Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Hightstown, NJ 600k - Ride your own ride

The NJ 600k ride started on Friday at 10:00 p.m., after a three-day heat wave. With temperatures approaching 100 humid degrees, the heat wave lasted long enough for the heat to seep into the pavement, which would radiate it back to night sky.
This would be my first attempt at this distance. On the drive to the start, I felt like I was about to take a pass/fail final exam in Randonneuring 101. My first two-day event. The 10:00 p.m. start guaranteed back-to-back night rides sandwiching a full day in the saddle. It guaranteed sleep deprivation. How much would be up to me. Could I ride 376.2 miles in less than 40 hours? Could I ride straight through? Should I try? How much sleep do I need to do this? What would it take to ride that far?

Cowbells and costumes

The Randonneurs met in the parking lot of the Hightstown Days Inn off Exit 8 of the New Jersey Turnpike. I stepped out of the car into the still, humid air. It flowed over me, submerged me, sliding beneath my clothes to coat me and cover me. I am good at sweating, very good. The kind of good that only comes with long hours of practice. I can sweat in my sleep. I can pop tiny beads of sweat across the bridge of my nose. Under the right conditions, I can soak a shirt, in minutes, just standing still. As I prepped my bike for the 600k ahead, the conditions were right. My long sleeve super lightweight eco-mesh adventure shirt stuck to my skin in semi-opaque patches of wetness.

The ride had yet to begin. One of the volunteers, my rando-friend, Katie, asked if I had overdressed. I replied that I was fine, that I was wearing a lightweight sun blocking super quick dry shirt. She did not look convinced. Then I wiped the sweat from my nose. She tactfully changed the subject and offered encouragement about the course and my ability to finish it. She rode the course just last weekend. Her enthusiasm lifted my spirits.

The gathering of Randonneurs before an event is a festive occasion under ordinary circumstances. Though no two rides bring all the same riders, many know each other and the greetings and laughter flow quickly. New riders find that they have a built-in common ground on which to build a conversation or even a friendship. After 14 months of Randonneuring, I too greet and am greeted by many as I step into the crowd. Difficult undertakings are best shared.

When the gathering takes place under cover of night, the festivity, the lights, the glowing reflective sashes, combine to create a surreal cycling Commedia dell'Arte, complete with costumes, characters and interludes that take place on the roaming stage of the road. Tonight is no exception. Anticipation sparks across the scene.
My wife and kids came with me to the start. The girls had our cowbells from the big bike race in Philadelphia. After getting our final pre-brevet instructions, we riders stream onto the course, stretching out in a line, taking up the right lane. The girls ring the cowbells and my 10 year old daughter cheers through megaphone cupped hands "Yay Daddy! See you on Sunday!" The faith of a child. They have no doubt that I will be there. The sweetness brings a lump to my throat. Sunday is a long way off and there are many miles to travel.

Ride your own ride

Before the event, I planned to average a steady consistent pace. 12 miles per hour max 11 miles per hour minimum - including all stops - for at least the first 260 miles. To average a 12 mph hour pace, I have to ride faster than 12 mph because every stop light, every slow turn, every cue sheet flip, every pee stop, every single second spent riding less than 12 mph had to offset by time spent above 12 mph. In order to do that, I put closing times on my cue sheet that corresponded to that pacing. If I got to a control ahead of schedule, I could spend more time, if I got there late, minimal time.

Starting the course, I stick to the plan, riding above pace but controlled, reserved, even as the line of riders flowed past me into the night. I remembered the lesson of the 400K and let them go. This ride was not a ride to chase dragons.

Before long, I ride alone through a landscape of shadows. Through quiet farmland, along rural roads, I follow a circle of light tracing an immeasurable white line along the shoulder of the road. The line grows exponentially with each rotation of the pedals, challenging me to find its end. The yellow half moon hangs low in the sky. The first controle is 50 miles away.

Riding with someone for a full brevet is a commitment. It’s not just about matching pace, it’s about rest stops and stoplights and bathroom breaks and attitude. It’s about ups and downs and not going through low moments at the same time. It’s about finding someone who can ride their own ride even as you ride yours.

Ed D. and I ride together for a while at the back. He started even more conservatively than I did. His company was welcome. We talked and pedaled and talked. But then, as the need to ride our own rides took over, we parted ways. It appears that Ed may be a master of the Order Testudines/Cliff Young approach to cycling. He finished in 31 hours.

