Tuesday, June 24, 2014

On the day that the sun stands still: East Creek 600K


On the Solstice, the sun pauses in the sky before it transitions to a new season. As long as humanity has looked to the heavens and searched for meaning, we have taken this event as a cause for celebration. Less so now, but there was a time when people danced for rain. A time when we knew the meanings of the shape of clouds and the names of the full moon. We once built structures of stone that aligned with the stars on midsummer's day, the longest day, the Solstice. 

Call it what you will, but a celebration so specific in time yet so global in performance must come from a quality intrinsic to our very nature, one inherent to our humanity. If we, as Carl Sagan said, are made of star stuff, then on the Solstice day we celebrate our origin; our collective journey through the universe. 
 

To be honest there wasn't much celebrating going on when my alarm went off at 1:30 a.m. With just three hours’ sleep and facing the prospect of a one hour drive before starting a 375 mile ride, the happy dance was not high on my to do list. Nevertheless, I looked forward to the ride. 

The 600K just may be my favorite randonneuring distance. The courses seem to show off some of best riding in the most scenic areas of their region so they are always a physical and visual treat. Plus the challenge really registers on the adventure meter - having up to 40 hours to complete a 375 mile course means basically packing a week long "normal" bike tour into a weekend. It's all the riding with little of the sleeping. It’s long enough to be epic but short enough to not require much, if any, vacation time. It's a hard core pocket adventure vacation for the working class.

At 3 am, the lobby of the Highstown Days Inn, just off Exit 8 of the New Jersey Turnpike, served as the NJ Rando check-in for the East Creek 600K. The warm light from the lobby poured through the plate glass windows into the darkness and pooled beneath the outdoor benches. The scene was reminiscent of the Edward Hopper painting Nighthawks. 

I checked in with RBA Joe and volunteers Steve and Walt and chatted with other riders as we waited for the start.

At 4 am, we were underway. Our route promptly veered away from the throbbing aortic hum of the NJ Turnpike to travel the quiet capillaries that branch through the sleeping towns. Within minutes of the start, I was the off the back of the entire group and losing sight of the next closest rider as that tail light faded into the distance. The East Creek course is relatively flat and has no extreme grades or long climbs, so I had expected some riders to chase a fast time but sheesh! not ALL of them. I checked my bike computer: my speed was good; so I was good. There are lots of miles ahead. Pedal on wayward son. I will see some of them soon enough.
 
Soon Gil and I were riding together. I closed the gap to his tail light as he too began riding a pace more suited to the morning after a restless night and a long road ahead. We rode. We talked. This would be his first attempt at a 600K. The NJ 400k was also his first time for that distance. He is well on his Rando way.

Skinny dippers

Dawn comes early on the Summer Solstice. This morning it rose blushing from a lake to stretch across the sky. The lake had a stand of leafless trees. The trunks poked out of the water like skinny dippers sneaking in the first swim on the first day of summer, thin arms wide open, casting long thin shadows on the water’s undulating face. 


The schedule

We arrived at the first control ahead of my schedule. Several riders were still in transition. My plan called for scheduled control departures based on a 13 mph hour overall pace for the first 244 miles. If I stuck to the plan, I would get to the overnight sleep control by 11:30 p.m. - early enough to get a decent night’s sleep before riding 130 miles tomorrow. That was the plan and with the relatively flat course  - barring extreme weather, dehydration, mental or physical implosion or a major mechanical breakdown - the plan should work.  

“Louisiana Texas Colorado”

After a quick control, Gil and I were on the road again. A short time later, a group of four: Bob T., Gary, Michelle and Michael were gaining on us. Their pace was a little faster than ours so we picked it up to ride with them.



It must be berry season. We ride past some farms that have a line of parked shiny SUVs and stickered minivans whose families have sprinkled themselves into fields of pick yer own. We also pass rows of corporate berry plants where one old dusty pick up truck serves as a base for a group of laborers working long hours on the longest day in the dry brown soil.

Bob was riding strong through the scenery with the sure and steady spin that he makes look effortless. Gil now fully awake, proved to have speed to spare. My speed bumped up a little more to keep up and I looked for the draft more often. I studied the back of Gary’s shirt. “LATEXCO” it said. “Louisiana Texas Colorado” I read. I ate by the hour and drank by the minutes and wondered if the water would last. I pedaled through early signs of leg cramping and stayed focused on Gary's shirt. “Louisiana Texas Colorado.” How many miles to go?

110 miles into the ride, we arrived at the second control almost an hour ahead of schedule. That would have been a very decent time for a century ride that was only a 100 miles long. I was hungry, thirsty and, truth be told, feeling out of sorts - a little pressed, a bit stressed and kind of whiny. We weren’t even a third of the way through. Maybe it was the lack of sleep. Whatever. I needed to eat something, drink something and slow the hell down.

We sat. We ate. We took advantage of the time cushion we had built to refuel. By the time I got back on the saddle, my legs felt kind of stiff and I was overfull. The disconnected feeling got worse. Not horrible, not tragic, but not right. Only 33 miles to the next control. 

Bill rides in bare feet and the wind is cool on his toes.

33 miles is not enough distance to build a big cushion of time. When we arrived at Bravo Pizza, I had far less time to spare to stay on schedule. I did not want to fall behind and try to play catch up with time - not today - time is unforgiving. Time wasted never returns. My out of sync feeling grows worse. I tell the group that I plan to leave at 3:00. They are sitting down to slices of pizza and my schedule does not give them much time to eat.

