400 km Brevet: Teamwork is Fun!

road_aheda

“Let the guys on the 650B bikes to the front. They’ll be ahead anyhow.” That is what the organizer of the Seattle International Randonneurs 400 km brevet said before the start. We laughed – what a change from just a few years ago when many people thought I was exceptionally strong, since I could ride such a “slow” bike so fast.

early

So we rolled out together, but on the first twisty downhill, Wade, Theo and I got a gap on the rest of the field. Those wide tires really do corner faster…

fog

We sped with ease over the rolling roads along the Snoqualmie Valley. Fog covered the meadows, but above, we could already see the sunny skies.

morning_shadow

It turned into a gorgeous morning as we made our way up north. The course went from Redmond in the suburbs of Seattle almost to the Canadian border, where it would climb the lower slopes of Mount Baker. The sun was shining, and Wade’s shadow outlines what a fast brevet bike apparently looks like these days: Wide, supple 650B tires, fenders, handlebar bag. It helps that Wade is a very strong rider who races cyclocross as a Category 2. Theo has a perfectly smooth pedaling stroke as he spins up the steepest hills without apparent effort. Both ride predictably and are good company for a long, fast ride.

near_oso

The second group came into view once in a while, but each time, the terrain turned hilly, and the gap opened again. Finally, about 100 km into the ride, they started catching us. Just then, I had a flat (super-sharp glass shard). Bad luck with flats this year, two already, whereas last year, I had only one all year…

oso_slide

The flat tire didn’t take long to repair, and then we suddenly found ourselves on brand-new pavement, and the scars of the terrible Oso landslide came into view. Even as a former geologist, it amazes me how far the debris from a deep-seated rotational slide can travel. The headscarp of the slide was more than half a mile away, yet all around us was the debris that had covered the highway (and adjacent houses). The mood was somber as we continued our ride…

backroad_bridge

We saw the last riders of the lead group leave Darrington as we arrived, but their legs were fresher from a longer stop, so they slowly pulled away from us. We enjoyed the lightly travelled backroads, including the wonderful Sauk River-Concrete Road (above).

concrete

In Concrete, the climbing started in earnest. The road that leaves the valley is incredibly steep, especially after having ridden a spirited 180 km. We saw the lead group struggle on the slope ahead.

walking

We had agreed beforehand to walk the steepest stretch. It was good to stretch our legs (the slope is steep, perfect for a calf stretch). The brisk walk kept our heart rates up, but our cycling muscles were well-rested as we reached the top. The lead group was out of sight – riding is a little faster even on a hill this steep.

lead_group

Our strategy was to use our well-rested legs and power over the stair-step climbs toward Mount Baker, while the lead group would struggle after exerting themselves on the steep climb.

It didn’t take long until the lead group came into sight. Our strategy worked exactly as planned. As we surged past the other group, several riders tried to jump on our wheels, but they later told us that their legs indeed were tired.

The competition between the two groups is friendly – in fact, several of my best friends were in the other group. The competition serves mostly as an incentive to keep riding hard as we chase each other around the course. It’s a game, not a fight. It helps us excel at what we love doing: Trying to cover the course as fast as possible.

mt_baker

For the time being, we were distracted by the scenery. My camera had a hard time capturing Mt. Baker in the mid-day sun, but the view was truly outstanding.

We appreciated a brief rest at the control that was staffed by the SIR organizers, then plunged back into the valley. We battled terrible headwinds on flat roads (a most demoralizing combination), saw the other group briefly at the last control, and then rolled at full speed with a nice tailwind. No photos from this portion, since we were working hard, with smooth, efficient pulls.

almost_done

When we reached Snohomish, we calculated that if we kept our speed up, we might finish the brevet in less than 14:30 hours. That became our new goal. (Four years ago, I finished in 14:52…) Here we are waiting for a red light near the finish: Like the rest of us, Theo looks a little tired, but none the worse for wear.

finish

Just as the last light was fading, we turned into Mark Thomas’ driveway and completed the ride. Our official time was 14:27 – not bad for a challenging 400 km brevet. It showed what a well-matched team can accomplish. Thanks to my riding buddies – it was a fun ride!

