Tuesday, January 5, 2010

PA Dutch 200k - One Rider's Perspective

We met at Rick’s house on Sunday morning after a postponement from Saturday. It was a very chilly 15F with strong winds from the west. After the usual pre-brevet talk and warning of one icy spot, eight of us took off. I held back briefly to allow a very cold GPS to fire up and load the route and then descended with Len Zawodniak and Mark Kaufman. Mark dropped back after a couple miles to adjust clothing leaving Len and me to continue. As we climbed the ridge from Berks into Chester County, we got our first taste of the wind. It was strong and cold. Suddenly 10mph became good progress. I saw 6mph far too much for my liking.

Somewhere along the way, my GPS decided it was too cold to fully function. The memory card containing the maps lost contact, leaving me with a highlighted track of the course and a pointer for my current position. No roads, no road names. I've ridden variations of this route before and knew where I was headed, so this wasn't a big concern. I simply followed the highlighted path and turned where the track turned. But it highlighted the need for contingencies.

Len and I were first to arrive at the second controle in Honey Brook at 25 miles. We checked in and had hot chocolate. I filled my Polar bottle with hot water from the coffee dispenser. When we first turned into the wind I had explained to Len that the course would take us into the wind for about the next 50 miles. With that in mind, Len and I set out as others were arriving in hopes of making the next controle in Columbia in time. We had 5 hours to cover 44 miles; I figured we would need most of that.

Under normal circumstances, the first 20 miles from the Honey Brook controle are very enjoyable rolling farmland. After that, the route approaches the river hills along the Susquehanna River and becomes more vertically challenging. Today was not normal. There were some stretches on level road when I felt good to be making 8 mph. We kept our heads down and pedaled. The miles slowly ticked by. The phrase of the day became “that hill didn’t look that steep” as we scale a small roller with huge wind in our small gears . We encountered our first ice flow approaching Strasburg, about 47 miles along. Len let momentum carry him safely across. I approached and decided to walk. As I did, a gust of wind caught my bike and slid the back tire around behind me. Thankfully I stayed upright and made it across, but it was a testament to the strength of the wind. I remounted and pedaled on into town. While in the shelter of town I added another layer to my gloves to keep my fingers warm. Onward into the wind. Another 10 miles brought us to the hills and much needed little respite (relatively speaking) from the wind, but I really needed something to eat. My pre-ride breakfast and Spiz was long gone. We stopped for another hot chocolate and a snack at the store in Conestoga. The Columbia controle was another 12 miles with 2 hours until the controle closing time. This was too close for my comfort.

The route leaving Conestoga drops down to the Susquehanna River at Safe Harbor and then climbs River Rd toward Highville. It’s a 2 mile climb with the steepest portion at the bottom. As I crested the steep section I realized just how difficult this would be. I was climbing the easier portion of the grade but now had a 30mph wind in my face and another mile to go. The wind was even worse as I neared the top. Several times I thought I’d be blown off my bike. I could see Len ahead leaning far sideways into the wind. It looked unnatural. The gusty winds continued for a few miles while we rode atop the ridge to the top of Turkey Hill. Normally this would be a 40-50mph descent. Terminal velocity today: 22mph. But the good news was that we were now within 5 miles of the controle and still had an hour. We arrived with just over a half hour to spare and treated ourselves to a Subway lunch. Tom Rosenbauer arrived alone as we ate.

I was eager to press on as the controle closing time was upon us and I knew the next leg contained several more miles of headwind. Len and I left at the official controle closing time. Tom wanted to stay a bit longer to see if any other riders were close.

