2011 was a Paris-Brest-Paris year. P-B-P is THE event for a randonneur, and it only happens once every 4 years... but this year it happened during a recession. It was obvious early on that it would be impossible for me to afford to travel to Paris, so I had to resign myself to following my friends from afar during August. But then Tony Goodnight of Bicycle for Life announced the inaugural Taste of Carolina 1200K! This would be the first weekend of September, 1200 kilometers, which is 750 miles... the same distance and time limits as P-B-P, and here in my home state. Much more affordable. The moment I found out about it I determined to complete this ride!
Day 1, Saturday: Of Mountains and Cramps
After a late departure from Raleigh on Friday evening, Geof and I checked in with Tony and got a few hours sleep in the common hotel room in Greensboro. We were up before 3am Saturday morning and preparing for a 4am departure. We rode through the McDonald's drive-thru for coffee and a McMuffin, then gathered with the others at the start. 21 randonneurs started the 1200K, 2 started the 1000K, and quite a few others were there for a short 200K.
I felt great through the early part of the ride, staying with the front part of the group as we left Greensboro heading toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. There was a separation at a traffic light and I found myself in a small group of 5 riders off the front. Turns out they were all veteran 1200K riders, each with more than one of these grand rides under his belt- I was the lone rookie. The pace was easy to handle- we all worked well together, taking reasonably short pulls on the front and maintaining a steady effort. No one was pushing the pace on the easy uphills, saving our strength for the serious climbing to come.
Shortly before sunrise we were caught by another group from behind and our numbers increased. This group contained lots of folks I knew, including a few who were fresh back from P-B-P and only riding the 200K. The consistent effort I had enjoyed so far this morning was replaced by a more typical randonneuring group style- coasting and braking on the downhills, then hammering uphill. I kept up with the group for awhile, but the hills and rollers were getting bigger and these intervals took their toll on me. At about 50 miles in, shortly before the first controle, I started feeling the early onset of cramps. Not a good sign when I knew the serious climbing into the Blue Ridge started at about mile 70... I dropped off the back, let the group go and tried to spin easy and get over these cramps. Had to get off the bike and walk it out a couple of times, but I made it to the controle.
While I was at the controle I loaded up on electrolytes and tried to walk around a bit. The front group left shortly after I arrived, the majority of them heading back the way we came since they were at the turnaround for the 200K. Note to self: never match the pace of those who are only riding one sixth the distance! I still had that crampy feeling when I left the controle. I was alone, a little behind Geof but I knew I'd never catch him or keep up with his pace. I plugged in my iPod and resigned myself to the idea of riding the next 700 miles solo...
I'm not sure if I read the cue sheet wrong or if I was distracted by the cramps, but here I screwed up. I was looking for a turn and I thought it was 3 miles down the road- it never materialized. After another half mile I stopped, pulled out the iPhone and checked the map. Turns out I had missed a right turn less than a half mile out of the controle! I rode back, adding 7 bonus miles and losing 20 minutes of precious time. There were hills in them thar hills, and I was still fighting the cramps so these were bonus miles I didn't need. The climbing was getting more serious, and on every uphill I'd have to stop and walk off a cramp. I began to wonder if I was going to DNF in the first 200K. Joel caught me, he was riding the 1200K just a couple months after breaking his hip in a training accident. Chapeau! We rode together for a bit, but when we got to the big climb on Highway 89 I couldn't keep up with him and let him go.
Highway 89 is about a five mile climb into the Blue Ridge Mountains. I'm not sure how many times I had to stop and walk, but the combination of spinning a low gear and walking from time to time finally worked out the cramps. By the time I got to the top I was feeling much better. Good thing, too because this was just the start of the serious climbing. The route came close to the Virginia border, then dipped back down into Sparta. I stopped at Twin Oaks for food and finally met some of my fellow riders: Joel, Tim L, and John O. were there and eating. While I was eating John P. and Vance showed up, the a rider whom I had just met named "Gator."
