Thursday, July 14, 2016

Team Arrow Dynamics Takes on the 2016 New Jersey Arrow

When I first heard that NJ Randonneurs was sponsoring its first ever "arrow" event, I knew I had to assemble a team. Like an ACP "fleche," (fleche is actually the French word for arrow), this event would require that teams of 3-5 cyclists ride together for a minimum of 360 kilometers in 24 hours over a course of their own design to a predetermined finish location. All teams would start at 10:00 am on July 9 and finish at 10:00 am on July 10. The rest was up to us. Luckily, I was able to pull together a team of seasoned randonneurs with whom I've very much enjoyed riding over the years.

One of the first challenges of an arrow is that the team (through the team captain) is responsible for designing the route it will follow from a starting location of its own choice to the finish. Like "arrows" homing in on a target, the idea is that each team arrives at the precise same place and the precise same time, yet having come from a very different starting point. While I've ridden in several fleche events, this would be my first time serving as team captain. In addition, NJ Rando elected to host this event as a fundraiser so there would be money to raise as well.

Route design proved to be about as challenging as I expected it to be, which is to say significant. The catch is that unlike standard brevets, which typically follow circuitous routes, we would be riding in a linear (point-to-point) fashion with the added challenge of getting 200 miles back to the cars and belongings we left at the start. With two riders on the team from New England, I knew that we should try to start as far north as possible. Another challenge I faced was mapping the unfamiliar roads in the southern third of the route after crossing out of New York and into New Jersey. I discovered that my first attempt was a disaster when I drove the southern section and realized that there were no safe shoulders on a considerable stretch of road. As a result, I reached out to Joe K., the NJ Rando RBA, and he shared a RUSA-Approved permanent route with us that solved our problems perfectly leaving a gap of only several miles between our familiar northern route and the finish.

I had originally wanted to start in the Berkshires, which would have enabled us to cross four states in our journey, but there was no realistic public transport option further north than the MetroNorth commuter line so we selected the Wassaic station on the Connecticut border as a compromise. This looked as though it would work out just fine until several days before the event when a friend (riding on a different team) sent me an email with news that there was construction on the Wassaic line all weekend that put shuttle buses into service, which could not accommodate bicycles. After some mad scrambling, hectic rerouting, and patience from the organizers, we drafted a plan to start at the Walkway Over the Hudson just north of the Poughkeepsie train station instead. Only the first 33 miles of the route would need to change. We would pick up the original route in the village of Clermont in southern Columbia County, where we would turn south to follow some lovely roads parallel to the Hudson River taking in several historic estates along the way.

The forecast for the weekend was both favorable and unfavorable. The incessant heat was scheduled to break and when we clipped in temperatures were in the upper 60s (whereas they had been hovering in the 90s for days). The downside of this change was that we would encounter unstable weather with showers pretty much inevitably at some point in the day and/or night. Luckily, we only encountered two real rain storms and neither was as bad as we feared. Luckier still, the most serious storm took place just a few yards from a convenience store as we were cycling through some pretty remote countryside. While we stayed a bit longer than five minutes (see photo above), it did not take too much time out of our budget. Wet, gritty roads often lead to tire trouble and this event was no exception. As a team, we tallied four flats in 24 hours and while this slowed us down quite a bit, it did not present any challenges we could not handle.

A critical component of route design on events such as this involves identifying suitable 24-hour establishments where teams can find food, water, and a place to catch a few hours of shut-eye. Our first two checkpoints were outstanding. Tivoli, NY provided both a lovely bakery and a general store where each of us was able to procure a baguette sandwich (some with ham, some with salmon) that had the effect of connecting me instantly with the food of Brittany I enjoyed so much at PBP last summer. Our next checkpoint was located in New Paltz at The Main Course, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner. The following checkpoint, at a McDonald's in Port Jervis, was more of a necessary evil, but the staff was welcoming and the furniture comfortable. Trouble came around 3:00 am when we arrived at a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts with a plan to sleep for 60-90 minutes before sunrise. Little did we know that only the DRIVE-THRU window was open for 24 hours and we would need to push on in search of a safe, dry place to catch a few winks.

