Sunday, September 26, 2010

400K - Bremerton, WA to Pacific City, OR

Exceeding physical limitations comes at a cost. In the late spring, completing a 300k brevet put me in the hospital where specialists had to fix the damage I inflicted on myself when I ignored the cramps, thirst, fatigue and racing heart rate that should have warned me against pushing too hard too long. I returned to riding brevets, but had not gone that far since. The longest one day bike ride in my life had been the 190 miles it took to finish the 300k. This brevet would be 400K. Fear tinged my anticipation.

The 250 mile ride is scheduled to begin at 0:00 (midnight) on Friday. The family and I flew into Portland on Wednesday and drove to Vancouver, WA, to visit family. On Thursday, east coast circadian rhythms wake me at 3:30 a.m. At 4:00 a.m, it wakes the kids. Our hosts are still asleep, so I take the kids on a driving tour of pre-dawn Vancouver complete with hot chocolate. I plan to get some sleep later, in the afternoon.

When we return, the day begins in earnest. After breakfast, drive to Portland to pick up the rental bike - a 2009 Fuji touring bike, with a rear rack and black handlebar bag logoed with the names of the bike shop. The bike shop had installed 38mm tires at my request. Back to the house, I add my Brooks saddle, pedals, and trunk bag. On a test ride, the rear wheel shifts in the frame causing the tire to rub against the chainstays. I re-align it and torque down the quick release hard enough to leave an impression in my palm. By the time the bike prep is done, it’s time to go to the Amtrak station to catch the Cascade line to Seattle. No nap yet but I plan to get some to sleep later, on the train.

The Vancouver Amtrak station is a long yellow room with smooth, pew like benches. Patrons stand in line for help from the two women at the counter. The self ticketing machine stands off to one side unused. Outside, the railroad tracks separate the station from a large industrial operation. The airs smells lightly of sulfur. A baggage tag goes on the handlebars with SEA written in black magic marker.

Approaching headlights on the metal green bridge silently pre-announce the arrival of the train. After hugs and kisses and pictures, I board the train. Inside, burnt orange, beige and brown add color to the neo-seventies decor. As we travel north, the picture window frames the Columbia river, Washington farmlands and then the waters of the sound. In the warm light of the western sun, the northwest is tranquil green, wet and vibrant. Sleep does not happen with these views to remember.

The train reaches Seattle at 18:30. When the conductor unloads two co-motion bikes, the small bags, full fenders with mud flaps and clean precision identify them as belonging to Randonneurs. The owners, Lonnie and Joe, came from southern Utah to ride the 1000k that would start with the 400k but continue on to Kalamath falls by way of crater lake. We introduce ourselves at the station and then ride together to the ferry. Together, we pass time waiting for the ferry. Lonnie tells me about riding in the 2007 PBP. We try to sleep on the hour long ferry ride. No such luck.

Hours before the start, we arrive at the hotel where the ride will begin. I install my bike computer on the rental then enter the brightly lit lobby. The sit upright wooden armed chairs offer no opportunity for sleep. Other randonneurs begin to arrive. We sit, talk and mostly wait. A light rain falls. I hope that the few hours of quiet sitting will substitute for sleep.

Outside, reflective lines interspersed with red and white lights draw the images of riders gathering for the night ride. Bicycles gleam. Helmets, cycle optics, wool and lycra tights,  jackets of yellow, orange and neon green, require identification based on shapes, voices, forms and movement, instead of face. In a sense, it seems more honest.

The rain breaks as if on schedule. After final advice and instruction, the brevet begins. The group immediately transforms into an ever lengthening line of light and movement until all are on the road. Red taillights dance a conga line toward the horizon. The leaders set a fast pace. Surprisingly fast. They must be going well over 20 mph. A Chinese fire dragon flies into the night. Within the first miles, as I climb a small rise, it feels as if the brakes are on. The back wheel shifted left again and the tire rubs hard against the chainstay. I stop to reposition the wheel and torque down the quick release. The dance continues down the road.

Remounting, I chase the dragon through the streets of Bremerton. This is supposed to be a long ride not a sprint. My pace is too fast for me to maintain for 250 miles but, I push to hang on for now and get through this first section without using the cue sheet. I'll ease up on the long wooded stretch coming up.

