Sunday, February 06, 2011

I Have To Admit, It's Getting Better

It's 6:30 on a cold and damp Saturday morning in February in Newberg, Oregon. The forecast is for rain and temperatures in the mid-40s. And there are at least 30 randonneurs waiting in a hotel parking lot to start riding 200 kilometers (indeed, some plan to ride 300 kilometers). It must be a Paris-Brest-Paris year.

But that does not explain my presence; Paris-Brest is not on my radar. Unless, of course, we're talking about this Paris-Brest. No, I'm standing in that parking lot because I am desperately trying to get back to the point where I can tear off a 200K (or two) without a second thought. Last year's string of injuries, illnesses and work demands had resulted in my lowest mileage year in, well, years. My leg muscles were beginning to disappear and Greg was getting tired of me hanging around the house all weekend moping. So when friend Marcello announced his "First Saturday Series" of brevets extra-early in the season to accommodate PBP aspirants' need for early qualifiers, I took it as a much-needed kick in the pants to get back in the saddle.

Marcello's first event was a bone-chilling 200K on New Year's Day. I managed to finish that one with minimal physical or psychic damage, or at least none that I remember, but it took me at least two hours longer than it should have, and my physical condition had not seemed to improve over the intervening weeks. Less then two weeks previous, a 37-mile jaunt had nearly killed me. But I knew that I'd be riding with Lynne and that she would not permit me to give in to any temptation to give up halfway through.

Anyway, back to that dark, cold parking lot. For this installment of his series, Marcello had chosen the "Grab Bag 200/300" route; a set of loops that all started and ended in Newberg. At registration a rider could choose to ride two of the loops, or all three (but woe to the rider who chooses to ride all three but only completes two - no 200 for you!). I last rode the Grab Bag back in July 2007, as an organizer. Then I finished all 300K in just over 15 hours. I had no such ambitions this morning. Completing the 200K in less than the maximum 13.5 hours would be just fine by me.

As previously noted, the parking lot was awash with riders (given the forecast, aquatic descriptions seem appropriate). There were several riders whom I had not seen since 2007, the last PBP year (yes, you, Nate A.!). There were also a few new faces in the crowd: Taylor, who had just moved to Portland from Bend and was excited to be living in place with so many local brevets. I introduced him to Scott P., who drives over from Bend for almost all of our rides . . .
Only four women were present: me, Lynne, Susan O. (she was riding the 300K - the only time I would see her was at registration), and another newbie rider, Asta. Asta was practically giddy with excitement about riding her first brevet. She had ridden to the start from Portland and was hinting that she intended to ride home to Portland afterward. I suggested that she wait until the finish to make that decision.

After engaging in various rounds of pre-ride faffing, it was time to go. Loop#1 wound northwest from Newberg to Forest Grove before turning back by way of Sherwood. Given my overall out-of-shapedness, I fully expected to be left behind by the pack within the first few miles. Much to my surprise, there were several riders who matched my pace (or were even a tad bit slower). Chalk it up to the "haven't ridden since 2007" effect. At the intersection of Dopp and North Valley Roads, Lynne and I met up with three riders puzzling over their cue sheets; "This way!," we called out as we passed them.

By this point the promised rain had set in, and the five of us made our soggy way toward the first contrôle in Forest Grove, discussing the features and benefits of our lighting systems (of the five of us, four had hub generators). As we turned onto Spring Hill Road, I mentioned that one of the dangers of having so many brevet routes in the area is that sometimes I would forget which route we were following and make a wrong turn. Lynne and I promptly demonstrated this "auto-pilot" tendency when we turned right onto Fern Hill Rd to get to Forest Grove, instead of continuing on Spring Hill to Highway 47. Fern Hill gets you Forest Grove; just the OTHER SIDE of Forest Grove from where we actually needed to be. Ooops. Our three companions trustingly followed us, and we rewarded them with a couple bonus miles. Fortunately, we knew how to get over to the side of FG we were supposed to be on without too much trouble.

We finally made it to Maggie's Buns, where we would get out cards signed and, if the lines were not too long, maybe a snack. I love Maggie's, but the service can be slow when they are busy, and so I try not to stop there on timed rides. But we were early enough that there were no big delays, other than the ones we created with our own faffing.

