Thursday, June 14, 2018

Channelling Flèche on the Portland Daytrip 400K

I'll be honest with you, the 400K has not been my favorite distance over the years. Oh, there have been 400s on which I've enjoyed myself and I generally feel the powerful sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing one, but as far as sheer joy goes, the 400K ranks pretty low.

Unlike the 200K and 300K, which are both essentially long days out on the bike, and the 600K, 1000K and 1200K, which are grueling multi-day adventures where just about anything can happen, the 400K often feels like a mind-numbing slog. It seems like a ride that should fit comfortably into one day, but it seldom does. Something was going to be fundamentally different about the Portland Daytrip, though, I could just feel it.

For one, the Portland Daytrip is a destination ride. Riding a bike from one major city to another (and back!) is an accomplishment tied up in the histories and cultures of the two locations. There is something fairly epic about it. Mention to someone in a control that you're riding from Boston to Portland and back and he or she immediately perks up and shows you some respect. "That's a long way in a car," they may say. Unlike much of randonneuring, civilians get it.

Second, the roads that New England Randonnuers selected for this brevet were out of this world. The route was quiet, scenic and took in a wide range of beauty over the course of 250 miles. We hugged the coast for a long stretch on the way north, for instance, and the views were simply spectacular, especially on this clear, dry day. At some points along the way, I felt like pinching myself to make sure I was awake.

It was more than these qualities, though, that made the Portland Daytrip so enjoyable: could it have been that a group of us simply decided to make it so? For much of the day, I rode with a somewhat eclectic group of between 4 to 8 riders, each of whom seemed to be having the time of his or her life. Our merry band included PBP anciens and 400K first-timers alike, men and women, locals and travelers.

The turnaround in Portland was especially fun for me since I arranged to meet up at the control with dear friends that I've not seen for a few years. After a few hugs, they handed me an awesome pair of lobster-themed cycling socks I will wear with fondness for my trip to Maine and convinced me that I need not cycle 250 miles to come back to see them next time.

Our group split up a bit at the turnaround control as often happens with each rider taking a slightly different amount of time to refuel and reorient. No one was in much of a hurry, though, and it was not long before our core group reassembled on the 50-mile stretch to the next control. It was here, as we sat in the lawn refueling, that Emily professed her love for the flèche. As she extolled the flèche's many virtues (teamwork, cycling at a relaxed pace, heterogeneous groups riding together undaunted by time pressures, etc.), we began to wonder why we could not simply apply these principles to our current ride. 

As night fell, we donned reflective gear, turned on lights and rode off into the quiet, still and mild evening with full bellies and a shared committment to each other and to fun itself. There were word games for those feeling drowsy and enough turns to keep things interesting. At one point, we passed by an amateur speedway with highly-tuned engines crying out, a reminder that we were not the only ones enjoying our time outdoors on this mild summer night. As we all rolled into the final control, it was clear that each of us had achieved something special on this long day and night in the saddle with the help of each other, whether it was one's first 400K or one's tenth, the day was a reminder that the social side of randonneuring is powerful and extraordinarily rewarding.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Southern Hospitality on The Gainesville (GA) 200K

How is it possible that my last post to this blog was made on December 4, 2017?!? I guess I've been busy . . . At any rate, the brevet I am about to describe took place on March 10, 2018 and it was quite special for several reasons that get right to the heart of why I love randonneuring so much.

Every year in late February/early March, thousands of independent school educators from around the country converge for an annual conference and this year’s event brought me to Atlanta where I’ve never really spent any time. Getting in an early 200K in the Northeast is always a risky proposition, so I scanned the RUSA calendar and realized that Audax Atlanta was hosting a 200K not far from Atlanta the day after the conference closed.

This realization led to a series of emails to the RBA and then the ride organizer to see how I could make this all work. When I asked about bike rental options, the organizer asked my frame size and quickly offered up one of his own bikes for the job. This would be the third time in two years that a generous randonneur loaned me a gorgeous bike for an out-of-town ride. A recent post in the "randon" listserv asked for input on the "spirit of randonneuring" and to my mind, it's generosity like this that goes straight to the top of the list.

