Eastern Iowa Brevet Series 200K

April 7, 2001

Eldridge, Iowa

152 kilometers

Bicycle:  Bike Friday New World Tourist

Ride Info: Randonneurs USA


A little background: a brevet is a non-competitive bicycle ride (the word is used interchangeably with randonnee, a French word that means something like a long trip or tour on foot or bicycle). There is a time limit, but the only goal is to finish. Each rider carries a card to have signed at certain checkpoints (aka controls) to prove that the distance has been covered. Once a rider has completed a brevet, he can call himself a randonneur (she can call herself a randonneuse or a randonneur, depending on whether she shares the French affinity for gender specificity). Brevets are done in series, starting with 200K and working up to 300K, 400K, 600K, 1000K and finally 1200K for the hardiest of cyclists. The most famous brevet is Paris-Brest-Paris, followed by its North American counterpart, Boston-Montreal-Boston. Both are 1200K brevets. This was my first year as a member of Randonneurs USA, and for some reason, I chose the windiest day of the year to attempt my first brevet. The ride started in Eldridge, IA, just north of Davenport (Quad Cities) and went north-northeast to Bellevue, IA, and back.

I didn't sleep well in my motel room on Friday night, but on the bright side, I got up really early, reaching the starting point at Hardee's in Eldridge more than an hour before the start. I used this time to install some aero bars to contend with the anticipated winds and finish installing my cyclometer. Another rider showed up a few minutes later, and I quickly learned that randonneurs are a very friendly subset of the cycling world (none of them even looked down their noses at my Bike Friday's toe clips!). After paying my fee and picking up my cue sheet, I ran into Hardee's for a large orange juice (my favorite anti-bonk drink, recommended by Race Across America (RAAM) riders) and two of their irresistible apple cinnamon raisin biscuits.

When I returned to the group, I saw a guy with a RAAM finisher's jersey. I wanted to bow down: " I'm not worthy!" To me, RAAM is the ultimate in ultra cycling, in many ways even more impressive than the Tour de France, something far beyond my wildest dreams as a cyclist. This rider, Tom Buckley, finished fifth last year, riding 2,975 miles in 9 days, 19 hours and 52 minutes!

My ride got off to a slow start when I asked a last-minute rookie question just as everyone else (15 riders total) rolled out. Since my biggest fear was getting lost (I'm much more comfortable with a map than I am with just a cue sheet), this concerned me, but navigation turned out not to be a problem. The early miles were a pleasant cruise. There were some hills but no killers, and I often had a tailwind from the south of perhaps 20 mph. There was a crosswind when I was eastbound. It was mildly annoying but not too bad. All of the checkpoints were located at convenience stores, so I purchased snacks and fluids there and the clerk signed my brevet card. By the time I rolled out of the second control at 44 miles (in the town of Miles), I was feeling pretty good. I even passed one rider. The hills were steeper here on Iowa 64, which is a continuation of Illinois 64. I had an exciting moment coming down the final big hill into the Mississippi River valley. There was a crosswind from the right as I descended. I glanced down to see that I was going 42 mph, then looked up to see a swirl of leaves blowing... from the left! With a little wobble, I somehow managed to negotiate the wind change, but it was pretty intense. What a rush!

Shortly after that downhill, I turned onto U.S. 52 northwest toward Bellevue. This was a beautiful, challenging road that I would recommend to anyone traveling in that area. It's about 20 miles from Iowa 64 to Bellevue, and the road constantly twists, rises and falls with occasional river views. The only fault in the road was that the gaps in the bridge expansion joints were a little wide (granted, they always seem larger with the Bike Friday's 20" wheels). There were some difficult hills, but all in all, I was feeling pretty good. Just the same, I was happy to reach the Mobil station at the south end of Bellevue that marked the halfway point. It was about 11:30, so I had covered 67 miles in 4:30 (the course was about 9-10 miles longer than 200K).

I bought a bottle of Gatorade, but I couldn't think of anything I wanted to eat. I decided to choke down a granola bar out of my rack pack, a mistake since it was way too dry. The guy I had passed earlier had pulled in right behind me. He bought a foil-wrapped cheeseburger and some Gatorade (the blue stuff that looks like Windex). We talked a bit as he ate. He was a veteran of the 200K and 300K rides in 2000. As he headed back toward Eldridge, I got a sudden urge to use the restroom. Good thing it hit me then, since it would be several hours before I got another opportunity. After that I finally felt like eating something, so I went for one of those cheeseburgers. As I unwrapped it and took a bite, I immediately recognized the taste--it was just like a school lunch cheeseburger. And to my shock, it really hit the spot!

I took a long break for lunch, not looking forward to the return trip into the wind to Eldridge. However, I figured that even if it was slow going, I still had plenty of time to finish and was not concerned. I headed back south at noon with nine hours to go, or twice the time I took for the first half of the trip. The wind had picked up considerably in the hour since I had passed through this area. I know this was not merely an impression based on riding against the wind versus with the wind because things were blowing that weren't before. For example, huge, gritty clouds of dust rose from a freshly plowed farmer's field and pelted my skin. I had to close my right eye because the dirt  was getting in behind my sunglasses. I wondered what wind speed my shades could even withstand, and I knew that if they broke, it would be impossible to continue.

Once when I was heading downhill at about 30 mph, I came around a curve and suddenly the wind hit me head-on. Although I was still going downhill, my speed dropped instantly to 10 mph. Another time, I pulled over to rest, and just seconds later, a huge gust of wind blew an 8-10 foot long forked branch out of a tree. The branch crashed to the ground alongside the road just a few hundred feet ahead, and pieces bounced out onto the road. That was close! At this point, I was amazed by the wind but not overwhelmed by it. I did calculations constantly, figuring out how fast I would have to go to finish in time. Despite the wind, it still looked favorable as long as I could keep moving. By the time I got back down to Route 64, I was averaging 10 mph for the return trip, a pace that would get me back to the car a couple hours under the time limit.

