Sunday, August 16, 2009

Critters, Conditions, Consumptions & Companions or The Oregon Randonneurs Alsea Falls 400k Ride Report

I'm betting you'd guess this is a picture of me AFTER the Oregon Randonneurs Alsea Falls 400k Brevet. Reasonable assumption given my countenance, but no, this is me right before our 6am start. I seem incapable of taking a photo of myself without blinking. I tried more than once. They all look like this.

My lids seem to want to protect my lenses from the light. Lenses are precious. They help us focus, to truly see. But they also eliminate the other in order to focus on the this. So for this ride report, I am choosing four lenses through which to view the Alsea Falls 400k: Critters, Conditions, Consumptions and Companions.


Oh, the critters. What a delight! Especially the night critters. I've camped out, backpacked, stayed up late, thrown green apples at bats to watch them invoke their radar, hunted until the sun set, played flashlight tag, and even fished once for most of the night for catfish, but I never penetrated the wild places through the night--awake all night long--before. The Alsea Falls route was really wonderful. While it wasn't the wilderness, it was for the most part forested or rural, and the wilderness creatures were present.

I saw all the usual--but each with its own charm--suspects: jays, herons, squirrels, hawks, deer, bunnies, butterflies, bees, and other unnamed-to-me insects. Knowing the names is important though. Check out this story about naming critters, about taxonomy, from last week's New York Times. One of the cited studies of taxonomy reveals that cultures worldwide almost invariably use two-word descriptions. For example, when the Mayans first encountered the Spaniards they called them village peccaries, for the Mayans were familiar with the pig-like peccaries and the peccaries provided a point of reference.

To further grasp the importance of naming, note that scientists have discovered that patients who have lost use of that part of the brain that names things, and hence know the names of no objects though their brains are otherwise fully capable, are wholly lost. As the article states, if you don't know a carrot from a cat, you don't know which to pet and which to grate.

That is the sad fate of the brain damaged, but what of our collective and voluntary naming atrophy? Carol Kaesuk Yoon writes in her story:

"No wonder so few of us can really see what is out there. Even when scads of insistent wildlife appear with a flourish right in front of us, and there is such life always — hawks migrating over the parking lot, great colorful moths banging up against the window at night — we barely seem to notice. We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening. Happily, changing all this turns out to be easy. Just find an organism, any organism, small, large, gaudy, subtle — anywhere, and they are everywhere — and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. Give a nod to Professor Franclemont (her Taxonomy professor of old) and meditate, luxuriate in its beetle-ness, its daffodility. Then find a name for it."

So as I was saying, I saw all the usual suspects--named and not--but I also saw some I don't see so often. I saw a few Vultures feeding on roadkill deer carcasses. Below is a photo of one--he is in the top middle of the frame--that I found feeding. I tried not to get too close, hence the poor photo, though really he wasn't obviously bothered by my approach. As I was taking this photo, a rider I had met but didn't know, Marcello (see Companions below), cycled by and we exchanged hellos.

I also saw a very large owl fly from a tree up into the top opening (for hay loading?) at the apex of the end of a barn. I'd sure be scared if I were a little field mouse and saw his shadow or heard his wing feathers whistling. I saw what I believe to be a Bullock's Oriole too.

And bats of course. Doing their best to keep the insects in check. But the highlight had to be the Bobcat that crossed in front of my path when it was fully dark. He bounded across the road on the edge of a small rise. Once he had crossed safely and was about to enter back into the foliage he stopped and stared back at me as I turned my bike and my lights lit up his eyes. Then off he went to do his/her Bobcat night thing leaving me to do my night thing.

Well, one of my night things turned out to be running over a critter. I had wondered about making critter contact earlier when I'd seen a deer cross my path a ways ahead. Having hit a deer once with my car, I got to wondering...what if I hit a deer with my bicycle. I've heard it has happened. What would I do?

Well, I found out what I would do. Not much. Tom (see Companions below) and I were riding through some backroads that snaked through farmers' fields when I heard a scrit, scrit scrit and at the same time saw a long, low critter entering the road from the brush alongside the left road edge. It just kept coming--scrit, scrit went its claws on the chipseal--until its trajectory met mine and bump went my front wheel. It happened so fast I'm not even certain whether I rode over it with my rear wheel too. I think not. I think it skedaddled fast!

