Saturday, September 30, 2017

Seattle in September: My Trip to Mecca


Immediately after learning that I would be traveling to Seattle in September for a conference, I jumped onto the Seattle International Randonneurs (SIR) listserv to inquire about permanent routes and bike rentals. In no time, I received myriad route suggestions, several invitations to ride and even the offer of a bike loan. This would be my first trip to Seattle, the randonneur's Mecca, and it looked like I would not be squandering the opportunity.


With clear skies in the forecast and a bike waiting for me, I was able to pack light for my trip out west. After discussing the route options with several acquaintances from PBP, we decided that the Hood Canal Loop 2.0 would provide a first-time visitor from the East Coast with a wide range of classic Seattle experiences wrapped up into a neat 200K package.

SIR has a miraculous system of permanent route organizing that's unlike anything I've ever encountered. All one has to do is sign up with the online "Perminator," which involves submitting a signed waiver in order to register for solo or group permanent rides with all of the necessary paperwork downloadable for your immediate use.



I cannot overstate the generosity and collegiality of the SIR crew I encountered on this trip. Nine of us clipped in on Saturday morning following a beautiful 45-minute ferry ride across Puget Sound and a delicious meal (I had a breakfast bran muffin and a great cup of coffee) from the Blackbird Bakery in Bainbridge. That spiffy black carbon fiber bike with the Di2 shifting (above right) would be my conveyance for the day and I could not have been happier (although returning home to my steel frame with Ultegra shifting was a bit disappointing). SIR stalwarts Shan, Jeff, Bill, Ken, Doug, Andy and a few others made the day a merry adventure that felt more like a brevet than a typical permanent.


The pungent smells of the forests that lined much of the route were noticeable from the very start. While the roads we would cover from Bainbridge to Bremerton were busier than I might have hoped, the views were spectacular and provided the first-timer with an outstanding cross-section of the local terrain. We were treated to mountains, wooded glens, fields, a "canal" and, of course, Puget Sound itself at the start and finish.


The route we followed has only two intermediate controls to slow riders down. By mid-day we had developed healthy appetites and so began to keep our eyes open for food shortly after mile 65. When someone noticed a "Homemade Pies" sign hanging in the window of a roadside luncheonette, we immediately stopped to investigate. It turns out that not only did this place specialize in homemade pies, but also a wide range of lunch offerings. I opted for a delicious bowl of chili before savoring a large slice of blackberry pie a la mode washed down with a cup of fresh back coffee.


The second half of the route brought us to the coastline of the Hood Canal, which seems not much of a canal at all, but which is scenic and unambiguously lovely. Once we arrived at the second intermediate control at about mile 80, Geoff asked which ferry we were aiming to catch back to Seattle. Which ferry, I asked?!? What a sensible question! It hadn't occurred to me to look. Apparently, there are only several ferries scheduled to return to Seattle from Bremerton on a Sunday afternoon and only three of them would get me back in time for my flight. The first was unlikely, the third would have me scrambling and so we set our sights on a boat that would depart from Bremerton, 42 miles away, in 3-1/2 hours. This plan would require a more deliberate pace than the one we had maintained during the first two thirds of the journey, but there is nothing like a concrete goal to keep one focused.


I did not want to fracture the group, but it was pretty important that I make it to my evening flight and taking a shower at the hotel before boarding was pretty appealing as well. As a result, I set the pace for much of the return trip with a careful eye towards keeping the group together. If things got really close, Shan and I might need to shoot off the front since it was his bike I would need to return before grabbing my things and heading to the airport.


Well, as the result of some determined hammering, the majority of our group made it back in plenty of time for the target ferry and even a beer and some "frites" at The Fritz. This meal was followed by a lovely hour-long crossing of Puget Sound from Bremerton to Seattle at dusk.


Thank-you to everyone who made my trip to Seattle so special. The generosity and good cheer I encounter in the randonneuring community never ceases to amaze me. Having completed my first SIR ride, I now feel entitled to wear my new signature blue wool jersey with pride.

