Thursday, December 29, 2016

Learning to Say No

Some lessons are harder to learn than others. With randonneuring, this is especially true. Giving up on a ride seems to conjure a special feeling of failure. It’s an endurance activity after all. “This too will pass,” we tell ourselves to make it through the especially dark times. With age and experience, though, I've learned that there are two pretty good reasons to quit: safety and family. The trouble is that both require making decisions that are seldom black and white; there is always considerable grey involved.

Since randonneurs throw care to the wind simply to participate in this crazy sport, we are generally a group of people with our priorities a bit out of whack. Suffering is a necessary feature of the activity as is a certain amount of risk and personal sacrifice. Cycling at night, cycling in all sorts of weather, cycling with precious little sleep, the list goes on and on. Seasoned (and wise) riders learn to separate the safety risks worth taking from those that are not. Since endurance cycling also generally involves countless hours away from family, randonneurs also risk alienating those closest to them while pursuing their passion. 

This week I learned this lesson again as I decided to end my sixth attempt at the Festive 500 Challenge. The challenge, sponsored annually since 2010 by the British cycling apparel company Rapha, draws thousands of riders from around the world with a premise that is really quite simple: log a minimum of 500 kilometers between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve ~ no matter what. Riders who complete the challenge successfully get a patch as well as a feeling of satisfaction and perhaps even some bragging rights.

I first completed the Festive 500 in 2011 as I was recovering from a serious crash and logging monthly 200K rides in search of my first R-12 award. The timing seemed perfect. With school on break and a new year on the horizon, what better way to launch the training season ahead? Armed with this goal, I completed the Challenge five times in as many years and even found myself one of ten finalists in a grand prize competition that awarded a Trek Madone to the rider with the best story of the endeavor that first year. Despite not winning the bike, I was hooked and the Festive 500 has become a part of my annual riding plan ever since.

This year I mapped out a path to success that carefully considered the long-range weather forecast as well as a complex schedule of holiday gatherings, but despite my careful planning, I simply could not see sacrificing the 20+ hours with family needed to complete the 310 miles. With my daughter home for just a few weeks as she prepares for a semester in Southern Africa and my son recently accepted into his dream college in Minnesota, I'm starting to realize (with an empty nest on the horizon) how important it is to savor the nest while it's full. A challenge that once served as a chance to reconnect with the self amidst a swirl of work and family demands, now seemed like a terribly selfish activity at a time of increasingly rare family proximity.

There is still plenty of time to jump-start my training for 2017. But the clock is ticking on this all-too-short time we have together as a family. While I’m disappointed that I’ll not be adding a sixth patch to my collection, I’ve already built some memories that I would have missed out on if I had chosen to spend the day pedaling through the cold winds of winter. So while I could certainly have shoehorned the training hours into the week, the risk was too great that I would miss out on something more meaningful and fleeting. I don’t regret my decision one bit.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Into the Darkness: The Nocturne Podcast

There's nothing quite like riding a bicycle at night. Night riding is one of the defining features of randonneuring, something that separates our sport from other forms of cycling. Other than the 200K or 300K (if you're quick), riding in a brevet is going to involve riding in the darkness. For this reason, organizers of all rides over 200K require front and rear lighting as well as various forms of reflective gear. Not only is night riding a necessary component of randonneuring, it is also one of the most enjoyable. I was reminded of this aspect of randonneuring as I listened this week to a fine podcast that capture the spirit of night riding with great subtlety and precision.

Much of what I find to be appealing about riding a bicycle in general is magnified in the darkness. The feeling of connection with the natural world, for instance, is enhanced at night when visual input is muted and sounds become amplified. The call of an owl, the babble of a stream, the swaying of the trees in the wind make me feel a part of rather than an observer to the natural world around me. I've also seen things of great beauty and mystery (like the bridge in the photograph above) that I never would have seen without riding at night. Some of my most pleasant and enduring randonneuring memories have been created in the darkness.

Night riding seems to me to fall into two categories; the type that happens in the early morning hours and the type that happens deep in the middle of the night. Pre-dawn riding at the start of a long ride has a special magic as riders are typically packed into large, quiet groups sharing something special as they plan the long ride ahead either silently or in muted whispers. The smooth buzz of bicycle tires and chains in quiet rotation is accented by the glow of red lights ahead. Similarly, when taking off in the early morning hours from an overnight sleep stop, it's not uncommon to feel a sense of fresh optimism in the air as dawn steadily approaches.