It wasn't squishy. It was like running over a full fire hose: all muscled and tough. I first called it a weasel though the truth is I never saw its surprised face. Could it have been a pack rat? Also long and furry tailed (I've become all too familiar with them in Eastern Oregon). I certainly know what it wasn't. It wasn't a "regular" rat: no hair on the tail. It wasn't a porcupine: no flat tire! Not a squirrel: too small and are they nocturnal? Not a skunk: I wasn't stinking afterward any more than about 300k would normally induce. Not a mouse: way too small. Not a peccary: no tusks or villages around! Not a turtle: too fast and I didn't fall over from hitting a shell. Not a rabbit: it scurried, not hopped. Not a fox: no scampering, and besides no self-respecting fox would be so un-clever. Not a snake: no slithering. Not a cat: it was low to the ground. One indicator it wasn't a weasel is that it didn't go Pop! I went back to see if I could find it, and it was long gone.

I stayed upright, but it nearly upset my bicycle and me. And as a I said in my previous post, I doubt I hurt it much. From my experience running over my stepson's arm, it doesn't seem to do any damage. I also know from the recipient's point of view. I once had my foot run over by a car tire on a picket line, and despite only wearing tennis shoes I wasn't injured. So there you have it. Unless someone makes a better argument, I'm thinking it was something in the weasel family.

Other ideas?


Starting off, I felt pretty darn good. In fact, I had enough in the tank as we approached the summit finish for the first controle that I surged ahead when another nameless-to-me randonneur called out "Eleven minutes!" as he rode past us indicating that the controle closed in eleven minutes.

I reminded him that the organizers relented to pre-ride protests that the controle couldn't be made in time due to the toughest climb being first up. The organizers replied that they'd not hold anyone accountable for missing the time limit on that mountaintop finish first controle. In short, there was no time limit.

He called back to me, between rhythmic deep breaths: "Do it honest!" And so I grabbed his wheel and hung on. I don't know if it was my Presbyterian upbringing and the call to honesty or a more base instinct like the predatory and unconscious but instant swat at a fly that happens by. For whatever reason, despite the voice in the back of my head telling me to pace, pace, pace, it is early, early, early, I stayed with him and we made it together at 8:40. Exactly on time with not a minute to spare as they do say.

The descent was a blast! A little while later I found myself really struggling. I attributed it to the wind and my foolish early push. Everything just seemed hard. At one point, I stopped to take off some clothing and as I pushed my bicycle back onto the road the rear wheel caught tight. Huh?

I noticed that my rim was rubbing the brakes. So that explains the difficulty. But why? Then it flashed on my mind and I thought my brevet was finished. The week before the ride I broke my freewheel on my 34 year old Fuji. My LBS replaced it with another used freewheel. They'd order a new one they said, but I'd forgotten to see whether it had arrived. Now I might be paying the price.

Investigating, I discovered that no, the freewheel was OK. It was just that the wheel was out of true. That accounted for the brake rubbing. It is at this point that the so-called "Curious Randonneur" wasn't so damn curious after all. I didn't seek out the cause of the untruthfulness of my wheel. I loosened the brakes to avoid the rubbing and rode on figuring I'd true up later.

As it got hotter, I felt tireder and listlesser, and the wheels turned slowerer and slowerer. I stopped to check whether the brakes were still rubbing--funny little sound--and at last I discovered the broken spoke. I also now recalled that funny big sound a while back that I attributed to a hard getting-into-gear but even then knew that it wasn't. That must have been when the spoke broke! Again, I hadn't been curious enough to check.

I was feeling less than self-congratulatory when I discovered the offending spoke, but all that soon changed. I reached into my toolkit and pulled out Fiberfix, a Kevlar-corded replacement spoke. The first words on the Fiberfix instruction sheet soothed my ego: "Remain calm and congratulate yourself for carrying Fiberfix in your tool kit."

Right. This isn't a crisis, this is a PBP preparation gold mine! I set up shop in a weedy but shaded gully. As I went to work other randonneurs popped in to check out the condition my condition was in as randonneurs are wont to do. Two, Brian and Dan, stopped to give me a few tips and graciously gave me some space too as there is nothing worse than performing bicycle surgery with more than a few helpful surgeons/chefs. In my haste, I failed to notice that the spoke was frozen to the nipple and I ended up driving the spoke through the rim tape and into my tube. Flat tire now too.

By now though everyone had passed me, or so I assumed. But I was rolling again with a new spoke. The picture below shows the Kevlar replacement in place but with the excess cord still uncut. Remarkable invention, Fiberfix is.
For the rest of the ride, my Fuji's condition was fine, and she got me through. My body was paying a price, however. Mostly little aches around the ankles, but also a deep pain in my left groin. I'd not had it on previous rides, but my physical therapist has certainly uncovered that weakness on her PT table so I wasn't surprised. Advil masked most pain, but I occasionally felt piercing pains there.

