Ich hab’s geschafft!
The process for training for this event was meticulously planned and combed over. I knew how many kilometers a week I needed to do and how long I needed to be sitting on a bike. I even put as much in a Google calendar to have reminders pop up on the Ipad. Life and laziness made it such that I didn’t meet the schedule on a regular basis. I erred on the side of not training, and in the case of family visiting for 2 weeks, I didn’t get on the bike but once during that time. Needless to say I was nervous going into this event. 300km is not just a stroll in the park for me. I have only done one such ride before and that was the STP. The STP from a support and participant standpoint is a monster. That was much different than 200 Germans getting together to ride a long distance with the goal of a beer at the end. I had also originally signed up for the 200km brevet, but due to other obligations, I could not attend, and luckily and due to the organizers generosity, they allowed me to put my entrance fee to the 300km instead. With that foreboding and lengthy somewhat disclaimer for an intro, here was the experience for my first “Brevet”.
Riding a bike for 10-15 hours in a stretch requires planning. My toughest decision was what I wanted to have with me either on the bike, or on my person. I prefer to have my person free of too much stuff and try to place what I can on the bike, but in riding a road bike for long distances, this is not possible. Due to my horrific experience with flats (7) on the Seattle to Portland (STP), I included 3 tubes and 3 CO2 cartridges for the Brevet. My small saddle bag ended up weighing just over 2 pounds (of course Murphy then allowed for a flat free 320km). I also purchased a Bento style bag, or energy bag, to place on the top tube behind the stem. I was able to fit 6 gels and a Snickers bar in there as well as an Ipod touch (used for pictures and video). Also on the bike was a newly purchased StVO certified rechargeable headlight. This thing was awesome, and very light. However, it only has a battery time of 2.5 hours on full and 5 hours on ECO mode. Thus my finishing time was dictated by my battery, and such could not be used on an all-night Brevet (400km). I also had two cycling computers on the stem and handlebars just because. In my jersey pockets I ended up carrying a Tyvek cycling slicker, reflective harness, Ipod, cue sheet, control card, ID, bankcard, 50 Euros, wool gloves, and at one point two bananas and two crème wafer cookies.
I was invited to this Brevet by a co-worker of mine. Really quite a classic guy with an awesome Bavarian accent and pretty much half deaf if not more. Thus, our communication was at times difficult, but he was very good at reading my lips and guessing what I was trying to say. He is what you call a Randonneur, and had done many more of these events over the years. The series for the North Bavarian Brevets are rides every other 2 or 3 weeks starting in the beginning of April of the sequential distances of 200km (124 miles), 300km (186 miles), 400km (249 miles), 600km (372 miles), 1000km (621 miles) and 1200km(746 miles). In order to do the longer rides, you need to complete the shorter rides. Thus, there was somewhat of a control for those weaker athletes (me). Leading up to the event we had discussed the logistics and GPS map and other details that other cycling types understand. A lot of the fun of doing any event is the build up to it if done with friends or acquaintances.
My coworker and I decided to arrive at the starting point the night before so as to be early and without hassle just before the beginning of a full day of pedaling. With hindsight this was both beneficial and detrimental. Beneficial for the reasons mentioned, detrimental because of the quality of sleep. The Brevet organizer has access to an old school house in the town of Osterdorf, and has set up the upper rooms with cots. This building also has two showers and a few toilets along with a kitchen and cafeteria area. It is pretty ideal for the purpose of hosting a Brevet. Another thing of note is that Germans are rather organized and practical, and therefore had sectioned one of the sleeping rooms as a snoring room. I have long come to terms with the fact that I snore (so has my wife luckily).
Thus, I felt like the honor code required me to take poll position by the door. Little did I know that I was swimming with the big fish (sawing with the pro lumberjacks, growling with the big bears). At some point during the middle of the night I was awoken by what sounded like a lion trying to swallow a jet engine of a 737. Wow! Luckily I was able to use this interruption to use the restroom. Upon returning to the Snarcherzimmer he had luckily rolled over.