It was time to turn back to Newberg. The rain had stopped, but the wind was now in our faces. I was pretty tired, and when Lynne suggested stopping for a little snack after about 10 miles, I happily agreed. It was just what I needed to get me the rest of the way to the next contrôle in Sherwood. When we got to Sherwood, I was pleasantly surprised to see that a branch of Sesame Donuts had opened in the Old Town. I could not eat the doughnuts, but they had tasty soy hot cocoa. Granted, as we entered the cafe in all our wet rain-gear glory, we got a round of Slaughtered Lamb glares from the other patrons, but we've gotten used to that over the years of riding through small towns. We ignored them and drank our cocoa.

After again spending far too long sitting around and schmoozing with other riders, we set off for the last leg of the first loop. I had been dreading this point. One unpleasant side-effect of my enforced sloth over the past few months is that I had lost all my hill-climbing strength, and this last leg promised a significantly steep climb. On past rides I'd found it little more than annoying, but today I knew it would be unpleasant.

Lynne established her climbing supremacy early on (despite her protestations to the contrary, she's turning into quite the mountain goat), and I watched in dismay as her tail light receded in the distance ahead of me. I eventually lost sight of her as I struggled up Chapman to Leander. Leander is particularly nasty, pitching out at 13% just before the cemetery at the summit. I had to stop to rest twice. TWICE! Oh, the ignominy. When I finally reached the top, Lynne was busy posing for pictures with a grin the size of Montana. Someone get that woman a polka-dot jersey.

But what goes steeply up eventually goes steeply down, and this time Lynne got to watch me disappear into the distance as I rocketed down Bell and Springbrook Roads. I don't need no stinkin' brakes. She finally caught up with me at the last stoplight before the end, and we rode into the hotel lot together.

Back at Chez Travelodge, Marcello and Kathy were serving lunch. Kathy does a lot of volunteer work making meals for homeless and disable people, and so it was not much of a stretch for her to cook up a storm for a bunch of randonneurs. The menu was grilled cheese sandwiches, so I could not partake, but I had come prepared. Because I knew that we would be coming back to the start halfway through, I'd left a Thermos™ of tomato soup and a tasty hummus, baked tofu and avocado sandwich in my car. That and a handful of Lynne's Fritos™ gave me plenty of fuel for at least the first half of the next 65-or-so miles.

Again, we faffed far too long, but finally set off for Loop #2. When we reached the first stoplight, we found Michal from Eugene. He was unfamiliar with the route and wanted to know if he could ride with us. "Why, coitantly!"

The first ten miles of Loop #2 are unpleasant, there's no two ways about it. It's a straight shot down Highway 99W to Lafayette. The shoulder of the highway are wide, but they are so badly paved and often so filled with debris that a rider sometimes has to move out into the traffic lane. Traffic is heavy, and most of the cars and trucks are traveling well over the speed limit. It gets even worse when the highway passes through the wine town of Dundee, about 2 or 3 miles south of Newberg. The cars slow, but only because the drivers are trying to decide which tasting room to visit first. Rapid, unsignaled turns are the norm. 1:00 on a Saturday afternoon is prime spit and sip hour, so we were on our guard. There are what purport to be bike lines on the highway as it passes through town, but they are invisible under the road debris.

We finally reached Lafayette. Again, many OR Rando routes pass through this town, and MOST of the time we would be turning on Bridge Road. Lynne and I both kept reminding ourselves, "Don't turn on Bridge, don't turn on Bridge." Ahead of us we saw a rider in an OR Rando jersey do just that. "Wrong way!," we called out. He heard us and turned back, but we wondered who else may have made that mistake. Unlike our wrong turn earlier in the day, it was not one that would take a rider where he needed to be anyway.

After passing through Lafayette, we finally turned off of 99W onto Mineral Springs Road and began a long stretch of relentless rollers through some seriously rural territory. Spanish moss on the trees, cranberry bogs, looming black rain clouds. Long stretches of nothing enlivened by slightly shorter stretches of not much. Lynne began to exhibit hitherto hidden "City Mouse" tendencies, freaking out about the isolation and muttering comments about a coming apocalypse. With each turn she became more pessimistic about our survival chances; I don't think anyone has ever been so relieved to see the red roof of the Sheridan Dairy Queen when it hove into view, even if we never were actually "in Sheridan," as she noted with some disappointment.