It turns out that Atlanta is a pretty spectacular city. While I could easily have been trapped for days on end in the Georgia World Conference Center, I decided to buy a cheap monthly membership in the Atlanta bike share program, thanks to the recommendation of my Facebook friend and fellow randonneur Scott C., which allowed me to roam the city streets and bikeways with a light blue cruiser each day before, between and after my conference sessions. 

Once my conference ended on Friday, I took the train to the airport where I rented a car to drive out to the ride start in Gainesville 90 minutes north of the city. On the way out of town, I stopped at the ride organizer's house to get my loaner (a gorgeous and comfortable Rivendell complete with downtube shifters, handlebar bag and Brooks saddle) dialed in. Andy A. and I chewed the rando fat for a while before I drove the rest of the way to the cute college town of Gainesville in northern Georgia, had a nice meal and got to bed early in preparation for the big day ahead.

The ride began at 7:00 AM and, with a forecast for a day filled with rain, most of the field kept a steady pace early on to put some miles under our wheels before the skies opened up. Since I had very little mileage in my legs at this time of year, I decided to take it easy and settled in with a nice guy from Atlanta named Bradley D. with whom I rode most of the day.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect on this, my fist brevet south of the Mason-Dixon Line. The route, one of Audax Atlanta's oldest, weaves its way through the hills of Northern Georgia on quiet, low-trafficked roads with nice views. Since the roads never freeze like they do in the northeast, they are buttery smooth rather than frost-heaved and cratered as they are up north at this time of year. 

I'd heard that dogs tend to run a bit freer in the south than they do in the north and this proved to be true, but not dangerously so. While the sign below was a bit unsettling to see early on in the day - shortly after being chased up a hill by a barking hound - things settled down a bit and so my worst fears were not realized.

Luckily, the rain held off until mid-day after we hit the turnaround, where Andy met us with a carload of treats, but when it did arrive, it made for a pretty soggy slog back to the start. Bradley and I split up at the mid-point, as he was eager to see the lunch spot that involved "goats on the roof," whereas I preferred to keep the momentum going. 

The route is a classic out-and-back and the second time I passed Lake Rabun was as pleasant as the first. Unfortunately, when the rains really started hammering, I missed a cue, turned the wrong way at a T intersection, and added about six miles EACH WAY onto my ride. I would have cried if it would have done any good, but let's just say I was a bit grumpy as I slogged back in the pouring rain along the only heavily trafficked main road on the route. It started to get pretty cold and my fingers grew increasingly numb as I reached the penultimate control where I ran into Bradley and a few other randos including a strong recumbent rider named Graham S. who dragged be back in to the finish control. 

It was nice to have company on the final push and it was very pleasing to make it back before sunset. The Rivendell performed like a charm even if the rider was a bit rusty and everyone I met in my travels was welcoming and fun to spend time with. This Southern hospitality business is no joke! I'm already looking forward to my next opportunity to clip in and share the roads with the folks at Audax Atlanta. Thanks for the good times!

Monday, December 4, 2017

One Step Closer to the Elusive RUSA Cup

"You're driving to Boston to ride a 100K? I didn't think you'd drive that far to ride a 200K." 
~ My wife the night before the big (little) event. ~

That's right, I rolled out of a perfectly warm bed at 4:45am on a cool fall morning to drive to Boston in order to ride 100 kilometers on my bike. Why? Iron Rider provides an answer in this great piece written a few years ago outlining the difficulty locating and completing a 100K populaire, one of the rides needed to earn the RUSA Cup - an award that has eluded me for several years. While I will wrap up this challenge in June with the Cascade 1200K, I did not want this shortest of all RUSA events hanging over my head in the meantime. 

