The Birkie is the first Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) qualifier on the Oregon Randonneurs calendar. PBP is the most famous randonneuring event in the world. Randonneuring is a style of long distance bicycling that’s practiced by riders who procure their own support during the ride, follow a specified route through various controls, and complete the distance within a time window. PBP is a 1200 km ride that’s held every four years. Riders who want to participate must prove they are likely to finish the ride by completing a Series of Brevets in the calendar year of PBP before the end of June. The Series consists of 200 km, 300 km, 400 km and 600 km Brevets. The Oregon club hosts a local series to allow riders to complete the series, although substitution of approved Brevets in other areas is allowed. One of the advantages of completing the rides in Oregon is the limited amount of travel required to get to the rides. The key disadvantage is the spring weather in Oregon. The weather doesn’t get dependably sunny in Oregon until July, so there are good odds that large portions of the series will be ridden in the rain.
Jon Beilby, Dan Youngberg, Dave Kamp, Bill Bogess and I are a group of Randonneurs from Corvallis with varying degrees of commitment to the goal of attending PBP. We also have varying degrees of experience. Dave and Bill complete PBP four years ago, so they know what it’s all about and want to go back. Jon started randonneuring last spring and got me to come along on several of the Brevets last summer. We completed the 200, 300, and 400km Brevets together and Jon also completed the Big Lebowski 600km. Dan is new to randonneuring and had completed a Populaire 100km ride with his wife on their tandem and a 180km Dart with Jon and I the previous weekend.
The Dart (see previous ride report) was characterized by a forecast 100% chance of rain that was very accurate. The forecast for the Birkie Brevet was a 40% chance of rain, with no more than a .1” accumulation. It sounded a lot better than the weather of the previous weekend. Dan and Jon drove up to the start at the McMenamins Grand Lodge in Forest Grove in the afternoon and I had dinner at home before heading north. After checking in to the hotel and registering in the lobby for the Brevet, I met them at the parking lot of the Grand Lodge. I helped Dan finish off a bottle of red wine while Jon finished changing his tube, still flat from the previous week’s ride. The cause of the flat was revealed as a tire that was completely worn down to the threads. He got his money’s worth. Jon finished changing the tire and then cleaned his hands on a pair of briefs. I commented on his selection of rag, and he said that he’d forgotten a spare rag and had to improvise. His undershorts were the only spare clothing he had, so he was going commando, er, Rando style. After the bike repairs we repaired to the bar for some liquid calories. We went to bed early, Dan and I in rooms in the Lodge and Jon in the van in the parking lot. We slept with varying degrees of success. Jon’s night was disturbed by a call from his sweetheart at midnight; she missed him.
The next morning we assembled at the same spot in the Grand Lodge parking lot, this time with a wide variety of randonneurs and bicycles. The departure time was 7:00 am, but we were all milling around admiring our bikes, comparing lights, racks, fenders etc., We met Bill Boggess on his wife’s old Puch and Jon loaned him a spare 27” tire, just in case. The official stats for the ride will tell the truth, but it seemed like more than fifty of us strained to hear the route instructions from Marcello Napolitano, the organizer. By the time we left it was light enough to reveal an overcast sky threatening rain, and light enough to make the lights and night time gear redundant. We quickly rolled out through town, separating and regrouping at the red lights. Eventually the four from Corvallis were all together as we headed out of town on Gales Creek Road. As a light but steady rain started to fall, Dan and I stopped to put on raingear and a whole bunch of riders swept by us. After a couple of minutes we were back on our bikes and steadily passed riders on the slight uphill of SR6 until we had rejoined Bill and Jon. Then the rain stopped. It was one of those days of intermittent rain that makes it tough to pick the right clothes. Riding with a vest and long sleeve jersey is just right when it’s barely raining, but when it starts raining hard you want the rain jacket so the jersey doesn’t get soaked. On the uphills or when we’re riding hard, the raingear will cause overheating and sweating. On the downhills a damp jersey will chill you so it’s zip up the rain gear or vest. Every time you put gear on or off you lose a couple of minutes and the rest of the group disappears up the road. The chase to catch the group almost always results in overheating and sweating. In the end we usually have to decide whether we prefer wet and cool (jersey and vest) or damp and hot (jersey and raingear), and only change mode when the weather looks like it’s going to stick around for a while.
As we rolled along Dan commented that the pace was much faster than the Dart the previous week. In the Dart, the objective was to use all the time, but in the Brevet the objective is to finish within the time and have fun. Having fun for many bicyclists often means riding hard. Going hard on the shorter rides is also a good way to build fitness for the subsequent longer brevets. The net result is that we were rolling along pretty well, 15 to 20 mph on the gentle uphill. I told Dan that I was planning on racing the Piece of Cake road race the next day. Randonneuring and racing are completely different activities that happen to both involve bicycles. I race in Category 4 or Masters 50+, so most of the road races I do are about 40-50 miles. They often involve hills or rollers, sharp attacks and sprints. Training for road races involves some endurance training, but more intervals and maximum efforts. Randonneuring is mostly about endurance; mental and physical with occasional hard efforts on the hills or in sustained headwinds. It involves long hours in the saddle. My main cycling objective for the year is PBP, so I’m definitely compromising my racing objectives in favor of randonneuring. An example of the compromise is riding a 200 km Brevet the day before a road race. At this point, 15 miles into the Brevet and spinning up an easy slope, compromise between the disciplines seemed possible.