In the quiet woods after Bremerton I ride alone. A rider closes from behind. His speed, while faster than my planned pace, is one I can hold if I push a little harder, plus he knows the area. I push a little harder. We ride together and talk eventually trade names. Mike from Washington helps me get oriented on the cue sheet. Unlike the east coast brevets I've done, this one has long stretches without turns- follow one road for 18 miles then another road for 29.7. Getting lost on a course like this could add hours to your ride. Eventually, Mike and I separate, his pace is not mine and we each have to ride our own brevets.

Somewhere in the first hours of the trip I hear !ping! from the back wheel followed by a feeling like I am riding through mud. The wheel is rubbing again. I fix it again. Now it has a wobble. It needs to be trued. I cannot true a wheel. It is one skill I have yet to learn. But then again, the wheels on my Surly have never gone out like this one has in an hour or two of riding. I am seriously rethinking the decision to do a brevet on a rental.

The need for sleep threatens to overwhelm me. The cool wet damp of the Pacific Northwest night is not enough to keep it at bay. Riding a bicycle is not enough to keep me alert. According to my east coast internal clock, it is past 4 a.m. but many hours of darkness lie ahead. I fight the need to sleep. The line I ride wavers with my effort to push back sleep. I move forward through shadow under a gray black sky.
I do not know where Mill first rode up on me. I remember there was a turn then a street light. I had stopped to fix or adjust something and to wonder if I fell asleep on the bike how much it would hurt when I fell. He asked if I was okay. I said yes, but he stopped waited just up ahead. Then we rode together. We talk about riding and family and folks we had met. Our conversation carries me through the darkest part of the night, those hours when even my imsomniac nights succumb to sleep. I am not much of a talker when it comes to strangers, but in the confessional darkness of this long brevet I am talking to a new friend and fellow traveler.

The course is minimally supported. The first controle is a closed general store at mile 55. A dog bark in the distance echoes in the night air.

Mill is riding the 400k then he will ride the 600k that starts at 3 am on Saturday. Doing the two brevets essentially back to back means that he will have less overall time to finish than if he just rode the 1000k. But he rode a 1000K earlier this season and still needs both a 400 and a 600. That means that he would ride two 1000K rides in one randonneuring season, his first. And he is a grandfather. I have a lot to learn.

The gray sky lightens in the east three hours later than my mind expects it and finally ends what may have been the longest night of my life. After leaving the road along the hood canal, we approach town lights. Mill picks up the pace. I match him for a while but, with more than 150 miles to go on an unfamiliar course, I drop back, let him go and continue alone into the new day.

The second control is a town at 105 miles. I arrive well ahead of my schedule. I rode a century - 100 miles- before breakfast - a first for me. I shovel calories at McDonalds, and use my Blackberry to try and find a bike shop to fix that rear wheel. The wobble and sliding in the dropouts are adding stops and time to my ride every time I have to adjust it. The closest shop is in Astoria, another 30 miles ahead. After a supermarket stop to pick up another 2100 calories of ensure plus, I am pedaling again. Off to Astoria.

The hot meal carries me though the next hour or so. But on the road to Astoria, my reptilian brain resumes its relentess search for a place to sleep. I can sleep in that front loader - no one will notice. That field looks cozy, people sleep leaning against trees don't they, barns have hay, hay is soft, those boats can't all be occupied. I just need an hour or two. My legs keep pedaling. I will sleep later, maybe at the bike shop.

On the road to Astoria, the sun comes out. Private dirt roads lead off into the trees. I stop to adjust the wheel. The grass is warm and dry. I lie on it there for a minute or two or more but the vibrating sound and thought of 55 mph traffic a few feet away from my body prevents me from sleeping. I continue on.

The bridge to Astoria has two lanes, one in each direction. It travels just above the surface of the Columbia River water for most of its four mile length before rising above the river like the first climb on a wooden roller coaster. Ships can pass under the curve.

I see the bridge miles before I cross it. A rest stop near the bridge entrance has picnic tables and a bathroom. I try to sleep on picnic table bench, elevating my cold wet feet. A microsleep later, I restart. There is construction on  the bridge. The flagman tells me I am two hours behind the first group and an hour behind the second. Great. Thanks. Then he holds traffic and lets me get a head start crossing the tightrope of shoulder that stretches across the river.

If Astoria has a bike shop it is not on the route. I fiddle with the rear wheel until it falls into place and crank down the quick release lever is cranked down again. Maybe enough tire will get worn off that the rubbing will stop.

The land of the Pacific Northwest has primordial beauty. The forest grows majestic at the edge of the cold Pacific sea. Under a clear sunny sky, I ride in it and through it and marvel at it. The course climbs from the Columbia river across Astoria then tracks 101 south along the Oregon coast.

