Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Shenandoah 1200K

When I signed up last December for the Shenandoah 1200K I had only ridden two 200K brevets. I knew I had to keep riding through the Upstate New York winter if I had any hope of staying in shape. The 150+ mile rides in 15F did not prepare me for the 92F heat I encountered in Virginia, but they helped build resilience, a factor I think is fundamental to completing a 1200K. The PA series along with the Ithaca hills got me ready for the climbing, which was ubiquitous. My ride was not epic, as I did not have any breakdowns, rain or even a flat. On the other hand, it was tough, very tough. The only moment I was certain of a completion was when I was 20 miles from the finish with 9h to the cutoff. I new I could crawl if I had to.

Before the ride
This ride involved a lot of planning. It was my first attempt at a 1200K and I wanted it to go as smoothly as possible. Just a few days prior I went out on a 65 mile club ride when I noticed my chain was hopping around. Mark Sheehan, a 2008 Shenandoah participant, pointed out that it could be a frayed cable. Indeed it was. With a replaced shifter cable and a bike inspection at my LBS the equipment was good to go. Then there were drop bags. What to put in them? I did a bit of overkill, as my drop bags were one of the heaviest around. Each contained spare tubes, a fresh set of cycling gear and normal clothes, flasks filled with gel, pre-measured servings of Perpetuem, Hammer bars, toilet sundries, ibuprofen, tums and a recovery drink. I even took toilet paper for the ride. This was a tip from a PA randonneur.

Since I had spent a week getting everything ready, there wasn't much to do other than drive down to Leesburg, VA. I arrived at about 2pm and encountered Bill Olsen's brother Mark along with RBA Matt Settle in the Comfort Suites parking lot assembling Matt's bike. It had the drivetrain replaced the day prior to the event. Matt was very friendly and, judging by his bike, is definitely a no-frills guy.

A few minutes later I saw Dave Thompson, whom I had met earlier in the year during the Western/Central NY ACP 200K organized by RBA Pete Dusel. We would end up riding together for most of the ride. Dave indicated a nearby Mexican restaurant where I could eat. There I had chicken fajitas with beans, rice, chips, guacamole and all that good stuff. My father is from Venezuela and I am fluent in Spanish. I could swear the restaurant owner seemed to be from Venezuela judging from the idioms I heard while I was eating. In any case the food was good enough for me.

After eating I went up to my suite to work on the revision of a research paper. I had to submit changes by that night and wanted to get as much sleep as possible. Unfortunately the revisions took longer than I expected and I went to sleep only around 11pm. Just three hours later I was up for Day 1 of the Shenandoah 1200K.

Day 1
There was a large gathering in the hotel lobby at 3am. Riders from 18 states along with 4 Canadians had signed up. After some last minute instructions from Matt we were sent off. The skies were overcast and it was very humid.

Everyone rode together during the first few miles. Eventually the pack began to string out and I found myself in a group with another 10 riders or so. There were two riders who were ahead, but eventually joined us. On the hills I would stay in front and whenever the terrain was flat I would get passed by several riders. I tried to keep my own pace. It was actually kind of fun to see this yo-yo effect. I noticed there were several riders who knew each other from previous rides. I was rather quiet, a bit nervous by the daunting task ahead of me.

I was in front of a group that also had Mark Olsen when we missed the turn on Spruce Run Rd. My odometer said there was still a tenth of a mile to the turn and there was also no sign. After riding a few tenths ahead, we convinced ourselves to turn back. Spruce Run Rd was the first steep climb we encountered. Again, I distanced myself on the climb and was caught a few miles down the road.

At 7:57am a group of 17 riders arrived at the first contrôle in the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania with an average speed over 17 mph. I was a bit concerned knowing that we still had a lot of riding to do. The volunteers at the contrôle were great. There were even breakfast sandwiches waiting for us. Riders started hopping back on their bikes and I joined them. Leaving the park my chain fell off in a way that required me to stop. I was dropped by the group I had been riding with and it took me a while to catch up. The morning was still very humid and overcast. By this time I had spoken to some of the fellow riders. Many of them were using this ride as a RAAM qualifer and some were already RAAM qualified, such as Jim Solanick, Henk Bouhuyzen, Mike Sturgill and Catherine Shenk (I found this out later). At one point I was speaking to John Preston and found out that he, Henrik Olsen and Tim Carroll knew each other from the Sebring 24h bike race in Florida. Apparently Henrik had just broken John's record. What was I doing with this bunch? This was my first 1200K and I did not want to blow up in fumes on the first day.

