In May of 2011, I headed up to Seattle on the Amtrak to ride my first 400K. Just the week before, I’d done my first 600K in Oregon, where I met Vinny Muoneke at breakfast on the second day at the Siletz Cafe. He’d encouraged me to come up, stay with him, and ride – any time. I decided to take him up on it.
On my way to the train, I stopped by a bike shop to have a mechanic take a look at my Shimano generator hub, which had been making terrible noises on the 600K and had subsequently sprayed red grease all over my wheel. The mechanic asked when I needed the work done. “Well, I am catching a train in a couple of hours to go to Seattle and ride a 400K. So if you can’t fix it now, I’ll bring it back after.”
He refused to let me ride without servicing the hub and immediately stuck the bike in a stand. I nervously watched the clock while he opened the hub, cleaned it out with a rag, checked the bearing surfaces, and then loaded them with red grease and ball bearings. He slid the center of the hub back into place, finger tightened it, grabbed a huge wrench and… broke off a chunk of the hub!
We shared a look of horror. The cheap metal that Shimano used for the hub had simply cracked off with the force on the wrench flat, exposing a surface of mottled grey and silver. Thinking quickly, the mechanic took the central part out of a brand new Shimano generator hub – the updated version of the same model – and fit it into my wheel. He charged me for grease and bearings and sent me on my way. I thanked him and bolted for the train, just registering a strange, sticky feeling in my front brake lever as I scrubbed speed at stop signs. I had to flick the lever away from the handlebars after braking… But no time for that – the train was going to leave!
The train was an hour late to Vinny’s, but we headed out for Pho anyway. He warned me against his choice of Ox Tail (“An acquired taste,” he said), but was sufficiently impressed when I chose the house combination bowl with flank steak, tendon, tripe, and meatballs. And again when I finished the entire large bowl.
We enjoyed eating and talking together before heading back to his house, where he set me up in a guest room for a few hours of sleep. At one point, I remember waking up to hear a vacuum running… Vinny wasn’t sleeping at all. I got up shortly thereafter and we loaded my bike on the the hitch rack of his truck and drove to Redmond for the ride start.
I had never been to such a well-attended brevet! A PBP-year spring 400K in Seattle is a sight to behold. I bounded around the start like a pinball, social butterfly that I am, finding familiar faces from the last two Flèche rides and SIR riders who had visited Oregon. Finally, it was time for the pre-ride announcements. And then, we were off.
Still excited from the start, I hurried down the road, looking for someone to with whom to ride. For a moment I was next to John Pearch, with whom I’d done most of an Oregon 200K earlier in the year. Ahead I saw a few other familiar riders and sped up to catch them as they went around a corner and down a steep hill.
I reached the top of the descent with too much speed and then fearfully notices a bend at the middle of the hill and off-camber turn at the bottom. The asphalt was damp from the previous night’s rain. I pulled my levers to scrub speed, but that sticky lever failed to release. The front wheel locked and slid out from under me. The bike fell and I landed on my left side, arms out like superman. Quickly I was on my stomach, facing down hill. My feet were going faster than my head, so I spun 180 degrees. My bike bounced off the left side and impacted again on the driveside. My handlebar bag flew away, ejecting its contents. My waterbottles came out. And everything, including me, ended up in the wet ditch at the bottom of the hill.
Later I would see that my computer recorded a top speed of 47mph.
John Pearch and another rider stopped and pulled me out of the ditch, then helped to gather my things. They looked at me with shock and anticipation. I observed my bleeding hands, torn up clothes, and broken brake levers and knew, 2.5 miles in, that my ride was over. I assured them that I would be ok, encouraged them to go on ahead and, when they left, called Vinny.
“Hey, Vinny, did you leave Mark’s house yet?”
“No Theo, I’m still here. Why?”
“My ride is over. I crashed and my bike is wrecked. Can you come get me?”
Vinny figured out where I was and told me to wait. A while later a woman in an unfamiliar car pulled up.
“Are you Theo?”
“I’m Chris Thomas, Mark’s wife. Let’s get you in the car and back to the house.”
Chris sent me inside where Vinny grabbed my arm roughly, looked at my abrasions, and said “superficial.” They sent me to the shower.
When I came back downstairs, Chris tried to patch me up, but her bandages were too small for a few of my scrapes. It would have to do. I told Vinny that I wanted to join him as a volunteer on the course as I wasn’t about to waste my travel money to sit around feeling sorry for myself. Since the ride would finish at the Chris and Mark’s house, we left my damaged bike there and I climbed into the truck with Vinny.
Along the way to Baker Lake, we picked up some NSAIDs at a convenience store. Vinny told me I was going to be very stiff and very sore. He was right.
When we reached our destination at the tree-lined lake, there were already several volunteers there, including Jennifer Chang, Kole Kanter, Hugh Kimball, Kevin Humphries and Kevin’s young son. Vinny set up the tables and chairs he had in the truck and we loaded them with snacks and water. Under a popup tent, Hugh heated soup. While we waited for the riders to come in, I hobbled down to the lake to admire the rugged mountains and staged a self portrait for which I could not quite manage to stand up straight. That slight lean was with me for weeks.
