Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rapha Rising Challenge: A Great Day for Up!

Like most endurance cyclists, I respond well to a challenge. An organized challenge says to me, “other people are crazy enough to do this, what’s wrong with you?” It's hard not to take the bait, especially when the competition between participants is minimal and the main emphasis is on completion of the task itself, which on a good challenge is just a little bit harder than is comfortably easy to execute. In this way, I find the Rapha Festive 500 (winter) and Rapha Rising (summer) challenges a lot like randonneuring in general. Complete the challenge, get a free patch (and maybe some modest bragging rights). What could be better?

As Dr. Suess has written, it's a "great day today! Great day for Up!"

This is my second year participating in the Rapha Rising Challenge (RRC), which is scheduled to coincide with a week of major climbing on the Tour De France. This year, we have nine days to climb 8800 meters (28,871 feet), which is roughly the amount of climbing the pros will encounter on three major Tour stages this week. The rules are simple: Ride your bike and upload your GPS tracks to Strava. Unfortunately, the exchange rate between Garmin and Strava is currently not running in my favor, so it looks like I will need to climb an extra 5% to meet the minimum, but I guess I'm the one who benefits, right? 

As any realtor will tell you, finding a good home involves three important variables: location, location and location. I would argue that more than school district, tax levy and proximity to shopping, serious cyclists should calculate exactly how long it will take them to be riding on fine roads after clipping in right outside their back door. While we live on a major road, which is great for my wife’s business and safe travel during the snows of winter, I can reach a network of delicious low-traffic hilly roads that stretch on into infinity within 200 feet of my driveway. As a result, I am never further than 5 minutes from an amazing ride and never need to drive to the start.

When I say these roads are quiet, I mean QUIET. It is not uncommon for me to ride for hours without being passed by a soul. On yesterday’s ride, for instance, I road without seeing a car for the first hour and fifteen minutes at which point I was passed by a flotilla of tree-pruning vehicles on their way to an important assignment. After that, all was still and quiet again for another hour. Here's a rundown of the week so far:

Day One: Rapha Rising Prologue. This particular Saturday was a busy day in our household with my son heading off for a week of camp in the early afternoon. As a result, I was only able to steal away for fewer than two hours to ride so I clipped in and sought out the closest hills to my back door. (19 miles; 2627 ft.)

Day Two: On day two, I crossed both the Shaupeneak and Shawangunk Ridges for a total of six noticeable climbs. If I didn't have a pile of household chores to do I would have ridden all day, but this was a good start. (42 miles; 4021 ft.)

Day Three: Tight on time again, I simply traversed the Shaupeneak Ridge four times in what I refer to as the Popletown Quadruple Bipass hitting each of the major hills four times. Luckily the terrain is varied enough on this short ride that I did not get bored. (27 miles; 3776 ft.)

Staying away from my bike for a full week after LOL provided me with just the rest I needed to return to cycling with renewed vigor and enthusiasm. As a result, the first several days of the RRC have been quite enjoyable. We'll see how these legs hold up as the week continues. More soon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Final Stage of Redemption: The Lap of the Lake 1000K

The Lap of the Lake 1000K brevet is the single longest ride I’ve attempted since my 2010 accident. It is an event that would test whether my physical repairs (specifically those in my shoulder and hip) would support my ability to ride hundreds of miles over multiple days. I have had this particular ride on my mind ever since I was unable to start after being sidelined (also in 2010) by a crash in which I broke my arm. As a result, this ride was about more than simply having a good time with friends new and old and seeking out adventure on an exciting and unique course. It was about confirming that I have the ability to successfully ride long brevets once again and, specifically, that I will be able to train for PBP 2015 with confidence.