Tim & John O. left shortly before I did, then I rolled out alone. After awhile I caught up with them, but there was constant climbing and descending, so it wasn't really what I'd call group riding. I needed to just ride my own pace anyway, and eventually John and I were ahead of Tim and he was out of sight. When we got to the Mountain Grocery controle at the 200K mark we figured he'd roll in right behind us, but the next rider we saw was Vance, then Gator. Turned out that Tim had missed a turn and gotten some bonus miles! We had a nice long stop at the store, then Tim, John, and I got back on the road.
This section was heavy with Labor Day weekend traffic as we headed into Laurel Springs, a popular hangout for bikers in the mountains (I'm talking about leather-clad Harley-riding bikers here- not lycra-clad, shaved-legged bikers.) Figuring the biker bar would be too busy and take too much time for food we moved on down the road back to Sparta and stopped at a Hardee's for a bite. It was about 6:45pm by now and time to put reflective gear back on for night riding.
The three of us stayed relatively together, though there was still enough climbing left that we weren't riding as a group, rather just keeping one another in sight. We paused when we reached the sign for the Eastern Continental Divide and tried to convince ourselves that it was all downhill from there. At about mile 178 we reached the right turn onto Hwy 89- the big 5 mile downhill descent out of the Blue Ridge. John and Tim suggested that I go first since I had the best headlight- the Lumotec IQ CYO N plus. I turned right and immediately started accelerating down the mountain.
The highest speed I saw on my Garmin before the pucker factor kept me from glancing down at it was 45mph... That was about the same time I noticed the beginnings of a speed wobble. As the speed got even higher the wobble got worse, and at one point I thought I was going to lose control of my bike. It felt like it went on for a long time, but it was probably only a couple of seconds before I remembered that you're supposed to lay a knee alongside the top tube to suppress a speed wobble. As soon as I did that my bike stabilized and I started picking up speed again! I have no idea what my top speed was, since later in the ride my Garmin dumped all its data... but you'll read about that on day 2.
We reached the controle at Salem Fork at about 10PM where we grouped up with Vance, John P, and Gator for the 64 mile ride back to Greensboro and our first nap. I had estimated we'd be there at about 3am, but it was 3:45 by the time we arrived at the Best Western. Geof had gotten a room for Sat. night and had told me before the ride that I was welcome to share. He'd given Tony a keycard for me, so I headed up to catch someshuteye. When I opened the door I knew immediately that I needed to find another spot to sleep. Geof was spread eagled across the bed and snoring like a lumberjack! I left him and went in search of new digs. Luckily one of the fastest riders had just left and given his keycard to Tony, so I was able to get into a room and have a quick shower and get some sleep. The climbing in the mountains had slowed me down considerably, so to stay on schedule I really was only able to get about an hour's nap before my iPhone alarm was ringing and Tony was knocking on my door.
Day 2, Sunday: Of Sleep Deprivation and Headwinds
Back on the bike and on the road at about 6:30am I was with Tim, John O, and John P. We made our way out of Greensboro, south towards the Uwharrie Mountains. Just over 20 miles in we hit a bit of climbing on Caraway Mountain Rd. and I found my rhythm. I was out in front of the others over the big climb and descended to the convenience store on the left. As I arrived I saw another rider leaving but couldn't tell who it was. Joel, Mary, and Curt were at the store and preparing for departure. They told me that was Geof going up the road. I hadn't expected to see him again until the finish! I bid them Bon Route and went in the store to stock up on much needed snacks and fluids. John O. and Tim arrived, then John P. arrived just as I was ready to leave.
Back on the road I was back into my rhythm again and feeling surprisingly good. No lingering cramps or soreness from the previous day's climbing extravaganza, so I was making good time. Before the ride I got myself a little iPod shuffle, mainly for the long battery life. It had lasted me all day on Saturday and I'd charged it in the hotel while I slept. I cranked up the tunes and cranked out the miles. Soon I caught Joel, Mary, and Curt but didn't want to lose the rhythm so I just said hello and went on by. A few miles down the road I saw them in my mirror catching back up, so I eased off a bit and they caught me. Joel wanted to have a little chat and see how I was doing, since the last time he'd seen me on Saturday I was walking out the cramps on Hwy 89! We talked a bit and then they said their farewells and eased off the gas. I got my flywheel spinning back up and put the earbuds back in, still feeling good.
