Monday, December 10, 2012

The Jersey Devil in December.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Sunday was a good day to lounge around in a robe and warm slippers, curled up on the couch with a cup of coffee, a hard crossword puzzle and a sharp number 2 pencil with a good eraser. Instead, at 6:00 am, in the lingering night that makes a December morning, I was driving through fog, interspersed with rain, to meet three Randonneurs in Vineland, New Jersey and ride a 201 kilometer route through five south Jersey Pineland counties. 

None of us had to be there. Each of us would probably understand if any one of us failed to show. I arrived at the start, Larry’s Diner, twenty minutes early. It was damp, forty something degrees and dark; the last bit of the persistent night. Chris, Janice and Rick were already there and preparing their bikes.

We started the 125 mile course, called the Jersey Devil permanent, just as the night began to fade into day. There was no sunrise to speak of. The ambient light just slowly grew bright enough for us to see the muted colors of a cloudy day. We left our rear lights blinking red to contrast the monochromatic weather and enhance our visibility.

15 miles later, the fog turned to small drops of rain. Big rain drops would have caused us to pull over and pull on rain gear or try to wait it out under shelter. We rode through the small drops. The tiny rain waged a war of attrition. Its thin drops coated our glasses and our clothing. Our water resistant fabrics eventually abandoned the resistance, leaving us with the resolved warmth of wet wool. We rode on.

Bud's Market - the mile 25.4 controle – serves hot chocolate, sandwiches from under heat lamps and a convenience store variety of packaged foods. The guy behind the counter knows his regular customers' names and their brands of cigarette. The his/her public bathroom is behind the deli counter. All you have to do is ask. A small collection of Bibles sits on the bookshelf built above the toilet tank.

The roof covered front porch made a good place to add another layer of rain gear. I put on my waterproof camo-pattern bib shorts that I bought at the Amy Navy Surplus and a Rain Showers bike cap. Janice had already stretched a clear shower cap over her helmet. Chris pulled on a black helmet cover that somehow reminded me of a beret. We gained no points for style. Rick didn’t change a thing.

The rain continued to fall. If we turned back now, we could be back at our cars in time for lunch at the diner. We rode on, into the passing showers.

If purgatory has weather it is probably like this. All day long: intermittent constant rain; overcast heavy gray skies; hours of moderate headwind. It was not a day to punish a soul nor was it a day to reward one. It was a day to endure.

I talked with Rick. Chris and Janice talked. We switched conversation partners. We rode in silence. We talked again.

The Jersey Devil has no significant climbs but it is not completely flat. It lightly rolls through open farmland, livestock yards and acres of blueberry fields. There are inclines to stand and push the big ring over and declines to spin through or coast. In December, the blueberry fields are crimson tipped stalks in thousands of sandy rows. Black cows and bulls, impervious to the rain, stand in mud. We cross bridges and ride through bogs. Many of the roads are newly paved and silky smooth.

The lack of trees or buildings leaves bike riders exposed to the unfiltered elements. On a cool, clear still day, the Jersey Devil could be a fast and scenic ride. On a hot humid day, the Devil might offer a bit of hell. Our rainy day came with a light steady, persistent wind. We rode into it for hours. Pizza at 43 miles, then back into the wind and wet. A shorter stop at the Super Wa-Wa at mile 65.4 then back into the wind and rain.

After each control, we ride off the chill brought on by stopping, our effort warming us to tolerable temperatures. My feet stayed cold and wet.

Chris talks with Rick. Janice and I talk. We switched conversation partners. We rode in silence. We talk again. The shared stories, advice and humor lightened the burden of the day.

We tour the inflatable secular Xmas of the Jersey Pinelands in December. An air filled snowman wearing camouflage sits atop a tree. Reindeer and Mickey Mouse are ready for the season. Santa is well represented and even has a place in at least one manger scene. Meanwhile, signs along the road at random intervals tell drivers to "Keep the Christ in Christmas."

A roadside tavern is the controle at mile 93.5. As we approach, Rick tells me that Bill R., a Randonneur, owns the place. I know of Bill R. from reading brevet results but I’ve never met him.

Muscle cars and full size pick up trucks are parked in the gravel driveway. Steps and a zig-zagging ramp lead up to the one story building's wide wooden porch. Rick and I wheel our bikes up onto the deck past the group of men standing outside smoking. Chris and Janice arrive a minute or so later. The men seem overly shocked to see us. Rick tells them how far we’ve come – in this weather – and how far we have to go. One man tells us that there will be a big surprise inside. I ask if Santa is in there. I remind myself that a Randonneur owns the place then pull open the door and go inside.

There are people at the U-shaped bar but a few spots are available. The bartender has a scattering of tattoos up and down her arms and a welcoming smile. The tables to the right of the bar are mostly empty. The multiple TV screens have the Eagles game on. The pool table spotlighted in the center of the room sits unused. Nothing surprising that I can see.

We take a table by the window away from the bar. The bartender takes our food order and brings us cold glasses of beer. I have a Guinness.

One of the men from outside comes over to our table. First he asks about our trip again. Again, we tell him how far we've come and mention that we know Bill R. The man from outside says he knows Bill too then laughs a good natured laugh. Then he asks whether we’ve met "Chiney Piney" who works in the kitchen. When we say no, he laughs again.  He says Chiney Piney is the ambiance. When he walks away, Janice, an English Professor, says, “He said ambiance.” We laugh.

Later an Asian man helps clear a table then sits down. The man from outside says, “There is Chiney Piney.” Rick says, “That doesn’t sound very politically correct.” The Asian man says, “We ain’t correct around here; that’s why we have fun.” 

The bartender/waitress comes over with our food. She says, “Please forgive those guys; they’ve been here all day.” She seems quite nice.

The beer is cold and the food is hot. We eat and drink. We forgive the man from outside and laugh at his antics. We leave the bartender/waitress a good tip.

We leave the bar, the laughing man, Chiney Piney and the nice bartender/waitress to take on the final 31 miles. It will be dark soon, so we put on our lights and reflective gear in the fading light.

After the bar, the night seems even quieter. The rain lessens and the wind is at our back. Christmas lights glow bright in the night. Dogs bark from the dark peripheries. We did not spend the day in a bar and the company has been excellent. The night fills with the promise of success. We ride on.

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