I arrived at the Battleview Market with Catherine Shenk, John Preston, Greg Courtney and Henrik Olsen at 11:15am. The average speed was still up there, now at 16 mph. I could not help but notice how fast people were at the contrôles. Before departing I gladly took a potato chip Catherine offered me and hopped back on my bike. The terrain that awaited us was rolling with an uphill trend. When I say rolling, that means it can be steep, but not very long. Along the way I passed Jim Solanick, who arrived later at the contrôle but was out sooner. Eventually I caught up with Henrik Olsen and rode with him, John Preston and Tim Carroll to the Sheetz contrôle in Winchester, VA.

It was 1:45pm and I was hungry. Henrik and Tim grabbed something quick and left. John and I ordered sandwiches. Soon we were joined by several riders. John was ready to go but I wasn't. I still needed to use the bathroom. I found this to be a convenient way to depart from the lead group and ride at a more conservative pace. I decided to leave with Greg Courtney, Catherine and Mike It was now much warmer than earlier in the day and the sun was peaking often through the clouds. The profile for this stretch was full of nasty little spikes. We were on Back Rd for 17.8 miles of inferno. Up, down, up, down, up, down following the George Washington National Forest. A shop was conveniently located once we turned on VA 42. Would I ride all the rollers for a Klondike bar? Sure! While sitting on a chair outside I learned that Greg is a professor at the Department of Entomology of Iowa State University and does research on aquatic insects. I also heard he has spent some time in Patagonia. Insects are so cool, except when the bite you. Mike left a bit sooner and I rode with Greg and Catherine for a while. Then Catherine had some issues with her cyclocomputer and since she was riding with Greg I decided to move on. My plan was to arrive at the Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) Maplewood Dormitory contrôle before dark. The Klondike bar provided some refreshment but the endless rollers continued. I caught up with Mike and we rode more or less together until the EMU. It was 7:38pm when I checked in, averaging 14.44 mph for the first day. This value would plunge over the next two days.

Before the ride I had elaborated three strategies. The conservative strategy was to split the ride in four parts. The first three parts were full days of riding making it to sleepover contrôles before midnight and leaving the next day at 4am. On the last day I would ride the remaining 120 miles or so. The aggressive strategy would be to ride 266 miles the first day, then 226 miles the second day and 273 miles the third day. This plan was a bit problematic because it would require me to stop at places to sleep that were not designated sleepover contrôles, like a roadside motel or in the absence of that, some ditch. The intermediate strategy was based upon the conservative strategy for the first two days, however I would ride all the way through after the second day, i.e., 318.4 miles.

Upon arrival at the EMU contrôle I abandoned the aggressive strategy and decided to go conservative for the time being. Instead of quickly going to sleep I hung around the common area of the dorm and met riders as they came in. I spoke with Andy Brenner, whom I had met on the PA ACP 400K. He was planning to leave at around 2am. Then I also spoke with Dave T. He too was planning on a 2am departure. Initially I had 4am in mind, but since I got pretty early at the contrôle, I thought it was reasonable to leave at 2am. I do not enjoy riding long distances in the the night. My night vision is not the best and I usually get sleepy if I have been riding many hours prior

Day 2
Andy, Dave and I left the EMU contrôle a little after 2am. Next up was the Deerfield Voluntary Fire Department contrôle 40.2 miles away. I cannot say much about this part of the ride because it was dark and I could not see a thing other than a patch of road in front of me. Along the way we passed a rider that I believe was Stephen Bugbee, but I am not sure. At the contrôle we took a rather extended break where we all enjoyed breakfast. I had cereal, a banana nut muffin and scrambled eggs with bacon. Not bad!

