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SIR 600 km Ride Report
by Luis Bernhardt

Having done the first three brevets - from 200 km to 400 km - in BC, I decided to do the 600 km leg of my fixed-gear Super Randonneur series in Washington. I had looked at the BC course, and although it would be convenient to be able to leave supplies in Abbotsford - a change of clothes and extra food - the course looked mind-numbing: Out past Hope, up to Boston Bar, back to Hope, all the way back to Coquitlam, back to Abbotsford, back out to Hope… I didn't think I could take riding over the same roads over and over again.

Washington had some nice features. Primarily, it was a big loop going over roads I had never ridden, in an area I'd always been interested in riding: rolling countryside along the base of the Olympic Peninsula out to the ocean, winding roads through southern Washington, light traffic, no crazy hors categorie mountain passes (well, almost none, but this is an SIR brevet). There were over thirty riders already preregistered the week before the ride, growing to 58 by the day of the ride, more than on the Lower Mainland 300 or 400. Cleverly, the organizer set the route to head west in the early morning so the sun would be at your back. By maintaining a 25 kmh average, you could be well into eastbound by the time the sun was setting. And by sunrise the next day, you'd have the sun either to your right as you headed north, or behind you as you headed west again.

The interesting thing about the 600 is that there is enough leeway in time that it can be ridden as two one-day rides, as long as you maintain a 25 kmh average. Day 1 is the typical 16-hour 400. The organizers had booked a motel in Centralia, the 403-km point, where they would ferry your clothing and supplies, so it was possible to actually spend a restful night between 22h on Saturday and 6h on Sunday (the control closes at 8h52), avoiding most of the night riding and having fresh clothes for the next day's ride. Allowing 9 hours for the final 200 km, you finish at 15h on Sunday, a nice 7-hour buffer before the final deadline of 22h on Sunday night. (When I did these rides back in the early 1980's, we just did the whole thing in one shot, maybe stopping for a sit-down dinner along the way. It was Dan McGuire who insisted on booking a motel and sleeping!)

Or, you could just get the whole thing over with in 24 hours. Part of the attraction of a brevet is being alone on empty roads in the blackness of night with only the small pool of light ahead of you and the sound of dogs barking in the distance. Then magic happens in the early morning, as light and warmth begin to infuse the scenery, and the body begins to awaken from its nocturnal torpor. It's an indescribable feeling experienced only by randonneurs, and maybe race car drivers at LeMans during les 24 Heures.

Although the week had been sunny, it was overcast at the start in Auburn. I had slept in the car, setting the alarm for 4:15 so I'd have enough time to drive over to the seedy 24-hour casino and have breakfast. The Vancouver forecast for Seattle said possible showers, so I clipped on the fenders and put some warmer clothes and shoe covers into my bag being sent to the Centralia control.

The ride started at an easy tempo until we reached the first long climb in Tacoma. I bridged up to the front group with the assistance of some well-timed stoplights. I think the best strategy for the longer brevets is to not make any hard efforts at the beginning, when you're still feeling good. The bridging to the front group was just climbing at my own tempo up the long grade. I was disappointed that no one followed me; it's nice to have a large group sharing the lead.

I'm often asked if it's hard to ride hilly brevets on the fixed gear. Someone once said that a fixed gear actually has two speeds: sitting and standing, and I'm inclined to agree. Climbing is a good thing because you can get off the saddle, especially in the latter stages of a 600 where the hard part becomes descending. With the legs moving fast and the bike pointed downward, the pain on the sit bones and associated tissue can be excruciating! One of my projects prior to P-B-P 2011 will be finding an uber-comfortable saddle. The San Marco Era is fine to about 300 km, then it starts to become painful, even with a change of shorts. I absolutely refuse to ride Brooks saddles; I've tried them and they don't work for me.

Some of the arrogant older riders, and I mean the old guys from England (but certainly not Harold, who has more class), tell me I'm crazy to ride the fixed gear. I think the fixie keeps you from getting too fixated on equipment. I'm on an old (1989) steel track frame made in Mexico, albeit with all carbon forks and seat post, and I'm keeping up with dudes on expensive full carbon 20-speed bikes with Ksyrium wheels. Easily keeping up. You just don't need all that equipment the corporations seduce you into buying and then incrementally improving the next year so you have to continuously upgrade. Besides, I know I can finish the ride with gears; riding it fixed at least makes it a challenge. And this is my way of honoring the truly hard men of cycling, the guys who rode P-B-P years ago on fixed because that's all there was.