Luckily, we would soon be entering towns from my childhood and I was confident that we'd find something suitable before too long. As we rolled into Peapack-Gladstone and passed the school from which I graduated, I remembered a covered gazebo in the park at the town's center. Not only was it dark, but it was quiet, dry and empty when we arrived at 3:45 am. Setting my alarm for 4:45 am, we could get an hour's rest and still be off before the sun rose and no one would be any the wiser. Dawn brought new energy to our legs and bodies as it always does and we pedaled our way to the penultimate checkpoint where all of the other teams would meet before the final push to the finish.

The fundraising aspect of the event added excitement and purpose. While I normally ride for the selfish pleasures that spending hours on my bike affords, on this event, we would be riding to raise money for Hunterdon Youth Services, a wonderful community organization that sponsors programs for young men in need of a helping hand. What started out as a modest effort to raise a few dollars resulted in the collection of far more money than I would have anticipated. As a result of the generosity of friends, family, and fellow riders, we raised $1000 shattering my initial goal of $500.  

As one of my teammates reflected after the ride, "for years I declined to participate in fleches because I couldn't figure out the reason for an all-night ride where you had to spend 24 hours doing it, subject to a bunch of arbitrary constraints. It sounded to me like mandated, unnecessary suffering. On this Arrow, though, I finally got it--it's about team building, and spending 24 hours with a great group of guys. The cycling is mainly a pretext for the group experience." I could not have said it better myself.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Heaven in the Heartland: The Holy Kettle 205K

As I was frantically tying up loose ends and packing for a trip to Milwaukee, where my wife is working on her MFA this summer, I thought all hope for an R-12 was lost. Then it dawned on me to check the RUSA database to see if I could locate a suitable permanent route in the area. When I contacted Ted D., the owner of the Holy Kettle 205K, not only was he happy to accommodate my last-minute request, but he also offered to throw a bike loan into the bargain! While I figured I could arrange a rental from an LBS in the area (or ride on the Brompton I brought along to explore Milwaukee), Ted was more than happy to dial-in one of the beautiful machines in his collection to meet my exact specifications. So rather than ride some assembly-line special, I found myself enjoying the company of a gorgeous Rivendell complete with 650b balloon tires, bar-end shifters and handlebar bag. I felt like pinching myself at several points during the day in fear that I might be dreaming.

The Holy Kettle 205K gets its name from a mash-up of two of its most defining features. After leaving the northern edge of Milwaukee along the shore of Lake Michigan, the route heads due west to a church known as the Holy Hill Basilica, located high on an outcrop above the verdant farmland below. The climb up the "holy hill" gets one's attention, yet the rider is rewarded with a peaceful setting high above the troubles of the world. After a brief stop at this control, I rode back down to earth to continue my journey north through the Kettle Moraine region, a beautiful area left behind following the last ice age that features smooth rollers as far as the eye can see. The headwinds were manageable throughout the morning, but took a little bit of the joy out of riding through the picturesque expanse of farmlands I saw before me on this first half of the ride.

The northwestern corner of the route, located within the boundaries of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, requires some climbing along lightly traveled scenic highways to reach. The control is located at a small shop run by a kind and welcoming couple who had clearly seen a few cyclists riding through over the years. As the sun had been beating down on me for the past several hours, a bottle of cold Gatorade and an ice cream cone really hit the spot. Bottles filled, I headed out to the east again in search of Lake Michigan and the tailwinds I was sure to encounter along the way.

The ride east from the third control begins with a series of welcome descents away from the park and into the more open farmland below. The roads along this section are generally smooth and straight and afford the rider plentiful views of the countryside that contributes to Wisconsin's well-deserved reputation as America's Dairyland. The penultimate control is found in the small village of Oostburg, close to the banks of Lake Michigan. The last stretch of the route that follows is divided equally between paved rail trail and sections of Lake Shore Drive, which seemed to be a very popular after-work cycling destination as I passed dozens of cyclists heading north out of Milwaukee on this fine summer evening.