Again Dave, Andy and I left together towards Buchanan, VA. The next 66 miles of the ride were among the most pleasant. We had a 17 mile stretch on Marble Valley Rd / Big River Rd during the first morning hours, followed by 9.2 miles on Maury River Rd, both in the George Washington National Forest. The morning fog in the valley and the view of the river along with the sound of running water and the cool temps made for a perfect setting. Unfortunately I was not quick enough to capture the bear we saw on film. It was close to the road but when it heard us it ran back into the forest. Not long thereafter we caught up with Glenn Himstedt, who had left Deerfield before us.

The serious climbing began after we made a turn on Turkey Hill Rd. This segment reminded me very much of the rides I have done in the Eastern PA series organized by RBA Tom Rosenbauer, containing steep climbs on quiet roads with several turns along the way. I like it that way because it gives you a sense of progress. The breakfast I ate had jump-started my digestive system and I needed to go to the bathroom pretty bad. Luckily there was a bathroom available at the Effinger Volunteer Fire Department & Rescue in Lexington, VA. Before reaching Buchanan we had a steady climb on S Buffalo Rd followed by a descent with some mega-rollers into Buchanan. Because the trend was downhill, one roller brought you to the top of the next and so on. I barely had to pedal.

The Burger King contrôle at the Exxon in Buchanan was a welcoming site. At first I thought it would not be a good idea to eat a burger. But I remember somebody telling me that if you crave something, then it is likely your stomach will handle it. So I went ahead and ordered a Tendergrill chicken sandwich combo. Ok, I was really craving a Double Whopper with cheese, but I decided that was too risky. We still had a long way to go and the morning hours were waning. Next on the list was the Pine Tavern Lodge contrôle in Floyd, VA, just 69.2 miles away. Yet in between we had some serious climbing to deal with.

Leaving Buchanan towards Roanoke the climb was gradual and steady, for almost 15 miles. Just before arriving in Roanoke we had some nasty stinkers to bother us. It was particularly difficult because the heat was really on and I was feeling it. A stop in Roanoke was almost mandatory. We decided to have refreshments and use the bathroom at a gas station on route. Bill Olsen's recommendation of constantly wiping your butt with sanitizing wipes was working as saddle sore issues were so far absent. I was also applying Hammer Seat Saver to prevent chaffing. It seems to work well.

I was rather surprised by the fact that we seldom encountered other riders. It seems were were far back off the leaders and well ahead of the rest of the group. As we arrived at the Buchanan contrôle earlier Larry Grabiak (I think) was on his way out. We were now climbing the Blue Ridge Parkway and ahead I saw another rider. I resisted to accelerate, since I knew that if I had him in sight now, it was likely I would catch up. And I did. Both Dave and I passed Larry just as we reached the first part of the climb. Andy had fallen behind. Somehow I thought it was over. But it was not. We began to climb and bend after bend the road kept going up. This went on for 9 miles. It certainly was a great climb, and the sense of accomplishment once I reached the top was very satisfying. But I was tired. Dave and I continued on without waiting for Andy. We were planning on a stop for refreshments. We found a convenient place along US 221 and waited for Andy to ride by. Once he joined us Andy urged us to continue without him, so we did.

Before reaching the contrôle I suddenly noticed a shift of weight on my bike. What I had feared before the ride indeed took place. One of the straps on my Carradice Barley bag had been cut by the friction on the saddle loop. I had observed some wear earlier but decided to take the risk. I was looking at the bag trying to figure out a solution when Dave offered zip ties that he was carrying. The solution worked perfectly. The zip-ties were very strong and kept my bag in place. I was about to hide the bag somewhere alongside the road and continue without it. Dave saved the day!

After a little diddling we found the right door to open at the Pine Tavern Lodge contrôle. The AC was on and I was happy! I had chips, pretzels, and two sodas. As Dave and I were about to leave Andy showed up. We decided to wait because it was getting dark and riding in a group at night is much safer. It was now just past 8pm and we still had 45.5 miles to the sleepover contrôle in Mount Airy, NC.

Daylight remained with us for a good portion of the ride until Mount Airy, but we had to descend Willis Gap Rd in darkness. I was glad to have put new front brake pads on my bike before the ride. I sure did use them. I tried to maintain myself mostly near the center of the road and followed the line the best I could. At one point a damn cat crossed the road and as I braked my rear wheel started to skid and swerve. I let off the brakes and missed the cat by inches. That was close! At the bottom of the descent I waited for Andy and Dave and we rode together to the contrôle.

