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?