I expected the first hill on 64, the one where I had nearly wiped out descending when the winds changed, to be tough. And it was. Fortunately, my Bike Friday has some low gears. On the way to Bellevue, I had kept the rear hub in high gear the whole time (this bike has a 3-speed rear wheel hub instead of a front derailleur). On the way back, I spent most of my time in middle or low matched with middle-to-low cogs. I couldn't stand up  to climb at all--my body acted like a dragster's parachute brake when I did! To my dismay, cresting the hill only made matters worse because now nothing was between me and the wind sweeping across the plains. As the road curved, I faced brutal alternating headwinds and crosswinds. Although the headwinds slowed me to 4-5 mph even on the flats, the crosswinds were worse. It was a constant battle to keep the bike on the road. I was tilting the bike 30-40 degrees into traffic (which was mercifully sparse) just to keep going straight. Heck, I didn't know one could ride a bike leaning over that far in a straight line outside of a velodrome! Obviously, this was becoming extremely dangerous. It was easy to imagine a passing vehicle blocking the wind momentarily and sucking me toward the middle of the road. Even when I pulled over to rest, as I did more and more often, I had to struggle to hold my bike upright. It was seven  miles to the checkpoint at Miles, and I expected it would take an hour to get there.

It took even longer. That gave me plenty of time to think, and I could do nothing to keep those thoughts positive. I kept thinking of Lance Armstrong's comment after the TdF stage where he bonked last year about it being the hardest day of his life on a bike. I was really miserable, and every time the wind whipped dust into my face I felt worse. I thought of how this was the sort of day that inspired people to hang up their bikes on hooks in the garage and never ride again. I thought of how foolish it was to even come out here knowing that it would be so windy.

The constant struggle to pedal at 4.5 mph on the flats was so disheartening, I finally resigned myself to walking the hills (not much slower than riding). Even walking was no picnic, as I still faced fierce winds (local weather stations measured steady winds 35-43 mph with gusts up to 59 mph). I saw another rider in the distance walking on the shoulder, too. With another 44 miles to go beyond the not-yet-visible Miles checkpoint, I knew my ride was already over. I just couldn't take it anymore, and at my current pace, I wouldn't even make the cutoff. Finally, I could see the crossroads where the Miles control was. I figured I could manage to pedal the downhill, which I did at a dismal 7 mph. It had taken me 3:30 to ride about 27 miles (1:30 for the last 7 8:30 for 94.5 miles total). As I rode into the parking lot, I saw a couple of bikes leaned against the wall. Sure enough, the two guys sitting inside were as finished as I was. The big question was, " How are we going to get ourselves and our bikes back to Eldridge without riding them?" One of the guys, Mike, an experienced ultra cyclist from Glenview, said he had called the organizer, Dave, but he didn't think Dave was coming. He thought we should just offer a six-pack of beer to anyone who came in with a pickup truck if they could give us a ride to the next control, 20 miles away. Of course, there were no takers. I suggested that maybe we could call a tow truck to take us, figuring it wouldn't cost that much if we split it. At that point, I would have paid $100 for a ride to my car. We sat there for at least 45 minutes, and the flag outside was sticking straight out like a board the whole time.

Dave showed up after all, much to my relief. He said he'd never seen winds like this during a ride. He had a rack for two bikes on his roof, and he said we could probably fit another inside. " Well, mine is a folder," I volunteered, which made things much easier. We headed back to Eldridge along the route and checked up on the other riders we saw. One guy, who was weaving all over the road in the crosswind, said he could probably make it to the next checkpoint, but that was all. Dave said he'd come back for him in about an hour. It would probably take the rider an hour to travel the 6 or 7 miles to the control anyway. At the next control, there were five riders. All but one said they were going to wait a while and try to make it in (unfortunately, the forecast said the wind wouldn't die down until 9 PM, so I don't know if they were successful or not). By the time we got back to Eldridge some ten hours after the start, Tom Buckley (the RAAM veteran) was the only guy who had finished. He said his heart rate was 162 when he was only going 8 mph!

I thanked Dave profusely for coming out to rescue us. He invited me to come back for the 300K in May. Normally, one must complete 200K before attempting 300K, but I guess he considered the circumstances to be extreme. He even promised to turn the wind down a few notches next time! I was feeling pretty low to abandon, but I felt better not being the only one, especially since some of the drop-outs were pretty experienced riders. Out of 15 cyclists, fewer than 10 finished, whereas usually a 200K has only one or two DNF's. I talked to Mike for a few minutes in the parking lot, then I went into Hardee's for dinner. It's great that they let us use their parking lot, so the least I could do was eat there. Yuck--I forgot to tell them " no mayo" on the burger. As I scraped the white goo off the bun, I imagined myself being scraped off the highway like road kill.

01/08/2004 - Postscript: Nearly three years afterward, my experience in this ride still haunts me. I have wondered a hundred times whether I gave up too easily, whether I could have persisted and finished if I had been a little bit stronger mentally. Whenever I read this account and truly relive that ride, I have to admit that I made the right decision, though. I have also used the experience in a positive way as a motivator. It remains the only ride where I have quit, so whenever I feel like quitting, I think of this brevet  and how awful I felt about it. The 2003 Horribly Hilly Hundred comes to mind as one invitational ride where I fought the urge to quit by recalling that day in Iowa.  I have also vowed to someday right that wrong and finish a 200K brevet.

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