By the end of the ride I was tired. My groin hurt a good bit. But my spirits had remained pretty good throughout. I'd even thought up three jokes per my stepson's request (see Companions below) on the way to the first controle. Not great jokes, but you could tell they could be funny if you kind of squinted your eyes and cocked your head a little.

My true bodily condition was revealed after the ride. My outside right ankle, right on the bone that sticks out (Lateral malleolus muscle?) was bright red. Scarlet. So was my left front shin (Tibialis anterior muscle). My left groin was so weak I had to pull my left leg up by my hands, as when I got into a car. My pinky fingers were numb and tingly, and also up along the outside heels of my hands. Finally, I discovered butt welts that hadn't been bothering me. Especially on the right side, the side where I had a shimmed shoe. Perhaps I'm really getting some power from that right side now?

Today, a week later, all is good excepting residual tenderness on my left shin.

Actually, I think that's pretty good considering I had my bicycle fit pretty drastically altered just a week prior to the ride. I had two wedges installed under my cleat on each shoe to adjust my over-pronation. Also, it appears I have a cycling leg length differential (I'd suspected as much since my saddle rotates the post clockwise inside the seat tube). Therefore, my cycle fit physical therapist installed a shim under my right cleat. He also raised the saddle and moved it forward in order to close the cockpit. Finally, he moved my cleats forward to move my feet rearward on the pedals.

All together, quite a bit of adjustment. Just like you're not supposed to do. I will say though that my knees essentially did not hurt as they often do!


I'm a Perpetuem man myself. Mostly. I also take Hammer Nutrition Endurolytes for electrolyte replacement. Hammer Gels too. But I do get these salt cravings and I can devour potato chips like nobody's business. I don't eat chips regularly. "No Meats, No Sweets, No Frits" is my non-randonneuring mantra, but on brevets the chips fairly fly into my mouth.

I also took in some caffiene in the form of Hammer Gel and one cup of coffee at the Brownsville controle. I may have also done two Excedrin tablets for the caffeine.

I drink plenty of water I think. And I bought Tums for the first time, and took three or four of them. Oh yeah, and Advil. Too many, I'm sure, but it is tough to stay to the recommendation if you're going 24 hours without sleeping.

The other thing I tried to take in was the sights. I did stop at Alsea Falls after first riding right on by. I turned around chastising myself: "How could you ride hundreds of kilometers on the Alsea Falls 400k and NOT visit Alsea Falls?" It was hard to discern just how far from the main road the Falls were, but I coasted down and parked the bicycle. Walking down, then up the steep steps actually felt good. There was one couple cavorting on a log that spanned the river and another with two children who used their camera and tripod to take posed photos of themselves as in the one below. The Falls were beautiful and I'd have loved to pause longer, but my inner clock urged me on.

The photo below shows a covered bridge that I'm guessing all Oregon randonnuers know from their Covered Bridges 400k, but it was new to me. Oops, just learned this bridge is not on the Covered Bridges 400k!

Then there is this Victorian home I took in. I wasn't the only one. As I pulled up, two men stood back admiring their work. One was the owner--who wouldn't stand back and admire if you lived in such a fine home?--and he told me it was built in the 1890's.

I also took in much of the subculture of fast food stores and modern day mercantile shops. Folks were friendly and helpful, and the air was clean and honest. I passed by many great photo spots but regrettably didn't stop in my haste. A lesson learned for next time.


My first companions are Philippe Andre and Michael Wolfe, the mad creators of this route. See Michael's very desriptive pre-ride report here. It was much studied prior to this new route.

As others have noted, the idea that we'd talked ourselves into that all the climbing was over after the first major climb up Bald Mountain was folly. It was 13,000 feet of climbing all told I'm told. For me, that means this was the longest, steepest and darkest ride I've done. Bravo! Thank you Philippe and Michael. I'd also have to say this was the most beautiful route of any brevet to date for me. I'm told that Keith and Alex Kohan, Michael R. and Susan France also helped. Many thanks to all!

It was well organized with good spirit. What more could one ask?

My next companions were my wife, Pramila (aka DartreDame when she posts here) and her son, Janak, my stepson. They were incredible. They volunteered to join me for this ride just to be supportive, and I'm ever grateful. Pramila drove most of the five hour (backups out of Seattle, out of Portland, toward McMinnville, out of McMinnville) trip each way, but best of all was their planned food drop at the first controle atop Bald Mountain. Despite their getting lost and my getting there much faster than I anticipated, I only had to wait for them for about...five seconds. I topped the mountain dismayed to confirm (for they had not passed me) that they weren't there. As I was asking at the staffed controle how to deal with a later food drop, in they came. I delivered to Janak my three goofy jokes, and I was positively elated to be able to share with them my giddiness at not having such a bad time with what was the first and highest (3000 feet or so, I think) climb of the brevet.