So, the next time you find yourself in a far-flung part of the country on business or family travel, see if you can stretch out your trip to savor the local cycling experience. Research the permanent routes that may start near your hotel and see if any local randos want to show you around. I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Million Meters of Milk 1000K Ride Report


I first learned about the Million Meters of Milk 1000K (MMoM) when I was scouring the calendar for long rides to cap off my 2017 riding season. Originally hoping to ride in the famed Gold Rush Randonee (GRR) 1200K, I had to change plans to accommodate the needs of my family during the busy month of July. With my son heading off to college in the fall and my wife finishing up an MFA program in Milwaukee this summer, taking just three days to ride in Wisconsin rather than four to ride in California seemed like the best possible solution. The MMoM would cover much of the state on lovely low-traffic roads in three large loops enabling riders to return to base camp (or Moo Central as the ride organizers called it) each evening. With a plan like this, I was sold.

In 2016, I rode a wonderful 200K permanent in Wisconsin, which whet my appetite for more. Soon after registering, I noticed that several of my East Coast friends would also be riding, which added to my excitement. Nigel G. and Chris N. and I were in touch as the event grew closer and developed a plan to share the ride as well as some time in Milwaukee afterwards between the finish and their flights home. Schlepping bikes and gear long distances to an event is never very much fun, so I was pleased when Chris recommended BikeFlights.com as a reasonably priced alternative to bringing the bike on the airplane with me. After a little research, each of us decided to ship our bikes directly to the event hotel, which proved to be a far better plan than rolling them through airports and baggage carrousels.


The first feature of the event that stood out to me as a participant, was the high level of care and support we would receive from RBA Michelle B. and the volunteers from Great Lakes Randonneurs (GLR). This began with the decision to base the event at the Comfort Inn in Fond du Lac. Three nights of hotel were included in the modest registration fee and riders were allowed to establish a base camp to return to each night, which made for a rather deluxe experience complete with warm shower, soft bed and fresh clothes each day. The organizers also commandeered a room off the hotel lobby to create Moo Central where we were fed rather gourmet meals assembled and served by a randonnuering “chef” at the start and finish of each day. This high degree of support was a welcome feature of this event, but the cloverleaf route also brought with it the shadow of easy DNF as we would return to the start each night and need to leave the comfort of our rooms again each morning.

Day One (400K):

Our long adventure began at 4:00 AM on Friday morning following some brief announcements from our RBA. Unlike the 600K two weeks earlier, the weather was pretty much ideal with mild temperatures and clear skies forecast through much of the weekend. The first day’s route would bring us to Door County in the northeastern section of Wisconsin along the shores of Lake Michigan and back. We soon found that the winds were coming from the northeast and fought them much of the day until the turnaround hoping the weather would not shift as we started to make our way home. The headwinds heightened our cycling discipline as we pace-lined many miles to ease the burden. By early afternoon we would hit the turnaround in Sturgeon Bay just as we peered out across the beautiful expanse of Lake Michigan. Heading southwest we were treated to marvelous tailwinds that made the struggles of the morning seem entirely worth the effort. 


The next milestone on the route was Renard’s Cheese Shop, a lactose-lovers dream where we found such treats as potato cheese soup, grilled cheese sandwiches and (of course) fresh cheese curds (they squeak!). Fortified by this feast, Chris and Nigel and I set off for the next control with reports of thunderstorms looming in our future. We received only two warnings at the start of the event and one was to avoid electrical storms at all costs. A benefit of riding in open farm country is that storms can generally be spotted off in the distance long before they become a pressing danger. With this in mind, we rode through corn and oat fields with growing cloud formations and took increasing interest in the location of barns and garages into which we might make an emergency landing should the storm catch us off guard. This also encouraged us to pick up the pace and hammer our way to the next control so as not to lose time stuck along the way. Luckily, we were able to reach the next control just before the skies opened up and the lightening and winds would have made riding both difficult and dangerous. Mercifully, the storm was short and allowed us just enough time for dinner and a little early evening rest before we clipped in to ride through several sections that encountered pretty significant storm damage just as the sun was setting.