Since I was unsure of my performance at this distance (especially since the LOL 1000K is run unsupported and offers no SAG support in the event of emergency) I thought it wise to team up with others. I was especially grateful that JB, a two-time LOL ancien, was interested in teaming up along with hearty randonneur Nigel G. Our plan was a simple one: we would ride for 300 miles on the first leg, 200 miles on the second and then finish with 125 miles on the final day. With a 7:00 pm start, this meant that we would also front-load our night riding by powering through the first night as well as the second day and that we would need to arrange hotel accommodations on both Thursday and Friday nights.

I would recommend this mileage pyramid to anyone seeking a successful way to divide a very long ride. By front-loading the event with big miles, one builds up a time cushion as well as a buffer against fatigue. One of the ways we handled the sleep deprivation that results from this approach was to take a few “micronaps” along the way. Once on the first night when Mike W. developed a flat tire, several of us spied a gazebo in the middle of town and laid down for a ten-minute snooze, which we all found to be strangely refreshing. We also grabbed a similar rest in a park in Kingston the following afternoon after eating our lunch at a fine little cafĂ©.

One of my least favorite sections of the route, due in part to my somewhat debilitating fear of heights, was the bridge crossing at the Thousand Islands. These bridges provide a spectacular view of the Thousand Islands region, but they also require cyclists to walk their bikes over two miles of vertiginous walkway with tractor trailers and cars speeding towards them at 60 miles an hour several feet away. As one nears the top of the bridge, the roadway literally bounces as heavy trucks power their way between Canada and the USA. Another low point of the route involved cycling through the sprawling suburbs of Toronto on roads that were both under construction and completely ill-suited to cycling. It is a blessed miracle that no one was hit by a car in this section and I hope the RBA seriously considers a rerouting to make for a safer and more pleasant way to navigate this major world city. While I’m a big fan of urban riding, suburban sprawl riding, where hostile drivers have no idea what to do with cyclists, is something no one should have to encounter, especially on a well-designed brevet.

My favorite sections of the route came before dawn on both Friday and Saturday mornings. On Friday, JB, Nigel, Gil L. and Mike B. and I clipped in around 2:15. It was a bit more chilly on Friday than it had been the night before, but I added my rain jacket and my new wool glove liners and felt more than adequately dressed to be comfortable in the cool morning air. It always seems to be a pleasant surprise to get back onto the bike after even the shortest of sleeps. As if by magic, the soreness and fatigue is gone and the excitement of starting a new day takes over on an emotional level. Several things made this particular section so remarkable. First, the roads were lumpy, curvy and rural, all of which added a mysterious quality that was accentuated by the full moon reflecting in the lake which popped into view on and off for the first 25 miles. Due to the amazing expanse of the lake, it appeared to my tired mind as if we were riding on a remote island rather than the shores of a massive lake and I almost thought I would see a goat cross the road as one might in Greece or some other romantic location.

The pre-dawn ride the next day between Niagara on the Lake and Niagara Falls was similarly magical. Nigel, JB and I clipped in around 3:30, this time to make it to the border control before it closed at 5:12 am. This deadline turned out to be a fantastic catalyst as we were compelled to ride through a glorious stretch of road bordered by regal estates with views of the Niagara River that were accentuated by the bright, full moon. Not long after leaving town, we stripped off a few layers to prepare to climb the escarpment, which was steep but not too terrible and magical in it’s own right. The Canadian government has maintained gorgeous parkland around Niagara Falls that makes the approach from the West very pleasant. Once we arrived on the top of the escarpment, it was not long before we entered the honky-tonk sections of Niagara Falls that cater to the tremendous volume of international tourists interested in catching site of this remarkable natural phenomenon. Our trip through town induced a bit of panic as the trail was not easy to navigate with signs hard to interpret and the clock ticking away. We very much did not want to break the border control and so were relieved when we entered the Rainbow Bridge in enough time to snap a few pictures and pass through the control at 5:10 am, two minutes before it closed. I’ve never before been the Lanterne Rouge at a control and the adrenalin rush associated with passing through just before the the control closed was not unpleasant.

