Sunday, April 16, 2017

Fighting Big Flat: 2017 D.C. Randonneurs Frederick 300k ride report



The Frederick 300k (188 miles) is an institution on the D.C. Randonneurs' rotation, having first been ridden back around the turn of the century, near as I can tell.  It was my very first 300k back in 2012, and I vividly remember fighting 95-degree heat throughout the afternoon and wafting in on fumes in just under 14 hours.  Back then I was definitely of the mindset that a 300k might as well be a ride across Siberia -- I was posting periodic Facebook updates to let people know I was still alive, and my bike was weighed down with about 15 pounds of energy bars, most of which went uneaten.  It took me a couple of years to realize that, as rides get longer, the only thing that really changes is clothing. 

Another thing I remember about that ride is having my first encounter with a climb called "Big Flat." The first word is accurate; the second, less so.  But I'd only had the one crack at it, and I wanted a second.

One great thing about the D.C. region is that, depending on which way you go, the character of the rides changes fundamentally.  Head east toward the shore, and you'll never find anything flatter, with windswept beaches and wildlife preserves.  To the southwest is Virginia, where nothing is flat -- there are more rollers than a Broadway production of Hairspray.  To the west are mountains of varying degrees of seriousness.  Finally, to the northwest and north, in Maryland, there's a little bit of everything, and that's what this ride had to offer -- three solid climbs broken up with some Amish country and cornfields.

The goal was straightforward: finish under 12 hours, and thus complete the third of four requirements for R60 qualification.  To do that, I'd need to shave nearly two hours off of my 2012 attempt, when Max and I finished in 13:56.  Egads!  Fortunately, the weather called for a perfect range of 50 degrees at the start to 78 mid-day, so if it was going to happen, today was the day.  

Ride start, pretty in pink!  Photo credit: Ed F.
Of course, I'm a moron -- that's the first rule.  When faced with a ride more than an hour from home starting at 5:00 a.m., many sane people stay at a local hotel at the start/finish and make sure to get to bed early.  My version of this was going to a nice dinner with Amy in D.C. on Friday evening, then to after-dinner cocktails, and then to after-cocktails dessert with another cocktail, such that I got to sleep at about 12:30 after drinking all evening and woke up a little more than 2 hours later for a 190-mile ride.  Part of the story is that I'm stubbornly short-sighted, but the slightly longer version is that I recognize doing these rides knocks out a big chunk of the weekend that I'd otherwise be available to socialize.  I'm exhausted and useless when I get home, so it seems unfair to block off Friday night as well as Saturday and Saturday night -- cycling's not the only thing in life.  Of course, there's a healthy dollop of self-loathing when that alarm goes off in the middle of the night, and I'm not getting any younger.  I'm sure I'm sacrificing some performance with this tragic habit, but I like to think it adds a "degree of difficulty" score, like Olympic diving.  

Also, there's something vaguely weird about getting in an elevator at 3:00 a.m., fully bedecked in spandex, and nearly running headlong into someone smelling of booze who's getting home after an evening of revelry.  Worlds colliding.

The ride itself began at the Days Inn in Frederick, MD, as made famous by absolutely nothing.  On the plus side, it has a Waffle House attached to it.  We rolled out parade-style through the deserted streets of Frederick, which is always enjoyable in one of those "different ways of seeing the same thing" ways that cycling sometimes presents.  It's certainly better than returning through the same streets on Saturday evening, a pleasure we'd have later.  

I was the only rider with a time-based agenda, so I began to press the pace after an hour or so, when we reached the beautiful 5-mile climb up Foxville-Deerfield in the Catoctin Mountain Park.  It's one of the best climbs in the mid-Atlantic: peaceful, great pavement, a gradual slope through the forest, and a river rushing along next to you.  Soon after beginning the ascent, I found myself alone with Eric Willams, one of the stronger riders in the group, and someone who rides probably twice the miles that I do.  He climbs like a goat, and the two of us made great time to the summit -- I climbed it in 21:41, compared to my 29:07 in 2012.  A promising start!



More promising for me than Eric, though.  The poor guy had decided that, despite a ride start temperature in the high 40s, he'd head out with a short-sleeve jersey and no gloves.  A descent that was wonderful for me probably brought him no end of misery.  Oh well -- as he said, he knows better.  This is pretty much the first time I can remember on a bicycle when I wasn't the cautionary tale.

As the two of us plowed north toward Pennsylvania, Eric realized that cycling could be enjoyable rather than an exercise in self-flagellation, and accordingly drifted off the back, where he eventually joined up with a chase group of riders who had a thoroughly reasonable day.  I pressed on, trying my best to make it home in time for a wine tasting that Amy was hosting at our place that evening.

Next up was the featured attraction: Big Flat.  Below is the elevation profile for this ride: pick out the least flat part of it, and you've found it.  To be helpful, I've highlighted it.


It's not the toughest climb out there, but it's solid work, climbing about 1300 feet over nearly 7 miles. In 2012, I'd trudged my way up it in 46:35, but I guess I've gotten stronger: this year it was 34:42, good for 8th overall on Strava.  (I'm sure I'll be getting that pro contract any day now.)  It was a tough effort, but I consoled myself with the notion that it was almost literally all downhill from the summit.

I'll say this: the Michaux State Forest was a gorgeous place in full bloom, with bursts of whites, purples, reds, and yellows speckling the dark green backdrop.  Probably the perfect place to film an ad for Claritin, actually.

After the epic, swooping 9-mile descent into Shippensburg, PA, the mountains receded and Amish country beckoned.  Buggies, farmland, and sketchy roads unfolds for dozens of miles on end, and the sun came out to teach us a lesson.  Many people love these roads, but I found myself in that awkward mental position of having ridden a hard 80 miles and remembering that there's still more than a century to go.  Fortunately, the second half of the ride was relatively flat, so I anticipated making good time.  Maybe a sub-11:00 finish was in the cards?

To make a long story short, it wasn't.  And, come to think of it, the story wasn't that long: we were riding a huge clockwise loop beginning on the southernmost point, which meant that the last 80 miles or so were heading south and then southwest, directly into one of the most diabolical headwinds I can remember.  I was working my butt off just to go 17 mph.  Usually loop courses at least afford the dignity of benefitting and suffering from the same winds, but not in this case -- they picked up throughout the day, so it was just plowing ahead and hoping for respite that wasn't forthcoming.  At some point I decided that the goal was sub-12:00, and it wasn't worth wrecking myself for an attempt at a sub-11:00 finish that wasn't in the cards that day.  I just wanted a nap.

Ultimately, I rolled back into Frederick a little after 4:00 pm, having done what I needed to.  And, in fairness, I'd done well: my 2012 moving time was 11:55, and I'd taken 2 hours off of the bike, for a finishing time of about 13:55.  This year, I was moving for 10:36, and I was off the bike for only 35 minutes, for a final time of 11:10.  That's progress.  Enjoy the video!

Next up is the fl├Ęche, a 24-hour group ride that promises lots of eating.  I plan to P.R. at least one ice cream sundae.