Since the first day's loop contained 400 kilometers, it would be well after dark that we would arrive back at the hotel. When we did arrive, we were greeted by welcoming volunteers, cold beers and sodas and warm and tasty pasta with bolognese sauce that reminded me very much of my meals at the controls on PBP. The rain and humid nighttime conditions left us wet and dirty so our warm showers and beds were most welcome after a long day in the saddle. I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Day Two (300K):

Little did Nigel and Chris know, but I had mentally quit this ride on that last section of riding back to the overnight control, but as is often the case, a little sleep and nutrition can work wonders so I clipped in again for another day of torture with only slight trepidation. As luck would have it, the weather on the morning of the second day was even better than the first and we encountered lovely views of the farms all around as majestic light conditions made the difficulties of the night before seem like a distant memory. We encountered quite a bit of wildlife on this adventure, but the coolest animals we saw, from my point of view, were the Sand Hill Cranes that dotted the fields along the way.


Another defining feature of the Million Meters of Milk was the outstanding road quality we experienced. Despite a few concrete block-induced road seams, the entire route was filled with great roads. The surface was generally smooth and the sight lines clear. While one might expect that long straight roads through agricultural areas might be mind-numbingly dull, that was not the case on this ride and we found that Wisconsin is not quite as flat as one might expect. What's more, the drivers we encountered were decidedly polite and courteous and this was equally true for sedans, pick-ups and semis. Everyone gave us wide berth and, with the exception of one troglodyte in a pick-up who gassed us with coal fumes as he passed, was seemingly happy to share the road.

The stories coming out of the GRR in California that we were able to pick up through social media painted a picture of high temperature-induced suffering that made us feel very lucky NOT to be riding in that event this year. With temperatures in the triple digits, organizers apparently saw 11 riders DNF on the first day alone and no one I spoke with wanted to switch places with anyone on that ride anytime soon. Suddenly, our 1000K seemed not only 200K shorter than the GRR, but also blessed with far better luck than the weather gods were showing our friends out West.

Day Three (300K):


Getting out of bed on day three was similarly difficult, but after a short struggle, I donned a fresh kit, ate a bit of warm breakfast and clipped in for some additional punishment. Things generally hurt after 700K, but I found that turning the cranks was not only possible, but also enjoyable as a way to continue the adventure. The route on this final day was the flattest of the three, which was a comfort as muscle and contact point soreness grew with each passing mile. My lack of training this year actually seemed to become manifest in the pain I felt in my shoulder and hands rather than in my legs, which seemed to be handling the demands just fine. My left shoulder in particular, which has been weaker than my right following my 2010 crash and subsequent surgeries, seemed to be weaker without the miles in the saddle and gym work I might otherwise have been able to undertake. In addition, the palms of my hands were not taking the constant pressure as well as I might have liked, which was exacerbated (or caused) by the lack of real estate on the top of my handlebars as the result of my front bag choice which limits my options to the hoods and the drops. These issues prompted many discussions with my companions who were both happily cycling with new Dill Pickle handlebar bags whose unique shape frees up additional space for one’s hands.


The route may have been flattest on day three, but the ambient temperature was hottest and this, along with the accumulated miles, led to fatigue for all three of us. Luckily, just as the sun was reaching it’s peak, we discovered an ice cream shop that sold root beer floats made with fine locally brewed root beer and cold, creamy vanilla ice cream that really hit the spot. After a short rest stop, we were off again to put this ride to bed. As the sun got lower on the horizon, we approached the top of Lake Winnebago and a scenic overlook I was, unfortunately, unable to enjoy as my attention was needed in the men’s room before going any further. I was pleased not only with the cleanliness of the park restroom, but also with the hook I found on the back of the lavatory door, which any cyclist who wears bib shorts will tell you is most appreciated.


We were fortunate that the forecasted thunderstorms never arrived and the skies cleared to make for a lovely evening ride by moonlight. The return to the finish brought us past giant windmills that reminded me of those that I saw throughout Brittany on PBP. I decided to scrap the contact lenses I typically wear while riding in favor of my regular glasses once it was dark since my poor night vision on day two slowed me to a crawl on the descents. As if by magic, my vision was greatly improved using this technique and I was able to ride mile for mile alongside my friends rather than causing them to stop at the base of every hill as I had the night before. Note to self: night sight is good.