An unexpected highlight of the morning was the crossing of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, with the separated bike path along one side, much like over Seattle's I-90 bridge.

It was a cool morning, but the moderate tempo kept us warm through Gig Harbor, Port Orchard, and along the Hood Canal, where the wind started to pick up. We rode into a headwind over low-traffic, high-texture state routes out toward the ocean at Westport. We lost a few riders from attrition, but ended with six riders by the time we reached bustling Cosmopolis.

One of the unique features of this particular brevet was the spacing of the controls. We signed in at Waterman Point, on Rich Passage, at km 84, and the next control was Cosmopolis, near Grays Harbor, at km 237! The control after that was Westport, km 266. After 106 km, the next two controls were Rainbow Falls State Park followed by Centralia, 33 km apart. And at the finish, the penultimate control at Enumclaw was only 28 km from the finish in Auburn.

It was a cool day, so I didn't drink much on the bike, and being pulled along by the group, I didn't feel like eating until the afternoon. I carried my usual Subway ham sub with lettuce, tomatoes, and olives. I should have switched from Gatorade to V-8 earlier, as I started cramping after nine hours.

At the left turn at Raymond, we were into the tailwind stretch. On a fixie, this is actually harder in a group, as the speed picks up and you have to spin faster to keep up. But a 100-110 rpm tempo is not a problem, and the scenery beats circling a velodrome.

We hit the sign for Rainbow Falls State Park and turned left, but there was no control. We continued on the road for about two more km before a couple of the smarter riders figured out that there was probably a main park entrance further up the road. So we turned around, got back on the main road, and just booted it until we arrived at the proper control. I understand groups behind us had the same problem, some of them even going to the end of the faux road. Kind of depressing if it's the middle of the night. It was still light, we had some warm food, and we proceeded to the overnight control at Centralia about an hour away.

After cleaning up and changing into fresh shorts and socks, the four of us who would ride through the night set off: Ryan Hamilton, Thomas Martin, Matthew Newlin, and me. It was after 10 pm and dark, and it was weird riding up the long grades along Centralia Alpha, not being able to see how much higher the road climbed. There were just the small pools of light formed by our headlights, some of them flashing and swooping back and forth like fireflies. I could see why it's not a good idea to use flashing lights in a group at night; I tend to agree with the Germans, who don't permit flashing lights on bikes; too jarring sitting behind one. We were in Morton after midnight, with another long climb immediately afterwards. Our 25 kmh average kept dropping as the road climbed; I was resigned to finishing around 8 am, but at least the climbs were not steep and they gave me an opportunity to get out of the saddle. I could feel pain developing behind my left knee, and two days later, I would see a swollen right Achilles tendon from overuse. But for now, I was enjoying the music of the night. The important thing was to stay with the group, since I had forgotten to bring my spare battery-light with which to read the cue sheet in the dark, so to avoid navigation problems, I needed to avoid getting dropped!

At dawn we finally reached the penultimate control in Enumclaw. Dawn was breaking, scenery was becoming visible, but that darned road kept winding on and on with no Enumclaw in sight. This was probably the most difficult part of the ride. I was considering dropping back and letting the three stronger riders finish ahead, but I was still within my limits, and I didn't feel like pulling out the cue sheet and trying to navigate, so I just hung on until the control. We left the Enumclaw control just after 5:30, riding the final hour easily - it was either flat or descending - with one overpass to climb. We arrived at the finish in Auburn at 6:44, better than I had expected. And then the perennial question for P-B-P: I've done 600 km, do I still have another 600 in me?

Luis Bernhardt has been racing bicycles on the road and track since 1972. He has won medals in US and Canadian nationals, and at the World Masters Track Championships and World Masters Games, as well as stage races in Mexico and Guatemala, and track races in the Caribbean. He won overall in his age group at the Huntsman World Senior Games in 2005. He commutes to work on the same fixed gear bike he used for this year's randonneur series, and he enjoys driving a tandem. Luis was also one of the first BC Randonneurs back in the early 1980s.


June 23, 2009