Sunday, June 8, 2014

Englewood 400K - The longest of the short rides.

We couldn't have timed it better. After riding 150 miles of seemingly endless rolling hills and short steep climbs on the route that trended up, we reached Ellenville, NY. Then we started the 4.5 mile climb up the Shawangunk (pronounced SHON-gun) Mountains just as the sun began to set. Our road, Route 52 East, climbs 1400 feet. On our left, the setting sun sets the bare rock aglow in warm light. On our right, a lush green valley of manicured farms and occasional pristine points of church spires unveils itself as we ascend; the buildings shrinking into the expanding scenery. The sun gently illuminates the valley, filling it with a final light, closing the curtain on a beautiful day. Miles away, west of the valley, another mountain range runs parallel to our route. The distant range receives the setting sun as a sleepy child receives a parent's gentle kiss: softly, with stillness, believing in the promise of tomorrow. 

I seem to climb in time with the setting sun, rising as it descends, which pauses it in the sky, slowing time, extending the spectacle. The quiet beauty of the vista magnifies the labored effort it takes for me to make this climb. A young couple, barely teenagers, watches the sunset from an overlook. As I approach, they turn to me and with the eager shyness of two young people on their first date, they smile, clap a little, and congratulate me on my effort. I smile, imagining that they see someone doing an evening fitness ride and think that they have no idea how I got here and how far I have yet to go. I call out "Thank you! But I'm not done yet!" The boy replied, "You're almost there!" I smiled, thinking - yup, just 100 more miles to go.

Paul S. and Chris N. (from NJ) wait for me at the top of the Shawangunk crossing. They are changing into night mode, putting on reflective vests and turning on lights. We have been riding together since the 7:00 a.m. start in Englewood, NJ., the result of a quick conversation at the start and many past rides between us. I was pleased and relieved at the thought of their company. This course came with a warning about lots of climbing and that warning came from strong riders not known for exaggeration. This was one to take seriously. Sometimes, however, life gets in the way. This time, between a family vacation to see my 97 year old grandpa and the obligations of work and life, the pre-planning I might have done for a ride like this devolved into "show up and ride." So when I found out that I had a chance to ride with Paul and Chris, both of whom know the area and the course better than most and are great riding companions, it was a no-brainer. I only hoped I could keep up.

Thirteen riders, a bakers' dozen, started the course. There may be no truly quiet roads to get out of the Greater New York area. As a result, the first part of the day was spent riding single file on tertiary roads that border the Hudson River. After crossing the majestic expanse of the Hudson, we turn north toward Bear Mountain. Eight or so of the thirteen are still riding together, the others off the front gone into the distance. Cautious restraint at the beginning of a long ride is the rule of thumb for long brevets, but it is early and I feel good so the long climb into Harriman is a rewarding challenge. The group stays together through the riverside towns with their views of land and water.

After the start, we ride fifty eight miles to the first on course controle. A volunteer takes our brevet cards and fill them out, we refill water and hit the head. I chat with an older gentleman with a plaid shirt and a pure white flat top buzzcut framing a face lined with the etchings of a lifetime of memories. When he hears about the ride, he quizzes my emergency preparations and supplies (First aid kit? Here. Flat repair? Yup. Lights? Front and rear!) while I eat a pizza bagel and his friend tosses in funny comments. Then we leave. Total time maybe ten minutes. 

Two first time 400K riders leave with us. They remark that it was a "touch and go controle" and that on group rides they would usually sit and eat. I replied, "actually, that was kind of long for a first control."

I chatted with them a little, forgetting to get their names, but learn that they recently did their first 300K in Long Island this year and this was their first 400K. They ask if we have done a 400K before. Paul S. has ridden over 40,000 kilometers in rando events including some of the classic 1200Ks. Chris N. (from NJ) has ridden well over 30,000K in rando events over every distance, as for me, I'm a newbie by comparison. I tell them that, between us, we have done "a few."

I ask if they have done any night riding and tell them that the general wisdom is that the 400K ride is a transitional ride in the randonneuring experience. It is both the longest of the short rides and the shortest of the long rides because it is the longest distance that does not include a sleep stop. It usually takes over 20 hours to complete the 250 miles and a successful finish can take up to 27. As a result, significant amounts of night riding typically plays a part. They respond that they did some night riding in the 300K. I reply that they will likely pull an all nighter this time.

Along the way to the next controle, the two new guys begin to lose contact off the back of our little group. In my randonneuring experience, many people have quietly mentored and taught me the secrets of the rando way, both by word and by deed. One early and important lesson came from Dan A. on my very first attempt at a 600K. In the early miles of the ride, in the quiet confessional of pre-dawn darkness, in response to a question about what it takes to finish, Dan told me how important it was to "ride your own ride" He then proceeded to drop me as he rode his ride and I rode mine to a successful finish.

