Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Another Step Closer to Paris: The Bash Bish 300K

What do you call the Bash Bish 300K when the road that leads to the falls is closed and forces a detour? Easier. Like many of the Westfield brevets, this route has been fine-tuned over the years and takes in some outstanding roads very well suited to long distance riding. We found ourselves on either quiet back roads or larger state highways with low traffic and wide shoulders throughout most of the day with all of the roads providing beautiful views of some pretty majestic countryside. One can see why the Berkshires are a popular vacation and retirement destination.

We could not have asked for much better weather on May 9 for the Berkshire Brevets Bash Bish 300K out of Westfield, MA. The start was scheduled for a civilized 6:00 am, which allowed for a bit of sun to erase the dawn although there was some fog during the first segment that forced me to remove my sunglasses for a short while. The route, which I have completed once before, is lollypop shaped with both the start and finish covering the same 50 miles or so. The first and last 25 miles take in a lovely stretch of “blue highway” known as Jacob’s Ladder Scenic Byway, a one hundred year-old road that was the first to cross one of the peaks in the Berkshires. The climbing on the way out of Westfield is never really too extreme and more than worth it on the return after 160 miles of hilly riding.

The controls were a bit of a time-suck on this event. The first, at the Great Barrington Dunkin’ Donuts, comes at mile 49. I ordered a yummy bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and an iced coffee that really hit the spot, especially since I had not eaten a proper breakfast at the start of the day. The bottleneck at the checkout line was less than ideal, but all told, the control took about 10 minutes to get through. We hit the second control in Kent, CT right three or so girls’ tennis teams from a local tournament seemed to descend for lunch. The cafĂ© makes a mean sandwich (the cost of which is covered by the brevet entry fee) so it’s unlikely that I’ll change plans in the future, but it would be possible to simply get the card signed and stop somewhere else in town for a little caloric resupply to make it through in less time.

I did meet up with a few other riders, but none of us rode together for very long. I caught up with Maine randonneurs Christine T. and James R. at the start and spoke a bit about Paris logistics before we each fell into our own comfortable paces. I also rode between controls one and two with fellow Hudson Valley rider Hans J. and was pleased to catch up and meet the man behind the Facebook profile. A few other riders, such as Ted L. and I seemed to leapfrog one another for most of the day.

As I dial in my training for PBP, I’m eager to gauge both my fitness and my efficiency in controls, knowing that both will make PBP not only easier, but also more enjoyable. Through stronger riding, better planning and greater efficiency, I’m hoping to shave a bit of time off of my previous attempts at the brevets I will be undertaking this spring as I fine-tune my riding, eating and sleeping plans for PBP.  This strategy has had me riding solo for much of the past two brevets, but the information I’ve been able to gather while listening to my body and focusing on my own performance and limitations has been well worth it.

I was pleased to finish the 300K in 13:30, which was a bit under my target for the day, shaving 55 minute’s off of my 2013 result. Of course, the detour shaved a bit of climbing off the ride so the comparison is not exact, but I was pleased with the results anyway.

Up next: the Western and Central NY 400K through the Finger Lakes on June 6.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Finally . . . Brevet Season Begins with the Shelburne Falls 200K.

My initial attempt to complete a 200K brevet this year was thwarted by a postponement due to snow. Since I was unable to ride on the scheduled make-up date, I converted my registration to the second 200K on the Berkshire Brevets calendar and rode the thoroughly enjoyable Shelburne Falls 200K route yesterday on what was by all accounts a marvelous spring day.

Like the other Berkshire Brevets out of Westfield, MA, the route of the Shelburne Falls 200K is exceptionally well designed. This was my first time on this particular course, but the section between Westfield and Shelburne Falls was familiar from my experiences over the years on the Catskill 600K. The roads themselves are scenic and take riders through lovely back roads in northwestern Massachusetts and southern Vermont. While not particular hilly, there are a few sections of climbing, especially after the turnaround, that create the wonderful illusion that the entire second half of the ride is downhill.

The temperature at the 7:00 am start was just above freezing, which required a complete layer of warm clothing including full-fingered gloves, leg warmers and a wool cap. As the forecast called for a much warmer afternoon, I threw care to the wind and brought my Arkel trunk bag filled with alternative gear and a place to store layers as I peeled them off later in the day. I was very pleased, as temperatures rose into the 60s, to be able to strip down to bare legs and arms, swap out my gloves and exchange my wool hat for a wool cap. Not sweating my way to the finish helped me not only enjoy the ride tremendously, but also to maintain a more brisk pace.

