Tuesday, June 4, 2013

New Holland 200k - Skipping rocks across time

Sometimes a brevet fools me into thinking that it is one event, one story to be told. Maybe because the rides have a start, a finish and lots of stuff happens in between. Maybe because my mind wants to follow the path of time, connect the experiences along the way and have them make sense. That is a trait of the human mind after all, to try to find some order in the chaos. 

But then something reminds me that just because things happen sequentially doesn't necessarily mean they connect in any other way. Real human stories have a way of skipping through time, like rocks bouncing on the surface of a pond leaving intersecting ripples as they pass. Sunday was one of those reminders . . . .

Last weekend brought the first heat wave of the year to the mid-Atlantic States. Highs in the 90s - hazy, hot and humid, three days in a row - starting with the day before the 600 kilometer Pennsylvania brevet. 

Early season heat always challenges the endurance athlete. Too early in the season for acclimation. Sweat still runs thick with salt, the body and mind tire with the newness of the heat alone. Add 375 miles of hilly riding to that set of facts and you have the opportunity for humbling success or all too understandable failure.

I initially signed up for the PA 600K but I had to work on Saturday, so I opted for the Sunday 200k instead. In all honesty, the weather forecast made the decision much easier, and I did need to work, but the sense that I had ducked the hard ride still lingered a bit in my mind when I thought of my fellow riders during the hard heat of the day. Would I have been able to do it? Would they?

The 200k route was the last 129.5 miles of the course that the 600K riders were on. At 5:00 am, when eight of us set out at the hint of dawn, the temperature was warm but reasonable and forgiving. A steady head wind added a sense of cooling. 

We weren't the last the leave the controle. Paul S.,(from PA) who I rode a bit with last year and re-taught me Limericks along the way, was, as far as I know, still asleep at the hostel when we took off. Jon suggested that Paul experienced a tough first 400k on Saturday. Last year Paul, who was riding a fixie, didn't finish. I wondered if he would call it a day when he woke up. It's so very easy to not get back on the road when food, a shower and your car are right there when you wake up after a very hard ride. That may be a bigger challenge than the steepest hill.

Under the pale blue pre-dawn sky, I started at a comfortable all day pace. Then along came Clair and Robert riding fast and in single file. I paused for a second then jumped on the back of their Rando speed wagon. To make matters worse, Len Z., Dan and Jeff jumped on too and the next thing you know it's all whish whish whish and rotating pulls as the six of us rip down the road on the way to the first controle riding far faster than experience or common sense would dictate. But what the hell. It was fun. And if you don't push hard as you can once in a while, you never learn how hard you can push. Plus I missed the 600k so I was willing to suffer the 200k in exchange - or so I thought.

After mailing my postcard in Limerick, the group subdivided and I found myself riding with Clair and Robert at a still too fast pace  . . . 

Up ahead I see Bill O. I recognize his tall lanky frame and his orange and black PA Rando wool jersey from a ways off but it doesn't seem right that we would see him this early so it is not until we catch him that my mind agrees with my eyes. 

Bill, who is riding the 600K, is having a bit of a tough patch. He rode the Texas Rando Stampede 1200K a couple of weeks ago, plans to ride the Shenandoah 1200K next weekend and, rumor has it, plans to ride all seven 1200K rides in the United States this year. Plus one in Canada. Holy cow. To those of you who are not Randonneurs, in fact to any of you who are, I cannot tell you how big of a challenge this is because I have no idea myself. I rode one 1200k and it was all I could do to finish. Eight in one year is un freaking imaginable. 

I only know that Bill is having a tough patch because he tells me. His pace is steady. He, as always, is ready to chat. He tells me that his legs have no snap. We compare our prodigious sweat rates. (If you are not over 200 pounds then you probably have no idea how much we who are can sweat - the sheer volume scares some people). 

Bill is not sure if he will finish.Then, on a small incline, I open up a lead without really trying and then I know that something is different. That has never happened before. Bill is riding the 600k and I am riding the 200k. We are both on separate rides. Wishing him well, I leave him to his fate as I ride forward toward mine. 

After Bill, I see more of the 600K riders. I briefly see Guy and Norm, both seem wrung out from the heat but are still riding strong. 

Of the 600k riders, I see Dan the most. We cross paths at controles and once or twice on the road. We talk when we meet. Dan, like a few other Randonneurs, has taught me some key lessons about this sport, like stay on the bike. I consider him a friend. Dan is having a hard second day. I only know because he told me. The heat and hills are taking their toll. But yet at each control I see him, I try to encourage him. 

The 200k course is an out and back. As a result, I see almost everyone. I want to greet them and encourage them as many have done for me in the past. I hope that my waves and shout outs are not lost in transition but I too am hot and the the course is taking its toll. I am tired and cramping and pushing as hard as the conditions allow. I battle my own weakness.

I see Paul S. He is still on course. He is riding this thing on a fixed gear bike. I wave and shout into the wind. Paul pedals on. He is the lanterne rouge of the 600k. I wonder if time will betray him.

My inevitable implosion came in the last third of the ride. During the hottest part of the day, I paid the debt owed from my too fast start. I paid it with interest on every hill on the return home. I paid with every fiber of my being. Maybe one day I will learn. 

Once done with the ride and back at the beginning. I wait. I chatted with Bill S., who was manning the last controle. But I knew that Dan was not too far behind, so I wait to see him arrive, which he did, despite the difficulty he was having. Seeing him arrive was a good thing. I wish I had waited for them all.

Today I saw the results for the 600. Bill finished. And so did Paul, lanterne rouge and  victorious. His story, that begun a year ago, intersected in the ripples of time to find an end in this year. Paul S. and Guy H. completed an entire Pennsylvania Super Randonneur Series (200k, 300k, 400k and 600k) on fixed gear bikes. This was the first year that was ever done and they completed that impressive feat on this ride. I barely know Paul but I know at least part of his story and, damn, I am so unreasonably happy and proud that he turned chaos into order. 

What limits us? What limits us really?


  1. Nigel,

    Congratulations on finishing a tough ride on a tough day! I wish I had an opportunity to speak with you more than 30 seconds or so in the first miles. I wanted to let you know that the friendly wave and shout out were not lost and were greatly appreciated as we passed near Morgantown.

    Keep up the great riding and the wonderful reports! I enjoy reading your blog a great deal!


    1. David, It was good to see you. We'll have to talk more the next time. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. 8 x 1200K!!! If I had not met such people already, including some RAAM riders, I would almost deny it was even possible. Wow. Best of luck to Bill.

    I merely cooked the overnight chili and chicken soup for the DC riders. I watched some of them suffer, several of them put in heroic finishes, and a few decide it was better to withdraw and ride another day.

    Another nice report Nigel.

    1. "merely"??? The people, like you, who volunteer at these brevets make the whole thing possible. I am sure all of the DC riders were very appreciative of your efforts and contributions. As of for Bill O. - one of these days I'm going to get him to share some secrets.