I rode with Dan A. for while. Dan is an understated fount of ultracycling knowledge. He finished the infamous 2007 PBP - the 750 mile ride about which stories are told to this day due to the harsh conditions and high DNF rate - and enjoyed himself in the process. Dan had hip replacement in January (this year). (Since it was reported in the NY Times, I figure its ok for me to mention it here) Dan plans to go to Paris to ride the PBP again. As we rode though the darkness, I asked him for advice. He told me, "Stay on the bike, Stay on the bike, Stay on the bike" and "ride your own ride." That advice would come in handy. Dan's ride was not my ride and we too would part ways.

Riding alone, my mind battles my brain. Tired, alone and in the dark, my mind questions while my legs keep pedaling. Keep pedaling. Keep pedaling. Through the dark, follow the cue sheet, keep pedaling. Stay on the bike.

After midnight, I turn on the MP3 player. Not for long, just to get to the first controle - to take my mind off the endless white line and the questions I cannot answer. It is a long ride and I have to use it sparingly. It is only Friday night.

We enter a small town. I sing along to pass the time. Suddenly, a girl, dressed in all black, jumps out from behind a tree on a lawn bordering the street and shouts at me. It is the middle of the night. Even before I can fully understand what is going on, I gave voice to my surprise, spewing my fear and anger in an unexpected wordless guttural roar of sound that erupts from me. Surprised, she ran off even as the sharp tingle of adrenaline surged through my limbs, ready for flight or fight. After I reacted, I realized that it was just teenage girl trying to scare me, and it worked, though probably not the way she expected. Slightly embarrassed at being caught off-guard, I used the adrenaline rush to ride faster toward the next controle. Stay on the bike, Stay on the bike.

Randonneurs gathered at the oasis of light generated by the convenience store controle. I was the last to arrive, but many were still there. The volunteers signed the brevet card. I ate and drank and then returned to solo through the night.

Joy cometh in the morning.

Tomorrow is a new day. The sun will come out tomorrow. Let the sun shine. Joy cometh in the morning. All of the clichéd, repeated, numerous references to sunrise in literature, song and philosophy make sense when you've been out all night alone. They make sense even when sunrise comes shrouded in a misty fog.

Night turned to gray. From sunrise to mid-morning, I rode through a misty cloud, crossing bridge after bridge on route to Cape May. Dry docked boats lined the roadways and early morning joggers and cyclists waved hello. In light of this new day, I am refreshed and alive and energized. No longer an aberration in the dark, I am a cyclist riding a bike on a weekend. The world is right again. Morning has broken like the first dawn.

The mid morning sun finally burned off the fog. The rich salty smell of brackish water permeates the air. Men fish from bridges. A couple walks on the rocks that jut into the water.

The course takes us to the lighthouse at Cape May, New Jersey. The sky has cleared and the scene is postcard perfect. This is a beautiful day for a bike ride.

We ride through marshes after the Cape. Large nests in the tops of dead trees, amidst a field of long green grasses.

Throughout the day, I leapfrog with other riders on the course. I meet Maile, from D.C., at a Pizza Place where I received a great reception and ate two slices. She and Gary were leaving as I arrived. I met Todd and Leslie who were riding together. During daytime randonneuring, I see the sights, meet folks on the road, take pictures, and enjoy the ride.

The sleep stop came at 260 miles. I arrived about 8:30 p.m. Hosted by Walt, Rick, Katie and family members, it was held at Walt's place that overlooks the ocean. They provided food, showers and cots for sleeping. They did so while guiding first timers, like me, through the process in a gentle seamless efficient process.

Randonneurs talk about having a sleep strategy. Having a sleep strategy boils down to this: Do you sleep or ride through a 600k? If you sleep, for how long? When I started the ride, I did not have a sleep strategy. Before I arrived at the sleep stop, I knew I needed to be off the bike for a short while a least.

After a long ride, I usually get brevet insomnia. I lie in bed and stare at the ceiling, restless. There was no way I would get any sleep in a cot in a strange setting with other people in the room. But, at least, I would lie down for bit after a shower and a meal and just rest for a bit. I expected to lie there for an hour and hit the road by 10. I asked for an 11:30 wake up just in case.

The room was dark and air-conditioned. I was clean and dry for the first time since I started the ride. I lay on the cot, my head on a balled-up sheet serving as an improvised pillow and stared at the ceiling. I will never get any slee . . . "It's 11:30, time to get up." A quiet voice and a soft touch caused me to open my eyes and blink away my confusion. 11:30? Wow. I fumbled my bike together, thanked my hosts and went back into the night at the witching hour.

