Wednesday, May 21, 2008

How I Jinxed Myself on the NCBC 400 km Brevet

Ride Report by Chapel Hill Correspondent Jerry Phelps

Thursday night, a couple of days before the 400 km brevet, I was able to relive Paris-Brest-Paris for, oh, the thousandth time as I was honored to give a presentation to the Carolina Tarwheels Club in Durham. There was a crowd of about 25 folks and they were a terrific audience, namely by asking lots of good questions and laughing at all the appropriate times. Near the end of the talk I have a slide about things that I will do differently in 2011 for the 17th edition of PBP. The first point is that “I’ll bring more gears—4 or 5 would be nice as in an automobile.” Little did I know how much I would rue that comment on Saturday.

Alan and his Troops about to get rolling.

As many riders have already said, the weather was about as perfect as it could be--Carolina Blue skies without a cloud in sight. We were expecting a little headwind on the way out but that just gave us hope of strong tailwinds for the finish. A good sized crowd arrived including three DC randonneurs; Mary Gersema, Ed Felker, and Lynn Kristianson. The regular crowd of NC folks was there with a few notable exceptions, but we also had a fellow named Ed from Charlotte and Jim from Augusta, GA who rode the NC Fleche.

We started shortly after six and rolled together as is our style until the hill on Jack Bennett. I was riding along not paying enough attention while yacking with Joel Lawrence on Parker Herndon road when I hit a piece of gravel and punctured the rear tire. A quick fix and along came Mike Dayton. We rode together until he peeled off on Moore Mountain Road. Mike had a business meeting later that afternoon and had to bypass the full brevet, but as always, it was good to ride with him. He gave me an extra tube to ward off the evil flat tire spirits--too bad he didn’t put his mojo on my shifter.

I caught up with Ed from Charlotte and Byron and Chuck and we rode together from Frosty’s to Siler City. Ed regaled us with stories of his Cyclosportif adventures in La Marmotte and L’Ardechoise in France. At age 65, he proclaimed the next L’Ardechoise in June to be his last (130 miles – 13,000 ft of climbing). So of course Byron and I encouraged him to take up randonneuring full force and come out next year for the entire SR series. When we arrived in Siler City, there was a pretty good sized group hanging out at the control so I quickly got my card signed, bought a sandwich for the road, filled my bottles and chased down the lead group of Branson, Lin, Chris, and Victor. The five of us would remain together more-or-less for the remainder of the day.

Ed, Chuck, and Byron on Old Switchboard Road

I pulled a classic Rich Bruner in stunning fashion on Coleridge Road. I was hanging at the back of our group of five eating my sandwich and recovering from my chasing efforts. As we approached the hill at the Randolph County line, I slid up beside the group and distracted them by recounting a conversation I’d had with Mike. Slyly I crept to the front of the pack and then dropped the hammer before they knew what hit them. Rich—I learned from the best, so I hope you’re proud of your prodigy!

Victims ahead -- I plot my cunning strategy

The rest of the trip to Seagrove went by uneventfully except for an occasional dropped chain by me. I’ve been having a little shifting problem with my bike—not enough to worry about too much, at least that’s what I thought before Saturday. We refueled at Hardee’s and I think I hit on the winning combination of salt, fat, protein, and sugar—a cheeseburger, no mustard, small Dr. Pepper, an apple pie, and a chocolate milkshake.

Oh to have young knees again! Victor checks his hub.

Rolling out of Seagrove, I felt really strong and ready for Flint Hill Road. Chris and Victor were new to the 400 so they didn’t know what to expect. I think Branson and I over-exaggerated the steepness and length of the hills so they didn’t find them too difficult.

OK—enough with the not-so-veiled hints. Just after we passed Sridhar, Dean, and Steve who were on the return leg of the Siler City Express, we started climbing THE hill. I shifted into my small ring and promptly dropped the chain for the third time I think. A quick stop, a little grease on the hands and I’m back in business. Chris kindly slowed to make sure I was able to get rolling again—he may be a new randonneur but he has the ethos part down pat already. As soon as I was back on the bike, however, I realized I couldn’t get into the granny gear. I figured I would make an adjustment at the control in about 15 miles. Boy did I figure wrong. A few minutes later in one loud CHUNK, the chain shifted to the small cog and I almost stopped dead in the road. I somehow unclipped without doing an Arte Johnson and set to work trying to understand what had happened. I could shift up the cassette, but as soon as I let go of the lever, the chain would drop back to the small cog. After fiddling with every adjustable nut on the bike, swearing more than a little, and not getting anywhere, I finally climbed back on, shifted to the 8th cog of the cassette and rode uphill holding the shifter in while grunting out of the saddle. That strategy worked for all of about 1 mile until my adrenaline ran out—the hills were simply too steep for that gear.