To get to the DQ, we first had to cross Highway 18. It seems that in every state, whenever there is a report of a multi-car collision, residents can guess on which road it occurred before being told. In Oregon, that's Highway 18. Crossing it at dusk on a winter day requires a certain amount of intestinal fortitude. More so than even a visit to Dairy Queen requires. To do the one to get to the other is a gut-wrenching free for all.

First-time rando Asta and Tomas were at the DQ when we arrived. Asta was STILL filled with first-brevet brio.

I got some water, Lynne got some coffee, Michal got something but I don't know what, and we settled down for yet another extended faff. Lynne's back was giving her grief, and I was pretty damned tired. Between the relentless rollers and the headwind, I was tired of peddling. And we still had something like 30 miles to go.

Eventually we acknowledged that Newberg was not going to get any closer while we sat there. Dusk was upon us, so we put on all our reflective gear and turned on any lights that were not already on. We had to ride on Highway 18 for about a mile and a half, which was less than fun, but soon enough we were back on the back roads. The wind was at our backs, and it was still relatively warm, so I was feeling better than I had anticipated feeling at this point. But when Lynne suggested another rest/snack stop in Dayton, I was more than happy to agree. We asked Michal if he minded stopping for a few minutes to eat something. "I would LOVE it if we stopped to eat something."

At the Dayton Central Market (often a contrôle, but not this time), I got some pretzels and a Diet Coke (half of which I put in my water bottle for the rest of the ride,) and Lynne and Michal got equally healthy items. As Michal noted, "Grease, sugar and salt: the major food groups." I noted that the three of us sitting on the curb with our crummy food looked like homeless people. Homeless people in expensive, glow-in-the-dark rain jackets.

Fortified, we set out for the last 10 miles. I was exhausted. "Look at it this way," said Lynne, "at least we are only having to get back to Newberg from here, and not Forest Grove." Good point, that. It was truly dark now, and when we once again were forced to ride on HIghway 99W, it was very difficult to see the road debris, even with our super-bright headlights. In fact, I soon learned that if Lynne or Michal was too close behind me, the beam from their headlights gave me such a shadow that it blotted out my headlight. Shifting from side to side helped a little. They probably thought that I was dodging debris, but I was really just trying to see it.

11 hours and 10m minutes after we left it for the first time, we arrived back in Newberg, where Kathy was now dishing up lasagna and chicken soup. (Note to other ride organizers: a few bags of tortilla chips and pretzels are just not going to cut it anymore; you've got some big shoes to fill.) But Lynne and I had already made plans to go to the Burgerville next door, a tradition we'd started during our first R-12 when we had rides that were based out of Newberg, so we passed on the meal. We did make use of the shower, however, and I think that Lynne might have taken a wee nap while waiting for me.

Another month, another successful 200K. If I am not careful, I could find myself on the way to another R-12.

And yes, it was better.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Beat the Retreat, or Hoo-Boy!, am I out of shape!

I should NOT be tired. I should NOT be winded. I should NOT be thinking of taking a nap. But I am nevertheless all three of those things. And all because I rode a lousy 37 miles, with just a little bit of a hill climb.

Today was the Bicycle Transportation Alliance's "Board Retreat." My friend Susan was hosting it at her company headquarters in Hillsboro, and I figured I'd ride out there from home, just to get a little exercise in before and after what promised to be many hours of intense discussion (we are formulating a 20-Year Strategic Plan). Susan offered to ride from her home out in Hillsboro to meet me in SE Portland, and then ride all the way back. Friend Lynne, who isn't on the Board, but who is a known ride harlot (i.e., she'll join a bike ride at the drop of a hat), said she come with us. So we agreed to meet at Kettleman's Bagels, my Eastside ride start point of choice, at 6 AM, which would give us about half an hour to scarf down some bagels before we had to leave for Hillsboro at 6:30.

Earlier in the week, the weather forecast was for a slight chance of rain. I had ordered some new rain pants from Team Estrogen last weekend and figured I'd have them in plenty of time for the ride. That was, of course, before the USPS decided to ship them from Hillsboro to Portland via Santa Clarita, California. Thus I was glad that by the time Saturday rolled around, the chance of rain had evaporated. (The rain pants are still somewhere between California and Oregon).