Prom Bike shop in Seaside discovers and repairs the broken drive side spoke on the rear wheel that my sleep deprived brain failed to diagnose. 175 miles into the ride and I finally have a straight rear wheel. I resume the trip south. 

On the first climb out of Seaside toward Cannon Beach, the rear wheel slips left again and the tire rubs against the chainstay. I curse the wheel the bike and the shop that rented it.  On the shoulder of 101, I re-position the wheel and torque down the quick release and try to regain momentum up the long climb. 

There is a control at Cannon Beach at about 185 miles. This one has hot food. I get my card signed eat and rest as the sun slides toward the horizon. My banked time cushion is slipping away. I have yet to get any sleep.

Night overtakes me on 101 toward Nehalem. Friday night beach traffic is heavy. I use the white fog line as a guide to follow the shoulder. The road rises and falls in segments measured in miles. RV's and trucks and cars flash past. Calculating average speed is a challenge. At 190 miles, I cross into a personal distance record but I have 60 more miles to go to finish the brevet.

For the remaining 10 miles to Nehalem, I ride along the Oregon coast. The traffic to my left forces me to focus on the shoulder. The twinkle of evening stars presaged the rise of the harvest moon.

At an overlook, hundreds of feet above Nehalem. I pause in the darkness and listen to the sound of the ocean below. The Pacific transmits its power even through the pre-moon darkness. I feel it, sense it, around me. I am nothing. Insignificant and minute. One mistake away from infinity. In the darkness, the need to sleep has grown stronger and more demanding. I have been awake for over 40 hours straight. My reflexes and thoughts are  numbed and dull.

At Nehalem, I will reach 200 miles. The thought of 50 more miles of night riding through these hills almost more than I can comprehend. To do it, I will have to ride past midnight and I still may not make the cutoff. I am close, so close, but not close enough. In the starlight above the city, with the moon rising above the ocean,  I call my wife and ask her to pick me up at Nehalem. I am done.

Riding the 10 miles takes more than an hour. I load the bike, get in the minivan and sleep for the first time in 41 hours. 

Bikes line the walls outside the Pacific City Inn. A white folding board with SIR CONTROL in block letters and a flashing red light sits outside the open door of a first floor room. Inside the dimly lit room, the organizers, Geoff and Vinnie, wait for arriving riders.  

I do not know the procedure for a DNF or even if there is one. So I walk in and let them know I did not finish the ride. I remember something Laurent, a former RBA from New Jersey, said to me at a controle earlier this year when I asked if he had ever DNF'd. He said, "Of course. You are not a real randonneur until you have abandoned a brevet in the middle of nowhere." I tell Geoff and Vinnie that story. They laugh. Vinnie has ridden over 24,000 kilometers in brevets this year - that's just under 15,000 miles - and its only September. He congratulates me on riding 200 miles. I return to my family with my unfinished brevet card in hand and sleep and sleep and sleep. 

The next morning is warm and glorious. We drive up the coast and stop at a lighthouse and then a beach at the base of a cliff. Two gigantic peaks of rock jut out of the ocean, a millennia of history, serving as a nesting ground for cliff dwelling birds.

I wade thigh deep into the cold saltwater and feel the edge of the Pacific ocean ebb and flow and rise and fall and massage my tired legs. Children and dogs play at the fickle waterline.

An orange and white Coast Guard rescue helicopter appears from behind the cliff face and circles - whup whup whup - in a low search pattern. Rescue kayakers paddle out toward one of the peaks. A swimmer or surfer has gone missing on this gorgeous early fall day. The helicopter circles slowly grew wider and higher, expanding the search for the lost.


  1. You're a fine man Nigel. It's experiences like this that separate Men from the doe eyed cows of the male race.
    Until your body fails, and only your mind makes you don't really know what you are capable of.

    Good job sir, keep at it!


  2. Well written!
    Well ridden!
    There has to be better rental bikes available here in Portland! Makes me curious...

  3. Well written..
    Pleasure to had pedaled under the watchful moon with you

  4. Ha! Laurent told me the same thing! Welcome to the club.

    Front loaders do start looking very comfy. Also bus benches, used car lots, drainage culverts...

  5. Great write up. Thanks for posting.

  6. Nigel,
    Sorry to hear about your bike troubles leading up to the DNF. Great story though! Experience is bought with a different kind of currency, and it must be paid for in full! Once purchased though you will have it forever! Good job on what you did accomplish!