Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Leesburg 400K with ROMA (Randonneurs of the Mid-Atlantic)

I wanted to tell you what the course is like.

Maybe you are thinking of riding the upcoming Shenandoah 1200K and you have learned that this ride covers the first 170 or so miles of that route. Maybe you are reading this in 2014, or 2015, or even years after that, and looking for a clue as to what to expect in the way that I searched the interwebs to find some idea as to what to expect before I did this ride.

If that is the case, here are some facts:

The route starts in Leesburg, Va., just off Route 15. It is 251 miles long and, to get credit, a rider has to finish in less than 27 hours.

Within minutes the course leaves the commercial section and goes into residential neighborhoods which quickly transition to more rural areas and farmland. The route crosses the Potomac River early before traffic starts.

The first forty miles trend up hill immediately followed by a 4 mile steep climb that includes Spruce Run Road. That climbs leads to a long fast, but controlled descent on a moderate grade through Cunningham Falls State Park on a well paved road. You are now very close to Camp David.

The second controle is at 67 miles in Gettysburg, PA. After the controle, the route goes through some of the major battlefields of Gettysburg. The route then trends upward again, though not as steeply, through Antietam. You will pass many monuments of historic significance.

There is another long steep 3 mile climb that starts at about mile 86. This also leads to a long but controlled descent on a well paved road.

The third controle is at mile 116. Once you reach this point, the two major long steep climbs are done. Thereafter, the course trends downhill but it does so in rollers. These short steep climbs continue until the end of the ride. The last section has more climbs than the preceding section but not as many as the first. If you have planned your ride well and saved something for the end, it will pay off. Do not expect an easy finish in which to make up for lost time.

The course goes into four states, Virginia, Maryland Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It goes over, through and around Catoctin Mountain.

There. You now have some facts.

I also want to tell you what the ride was like because the facts alone do the ride no justice.

Maybe you would have ridden it but for that thing or the other that stopped you. Maybe you will never ride this course but want to know what it was like to have done so. Maybe you realize that giving facts about a ride is like saying that a rose is a flower with a stem, petals and thorns.

Every bike ride is like a piece of music. Sometimes, a ride is an orchestral piece performed by a peleton which, when done right, every instrument contributes to make something greater than the sum of its parts. Sometimes a ride is solo piece that draws inspiration from the soul to produce a melody unique to that day in its jubilance or its sparsity. Sometimes the music flows forth from a small ensemble in a free form session that improvises on the fly, riffing and running with impromptu solos that always come back to a steady baseline pace that weaves the individualities into one. Then, on a long brevet, like a 400K, the land and the weather will define the composition, giving it its final form - its place in the universe of temporality.

After casting a wide email net to the usual suspects, I managed to talk Patrick into doing the ride, or rather to give him the opportunity to say yes to the ride (after a bit of encouragement). We stayed at the less expensive Days Inn that was right next door to the start. The Days Inn does not have much to recommend it, other than clean sheets, indoor plumbing and a hot shower, but that was more than enough for someone looking at a 4:00 am departure and a pre-dawn return. It would do.

We were both a bit nervous about the ride. The course is loaded with climbs and has a reputation for being a challenge. Add to that, it would be new territory for me and that unfamiliarity always adds a touch of excitement to a brevet. Add to that is the fact that the ride organizer, ROMA RBA Matt Settle, does not post rider lists, so we had no idea if we would be the only ones doing the event. (We’d read somewhere that there was one ROMA event where only one rider showed up!)

I also drove past Catoctin Mountain on the way in to Leesburg - in daylight.  The mountain was big on the horizon, big in the sprawling tree covered ridge way that east coast mountains have. The highway ran parallel to the ridge, so it was in my peripheral vision as I drove. That was not encouraging. I had a hard time imagining climbing that squat blunt mountain of steep roads on a bike.