It occurred to me, as I rode this last section of the route, that I had not heard a car horn nor had I felt the slightest bit of hostility from anyone I met along my entire journey. It was as if cycling along these farm roads was perfectly natural. No one made me feel like I did not belong. Cars and trucks gave me a wide berth on the roads and people waited at stop lights to allow one another plenty of time to pass. No one appeared to be in a hurray and no one seemed filled with rage. The theme of this day was certainly rooted in Midwestern hospitality, from the bike I was riding to the roads I was crossing, everything seemed to be conspiring to improve the quality of my life. I feel as though I had been served a slice of randonneur heaven. Luckily, my wife's graduate program continues next summer; I will definitely be back.

As an added bonus on this 10-day trip to Milwaukee, I was able to watch a former student of mine race as a pro in the Downer Classic, one of several stages in the Tour of America's Dairyland. It was my first criterium and boy was it exciting! I only wish they had organized a Brompton category.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Tale of Diminishing Returns: The Blue Mountain 400K

I don't think I've ever clipped in for a long ride without wondering what I left behind. At the first turn on the recent Eastern PA Blue Mountain 400K, I realized that this time around it was my wallet. Now, I can scrounge and forage with the best of them, but a flask of Hammer Gel, a few Clif bars and two bottles of water really didn't strike me as a large enough stash of rations with which to set off on a 250-mile journey, so I turned back to collect my money and begin again. It would be some time before I reconnected with the group, but my ride through the misty early morning hours along the Delaware River was exceptionally beautiful and reminded me of why I love to get on my bike before dawn to see a world that most people don't even know exists.

After 30 minutes or so I came upon my first randonneur repairing a flat by the side of the road. Establishing that he had all of the necessary tools, I continued on feeling noticeably more comfortable to be riding within the rando-fold. It was not long before I encountered several other randonneurs who were either currently or just recently dealing with issues that caused them delays. One of these was Jan D., who had just repaired a flat when we fell into riding at a common pace. My story made him realize that he too had forgotten his wallet and that combined with some unexpected house guests back in VT made him almost throw in the towel. He decided to hang in, though, and by the first control we ran into several other riders with whom we would spend large chunks of this brevet.

It was great to see volunteer Gil L. along the way with his broad smile and comforting knowledge of the route. By late morning, Gil was joined by Doug H. who eventually took over and hooked me up with some valuable chain lube in advance of the impending storm. The current Blue Mountain 400K route does not contain any particularly epic climbs, but like many of the the Eastern PA events, what it lacks in drama is made up for in choppy repetition. We stopped mid-day for lunch at a diner with table service and a nice outdoor seating area. The rains had held off, but the skies became more threatening as the day wore on so it was clear that we would get wet before too long. Doug, who had been tracking the storm on his phone, showed us a dramatic radar image of a wall of intense thunderstorms coming from the west.

The skies became increasingly ominous as we headed into the expansive farmlands of Lancaster County with the option to ditch into an available barn balancing the panic of being trapped in a thunderstorm out in open fields. Fortunately, the ominous skies never lived up to their full potential and we never suffered more than some passing showers throughout the event.

The group with whom I rode hovered between three and seven throughout the day, but ultimately settled into just Jan and me riding together for long stretches of the afternoon and evening. As luck would have it, I became extremely fatigued in the final hours of the ride and found myself having to stop every 20-30 minutes to close my eyes for fear of falling asleep on my bike. As a result, our pace slowed to a mere crawl and I felt increasingly sorry for Jan who hung in like a trooper to keep me from crossing the final stretches of the ride alone. It probably would have been more efficient to lie down for a proper nap, but each short rest provided the illusion that I would be able to carry on to the finish without sleeping.

As we slowly turned our cranks on the final approach to Quakertown, we saw lights approaching from the rear and were rejoined by two additional riders who had been following at a slightly slower pace. When we finally arrived at the hostel, the clock would confirm that it took us just over 24 hours to complete a ride I had planned to finish in 20. So much for muscle memory. I guess my lack of training and sleep during this busy spring caught up with me.