I started the event in a small pack of riders including a few friends who it was nice to catch up with before my pace began to feel rather individualized. Consciously rejecting the pull of the lead group, I fell in with a couple from New York moving along at a brisk pace. We rode for an hour or so together, swapped a few tales and were joined by two other riders along the way. At one point, I realized that the group’s pace was likely to have an adverse effect on my stamina and so decided to drop off the back to settle into a more comfortable and manageable rhythm. Riding alone requires a different level of attention to detail than riding with a group following a pre-programmed GPS. As my bike was not GPS-enabled yesterday, my attention shifted to the cue sheet, which was clear, accurate and easy to follow. While it’s easy to skip navigating after falling in with a group, I actually enjoy the process of navigating by a cue sheet, which can be meditative and reinforces the self-sufficient spirit of randonneuring in my mind.

One of the lovely features of this event is that Don, the Westfield RBA, has arranged details with the controls so that the staff of the cafe and lunch spot were eager and able to process our cards and produce first a snack and then lunch in record time. Heck, the clerk at the cafe even offered to fill my water bottles! The result was a nutritious refueling that was very easy to execute in under 10 minutes, which is all the time I needed to spend in either spot. I was familiar with McCusker’s Market, which serves as the penultimate control on the Catskill 600K, but Mocha Maya’s was new to me.

One of the grimmer aspects of the day was the grueling headwind for the first 63 miles of the event. As we headed north, the wind was fairly relentless especially over a ten-mile section into southern Vermont. This was coupled with a gradual incline over the same distance to make this section less than ideal. After the turnaround and a little climbing, though, the hills and winds were behind us and it seemed to be downhill with tailwinds all the way to Westfield. The second half of the ride, after stripping off unnecessary layers, was some of the best riding I’ve done in a long time. The roads were gorgeous and the feeling of riding in summer clothing was a welcome sensation indeed. The tailwinds helped me recapture some of the time I may have lost in the morning and I finished in 9:09, which was just nine minutes off my goal for the day.

I was glad to be riding the bike I’ll be bringing to Paris with me this August. While the dynamo hub, rear rack and trunk bag were not necessary on the 200K, my plan to ride all of my events with this bike loaded as it will be on PBP makes sense to me as I dial in just what I’ll need for the big event. The extra weight is more than made up for by the added comfort and peace of mind. My climbing speed is not what I would like it to be, but it’s still early in the season and my time riding with others yesterday reminded me of how helpful maintaining a brisk pace will be to my training in the weeks ahead. Frequent hill repeats will also become standard operating procedure. With a successful finish on the Shelburne Falls 200K, I now have my first qualifying brevet behind me on the long journey to Paris.

Up next: the Bash Bish 300K on May 9.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Just Under the Wire (or The Walkway Over the Hudson 100K Rewind)

As anyone in the Northeast will tell you, it's been cold, really, really cold this winter. Not only has it been uncharacteristically cold, but it's also snowed more than average and since we've not experienced a single thaw, most of that snow is still right where it fell. A few weeks ago, I read this interesting article about the work that ice breaking ships are doing to keep the Hudson River clear for shipping. Did you know that 70% of the home heating oil in the Northeast travels up the Hudson River? I didn't. I thought about this, though, on my recent attempt at the Walkway Over the Hudson 100K permanent as I looked down from the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge at the long trail left behind on the river signifying that life goes on despite the deep freeze.

Last weekend was not my first attempt at the Walkway 100K during the month of February, but it would be my last. I had set out the week before during what I thought was a suitable lull in the snowfall. I left my house on Saturday morning after the temperatures climbed to 17F from below zero at dawn. The forecast called for snow at 3:00 pm so I thought I would have just enough time to complete the loop before things got dicey. Sadly, this was one of those days when the local weather team underestimates the speed of a storm and so I found myself pedaling into a slippery whiteout 30 miles from home as I neared the turnaround.

So Old George would have likely soldiered on into the storm, but getting hit by a car on a brevet will teach a body a few things about second chances. As a result, I decided that successfully completing a P-12 was not quite as important as living to tell the story, so I reluctantly called my wife and asked her to pick me up. Imagine, if you will, how delighted she was to get the call. Torn between the joy that comes from realizing that your husband has developed some common sense and the irritation that comes from being asked to leave a warm couch by a cozy fire to drive into a snow storm, my wife came to my rescue. In the meantime, I needed to find a safe place to wait for my wife to arrive in the 18F weather. I spotted a school building on the horizon and pedaled over to seek shelter out of the wind. Being a Saturday, the school was sealed tight, but I found an unlocked van nearby and climbed inside to wait. I called my wife to talk her through a white-knuckle drive past emergency vehicles and spun-out cars when what should I hear but the worker in whose truck I was sitting return to pick up a few tools. Needless to say, this gentleman was not pleasantly surprised to see a lycra-clad stranger sitting in his truck. Luckily, I was able to talk him out of hitting me, but I soon found myself standing on the sidewalk again in the cold wind. What normally takes 30 minutes had taken my wife over an hour to cover since traffic had slowed to a crawl. After giving the matter some thought, the electrician invited me into the building to wait.