It was about Noon when I got to Troy, and the cue sheet lists a Quick Check store on the left. When I pulled in I saw Geof standing there wearing his Texas Rando Stampede jersey, getting ready to roll out. I asked if he wanted to ride to the beach together, then short-stopped the store and we got on the road. It was good to catch up with him, both literally and figuratively! He told me about his ride the previous day and it was nice to have some company on the road, but I was no longer in my comfortzone. It's tempting to push too hard on the uphills to try to match another rider's pace, then when there's a gap it's also tempting to push too hard in the flats to try to catch back up. I was doing it again, and I was feeling the compounded fatigue. We got to the controle in Ellerbe around 2:30pm and stopped for a sit-down burger at the restaurant across the street.
Our long lunch stop was just what I needed to recover, and it also allowed Joel, Mary, and Curt to catch up with us. They were riding by as I was getting ready to roll, but for some reason my Garmin had shut itself off. I'd charged the battery back in Greensboro while I slept, and I had three USB batteries with me for supplemental power. It wouldn't power back up- it does this from time to time and the only fix is a reset, holding the lap & power buttons down for 5 seconds. After the reset it powered back up & showed plenty of battery, but doing that dumps all the data! I was disappointed, but didn't have time to worry too much about it & got on the road to catch up with the others.
The five of us rode together for a short time, but I couldn't get into my comfort zone. Joel, Mary, and Curt were keeping asteady, easy pace but I felt like I needed to spin a bit faster. I went off the front and soon I saw Geof coming to catch me. He caught & rode right by, but this time I forced myself to stay in my own zone and not try to catch him. Time to turn the iPod on and get back into my rhythm. It was harder to maintain a good speed this time, fighting headwinds out of the south generated by Tropical Storm Lee coming up out of the Gulf. Still, I made it to Laurinburg a bit behind Geof and just in front of Joel and crew.
Joel, Mary, and Curt short stopped it, so Geof and I left shortly behind them. When we caught up we found them riding with Micah, who was riding a single speed and also was one of those experienced 1200k'ers in my little group of 5 early on Saturday. He, Geof, and I soon grouped up and had a gap off the front of the rest. We took turns in the wind, but I was pushing myself to stay with the other two and the pace was about all I could handle. We stopped at a store in Rowland and put on our reflective gear for the coming darkness. Geof commented that we needed to pick up the pace! I told them I was at my limit, but back on the road the speed had definitely picked up. We had about 75 miles to go before our sleep stop in Ocean Isle, so I said my goodbyes and eased off a bit. Tunes went back on and it was time to fight the wind alone again.
Out in the country at night it's pretty peaceful on the road. The cars give you more room than they do during the day, probably because of how visible we are with all of our lights and reflectors. I'm convinced that during the day car drivers treat cyclists with disrespect out of contempt, but at night they really can't figure out that we're cyclists until after they've passed! Country dogs, on the other hand, are another story. Their owners let them run free, and they love to chase bikes. The ones that are most dangerous are the ones that don't bark- all you hear is the skittering of paws on pavement and heavy panting. I managed to escape all of them unharmed. As I was entering Tabor City a silver minivan drove slowly up beside me and a menacing voice from inside said "You best get off the road!" When I reached the controle at the Shell Station (the only thing open at 11:30pm in Tabor City) the minivan was parked there with it's doors open. Inside were some wanna-be gangbangers, and I had to fight the urge to comment on their ride. You usually expect a Mercedes, a Hummer, or maybe an Escalade...