I don't typically sleep for long periods of time during brevets, but even several hours of shut-eye brings new life to my legs and hope to my spirit that enhances my enjoyment of these early morning hours. After awakening from several hours of sleep on the second night of the Lap of the Lake 1000K in 2014, for instance, I rode through the pre-dawn hours with several friends climbing and descending gentle rollers along the banks of the Niagara River with the sounds of the might Falls growing louder and more majestic with each turn of the cranks.

Riding deep in the night after a long day in the saddle can be a time of camaraderie and contemplation, but it can also be a time of great suffering and misery. Riding together with other randonneurs at night brings a sense of added comfort and security just in case anything fails to go according to plan and I've found it to be a great opportunity for quiet reflection either alone or in conversation with a friend riding by your side. It can also be a time of great suffering, however, when you're forced to ride for longer than you had hoped before resting or when hallucinations or other signs of acute sleep deprivation rear their ugly heads. After riding for eight hours into the dark, driving rains on the London-Edinburgh-London 1400K in 2009 for instance, I found myself mentally composing a Craig's List posting for the sale of my bicycle to keep myself from crying.

As we enter this darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere, I stumbled across two episodes of the wonderful Nocturne podcast, in which the joys and mysteries of night riding were eloquently discussed with several veteran randonneurs. Never have I heard the essence of randonneuring captured so accurately. There is something for everyone in Nocturne episodes 23 and 24. If you've never ridden at night, you'll understand more about the attractions as well as the dangers. If you're an experienced randonneur, you'll be reminded of your own nighttime adventures. Either way, it will make you eager for the warm days ahead when riding through the night is a more readily available option.

Learn more about the Nocturne podcast and listen to individual episodes here at this link.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

My Coffeeneuring Adventure: 6th Time's a Charm

As the leaves make their annual transition from green to brown making stops along the way as yellow, red and orange alarm bells signaling the end of summer, we are reminded of the importance of warming beverages to fend off the cool winds of winter and to stretch this season of riding out just a wee bit longer. For the past five years, the Coffeeneuring Challenge has helped me cope with, and even enjoy, this change of seasons.

This year, I created a "Theme Within a Theme" by riding my new(ish) Brompton folding bike on all of my coffeeneuring adventures. While I remain a devoted roadie and randonneur, the Brompton has revolutionized my commuting and urban cycling over the past year. As someone who works from a home office in the Hudson Valley, I am often on the road visiting schools throughout New York State. My travel often brings me to New York City, 90 miles to my south, and the Brompton has enabled me to ride to the commuter train 10 miles away and then directly from Grand Central Station to meetings without having to worry about the bike share or public transportation. I can also throw the Brompton into the back of my car or the carry-on compartment of an Amtrak train or commuter jet to pick up a short ride following meetings or conferences without difficulty. While daily bike commuting is not currently possible, riding to meetings and school visits has enriched my work while helping me fit additional exercise into my routine.

Ride 1 (October 15)
Bank Square Coffeehouse - Beacon, New York
3 miles
Latte and an oatmeal raisin cookie

Like quite a few other places, Beacon, NY has been heralded as the "next Brooklyn" following the creation of the Dia: Beacon museum and an influx of artists in search of more reasonable rents. Nestled into the hills of southern Dutchess County, Beacon lies on the MetroNorth train line right on the banks of the Hudson River. My trip to the Bank Square Coffeehouse involved a typically convoluted plan to drop off a car at a friend's house for my daughter to claim as she returned from college for a short fall break. Following a nice latte and fresh-baked oatmeal raisin cookie eaten while being serenaded by a ukulele-playing millennial, I rode over to the station to catch the train north to Poughkeepsie and ride home.

Ride 2 (October 25)
Aroma Espresso Bar - New York, New York
8 miles
Black coffee, oatmeal and fruit

Ironically, the only chain shop I visited during the Coffeener Challenge was the Aroma Espresso Bar, right in the heart of authentic cafe culture. While one can literally stumble over a hipster coffee bar on just about every street corner in NYC, Aroma was the most convenient place for me to stop on a day I was zipping around Manhattan. I must say, it was a bit of a disappointment.

