Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Catskill 600K - Meditations in the mountains

A good Randonneuring course showcases its region. On the ride, you get an intimate appreciation of the terrain, a feel of the place's history, immersed in the geography. Going to the controls to get receipts and brevet cards signed (which seemed odd when I first started) forces you to interact with the locals beyond the basics of buying and selling, you hear their accents and exchange greetings - you talk to people. You get a sense of the soul of the area in a fingers in the cool earthy dirt kind of way. Randonneurs not only ride through a place, we participate in it, we live in it, if only for a moment. Such was the case on this ride.

The Catskill 600K starts near the majestic Hudson River. The scenic course is a visual treat. From the Palisades cliffs along the river, it weaves  through mountain towns which run the gamut of mountain town possibilities; from standard middle America to art enclaves, exclusive schools, monasteries, many places of exotic worship or meditation and working farms. Sets of pictures from this year's ride can be found here and here.

The NJ Randonneurs have a detailed description of the Catskill 600K course on their website. They also gave fair warning that finishing would mean lots of climbing - over 22,000 feet of elevation gain. 

This would be the climbiest 600k course I had ever attempted. But somehow, despite the fact that I make a much better descender than I will ever make as a climber, I decided that I would keep to a schedule for a personal best 600K. In fact, I would eat and sleep well and finish the second day strong. Yup, that was going to happen, for sure. All I had to do was follow the plan.


I forgot my watch. Sometimes Too often, despite the checklist, which I have, and the double checking, which I do, something gets left overlooked. In the hotel room at 3:00 am, I realized that I didn't have a watch. I did have my schedule of planned control departures on my cue sheet but not the watch that I had set to the correct time with OCD accuracy. Well the bike computer has a clock and it should be accurate enough, so I'll just have to use that. No worries. I will adapt, make do and keep moving. That is what good randonneurs do after all.

A tropical storm had passed through the mid-Atlantic over the last day. Heavy rain poured for hours. At 4:00 a.m., just as the ride began, the last misty sprinkles slowly faded away. We rode into the wet under a sky still roiling with the last of the storm clouds continuing their northbound path.

The relatively flat first 100 miles or so of the course allowed for group riding at a good pace. We crossed the Hudson River at Bear Mountain Bridge and again at the scenic Walkway over Hudson, each time taking in wonderful aerial views of the river. By the time we reached the second controle the sun shone in a blue sky. We checked, ate and changed clothes and then were off. I had a nice cushion of time and the plan was working well.

I was riding on again off again with Sam C., Rudy S. and George B. At one point, I rode in Sam’s draft as we moved into the wind. Except Sam didn’t know I was there and I didn’t tell him I was on his wheel. Then Sam, realizing we were passing a turn, grabbed his brakes.

My front wheel crossed with his back wheel. I struggled to keep my balance but lost the battle and fell over. The bad news is that I wiped out into a giant puddle on the corner of the turn and the items in my front bag spilled into the water. The good news is that the puddle turned the ground underneath into soft mud which broke my fall. I didn’t get a scratch. Also the things in my front bag, except my reflective vest, were individually bagged in plastic because of the morning rain, so they too were clean and dry. The vest was soaked. As for the bike, the front brake hood twisted in a few degrees or so but it was not damaged.

I remounted and retook the course. A few miles later, not wanting to drink from bottles that had been sitting in muddy gutter water, I pulled off at a store to wash the bottles, refill them with clean water and clean myself up at bit.

I reached the third controle with a much smaller time cushion and the hilliest section of the ride lay just ahead. My friends Chris and Janice, with whom I have ridden thousands of kilometers were there as were several other riders. I remembered that a long climb came shortly after this controle. Wanting to stay on schedule, I moved through the control in minutes, leaving folks behind, getting my food to go and getting back on course alone. Then I discovered that the fall had damaged my odometer causing it to reset itself and the reset no longer functioned properly. Now my mileage was off. I would have to do the math, adding and subtracting distances while reading the cue sheet.

After a brief downhill, I started climbing. Then I kept slowly climbing the shallow grade for over 4 miles, eating on the way instead of at the control. But there was supposed to be a turn and it wasn’t there. Then I stopped and re-read the cue sheet. There was a turn! But it was 4 miles behind me. I was off course. I committed the dreaded BONUS MILES.

