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.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Feast and Famine on the NJ 600K

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up next: The Million Meters of Milk 1000K