We rode the final eight or nine miles to the control through deserted city streets as we felt a growing sense of triumph with each pedal turn. At exactly midnight, 68 hours and a million meters of milk and suffering and fun and corn fields and companionship after we began, Chris and Nigel and I were done.

Postscript:

Waking up in the same bed following the event felt decidedly different than it had the previous three mornings. The alarm was set, to be sure, but only so as not to sleep the whole day away and miss the scheduled FedEx pick up. After acquiring some strong coffee, it was time to pack up our bikes and watch the TdF in that post-ride glow where everything feels just right. The body may be sore, but the endorphins and the sense of accomplishment make it all seem worthwhile. It would have been much harder to complete this ride without the companionship of my riding partners and the support of the fantastic volunteers. I am forever grateful for both and eager to ride my next brevet after giving my legs a bit of a rest. If you ever have the chance to ride in Wisconsin or better yet on a GLR brevet, seize it!


Up next: the Vermont 400K on July 22.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Feast and Famine on the NJ 600K


For those of you familiar with the excellent events put on by NJ Randonneurs, you’ll know that routes are typically flat or hilly. Both styles have their fans and there’s much to be said for each, but there’s usually not a whole lot in between on the NJ Rando calendar. What grabbed my attention about this season’s 600K is that it was a hybrid route that was BOTH hilly and flat. Day One was a 217-mile mountain goat special and Day Two was a 158-mile flat coastal cruiser. What’s more, the route was cloverleaf-shaped enabling riders to leave fresh clothes and supplies at base camp for the second day. With a plan so logical, what could possibly go wrong?

Since I hoped to be as rested as possible at the 5:00 AM start, I decided to stay overnight at the event hotel rather than drive to the start in the morning. Fortunately, my pals Bill R. and Jan D. were also in town following a long drive so we enjoyed a hearty meal at a local diner before settling in for a full night’s rest. At the start, riders chatted a bit about the forecast which called for a full morning of rain with drier weather on the horizon. As RBA Joe K. reviewed the route with us the skies opened up and we rode off into a wall of rain that would flood roads and not let up until two and a half hours later.


Luckily, Jan and I had agreed to keep the pace in check on the first day to compensate for an utter lack of training on my part and a rough 400K the weekend before on his. As such, we enjoyed the wet morning ride as much as can be expected, but mild temperatures and the knowledge of dry skies ahead helped significantly. NJ Rando stalwart, volunteer and friend Gil L. served up water, Clif bars and good humor at various points throughout the morning, which really helped keep the morale high on this soggy stage. 

The climbing begins in earnest right after the route crosses the Delaware River into PA and we were soon on roads familiar to us from PA Rando events such as the Blue Mountain 400K. There was considerable elevation gain throughout the day, but none of the climbs was particularly epic unlike the various Catskill 600K routes NJ Rando has organized in the past. This ride would be a war of attrition, however, with each spiky roller adding to the damage. By the end of the first day, six riders would DNF.


Following the morning rain, the weather was really quite lovely with a bit of a wind that sometimes helped and occasionally harmed our efforts, but all in all it was a nice day in the saddle. The miles and climbs would have a serious impact on Jan, however, and despite some breaks and soft-pedaling; he would decide to scratch at the control in Easton, PA. Luckily, there was a hotel across the street where he could wait until morning to sort out his transportation back to Vermont.

Luckily, Jan and I were riding with a third rider, Greg K. who made great company on the next 48 miles of evening and night riding to the overnight control, which made the miles go by more quickly. Despite the generally pleasant roads and company, these four dozen miles were rough and I mentally quit the ride at least half a dozen times before reaching the sleep control. This was my first experience with a cloverleaf route and my suspicion that the appeal of quitting half-way through might be stronger with a car sitting in the lot proved to be correct. Despite my misgivings, though, I enjoyed a bit of warm chili and a drink and headed off to shower and sleep setting my alarm for three hours hence just in case I could convince myself to get back onto the saddle.

