Monday, March 30, 2009

Brevet #1

Someone referred to my first randonneuring ride two weeks ago as a "baptism," which was appropriate in terms of it being my first, but also in terms of wetness. Snoozeville wasn't a Episcopalian-style dip-your-fingers-in-the-holy-water sprinkling either, but a full-on Pentecostal take-me-to-the-river dunking. Apparently my soul still needed a bit more cleansing because Saturday's Birkie Brevet was more of the same.

After Snoozeville I kind of obsessed about the tweaks I could make that would allow me to double the distance while hopefully improving my comfort. I rode Snoozeville on my Poprad, which seemed a little stiff, and my position was not quite as upright as I wanted. Plus, the Fizik saddle was comfy to about 50 miles and then, not so much. Since I'm new to the whole rando thing I figure I'll just take each ride as an experiment. What works, stays, and what doesn't, well, it's just a bike ride - how bad can it get? So I thought about riding River (my 1986 Nishiki Riviera touring bike - which is also my commuting bike), but knew I had to make some changes. Since this was stuff I wanted to do anyway, the Birkie was the kick in the pants I needed to get it done. The stock bars were, like, 38cm, and the stem maybe 50mm. I've read that in a relaxed position with hands on top of bars the bar should be in a sight line with the front axle. Well, I was scrunched up and looking at the axle waaaayy out there in front of the bars. And the 0ld-school 600 brake levers, while cool looking, were too small for my hands and stuck out too far from the bar - they're just weird.

So I picked up some (barely) used Nitto Noodle bars at Citybikes, dug out a 100mm Technomic stem I had, and slipped on some old Dia-compe levers that fit my hands better. I also swapped out the old Fujita saddle for a Brooks Pro which came on the mid-80's Japanese made Bianchi I bought from a teammate last year and built up for my son's cruiser. Truth be told, the saddle was the main reason I bought the bike. I figured I was probably going to end up spending a hundred bucks for a nice saddle someday anyway, so it was practically like the bike was free, right? I told my son the bike could be his, but the saddle was mine. I also added a cheap Vetta computer from the REI outlet since I'm lousy at guestimating mileage. I finished the job with new cloth tape and 6 coats of shellac and River was ready to rando. But hedging my bets I also made some modifications to the Poprad. Teammate Greg sold me a slightly shorter stem for cheap, and Jeff generously gave me a Thompson post to replace the stock carbon one I had (I can't trust bike stuff that looks and feels like plastic.) I've read good stuff about WTB Rocket saddles, and Scott had one he offered me super-cheap, so I made those swaps as well.

Now it was time to experiment, and since I was on Spring Break, I had time to for test rides. The problem was, as soon as vacation started, I came down with the Cold From Hell. The teachers' curse. I'm not usually a believer in weather-induced sickness; I believe fresh air, regardless of the temperature or precipitation, is healthier than being stuck indoors with central air blowing all those germs around. But the symptoms started the Monday after the Snoozeville/Shamrock soakings, and by Friday before break it was clear I was losing the battle. Still, I had blocked out Wednesday for a solo scenic highway jaunt, and I really wanted to see how River handled and check out that new tunnel. Of course Wednesday dawned cold and wet. T suggested I stay home, or at least cut back my planned ride, and I said that sounded good - I'd just head out to the Sandy river and see how I felt. "Maybe I'll head up to Springdale and turn around there" I think I said. Ha. I doubt she believed me either. Of course, once in the saddle I felt great, the cough disappeared, and there was no way I was turning back early. Still lacking a handlebar bag/saddlebag, I decided to take a small backpack w/bladder. I also thought I'd try Kent's plastic-bag-between-the-socks idea since I really like my sandals. Verdict? The bike handled really well. Much less twitchy, more comfy and upright, no shimmy riding with no hands (handlebars more forward?), and the saddle was as comfy as I could expect for one new (to me). My hands and feet got cold, especially on the descent from Crown Point to Multnomah Falls, but I finally took off the full-finger cycling gloves and put on the rag wool ones, and my hands were warm the rest of the day. My feet eventually warmed up too - and stayed dry. The experiment was mostly successful, though 65 miles with a pack convinced me I didn't really want to do that for the Birkie. And the tunnel is nice - If you want to see it, get there soon while it still smells like fresh-milled cedar. Another plus to doing this ride on a wet and cold Wednesday was I had the whole highway to myself. I took the lane basically from the Womens' Forum Park to the tunnel and back, with almost no traffic. Including Marine drive and the Sandy river I saw one other bike all day, and that was in Gresham on my way home.