Then we turned onto Timber road and the slope got steeper. I was using a heart rate monitor, but didn’t need to see the numbers to know we were going harder. The rain had stopped and I still had my rain shell on, so I was quickly overheating. All the racing instincts triggered by other cyclists ahead of me on a hill kicked in. Instead of controlling my efforts and saving myself for the race next day, I pushed harder and harder. It was the first steep hill of the ride and I’d already forgotten all about the race the next day. At the top, our small group of Corvallis riders regrouped and we started down the other side. It was a great downhill with a couple of little switchbacks into the town of Timber. I was ahead at the bottom and stopped to switch from rain shell to vest. Jon swept by and kept on going. He caught Dick Weber and rode with him, so that was the last we saw of Jon for a while. We hooked up with a couple of compatible riders, Scott Peterson from Bend and Dave “ready to ride” Rowe. We rolled along as the rain came and went. We eventually settled on rain jackets as the rain became steady. When the roads got saturated, the cyclists without fender extenders were relegated to the back of the group and the rest of us did the work at the front. The stretch from Timber to Vernonia was downhill river grade with rollers. It was relatively easy going, except we kept a pretty high steady pace and pushed over the rollers.
The first stop was a staffed control at Anderson Park in Vernonia. We saw Jon at the stop while we grabbed a quick bite, got our cards signed and got ready to roll. Jon had disappeared down the road and we waited for Bill to fill his bottle. He’d learned at PBP to always fill both bottles at every stop, and remembered that lesson a block away from the control. A little ways out of town we turned onto a four mile out and back up Keasey Road. The purpose of the spur was to add enough miles (or rather km) to get to exactly 200 km. It had the advantage that we got to see the fastest riders and how far ahead of us they were at this point. They passed us going the other way and a quick calculation showed the leaders were about 6 miles ahead after 36, or they were going 17% faster. We passed several other riders going the other way, both on the out and back legs. After the spur we turned back onto highway 47 toward the coast. Once again it was downhill river grade with rollers and intermittent rain. We picked up SR 202 and the traffic and rain diminished. By the time we got to Birkenfeld the rain had completely stopped and we caught Jon and Dick. We were more than half way into the ride and the roads were actually beginning to dry up. We had about a 16mph average at this point and I was pretty sure the Piece of Cake was out of the question. I resolved to not hold back on the way back. We refueled and remounted for the ride home, the four Corvallians plus Scott and Dave.
The weather gradually improved as we headed back up the river grade we’d come down. We passed plenty of lush greenery and climbed back into the forests. Eventually we were convinced we weren’t vampires when we actually saw our shadows. We stopped at the Black Bear Café in Vernonia, familiar from our Dart the previous week and refueled again and got our brevet cards signed to prove we’d been there. Raingear finally got put away permanently as the weather continued to improve. Going through Timber and the switchbacks uphill was a short grunt, but both Dan and I commented that the uphill seemed too short going this way. From the top it was a nice downhill and rollers all the way to the last control at Glenwood. The last 12 miles on Gales Creek and SR 8 into Vernonia we could smell the barn. The six of us took turns at the front and we pushed the pace up between 20 and 30 on the slight downhill and rollers leading into town. We were blowing out the last little bit of energy left in the last few miles of the 200 km.
We rolled into town and cruised to the Grand Lodge and the finish. After filling out the Brevet cards we headed for the showers and then the bar. A Terminator Stout milkshake was the perfect recovery food after a pretty fast 200km. My wife, Linda, met me in the bar and I told her and Jon that the POC race the next day was very unlikely. He just laughed.
Postscript: Sunday morning I woke up in the Grand Lodge in Forest Grove to sunny blue skies. I’d used the soaking pool, had a great meal with a large piece of meat and slept soundly. After a large breakfast, I decided I’d drive up to Woodland, WA and see how the weather was for the race. I told Linda that I didn’t want to ride in the rain, so I might just come home. I put on my race uniform and filled up my sun shower with hot water just-in-case. When I got to the race venue, it was partly cloudy, but it was warm and there was a sunbreak. I set up my bike on the trainer and told myself I’d spin a little, but if my legs didn’t feel good I’d pack up and go home. As I spun on the trainer and heard the stories from my teammates who’d done the morning race, I decided I’d pay the entry fee and start the race, but if I couldn’t hang on I’d just roll back to the start. It’s only $20, and it’s a nice day for a bike ride. I lined up near the front and told myself I’d ride smart, find a spot near the front and just stay out of the wind. As we rolled through the neutral portion and then got established on the course I grabbed the wheel of the leader. He was from Finnegan’s and pulled most of the race. I stayed in the front of the race, riding about half of the distance as the second wheel after the leader. It was a flat windy race and I was able to stay out of the wind for the whole first lap, and avoid the surging further back in the peloton. After one lap, I thought I’d try another. Coming into the final lap I figured I might as well finish the race and maybe I’d have some legs at the end. I lost my position near the front on the final turns in the last quarter lap and wasn’t in a position to sprint all out. I finished mid pack (27th out of 36) on a race that really was a “Piece of Cake”. Maybe riding a Brevet isn’t such bad preparation for a road race.