As is usually the case, three hours of sleep can work wonders and when the alarm went off I jumped up, put on my kit and wheeled my bike back to the common room to fill my bottles and grab some coffee and calories. While flat, the remaining 158-mile stage was longer than I was used to conquering on Day Two of a 600K, so it would be a long day on the saddle regardless of how fast I was pedaling.  Fortunately, some young and spry riders also left the sleep control around the same time so I would not be riding alone through the whole second day.


The heat index climbed as the day progressed, but mercifully, the prevailing winds were out of the east so our march through the Pine Barrens was as easy as it could possibly have been. The roads, while magical and mysterious in some respects in this section, are also remarkably monotonous and so I needed to stop at least once to regain my bearings and snap myself awake lest I fall asleep on the bike as I had done on a previous NJ 600K edition riding through these parts.

Several of us hung together through these miles and enjoyed some well-deserved rest at the penultimate control, but it would be all business on the final stretch and my reserves were just not what I had hoped they might be. As a result, my pace slowed to a crawl and I let the faster riders head off without me. While I had hoped for a 35-hour finish on this event, 37 hours felt respectable considering the terrain and my lack of training this winter and spring. I was especially proud at the finish that I resisted the urge to scratch at the sleep control.  This confidence has convinced me that I’m ready for all that the Million Meters of Milk 1000K may have in store for me in Wisconsin next week. As always, thanks NJ Rando for an absolutely fabulous event. Your support is second to none.

Up next: The Million Meters of Milk 1000K

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Off to the Hills!: The Englewood 300K


When I shared my estimated finish time with my wife, I may have forgotten to factor the hills and my utter lack of training into the equation. While the Englewood 300K didn't exactly kick my a**, it did take longer to finish than any of my previous 300K attempts. The thing is, though, I had a great time riding along some beautiful roads, catching up with a few old friends and even making some new ones along the way. As my pal Susan O. would say, it was a "full value" ride for sure.


I certainly cannot blame my bike for slowing me down. After discovering a few problems on the Cranbury 200K a few weeks earlier, I replaced the full drive train, properly reattached my front fender and installed a fresh set of tires. In short, this beautiful bike purred like a kitten all day long. One of the unfortunate things one discovers, racking up rando miles on a bike, is that distance is rough on a drive train. As you can imagine, I don't enjoy forking over several hundred dollars for new parts, but the smooth sensation of riding on an essentially "new" bike never feels like a mistake. I also found the new Panaracer Gravelking tires that Gil L. recommended to be superior to the POS Grand Bois tires I've been riding for many years. "Supple" may be a nice quality in theory, but changing flats on just about every long ride I undertake has long ago gotten old.


Riding on a well-tuned machine, I spent the first part of the day chatting with my friend Nigel G., which made the time pass quickly during some unexpected rain showers. After the serious hills began in earnest, Nigel and I split up so that he could nurse a sore knee without fearing that he would do further damage riding at someone else's pace. This time alone provided me with a chance to take in my beautiful surroundings as the rain subsided and the hills continued to fill the horizon.


NJ Rando enjoys a well-deserved reputation for outstanding support and this event was no exception. It was wonderful to see Super-Volunteer Steve H., Ride Organizer Laurent C., Katie R. and Lenny Z. at several controls along the way proving that a smile, some encouraging words and a bit of cold water can go a long way on a day like this. After refueling at the Port Jervis control with a (gulp!) bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, I met up with fellow randonneur Vadim G. who turned out to be fine company for the balance of the day. While we had never ridden together, we soon discovered that we shared quite a few friends and common interests and so didn't run out of things to discuss for the rest of this (long) ride together.

It turns out that Vadim also owns a Brompton and was particularly interested in my plans to race in the upcoming Brompton World Championships in NYC on June 18. In fact, I think he's now registered for the race himself. Luckily, Vadim's still in his 40s and so will not provide me with competition in the "Veteran" (AKA Old Fart) category on race day. We spent many of our miles together speculating on how to best approach this unique racing opportunity. Stay tuned for more details.


