Sunday, May 29, 2011

NJ Hightstown 400k - Flat is fast but it ain't easy

Let me start by stating the obvious: 400 kilometers is a long ass distance to pedal a bicycle. It's about the distance from New York City to Washington, D.C. People won't even drive that kind of distance unless they have a good reason. 400 kilometers would make a good distance for a bike tour vacation over several to five days. However, to pedal a bike that far in one ride, straight through, and end up right back where you started seems fundamentally irrational - an act not derived from reason but fueled by an implacable desire for the extra ordinary - irrational like art, obsession and passion. Fully embracing the obvious and the irrational, I rode the NJ Randonneurs 400k on Saturday May 28.

Three weeks ago, I rode the PA Randonneurs climb filled 400K. The New Jersey 400k promised flatness and speed. Turns out flat and fast has its challenges too . . .

The night before

The course began in Hightstown NJ, a small town just off exit 8 on the NJ Turnpike. I arrived on Friday afternoon to avoid an early morning drive before the 4 am start. Hightstown's Main Street holds stores that cater to a Spanish speaking clientele. A Salvadorian bakery/restaurant, called Bakery, served me a delicious plate of enchiladas de pollo, arroz y frijoles rojas. One table over, a Spanish speaking man with the wide cheek boned features of an indigenous South American wore a pale blue landscaping shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He slowly spooned down a large bowl of soup with pieces of a bone-in chicken wing. The corded muscles of his forearms were baked the deep red brown of someone who works outside with his hands. His bicycle, a dark blue ten speed with a too large frame and a metal spoke protector, leaned against the shop window. It appeared to be his everyday vehicle, not a toy or hobby. After he ate, he shouldered his back pack, unlocked the thin cable lock and walked the bike up Main Street. I finished my plate, then drove back to the Days Inn that would serve as the first and last controle.

The hotel lobby swirled with activity. Organizers checked in riders, inspected bikes and signed brevet cards. Katie, a volunteer, sat at a table with a cold beer and a warm smile. She rode the course last weekend. I turned down the tempting offer to have a cold one myself and opted to prep my bike and get to bed. After exchanging greetings and getting checked in, I went to my room to prepare while my copy of Bicycle Dreams played in the background as motivation.

Catching The Train

The ride began at 4 am, after Paul S. held a short briefing in the hotel parking lot. Standing in the pleasant warm temperature reminded me that six months passed since I last started a ride without needing the balaclava and shoe covers. I was happy to leave them at home.
click pics for full size
Under the cover of darkness, the group rolled onto the course en masse. A double line of riders, grouped tight, snaked though sleeping Hightstown then out into the surrounding farmlands toward the first controle, 65 miles away.
The flatness of the course allowed a large group to stay together. The initial pace was only moderately fast. So much so that someone wondered aloud whether people had read Jud's article on negative split pacing. The moderate pacing did not last long. As the day light grew stronger, the quiet roads with minimal traffic gave the peleton room to form and flow and the speed increased in the cool morning shadows. The group rolled up the mileage with a voracious appetite. We became a locomotive pulling down a flat fast track.

A good pacing strategy would have required some of us to slow down. Me included. Hitting top speed in the first 50 miles of a 250 mile ride on a day expected to be hot and sunny, is a recipe for a big meltdown later. My brain knew that.

A good pacing strategy would have kept me well tucked into the energy conserving draft at the back of the peleton. Clydesdales on heavy steel bikes should avoid taking long pulls at the front. My brain knew that.

It's not how you start a 400k; it's how you finish it. My brain knew that too. 

These facts were obvious even as I ignored them.

I rode with Shane for a while. Before we met in person, I knew of him from internet postings, ride reports and talking to other people who knew him. In the balanced rush of the peleton, we talked and made acquaintances. It was a good conversation. One thing I like about this sport is the camaraderie created by the shared experience of completing these rides, even when the experience is not actually shared. Shane is faster than me. He completes rides when I am still picking my way through the course. There are people faster than Shane and people slower than me. But when faster and slower meet, the experience, the understanding, is there. Greg Lemond said "it never gets easier, you just get faster." Seems to me that a corollary of that rule is that "it ain't any easier because you are slower." In other words, a speedometer does not measure the experience, the desire, the love of the sport. In Randonneuring, showing up and pedaling your machine over every mile of the course is the measure.

