Five hours after toasting the arrival of 2011, I began the final preparations for my first ride of the year. Pull on layers of riding clothes, eat two servings of microwaved oatmeal, load the Surly onto the car rack, and double-check my mental list of things to bring.
The weather forecast predicted midday temps in the 50's, but at 5:00 am, the temperature hovered just above freezing. Relying on the forecast, and the warmth that riding hills would bring, I left my wool tights and sweater at home and trusted that the remaining layers would be enough to suit the day.
The course was the PA Dutch 200k. This would be my first time on it. Pre-ride mapping on an internet site identified seven “category 5” climbs (course map and elevation profile.) According to mapmyride.com, a cat 5 climb is the easiest of the category worthy climbs, but there would be seven of them on the 128.9 mile course.
It would also be my first time riding with the PA Randonneurs, a group whose reputation for staging hilly rides preceded them. I don't love riding hills, but in the last 10 months of randonneuring, I've gotten better at it. And to get where I want to go in this sport, I may have to get even better. Today could be a good measure of my mid-winter condition.
After packing up, I drove north. The crescent moon poised just above the western horizon, basking in the bright blue light of Venus-the morning star.
Pulling up near the start, I saw a group of bike riders through the window of a diner. The scene brought to mind the Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks, if it were re-done in a cycling motif. Given the time, date, place and weather, I figured they must be the Randonneurs (after all who else would be getting ready for a group ride now?). I pulled into the parking lot and thought about going in, but after looking at the time, decided to go straight to the start point to unpack and get ready to ride.
The Randonneurs were a very friendly group. Light and cheerful introductions were made. Rick, the ride organizer, held a brief pre-ride meeting and then we were off, wheeling down the incline from the start onto the course. The rising sun greeted us at the start. We threaded our way through town and quickly found ourselves on roads leading into the surrounding farm country.
26.2 miles to the Honeybrook control - Easing into the first few miles, I meet the folks riding around me as positions flow and shift along the down hill grade of the road. At first I ride near the front, happy to ride in a group, meet the guys and put faces to names that I recognize from reading ride reports on-line. However, in hearing the names, I also realized that I am riding with folks whose regular 200k times are faster than my typical century time. My heart rate monitor also started flashing numbers out of my “target zone,” so I decided to accept reality and ease off the pace to prevent an end of day implosion.
From miles 6 to 17, the road went up in rolling hills, including one of the first cat 5 climbs. This early in the day the climb was a simple thing and I felt that the 10 months of distance riding had made a difference. Around us, a light mist covered snow fringed open land.
On the way to the second controle, the terrain, the pace or both, soon stretched the line of riders into a single file with growing gaps. For a while, I rode with Bill R. from Martha's Vineyard. Though we had not met before, our pace seemed to match well. Bill is a multi-time iron man triathlon finisher who made a very pleasant riding companion. He came down to Pennsylvania to ride his tenth month of an R-12 that he started with his first Randonneuring ride in April; the same month I started my own R-12 pursuit. We told the stories of the paths that led us to Randonneuring. But then, on a small rise, I heard the sswsswsswswisssing of a tire rapidly losing air. Bill had flatted. He said he had what he needed and declined my offer to wait, insisting that I "save myself" so I rode on following the taillight ahead that was moving off into the distance. In hindsight, I should have waited - I’m pretty sure Bill has GPS.
From mile 15 to the controle, I rode small rollers over a generally level elevation. With my speed averaging in the low to mid teens at an easy effort, I arrived at the second controle well ahead of my pre-trip schedule. This kind of riding, I like.
45 miles to the Columbia Controle I made quick work of the controle. RFM - Relentless forward motion was the plan, I wanted to keep the stop to less than 10 minutes. The next leg of the ride had a cat 5 climb at mile 60. Until then is was a series of easy rollers that gradually descended in elevation. PA Dutch country is like a bowl of farmland surrounded by a rim of hills. This section was the center of the bowl. Climbing out would come later.
Horse drawn black carriages were a frequent sight. Seeing them by bicycle is one of the best parts of riding through this country. You get to see the flare of the horse's nostrils, hear the whoosh of its breath and the rhythmic clip-clopping of hooves. The Amish inside the carriages silently return my waves of greeting.
The temperature has risen. I have sweated through my wool jersey but I leave my jacket on to avoid getting wind chilled. To get my gloves on, I use the pre-fight move move that Burt Ward used when he played Robin in the Batman TV show starring Adam West - grab the gloves from the back of the wrist and pull it on while opening and closing your fist. Works like a charm.
20 miles to the Lititz controle - The cat 5 climb on this section comes shortly after the controle, after that the route starts a rising series of gradual climbs over the remaining miles to the next control. We cross covered bridge after covered bridge, quiet wooden structures over creeks and streams along picturesque back roads.
The control at Lititz is also closed for New Year's day but once again the route volunteers are on top of it. I am greeted by a small group who cheerfully direct me to an alternate stop at a local pizza place. Here, at the fourth controle, I take the time to get something to eat. Two slices of pizza and several beverages later, I remount and set out to finish the ride.
38 miles to Reading - Darkness catches me on the road to and through Ephrata. This section of the route has three cat 5 climbs and the first in a wooded area. I miss the turn by a mile, backtrack, re-track, and still can't find it. I stop in the entrance way of a campground. Inside a residence, a man and a woman are having dinner. The woman notices me and speaks to her husband. He comes to the door. I ask him if he knows where the road is. He has to ask his wife. She knows. After getting directions, I find the road and it is a steep climb. The extra five miles I have added to this route have not been kind. Climbing alone, in the dark, through the woods, is not my favorite thing. I pause on the hill to regroup and motivate -fracking cuss foul filth- then press on.
The last two climbs come at the tail end of the route, the last controle is at the top of the hill. My pace has slowed. My legs are tired and crampy. I think about the time that the five bonus miles cost me. Had I not done that I would have been done by now. I ride on.
Bill R. is leaving the controle as I arrive. He must have passed me when I was off course. GPS! I should have waited. We congratulate each other on finishing the ride.
A warm welcome greets me at the controle, there are riders, volunteers, food and laughter. I meet people, eat and rest and eat. The frustration of my missed turns quickly fades in the bright light of the reception.