Up Next: the Catskills SR600 in two weeks. 30,000+ feet of climbing in 600K. What am I thinking?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Old Saybrook 300K: Simply Perfect

How is it possible that I haven't posted anything to this blog since January? It certainly can't be due to my outrageous training schedule. Those plans didn't fall into place as I had hoped. I guess things just got busy around here with work and family and there didn't seem to be much to write about in the doldrums of winter. Now that spring is here, though, I feel reborn as a randonneur.  Recently, I was presented a nearly perfect brevet experience. The weather was ideal, the route was spectacular and well-suited to early spring riding and the company was quite pleasant.

I've wanted to ride the Old Saybrook 300K out of Westfield, MA for many years, but the timing never seemed to work out. This season, though, it fit into the spring calendar just perfectly. The route is advertised as "moderately hilly," but it seemed mostly flat to me as I pedaled with enthusiasm from the foothills of the Berkshires down to the Connecticut shore and back. While I haven't gotten out for as many long rides as I would have liked, perhaps it was the rest immediately before the event that left me feeling full of energy.

It was great to see Bill R. at the start, but I knew that with his sleek velomobile well-suited to the terrain this would be the last we saw of each other for the day. Little did I know that Bill would rack up a personal best on this route with a nearly 10-hour finish. After RBA Don P. said a few words to those assembled at the 6:00 am start, I quickly fell in with a spirited group at the front and hung on until just before the first control when I decided to back off the pace a bit to preserve my stores for the long ride ahead.

My favorite section of the route was the state park we crossed on our way to the shore, which was peaceful and beautiful with the early spring sunshine cascading through the trees. The pavement felt like butter under my new tires. I'm a sucker for a ride with a destination and the Connecticut coast did not disappoint with deep blue water glistening in the mid-day sun. The rest stop at the turnaround just a few feet from the beach was maintained by a very enthusiastic group of cyclists from a local cycling club who pulled out all the stops to provide world-class care and feeding. After a tasty barbecue chicken sandwich, I was back on the road again.

I reunited at the controle with two of the fast riders I had been riding with earlier in the morning and we continued on together for the second half of the day. I had ridden with Simon and Jan on previous brevets and it was great to catch up as we enjoyed the weather and the route on our way back to Westfield. After the penultimate control, when we started to smell the barn, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. Luckily, since I had held back a bit in the morning, I still had plenty of energy under the hood. As a result, I jumped to the front of our little group and laid the hammer down for the last 20 miles into Westfield.

I had privately set a goal of finishing within 13:30 as this was both my time on a different Westfield 300K route last year AND the time at which we were required to switch on lights and don reflective gear. These were both motivating enough to keep me going and I was pleased to end not only within my target time, but also without having to stop to set up my lights.

Up next: "The Return of the Five Boro Bike Tour" starring George and Elias

Sunday, January 24, 2016

My Lucky Day: No Snow as Far as the Eye Can See

As the latest Snowpocalype devastated our southern neighbors, we were blissfully spared her wrath. So while my Facebook feed filled with images of shovelers up to their waists in snow, I took to the roads to enjoy a brisk afternoon along the icy Hudson River. It's a bit late in the month to be riding a permanent route that I'm hoping to apply towards a P-12 award, so my nerves were percolating this week as the forecast for a snowstorm of Biblical proportions intensified. Having missed a P-12 award last year (presented by RUSA to riders who complete at least one permanent route between 100K and 200K each month for twelve consecutive months), I am determined to finish what I began this past October.

The sky was a lovely crystalline blue this afternoon and the ambient temperature hovered around freezing. With a slight 5-10 mph wind out of the northwest, any extra work was front-loaded into the first half of the ride as I made my way north to Red Hook. Along the way, I stopped at a waterfront park managed by Scenic Hudson, our local Hudson River preservation champions who had recently created a small teaching area right at the water's edge. The sign above is a helpful reminder of where we stand relative to our neighbors and my proximity to the river allowed me to see not only the historic lighthouse off in the distance, but also the various ice formations arriving at long last from the north.