As the peleton sped toward the second controle, I had to stop twice to make a quick gear correction before time-trialing my way back to the pack. The third time it happened, I thought I'd lost contact for good. Just about then, I heard "jump on the train!" Two riders were moving fast, one leading the other, looking to catch the main group. I jump on the back of the line and soon we were working together, taking turns pulling the chase group along. Along the way, we pick up two more riders. Somewhere in the rush of the chase my id took control over my ego while my superego sat back to see what would happen. I became a kid on a bike on a summer morning. I pulled as fast and hard as I could manage. We reeled them in and tucked into the draft of the main group to recover.

We rolled through the 65 miles to the second control in about 3-1/2 hours.

On the verge of entering the controle, I lost use of part of my rear cassette. My two highest gears separated from the main part of the cassette and were spinning free - completely useless. I made it to the controle and tried to work a quick field repair without having the right tool. I figured out that if I removed the second highest gear, everything would hold together and I would only be missing one gear. That would have to do for the next 185 miles.

By the time the repair was done, the peleton was gone. I walked over to the food table just as someone jokingly said "Locusts!" as they stared at the carnage wrought over the supplies. The next leg of the course was over 50 miles. The sun had crested the treetops. The open farmlands would provide no shade from temperatures that would reach the high 80's. The free ride was over. The train had left the station.

The Treadmill

The farmlands of Central Jersey have been plowed and tilled. Fields of brown corduroy replace the corn stalk stubble left after last year's harvest. Occasionally, delicate rows of new green vegetation write the first hesitant lines of the story of this year’s crop. That story, like the season, as yet unwritten.

The 400k course is F-L-A-T. Someone told me it has 2000 feet of elevation gain over 250 miles. That averages to 8 feet per mile. That is really flat.

I ride the flatness of Central Jersey farmlands. Pedal stoke after pedal stroke, rolling the ground beneath me at 13-16 mph per hour, alongside fields stripped bare to receive the full sun, toward the siren call of the horizon. No uphills to curse but no downhills to coast. No peleton to pursue or to offer protection. Headwinds are mine alone. Progress is mine to make. The only way to make progress is pedal, pedal, pedal. 

Read that paragraph again. And again and again. Now read it again outside in the sun for hours. Feel the treadmill of the road. Flat is fast but it ain't easy.

The Support Team

I have a secret weapon, a performance enhancer that can last up to 10 hours. But it has limits and drawbacks. One limit is the 10 hours. Long rides take more than 10 hours, so I have to carefully choose when I want to deploy it. The other drawback is that it draws focus. Using it at the end of a ride, when I am tired and can use it most, means that the chances of missing a turn increases yet again. Shortly after leaving the third controle, I deployed my support team. From James Brown to James Taylor, Pablo Neruda to Prince, Dancetrax to soundtracks, my MP3 player filled my head with lyrics to consider and offered rhythms for my pedal strokes. I made good time to the next control, rested, ate and resumed. Then I promptly missed a turn. 4 miles later, I pick up my error and had to back track to get back on course. A solid half hour of additional time.

Darkness and digestive tracts

Once back on course, I came across two riders each riding solo and going through stomach problems. Both experienced riders, they recognized that they had lots of time to finish and were patiently making their way toward the end. Experience brings wisdom.

Darkness descended during the last segment of the course. Riding a bike on a warm, summerlike night under a star filled sky and sliver of a moon is one of the perks of irrationality.
Yard art - A bicycle in lights.

Paul and Joe greeted me at the arrival, took my brevet card, fed me and we talked. A wonderful welcome. I sat for a bit, glad to be done, then wondered what it would take to ride 600 kilometers.


  1. Nigel,
    I really enjoyed your ride report. I wish I coulda been there. I agree completely that riding the South Jersey flats on a warm summer night is a genuine pleasure.

  2. Great report Nigel. Flat certainly isn't easy, especially when it's hot.

  3. Beautifully written, Nigel. Great meeting (and chatting with) you on Saturday. Thanks for the advice on the wool jersey and bib; I just may take you up on your advice and seek them out--albeit at a (hopefully) cheaper price than I'm seeing online! ;-)

    See you on the road!


  4. Thanks Roy, Jersey Guy and PatCH.
    @Patrick, I very much enjoyed our conversation as well. Look forward to the next time.
    The PA Randonneurs are making a purchase of light wool jerseys, Shane is taking the lead on that. May be worth looking into. Also, well done on the course! You, Shane and Don really got the fast out of the flat!

  5. Nigel,
    Another great ride report. I too enjoyed the time we road together and the good conversation.
    Glad to hear your cassette issue didn't stop you from riding.
    Take care,

  6. Thanks Shane!

    It was quite a ride. Look forward to our next meeting.