Saturday, November 12, 2011

Flatbread 200K - the wind blows

November 12, 2011
Randonneuring is not a race.  
Friendly camaraderie, not competition, is the hallmark of randonneuring.

I tried to keep my growing desperation and disappointment out of my voice. 
"Joe, I really appreciate your riding with me and all the pulling you've done. But if you want to go ahead, I understand."  It was my attempt at a "leave me here, save yourself" offer.
We were approaching 100 miles in what would have been a personal best century time for me when a left turn put us back into a stiff unrelenting headwind for the umpteenth time.  This time, I couldn't hold the pace. I was bonking and cramping and the freaking WIND was IN. MY. FACE. AGAIN!! 
Over thirty miles left. Riding a fixie for the first time on a brevet didn't help. No gears to change and no coasting. Go or no go. Those were the choices. I steeled myself to suffer through the end of the ride alone. And the day had started so innocently . . .

The Invite.
About a month ago,when my rando friend Katie learned that I bought a fixed gear bike, she immediately suggested I ride it in the Flatbread 20Ok. The DC  Randonneurs host the Flatbread in the flat terrain of eastern Maryland and Delaware. When I told her I was still learning to ride it, she replied that the course was fixie friendly and I'd be fine.  My rando friend Chris seconded the idea. She rode the course on on her fixie just weeks after getting it. I told them I'd think about it.

The prep.
In the weeks that followed the invite, short rides around the city gave me the opportunity to become familiar with what it really means to have one gear and not be able to coast. For those who may not know, a fixie or fixed gear bike has one gear. That gear turns with the wheel. No changing gears and no coasting, ever. To move the bike you have to pedal and if the the bike is moving the pedals are turning.To ride it is to keep pedaling. Always.

If you "forget" to pedal, you get a jolting reminder. The momentum of the wheel immediately shoves the pedal up into your foot and leg - a kind of shock therapy. I learned that I coasted a lot more than I realized. Over rough road, through turns, over tracks, approaching a red light, braking.  Having one gear also means that uphill, downhill, fast or slow, the speed of the wheel and the rotation of the pedals are one. Climbing takes strength. The steeper the stronger. Speed requires spinning - faster and then faster until yours legs blur in a circle like a 70's cartoon character set to take off running. Meep-meep!

When the day came, I figured I was ready to give it a go - even though my longest ride on the bike was less than 30 miles, with long breaks.

Dawn of a new day.
A pre-dawn two hour drive to Centreville, Maryland in the light of a full moon. A time for reflection and mental preparation. For the soundtrack for the dawn of this day, I chose the ancient Sanskrit chant Gayatri Mantra. My mirrors captured the glory of the rising sun as I headed west.

The weather forecast predicted temps rising to about 60 degrees and a "breezy" day. Right now the air was still and cold.

Checking in
I arrived at the pizza place that would serve as the start of the brevet. Cars carrying bikes lined the sidewalk. Dozens of riders prepping for the day - a large turnout for a 128 mile unsupported trek.

This would be my first ride with the DC Randonneurs - I did not know most of the riders. Then I saw Joe K. from NJ at the check-in. Though we have not ridden together for a full ride, I know Joe from the NJ and PA brevets as a rider and a volunteer and from his blog (MellowYellowbent). With well over 10,000K of rando rides this year, including PBP, Joe is a strong, consistent rider and more importantly, a good person.  

"Hey Joe! Good to see you! I didn't know you were going to be here."
"Katie talked me into it." We chatted. I noticed that Joe brought his Fixie for the ride. "Is she here yet?" I asked. "She and Chris should be here soon." He replied. 

After I checked in, more folks began to arrive. It looked like there would be well over fifty riders. As the group grew, I saw more folks I knew and a couple, "MG" and "Felkerino" that I recognized from their blogs, Chasing Mailboxes and The Daily Randonneur, although we had not yet met in person. They brought a tandem. Katie and Chris arrived too. It was good to see my fleche teammates.

The Start
After final instructions and route warnings ("watch out for gravel!"), we rolled onto the course. I rode with Katie and Chris catching up on recent events as we warmed to the task at hand. 

I find that riding a fixie moderates speed by taking the edges off accelerations and decelerations. The ride defaults to constancy and steadiness. A real world application of Newton's first law of motion - an object in motion tends to stay in motion. On the flat course, I settle into a groove and move forward. 

Trees show their Autumn colors. Hues of red, orange, brown intermingle over green fields and against a sharp blue sky. This Fall, after riding at least 200k rides at least once a month for the last 18 months, temperatures in the 30s do not shock as they did last year. The air is cold but vibrant.