One of the reasons I was so intent on completing this 100K permanent on the second to last weekend in February is because without it, my quest for the P-12 would be dead in the water and I was off to Boston during the final week of the month to attend a conference leaving only February 28 to get the job done. So after failing in my first attempt, I was stuck shoe-horning the ride in at the last minute. As luck would have it, though, we experienced a thaw last Saturday with temperatures rising into the mid-20s. While still well below freezing, I was able to extract a small stream of water from my frozen bottles all the way to the turnaround and there was no fresh snow on the roads. The sun, now approaching a nearly spring-like position in the sky even gave the illusion that this winter wonderland may some day give way to green pastures.

In order to ride in the warmest part of the day, I delayed my start until 12:45 pm. I realized during the ride, though, that this late start left a question mark looming as to how I would recross the Hudson at the finish. The Walkway Over the Hudson, for which this permanent is named, is generally a lovely way to return home from a long ride, but the gate schedule is somewhat more mysterious and unpredictable than I would like. Would the it close at 5:00 pm or at sundown which was scheduled to arrive at 5:49 pm? How would this team of chilly park rangers interpret "dusk," which is advertised as the formal closing time of this narrowest of state parks. The alternative to crossing the river at this latitude is the Mid-Hudson Bridge that includes a pedestrian walkway, but one that is not reliably plowed during the winter months. The thought of a DNF on this ride and a call to my wife for a rescue terrified me in equal measure. Luckily, as the sun dipped low on the horizon, I approached the Walkway to find the gate open and slipped through to pedal across the crusty, snow-covered span to my awaiting car.

Up next: the Westfield Early Spring 200K. One day this winter must end. 

Sunday, February 15, 2015

(More!) Base Miles on the Trainer

The importance of long steady distance (LSD) training for endurance athletes early in the season has been well-documented. Several years ago, I began organizing my training around a periodization model outlined by Joe Friel in The Cyclist's Training Bible that combines base miles with interval training in the early season to lay down a strong foundation for endurance and speed later in the season. The trouble is, at the exact moment that LSD training would be most useful, the temperatures plunge into the single digits (or worse!), the snows kick in and black ice covers the surfaces of many of the local backroads. In other words, it's just about impossible to get out safely in February to lay down the kind of base that would be most helpful to a strong endurance engine come July. This is where a good indoor trainer is essential in upstate New York where I live.

It's pretty easy to get onto the trainer for an hour or so here and there, but while interval work is critical for early season training, these short rides don't do much to lay down a mileage base. That's where Troy Jacobson's Spinervals series has been a godsend. Each winter, these DVDs have enabled me to extend my time on the indoor trainer significantly and as a result, establish base miles while the roads are still too hazardous. The discs I find most helpful for this purpose are the "Virtual Reality" DVDs that essentially follow Troy, and in some cases a few friends, over assorted iron distance courses filmed in mild weather. Staring at my laptop on the card table in front of the trainer is surprisingly absorbing as Troy barks commands regarding gears and levels of exertion. The courses and lengths of each of the discs vary, but each typically clocks in at about three hours and covers 50-60 miles. Today I rode in Madison, Wisconsin whereas last week it was Lake Placid, New York.

Nothing compares to simply riding on the open roads, but when the thermometer doesn't rise above 30F for weeks on end and snow storms blanket the roads, other strategies are required. While I'm carefully watching the forecast and hoping to get out to ride a 100K permanent next weekend, it's good to know that my training won't suffer if another storm heads into town (which is more than likely).

Saturday, January 31, 2015

PBP 2015 - Planning Logistics

It's hard to believe that I've not posted once yet in 2015. With heavy work and family demands as well as a string of terrible cycling weather, it's been hard even to get out for a ride these days. I have had a chance, however, to drill down into some of the details related to PBP to aid with my long-range planning. The release of the full event brochure in mid-January has helped me to visualize the course and has reinforced my decision to start with the 84-hour group on Monday morning.