The volunteers from North Carolina Randonneurs at the Knights Inn (very appropriate) where we were staying were amazing. I felt as if I were in First Class on a transcontinental flight. "What can I do for you?", "What would you like to eat?", "What time would you like to wake up?" were among some of the questions asked. We were very well treated and after a relaxing shower I enjoyed a burger, a hot dog, beans and more soda. Now it was time to sleep. Dave and I shared a room while Andy stayed alone. He said he did not want to be woken up.

Day 3
At 3:15am Dave and I woke up and got ready. A group of three formed by John, Mike and Justin Crawford, the youngest randonneur on the Shenandoah 1200K and also a member of the Hokie Cycling club, left at about 4am. Dave and I left about 10min later without Andy. Once again he urged us to leave. I think he was trying to get rid of us at this stage. Dave and I began to climb Willis Gap Rd, a 9 mile climb with several steep sections. It was good to have this climb right at the beginning of the day, instead of somewhere in the middle or towards the end. I was feeling OK despite some leg stiffness and pain in my ankles. I'm not sure if it is the Achilles tendon or a muscle. Dave and I climb at similar speed. At the beginning of the climb we saw two riders pass in the opposite direction followed by a tandem. We wondered if they would make it back to Floyd in time. Along the way we caught up with John who was fixing a flat. Ahead we also caught Mike and I saw Justin about 2 tenths of a mile ahead of me but I ran out of climb before I reached him. At the top he was waiting for the others. David was the first to show up followed by Mike. At this point Dave and I continued. The following miles were very pleasant, with more steep rollers of course. I was overwhelmed by a sensation of happiness as the big climb was over. A few miles later on Justin caught up but had to stop because of knee pain. This would plague him for the rest of the ride.

Dave and I arrived at the Pine Tavern Lodge in Floyd, now on the way back to Leesburg, at 8:30am. It took over 4h to ride 45.5 miles. At the contrôle I saw Bill Phillips, who had ridden on the Eastern PA 300K. I volunteered on that ride manning a secret/revitalize contrôle. I was very happy when I found out I could have the Starbucks Doubleshot somebody had left behind. It was exactly what I was looking for. At this contrôle we inquired about the status of other riders. We heard of some DNFs and learned that Matt Settle was close to the cutoff. While we were at the contrôle Andy, Justin, John and Mike arrived. Justin left before us and then Andy, Dave and I followed while John and Mike ate Subway subs that they had bought on the road.

The path back to Buchanan was different than the one we took on the way out. Instead of descending the Blue Ridge Parkway, we followed US 211 into Roanoke. I probably would have preferred the Blue Ridge Parkway, as the traffic on US 211, in particular near Roanoke, was quite intense. Nonetheless, I had a lot of fun on a 3 mile stretch with an average 8% grade. Although the many curves slowed me down, it was challenging to swing from side-to-side as I cruised down the ridge. At the bottom my back was bothering me a bit and I had to stretch while I waited for Andy and Dave. Soon I looked back to see that they were accompanied by Justin. Apparently he had stopped at a local Arby's for some cold drink. We would ride together all the way to Buchanan, but before we made a stop at a gas station where I had a chocolate milk/Lifewater combo and Dave and Andy went to a nearby 7-11 for more appetizing food. Between Roanoake and Buchanan Justin and I took turns pulling and we made good time.

At Buchanan we met up with John and Mike, who had passed us as we stopped in Roanoke. Justin joined John and Mike as they left. Andy, Dave and I spent more time at the contrôle, where I had my second Tendergrill chicken sandwich of the ride, this time "no mayo." There we also crossed paths with Jim Solanick. As usual, he spent little time at the contrôle and was soon off to Harrisonburg.

Just standing outside the contrôle was unbearable. It was definitely very hot. I knew that once we started to move it would be more pleasant. This is a time you look forward to wind chill. However, I feared the sunscreen I was using could not do magic and my arms were already pinkish, not a good sign. We left Buchanan at about 3:30pm with 88.6 miles to ride before returning to the EMU contrôle. Initially I thought we would retrace the route we took on our way out, but that was not the case. We would have a very long 70.9 miles on US 11. It actually wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Then again, the heat was taking a toll and I was in discomfort. It was frustrating to see the odometer move so slowly as we rode along the rollers. Perhaps the highlight of this part of the ride was Foamhenge. Bill Olsen had told me numerous times about it and when I saw the sign I could not help but take a look. It is a replica of Stonehenge, but as the name suggests, made from foam. It was quite the attraction.

