitten for me, the whole chivalry thing.  The dog is with us for nearly a mile.  Finally, we got to the top of the roller and outran him at 20 mph or we would never have gotten rid of him.

We stop for water and I try IronK again, and again.  Then I get a call from another friend who has also been trying to reach her.  Where can she be?  I get another V8 and marvel at the nicely decorated bathroom.  It's the only gas station I have ever been in with artwork and mood lighting in the ladies room.  Outside is drama in the form of a hot roded 60s' Plymouth.  The owner is attempting to get it started and asks Shredder to watch it while he is away.  We marvel at this car; it has a massive amount of rust, a harness for a seat belt, the speedometer is mounted outside the car, the hood is bolted shut with what looks like some kind of rube goldberg device.  There is no muffler and the exhaust is just sticking off the side of the car.  Eventually, the owner returns with a portable battery and gets it started.  The car lurches out of the parking lot and onto the street like the transmission is about to go at any second.  There are times I really wish I brought my camera.

We have only 50 miles to go and a tailwind. But I am nervous about not reaching IronK.  It's 4:30 now.  We cruise in the tailwind for another half hour before I can't take it anymore and call BigG to do an emergency home invasion.  These things we can do with cell phones now.  He and Barb go over and finally rouse IronK out of her chemo-induced stupor.  She finally calls me:  wow was she out of it.  It's hard to see her so wacked out, but the relief is huge.  The oncologist added a new anti-nausea med which apparently works by inducing 24 hour slumber.  I guess that kind of works.  I give her the mental tests, takes awhile, but she can still add.  BigG says she sounds out of it but she is okay and I can enjoy the tail wind home.

And the tail wind is glorious!  We cruise 50 miles in only about 2.5 hours.  I am briefly charged by a herd of cows (they must be collaborating with the dogs), but otherwise the pavement is good and my legs are doing okay as well.  We are back home by 8:00pm, about 12 hours total with a really big negative split.  I ice my hamstring later that night.  It's still not up to snuff but the PT is helping and I am pretty sure the damage won't be permanent. 

Next weekend is the Apple Valley 400k.  This was my first brevet ever, so it has sentimental value.  No Shredder this time, he has vowed to never do another brevet, but at least one friend from the fleche will be there so it should be a good time.  Let's hope for just a little less wind.