Awake and breakfast
Three hours more of sleep, and I awoke rather alert around 6 am. I waited a bit trying to visualize the upcoming ride and also for the line at the restroom to dwindle. There was a light German breakfast provided, and I ate as much of the sweet stuff I could and a hardboiled egg as well. What I really wanted was some oatmeal. I stretched a little and then had 45 minutes to kill and try not to psych myself out too much. I spent a large amount of time sitting on a bench watching others with their preparations. I was also trying to calm my nerves and keeping my mind busy with math and distance calculations. I figured that if rode at a speed of 25 km/h, I could finish the 320 km route in less than 13 hours. I had finished the first 100 miles of the STP with an average of 29km/h, and the second half with an average of 25 km/h, so I knew that I would get slower as I went along, but the STP didn’t have the climbing that this Brevet would have. Also lacking in this Brevet in comparison to the STP was the massive amount of participants. Almost at any point during the day of the STP, I could latch on to a group of 10 or so and be pulled along at a good speed. There were 190 people signed up for this Brevet, and most of them were veterans with more than a few 200 mile rides to their names. That meant that while drafting would be possible, it would require me to stay with one or maybe two groups for as long as possible.
During this time I was also debating on how many layers I was actually going to bring. I put on my base layer, my jersey, and then the Tyvek jacket with both sets of gloves, leg warmers, and cycling shorts, and was rather warm. The outside temp was around 4 degrees Celsius (40F). I was hoping it wouldn’t rain, and forecasts I had been following showed the possibility as only slight. Thus, I decided on not taking anything else besides what I had on, and using the cycling pockets for food, and cue sheets. With hindsight, I wouldn’t use the cue sheets again if the GPS track had been provided beforehand. Since then I have also figured out a more efficient method for storing the control card.
The large group of riders was to be started off in 4 different groups or stages. This would allow the punching of all control cards with the three holes that say, “this person was at the starting point, at the starting time”. This wave starting also made it not so much of a traffic issue with 190 cyclists in a big group on narrow German roads. I was slotted in the 3rd wave, and was allowed more time to wait. The organizer, Karl W., said a few words of advice and announced course changes from previous years just before the start of the first wave. However, as most people were chatting around me and not listening, I had a hard time listening as well. I spent most of this time looking at peoples’ bikes. One of note was a two speed steel frame wide tired cruiser with a leather saddle bag. Yeah, the guy’s legs were huge. Another was an aerodynamic encased recumbent. This looked similar to an egg with wheels. I met up with him quite a few times during the day, and I was always impressed with the speeds he could reach going downhill (80km/h+). Along with the tandems and the high end road bikes were many other road bikes and trekking bikes designed or tweaked for long distances. It was pretty fun to see.
At the start of the first stage, the jitters jumped around in my body, and I said to myself, as I always do, “Why am I doing this”, and, “Oh no!” Then the second group left and I had my control card punched and waited for the roll out. My coworker yelled out a good luck and a see you at the finish, and then my wave started rolling downhill. No turning back now. I had cleaned my bike earlier in the week with a solution of alcohol and oil and accidently got some on the breaking surface of the rims. In breaking on this initial downhill, a high pitch squeak scared me slightly, but knowing what it was just focused me on smoother break application until the residue wore off. It took a very short time. This first section was really fun, and really fast. I am not always able to ride in knowledgeable groups and this group was really knowledgeable so it made it fun. The first 5 km went by quickly (top speed 63 km/h) and then it was time to climb back out of that valley that we had dropped into. The climbing and gradient was not foreign to me, but the total amount would be a personal record. I usually get competitive going up hills, but this time I let people pass me. I knew I would need the energy for later. At the top of the hill I found a group of 3 riders to hook onto, and they were going at an average speed of 30 km/h. That was exactly what I was looking for, and I stayed with them for a while.