Somewhere along US 11 we stopped to put on reflective gear. At that point Dave, who had let me use an extra pair of sunglasses he carried since I had left mine behind in Mount Airy, offered to let me use a different lens, less dark. I said it was OK and that the dark sunglasses would dim the glare of oncoming cars. They did that and also nearly put me to sleep. I was struggling while Andy and Dave took turns pulling. I just sat on their wheels and tried to maintain my concentration, but I was visibly tired. Just as we arrived in Harrisonburg Andy stopped at a gas station to relieve his bladder. I decided to take the sunglasses off to rub my eyes when suddenly night became day. It was amazing! I was instantly 10 times more alert. The sunglasses had created this added darkness that was really affecting me. Never use sunglasses at night, as if that were not obvious.

Earlier during the day I had suggested riding through the night straight to the finish, but the sight of a bed changed all that. Dave, Andy and I agreed to leave at 4am. There were assorted subs waiting for us to eat and I had two, one ham, one turkey. I also took a shower and organized my things for the last day of riding. We only had 120 miles left of this 765 mile journey.

Day 4
The morning turned out to be very cool and for the first time I was using my Showers Pass Double Century jacket, which works very well as a wind breaker. Andy opted to go jacket-less. My legs were stiffer than ever and I just wanted the ride to end before I could not ride anymore. Once we got moving and warmed up I felt better. It was not very long before the sun showed on the horizon and we were joyfully pedaling along S Middle Rd. We would enter and rise out of these pockets of fog as we moved along the rollers. Upon leaving S Middle Rd we decided to stop for food and to use the bathroom as well. Again, we were fortunate enough to find a BP station located on route. There I had a muffin with strawberry vanilla Muscle Milk. That stuff is disgusting. I drank it anyway. Dave and Andy had coffee with a croissant and a breakfast sandwich, respectively. It was time to go.

Edinburg Gap Rd came as a surprise. It was a rather long climb. I found a nice rythm despite my leg stiffness cresting just a bit ahead of Dave. Andy followed not far behind. We then began the descent together and continued a 18.9 mile stretch on Fort Valley Rd. This was another highlight of the ride. The vegetation was at times very dense and the road was completely shaded. The terrain was rolling and later on we had a creek on our right. Of course there were some smaller steeper climbs along the way. That goes without saying. After 67.3 miles I needed a break. Yes, there was a contrôle coming up!

At the 7-11 in Front Royal, VA we had more food. This time I chose a wrap. What I didn't realize is that it had banana peppers in it. I don't like banana peppers. But that was canceled by the deliciousness of the Häagen-Dazs ice cream I ate afterward. That along with the Starbucks Vanilla Doubleshot. All was good in my world. Except for the fact that we were not yet at the finish. As we left the 7-11 John and Mike were just coming in.

The last 50 miles of the ride were a blur. I had been slogging a bit before but now I could feel the finish approaching. There was a 10 mile leg on VA 55 that I knew would be good for taking a pull. I pulled with everything I had left. We were averaging 20-22mph and it felt good to be moving swiftly along. Before I knew it we were off VA 55 and back on roads with steep rollers. The pull had affected me and now I was lacking a bit of energy. I reached for my gel flask and had about half of it. Soon thereafter I began to come back to life. In the meantime Andy was pulling us along. In the end I took over again and pushed hard. We had to make one last stop because Andy and Dave had run out of water.

It was such a great feeling to see the Comfort Suites as we made our last turn of the ride. We made it! Patsy took pictures and we were greeted by the other riders. All I wanted to do was take a shower, get the cycling gear off and eat non-stop. That is precisely what I did. It was great to receive the coveted medal and turn in the brevet card that had been a companion for so many hours, 82h45min to be precise. It was now all stamped and signed, the way it should be.

