From the “What Was I Thinking” Files: 126 Miles into the Wind
At mile 34.7 Natalie Ramsland takes a monster pull on the front of our four-man group. There are 91 miles left to ride.We are somewhere near Silverton, battling a never-ending series of rollers that threaten to end my will to live.
There is no draft behind Natalie. That is what I am thinking as I stare at the rear tire of a her purple bike, a machine that she has constructed with her own hands. Natalie Ramsland is possibly the smallest framebuilder alive but her spirit towers.
She has absolutely impeccable form.
I notice this right away and make a note. Mile one: Natalie Ramsland has impeccable form. She rides in an aggressive position, arms bent, back perfectly flat. And as if she weren’t small enough, her perfect form reduces her drag to almost nothing. The warm wind comes ripping over the top of her to hit me full in the chest.
She is riding under the wind. She is flawless.
As I suffer on her wheel, hoping one of the boys behind me will come around and offer shelter, I recall that this entire endeavor is all Natalie’s fault. In the molten core of my suffering moments, I find genuine comfort in distributing blame to others.
Several months ago I sat in the J & M Cafe over a lazy, 3.5 hour brunch with Natalie and her husband, Austin. In between coffee refills and crab benedict, we covered many topics ranging from cyclocross to frame-building to new puppies. At some point, Natalie uttered the words that will alter the trajectory of my summer: "I just built this sweet bike for this kick-ass Rando woman who is going to PBP"
I’d been hearing the "Rando" word for several years and have read Ira Ryan’s ride reports with great interest for nearly as long. Who are these crazy Randonneurs? What are they doing out there in the middle of the night with bright lights and big baskets? Why does Ira Ryan sleep in ditches?
For some reason or another, I’d never had occasion to actually dig in and find my own answers. Now, with Natalie captive at the J&M, I launch into to a ferocious line of questioning.
We discuss the randonneuring philosophy for some time: a test of endurance, self-sufficiency, and bicycle touring skills. Non-competitive in nature. Randos ride over long distance and must complete the course within a designated time limit. Brevet lengths range from a distance of 200-1200k and all rides are unsupported.
So, if you need it, you’re carrying it.
1200k? That’s just dumb.
I like it.
It is completely counter to everything that racing is, and almost totally, 100% insane. As a solo-backpacker, I am enamored with the idea of traveling with everything that I could possibly need.
Over the next few months Natalie and I scheme over how we will execute our foray into the world of Randonneuring.
And this is how I have ended up following a wheel that has no draft across swelling Oregon rollers.
200k. No problem, right?
126 miles. A century and then just a short ride added on. It is a 25% increase in distance for me but once you get up to the hundreds the theory is, "what’s another 26 miles?"
Mile 72: The rollers have subsided and Austin and Sal take turns at the front as we head toward the town of Jefferson. They are pulling a train of 10 or 11. I sit in at 4th wheel and enjoy the ride. The miles come easily. I am always careful to note the easy miles and express gratitude for them. Easy miles never happened. It’s as if the odometer in my legs turns off. They come without effort, without agony, without thought. I become my bike. We fuse and glide.
The group disperses at Jefferson and we roll out after our brevet cards are signed by the store clerk. We have picked up a kid named Joshua who is riding a bike that he made himself. He is wearing a Seattle Randonneurs jersey but claims to be from Portland: "I wear this jersey to confuse people."
His bike is beautiful – the crank casts a silky reflection on the pavement. It’s movement is mezmerizing. I admire this feature as I cling desperately to his wheel.
Sal is at the front of our five-man train driving the pace higher than it needs to be. Austin and Joshua respond in kind, taking similarly paced pulls now and then. Natalie and I hit the drops and pedal furiously. Every few minutes I look back at her as if to say, "What the f—!?" The pace is too fast to eat or talk or drink. We hang on by the skin of our teeth, realizing that our job in this situation is simply to avoid getting dropped.
I appreciate the pull through the ass-kicking headwind, but I am not so happy about the pace. Ten miles pass and all that I have seen is the wheel in front of me. If I take my eyes away from it, it will disappear. All that I know is that I must keep that wheel exactly where it is. Do. Not. Lose. That. Wheel.
