18 degrees. The cold air pounced on me, reached into my chest and squeezed a gasp of air from my lungs. 7:35 a.m. I had just stepped out of my car into the parking lot of the Belvidere Diner in New Jersey. I was the last to arrive. The February 200k brevet had started at 7:30. The other Randonneurs were already on the course.
It’s been six weeks since my last brevet. Since then, deep snow and icy roads all but eliminated my outdoor riding. Since that January 1 brevet, I may have gotten in three total hours of outdoor riding, most of it just goofing around on my mountain bike turned commuter bike. Because of the snow and ice, the Pennsylvania Randonneurs changed the date and course for their February 200k. The revised Route (link) started in Belvedire went to Hope, NJ, traveled beyond Hope to New Hope, PA and doubled back to Belvedire. By PA Randonneurs standards, this was a kinder, gentler route, using primary roads and bypassing many potential climbs. According to mapmyride there were three category five climbs on the course. With the change in course, I figured it was worth a shot to get ride number eleven in for my quest to complete an R-12, which requires at least one ride a month of 200k or longer for 12 consecutive months.
The weather forecasters prognosticated a break in the cold snap. The temperature was supposed to climb into the 40's, practically balmy considering the subfreezing temperatures of the last few weeks. The weather forecasters were wrong.
Tom R., met me at my car with the brevet card. While I unloaded Esmeralda and quickly tossed lights, snacks and pump into her front bag, he gave me an overview of the course and checkpoints. He said that this was one of the flattest courses he had arranged for the PA Randonneurs but given the recent weather and the general lack of training time it gave people, it was a good course to get a 200k done. He almost sounded apologetic. I told him that it was a good idea and if it wasn't for the course change, I would have done a different ride. After I put my water bottles in their cages, I tucked the brevet card into the Ziploc bag holding my cue sheet and set off after the other riders.
The cold wind was a sadistic surgeon. It peeled back the top layer of any uncovered skin to expose raw nerve endings to its slicing cut. It numbed toes and fingers before amputating them and replacing them with clumsy jointed metal appendages that were slow to respond to commands.
I rode into the invisible wake of the Randonneurs that left on time. For this brevet, I planned to ride a controlled pace that would leave me something to work with at the end of the day. The first control was an information control 13 miles into the ride. You get there, answer a question on your card, and move on. Because the course doubled back on itself twice, there would be two opportunities for me to see the entire group on the brevet. The first sighting took place on the way to the first controle as I was headed in and they were headed out. One rider, dressed in back, tucked on aero bars, was the first to appear. Just behind him was a larger group, bunched together in a paceline. A smaller group followed at a distance and then one or two solo riders appeared. Out of habit, I checked my odometer and the time to gauge the gaps between them and between me. Arriving at the Post Office control, I wrote down the answer and then moved on.
The wind froze what should have been morning fog into an icy imitation of snow and blew it sideways across the road.
I had spent a good part of the two weeks before the ride geeking out over gear selection. Using calculators, charts and theory, I conceptualized matching gear to cadence to riding goals. Now, before my eyes, paperwork became legwork and theory became practice and it all fell into place. As my legs spun in an all day cadence, gear shifts became fewer but more effective, done with more reason than "too hard" or "too easy." How could I have been riding so long and not figured this out before? But it was still early; the first few hours of a brevet are not the place to pass judgment on the ride. I moved forward along the course.
Around me, long ago fallen snow with a thick unyielding crust locks onto the land. This is not the fresh snow of snowmen and snowball fights. Winter sun, wind and sub-freezing temperatures transformed it. Like stale icing on a forgotten piece of cake, its softly reflective shine disguises a hard crystallized nature. Only red barns add color to the stark landscape.
25 degrees. The second controle will have warmth, food and a bathroom. My water bottles start turning into ice bottles. When I realize I won't be able to drink from them, I dump the semi-frozen water. If I can't drink it, no point carrying it. I focus on riding, holding pace, my average speed is higher than normal but this is a flat section of the course.