Upon returning our passports safely to our bags, we pedaled over to the Denny’s in search of some coffee and breakfast. It was a joy to see Susan’s and Arthur’s smiling faces as they finished their meals and prepared for their next leg. We were not disappointed as the menu was perfectly aligned with our needs and I ordered a hot cup of strong coffee along with another plate of fried eggs, bacon, sausage and home fries. This was one of the many “real” meals we ate along the way, which is another strategy that requires an investment in time, but which pays great dividends with digestive comfort and energy management throughout the day. To hell with pocket food and liquid nutrition.

As with all long brevets, there were some times we were literally laughing out loud, and in this respect, “LOL” fully lived up to its name. One notable moment was our trek on day three across what appeared to be a post-apocalyptic highway along the southern coast of the lake. Not unlike the Palisades or Taconic Parkways in the Hudson Valley, this four-lane highway, complete with expansive green median was beautiful. The only thing missing was cars. We rode through the warm, dry and sunny afternoon as intrepid randonneurs might after a robot uprising has destroyed all other humans. When we spied an abandoned car in the shoulder, it caused more than momentary panic and fits of hysterics. Every so often, a lone car would zip down the road at 60 mph, but most of the time, the parkway was ours.

Another favorite feature of long brevets is the natural “hopscotching” that occurs when riders speed up and slow down and take breaks of varying lengths. As a result, I was able to enjoy the company of a wide range of riders over the course of our three days in the saddle. Mostly, I rode with JB and Nigel, with whom I had organized a strategy and reserved hotels to meet the demands of this unsupported ride. I was also able to meet and ride with an interesting assortment of riders of varying backgrounds and experiences that included: Gil L., a rider in his first season of randonneuring, Mike B., the president of DC Randonnuers, Steve Y., the RBA from Long Island Randonneurs, Calista, a quick rider from DC, Arthur from Toronto, Bob T., a strong rider from NJ with whom I have ridden before, Susan O., from Portland who (insanely) rode over 600 miles from Chicago to the start of LOL in what she lovingly refers to as her “Dumbass Tour” along with many others. It was also a real treat to be able to jump on the “Severna Park Peloton train” on day three as we made our way across the southern coast of Lake Ontario with a tailwind at our back and sun on our shoulders. With all of the hard work and motivation of this well-oiled machine, it was not difficult to keep a pace of over 20mph, which was a thrilling way to make up a bit of time across relatively flat terrain.

The penultimate control in Charlotte brought us to within 25 miles of the finish and afforded us some of the most spectacular frozen custard I have ever eaten. Since JB has been raving about this treat for as long as we’ve discussed this ride, I allowed him to buy me a “double” which we relished as we considered the final stretch. Having been separated from Nigel a bit earlier in the afternoon, we waited for him on the banks of the Lake and savored the rest before the final push to the end. When Nigel, Steve and Gil arrived with an appetite, they encouraged us to forge ahead and to meet them at the finish. With this encouragement, we clipped in and made the final approach. 

It was Susan who first introduced me to the term “full value” riding to describe her pattern of riding towards the back of the pack on a brevet and planning stops strategically and efficiently to allow for a comfortable and manageable pace on the route. This was, honestly, my first experience with full value riding as I typically spend my time in the first third of the pack. Having now spent time at all parts of the field over the course of my randonneuring career from first finisher to last man through the control, I can honestly say that I think the latter has the potential, especially in fine weather with a good group of riders, to be a whole lot of fun. I guess I have been thinking that folks at the very back of the pack were somehow suffering. This certainly was not the case with this event. We were having a blast sucking every bit of value out of this brevet. Thanks, Susan, for introducing me to this helpful way of looking at things.