Postscript: After an hour of recovery and socializing, we headed back to Seattle under an almost full moon. It was a magic ride and a great way to finish a wonderful day.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. Bicycle Quarterly's sister company, Compass Bicycles Ltd., turns the results of our research into high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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40 Responses to 400 km Brevet: Teamwork is Fun!

  1. Bob says:

    What is the width range of the tubes you use?
    How critical is the width range of the tube for, say, 32 tires?

    • All tubes have a specified width range. With budget tubes, this is very critical, and you still get some failures, because the sidewalls are uneven in thickness. With high-quality tubes, it’s not so much of a concern. For example, for years, I used to run Schwalbe SV15 tubes (rated up to 28 mm) in 32 mm tires.

      These days, I use the SV14A (26″ superlight) for my 42 mm tires. The diameter is a tad smaller than ideal for 650B, but at least I never have the problem of a tube having stretched so much that it is difficult to coax back into the tire without multiple cycles of inflation and deflation.

  2. Bill Gobie says:

    The photo of the Sauk River bridge reminds me how smoothly soft wide tires roll on metal grating bridge decks. There was some apprehensive pre-ride email chatter about the two bridges on the route with grated decks. I hardly felt any bumpiness and my bike did not squirm or wander. I’ve been across those bridges on narrower tires so I know there is a real difference.

  3. Jon says:

    I like your walking in solidarity, entertaining and smart.
    I rode up terribly steep mountain road yesterday, just because I flopped over and walked it last year. I made it this time but wondered at the top “What did I do that for?”

  4. Hi, a couple of questions if I may. Are the 650b(27.5 I assume) bikes custom made? Seriously…are they quicker or just different? How many metres climbed(feet if it’s easier)? I did my first 400k brevet a couple of weeks ago (and blogged for the first time) but was nowhere near your speed/time. Mostly a solo effort with only 3 starting we lost touch completely after 200. The reason I’m asking is I’m doing the Tour Aotearoa next year, a 3,000k off road brevet in less than 30 days and am taking my Surly Straggler but…..? Thanks, Stephen.
    P.s. Any advice welcome!!

  5. Dax Soule says:

    Why not ditch the fenders on such a pretty day?

  6. alliwant says:

    Jan, do you know know how steep your “hike” was on this ride? I remember a ride report on a 1200k in New Zealand that included a 16% climb for 2km. I’d walk that one too.

  7. Michael says:

    Congrats on the great ride. That kind of endurance is unimaginable to me.
    As for bike makeup:
    I am faster than my skinny tire carbon riding buddy on climbs on my 650b bike.
    But he can drop me on straight downhills and flats. Especially downhills. He’s heavier than me though.
    I think equipment can help, but maybe the most important thing is the engine.

    • Obviously, the engine is the most important part of the bike. A good bike helps to get the most out of that engine.

      Heavier riders will always be faster on downhills…

    • Rando Theo says:

      Michael, it is true that heavier riders will be faster downhill, as Jan says. I’m not much all that much lighter than Jan and Wade, but even so, they always pull ahead on straight descents when we are in the aero tuck. Maybe I should load my bag with rocks at the top of the climb…😉

      On twisty descents, they are faster because they are skilled descenders who know the limits of their bikes and our wide tires. I am working on this so that I won’t have to sprint at the bottom anymore!

  8. David says:

    Nice riding report which makes me eagerly await the upcoming 400km Brevet in Berlin!
    While my aim is to finish the ride in a smooth way (since it is my first Brevet season), i still wonder how you can finish it as fast as you guys do. Apparently you almost did not stop to eat lunch somewhere but carried all the stuff in your bags.
    Also, it would be great to know how often and how much you ride before riding the longer Brevet?

    • Total stop time was about 15-20 minutes, including 5 to fix the flat tire.

      I don’t ride all that much, but try to keep my training structured (intervals, fast hillclimbs) to work on my speed.

    • Hi David. Glad to know you will be at the Berlin 400k as well. Maybe we will ride together again – I recall the 200k as rather dreadful, given the constant rainfall. Finishing it alone would have been so much harder. Let us hope for better conditions this saturday.