Ride 3 (November 1)
La Deliziosa Pastry Shop - Poughkeepsie, New York
4 miles
Black coffee and a mini cannoli

The delicacies in this family-owned pastry shop in the heart of Poughkeepsie's Little Italy neighborhood are more than worth the trip from wherever you may be. A short ride or walk from the MetroNorth train station, this spot is a must-see destination the next time you find yourself in the Hudson Valley. Miniature cannoli, eclairs and cookies more than make up for the pedestrian coffee patrons make for themselves using a Keurig maker that sits on the counter.

Ride 4 (November 3)
Mohonk Mountain House - New Paltz, New York
15 miles
Black coffee

The Mohonk Mountain House is one of the nation's most remarkable historic resorts. Sitting high above the village of New Paltz on the Shawangunk Ridge, patrons are able to view the Catskill range off in the distance and hike, bike or cross country ski along hundreds of miles of well-preserve carriage trails that date from the nineteenth century when horse-drawn carriages were the principal form of transport that brought guests up to the hotel from the docks along the Hudson River where they disembarked from steam ships heading north from Manhattan. I often ride on these carriage trails with my road bike equipped with cyclocross tired, but this was my first foray into the wilderness on my Brompton. Verdict: not terrible, but hitting a root or a pothole with a 17" front wheel is a bit of a shock.

Ride 5 (November 5)
Slow Train Cafe - Oberlin, Ohio
18 miles
Latte and a salted chocolate chip cookie.

When our daughter called to invite us to see her perform a solo dance composition in a fall student concert, we didn't think twice about reserving a hotel room and clearing the date. Unfortunately, though, my son came down with a nasty virus and my wife had to stay behind while I drove to Ohio with my Brompton in the back of the car anticipating the opportunity to grab a nice ride through town with my daughter should she have a few spare minutes. As luck would have it, she cleared the day (which for her begins about noon) and we were able to take in a fun ride on a rail trail that stretches from the center town out through the farmland that surrounds it. While she had an early call to prepare for an evening performance, I spent some time spinning through this lovely college town, an oasis of blue in an increasingly red state, and enjoyed a fresh latte and a rather delicious salted chocolate chip cookie.

Ride 6 (November 7)
Outdated Cafe - Kingston, New York
5 miles
Double espresso

The Outdated Cafe is an old Coffeeneuring standby in the historic Uptown section of Kingston, New York. Another "next Brooklyn" outpost along the Hudson, Kingston was at one point the capital of New York State. Now a bit down on its lucky, following the departure of IBM in the mid-90s, Kingston contains several historic neighborhoods filled with 18th century stone homes ripe for hipster conversion. The Outdated Cafe serves as a vibrant community meeting place for patrons old and young who sit at long tables drinking great coffee and eating fine food. Some work, some play and others look at the antiques, most of which are for sale, that line the walls and shelves.

Ride 7 (November 19)
The Poughkeepsie Grind - Poughkeepsie, New York
6 miles

My final coffeeneuring journey of 2016 involved one of my favorite multi-modal locations in the Hudson Valley. The Walkway Over the Hudson was opened to the public in 2009 and brings hundreds of thousands of visitors each year from near and far to marvel at the beauty and spectacle of the Hudson River Valley. Once the site of a busy rail line linking trade from New England to the American Mid-West, the bridge fell out of use following a track fire during the early 1970s. After many years, the structure was converted to become the longest pedestrian bridge in the world towering 220 feet over the river below. On Saturday. following the bar mitzvah of a family friend, I parked at the lot on the west side of the river near my home and rode through throngs of tourists to Poughkeepsie where I enjoyed a hot cappuccino at The Poughkeepsie Grind, a new cafe with what I hope will be a long and bright future ahead of it.

And now to order that patch . . .

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Catskill Climbfest 205K: Fall Foliage Edition 2016

At this time of year, as summer turns to fall and the foliage begins to reach it's peak, I'm drawn to the Catskill Mountains to experience this magical transition up close and unencumbered by suburban distractions. This year, I was lucky to be joined by friends Jon L. and Mordecai S. With temperatures in the low 50s at the start, we bundled up with full-fingered glove liners and leg warmers, vests and woolen arm warmers. Dressing for a shoulder-season ride such as this isn't easy with hills to warm us as we climb and cool us as we descend and altitude variation to influence the ambient temperatures throughout the day. No one wants to cart around unnecessary weight on a climb-y ride like this either so extra gear and luggage is to be kept at a minimum.