All told, the LOL 1000K was an amazing event. Not only was it a brevet filled with unique natural wonders and amazing weather, but it was also an opportunity to ride with and learn from some awesome randonneurs. The Lap of the Lake 1000K was most remarkable to me personally, though, because it proved to me that my body is ready to take on PBP and any other 1200K in the wake of my terrible accident. It allowed me to discover that I was not permanently and irreparably damaged. While I may never be quite as fast as I was before the crash, I am confident that I will be able to take on whatever cycling challenges come before me. None of the pain I felt at the finish of LOL was in any way related to injuries I sustained in 2010. My shoulder gave me no trouble and neither did my hip. It was only the pedestrian pains of palm and knee that caused me to pop ibuprofen tablets on day three. In other words, I’m back, baby, I'm back!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Planning for the Lap of the Lake 1000K: Almost There!

The upcoming Lap of the Lake (LOL) 1000K has been on my thoughts for a long, long, long time. I was originally scheduled to undertake this challenge in 2010, but was sidelined by an accident on the NJ 600K that resulted in a fractured arm. To make up for this disappointment, I clipped in for the Endless Mountains 1000K later that summer, which had an even less favorable outcome. 

It has been a long, steady climb back, but I finally feel ready to take on the 1000K distance again and with this confidence, my larger goal to complete PBP in 2015 seems a bit closer as well. The fact that LOL is completely unsupported adds a layer of planning and adventure to the picture. While my standard rear saddle bag probably has enough room for most of my needs, I decided to purchase and install a rear rack to allow for a pannier to serve as a “drop bag” with a change of clothes and extras like additional tubes and a spare tire. I found a great Tubus rack known as the Logo Titan, which is made of titanium and is really quite light yet holds a considerable amount of weight if needed. 

In addition to the rack, I decided to buy a redundant battery-powered tail light since it's hard to be too bright from behind. I settled on the B&M Toplight, which like the rack is made in Germany and the two fit together like hand in glove.

In order to take full advantage of the many wise (or crazed) minds planning for this event, I created a Facebook page several weeks ago called the "LOL Planning Task Force" and invited everyone I knew who was interested in the ride to participate. This has been a great way to get to know a few folks before we hit the road together. One rider even went so far as to create and share GPS tracks with everyone. The craziest story, though, for sure involves one rider who's taken the opportunity to ride from Chicago to the start of the event in Ontario, NY in a trip she's referring to as The Dumbass Tour.

This past weekend, I also posted my packing list as a Google doc and received some wonderful suggestions that will make my ride even more enjoyable. You know, stuff like the "personal hygiene kit" that I neglected to list. If you see that I'm missing something, please let me know in the "comments" section below. I can use all the help I can get. Some days it's hard to remember life before social networking.

There really is something thrilling about riding around a very, very large body of water. Many cyclists look at natural phenomena like this the same way mountain climbers look at huge mountains. It's there, I've got to do something about it. If things don’t work out, there’s no shortcut home and (with no support vehicles to speak of) it will be necessary to keep on pedaling. I'm luckily riding with two friends, one of whom has ridden this route twice before, so the enormity of the goal is not causing me panic.

I could not be more excited.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Catskill 600K: The Perfect Brevet?

The Catskill 600K is one of my all-time favorite brevets. It seems to have everything: stunning views, epic climbs, thrilling descents, plenty of low traffic roads and incredible support, put on by an all-star team that includes organizer Don P. and his family as well as PBP ancien Brian B. who operates the sumptuous Woodstock control where riders take lunch at mile 110 just before entering the big hills. Not only is this route ideal, but the weather on this edition was simply perfect. Temperatures rose into the 70s with no wind or humidity of which to speak.

The route out of Westfield is lovely, ridden over smooth roads with no traffic. As the sun rises, which happens early on June 21, riders are treated to the bucolic misty fields of Litchfield County, CT. I realize that the uniformity of the Colonial architecture will transition into hardscrabble chaos later in the day as we enter the Catskills, but for now, I'm soaking in the views. The quick pace at the start settled down with several rabbits jumping off the front intent on riding this one for “time.” I decided not to attempt to keep up with those at the front of the pack and so instead settled into a comfortable pace on Rt. 40 which brought me all the way up to the NYS border at Millerton where I met up with Andrey and David who would be my riding companions well into the wee hours of the night when we finally arrived at the sleep control in Cambridge, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The ride through the Litchfield Hills into Eastern New York is gorgeous and Rhinebeck, on the shores of the Hudson River, is a gem. It’s always fun to ride down Main Street on a brevet as I often run into someone I know and this time it was Susan, a former colleague who shouted out “are you on one of those long rides of yours?” as I came to rest at the one stop light in town. “Yup, Westfield to Saratoga” I replied, not sure I had the heart to include, “and then Cambridge, Bennington and Shelburne Falls before heading back to my car in Westfield."

