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.