Janak came out of the truck with a bottle of water for me in one hand and his stuffed animal (yet another Critter sighting!) in his other. They also gave me my three pounds of Perpetuem that I didn't have to haul up Eagle Mountain. Yahoo! This explains the secret of how I was able to push up toward the summit so easily.

I bid them a hasty farewell as I descended with many verbal good wishes tucked into my jersey pockets. Our good friends Aaliyah and Vesteinn (Vesteinn who completed his first century with Pramila) and their children Raisah and Kian had also made a point to wish me well because they knew how nervous (maybe grumpy is a more apt description?) I'd been. Their support carried me through the night!

Other than my critter companions, I rode alone all day and into the night. I can't remember where it was (somewhere between Monroe and Brownsville) that I once again met up with randonneurs. I recognized one, Marcello, whom I'd met at an earlier controle. When I Helloed them outside a convenience store he asked if I wanted to ride along. Boy did I! I can't convey how badly I wanted company.

His companion was Tom Russell hailing from California and relaxing on a recumbent. (Coming soon to this blog will be an interview with newbie recumbent rider but veteran randonneur, John Vincent, about his recumbent observations.) We struck out together, and it was a new ride for me. This is not to say, however, that I didn't enjoy the solitude. In fact, I did. And I was proud of my wayfinding in the night too. But I was ready for companionship.

As we started in I realized they were going a little faster than I would have liked. I made up on the hills as Tom on his recumbent naturally slowed there, but I've never been very fast on the flats. We rode along though pretty well until at one pont we were uncertain of our whereabouts. Tom volunteered to pedal back a half mile or so to double check while Marcello and I made small talk. He indicated he was wearying despite having just taken a 200mg caffiene tablet. He also had the resourcefulness to whip out his iPhone and verify we were in fact on the right road. Good going!

As we pulled into Brownsville, guess who we encountered? Pramila and Janak! What a surprise! Again with the water and the stuffy, Janak hugs and greets me. I had no idea they were planning to visit another controle. Turns out their Garmin navigated them to a small car ferry that was closed for the night, and they ended up driving around lost for hours!

Nonetheless, it was great to see them. Apparently, other randonneurs arriving before us had seen them too, and I'm getting the picture that randonneurs thought they were the "staff" at the staffed controle at Brownsville. Since randonneurs encountered them first, most ignored Keith and Alex who had in fact volunteered to staff Brownsville. Pramila told me of helping one randonneur remove his jacket because he was so spent he couldn't accomplish that simple task on his own. Turned out they were unbeknownst-to-them controle volunteers!

We rolled out of Brownsville with the end in sight, but Marcello was apparently still tiring. A little while later he told me he wanted to rest for "15 minutes". I turned around and there was no Marcello. Tom and I found his bicycle on the ground and Marcello is flat on his back on the side of the road, already half asleep. We offered to wait for him to finish his nap. We gave him a Tums tablet, but he insisted we go forward.

This was a new deal for me. Though I had read about randonneurs flopping any old where on the PBP and other long rides, I'd never done it nor seen it done. I had this odd feeling of deja vu when Marcello repeated he only needed "15 minutes" and then he'd catch up with us. It was as if Tom and I were buddies in the First World War overlooking our platoon mate who'd been mortally wounded. When our wounded pal said he'd meet us at Yankee Stadium for Opening Day next year we assured him knowing he wouldn't last another hour: "Sure, Marcello, we'll save you your usual seat behind the dugout old buddy."

I just had this sense that Marcello was done for. He couldn't finish, despite our acknowledging that we'd see him later on the route. Marcello had also told me of this other randonneur who had started late Saturday morning and was still behind us on the route. I was dubious, since I had been bringing up what I thought was the rear with my broken spoke delay, and surely such a randonneur would have caught up to me.

In the end, Tom and I pedaled off leaving Marcello on the ground somewhere just before the stop sign at the crossing of a highway.

Tom and I continued and I peppered Tom for some tips and lore. He gave it up. Randonneurs who commute every day to and from work, he said, had an edge. That constant riding, even if not long mileage, adds up and keeps you strong. He also believed that the R-12 program, riding a 200k or longer brevet every month for 12 consecutive months, builds the kind of strength a randonneur doing longer brevets needs. I logged each of these tips in my randonneur training memory bank.