The roads were generally quiet today, but there was some pedestrian activity at the Bard campus with students returning from winter break and in Rhinebeck, which always seems to enjoy a festive atmosphere. As I followed the riverside roads south of the village, though, I was often the only one in sight for long stretches, which suited me just fine. Perhaps the storms to our south kept the tourists and weekend warriors closer to home today. Even the Walkway Over the Hudson was quieter than usual for a Sunday in January. As a result, there were not many witnesses to see the magnificent ship being pushed northward by a strong tug as it made its way beneath the span on which I stood. While I completed the route successfully, in February I'll be sure to plan my P-12 ride in the first half of the month assuming the weather cooperates.

Friday, January 1, 2016

As 2015 Ends: My Festive 500 Recap

For the fifth year in a row, I've rung in the New Year by participating in a global cycling challenge sponsored by Rapha known as the "Festive 500." The premise is simple, log a minimum of 500 kilometers between Christmas and New Year's Eves and post evidence of your progress on Strava, Instagram, Twitter, etc. This year over 61,000 riders signed on (or at least clicked the "join challenge" button on Strava) yet fewer than 10,000 completed the challenge successfully.

As with most endurance training, it wasn't the distance on the bike that made the challenge so difficult, but rather finding the time to log the miles. Fortunately, my work schedule is very light at this time of year, but with my daughter home from college and various houseguests and holiday parties to contend with this week, I wasn't sure that a full day in the saddle would go over so well. As a result, I planned to get out for medium-sized rides over the course of five or six days. Unfortunately, I didn't follow the classic randonneuring strategy of front-loading my riding distance as a precaution against the unexpected. As a result, when a curveball arrived to derail my plans, I found myself with 250 kilometers left to ride in the final two days. Luckily, the weather (thanks to climate change and El Nino) cooperated so we were blessed with mild temperatures for most of the week and I was able to complete the challenge without too much difficulty.

What I really love about the timing of this challenge is that it falls after a time of rest and recovery just as planning for the year ahead begins in earnest. Reflecting on the past year and planning for the one to come are best done sitting in the saddle of a bicycle, so most of my hours on the bike this week involved remembering the highlights of 2015 and fantasizing about what the future holds. 2015 was an incredible year. Work and family could not be better and I was finally able to conquer a major life goal by completing Paris-Brest-Paris and thereby symbolically and fully returning to randonneuring following my 2010 accident. I have exciting plans for the year ahead and am very grateful that 2016 has finally arrived. 

Keep the rubber side down.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Avascular Necrosis: Two Words I Really Did NOT Want to Hear at the Doctor's Office

Well, the dreaded day has finally arrived. I was just diagnosed with a case of avascular necrosis of the left femur. While I knew this was a possibility, I was hopeful that I would be able to hide among the 70% of hip fracture patients that do not wind up in this category.

Avascular necrosis is a fancy way of saying bone death due to blood loss. In my case, the condition is the result of a femoral neck fracture I sustained when hit from behind by a car on a 1000K brevet in Eastern Pennsylvania in 2010. The femoral neck is the narrow section of bone that connects the "ball" of the femur with the rest of the leg bone and when mine was shattered the surgeon immediately put it back together with the addition of several pins and screws. [See lovely illustration below]. I've not regained the full range of motion I once had in my left hip, but pain has not really been a factor . . . until recently. Over the past year, I've noticed a subtle weakening of and soreness in my left hip that's particularly evident when I get up from sitting in a soft chair or the driver's seat of my car after a long drive. I haven't yet developed a pronounced limp, but increasingly it takes me a few steps to sort things out.

In cases of avascular necrosis, the bone slowly dies as the result of inadequate blood circulation. There's nothing to be done to slow, stop or reverse the process and eventually, the joint will simply collapse into more of a "block and socket" than a "ball and socket." The great news here is that my cycling is not dramatically affected and does not contribute to making the condition any worse. The bad news is that it's only a matter of time before I will need a total hip replacement. So what's next? Well, my orthopedist suggests that I continue to live my life and enjoy my time on the bike with the addition of some strengthening and stretching exercises to keep things strong and limber. I'll be heading back for a follow-up visit in a year unless I notice any dramatic changes and it may be 3-5 years (or longer!) before I need a new hip.