Transportation.  I am generally not a package trip, travel agent kind of guy. As a result, my first inclination was to assemble my logistical plans for PBP a la carte, shopping around for the best deals and customizing hotels and flights to best meet my specific need to arrive with all of my gear in one piece, well-rested to take on the event itself. I'm no stranger to budget airlines and often prowl sites like Kayak for the lowest fares, cross-referencing airline sites for baggage charges and hidden fees before finally purchases tickets. As I began that process this time around, I also factored total travel time, number of stops and ground transportation from the airport to the hotel into my calculations. Between New York City and Paris, the difference between a non-stop and multi-stop flight can add up to $400 - $700. Yet a multi-stop flight also adds from 3 - 10 hours to each leg of the journey as well as the possibility that bicycle and rider do not arrive at the same destination at the same time. An additional factor in my planning has been the ground transfer between Charles de Gaulle Airport and the hotel.

In 2009, I hauled a 50lb. bike box along with a small carry-on bag and suitcase from Heathrow Airport to an apartment in central London on public transportation. As a long-time New Yorker, I was not averse to the idea of a long subway ride with multiple transfers, but in reality, the schlepping of heavy and awkward containers up and down countless stairs was not something I would like to repeat. Also, I soon discovered that not all trains are created equal in London and some of them were quite small and awkward to navigate. Above all, my physical condition following my 2010 accident includes vulnerabilities that I do not want to aggravate before even arriving at the PBP starting line. As a result, I've decided to arrange a non-stop flight along with ground transportation through Des Peres Travel. While this requires that I spend a bit more money than is absolutely necessary to get from JFK airport to my hotel, I am confident that this will be money well spent. As I learned a long time ago, sometimes a bargain is not quite a bargain.

Accommodation.  Several years ago, my family and I spent a week with friends in the Parisian suburb of Versailles, which lies just 10K from the PBP start. As a result, I was thinking that I would just establish a beachhead in that small city within easy striking distance of both Paris and the event start. I began to reconsider this plan, though, as I thought about all of the excitement and pre-ride community that builds in the immediate area of the start as riders pour in from all corners of the globe to prepare for the big event. Having missed out on this fun on LEL in 2009 when I stayed at a friend's apartment in central London, I decided that for an event like this, spending the days and nights immediately preceding and following PBP with fellow participants should be the best way to go. As a result, I've decided to reserve one of the hotels within several kilometers of the start through Des Peres Travel as well. Sure I could find a cheaper place to stay, but how often do 5000 riders come together for an event like this? Every four years, I suppose, but for my first PBP, I'll be taking full advantage of pick-up rides and the opportunity to hang out with people I see far too rarely. Paris is also a quick train ride away, so a trip or two into that fair city is a real possibility as well.

Support.  I like to think of myself as a fairly barebones type of cyclist. Since I will not have any personal support en route and based on all I had heard about the time suck at the PBP controls due to the vast volume of riders, I thought that riding self-supported through PBP would be my first choice option. After carrying all that I needed for three days around Lake Ontario this summer during the Lap of the Lake 1000K in a rear Ortlieb pannier, it seemed like a no-brainer to do the same for PBP. Connecting with PBP anciens who used the Des Peres drop bag service, I have begun to reconsider my options. I've tentatively signed up for a drop bag at Loudeac, but may change my mind after riding around and weighing my fully-loaded bike this spring. Riding a hilly 200K in potentially hot and humid weather is tough enough without adding an extra 10-15 lbs. to the load. We'll just have to see if the weight savings justifies the cost and potential time lost.

So, all in all, I am taking a far more deluxe approach to travel with PBP than is my customary style. While the cost is a bit hard to swallow, I am confident that there will be more than enough details related to PBP itself to obsess over. I am not planning to arrange any on-course hotels, but rather casting my lot in with the accommodations provided at controls along the way. While I'm open to the possibility of arranging something during the ride should the need arise, having to coordinate and plan for a specific arrival time sucks a bit of the joy and spontaneity out of the ride for me. I'd much rather arrive at the starting line well-conditioned and well-rested with a general plan for approaching the route without being locked into any specific demands along the way.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Catskill Climbfest: Festive 500 Edition

The Catskills Climbfest is one of my all-time favorite 200K routes. The roads are remarkably quiet, the views spectacular and the terrain quite varied with plenty of climbing (about 9,000 ft) accompanied by well-placed valleys and control points. As a result, the route provides a super workout without feeling like the Bataan Death March. A drawback is the unpredictable mountain weather in winter, so I typically consider this a three-season route. The weather has been so mild this week, though, that yesterday's ride made a perfect addition to my Festive 500 plans.

My friend Robin and I clipped in at dawn and began the climb from Rosendale to the Ashokan Reservoir with temperatures already in the upper-30s. The route either crosses or skirts preserve lands throughout the day so the scenery is generally pleasing no matter where you look. The first major climb is found on 23A between Palenville and Haines Falls and takes riders right into Catskill Park and passes the historic Katterskill Falls and the Hunter Mountain ski resort before hitting a magnificent decent into Phoenicia where hot baked goods and strong coffee await.