In the new tunnel
alone, sheltered from the rain
watching waterfalls

The next day T and I had our long planned and highly anticipated bike date to LRBC. I follow their blog, but it's a long way from Montavilla to St. Johns, and not really on the way to anywhere we go together, so we had never actually been there. I decided to ride the Poprad this time and see how it felt. I was still a little saddle-sore from the day before, but the Rocket saddle felt better the longer I rode. Strangely, I noticed that even though I only switched from a
100cm to a 90cm stem, I went from feeling too stretched out to feeling kind of scrunched. Hmm. (It wasn't until I got home and checked that I realized the carbonium seatpost I swapped out had a setback clamp. Ah-ha. So back went the orignal stem and it felt like I'd found the sweet spot.) The breakfast was splendid and the lattes spot-on. T and I have talked about opening our own breakfast/lunch/bakery place someday, and LRBC is definitely inspiration - it's really a beautiful little oasis of yumminess.

However, by Friday I was still obsessing over which bike to ride. Really, what it came down to was what I said about seeing the whole intro to randonneuring thing as a big fun experiment. In the end I decided that since I rode the Poprad in Snoozeville, it was River's turn. A year or so ago I exchanged a couple of emails with Joel Metz, asking all sorts of newby questions about bike style, components, geometry, blah blah blah. What he said, in essence, was "ride the bike you've got and go from there." It was good advice. The only thing I did different from the gorge ride was take a pannier instead of a backpack. I was a little worried I'd get some shimmy, since on my commute this arrangement can induce some tail-wagging-the-dog wobbling, but the new bar/stem must have cured it since I was able to ride no-hands with no-problem.

So - the brevet. I showed up not so early as last time, driving this time because I really couldn't think of another way to get there in time. I'll admit there was a moment in the blustery rain near Hillsboro when I was thinking "Do I really want to do another crappy weather ride?" and I almost turned the car around. I'm glad I didn't, and it was heartening to see so many folks in the lot who looked and sounded like they could think of no better way to spend a Saturday than riding all day in Oregon's coast range in the rain. We pulled out of Forest Grove just at dawn, and once we hit SR 6 I fell in with a group of 5 that included Pat from Seattle, Ian (?) from Olympia, Mike Johnson, and a couple others. Seemed like there was quite a contingent from the Puget Sound area on this ride. Though we lost contact for long stretches, these were the same guys I ended up finishing with; Mike and I rode and chatted together from the Glenwood control to the finish, and I ended up saving him from a long train ride home. I suppose If I have to drive, it helps to know I can give someone else a ride as well.

Rolling through Timber

like a flock of steel birds
one dog barks hello

Just about all this country was new to me. I'm a native Oregonian, but I honestly don't think I've ever been to Vernonia before. The closest I ever came, I think, was a couple years ago when a friend and I were returning from the Astoria 'cross race and we tried to come back that way, but were turned around by a wreck. Despite the constant rain, it really was a beautiful ride - it makes me want to come back on a sunny day sometime. Some observations: The guys I was with coming into the first control at Anderson Park wasted no time. I was munching cookies when Susan asked me if I wanted some coffee and I said "sure." When I turned around, those guys were all gone. Later, approaching the Birkenfield control/turnaround, I kept expecting to see them going the other way, but I only counted 5 riders - the lead pack of 4, followed 5 minutes later by a 'bent rider - before I got to the control. And there they all were, gathered around the tables, feet up, scarfing onion rings. I had plenty of time for another coffee and some fig bars, but I made sure I wasn't the last one left when they pulled out this time.

I hadn't noticed a tailwind coming into Birkenfield, so the headwind when I pointed back up the Nehalem river was a little disheartening. I did notice the sun trying to come out a couple times, But I don't believe it ever actually stopped raining. The climb up to and past the town of Timber seemed to pass pretty quick - I felt like I got a little charge when the mileage turned past the century mark. The last few miles back into Forest Grove Mike and I got nailed by a pretty good cloudburst/headwind, but still seemed to be making decent time. I think our check-in time was just shy of 4:30, and since I was optimistically hoping for 5:00, I was happy with that. we chatted and munched for a few minutes and hit the road for home.