As we clipped in at the start shortly after sunrise, the roads were slick from an overnight rain, but the forecast was for dry, grey skies throughout the day. Fortunately, the freshly fallen leaves that covered many of the side roads we traversed in these early hours were fairly dry and not slippery as leaves can become later in the fall when they've been lying around and decaying on roads for some time. The climbing on the Catskill Climbfest route begins early on with a gentle climb from Rosendale up to the Ashokan Reservoir near Woodstock through quiet back roads, which gets the heart pumping and the body warmed up without anything too terribly taxing. Upon reaching the reservoir, the road levels out and the trees open up to reveal a dramatic view that includes both this beautiful source of the NYC water supply and the majestic Catskill Mountains beyond.

Knowing that within the next hour we would be climbing that ridge off in the distance made us savor the level riding while we could. The climb from Palenville to Tannersville is dramatic and gratifying. Unlike the Slide Mountain climb further up the road, the climb along 23A is steady and never too acute. The traffic can be a bit much with leaf peepers and hikers driving and walking to trailheads that line the road such as the entrance to the famed Kaaterskill Falls. Tractor trailers occasionally carry deliveries up to Hunter Mountain at the top of the hill as well, but luckily none of this caused any drama this time around.

After the climb to Tannersville, riders are rewarded with a long and sloping descent to the village of Phoenicia along the Stony Clove Creek, which caused such dramatic damage (some still visible and ominous) following Hurricane Irene several years ago. Upon reaching Phoenicia, we were disappointed to discover that the Mama's Boy restaurant has closed up shop leaving fewer options in town for a quick bite to eat. We decided to hold off on our main meal of the day until reaching the control at mile 90, but grabbed muffins and snacks to fill our pockets and water to fill our bottles for the climb ahead as we knew this would be the last outpost for provisions until we reached Grahamsville 35 miles up the road.

The Grahamsville Deli, not exactly a foodie haven, was out of chicken salad when we arrived, which was the only real disappointment of the ride for me. As a vegetarian, Mordecai was even less thrilled with our food stop than Jon and me, but we were able to amass the necessary calories and liquids to make it to the finish 35 miles down the road. The next stretch of the route includes the wooded and remote Peekamoose Road deep in the Catskills, surrounded by high peaks. The cascading waterfalls along this stretch road were mere trickles but still evident to the discerning eye.

After a dramatic descent along Peekamoose, the final stretch of road trends downhill to the finish from the reservoir with only a few rollers along the way. We were aided this time around with a stiff tailwind that made us feel strong and victorious at the end of a long and enjoyable adventure. We finished the ride in 10 hours and 41 minutes, which seemed like a pretty respectable time for a late-season 200K with 10,000 feet of climbing. It was especially gratifying to align this annual ritual with weather, foliage and friends.

Up next: November R-12 - Back on the train.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The NYC 200K: Coming Home Again

The NYC 200K was the very first brevet I ever rode back in 2007. At that time, it was scheduled in early April, but since then it has become a fixture on the NJ Randonneurs' fall calendar. I've ridden this route six times over the years and this past weekend was one of my favorites. With a year filled with slower than average times and weaker than average performance on the bike, I was eager to redeem myself with a strong showing to end the formal brevet season on a high note. While work and family commitments have made it exceedingly difficult for me to ride as often as I would have liked this summer, the beautiful weather and my overall enthusiasm for this ride combined to thrust me forward along the route at a good pace.

The ride starts and ends in NYC just a few blocks north of the George Washington Bridge, which riders cross in both directions at the beginning and end of the day. On the New Jersey side of the bridge, the route heads north through some fancy suburban towns along the western banks of the Hudson River towards Bear Mountain where riders begin to climb in earnest as they make their way west through the hills of Harriman State Park.

After leaving the first control in Stony Point, around mile 50, riders soon enter the shaded, hilly and recently-paved roads that are used to criss-cross Harriman State Park in both directions for much of the afternoon before heading back down toward our final destination. Cyclists aren't the only ones taking advantage of the fine fall weather on a day like this and it was not uncommon to hear the sound of motorcycles or sports cars approaching from the distance. Despite their somewhat macho enthusiasm, everyone seemed to be on their best behavior, eager to share rather than to compete for available space on these gorgeous roads. Due to a newly-enacted traffic rule, the organizers were unable to include the famed Perkins Hill climb in the route, which chopped off a five-mile out-and-back up a rather tall hill.