I had already gotten to Kettleman's and ordered my breakfast (an "everything" bagel with hummus, tomato and cucumber) when Lynne arrived. She'd had a small breakfast at home, but after a 10-mile ride over the hill to town, she was ready for second breakfast. She settled on a bagel with some sort of pinkish cream cheese (I could not tell if it was strawberry or fish; she said it was fish). We munched away and chatted, and wondered aloud where Susan was. I decided that she'd probably delayed her journey so she would not have to watch us eat solid food (she's on an "elimination" diet of some sort), and figured she'd show up right at 6:30. And, lo, at 6:25, she rolled up, ready to turn around and go back.

After winding our way through downtown Portland, we tackled the first climb of the day: up to Skyline Blvd by way of NW Lovejoy, Cornell and Thompson. It's about a 4-mile climb, with an average grade of about 4%. I knew I was in trouble when I had to bail into my granny gear before I even got to the point where Lovejoy turns into Cornell. I spent the next 4 miles huffing like a freight train as I tried to keep my speed over 5 mph. Usually I take that climb at between 7 and 8 mph at the steepest parts. When we finally reached the "summit" on Thompson, I really needed to rest, and we'd only ridden 7 miles. Pathetic.

From Thompson we rode northwest on Skyline for a few miles. I love riding on Skyline, with its gentle rollers and lovely views. Or what used to be lovely views. Now it's mostly ugly houses blocking the lovely views. I especially love riding on Skyline in the early morning, when there is no traffic, because it is a narrow road with no shoulders and terrible sight lines. Mid-day on a sunny weekend, it can be downright scary with all the sports car drivers pretending to be Steve McQueen at Le Mans.

We dropped down to the west side by way of Springville Road. The pavement was wet, and there was a lot of gravel, which made the drop less fun that it might otherwise have been. We detoured over to Susan's house to pick up her change of clothes (I had mine in a pannier; I tried to use that extra weight as an excuse for my suck-tastic performance on the climb). Susan and I then headed for the Board meeting while Lynne rode off to Longbottom's coffee house for a third breakfast, after which she would lead a 40-mile Portland Velo club ride that started at 10 and gloat with smug superiority over the people who got at 9:30 and drove their cars to the start (by the end of the day, Lynne would have put in 80 miles).

I did not feel all that tired by the time we got to the meeting, but as the day progressed I could feel my muscles starting to check out. When we were finally done, and I was suiting up to head back over the hills to home, I wondered whether I would even be able to get my legs to move, let alone move fast enough to stay vertical on the bike. I had no choice but to try, however. Once I got going, it did not seem so bad, but I was definitely making use of a gear range that I do not normally need.

Up, up up. Huff, puff, puff. Rest, rest, rest. Across, across, across. Down, down down. Home, Sweet Home. Clearly, an hour on the trainer everyday and the occasional morning commute is NOT getting me ready for brevet season.

Anyway, this shows the second half of the ride (I sort of messed up the GPS tracking for the first half, but the first half was almost exactly the same except for a detour through downtown Portland). I love the fact that the heart rate and speed charts look like photo-negatives of each other.

Times Two

Monday, January 03, 2011

#1 on 1-1-11

"Did I just see you standing?"

"Um, no. Well, not now . . . ."

We had just turned off of Gieger onto Fern Hill Rd. for the first climb of the day, and Lynne had caught me defying doctor's orders. Suitably chastised, I dropped my butt back on my saddle, shifted into the most venerable of my granny gears and spun frustratingly slowly up the hill. It was going to be a very long day.

But I get ahead of myself. I can sense you thinking, "Whoa, Nellie! What's this about doctor's orders?"

Cast your mind back, Gentle Reader, to mid-October 2010. I had just run my first half-marathon and was insufferably proud of myself. About a week before the race, I had felt some pain in my hip and a bit of a hitch in my gait, but nothing alarming. During and immediately after the race I felt fine; no more sore than I would have expected for running full out for 13.1 miles. And even when I continued to be sore and, let's face it, limp like Chester for a few days after the race, I chalked it up to muscle strain and treated accordingly. But when I was still sore six weeks later, I decided that it was time to see a professional. So I got my GP to refer me to the sports clinic, and the Monday after Thanksgiving I hied myself off to Kaiser, trying not to think about the fact that the funny explosive pain I felt in my hip with every footfall was an awful lot like the funny explosive pain I had felt in my ankle when I had stress fractured my fibula eight months earlier. 30 minutes and two dispositive physical tests later, the physiatrist confirmed my suppressed suspicion/fear: "You have a stress fracture in your femur."