Later when Sal finally relents, I roll up to him and say: "Two demerits! I am writing a note in your brevet card about this behavior."
"Demerits!?" he is incredulous but smiling. He knows.
"Are you trying to kill me?" I ask. "Do you want me to finish this ride?" I am smiling too because we both know that I will be fine and finish the ride. We also both know that Sal is a work-horse with big, strong legs. He likes to pull the train. He likes to open up.
"You’ve had your fun." I say. "No more shenanigans. The Rando police are keeping an eye on you."
Mile 89.5: We are still feeling good but we have lost our non-Seattle-Rando friend. The four of us press on and begin a treasure-hunt. Somewhere between Mile 90 and 93, there is a gift waiting for us, hidden in the bramble by my good friend Kenji.
I have explicit directions for how to find it, which I have read 20 times until committed to memory. Two 90 degree turns, over a few rollers, come to an intersection, look to the left.
"There it is!"
We roll off the road and over the bramble where I see the brown paper bag. Behind the bag, which functions as a disguise, is a cooler.
A cooler! That means something cool is inside! On the top of the cooler is a photo of Kenji’s gerbils (I mean guinea pigs) that says "Booty!" I rip into the duct tape and pull off the lid to reveal two bags of ice and and a wide selection of super-cold red bulls and mountain dews.
Manna from heaven! Pure gold!
We drink and toast enthusiastically to our pirate’s treasure. Spirits are lifted, Red Bull gives us wings. We take pictures, write a thank you note, and replace the cooler and brown paper bag covering.
We are collectively inspired and amazed at the thoughtfulness and generosity of this gift and we pedal off into the final 35 miles of our journey.
I am the navigator for this trip and as my computer ticks over to mile 100 I announce the milestone to the group: "We just did a century!"
Austin drifts back to me smiling: "Sweet!! Let’s do some more!"
Natalie and I talk about our first "real" bikes (I am riding mine) and the conversation gets me to mile 111 with a smile on my face. But at mile 112, things start to deteriorate.
14 miles is nothing, I tell myself. 14 miles is child’s play. A lark.
But in that moment 14 miles sounds like a lot. I sit up, pull a hoarded red bull out of my center jersey pocket, and kill it. I fish around for more bits of clif bar. I drink cytomax and water.
These are the desperate acts of a woman who feels a bonk coming on.
With 8 miles to go, I request a stop so that I can eat a banana. Eight miles to go. Single digits. Single fucking digits.
I eat the banana slowly, survey the landscape around me and grit my teeth as we get back on the bikes. My racing saddle has turned into a dagger so I stand up on the pedals as much as possible. Sitting has become excruciating.
The final eight miles define the ride for me. I watch them pass on my cycling computer, one tenth of a mile by one tenth of a mile.
Part of me wishes that the computer was not there, but the truth is that the ticking of those tenths is filling me with a necessary confidence. The pedals are still turning over, the miles still piling up. Whatever pain is there is accompanied by progress.
I’m going to make it.
The final 3 miles takes us through construction. 123 miles of Oregon chip-seal has already done it’s damage to my hands, which are sore and blistered. We weave in and around orange barriers and cones, battling varying road conditions, looking hopefully for the turn that will take us off the highway.
A right on 2nd street.
A right on 2nd.
Where is 2nd!?
In the moment that I think it will not every appear, it does. The following left on Elliot takes us into the parking lot of the Travelodge where previously mentioned seriously kick-ass Rando woman, Cecile, greets us and servs as our final control. After signing and collecting our brevet cards (which will be mailed to France to become official!), she shows us to the post-ride recovery area, which is filled with salty snacks and sugary drinks.
There is no better feeling than climbing off my bike, but taking off the chamois comes in at a close second. We have been awake since 3:40 in the morning, riding since 6:00am. 7 hours and 44 minutes of ride time, 9 hours and 20 minutes total time including controls, a lunch break, and the treasure hunt.
Maybe. But Natalie and I are already entertaining an attempt at 400k for later this summer. Sal has already expressed his enthusiastic rejection of this proposition ("Heidi, that is SO CRAZY. I do not even understand why you would want to do it."), so it will just be me and the draft-less crusader.
More on losing my mind later. In the meantime, a recovery ride is in order.