After going up to my room I joined the others downstairs for food and refreshments. John and Mike arrived about an hour after us. Then Hokie Justin arrived. It took a bit longer for others to come in but they did. Each time we would go out and applaud their arrival. I was particularly touched by the arrival of Gator (Martin Cochran), Vickie Tyer, Sharon Stevens, David Rudy and Dave Goodwin. To see them hugging each other and sharing the accomplishment brought tears to my eyes. That is what randonneuring is all about, camaraderie.

I was also very happy to see fellow PA randonneur Bill Olsen. He came in almost running me over and ran to get his brevet card signed. He was amazingly energetic. I didn't even start the ride like that.

The last arrival before the cutoff was that of RBA Matt Settle. He looked very tired. He was arriving at contrôles close to cutoff times so could not afford to sleep very much and that took a toll on him over the course of four days. He was still lucid, but visibly tired. I hung around the lobby until almost 11pm. It was now time to go to bed because I too was very tired.

Matt Settle put together a very tough ride. On the other hand, it was just as beautiful. Seldom did we encounter a patch of bad road or nothing worthwhile to look at. The volunteers at the contrôles were so amazing. It was also nice to see how some of the riders who unwillingly DNFd converted into volunteers. Of note was Hamid Akbarian who spent all of Sunday cooking burgers and sausages for us. He is probably one of the best story-tellers I have met and I laughed until I could no longer breathe with his accounts of misfortune during the ride. I hope to see many of the riders in a future randonée, somewhere in the world.


Lin Osborne said...


I enjoyed meeting you at the Mt. Airy control. Congratulations on your accomplishment. This is a challenging course and you definitely should be proud.

Lin Osborne
NC Randonneurs

Mike Dayton said...


A great report. I also enjoyed meeting you in Mt. Airy. Congrats on completing an extremely tough route.

Mike / Raleigh
Research Trailer Park

Anonymous said...

Hi Juan,

Congratulations on your ride! It was great to finally meet you after following your blog this season. Thanks for this detailed report and these beautiful photos.

Tim Carroll

Guy said...

Hi Juan,

Congratulations! Loved your descriptions of the climbs, sounds like you need a more challenging ride :)

PA Randonneurs

Bill Slabonik said...


Congratulations on your great accomplishment. I have enjoyed the blog and photos very much.

Bill S.

Bill Slabonik said...

Sorry Juan,

I should check my spelling before I post....

Bill S.

Juan PLC Salazar said...

Hi Lin,

You guys were fantastic. I wish I could have stayed up all night enjoying the chat and welcoming other riders, but there was riding to be done. I have volunteered on RBA Tom Rosenbauer's brevets and I find it as rewarding as doing the ride itself.

Juan PLC Salazar said...

Thanks Mike! I don't think I remember you by name, but I am sure happy you were there.

Juan PLC Salazar said...

Hi Tim,

I was amazed by how you managed to ride on so little sleep. Thanks for the compliment on the photos, I really appreciate that since you are a photographer. I was so happy to finish in one piece. It was a tough ride with all the climbing. But then again, I like to climb. Hope to see you in a future event!

Juan PLC Salazar said...

Hi Guy,

Yeah, I hope one day to be able to do some of the mega-climbs around the world. Stelvio Pass is one that comes to mind. In the mean time, short steep one rock!

Juan PLC Salazar said...

Thanks Bill!

When will you be back on the bike? I really like seeing you at contrôles, but I'd rather see you on the road. I wish you a speeedy recovery!

Dave Thompson said...

Juan -- excellent account of our ride. Thanks for the company -- I enjoyed it immensely. It's something that I'll never forget. Let me know when you organize that 1200km ride in Brazil ...

Dave Thompson

Juan PLC Salazar said...

Hi Dave,

Certainly! I'll make sure it includes nice vistas. It was a pleasure riding with you as well!

prestonjb said...

Hey there Juan... Had a blast riding with ya. Most excellent account of the ride... Hope to meet ya on the roads again some time soon.


Juan PLC Salazar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juan PLC Salazar said...

Hey JBP!

It was also great to have your company during the miles we rode together. I especially enjoyed the post-ride chat. Post-rides are awesome! I'll be back in Brazil in the not-so-distant future, hopefully I can be part of a 1200K down there. I'll let you know once that comes to be.

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