                                                           We meet Steve. He is riding his first brevet, inspired by a friend who rode PBP. Steve joined our impromptu group. Welcome Steve.

At the information controle, we see Joe. He had stopped to check a sound he heard on his bike. 

Later we see Joe again. He has diagnosed the problem and realizes that he will have to ride through and make a repair after the ride. He rides on with the quiet confidence born of tens of thousands of kilometers of  rando success.
Forming a paceline
The wind blows. We form an informal drafting line, taking turns into the wind. Katie and Chris settle back into their own ride. Our group is now three. Soon Joe points out that we would be more efficient if we rode in a proper paceline. After some quick instruction (for my benefit), we settle into the shifting rotating mass that is a paceline, taking turns as the spearhead, and move faster into the wind than I could have managed on my own.

American flags, the unofficial wind gauges, fully extend from their poles. You can almost count the stripes. Ahead of us, a solo rider bows to the unrelenting force of nature. Our paceline bridges the gap and the rider joins in. A few miles pass. The fourth decides to leave the line. A paceline helps, but you still have to pedal the bike.

On being Efficient.  
59 miles to the first controle. The controle sheet lists a coffee shop at mile 50. Along the route, small groups of riders converge, merge and separate on the way to the first controle. 

We three continue to ride together flowing in and through the groups we encounter. For a while, we have the wind at our back. Life is good. 

Somewhere along the way, we moderate the pace to give Steve time to recover. But a while later, he decides to back off and ride his own ride. A paceline helps, but you still have to manage the pace.
We are behind a small group of three or four riders. They pull off toward the coffee shop. We press on to cover the 9 miles to the controle.

In just under four hours, Joe and I arrive at the Slaughter Beach Mini-mart that serves as the controle. Several riders are there already. The one story white square building blocks a stiff cross wind blowing across the road from the right. The convenience store has water and snack food but no Fig Newtons - my energy food of choice. I settle for peanut butter crackers. Sitting on the weather-worn porch couch, sheltered from the wind, I eat one pack, tuck the rest into a pocket, text my location to my wife and refill the Camelbak. 

Joe notes the time. "What's your best time is for a 200k?" he asks me. 
I tell him. 
He replies "if we are efficient and maintain this pace, we should be able to beat that time and get in before dark." 
"That sounds like a good idea."
That is what comes out of my mouth. What I think is -Beat my personal best? On a fix? Today? Apparently, Joe does not know that it took me a year and half to get that personal best and I did it on on my geared bike on a flat course on a windless day.
"Okay, let's give it a shot." 
The conversation is calm and casual, just an idea that leads to an agreement to ride a benchmark ride together. With that, we set the plan for the rest of the day.

Efficient - Randonneurs have their own language. It sounds like English, at least the parts that are not in French, but even words you think you know can have a different meaning or implication - like the word efficient. In randonnese, efficient really means - get through the controles in as little time as you can, get back on the bike and ride at the highest speed you can maintain for the length of the ride. Not red line speed, but the highest speed (read discomfort) you can live with for the time it takes to finish. You don't have to be efficient to be a randonneur, but if you choose to be efficient, that is what it means. Stay on the bike. For this ride, we were going to be efficient.

We left the controle in minutes. The next one was only 10 miles away. But after one tenth of a mile we turned right - directly into the wind. For the most part, we ride past farms, produce farms, cattle farms even chicken farms. The treeless, cropless fields give the wind free reign. 

I take a turn in the front and pull. It is like climbing a hill, or riding through mud. Joe suggests that we keep the pulls shorter so as not to wear ourselves out. Then he take a long turn at the front, graciously postponing my implosion.  

The wind takes its toll on our pace. The next controle is "open" which means its the rider's choice where to stop within a specific strip mall. The Subway is crowded with bikes. We opt for the Walgreens where, I am happy to report, I find Fig Newtons! We are in and out in minutes. Efficiency.

The Fig Newtons would not save me. Missing breakfast did not help. First, my right thigh cramped. I stopped, drank some cider vinegar and resumed forging into the wind. Then a few miles later, the cramping returned. I took my foot out of the toe clips to pedal with one leg. When it passed, I got back on pace, concerned that these were not good signs. I tried to silence the doubts and endure. Romans 12:12.

We were approaching 100 miles in what would have been a personal best century time for me. A left turn put us back into a stiff unrelenting headwind for the umpteenth time.  This time, I couldn't hold the pace. I was bonking and cramping and the freaking WIND was IN. MY. FACE. AGAIN!! I got dropped. 