We stopped at a Dunkin Donuts. I needed more water. We used the bathroom. The two new guys caught up. They looked a little stressed - overall just fine but a little out of their comfort zone - which was more than understandable. I think that was where I decided to share the "ride your own ride" philosophy and the importance of riding at a pace and style that you could live with all day and all night. Meanwhile, Chris adjusted one of their cue sheets to make it more readable while riding. Then back on the bike. Maybe five minutes.

Then we left again. The two new guys lost contact of the back. We did not see them again for the rest of the ride but at each controle, the volunteers gave us progress reports so we knew that they were on course and getting it done. We were glad to hear it.

The region just north of New York City and its greater metropolitan area is sumptuous in natural grandeur. Mountain lakes, farms, retreats and small towns all find their homes there. The area is also very proud of their snow plows. In almost every town, there is a disembodied snow plow placed as a flagged monument to the local streets and highway department. Big plows - six feet tall with axe like leading edges. Plows that say, Snow? Fuhgeddabout it! Ain't no snow gonna stop Twinkill or Sparkill or whatever it is this particular town has named its kill.

Between the killtowns, we learn the lay of the land as only a cyclist can. We see the small things, smell the local aromas, rise and fall with the terrain. We ride the gradually rising course, fifty miles to the next controle.

The mid fifties morning temperatures warm to mid eighties. As we ride on a dirt road in the Summer heat, a family splashes at a swimming hole. Their black dog leaps into the cold water. I think about jumping in myself. This is my first ride this season in this temperature. Fortunately, the flags hang limp the still air and the humidity is low. We just have to contend with the heat and the hills. 

The ride volunteers greet us at every controle. They are fellow randonneurs who give of their time and effort to support our ride. The meet us with water, food, kind words and moral support. In a rando event, the volunteers make a ride exceptional and for that I am truly grateful.

After Shawangunk, the ride becomes a night ride. Under a half moon and star sprinkled sky, the scenic vistas become half seen visions in the night that are sensed even more than seen. Lakes become black mirrors, an orchestra of frogs, whippoorwills and whoknowswhat cacophony in the dark. I turn of my headlamp in a futile attempt to reduce the number of bugs crashing into my face.

In the parking lot that serves as the penultimate control, volunteers Steve H. and Bob T. greet us at close to midnight with as much energy and enthusiasm as you might expect in the middle of the day.The last 60 miles of the course will have no support. I eat and then cat nap in the parking lot for a few minutes until the ground chill shivers me awake. We plan to stop somewhere along the last section to break up the last section. We will see dawn from the bike.

By the time we get back to Harriman, my climbing legs are a shadow of what I had in the first crossing oh so many hours before. This climb is a test of will. Throughout the night, though I am not terribly far behind, Paul and Chris graciously wait for me at every significant turn to insure that I do not get lost.

To keep my energy up, I eat Cliff Bars from my handlebar bag, one an hour till I am all but sick of Cliff Bars. I take a bite, a mouthful of water and then distract myself with the challenge of chewing the bar into liquid before swallowing the watery mix.

My butt feels like someone took a meat tenderizer to it. I make a soundless gasp every time I have to retake the saddle. And still we ride.

After the Harriman climb we descend into town, looking for a place to take a break. We chose a school with a sunken courtyard and concrete benches. Without a word, we each find a place, stretch out and fall asleep.

Without a word or an alarm, we all wake a little while later, the cold setting its own schedule. Then we ride into the night, letting the climbs bring warmth back to our limbs.

Sunday comes on slowly. Along misted lakes, the night yields to the day. We witness the daybreak rituals of the joggers and dog walkers and, eventually, inevitably, complete the ride.

This was a tough brevet. At the hotel that served as a finish line, we learned that one rider who should have been done before us had not yet checked in. Another was a DNF (did not finish) and several, including the two first timers were still on course.

The "missing" rider, George S., soon showed up looking bright and cheerful. Turns out he too had stopped for an unplanned rest in the last segment of the ride but got more rest than we had. 

Chris, Paul and I sat down to a well deserved breakfast. Then we went our separate ways.

On my way out, I stopped into the hotel once more. There were two more DNFs. However, one of the two new guys was there, the other was in the bathroom. I shook his hand and congratulated them on making it through. They rode their own ride and got it done. Nice job. Well done.

I wonder if we'll see them on the NJ 600K?


  1. Great post, Nigel, and congratulations. I love your vivid description of climbing Route 52 at sunset, and can picture what the valley to the right looked like in the fading light.

    By the way, I don't think there's such a thing as "Shawangunk Mountain" in the singular. Route 52 is just one way to climb over the Shawangunk Ridge.


    1. Thanks for the kind words Mordecai. and I edited the description. (I should have read the Shawangunk link more carefully!)