I loaded up on caffeine, since by this time I'd been riding for 40-something hours with only an hour of sleep! I had about 35 miles to go, but with the headwinds and the sleep deprivation I figured it was going to take awhile. The caffeine helped for about an hour or an hour and a half, then I really started to worry about my ability to keep riding. I was starting to have little bouts with double vision, and at some point I decided to find a spot to take a nap. I pulled into a church and set myself up on the porch. I set my phone's alarm for a 30-minute nap, but I lay there for at least 10 or 15 minutes without being able to sleep. Each time I started to fall asleep I'd wake up with a start, I was afraid that I'd sleep through the alarm and DNF the whole ride! I got back on the bike and kept going. Then up ahead I spotted a glowing Coke machine beside a roadside car garage and pulled in to caffeine up. That damn machine ate $1.25 and wouldn't give me my Coke.
As I was punching, kicking, and cussing the Coke machine I spotted Joel and crew riding by, so I jumped back on the bike and got right behind them, using their taillights to keep myself awake and on the road. I couldn't ride in their group, I was afraid that in my sleep deprived state I'd be too dangerous. Most of the way I stayed 3 or 4 bike lengths behind Curt, but in the last 8 or 10 miles I was dropping back and then sprinting up over and over just to wake myself with a bit of adrenaline. Finally we rolled into Ocean Isle, just after 3am. I took a shower and got in bed for a serious 4 hour nap.
Day 3, Monday: Of Tailwinds and Saddle Sores
I woke up around 8am and got ready for another day on the bike, then went across the street from the hotel for breakfast. I took my time, and everyone else had rolled out before I was finished. Tony kept encouraging me to get going, telling me I could catch them if I hurried. I was in no hurry, and I knew I'd rather ride my own pace than try to group up with anyone else. I applied some sunscreen and got back on the road at about 9:30am for a solo ride to Tabor City.
It was during this stretch that I encountered one of the most rare and legendary things in all of cycling: the tailwind on the return stretch. I saw Vance arriving in Ocean Isle fighting headwinds, and I yelled "Go Vance, Go!" but he yelled back "I'm done!" It was too bad, but the same wind that he was fighting was helping me make good time, and I arrived back at the Tabor City controle around Noon where I saw Joel, Mary, and Curt again. They had a longer stop than I did, and I got back on the road to enjoy some more tailwinds whipped up by the tropical storm. The rest of the ride back to Laurinburg was solo, and I rolled in there at about 5pm to find Geof, Micah, and others.
The weather had been kind to us through the whole ride, but now we had Tropical Storm Lee breathing down our necks. The forecast called for rain Monday night and all day Tuesday, so most of us changed our plans and decided to push on past Laurinburg to try to make it to Southern Pines before the rain. I'd developed some "saddle interface issues," so I took advantage of the restroom and Tony's supply of witch hazel for a little on-the-road first aid. I also deployed the "third sock." Some of you know what I mean... Once again I donned the reflective gear for night riding and replenished my supplies from my drop bag.
Geof had spilled a gel flask in his front bag and was busy cleaning that up, but I was ready to go so I got back on the road solo. I had the iPod going and was once again making good time. After a little over 20 miles the cue sheet had me looking for a left turn, and I passed an unmarked street and immediately started wondering if I'd missed it. Once I'd ridden a half mile past where the turn should've been I turned around to ride back. Back at the unnamed street I met Micah, also trying to figure out if we were supposed to turn there. I fired up my iPhone and checked the map, only to find out that there was no left turn, we just needed to continue going straight and ignore that cue. Micah called Geof and told him, then we got back on the road.
I rode with Micah for a few miles at a slow pace, having a nice conversation- I thought we were soft-pedaling and waiting for Geof to catch up. After awhile he said he needed to speed up, which was fine with me- I was starting to stiffen up a bit. We upped the pace, but Micah wanted to push harder than I did, so I let him go up the road. A couple of miles later Geof blew past me and rode up to Micah. I could see the two of them up the road all the way to the controle at Hope Mills.