I was moving along pretty swiftly through the third control, which is located at a bagel shop in the village of Monroe. Arriving at the control as a solo rider, I missed the fact that there was a tent set up by a few volunteers around the corner and so waited for 10 minutes on-line for a bagel and a signature on my brevet card. After leaving the control, time slipped further through my fingers as I missed the first turn and continued on about 3 miles more than was necessary and came upon a crash involving one of our fellow brevet riders. Apparently, one of our own had careened into a car that had recently been T-boned by a pickup truck right on the main street through town. Luckily everything seemed OK, but I somehow managed to blow through about 20 extra minutes hanging around not being particularly helpful. After consulting my iPhone, I retraced the route and was on my way.

The NYC 200K is not an exact out-and-back route, but the second half does follow many of the same roads riders traverse in the early part of the day. My pace over the back nine was not quite as brisk as it was in the morning, but I was pleased to be able to keep the pedals spinning at a fairly good clip, which got me back to the start in under 10 hours. While not my fastest time on this course, it was nice to end the season feeling strong and quick rather than weak and sluggish. With any luck, this is a good omen for 2017 when I hope to again have time to train myself into better shape than I did in 2016.

Up Next: The Coffeeneuring Season Begins on October 7!

Sunday, July 31, 2016

And the Hills Went on Forever: The Boston 600K

July 23 is unusually late in the season to be clipping in for a 600K brevet, but for a number of reasons, this was the first and only event of this distance on the RUSA calendar located in the Northeast that would fit into my schedule this year. I was also eager to ride this route since I've heard great things about Boston 600K events and have enjoyed riding with New England Randonnuers in the past. This plan also fit my goal to ride a complete SR series this year on routes I have never previously ridden. Finally, this event provided me with the opportunity to catch up with friends on Friday night a few miles from the start and to ride with my friend Jan D. with whom I had recently completed a team arrow event.

Apparently, this particular 600K route was first created in 2015 to provide those preparing to ride in Paris-Brest-Paris with a route containing similar conditions. As on P-B-P, the climbing is never particularly severe, but it is at times relentless, as it is through the hills and farmland of Brittany. There were even several times during the weekend when images of northern France came flooding back to me such as they did when I snapped the picture above.

After the sun came up, Jan and I rode through the first control stopping only to get our cards signed. We had fallen in with a quick group riding at a brisk pace and it felt right to be making good time before the heat of the day was upon us. We stopped at the second control just 11 miles down the road from the first where I enjoyed a ham and cheese sandwich and an iced coffee before filling my bottles with ice water courtesy of the kind-hearted souls at the busy truck stop.

Not long after our control stop, the day became hot, hot, hot just as we left behind the shaded roads we had been riding most of the morning in favor of the more open farmland of the CT River Valley. The one merciful aspect of a strong headwind is a cooling breeze, so we shouldered on without complaining too much. At one point in our journey, we came upon a swimming hole in a secluded river where Jake had set-up a secret control. I was happy to refuel with Gatorade and cold pickles while Jan took the opportunity for a quick dip.

We hit Brattleboro just in time for an early dinner at the Brattleboro Food Coop that served as the northernmost control on the route. The food selection was outstanding. I wolfed down some pizza, chicken salad and a piƱa colada smoothie that was simply out of this world. Jan needed to take a bit of a break to regulate his body temperature and I was more than happy to take a few extra minutes to rest here as well after a long day in the saddle. Luckily, our friend Nigel and a cyclist from ME named Chris, with whom we rode earlier in the day before his crank broke, showed up with appetites and we all agreed to depart together.

The road south to western Massachusetts provided not only a gentle average descent of at least 3-5%, but was also fueled by a mighty tailwind generated by the storm at our backs. Every now and then I looked over my shoulder to see the skies darkening just a little bit more with intermittent bolts of lightening crashing to earth behind us. It seemed as if we might outrun this storm, but as the skies darkened, we began to look for porches and barns within which to sit out the worst of it should it come to hit us with full force. Luckily, we seemed to catch only the edge of the storm and the rains were light enough that I did not even feel the need to pull over to the side of the road to put on my rain jacket.