When I reach the second controle, I see that I am a little more than 10 minutes behind the last of the riders to leave. I want to keep my stops short, but for sanity sake, I have to thaw my feet, use the restroom and have a cup of half milk/ half coffee before I continue. I drink some OJ and refill my water bottles. That done, I remount and get back up to pace. One third of the ride completed.
A white dog in a snowy field silently watches. Farm animals stand in the cold with no sign of discomfort. A sparrow pecks at the edge of a snow bank. A raptor spreads wings and is lofted by unseen currents over fields of ice. I find odd inspiration in their acquiescence? fortitude? acceptance? ignorance? of the conditions. I press on.
My thoughts turn away from the weather and the discomfort of cold feet and hands. I head down to New Hope where the course will turn north and re-track to the start. The course is a slight down hill and my speed climbs into the high teens. Conscious of wanting to control pace, I check my heart rate monitor and confirm that I am "in the zone." So I just enjoy the ride.
Briefly, at mid day, the sun appeared. The temperatures must have risen above freezing because my water remained liquid, but gusting cross winds more than made up for any change in temperatures.
On the way to New Hope, the second sighting of the Randonneurs occurs. The group has stretched along the course. The aero rider in black still leads and he has gapped the field. A second lone rider comes next. As I greet him, I hear him say something that I think sounds like "enjoy tailwinds." But I miss most of it. Two groups come next, each riding in tight packs, clearly working together. Must be nice. One day. Crossing the bridge into Pennsylvania, I cross paths with another rider and there is another in Pennsylvania. Everyone is disguised by balaclavas and winter gear. Bob D. is still at the New Hope controle when I arrive. We talk for a bit before I make my purchases and start to refuel. Fig Newtons and chocolate milk. Perfect. By time I am done with the stop, Bob is gone. I head off behind him, continuing my solo brevet.
The sunshine is short lived. The wind brings in clouds and a horizontal flurry of ice vapor.
25-35 mph winds. 40 mph gusts. Heading north to Hope, I am back on the road where I saw the inbound riders. It’s as if the wind decided that the course is too flat and it pushes back - hard. Hard enough to make me change gears and duck. So maybe this is what the rider meant when he said enjoy tailwinds. This definitely explains the tight groups. But if I had to choose between headwinds and hills, I would choose headwinds. Having mass on my side seems to help - maybe it's inertia. So I get low into my drops, keep my head down and spin the pedals.
The sun has passed its zenith. After dark, the temperature could drop below freezing again and refreeze the damp patches on the road.
I maintain my effort. Riding along the Delaware River, it dawns on me that I have ridden beyond my usual 80 mile bonk zone with none of the usual loss of energy and enthusiasm. Something is definitely different this ride. I feel strong. Approaching the fifth control, I see Bob up ahead. When I approach, we talk for a bit. He reminds me the next stop has pizza. I continue on, hoping to complete the route before dark.
Spikes of frozen ice cling to the wall of rock that edges the road along the Delaware River. The road is quiet and traffic is light.
Volunteer Don J. mans the controle outside the Pizza Place in Milford, NJ. Don has water, coke, snickers, which I use to refill my bottles and stash in case of carbohydrate emergency. Bob D. arrives while I am there. He orders pizza. I opt to move on to maximize the daylight portion of my ride. This is not a race, but the sun waits for no one and two of the three category five climbs will come in the last twenty miles of the ride.
The golden hour before sunset illuminates small farms in photogenic light. Despite the cold, it is an appealing and tranquil scene.
Overall, the course climbs to the last control. I maintain my effort even though the resulting pace is slower. That is to be expected, so it is okay. More importantly, the gear selection continues to make me feel efficient and capable.
Darkness descends slowly. It comes first to the hills that cover the sun before it goes beneath the horizon. In the open farmlands, it pinks the clouds and stretches shadows of broken cornstalks across white fields of snow.
After stopping to add lights, I ride to the diner, the last controle, and check in. While I am at the car loading the bike, Bob D. walks up. He arrived shortly after I did and will be eating inside. I go in and join him. Bill O. is there collecting brevet cards. I missed him the first time I came in. I turned in my cards, sat, ate and chatted with Bob. Today was a good ride. Despite the late start and cold weather, I rode my fastest 200k to date. Number 11 completed.