I really thought I had seen everything when I signed up for the Great Lakes Randonneurs 400K on June 5.
I was wrong!
It started in Delevan, Wisconsin on a grey day with a perfect temperature of about 65 degrees. I hadn't ridden with this group before and was by myself so I figured I would ride the whole thing alone. The chance of rain that day had dropped to "30% starting after 2:00 pm". There were 28 riders at the start, which is quite a lot for a 400k so early.
Surprisingly, most of the group stayed together for the first 45 miles. I met up with an actuary named Kurt and an English professor, Bill. Bill had the horror of discovering at the first control that he had neglected to mount his rack bag at the start. We scared up extra tire levers, tubes and an inflator/CO2 for him, but he now had no rain gear. I had a slow leak that I wound up fixing about 5 miles after the control, but that was my only issue. Kurt and I wound up losing Bill about 15 miles from Darlington, the second control. The wind picked up a little - with more to come later.
Kurt and I pulled into Darlington at 90 miles a bit before noon. We made it a quick break and got back on the bike quickly. The next stop was an informational control, the name of a campground, about 20 miles away. Just outside Darlington, I stopped to put on a rain jacket as a way of keeping it from raining. It briefly rained, then stopped. Saved, I thought.
About half an hour later, we looked behind us to see one of the meanest thunderclouds I have ever seen. Good thing that is to the south, we thought and we are going north. Turned out we were actually going northeast and about 10 minutes later, I heard a loud rushing which turned out to be buckets of rain hitting the ground. It came from behind us and we were drenched in about 30 seconds. No problem, we thought, rain this hard is just an isolated thing, it never goes on for long.
About 45 minutes later, the rain was still pouring and we got to the campground, the Four Season Resort, which may have been the most decrepit looking trailer park I've ever seen. Not wanting to take out the cards in the rain, we resolved to remember the name by its more illustrious namesake. The rain continued, but the wind wasn't bad. I marveled at one point as we climbed up a short, steep hill that little waves were coming down the hill on the road. Finally, it slowed and stopped for awhile. The terrain had, by this point, turned decidedly hillier.
We rolled into Mineral Point at around 2:00 pm and found someone hovering over an IPhone with a weather map. "Looks like the worst is behind us" then added "I think that big yellow/red blob is going to miss us". I loaned someone a spoke wrench and Kurt had a hot dog. We only had 10 miles to Dodgeville, so we rung out our clothes and continued on. The next 10 miles had the kind of huge rollers I don't normally see in Minnesota. Straight up and straight down and quite steep along Survey Road. I finally ditched my rain coat. Kurt hadn't put his on yet, prefering to ride in the rain; it had been a warm rain.
At Dodgeville, which was 200K, we had bananas and called spouses. It was about 5:00 pm. "The rain is passed", we said, "we should be in around 1:00 am". .....
About 300 yards passed the city limits, the wind suddenly whipped up and a light rain showed up. This time, Kurt and I both put our jackets on. Just in time, the rain came back in force, this time with a hard gusting wind from the north as we headed east. The cross wind was so powerful, I had some trouble controlling the bike on descents and the rain stung it was so hard. The lightning and thunder started too. Just more giant rollers and virtually no trees. An occaisional deserted looking farmhouse. I kept my head down and we struggled to maintain about 10 mph.
Then I heard it, a wind like no other wind I have ever heard. Not whistling or gusting or howling. It sounded like the low rumble of a train. I asked Kurt, "What's that, I haven't heard anything like that". At this point, we couldn't see a thing and were having to ride our brakes down the rollers so that we could check for flash flooding at the bottom before climbing out. Really, I thought, the chances that a tornado would hit us here vs. 1 mile down the road are the same so we may as well keep going until we see something. Finally the sound stopped. For the record, there were no touchdowns, but there were funnel clouds in the storm, one of which made it on TV. How's that for rando adventure?
We fought and clawed our way through the hilliest part of the course to Mt Horab. 30 miles at about 9 miles an hour with the occasional major climb, usually into the wind. I distinctly remember looking at my computer to see myself climbing at 3 mph. At least it was warm. We both remarked how glad we were were to not be alone in such weather.
Finally, we rolled into the Kwik Trip at Mt Horab. Jim, the RBA, was there with a van loading bikes. He was making multiple trips. There were some very weary looking guys there. One couple ran off to Walgreens to find clothes. Kurt and I vowed to continue, surely the worst was past. I asked the guy with the IPhone, conveniantly there, when the storm was ending and he quipped "10 minutes from now". "Yeah sure", I retorted. Then I looked at the horizon. It was about 8:00 pm. Sure enough, a golden line had appeared on the horizon. It was a sunset.
Kurt and I spent extra time wrapping our bodies with garbage bags to keep warm during the night since it was going to be a long time before we dried. We promised to pick up another rider at the Culver's down the street whose buddy was dropping and and who did not want to ride alone at night. At Culver's, we actually picked up two people and then two more when the Walgreens couple road up sporting cheap fleece and panty hose. "This stuff is great - I'm so glad I shaved my legs this morning," said the guy, whose name was Chad. He and his wife, Nancy, were triathletes, but this was their first 400k. Off we went to Oregon.
At this point, it got dark and the stars came out. I love night riding and this was some of the best I have ever seen. The lightning from the storm contrasted with the stars: magical. I loaned a tire boot to Nancy at one point. There are always more flats after the rain. I did much of the navigation and helped us avoid a few unwanted miles. Thank goodness for a lifelong obsesssion with maps and charts.
At Oregon, we fueled up and I made the mistake of eating peanut butter cups. They sat in my stomach like unexploded grenades. My knee also was getting tired, I injured it last February and have fought patellar tendonitis ever since. Finally, we made it into the last control at about 1:30, Fort Atkinson.
What I remember the most about Fort (as the locals call it) was passing at least 4 motels and wishing this was a 600k so that I could stop. We were all getting very tired and still had 30 miles to go. The hills weren't bad but spirits were a little down. "I look like ass," declared Nancy. That got me laughing and I finally shook off the feeling of weariness. Humor always does that for me on a brevet.
The last 30 miles were pretty heads down. At some point, we lost Ken and Nancy to another flat but Kurt and I road into the Super 8 at almost exactly 4:00 am at about 18 mph (where we got that energy, I'll never know) along with 2 others. Ken and Nancy showed up about 15 minutes later.
I drove back to Jefferson, where IronK was visiting family, for a quick nap and 2 breakfasts. We stuck around in Madison for another day before heading back to the Twin Cities.
Regrettably, I have no photos from this ride. But it was truly epic. I exchanged email addresses with Kurt and hope we ride together again someday. On this ride, it made all the difference. I am often asked how you keep going when the weather is bad or something else goes wrong on a ride like this. Honestly, if bad things happen, good things do too; you sometimes have to just get through the rough patch to really appreciate those stars or that beautiful moon.