With 7+ hours in the car to ride an event of 4+ hours, I was violating one of my cardinal rules of randonneuring: don't drive more miles to the start of the event than the event itself covers. In other words, I try not to drive more than 125 miles to a 200K, 187 miles to a 300K, 250 miles to a 400K, etc. In this case, I simply did not care. The RUSA Cup is that important. Mercifully, the ride did not start until 9:00 AM, which gave me time to drive to the start in the morning rather than stay overnight in the area. 

It was brisk at the start where we were greeted with smiles and hot coffee by Boston RBA Jake K. and his partner and Dill Pickle Gear CEO Emily O. It remained chilly throughout the day, but I never felt too cold to ride; my new Endura gloves performing as advertised. Soon after the start, I settled into a comfortable pace alongside a nice local randonneur named Jacob and together we covered some lovely roads in the suburban and rural areas north and west of the city, riding through Concord and Lexington and plenty of other historic towns along the way. Take Thoreau Farm below, for instance. Simply beautiful.

The best part of this ride, though, was the feeling of exhilaration that comes from a burst of athletic enthusiasm following an extended period of rest and recovery. So with this ride, I formally launch my 2018 cycling season. With an exciting new training book on my nightstand, this promises to be my best year in a long time. Now only the 1200K remains between me and that elusive RUSA Cup.

Monday, November 20, 2017

My Coffeeneuring Roundup: Seventh Heaven Edition

Q: Which came first, autumn or coffeeneuring? A: I'm not 100% certain, but it's getting harder and harder to remember what life was like before Mary G. launched her global Coffeeneuring Challenge seven years ago. I'm a proud member of the founding coffeeneuring generation and wouldn't miss a season for the world.  I mean, coffee, bicycles, photography . . .  what's not to love? There's even a patch involved!

Ride 1 (October 25)
2 Beans - New York City
14 Miles
Black Coffee

While in NYC for a few school visits in late October, I made sure to check out the citywide Ai Wei Wei sculpture installation and filled up my travel mug with some black coffee from 2 Beans to enjoy a little coffeeneuring along the way.

Ride 2 (October 27)

Mudd Puddle Roasters and Cafe - New Paltz, NY
15 Miles

I teamed up with my pal Peter to enjoy a brisk fall ride through New Paltz one morning with a stop at everyone's favorite muddle puddle for a shot of espresso to start the day off right.

Ride 3 (October 28)
Village Market and Eatery - Gardiner, NY
40 Miles
Black Coffee

When your friend Jasmine tells you that she bought a new bicycle, you have no choice but to go out for a ride (and have a cup of coffee) with her to celebrate.

Ride 4 (November 3)
North River Roasters and Coffee House - Poughkeepsie, NY
14 Miles

I've been meaning to get over to check out the new North River Roasters and Coffee House our friends launched at the old Poughkeepsie Underwear Factory for some time and I was not disappointed. If you're ever in Poughkeepsie, this is a great place to while away some time.

Ride 5 (November 9)

Mohonk Mountain House - New Paltz, NY
17 Miles
Mohonk Tea

Every year at this time, I have back-to-back conferences at one of the finest hotels on the East Coast. Not only is the Mohonk Mountain House a historic treasure, but it's surrounded by countless miles of carriage trails with views for hundreds of miles in all directions. After a 17-mile loop during a break, I sat by the lake to enjoy a hot cup of their signature Mohonk tea.

Ride 6 (November 11)
Coffee Shop Without Walls
Slabsides - West Park, NY
8 Miles
French Roast

Looking for some inspiration on a big writing project, I filled up my Trek SOHO travel mug and rode up the hill to Slabsides, naturalist John Burroughs' rustic cabin in the woods.

Ride 7 (November 19)
Coffee Shop Without Walls
Walkway Over the Hudson - Highland, NY
22 Miles
French Roast

My final coffeeneuring entry comes on the last day of this year's challenge. I filled my travel mug with French roast and took off to meet up with Christopher M. at the finish of one of my permanent routes to clock his 10,000th RUSA kilometer in 2017.

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 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.


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.