My goal this year is to continue to strengthen my overall performance on the bike. I hope to build greater endurance, speed and climbing fitness with the overall goal of strength and comfort rather than a podium finish. Floyd Landis may have been able to win the Tour de France on a broken hip, but I'm shooting for something a bit less dramatic (and less drug-fueled). While I was hoping that 50 was going to be the new 30, at least it looks like won't be the new 70.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

My Coffeeneuring Round-Up (2015)

Autumn is a lovely time to be alive in the Hudson Valley and this year was no exception. In fact, it's been one of the most spectacular years anyone seems to remember. Mild temperatures, dry weather and gorgeous foliage have all contributed to create pretty much ideal riding conditions. While work and family demands kept me off the bike more than I would have liked, I was still able to get out for some remarkable riding and the Coffeeneuring Challenge helped me to make this happen for a fifth year in a row.

Coffeeneuring helps us celebrate and enjoy not only the coming of fall, but also the restful transition between the intensity of summer riding and the buildup to base-training for the cycling season ahead. No wonder this global phenomenon is so popular!

Ride 1 (October 17)
The Mudd Puddle - New Paltz, New York
3 miles
Double espresso

An important autumn ritual involves bike maintenance at the end of a busy season of riding. I stopped at the Mudd Puddle, one of my favorite cafes in New Paltz, on my way to the Bicycle Depot to have them investigate some shifting trouble I was experiencing. Turns out I needed a whole new drive train. Maybe I should have had something stronger than a double espresso. Ack!

Ride 2 (October 18)
Fika - New York City
8 miles
Black coffee and a blueberry muffin

While I had to work in NYC on this particular Sunday, I made sure to stop off for a coffee and a muffin on my way downtown from Grand Central. I was finally able to justify an annual CitiBike membership now that the network has spread above 59th Street and riding in NYC never gets old. It may have been the most expensive cup of coffee in this series, but it sure hit the spot.

Ride 3 (October 24)
Minnewaska State Park - New Paltz, New York
25 miles
Hot chocolate and chocolate covered macaroons

My daughter arrived home for a week-long college break just as the leaves reached peak form. I took the opportunity to swap my road tires for a pair of Clement 35mm cyclocross tires and we hit the gorgeous carriage trails in Minnewaska State Park to enjoy the season in all its glory. Since there were no coffee shops for miles around, we decided to fill a Thermos with hot chocolate and brought along some gourmet chocolate macaroons for nourishment.

Ride 4 (October 25)
The Apple Bin - Esopus, New York
14 miles
Black coffee and an apple cider donut.

One of the several short rides I was able to fit in this fall brought me to the local Apple Bin farm stand where I was able to enjoy a hot cup of black coffee and a fresh apple cider donut, one of their seasonal specialities.

Ride 5 (October 31)
The Bakery - New Paltz, New York
51 miles
Black coffee and a classic black and white

On my longest ride in the series, I arranged to meet up with my friend Doug, a fellow PBP ancien, to explore the carriage trails in Mohonk Preserve while discussing our travels to Paris in August. On the way home, I stopped at The Bakery in the village of New Paltz for a hot cup of coffee and a classic black and white cookie just in time to see the award-winning pumpkins in the annual Halloween pumpkin contest.

Ride 6 (November 14)
Slabsides - West Park, New York
4 miles
Black coffee

I spent the penultimate day of the challenge blowing thousands of leaves off my lawn with a rented leaf blower. As a result, there was no time for riding until sundown when I grabbed my bike, a light and some coffee and headed for the top of the ridge behind my house to the site of John Burroughs' rustic Slabsides cabin to watch the sun set.

Ride 7 (November 15)
Shaupeneak Ridge - Esopus, New York
10 miles
Black coffee

I spent the final day of the challenge on some important seasonal house chores, but I was also able to get in one final ride up Shaupeneak Ridge as the sun fell low in the sky. Thank goodness for the Coffeeshop Without Walls rule or I would not have made it this year! Thanks too, MG, for all of your Coffeeneuring leadership. Onward to 2016!