After our cruise through Rhinebeck’s civilized downtown center, we turned north on River Road, which afforded us spectacular, panoramic views of the Catskill Mountains we would be riding in for much of the afternoon.  The view is a bit closer and grander from the top of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge a bit further down the road, but there is little time to savor it while each rider seeks to stay safely within the shoulder while avoiding sharp debris laying in wait. Once on the western shore of the Hudson, we make the short climb into Woodstock, (a harbinger of the hard work ahead) and we arrive at the control ready for lunch promptly at noon. This time around, Andrey's family is there to greet us, which was an unexpected treat.

The climbing out of Woodstock is never insane, but definitely gets one's attention all the way up to the next control in Windham. Shortly after leaving the Windham control where there is a fully stocked bike shop with professional mechanics, I blew the front derailleur cable and so was stuck with the use of my small front chain ring for the balance of the ride. With all of the climbing left to go, this was not a show stopper, but it would have been pretty difficult to maintain a 20mph+ average on the "flats" in a paceline. Good thing there were no flats to speak of on the remaining sections of this route. I actually found that the high cadence work helped to restore the vitality of my legs and will remember, when dragging along on future rides, to shift into a lower gear and avoid looking at the speedometer.

Midway through the ride, I began to consider petitioning Don to change the name of the event to the “Roadkill 600” as a result of all the local fauna in evidence on the course. Over the course of the ride I saw at least one of each of these animals (no longer breathing) on the pavement: Blue Jay, House Sparrow, Snake, Turtle, Weasel, Chipmunk, Squirrel, Groundhog, Opossum, Cat, Skunk and  . . . wait for it . . . a Black Bear. While some of these are “life-listers,” we strangely saw no roadkill of the deer or a rabbit variety, both of which are common sights along these rural roads.

It’s not uncommon for me to encounter a period of dark despair on a long ride and on the Catskill 600 this year, this time came as we made our way from Schenectady to Saratoga. Riding in the dark can be a joyful, meditative and clarifying experience or it can be sheer hell. On Sunday morning, between midnight and two a.m. it was the latter.

Like Mother Theresa, though, Don’s daughter Mary ministered to the beaten and downtrodden among us with offers of hot lasagna and salad. After a quick bite and a hot shower, I headed off to catch a few winks before getting back on my bike for the final push.

90 minutes later, amidst a chorus of snoring, I awoke to a quick coffee and a bite to eat and clipped in for a very pleasant ride from Cambridge down into Bennington. This is a lovely stretch of road, which is relatively flat and filled with stunning views along the rural NY-VT border. Since I often catch this ride at dawn after a rest, I am often overwhelmed by the beauty of the area and this day was no exception.

In Bennington, a group of us stopped for a protein-rich breakfast at McDonald's and contemplated the ominous climb ahead. We all knew that after we clipped in, we faced a serious hill whose peak was about 2000 feet above our heads and required cycling up about 6 miles of road to get to. Luckily, my cocktail of rest, food, coffee and 600 mg. of ibuprofen was working its magic and I hit the hill with a new set of legs. I felt a bit like Floyd Landis on the 2006 Tour. After topping the climb there is some lovely high meadow riding until a right turn introduces serious downward motion in the trek towards Shelburne Falls where there awaits a most amazing control filled gourmet sandwiches of all shapes and sizes, which serves as a powerful magnet indeed. I was rejoined in this section by Chris, Jim and John who became fast friends and enjoyable riding partners for the remainder of the day.

