Sunday, March 25, 2012

Blue Mountain 200k

The first ride of my third year of Randonneuring took place around and over Blue Mountain.

The lamb of March arrived early to replace a worn and toothless lion. Last week's string of unseasonably warm temperatures included a record high 80 degrees on Friday. The Pennsylvania Randonneurs' March 200k brevet was scheduled for Saturday. The weather was scheduled to change.

The Saturday forecast called for cooler temperatures and a good chance of showers in the afternoon. A good day for Randonneuring is not what I once imagined. I used to think of bike riding as something to do while wearing shorts and sunscreen - not wool and rain jackets - but I no longer place those limits on myself. I wore the wool and packed a rain jacket. I would deal with whatever the weather would bring.

The Randonneurs met at the Milford Bakery before dawn. The pre-ride list showed about thirty riders. It seemed that at least that many showed up. A good turnout. A very different beginning from my solo R24 (link) ride last week. This time, I exchanged greetings with people I hadn't seen in months, and looked forward to sharing the journey.


 The atmosphere before a ride always seems charged with nervous energy. The ticking clock, last minute preparations of bike and rider.  This ride was no different. Lots of milling about in the first light of the new day. The building anticipation of the event about to occur. Or maybe it's just me.

I thought about what kind of ride I would have today. The course map and profile (click for link) listed 9800 feet of elevation and 61.6 miles of climbing. And this was Pennsylvania. The PA Randonneurs run hilly courses. And the course was called Blue Mountain. The word mountain was in the title.  All signs of extensive climbing. Should I ride hard or hold back and keep something in reserve? I decided not to place any limits on myself. I would ride the course in the moment. I would deal with whatever the day provided.

In the final minutes before the 7:00 start, RBA Tom R. gave some final pre-ride reminders and course notes. Then we rolled onto the course, where for a brief moment, I realized that something utterly ridiculous was taking place. In this group of fast, experienced Randonneurs, I was in the very front. Oh oh. That just ain't right.

The course first runs along the Delaware river. The group held together even as it flowed in front and around me. I tuck into the draft and enjoy the company. The hills will come soon enough to sift and sort the riders.

I marvel at the rising sun. Its early morning light softly fills the empty farm fields. Stubs of harvested corn glow warm orange yellow and stretch across a curving horizon.

The group in which I ride includes Rick C., John F., Geoff B., Norman S., Len Z. and others who typically finish brevets multiple hours before I do. The fact that I am with them either means that they are taking it easy or, much more likely, I am starting much too fast. I check my gear and speed. Both are what I know I can ride on the fixie. I can do this. I ride on.

A large group stays together through 17 miles and the mandatory bridge walk into Easton, Pennsylvania. A short steep climb, past Lafayette College, follows. I think of the climb that I make when I commute on the fixie and apply the same effort. Much to my surprise, I am still with the group after its done. I'm not dropped yet.

After Easton, we cross the rolling foothills before Blue Mountain. The sifting begins. The group stretches into an ever lengthening line before it silently and unceremoniously breaks into smaller groups. Soon I ride alone. I can do this too. I ride on. 

By the time I reach the second controle, 33 miles of riding with just water have burned through the oatmeal breakfast I ate on the way to the start. I refuel by drinking a quart of Gatorade then refill my  two bottles with more of the liquid calories. The control has Fig Newtons! Two hundred yummy carb calories a pack. I buy six packs, stick em in my pocket and rejoin the course.

The crossing of Blue Mountain will come after the third controle. In the distance, I see the wall that is  Blue Mountain.

I climb Blue Mountain, slug-snailing my way up, pedal stroke after pedal stroke. The process is neither glamorous nor dramatic but I manage it with a slow controlled burn.
The route crosses the Appalachian Trail. I stop to take my customary picture of the trail sign. Mary J. summits as I am finishing. I descend just behind her. Now gravity works to my advantage and the Surly holds the line as I careen down the mountain road.

Bill O. and Bob T. follow soon after. The four of us ride together for a while on the other side of the mountain. The Mary gets a rear tire flat. She tells us to ride on. We press on without her through the rolling hills.

The Water Gap Diner in Delaware Water Gap serves as the fourth Controle. Everyone, the hostess, waitress, and even customers, greet us and chat with us as we enter. Taking a seat at the counter, I order a cup of chicken soup with pasta shells. The waitress  immediately brings its out. I chat with the waitress and laugh with one of the customers while enjoying the hot liquid lunch.

Going outside to restart the ride, I see that Bill O, has not yet left, so we leave together and ride down Route 611.

Across the river, the exposed earth shows the folded  rock that forms the ridges that surround us. Hawks circle on thermals above the river.

Realizing that I am low on water, I leave Bill to stop at a gas station and refill my bottles.

Clouds appear in the late afternoon. A sense of rain fills the air. I glide along the back roads in the quiet before rain falls.

I hear the small sound of new leaves catching whisper light drops of rain. It is not enough to wet the roads or dampen clothes. Then it passes.

The course is coming to an end. All day long, I have moved through the course feeling equal to the task at hand. Without knowing the details of what lay ahead, I managed to match effort to challenge. I indulge in the thought of a sub 10 hour finish in a Pennsylvania ride. It would be a first for me. 

Then came Staat Road. Staat Road is a very long, very steep climb at mile 117.  I have a gear on my bike that I added just for climbs like Staat Road. It is such a forgiving and gentle  gear, I should call it my great-granny gear. In my great-granny gear I began to elevate every ounce of my Clydesdale self and my tank like bike up every inch of the very long, very steep climb. In my mirror, I saw another rider. Great. I have an audience to watch my old molasses drip uphill. So, while climbing the very long, very steep climb, I waited for the inevitable. At least when Chris, or was it Mike,  passed me, he was nice about it, we did what passes for chatting when climbing a very long very steep climb. In between breaths, he said "I wish I had a gear like that." In between gasps, I said "I wish you weren't behind me so I could get off this bike and walk." He laughed and promised to not look back. Turns out great-granny gear got me up Staat Road without my having to walk. I can do this too. I ride on.

In the very last stretch, I rode with Chris. Chris was on his second brevet. He talked about the enjoyment of riding your own ride through the countryside - whether that meant riding with others or riding alone. He talked about that *thing* I try to write about in this blog. He talked like a Randonneur. Yes Chris. I DO know what you mean.

We arrived at the final controle together with Mike L. 

This ride was over but this season has just begun.
And for those keeping track: I finished in 9:40


  1. 200K. 9800 feet climbing. 9 hours, 40 minutes.

    Good on you!

    And, don't I just wish ...


    BTW, I lived in Easton for a couple years. Moved by about 3 years old, though.

    1. Thanks Suze, It's taken me a loong time to get under 10 hours. But really, the finish time is not what's most important to me. Faster riders finished both ahead of me and behind me. What's more important it that it was a fun,scenic course with a good group of people and I had a very memorable experience. There're some great bike roads in your old stomping grounds!

  2. Nice write up Nigel. Congrats on the great time! That's quite impressive for a hilly route!


    1. Thanks Joe! It was a nice course, at least half was downhill;-)

  3. An excellent write up, as always, with great pics. I felt like I rode it with you.

    Just kidding - I don't feel even close to like I climbed 9800 feet in 9:40!!!

    1. Thanks Steve, keep riding those brevets and we may have a chance to ride together. The DC rides are not that far away . . .