The return trip to get back on course was marked by fast riding accompanied by a litany of recriminations. I blamed myself. I berated myself. I rode 10 miles of extra miles, almost an hour of lost time, at the beginning of the climbiest section of the course. The chance to make this up seemed non-existent. But I had 275 miles left to ride and maybe, if I was efficient and steadfast, I could do it. 275 miles is a long way there was a lot of time left.

The six mile climb that was part of the course came after the detour. Luckily it was a shallow enough climb that I could power up without too much loss of speed.

The course passes quaint villages in the Catskills and into the rural greenery of the mountains. Pockets of cicada masses periodically fill the air with an eerie electronic but organic humming throbbing sound. It sounds like thousands of alien voices keening the loss of some otherworldly god. I recorded it. You can listen to it here. (its the background sound not the chirping up front- turn up the volume)

The roads rise and fall. There are some steep climbs and lots of rolling climbs but the scenery is stunning and the weather is vastly improved compared to the searing heat of last weekend. I meet up with George B. Rudy and Sam at controls and often ride with them for a bit.

Just prior to one control, I stop at a laundry and put my reflective vest in the dryer so that is not soaking wet when night, and cooler temperatures, arrive. Inside a young couple are doing laundry. The two kids with them, maybe 6 maybe 8 years old, fall into fits of giggling when I come in with my bike outfit. Who could blame them? A large man wearing spandex and a helmet is clearly not a typical laundry day sight. I smile at the thought of how embarrassed my kids would be if they could see me now.

The adults in the laundry ignore the children’s laughter and ignore me. They fold their faded jeans and t-shirts with resignation as though nothing in their life had changed or would ever change. I soon left them to their chore.

I met up with Eric K. and Paul M. for the night ride. It’s the second time that Erik and I have ridden the night section of a long ride. Night riding remains surreal. The stars, sharp and tiny, filled the space above the road between the lines of trees. The hills warm and the descents chill.

Route designer Mordecai, meets us at controle that is a closed gas station. It is the middle of the night. Mordecai is there, in the dark, with food, beverages and encouragement. Like all the volunteers on the ride, he is taking on a hard assignment with class and good nature. He tells us that the next section to the sleep stop will be rolling hills.

Mordecai is a strong cyclist who can climb well. Apparently, in his world, rolling hills means a false flat followed by a climb and then repeat, because the downhills seemed few and far between. Paul M., who was dragging before the controle, seems to have discovered that a Starbucks Iced Double Espresso is a performance enhancer, because he seemed to find energy to burn after downing a can.  

The sleep stop was fantastic. A conference room for the bikes and more food than even a group of hungry Randonneurs could finish. On top of all that the volunteers, Katie, Todd and Leslie, were cheerful, efficient and so helpful. Plus, we got to sleep in hotel beds and have showers. I never managed to make up for the bonus miles’ lost time but tomorrow would be another day.


I left the hotel at 5:00 a.m. I chose to sleep a half hour longer than Eric, which meant I was still an hour behind my pre-ride schedule. At breakfast, I saw Victor and Kate. They had arrived at the controle at 9:30 pm and were leaving after 5 am. In other words they had gotten more sleep than I typically get during a work week. This must be a completely different event when you can ride fast enough to do that.

I left the hotel at 5:10 a.m, after returning to retrieve my wallet from my overnight bag.

Dawn is a glorious time to ride through mountain farm country. The light of the morning sun sets farm buildings aglow. On a bicycle, the quiet is undisturbed and local animals scarcely notice your passing. You get to witness an undisturbed world.

Within the first hour I see two figures gaining on me. They are Victor and Kate. Despite the crushed gravel road, they ride quickly, moving with grace and ease. They soon pass me and disappear into the morning. If you have ever been jogging on a track when a competitive miler is training and had them run past you, then may you know how slow and inept you can feel in comparison, even as you watch in awe. That was me when they rode past.

The first control is in a small town. I have not gained much time because the course still “rolls” but I have gained a little. Things are looking up. As I approach the control, my rear tire develops a worsening thump once every rotation. Then, two blocks away from the control my rear tire explodes through the sidewall.