"So, Doc, what do I do now?"

"Try not to walk on it for a few weeks."

Try. Not. To. Walk. Processing . . . processing . . . Nope, that's not registering.

"Say again, Doc?"

"Don't put any weight on it until the end of December."

"Um, so I can walk if I don't put any weight on it?"

"Well, you can very short distances - slowly."

"Around the office?"


"But not to the office?"


"Can I ride my bike?"

"You can if you spin and stay on the flats."

"No hills?"

"Not for a few weeks."

I felt like I was negotiating. I was negotiating. And I am a lousy negotiator (one more reason I gave up trial work). By the end of the appointment I had my marching orders. Or non-marching orders, to be more precise. Until the end of December, I was to put no weight on the leg. If I wanted to walk, I could do so with little tiny baby steps or use crutches. I could swim, I could spin on a trainer, I could aqua jog (and yes, that feels as silly as it looks), and I could ride my bike from my house to the DOJ office in Portland (hauling my crutches behind me on a trailer). Beginning in January, I could ride my bike longer distances as long as I took it easy, and I could begin to walk for exercise, "but not more than two or three times a week." I could forget about running until mid-February at the earliest.

Needless to say, my December pretty much sucked. I had already been hobbled by pain for the second half of October and all of November, so we're really talking about 10 weeks of relative sloth by the time the New Year rolled around. And not the cute kind of sloth.

Thus, when I learned that my friend Marcello had organized a 200K brevet for New Year's Day, I was tempted to sign up. I was a little concerned about my ability to go the distance, however, because other than a flat, slow, cafe-centric ride in mid-December I had not ridden my bike more than 30 miles since, oh, sometime in September. But friend Lynne said she'd ride with me, and the weather report promised a dry (if somewhat chilly) day. There really was nothing to keep me from riding. Except common sense of course, but that never stopped me before.

So, then, where were we? Oh yes, Fern Hill Road. Lynne and I were about 14 miles into the ride, which began at Marcello's house in Hillsboro. Check-in time for the ride was 7 AM, with a ride start at 7:30. I'd arrived a bit late, and then had a fight with one of my shoes, so by the time I got over to the start zone, most of the riders had already formed their start mass and had no time to acknowledge my existence, let alone socialize. That was okay, because when I'd looked at the list of preregistered riders, I had recognized very few of the names. There's a lot of turnover in the Oregon rando world; miss a few events and you may as well have dropped off the edge of the planet. I did see friend Susan, looking like a superhero in her form-fitting, matching cold-weather gear. I was, in contrast, downright frumpy in my various layers of whatever of my cycling clothing still fit.

Marcello gave the okay to start, and we were on our way. The temperature gauge on my cyclometer read 35° at first, but within minutes had dropped down to 31°. Lynne and I quickly established our position as Les Lanternes Rouges and cemented it (at least for the time being) by making a few early stops for clothing and equipment adjustments.

The course of the ride took us southwest from Hillsboro down to Dallas, and then back they way we had come. Although there were lots of rolling hills along the way, there were no *real* hills. Which is good, because if there had been any real hills, I would have been screwed. As it was, I was spending waaaaay more time in my granny gears than ever before, and I have never been shy about bailing and spinning. Lynne beat me to the top of every hill, and I gave her permission to revel in it. When I left home, I had told Greg, "The shape I'm in, and the way I'm feeling, I'm guessing this will take me 12 hours." Well, 12 hours after we left Marcello's house, we were back; cold, hungry and exhausted. The cold and hungry part were quickly allayed with piping hot cups of tea and large bowls of vegan chili. The exhausted part? Well, that stayed with me through Sunday.

I would like to say that it was an "epic" ride, because that would make me feel better about how much it took out of me. But it really was not epic. It was cold, but I've ridden in cold before. There were some headwinds, but I've ridden in wind before. So, no, it was not epic. But it was a challenge, and I have to admit that I loves me a challenge. It was a good day to ride, and it won't be long until I am allowed to dance on my pedals again. Then it will be a very good day to ride.