When we reached the Salem controle, it became evident that we might finish in under 24 hours. Amazed though I was, I was also tired. I put it to Tom that if he wanted to push on at a sub-24 hour pace he was free to do so, but that I didn't think I could sustain it. He may have been disappointed, but Tom didn't show it. Instead, he graciously cooled his jets and stayed with me. Thanks, Tom!

Eventually, the dark was peeled away by a determined morning light. Instead of just hearing critters dart off in a rustle of weeds when they heard us pass, we could actually see the morning birds as well as hear their calls. Navigating got easier. Our spirits perked. And we made it in.

My first 400k! And with time to spare. Why was I rushing so much after all? Why didn't I cavort more at Alsea Falls? Next time, I kept thinking. Next time, I will stop to savor even more.

We checked in with Philippe and learned that indeed there was another rider out there: Bill Alsup who provides a crisp ride report here. I really like his report, and his pictures are excellent and remind me again what a great ride it was. Below is Tom on his recumbent as we cross the City line.

And what of Marcello? Of course he made it! Why had I ever doubted? Marcello is a veteran of four years randonneuring. He plans brevets. He finished with Bill Alsup and they had time to spare. Oh me, of little faith!

And this was my biggest lesson: no matter how you feel now, it can change, and better: you can change how you feel yourself. Marcello knew exactly what he needed and it worked. Now that I've seen a flopping randonneur with mine own eyes I just may have to adopt the strategy myself!

There are many lenses, and as a newbie each brevet is an overload of information. I learned a little about what I consume, and I'm learning more about conditioning with each brevet: body, mind and equipment. But most of all, I really delight in the Critters and Companions. Critters and Companions are powerful lenses through which to focus, name and take in this wonderous world.

Keep it flopping,



  1. wonderful, steve. beautiful report.

  2. Thanks, Mum. It's even better now: it's SpellChecked!

  3. Great report.

    I really enjoyed riding with you. I think I was right behind you on that long downhill when the brakes started sticking and making an awful noise. And later you guys kept me company through part of the night, which I really appreciated. Sorry for not staying with you. I ended up taking a total of three power naps on my way back to McMinnville. This was the ride I needed to complete my Super Randonneer series, so short of a mechanical failure I was going to finish, no matter what.


  4. No need, Marcello, to be sorry for not staying with us. I felt badly leaving you. In fact, it later occurred to me we should have left our cell phone numbers with you so you could let us know how you were.

    I'm glad you made it, and I look forward to riding together again. I still need a 600k to get my SR series, and I've never done a 600k. Yikes!

  5. I tried to grate a cat once. It was not a pretty sight.
    Great report, Steve! And a 600 is MUCH easier than a 400. Really - there's time to sleep, even if it is only the 2 hours that I usually get.

  6. Hi Steve,

    Nice to meet you, and lovely ride report. I'm glad you enjoyed the course; I had a lot of fun on my pre-ride. I'm also really glad that your bike held together.

    A couple notes:

    You met Keith and Alex Kohan at Brownsville. They're both recumbent riders, and both accomplished ultra-racers in addition to being really nice people.

    That covered bridge in King's Valley is actually *not* on the Covered Bridges 400. I designed this course to have almost no overlap with that ride -- the two routes cross in Harrisburg and Salem, and that's it. In fact, the only roads on the whole ride that have been on any OR Randonneurs brevets in the past is the stretch from Willamina to Wren. Incidentally, the Covered Bridges 400 is probably the easiest 400k, maybe ever -- I wouldn't be surprised if you were 4 hours faster on it than on the Alsea Falls course.

    Good luck on Jan's 600. I did it last year, and it's a beautiful course. There's no room on my calendar for it this year, but even if there were, I am generally not in favor of night starts, unless heat is going to be an issue (which it shouldn't be, in September.)

  7. Thanks, Michael!

    I made the corrections. How many covered bridges have you got in Oregon? Must be plenty to have some left over.

    You all made a fine brevet. I know it is alot of work. Thanks, again.

  8. There are dozens of covered bridges in Oregon. I like covered bridges. Have a perm that visits the only covered bridge in WA. Have a perm route on the coast that visits a covered bridge on the N Fork of the Yachats (in process). And there are several bridges down in the Eugene area where we haven't yet been.... yet;)

  9. Thanks, Oregonians, you've all been friendly, encouraging and rightly proud of your state's beauty.

    I will be vacationing in Wallowa County in the next two weeks. Any favorite rides, particularly with some climbing and or scenery involved?