Dwarfs come out at night. Dwarfs and other supposedly mythical creatures. You can see them if you ride a bike over 260 miles on two hours sleep in two nights, and you are alone in the dark amidst farms or trees, where it’s quiet.

I saw them.

They stand at the side of the road and stare at you, surprised by you even as they surprise you. When you shake your head to clear the fog and blink blink to clear your eyes and take a second look, they disguise themselves as tree shapes, mailboxes or odd plants. But they were there, because you see more than one and tree shapes, mailboxes and odd plants do not move and they do not stare back at you. Mythical creatures stare back, they move. Stay on the bike.

My eyes transposed a direction and a road. I made a left where I should have turned right. BONUS MILES! DING-DING. Seven of them. A half hour or more that I could have spent asleep - wasted on bonus miles. I turn around and pick up speed to make up lost time. I see bicycle taillights ahead and they are within reach if I surge ahead. I surge.

The lights belong to Todd and Leslie whom I met yesterday. We agree to ride together during the night and I am very thankful for the company. We pass another rider trying to take a ditch nap on the side of the road. He remounts his bike and joins us for a while.

Todd and Leslie are good company. Their ride and my ride jell. So we ride our own rides together, through the darkness and looking forward to the rising sun.

As dawn approaches, Leslie’s knee gives her trouble. It worsens with distance. Eventually, it becomes bad enough that we call the organizers to pick her up. Todd and I ride on together.

With sunlight comes renewed energy. Our pace quickens. The last section of the course has a series of rolling hills. None of them would present a problem at the beginning at a ride but after 300+ miles, things are different. Nevertheless, I feel strong, we ride hard, and the miles roll beneath our wheels.

We surged to catch up with the Mortara brothers. Then the four of us rode together for the last section of the course, under bright sunshine; playing the game of “this is the last hill” until, finally, we come to the last hill and the last mile.

I finish the course to the sound of ringing cowbells. My wife and children are there to greet me. It is Sunday. I am back and I am "Super."


  1. Nigel: You write beautifully! I completely agree with the oxymoronic notion of riding alone together.
    Congratulations on your SR!
    So are you ready for a 1200 now? :-)
    (more opportunities for frozen custard...)

    Cheers, Jon

  2. Awesome writeup, Nigel. You sure have a way with words. And congrats on the Super status!


  3. Nigel congrats on finishing your first 600k (with your imaginary dwarfs).
    I too have seen objects change right in front of me, coming down a descent around
    midnight on a the PA600 I thought there was one of those "slow down children playing'
    signs right in the middle of the road, it wasn't it turned out to be a deer that didn't
    decide to move until the last moment. Ahh those sleep deprived moments.

    Once again, great write up!

    Take care,

  4. Great write up, Nigel. And congratulations again.

  5. Nigel, I have come to look forward to your ride reports and this one did not disappoint. Your late night adventures remind me of my experiences riding alone through the night in the 2007 NJ 600k. In the middle of the pine barrens, about 2 a.m., I saw a bicyclist approaching, wearing a black tuxedo. I kept waiting for him to change into a utility pole or a street sign, but he didn't. He went right past me. Maybe he was real.

  6. Thanks all of you for your comments and congratulations. What's odd is learning that others are seeing strange things out there too. LOL. What a sport this is!

  7. Nigel -
    Well written! Congrats on your first 600 and going Super as well! There were several of us -- Patrick and myself included (that I'm aware of) -- who are newbies and first timers at both those distances 400/600 as well as completing a complete series. Welcome and kudos to all!
    Steve Y. (Lemond)

  8. Nigel, Congratulations on your 600K! My husband and I met you in the lobby of the Days Inn on the 400K. You have helped to inspire me to try a 600K, thanks for sharing your story. Judy B. (& Steve)from CT

  9. Steve - well done! I remember chatting with you at the sleep stop.

    Judy - Thanks! I certainly remember you and Steve. A 600 is quite a challenge, but I'm sure you're up to it.

  10. Well, I had a completely opposite experience the first night. I was the lead rider of a group that came up behind man who seemed to be having trouble walking straight along the white line at the edge of the pavement. When I called out "on your left" he spun around, and upon seeing us hurtling towards him at about 20 mph, he let out a "wordless guttural roar of sound" and jumped off the road into the bushes!

  11. Ha ha! What a sight that must have been. That poor guy, I wonder what he remembered the next day.