In less time than I would have expected, two randonneurs appeared in the distance. One blue dot and one yellow. As they approached, I saw that they were tucked deeply behind their handlebars and moving very quickly. They were Jan Heine and Steve Thorne.
There could not have been more contrast between them – unless one had been on a recumbent, or possibly a skateboard. Jan rode an old, grey Alex Singer with leather saddle, non-aero levers, and a weathered canvas handlebar bag leaning far forward from the bars. He wore a wool SIR Jersey and wool hiking socks. Steve, in a modern lycra jersey emblazoned with the Cal logo of UC Berkeley, rear pockets bulging with gear, rode a full carbon road bike with lights clipped to the handlebars and bright pink bar tape. But they rode together, smiling and breathing hard from the effort of the steep climb up to this control.
They stopped a while, despite plans to finish the ride as quickly as possible. Jan drank a bowl of tomato soup, saying, “Soup is good. The French randonneurs used to carry a thermos of soup on their rides.” I won’t deny that his vintage bike, fast riding, and stories about the early French randonneurs captured my imagination. I wished that I was riding with them. Instead, I hobbled around the parking lot at the lake, taking pictures.
The next few hours were a blur of activity as riders showed up and I signed their cards and took their pictures. Some of them dashed back out onto the course quite quickly, others sat for a long time, chatting and eating. The deep feeling of camaraderie and friendship among the SIR riders filled me like a helium balloon and I drifted above the pain, fatigue and disappointment with my failed ride.
Eventually, everyone cleared out and I woke Vinny from his “ditch nap” in the passenger seat of the truck. Along with the other volunteers, we packed up and left the parking lot as clean as it had been when we arrived that morning. When I got back into the truck for the drive to Redmond, I finally began to feel the pain of my crash.
As we drove South, it started to rain. A lot.
Back at the finish, Chris was making dinner for riders and we started another round of waiting. Vinny told me when he expected Jan and Steve to arrive soon, but I couldn’t believe it. How could they finish a 400K course in 16 hours? It seemed impossible.
Ultimately, Jan finished in 14 hours and 52 minutes; Steve in 15 hours 46 minutes. But neither was fast enough to avoid the heavy rain.
Outside, the sky was dark and rain came down in sheets. Each rider arrived more soaked than the last. But their spirits lifted with the word “dinner,” and they went inside to join the crowded table, where conversation was loud and happy.
A few riders came in bloodied by crashes in the last few miles. A rough patch on a nearby road was hidden under water and darkness, catching riders by the wheel and pulling them down.
Mark prepared an alternative route, printed many copies of the short detour cue sheet, and I headed out with Vinny to see if we could find the remaining riders and spare them from riding the treacherous road.
We went back to the last control, a convenience store, and didn’t see any riders. I left several copies of the updated cue sheet with the cashier. Then Vinny and I tried to drive the end of the route to intercept anyone between the control and the finish. Unfortunately, we didn’t have our own copy of the route sheet, so Vinny had to navigate by memory and, in the dark and rain, the roads didn’t look the same. He wasn’t sure we were on route the whole way.
Back at the finish, we waited on the last riders, hopeful there would be no more crashes. I felt exhausted. A call came in that a rider had crashed into a post on a bike path and would not be finishing the ride. Another call: the happy Canadian couple (photo above) had abandoned when the rain became unbearable. Finally, a rider came in with a smashed helmet. He staggered a bit and said that he had gone down in the last few miles. He hadn’t seen the detour sheet and we hadn’t seen him on the road.
Feeling bad for missing that last rider, Vinny and I decided it was time to go home. It was 1 am and we’d both been awake for far too long. I tried to load my bike onto the hitch rack, but it didn’t seem quite right. Vinny made a face, but didn’t say anything, so I figured it was okay. Within minutes of starting the truck, I found myself falling asleep. I struggled to stay awake in solidarity as we drove down the highway to Tacoma, rain pelting down and deep standing water on the road. My eyes closed on their own, and, after what seemed like only a heartbeat, I awoke to Vinny saying, “Shit!”
“Do you see that?”
I look back behind us into the dark and see nothing.
Vinny pulled over immediately. As I woke up, I realized that “that” was my bike and the reason I didn’t see it was that it had fallen off the hitch rack. We got out into the rain and walked to the back of the truck. I felt, suddenly, very awake. The safety strap on the rear wheel held and the bike was hanging off the rack. The handlebars had impacted first and some pieces of the brake levers had been broken off. When that happened, the bike bounced and the bars turned such that it returned to the ground on the front fender and the stem – no other part of the bike touched down. A huge hole was worn into my metal fenders and the top corner of my stem was gone, ground away by the road. Vinny mounted the bike back on the rack, securely this time. We headed home to sleep after a long day.
The following weekend, I tried again, heading to Eastern Washington with my friend Susan Otcenas for the Desert River Randonneurs 400K. But that is a different story entirely.