At the controle I had more caffeine and some food, and Chuck showed up looking fairly dazed. He went behind the store for a nap while the rest of us got ready to go. Once again I was ready to roll and didn't feel like waiting for the others, so I rolled out solo. Even in the dark I could see ominous clouds were forming, and occasionally lightning would illuminate the horizon. I stopped at an all night convenience store to change the battery in my helmet light, I was having trouble reading my cue sheet. Geof and Micah rolled up and we went into the store for caffeine, then Joel ,Mary, and Curt passed by. The three of us got back on the road, but on a bit of a downhill I pulled away. When I got to Joel & crew I paused long enough to ask how everyone was doing, then just kept going- once again I'd gotten my rhythm and wasn't feeling like slowing down.
Geof and Micah caught up to me once it started getting a bit hilly coming into Southern Pines. Then they passed me and went up the road. I saw them again at the controle store, and it wasn't too long before Joel, Mary, and Curt rolled in. We went down the road to a Microtel and scored a couple of rooms for cheap. Geof, Micah, and I piled into one and I slept on a couch-like window cushion thingy. It was about 4am, and I set my alarm for 7.
Day 4, Tuesday: Of Torrential Rain and Solitude
After a few hours of shuteye I got up and got ready to go. It had rained while we slept and the roads were pretty wet. I went to the lobby of the Microtel and had some of their "breakfast" and "coffee." Geof and Micah weren't ready to go yet, so I got on the road solo again. I was convinced that they would catch me in the first 20 miles or so and leave me behind anyway. I was feeling pretty good, my legs were a bit sore but not as much as I had expected after 670 miles! After the first 23 miles I stopped ata convenience store for a Frappuccino and a honey bun. I thought perhaps Geof & Micah had passed by while I was in the restroom.
As I got into the Uwharrie Mountains the rain started. It was surprisingly cold rain, which felt great on my sore legs and actually invigorated me. I rode through a couple of hard showers, then the sun came back out and it was beautiful. I was really enjoying myself now, I knew I could make it to the finish... I had enough extra time to handle just about any mechanical problem and I'd been able to tolerate the saddle interface issues that had caused many other riders to abandon. At one point Tony passed me in his white van and stopped on the side of the road to take a picture as I passed. I was well provisioned from my last stop so I kept riding.
Coming into Asheboro the clouds were more ominous. The rain started coming down in buckets before I pulled into the Sheetz controle, and I spotted a white van parked beside the store. There was someone inside, so I assumed it was Tony and he didn't feel like getting out in this rainstorm. Imagine my surprise when I knocked on the window and discovered that this was a house painting crew who had no idea why some crazy cyclist wanted to get in their van! Luckily the van had been parked on the downwind side of the store, because I think there might have been a tornado nearby- the wind was blowing the rain sideways and all of the store's outdoor displays blew down and were scattered across the parking lot. I decided to get myself a sandwich for lunch and hang out there until the storm passed.
The rain didn't stop, but the wind died down enough to get back on the road. Only 30 miles to go, and I made my way through Asheboro, recognizing some of my old haunts from back when I went to school here at RCC. I left Asheboro and made my way back to Greensboro, but shortly before I got into town the rain started again quite heavily. This was the hardest rain yet, and I was dealing with Greensboro traffic at the same time. It was raining buckets as I made my way down Hwy 68 back to the Best Western.
When I arrived at the finish soaking wet there was Biker Bob waiting, offering to take my bike and sign my card. My finish time was 83 hours 10 minutes. I asked where Geof and Micah were, but Bob said they hadn't arrived yet. I'd just assumed they had passed me while I was stopped somewhere. Volunteer Jennifer took my picture and gave me my 1200K medal. Since I was already soaked I walked next door to the parking lot, drove my car back over to the Best Western, and got my dry clothes. Geof and Micah arrived and I went and took a shower, then waited for others to arrive. We greeted Joel, Mary, and Curt who arrived along with Tim, then a few others trickled in. Once they'd all had a chance to clean up and get in dry clothes we all went next door to a Ruby Tuesday for a big meal.
I had a blast on my first 1200K, and I can't wait to do it again next year!