Standing on the side of Ophir Road in the sun, I finally took the time to survey the problem a little more carefully. If I could just get the chain to stay in the middle of the cassette, I figured I could make it to the turn around at Mt. Gilead. There I hoped a few more brains thrown into the mix could come up with a more workable solution. If I could get some slack in the cable, and manually move the chain to the middle of the cassette, and then retighten the cable maybe it would stay in the fourth or fifth gear. I tried it and it worked sort of—I got it in the sixth gear, and that was good enough to get me to the turnaround.

My crew was still waiting there along with Dan Gatti who was staffing the control. I told them I was back to riding a single-speed—imagine that! Shortly after I arrived, I sought salvation in Byron and Chuck. Those two guys individually have forgotten more about bikes than I will ever know. Byron suggested I was looking at the problem literally backwards—my problem wasn’t in my derailleur but in the shifter. We sprayed a little lube in the shifter to no avail. Byron thought he saw some grit or possibly metal shavings in the shifter mechanism—not good and certainly not something fixable on the road. So I resigned myself to return with one gear and a balky front derailleur.

I got rolling a little ahead of the crew because I was certain my problems weren’t over. I just hoped that the “repair” would hang together long enough for me to limp home. As I was slipping down the back side of a big roller, I instinctively hit the shifter without thinking. The chain landed on the small cog again, which provided more inspiration. Maybe if I could get the chain to stay on the third or fourth cog, I might have two reasonable gearing choices since the shifter was working somewhat. So off the bike again, loosen the cable, reposition the chain and retighten the cable while holding the derailleur in place. I really needed three hands to make this work, but I was able to get everything tight and buttoned up. My prophesy had come true—I now had four workable gears. Not an automobile transmission, but four gearing combinations that would get me past Jumping Off Rock, beyond Flint Hill Road and all the way home. Just after Flint Hill, I passed two other new randonneurs—Gary and Sara— with big smiles; they were having a great time.

I made it back to Seagrove and Chris and Branson soon followed. They asked if I had seen Lin and Victor, but we found out later they collected a few bonus miles. As we sat eating and resting, most of the other riders came in. We hatched a plan to meet back up in Siler City at a Mexican restaurant very close to the control.

Lin claimed the sprint on Coleridge Road on the return—we all remarked how strongly he is riding this year and I have every confidence he will do well in the Shenandoah 1200 along with Master Chief Jon Pasch (Jon rode the DC 600 on Saturday). The Mexican food in Siler City was a little slow, but very tasty and I was surprised at how much I was able to eat. Victor’s plate was empty in a flash, and Jim gets the prize for the cheapest randonneur meal ever—a plate of rice and beans for $1.90!

The Randonneur Stare--John Bovine contemplates the final 100 km.

As the sky darkened, Jim and I rolled slowly out of Siler City together. I looked back on Harold Andrews and saw a supernova approaching. It was Byron and his new generator powered light that will make a rooster crow at midnight (and that’s not an exaggeration!). Soon other riders joined us on Siler City/Snow Camp Road. The rollers on Greensboro/Chapel Hill Road, also known as the “Football Highway” according to Branson, created smaller packs, and Chris, Branson, Victor and I rode the final 50 miles together. We got a shout out from Adrian Hands on Andrews Store Road but none of us recognized him because he was in a car and not on a bicycle. He came back to the store, which had just closed, and hung out with us while we rested. The final 20 miles went by pretty quickly and we finished shortly after one in the morning.

All in all a great day and a lesson in perseverance for me. There were lots of first timers on the 400—John Morris, John Bovine, Chris, Victor, Gary, and Sara. I hope I haven’t left anyone out of that list. I think I can speak for all the NC Randonneurs; we are really proud of all of you. You’ve tackled the hardest ride in the series. Hopefully we’ll see you back in a few weeks for the 600. Many thanks to Alan and Dan for the ride and the great support.


Mike Dayton said...

Jerry, nice report!

It hasn't taken Mr. Bovine long to get "the look." I think he's ready for a 1200.

Congratulations to all the first timers and old timers.


MG said...

Jerry, while I am sorry about your shifting misfortune, I enjoyed the writeup. I also enjoyed the brevet!