Turns out that we were not alone on the ride. DC Randonneurs Bill Beck and Chris were at the Comfort Inn start when we arrived as were maybe a half dozen other riders. The RBA was not. He overslept and was waken by a call from Chris from Florida. Oops. Florida Chris was here to ride her first ever 400k.  Bill and DC Chris stepped up to pinch hit. Cue cards were copied and distributed and plans were made for the RBA to meet us on route. One young man knocked off a few push ups while we were waiting. I decided that I would NOT follow him at the start. By the time the 5:00 am start arrived, we were 11 riders ready to roll. And off we went. RBA Matt met us a short time later, within the first few miles. Then, with waivers signed and cards in hand, off we went again.

The Potomac River is wide and tranquil at the point we crossed just past dawn. The homes of a Maryland town nestle in raked positions on the opposite bank. 

At that point our group was three: Patrick, Tim from DC, and me. We were together by chance but not yet committed for the ride. We climb cobblestone streets past white stucco houses that edge along the sidewalks. The town reminded Patrick of France.

We ride past vineyards and lush green dairy farms. It is early spring. The farms have calves and lambs that frolick in play. Occasionally, they flee with gangly legs at half speed toward maternal safety when a bicycle surprises them but stop short to look back and stare. Young bulls hop and kick. 

Before the ride, Bill O. warned me to keep my front wheel on the ground when going up Spruce Run Road. Once on it, I knew why. It is steep, then steeper. But the price you pay when going up Spruce Run Road gives you admission to a long shweeeet downhill through State Park Lands near Cactoctin Mountain. A school bus trailed us, blocking cars from passing. We rode down at 25-35+ mph for miles, fast but controlled, along a tree lined road with no cross traffic.That was one of the best downhill rides I have ever done.

Spring wildflowers layered the fields of Gettysburg.  In preparation for the ride, I brushed up on the history of the three day battle at Gettysburg. It turns out that Tim had visited before and knows quite a bit about the place. We toured the fields, talked of what we knew and learned. So many lives lost in such a beautiful place.
"We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract." Abraham Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address.
 So many lives lost. Such a beautiful place.

The beauty extended beyond the battlefields. We rode through wine county and horse country. We rode past farms on hillsides and stone walls built at the beginnings of the nation.

Early spring means fluctuating temperatures. Lows in the 40s highs in the 60s. Sunburn and hypothermia. Climbing and descending means working up a sweat and then chilling on the descent. We peeled layers. We added layers. I worked the zippers, the zipper on my shirt, the zipper on my jacket, and the zipper on my vest, working to find the right balance between heating and cooling.

At Matt's house, a controle on the course, we meet up with Florida Chris. She was on her first 400k and night was falling. She had ridden solo most of the day and but now joined Tim, Patrick and I. Just like that, our trio became a quartet.

Night riding is an odd affair. It is best done in groups, in fact, Tom Rosenbauer (PA RBA) told me that the unwritten rule of Randonneuring is to ride with someone at night. It's a good rule, I know because I have broken it. On the night of the 400k we four made a good group, riffing and running, climbing and descending, following the tempo of the land.

At one point a meteor flashed overhead, streaking bright in the night sky. The universe adding its own addition to the piece.

It was a ride measured in miles and climbed by the tens of thousands of feet. The day began. The sun rose. Songs were sung and battles remembered. The day ended. The stars fell from the sky. And our ensemble rode to the finish together.

P.S. I took pictures.
 You can see them here:  Leesburg 400K
I recommend "slideshow"


  1. Lovely writeup as usual, Nigel. Great way to spend the day, chatting, riding, singing, yakking... Thanks for convincing me to join the adventure!

    1. Thanks for the company! You make a great rando partner.

  2. Well written, interesting piece Nigel. Congratulations on finishing a tough 400k. Your report brings back memories of my attempt at the first Shenendoah 1200k, the hottest ride I've ever been on Only made it to 600k where I DNF'd along with 50% of the field. You and Patrick have accomplished something I've never been able to do; Finish a ride in Virginia. I'm 0-2 on VA rides, (1200k, 600k) both DNF's due to heat, poor choice of pace, and too much climbing. Still hope to get it done there one day.

    1. Thanks Joe. If you didn't finish then I know those must have been TOUGH days. Even in the almost ideal temps for climbing that we had, I could easily see how a hot day would make this a formidable challenge. We were fortunate to have the ability to cool down on descents. When you go to get it done, I would certainly be willing to go with you - depending on the length of the course.