The leg between Columbia and Lititz includes several zig-zags that provided momentary stretches of tailwind. Of course, there were also stretches of headwind. I kept turning the pedals knowing that once we reached Manheim there would be a nice downwind run into Lititz. The wind did not disappoint and we finally achieved our fastest speed of the day coming down Temperance Hill. Within minutes we reached the Café Chocolate & Bistro, known today as Controle 4. We had 35 minutes in the bank. Curtis Palmer was there to greet weary riders and handle our cards. The Café provided an excellent chocolate/espresso combination known as the “Turbo” and we feasted on spiced muffins covered in chocolate sauce. What decadence! Tom pulled in about 10 minutes later and joined in our treat. He reported that the three of us were all that remained within the time limit. SPECIAL NOTE: The Café Chocolate & Bistro has joined a small list of the greatest controles I’ve ever encountered.

Our trio set out on the final leg at 5pm. I was familiar with the first few miles of the leg and we settled into a cooperative arrangement: Tom called out the cues while Len and I scouted the roadways. I still had the highlighted track on my GPS so it served as confirmation that we were on course. We made good time with more favorable winds and enjoyed the roads less travelled that Rick had chosen. Even the climb up past Maple Grove didn’t feel nearly as bad as Pennypacker had felt last year. Soon enough we were on the final approach to Rick’s house which afforded a great view of the Reading Pagoda all lit up in the night sky. Tom felt a sudden need for fluids (he'd fought frozen bottles all day) and stopped about a mile from the end for a snack. Len and I continued and began the final climb to Rick’s and reached the summit around 8:20. We took time to load our bikes and put on some dry clothes hoping that Tom would arrive so we could check in together. Rick came out to investigate and that was our finish. Thirteen hours even. Tom rolled in a few minutes later.

Rick and Lora Beth had plenty of food and hot soup waiting for us. What a great end to a long, hard day. THANKS!

In spite of the cold temperatures, my clothing selection for the day performed very well. I used a single pair of heavy wool socks with neoprene shoe covers for my feet and a pair of fingered ski gloves on my hands. For pants I wore my heavy wool tights with windblock panels which are known for being too hot in temps above 30. On top I used a heavy wool turtleneck, a lighter wool jersey, and a windblock jacket. I added polypro glove liners in Strasburg. My wife got me a Camelbak for Chirstmas which I wore under my outer jacket and enjoyed warm water all day. This one ride convinced me of the benefit of the Camelbak system, at least in cold weather.

I'm often asked why we do this. For me, the pain fades quickly at the end leaving me with a tremendous feeling of accomplishment.

Until next time . . .



  1. Andrew,

    Good summary and congratulations on surviving the epic conditions by finding the right clothing combination ... as the old Norwegian saying goes, there's no bad weather, only bad clothing.

    At breakfast, we talked about the camelback strategy, which I put under my jacket as well. But I neglected to: A) start with warm water and B) keep the tube/bite valve protected in my jacket. So even though I blew back the tube after each sip, it eventually froze.

    I also had trouble getting enough air through my nose (felt like I was breathing through small straw). So I ended up mostly breathing through my mouth which led to the coughing problems I had. I think the bandanna that you used over your mouth was a good idea -- instead of dry cold air, you had warm moist air going into your lungs.

    Those little details eventually became a major problem for me.

    I **had** to stop for some fluids right at the end -- I had trouble staying hydrated all day and it finally got to me right in Reading. Also, I couldn't breathe without coughing up a lung and had to also get some cough drops. I thought about stopping at a Turkey Hill when we crossed 724 at the end, but I thought I could tough it out to the finish. But I had forgotten about that last 500 feet of climbing we had left, to get up from the Schyulkill River.

    -Tom Rosenbauer
    Eastern PA RBA

  2. I suppose I forgot to mention a couple of the nuances in my clothing that enabled me to finish. I have a polypro balaclava that works decently. It can get a little cool when wet, but I didn't have too much of a problem with sweat build-up on Sunday (can't imagine why). I use a bandanna (a Buff, actually) to cover those portions of my face left exposed by the balaclava. Having a separate piece allows me to open up for heavy breathing and cover up for normal breathing and the critical warming of the incoming air. I learned the importance of breathing warm air last year on this same event.