The final push from the Shelburne Falls control to Westfield is beset by some of the most terrible road surfaces I have ever had the displeasure of riding. Did the highway supervisor abscond with the funds? Are the locals numb from the waist down? I can’t understand the source of such utter civil neglect. Needless to say, this makes the course harder than it needs to be, but it was a joy to know that the end of the route was less than a hour away. After a final beating on these roads into Westfield, the four of us arrived at the New Horizon's Bike shop at 4:10, just over 36 hours after we left. 

Lessons learned (or remembered):
  • Riding with others is generally more fun than riding alone.
  • My digestive system seems to prefer real food to synthetic nutritional aids.
  • Sleep deprivation takes a toll. Go into a long ride with a full tank.
  • Plan to sleep after a long ride before driving home.
  • Battery-powered lights are a serious distraction. Swap wheels when I swap bikes to always undertake night rides with the dynamo hub or buy fresh Lithium batteries as a last resort.
  • Bring ear plugs to any overnight brevet. “Nuf said.

Next Up: Lap of the Lake 1000K in two weeks.


Friday, June 13, 2014

The Englewood 400K is One Badass Ride

Don't let this bucolic farm picture fool you; the Englewood 400K is no stroll in the park. It follows one badass route, filled with hills (both choppy and long) that can feel relentless at times, but for me, it was perhaps the timing of this particular event with a late 7:00AM start that threw me for a loop. Starting in Englewood, NJ on the western edge of New York City, the route follows the Hudson River north to Rhinebeck before heading back south through some hilly and beautiful countryside. There is plenty of lovely scenery to go around, but you have to work to earn it on this ride, which should leave you feeling a high degree of accomplishment once you reach the end. It contains about as much variation and adventure as I've seen on a 400K route.

The Englewood 400K is put on by NJ Randonneurs, who again applied a high level of care and support along the way. Each of the controls was staffed with cheerful randonneurs happy to share some cold water and local advice.

The Shawongunk Ridge is a local treasure to those of us fortunate enough to live in the Hudson Valley. Home to the Mohonk Mountain House and Minnewaska State Park, the ridge is technically not a part of the Catskill Range, but provides wonderful climbing complete with stellar vistas like the one above. On this event, riders come up and over the ridge from Ellenville rather than New Paltz (where I typically ride). At 4.5 miles, this hill deserves respect, but also provides some relief in the form of varying pitches and remarkable views, which is especially true in the late afternoon.

One of my favorite parts of the ride was the opportunity I had to ride with Bill R. and his remarkable velomobile. While I've seen photos and read ride reports, this is the first time that Bill and I have had a chance to ride together since he traded in his diamond frame bike for the White Arrow. Let me tell you, this is one cool vehicle. I was amazed by Bill's facility and persistence powering this machine up hills of all types. Luckily, since the speed differential between Bill's up and Bill's down is so significant, that he was able to hopscotch the lead group for much of the day and we had a chance to catch up with one another.

As far as my own personal odyssey, this really is a tale of two rides. I rode comfortably up front with David, Tim and Chris (and Bill) for the first have of the day, but after the halfway point, I began to suffer from a sour stomach (likely the result of too much heat and Perpetuum) that forced me to fall off my pace and climb like I had rocks in my socks. As a result, I rode the second half of the event solo, which made for a somewhat majestic and somewhat spooky crossing of Harriman State Park in the wee hours of Sunday morning. At about 2:00AM, I was so tired that I decided that a nap on the side of the road was preferable to dozing off and falling into a ditch so I pulled over (at the suggestion of volunteer Bob T.) at a firehouse where I dozed for a bit on the benches of two picnic tables pushed together. Upon starting up again at 4:00AM, I was in much better shape and able to attack the last 30 miles with determination. 

You can read a fine account of the event over at Iron Rider.

Up next: The Catskill 600K out of Westfield, MA. One of my favorites.