After refueling at Mama's Boy, we hit the trail again and climb slowly along Route 28 to the town of Big Indian where the second big climb of the day awaits. Robin and I have ridden this route enough to know the importance of removing layers before climbing Slide Mountain-Oliveria Road to Frost Valley. I nearly run out of pockets as I strip off my merino arm warmers, glove liners, and neck gaiter, but I will not be sorry as my engine switches into climbing mode.

Upon reaching the top, we enter a glorious valley filled with alpine fields, farmhouses, stands of pines and fast moving rivers. It seems like another world in the Catskills High Peaks and the slight descent through Frost Valley to Grahamsville makes us feel like super heroes after a climb that sapped so much of our reserves. Luckily, the next control is not far off and we both hear chicken salad sandwiches beckoning.

After a late lunch at the Grahamsville Deli, we clip in again and ride through the magical dense forest lands along Peekamoose Mountain Road. We reach the top of the long descent back into civilization just as the sun is setting and so turn on our lights and enjoy the smooth ride down to see the Ashokan Reservoir one last time before making the final approach into Rosendale. Luckily, the temperatures stay moderate since the loss of elevation returns warmth that the setting sun removed at the higher altitudes. Our last treat of the day is riding along a very quiet Route 213 with stars and the moon prominent in the sky. The warm evening air reminds us of what spring holds in store.

Next up: still a few more Ks to go in the Festive 500!

Monday, December 15, 2014

2015 Begins! The Festive 500 Season Opener

While I still need to sit down to design a detailed training plan for 2015, I do know that it will begin with volume. I also know that 2015 starts for me on December 24 with Rapha's annual Festive 500 Challenge. This will be my fourth time completing the challenge and each year I've found it to be a remarkably exciting way to kickstart the season ahead. In 2011, I was even a finalist in the competition for the Trek Madone 6.9. I completed the challenge in 2012 and 2013 as well, but my wrap-up posts were apparently a bit less comprehensive. You can see my individual Festive 500 posts by searching with the keyword Festive 500 in the search bar to the right.

Admittedly, riding 500 kilometers in one week is not a huge deal for the experienced randonneur. What makes this challenge so special, though, are two things. First, it comes at a particularly dark and cold time of the year. The weather around the winter solstice in the Northeast can be pretty grim, yet marshaling the discipline to complete this challenge despite the elements (while thinking of the warmer and brighter times ahead) is downright uplifting. 

The second reason the Festive 500 is so amazing is because of just how, well, festive it is. Over the past several years there have been tens of thousands of participants from around the globe joined together with a single purpose: to ride at least 500K in nine days. Sure there are the young guns in the southern hemisphere whose goal is to climb the leaderboard with thousands of kilometers, but most folks seem to be just scraping by in hopes of finishing. I've made friends I keep to this day through the Festive 500. How cool is that?

The Festive 500 rules really encourage community as all participants must upload their GPS tracks to Strava in order for them to be applied to their challenge total. While on Strava, it's easy to follow other riders and read posts about their accomplishments and setbacks along the way. Lots of folks also post updates to Twitter and Facebook so it really feels like a global event unfolding in real time across thousands upon thousands of miles. While I may look down my nose at participants in the southern hemisphere, it's nice to read about what they're up to if only as a foil to my own suffering.

So join me, whatever 2015 holds in store for you. Log onto Strava today to register. It's free. With 9 days until the start, there are already 34,012 other riders in the mix. All mileage logged between December 24 and 31 counts. And, if you finish, you earn a patch. Sounds almost like randonneuring, right?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

PBP: The Film

In this early planning stage, I've spent a some time watching assorted video clips and documentaries of past events to build enthusiasm (as if I need more enthusiasm), learn a bit more about how to prepare and soak in the ambiance. It was in this frame of mind that I found myself sitting by a warm fire on a cold December night watching the official PBP 2011 video below.

If you've not yet watched this short film, it is well worth your time. The countryside looks even more luscious and the villages more beautiful than I imagined and the enthusiasm of the French people and the hearty spirit of the participating riders just leaps off the screen. I know that somewhere deep into a cold, wet night of riding in late August, I'll wonder why I let myself be duped by such pleasant fiction and curse the day I set off on this adventure. In the meantime, though, in the comfort of my warm living room, PBP looks like just about the best possible goal a person could set for him or herself.

Up next: I clip in tomorrow morning to ride the Walkway Over the Hudson 100K permanent populaire.