What worked for me: I love the Noodle bars. In combo with the Technomic stem they just felt right and I could move around with them, sit up, whatever. The Brooks saddle was also surprisingly comfortable and I'll stick with it. I remembered the rag wool gloves this time and they made all the difference for keeping my hands warm. I actually started with polypro liners under regular short leather-palmed cycling gloves and changed out at the first control, noticing an immediate improvement. I also have a new appreciation for my trusty Burley jacket. I'm definitely lusting for the rando uniform, but my torso stayed pretty dry, and what little water did get in was wicked by the wool anyway. I decided to leave the wool Swobo knickers at home since I had some - how to say this? - chafing of a delicate nature on the Snoozeville ride. I went with my regular cycling shorts under Hind Drylete tights and I was golden. I also smeared chamois and self liberally with bag balm. I know some folks have issues with bag balm, and this was my first time using it for cycling. But I grew up on a farm milking cows, so for me, it's got a kind of nostalgic appeal. And I can't be sure, but I think the cows along the route knew and were smiling. And there was no chafing this time.

What didn't work: My feet got wet. It rained at least as hard on the gorge ride and they stayed dry. The only difference? For the Birkie I used thin produce bags between socks, but on the gorge ride I used plastic grocery bags. Maybe the longer ride just wore them out, or maybe they leaked from the top? But here's the really dumb thing. I have waterproof sealskinz socks, but I wanted to try the low-tech route - you know, as part of the experiment. I know, dumb, right? It gets better. I actually hauled the Sealskinz in my pannier for the entire ride without knowing I had them in there. Sheesh.

I also carried too much other stuff, most of it food. I had spare socks and a Marmot driclime windshirt that I never used, but they weighed next to nothing. I only carried one water bottle and that was fine since there was plenty of opportunity to refill. But seeing the onion rings in Birkenfield was a lesson in the art of refueling. I actually pulled out some food in the parking lot before starting, but here's what I carried and what I actually ate. In my jersey pockets I had 6 jumbo-sized whole wheat fig bars, a banana, and a flask of raspberry Hammer gel. I also had a couple dozen cats in my jacket pocket that I was popping like, well, candy. In the pannier I carried 1 Bagel w/peanut butter and homemade huckleberry jam (I don't know why, but I think huckleberries have near-mystical biking and hiking powers), about a pint of gorp, 3 Gorge Delight fruit bars, 1 Clif Bar, and 1 Builder bar. When I was done I still had 3 fig bars, most of the gorp, over half the Hammer Gel, 2 of the fruit bars, the Clif bar and the Builder bar, and all I bought along the way was coffee. I figure I had enough food for a full weekend campaign if my legs could have held out that long. Realistically, I could have stuffed everything I needed in my pockets and left the pannier behind.

What I really want for the future, though, is better weather. One thing I'm learning is that these randonneur folks are a social bunch, and I need more of that in my cycling life. I did some chatting, but I suspect that a lot of us were kind of huddled against the elements and in survival mode. Actually, I would have been fine and probably felt even better afterwards if I had done the ride slower, talked more, and stopped totake some pictures, but the weather on this day just wasn't conducive to that kind of ride.

Now the thought of 300K actually seems within the realm of possibility, especially if it's not raining and I can find some good onion rings. We'll see. One thing's for certain, I'm no longer a rando wannabe.


  1. Rawk Mike!

    Proud of you Bro...

    don't sweat all the deets, the thing is The Thing. And you've now done The Thing.


  2. Mike-

    Welcome to randonneuring! I was the bent rider you saw coming out of Birkenfeld. This is my 4th year, and I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have about the sport. I think I live just on the other side of Tabor from you -- 60th and Ash.

    I also have an infrequently updated blog:

  3. Wow, you're like a sherpa with all the stuff you hauled along! Nice post, this long distance stuff is fascinating to me.

    PS: You can return the 90 Easton stem for a full refund if you would like to :)

  4. i certainly agree that huckleberries have magical, mystical powers. ;)