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.