Around the 25 km mark I looked back and noticed that we had amassed a following of around 15 riders. Most of them looked like the real deal too. I decided to stay put and see what unfolded. I could tell that most of them were just spinning their wheels and enjoying the pull. Around the 50 km mark the turns pulling at front came to a man that had no business hanging around with us mortals. His pulling picked up to speeds over 40km/h and he basically destroyed the pack. I was one of the only dummies that stayed on his wheel. I say that with pride, and also with knowledge of the stupidity of such a move. He kept his pace going no matter the terrain, and had I a heart rate monitor I would have pegged it during this portion. Eventually, and provincially, the first control station was reached. I looked down at my computer and noticed a time just over 2 hours a 45 minutes. My naïve thought was, “wow, we’re making really good time”. My thought process should have been, “Oh crap, I have to hold back a lot more”. Looking back and now knowing a bit more about thresholds and heart rate zones, I was basically at 90% threshold for those 83 kilometers. I was a ticking time bomb. I am surprised the cramping didn’t come sooner.
Foreshadowing aside, this was really scary for me. The first twinge came while still hanging on to the wheels of this dwindled group after the restart at the control station. I knew I needed to pull back. However, I thought I should hold on to the crest of this hill, and get my rest on the downhill. It was a false crest. I started cramping in my quads, and thus shifted to the granny gearing and spun my legs while drinking and hoped this would be enough to have it go away. Nope! I still had 30km or so to the next control station, and there was a lot of climbing to do. I also knew my nutrition wasn’t sufficient. I stopped at an Edeka and bought some bananas and filled up my water bottles. The banana tasted good, and the water helped, but as soon as an incline started, the cramping would start again. Just a small incline was enough. This made for slow going, and the main and larger groups were now far ahead of me. I wondered at how many smaller groups might be coming up from behind to help me out. The problem was I couldn’t latch to their wheels either. I needed food, and a lot of it, and some rest. At one point in the middle of a long gradual climb, I dismounted, and lied down in the grass on the side of the road for a while. My heart rate slowed, my muscles relaxed, and I almost fell asleep. I drank as much water as I could, and then decided to get to the next control station and then make a decision of what to do. I was close to done.
Somehow that rest made it possible for me to make the climb up to the next control station at 153 km. I had downloaded the GPS track onto my Garmin 500 and each control station was signaled as a flag on the route. As that flag came closer, I seemed to have added energy. I knew food and rest were at that flag.
Being a warm Saturday near a large lake in Bavaria, the Biergarten used for the 2nd control station was crowded with people. I waited in line for as much food as possible. This included a full rack of ribs, a portion of French fries, a sprite, and a supersized pretzel. It was frustrating that it all tasted like cardboard, but I knew it was going to do me well. This was especially the case for the fries. I then called the wife and let her know that I was close to a DNF, but had no other option but to keep going. Our only car was at the finish line, and this was miles away from my pregnant wife. I had no other option but to get back to the finish line somehow. This thought was very depressing. I really didn’t know how I was to to do it as my legs were already shot.
I rolled out from the control station with one thought, and that was to find a group of about 5 riders with a wife and husband as part of it. This would allow me to hang on as the husband helped his wife finish. Shortly after having this thought, a group of 4 riders passed me while going up a hill. One rider (male) was riding alongside and holding his hand on the small of another rider’s back (female). Bingo! Another plus was that there was another female in the group. Having said this, many other females had passed me up during the day, but I could just tell this group was going to be perfect for pulling me home. So I caught on to the back wheel. It only took them around 10 km to realize that I was basically hanging on for dear life and would not take a turn at the front. The unspoken “OK, you are hurting, we’ll help you” was communicated, and I had a group to ride with. Another interesting thing was that they knew I was not German without me saying any words. Maybe it was my cycling jersey in English or the way I pedal?
There was a heinous climb just before the third control station and one point I looked down at my instantaneous grade and saw a number of 14%. I didn’t know there was such a thing. Fortuitously enough, my legs only cramped up at the top of the climb just before the crest. By this time however, I had used up all of the immediate energy I was going to get from the spare ribs and fries I ate at the last control station. The third control station was located at a Pizzeria and of course I purchased a whole Pizza and stuffed it in a plastic bag and put it in my jersey. This little act was to be my savior. From there on out, I ate a slice of pizza every 25 km. I also stayed with the group I was with, and they maintained a respectable average speed of 25km/h.