The storm subsided just as we were riding through the fields of Deerfield near the start of D2R2 and a magnificent double rainbow appeared before us on the horizon. The storm brought cooler air just as the sun was setting so it became clear that our evening ahead would be far more comfortable than the afternoon hours had been.

We stopped for a second dinner around 10:00 pm in a small town that was reputed to contain the last services for the next 45 miles to the sleep stop in Williamstown. It was good that our stomachs and water bottles were full as we climbed the long and steady hills through the Berkshires to the town of North Adams. None of the hills struck me as too severe, but many were long and reminded me very much of my nighttime approach to Mortagne on P-B-P last summer. I do so love riding with friends on quiet roads at night after a rain, when the air is crisp and clean. As we passed the midnight hour, several of us grew sleepy and searched for a safe and dry place to lay down our heads for a few minutes to jump-start our attentiveness and enjoyment. After a bit of searching, we found a perfect spot for a 15-minute catnap at the top of a hill by a small village hall with sloping handicap access ramps. From here it was not far to the sleep stop located in a lovely house with warm food and dry floor on which to sleep. 

I had sent a sleeping bag ahead with my drop bag so was very happy to catch a few hours of shut-eye before heading off into the foggy morning light. I laid my head down at 2:05 am and must have been asleep by 2:07. I awoke with my alarm at 5:15 am and quickly packed up my gear and put on a fresh jersey for the ride ahead. Jan and Nigel had awakened earlier and Chris was still sleeping along with several other riders, so I clipped in and rode off by myself confident that I would run into others before too long.

As luck would have it, I did not really see much of anyone for the rest of the day and my ride became a solo effort with passing contact with a few other riders at spots I stopped along with way to refuel. At one point near South Deerfield, I waved at a passing rider wearing a telltale Rapha jersey only to be accosted several minutes later with cheers of “Hey George, how are you?” It turns out that John B. who recently moved to the area from Boston, recognized me and came over to share the road for a few minutes. Social media is a funny thing. It's not uncommon these days to run into friends you rarely see and have them ask you questions about your most recent activities they've been following online in real time. In this way, I knew that John had recently returned from a trip to Ireland and he knew of my summertime love affair with my new Brompton folding bike. After a few minutes, we went our separate ways and I was reminded of what great friends we make on these rides and how nice it is to feel the warmth of the cycling community in places far and wide.

As the heat of the day reached its peak, I stopped in Petersham Country Store where I enjoyed a delicious curried chicken salad wrap and a homemade iced cold brew coffee. Sitting on the porch to keep an eye on my bike, I noticed a police officer ambling over. Convinced I’d done something wrong, I managed my most courteous “hello” and it turned out he was a fellow cyclist simply eager to discuss the ride and cycling in general with a sympathetic audience. Soon it was time for me to hit the road again in order to make my final push to the finish.

As I hit the rollers into the final control, time seemed to stand still, or speed up, I’m not sure which. Despite the passage of time, I seemed to be making no progress at all as the horizon disappeared in front of me. At first, I had hoped to complete the ride by 4:00 pm, which (at 36 hours) would represent a middling effort at the 600K distance, an acceptable time for an event filled with socializing and sleep. As the day wore on, however, my 4:00 pm goal seemed less and less realistic and it increasingly looked as if 6:00 pm might come and go as well.

As I neared the finish, I saw Nigel loading his bike into his parked car. He urged me on and told me that he’d return to the finish in a few minutes. So I completed the day as it had begun: solo and a little sleepy. At 38:50, this would be my absolute slowest time on a 600K brevet, including the time I actually broke my arm midway through. And yet, it did not feel like a failure in any respect. On the contrary, I was reminded anew of how much I love randonneuring with its emphasis on camaraderie, teamwork and endurance. Completing an event within the required time limit is non-negotiable for me, but while I may have internal goals for particular events, these are all relatively easy to sacrifice in the interest of good times and adventure.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Team Arrow Dynamics Takes on the 2016 New Jersey Arrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Heaven in the Heartland: The Holy Kettle 205K

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 5, 2016

A Tale of Diminishing Returns: The Blue Mountain 400K

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

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

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

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

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

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

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