The final third of the Englewood 300K route connected us with familiar roads through Harriman State Park as we make our way south to the finish. Luckily, despite our casual pace, Vadim and I made it to the scenic park before nightfall and so could enjoy its full glory. After climbing through the park, the general tilt of the route is towards sea level, but there were, of course, a few bumps along the way to keep things interesting.

All in all, this was a fine day in the saddle. With good weather, fine company and lovely scenery, there was very little not to like about this event. I would certainly recommend the Englewood 300K to others, but recommend that you spend some quality time in the saddle in the months leading up to it if you want to finish within a reasonable timeframe. Having taken nearly 18 hours to complete the ride, I made it home much later than I had planned and needed to stop a few times along the way to rest my eyes. All's well that ends, well, though.

Up next: the Brompton World Championships on June 18!

Sunday, April 30, 2017

California Dreamin'


I always do my best to combine work and play. When I was invited to deliver a talk at a conference this past March in San Diego, I jumped at the opportunity and immediately began to think about how I could weave a little riding into my visit. I reached out to several helpful and generous members of the San Diego Randonneur club and found a 200K that appeared to be an ideal balance of hills and flats. I arranged to rent a bike from an outfit that would deliver and pick up from my hotel and bought a ticket on the red-eye back to NY giving me a full day to explore Southern California from the seat of a bike.


So after everything was planned, I packed up a suitable amount of gear and hit the road. If you ever find yourself in San Diego in need of a bike for the day, you could do much worse than to contact Stay Classy Bicycle Rentals. These folks are amazing. For $40, I got a totally reasonable road bike dropped off and picked up from my hotel, which could not have been easier or more convenient to arrange.

In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had explored the SDRando website and listserv and contacted a few generous and helpful souls who were more than happy to accommodate my need for a good 200K route to explore the area. As a newbie, I selected a ride that took in both beach and mountains feeling that this would provide the most comprehensive experience in the shortest amount of time. Little did I know how spectacular and ideal for road bike riding the southern California coast is set up.

On Friday morning, I woke up early to check out of my room in order to clip in and hit the road by 6:30. It was easy to get to the route start about 5 miles from the hotel by traversing the San Diego River Bike Path. It was a bit disconcerting riding through the various homeless encampments, but everyone seemed to be in good spirits and fairly disinterested in my fancy road bike. After picking up my receipt just before 7:00 AM at the first control, I took off into the pre-rush hour traffic in search of the hills beyond. What I soon came to realize is that San Diego is filled with urban sprawl. After an hour or so pedaling through heavy and often high speed traffic, I decided to make a break from the original route to forge a DIY out-and-back along the coast.


Dialing-in Google maps on my phone, I was able to locate a direct route to the sea, which brought me through the interesting UCSD campus where I poked around for a bit and tried to imagine how I could possible get anything done spending four years in such a pleasant environment. Apparently, they designed this cool library (above) in an effort to lure students in off the beach.

Once I hit US-101 north, I realized that I was in just the right place at just the right time. What I had imagined to be a boring flat bike path along the beach turned out to be a majestic rolling road with generous bike lanes and dramatic views. Each of the towns I cycled through was cuter than the last and it appeared that all of the 50-something men in the area were either spending the morning surfing or riding their road bikes along with me. What a way to live! It turns out that I should have selected to take the full coastal out-and-back originally, but while not getting RUSA "credit" for the route, I did manage to pack in 200 kilometers of absolutely stunning riding.


The great thing about an out-and-back route is that it's possible to dial-in the return time with great precision, which was helpful since I had to catch a flight back to New York in the evening. Unfortunately, the Town and Country Hotel has hundreds of rooms, but not a single shower to share with someone who has recently checked out. While I thought about jumping into the pool, it was not quite warm enough and so I cleaned up a bit in a bathroom and decided to sit in my own filth on the red-eye to New York.

All in all, my day riding through Southern California was just what the doctor ordered for my lingering seasonal affective disorder and a perfect illustration of how, with a little careful planning, it's possible to combine work and pleasure with the help of the generous randonneuring community. I'll keep this in mind as I plan my trip to Seattle in September.