Around this point, my body was responding really well to the pizza, and water intake, and I was really starting to enjoy the ride. It had been very good day weather wise, and the setting of the sun was making for some very scenic riding. We also picked up two other riders to make us 7 strong. At this point I remembered that I was doing this ride for accomplishment, but also for documentation, so I took out the Ipod, snapped a few pictures (even a selfie) and filmed a short clip of the group pulling me along.
At this time it became too dark to safely ride without a light. I turned on my light that I had recently purchased for the ride and set it to ECO mode. In this mode it was still very bright and lit up enough of the road in front of me. I was hoping to do the last 50 km in less than 5 hours, manageable. Shortly after having turned on the light, I saw the lit golden arches from McDonalds that signaled the 4th and final control station. For me this meant fries, and a little bit of time off the bike. At McDonalds I ate a medium size fry that were unbelievably tasteless. I filled my water bottles twice, and got back at it and ready to go. The group was a little slower than I was at this point, but I was more than willing to wait. After starting out again it then became a feeling of “horse to the barn”. It was also a little bit eerie seeing only red tail lights and illuminated chain stays. I had earlier noticed that I was either heavier, or had a lower profile because my downhill speeds were much higher than the group’s. At night this required me to go it alone on the downhill portions for fear of overriding the rider in front. This was fine, and my little light that could was doing just fine.
After what seemed like and endless time riding along a valley, we crossed a bridge and I knew that to mean the last climbing was shortly upon us. I ate another slice of pizza, and tried to get into a zone of climbing. As the grade increased, I was waiting for my legs to start cramping again, but they didn’t. So I kept at it. Slow and steady. Since dusk, I could no longer see my bike computer, so I had no idea where along the route we were at any given time. I had, however, set up my computer for lapping information every 5 kilometers, and I knew that the route would require 64 laps. When a lap was hit, the computer would light up and beep and show you the time for the last lap. When I hit lap 62, I knew that meant less than 20 more minutes of riding. That was exciting. I was also waiting to see a familiar sign pointing to Osterdorf. After climbing out of the valley, my legs though tired, wanted to go faster and be done with this day. Luckily one of the riders in the group had similar intentions, and though I didn’t know the way back, he did, and I followed him for the last 5 km to the end. The rest of our group was only a minute behind us, so I didn’t feel like too big of a chump for leaving them (I didn’t). Crossing the finish line was an awesome feeling, especially because of the crazy cramping experienced mid-ride. I would have quit had I a foreseeable option to do so. I am glad I didn’t. I called my wife and let her know I had finished. She was relieved, so was I. The total elapsed time was around 15 hours, and the riding time was 12 hours and 36 minutes with an average of 25km/h.
Wind down and A Rude Awakening
While getting off the bike and walking into the old school house the endorphins started flowing and somewhat took over my body. A good feeling, but combined with the cold air of the evening, I started to shiver. I handed in my control card and got a bowl of soup that was being provided. It was a warm and salty noodle soup that tasted really good (taste again!). The endorphins were still buzzing until I got into a cold shower a little bit later. They abruptly stopped leaving me to shiver clean. It was close to midnight by this point, and I was ready for any type of sleep I could manage. I put on clean clothes and climbed into my sleeping bag. I fell asleep immediately.
Around 3 am, my coworker finished the route, ate his soup, dressed and got into bed. After lying in the cot for about a minute, it cracked and broke completely and he fell to the floor. He of course let out a scream and a few words of astonishment, and proceeded to make his bedding to sleep on the floor. This was not funny in the moment as it woke me, and I was not happy about that, but since then the reflection makes me laugh every time. What a reward for him after having just ridden his bike 320 kilometers. He tells the story really well too.
- Go out slow on long distance events. (Power meter?)
- Rechargeable lights that meet StVO are just fine for 300km events.
- Ziploc bag for food in cycling jersey purchased along the way (pizza).
- During endurance events, climb and descend at own pace