I walk the bike into the control. The tire and the tube are shot. Jon L., a volunteer is there. So are Gary, Eric, Sam and a couple of others arrive while I am there. Jon had a floor pump. Gary has a tire patch. I have a spare tube. As I patch the tire, Eric tells me how to use duct tape to fix a blowout if the patch fails. My hands are shaking with nervous energy. Jon takes over the tube replacement. I go into the store and buy duct tape. Jon refills my tube with care, cautiously checking for any signs of bulging or distortion. The patch holds. 

By the time we are done, everyone has left. My goal times for the weekend are a lost cause. This will be a personal worst time or DNF. But I can ride. So I do.

Over one hundred miles still left to go. I have a new goal: to finish the course before time runs out.

The second day is no gimme. Over 9,000 feet have to be climbed and descended. Before the morning is done, maybe an hour or so after the patching, my rear tire develops a worsening thump once every rotation. I am almost out of water. It is getting hot and the next control is a long ways off.

A man and his wife are working in their yard. I start to ride past, but then, thinking about how few people I have seen this morning I walk up to the man and ask if he has a faucet I can use to fill my water bottles. His garage is open. He says “sure” steps into the garage and starts pulling out multiple bottles of water.

“This one is cold and this one is wet. Why don’t you drink the cold one while I fill your bottles with the others.”

That sounds like a great offer and I accept.  He mentions seeing all the bikes ride past and I tell him a little about the ride. He said that when he saw me approach he figured it was either water or a flat.

I thank him drink the water and set out refreshed. Just down the road, under the shade of a tree, I look at the tire. It looks like it is starting to bulge. I deflate the tube, fold up a dollar bill and slide it between the tube and the patch as a second layer of protection. Then I follow Eric’s instructions and wrap the tire in duct tape and then re-inflate to a lower air pressure, expecting the tire to explode with every pump stroke.

The patch holds but I have no rear brake. From now, on every descent, I will have to manage my speed with just a front brake. From now on, on every descent, I will wonder if my rear tire will explode at speed. There were descents that, in my mind’s eye, I could almost see the front brake melting away from the friction required to slow well over 250 pounds of man and machine from a 40 mph plunge downhill.

Downhills are where I typically offset my climbing speed. No offense, but your average skinny light riders don’t know squat about coasting downhill, unless they are on a tandem or a recumbent. Now I wouldn’t allow myself to fly down the hills and I couldn’t just start climbing faster.

With those limitations, I limped through the controls heading toward the finish.

The last 20 miles of the course are basically flat by comparison. Despite all that happened, I was on schedule to finish with about 15 minutes to spare. Then, less than three miles from the end. I missed a turn. I back track a half mile to get back on course.

I have less that 10 minutes to spare. I start riding as fast as I can, 20 mph through the town with turns at short intervals, 0.1, 0.2 rushing, rushing but I am doing it. If the tire fails now, who cares, I can walk it in.

Then came the park. The last section of the 600K course went through a park. It was a beautiful day and it was crowded with families, dog walkers, the elderly, couples, joggers, etc. and here I come racing against the clock. Here's a video that shows what that felt like:

I emerge from the park and I know that I just have to ride as hard as I can. So I sprint all out to the finish. I am greeted with cheers by the RBA and the few riders that are still there, many of whom I rode with throughout the weekend. I am relieved to be done but I think of all the mistakes I made, all the things that went wrong all the ways that I fell short of my goals. I blamed myself. I berated myself. But I was not allowed to do so for long because the Randonneurs were so supportive and encouraging that they drowned the self-criticism.

Later that night, on the long drive home, my mind returned to the things that went wrong, the mistakes. 

But then this thought came to me:

If I had not done the big bonus miles, I would have been ten miles further along when my tire blew out. That means I would not have been in a place to get it fixed and my ride would have been over in the middle of nowhere on a Sunday morning. So the very thing that I had been kicking myself about may have been the very thing that saved my ride.

Then out of nowhere came this thought:

Be kind to yourself
You are juggling a family, a career and a challenging sport.
You would not be that hard on a friend
Do not be that hard on yourself
Don’t forget that today was a choice
And under difficult circumstances
you chose to perservere and press on,  
the errors are inconsequential.
Learn and move on.