Joe soft pedaled until I caught up.

I tried to keep my growing desperation and disappointment out of my voice. 
"Joe, I really appreciate your riding with me and all the pulling you've done. But if you want to go ahead, I understand."  It was my attempt at a "leave me here, save yourself" offer.

Over thirty miles left. I steeled myself to suffer through the end of the ride alone.
A paceline helps but you still have to ride the bike.

Joe gave me a reality check. "It gets dark at about 4:45.We have three hours of sunlight left. If we can ride between 12 and 15 mph we should be good."

"Can you ride this pace? Let's see how this works."  He moderated the pace. I focused on riding in his draft, eating Fig Newtons and tried not to think that three hours was a very long time to keep pedaling, pedaling pedaling.

We turned right, briefly out of the headwind, onto a tree-lined street. I breathed a sigh of relief, drank deeply from my water supply and kept turning the pedals.

Eventually the mini bonk faded, and I went to take a turn at front. Joe suggested that I save the energy for later on the course. Good suggestion.

The little tandem that could
 A short while later, when we stopped to cross a major road, Felkerino and MG rolled up on their tandem with two riders close behind. When the group went, we went with them. Felkerino and MG are strong riders. In their wake, we were an express train speeding headlong toward the final controle. Our pace soared. Remember what it takes to go fast on fixie? Our pedaling spiked. 80 rpm? 90? 100?? MEEP-MEEP!!
Getting towed to the final control
The effects of a paceline increase with the size of the group. Drafting behind five riders, all I had to do was keep my legs moving. Yeah. That's all. meep meep.

We rode with them for miles. In the process, we make up some time lost to the wind. But it seemed to me that the closer we came to the final control the faster the train moved.

I don't have a bike computer on the fixie. All day long, I had no idea of my exact speed. So even now, as I write this, I can't saw whether they were speeding up or I was slowing down. Either way the result was the same, I was falling off the back. Again.

The locomotive moved on without me.

Joe soft pedaled until I rejoined him. We resumed the pace we'd held most of the day. Less than 12 miles to go. That is less than my commute. The end was in sight. 

When we arrived at the last control, the welcome reception was a party. There were folks taking pictures, volunteers taking our cards and PIZZA! I met some of the of the folks I saw throughout the day. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming. The difficulty of the ride faded quickly. We beat sunset by a good margin. And set a new personal best for me by 28 minutes. On a fix. Today.


  1. Such a pleasure to finally meet you and get to ride some miles together! I wondered about your cadence in the paceline... AND totally admire you and Joe for doing the ride on fixies. WOO HOO!

  2. Nigel, it was great to see you at the start. One small correction, you mention that Chris and I chose to ride our own ride, when actually it was more like you guys dropped us like yesterdays news! Congrats on the PR. And I would just like to point out that in spite of the discomfort you seem to have a great time on the rides I talk you into riding. :)

  3. Congrats on completing the Flatbread on a fixie! Wow-- that's totally hardcore!

  4. Katie - No mistake - I was writing in "Randonese." As for your ride recommendations, I wholeheartedly agree. You are the like the Zagat's of Rando rides. You have never steered me wrong. As for the discomfort, hell, when I want to be comfortable I can lay on the couch eating popcorn from a bowl propped on my belly. The discomfort is just the price of admission. So what are we doing next!!

    MG - Thanks for the comment and for the company.

  5. Rambling Rider - Thanks and congrats to you on completing your first Brevet!

  6. I came across your site from Chasing Mailboxes. Congratulations and thanks for a very entertaining read!

  7. Martinsj2 - Thanks for reading and for the comment.

  8. Hi Nigel,
    it was fun to read your report and Joe's report back to back. 9:20 on fixies on a windy day is an awesome ride. I do wonder though if under different circumstances you had ridden alone, how did you plan to navigate without an odometer? Is the course that simple?

    In any event, I'd recommend a speedometer/odometer. With fixed gear you can calculate and eventually memorize the translation of mph to cadence. Then you discover truths like 150rpm =legs torn asunder. :)

  9. Hi Roy,
    I enjoyed Joe's report as well. He adds those objective facts that my accounts lack. They make for an interesting combo taken together.

    As for your question, I would have navigated by the cue sheet - not that the course is simple, but the cue sheet was detailed and accurate. I have done without an speedometer/ odometer before (one Randonneur I know never uses one) so it is certainly possible.

    I may still add one to the fixie - I have a spare at home - but I must confess that the thought of doing without and keeping it simple and spartan has a certain appeal to me. We'll see what happens over time . . .