      Greetings, Julius

  9. John Duval says:

    You often describe being relieved to finish an epic ride, and then mention riding home after, sometimes great distances. That makes my backside hurt and my energy levels plummet just to think about. How do you ride before and after the event such that you recover and don’t burn out further, mentally and physically?

    • The ride home was great fun. Spinning along without thinking about speed or efficiency was a great antidote to the powerful emotions of the ride. And the moon was beautiful.

      Before long rides, I usually take a week off. Afterwards, I also don’t train for a few days. Most of all, the big rides are like feasts – great fun, but not something I want to do every week. Perhaps I can best describe them as celebrations of my cycling, similar to the incredible indigenous celebrations I witnessed as a child in Mexico.

  10. Christophe says:

    14h27 for a hilly 400k… impressive ! Congratulations. My time on this year’s 300k was 14h50, so you would be more than 100km ahead of me… I’m glad it’s not a race, if it were one I would be in the broom wagon.

    • It’s most emphatically not a race! It’s about setting goals for yourself and trying to achieve them. In racing, there’ll always be somebody who is faster… In randonneuring, you achieve your goals and then set higher ones. I find the latter very satisfying.

  11. Paul Glassen says:

    As the owner of a Soma Grand Randonneur (supplied with build kit by Boulder Bicycle), I am happy to take Wade’s ride as a sound endorsement of its capabilities. The motto of this humble, and homely, bike should be, “650B for the masses”.

    • Greg says:

      My son put one together for himself last year, and really likes it, so far. He rides in and around Denver, Colorado, often solo. He has the matching frame-colored fenders on his, fwiw.

  12. Michael says:

    I remember Jan’s review of the Soma.
    I remember that his size turned out looking really small for him or something like that. I also saw someone else online who thought they had way too much seatpost showing for their size. Are they oddly designed frames?
    Different from traditional style frames?

    • The Soma is an oddly designed frame. The top tube is dropped down significantly, and way longer than the seat tube. So if you want a 57 cm top tube, you get something like a 51 cm seat tube (all measurements center-center; quoting from memory). Also, the head tube is lower than the seat tube – the fit is more like a 1980s time trial bike than a randonneur bike…

    • Wade Schultz says:

      The discourse below notes that Soma has now moved to a new version of the Grand Randonneur, which reduced the seattube extension and the frame stack. I started out with the 55cm, because it had the effective reach I was used to. However with the low-trail geometry, that bike never felt stable or comfortable for me. But moving to the 58cm with a smaller stem and narrower handlebars solved these handling issues. It will never plane as well I’d like, but it’s a great base for someone’s first randonneur.

  13. David Pearce says:

    I so appreciate your photo- and word-journalism when you write an essay like this. You weave in so many engaging strands: Technical details, nature, humanity, history, the society of good friends, the exhilaration of a good bicycle, a good ride and the satisfaction of a personal competition achieved.

    Thank you so much for this little journey for my imagination!

  14. Michael says:

    Do you guys have any SON hub vibration issues that are felt in the handlebars, with the high speeds you go? How do you deal with it? Is there a way to stop these vibrations from happening?

    • The vibrations occur at certain speeds. With flexible fork blades, you feel them more. We use the Delux rather than the SON28, so the vibrations are less. The only solution appears to be to speed up or slow down, or ignore them. Fortunately, in the speed range where we usually ride, the vibrations don’t occur.

      • marmotte27 says:

        Do the hubs slow you down significantly on descents? That’s what I get with my Delux (as well as the vibrations at certain speeds).

      • The hubs don’t slow us down, even when the lights are on. A few issues ago, Bicycle Quarterly published measurements, and the difference at high speed (where air resistance is your main concern) was very small, even with the light on.

  15. Tom Howarth says:

    Hey, did anyone have a run in with those dogs that live along the Concrete/Darrington road about three miles north of Concrete? I passed them twice, out and back, one day and will never forget that second pass as I was coming back on fumes… I intend to have bear spray the next time. Illabot Creek from Concrete makes a really nice ride, otherwise!
    Thanks for the report and inspiration.

  16. fourteen and a half hours… 15 minutes total stop time… Unbelievable. You all obviously ride well together, as well as being strong individually.

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