  1. Beautiful write up, Nigel. I don't know how you have the stimulus in your brain after such an arduous weekend.

    I was thrilled to see you rolling in. What an accomplishment for every rider that partook in this event. Hats off to all of us. :)

    1. Paul, hats off indeed. Good Job to you!

  2. I'm sorry you felt bad about your mistakes. I never learn much unless it's a DNF or a close call. I got my card stamped at PBP when I had 8 minutes left. I learned a lot on that ride. I think I learned more during my year of being last on every ride than from all the other rides combined.

    1. And I learned from you. Thanks for the assist and the company.

  3. Brilliant Nigel! A lesson to all of us not be so hard on ourselves when things don't go perfectly. Congratulations!

    1. Thanks Joe. And congrats to you as well. You rode this route on a fixie? Holey Moley.

  4. Well done! What a beautiful route. Sorry I missed out on the ride this year. Glad to see that Mordecai has thrown a few more of our amazing Hudson Valley / Catskill Mountain roads into the mix.

    1. If that is where you regularly ride then you are a fortunate man.

  5. Well it could have been a lot worse, it could have been raining and your butt could have hurt! Lol. Great write up, I love the batman reference! "You would not be that hard on a friend" words to remember and commit to live by.

    1. It could have been a lot worse - you could have been someplace else. Much thanks my friend. Much thanks.

  6. I was eagerly awaiting this report knowing what a tough ride you had. Your mental toughness is indeed impressive - the bonus miles with the added crash/tire/laundry tragedies would have felled a lesser man. This is not a sport for the faint of heart nor those lacking ingenuity and fortitide. Congratulations on finishing a memorable brevet!

    1. Thanks Chris. Maybe a "lesser" man would have stopped but a smarter person would have had the sense to get off course so much!

  7. Nigel - great report as usual. During the ride, Tim, Jon and I were berating ourselves for failing to take pictures of the beautiful scenery. About 100 times during the ride one of us would say "I hope Nigel gets a picture of that". How you managed to take beautiful pics, remember all the details that went into this report while dealing with your setbacks is a testament to your will and tenacity. You are one tough dude.....

    1. Thanks Bill, and congrats to you Tim, and Jon, you are each proven tough dudes. As for the picture taking, it's much easier to do when the scenery is not flying by at high speeds.

  8. Nigel, reading this during my "lunch break" brought a smile to my face, which may not have been the case on Monday or Tuesday, while still in the recovery process. Having mostly completed my 3rd season of brevets, I am finally learning that it really is all about the journey and the people & experiences that take place along the way. No matter how much you plan, "stuff happens", and like most everything else in life, it's "how you deal with it" that really matters. I watched Bill patiently change 4 flats during the ride as a result of bad rim tape, and hopefully when it's my turn to deal with something like that, I'll remember how an experienced rider worked through those issues without panic, while also being well prepared. Thanks for the post & pictures, Be well.

    1. Yup, I learned a few lessons all right. I ordered TWO replacement tires. The next long ride I will have a back up tire and a tire patch as well. It was pure luck that the tire blew out when and where it did.

      Be well yourself and see you on the road.

  9. Nigel,
    Sounds like you had all the solutions as after all there are no problems. The average randonneur it seems is very well prepared and a good lateral thinker, put several of these folks together and I would hazard a guess we could build a pyramid faster than the Egyptians. Any way its all part of the fun. It was indeed an epic ride and I think Tim, Bill F and I may have invented some or thought of some new words to address Mordecai when we see him again. Great report

    1. It IS all part of the fun. Sometimes I just have to remember that! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  10. I often think this sport is all about the stories. You story is a great one! Thank you for sharing your struggles and triumphs. We all have them, and it is good to know we are not alone. See you n the road!

    1. The stories certainly keep me reading and riding. And seeing bits of my life in others' stories is a good thing. Safe travels

  11. Nigel,

    I always love reading your posts. When you rolled into Monroe, I had already heard that you had a blowout, but it seems I didn't know even half the story. A lesser rider would have given up. Your success on this 600k is inspiring. Congratulations on finishing the climbfest!