As I am packing my bike bag, I see a familiar orange wool jersey with a black stripe on a distinctly lanky rider approaching the control.
Bill O! What are you doing here? I didn’t see you at the start!
Turns out that Bill got started an hour late and has been pressing the pace ever since to make up for lost time. When he asks if I am about to leave I said yes, in a minute or two. He only needs a minute or two to refill and he will be ready to go. I pause and he has the time he needs. We leave as a group of seven. 

Bill rides in bare feet using bike sandals. The hard pace he rode to catch ups has chafed his toes so he occasionally slides his feet out of the sandals, which stay attached to the pedals, and then places his bare feet on the sandals where the wind is cool on his toes. Bill rides at his conversational pace. So he converses with me, with the group, with whomever is within earshot. Bill has lots of stories to tell and I like to hear stories. So we ride on, shooting the breeze, toes in and out of the wind. Riding in and out of the pace line.


 Tractors keep popping up in the scenery. Working tractors with spiky Edward Scissorhand appendages dangling from the back. Tractors prepping fields and dragging clouds of dust. Ornamental tractors brightly painted and decorated with flags. Tractors left to rust outside of a barn until the tractor is as red and faded as the barn. Tractors as a testament to time long gone as much as to the harvests of tomorrow. 

Getting in Sync

 We reach the next control, Elsie's Diner, at 186 miles, in what I think is by far the fastest time I have ever ridden the distance. Bill uses Perpetuum (a powdered food for endurance athletes) and he quickly mixes up a new batch to take on the road. The rest of use real food. The family run business has a two for one sandwich special, so I get two to go. The man running the store is a little overwhelmed by the influx of hungry riders but he soon sorts out the orders and gets the sandwiches distributed. 

Chris N. (from PA) has a technique he calls "the burst of slow." If a group pace is more than he wants to deal with he puts on a burst of slow and fades off the back. (It's a good technique to know). I decided it was time for a similar technique, known as the headstart. I told the group that I would head out and ride slowly and inevitably they would catch me on the road. 

Jim B. (from upstate NY) and Georgi S. (from Maryland by way of Bulgaria) were at the diner must have liked the idea of the slow pace, so they joined Bill and I. Off we pedaled, at a tourist pace, working our way to the shore. The control strop was quick but at this pace, I can eat while riding and recover from the speed it took to get here. 

As I settle in, I find myself transitioning to a new season. A season with longer rides on the horizon, 1000 kilometers, 1500 kilometers, a season of multi-day rides that are suitable to a tourist pace with quick stops at controls. A season that feels like summer. And then, just like that, my out of sync feeling is gone. 

When you ride a bike to the ocean, its cool salty smell reaches you long before you see the water. The freshness in the air wafts over you. We ride toward Ocean City, NJ at the closing of the longest day, as the ocean calls our senses to attention. The Route 52 Causeway is a long and wavy bridge that rises and dips on the way to Ocean City.

In the distance, a Ferris Wheel glows over the ocean in a kaleidoscopic neon display of ever changing patterns against an India ink blue sky.

The group of five riders from the diner catch us on the way. They are still riding briskly and soon open a lead on us over the bridge.

The next control, in Ocean City, is only 22 miles from the sleep stop. I get water, Bill mixes his potion and off we go.  Saturday night in a shore town is a happening place. Cars, pedestrians and local cyclists all converging on the streets. We ride through. The rest will soon follow. 

Reaching the cabin at east creek, mile 244, was such a memorable moment. Bill and I arrived at 11:10 pm. twenty minutes ahead of my schedule. We were warmly greeted by the volunteers. There was abundant food of wide variety. Hot showers and beds. A place to sit and talk. A covered porch for the bikes. It was just the right setting at just the right time. The volunteers at this control would pull all night shifts to see to our needs.

I shower then eat. Then with ear plugs and a sleep mask, I hostage myself to sleep. 

Tomorrow is another day.

shh! I'm hunting wabbits
Despite a little tossing and turning, I got more sleep in the cabin than I had gotten the night before the ride. Over four hours! A first, ever, on a multi-day brevet. The difference is astounding. Of course I can tell that I just rode 244 miles but I look forward to the ride ahead.

Doug H. (from Long Island) spent the better part of the first day riding with Victor and Kate.  Victor and Kate rode the Endless Mountains 1240K ride and made it look easy. Without riding at night, they were the first finishers. All of which is another way of saying that they are fast and strong. Doug is fast too, especially on his new aero time trial bike with aero bars and aero bottles, but pedaling over 270 lbs of man and bike around course burns a lot of calories. Doug was one of the first few to reach the cabin. Which means he got in a full night's sleep to boot.

He was ready to leave when Bill and I were heading out. So we all took off together along with (new) Chris and Bob, I think.  Of course our pace was no where close to what Doug had ridden the day before. But he was riding with us even as he occasionally looked over his shoulder. Doug told us that Kate and Victor had stayed over in Ocean City instead of the cabin. The planned to check in around 5:30. So they should be along any minute. All of which is another way of saying that Doug was probably going to go with them when they arrived. 

When Victor and Kate appeared behind us and then passed us, Doug went with them - disappearing in the distance. 

At least until we saw him a few miles later. Turns out Kate and Victor were still riding like it was yesterday, while Doug was in more of a "recovery mode" so he would ride with us.  To give this a test, I accelerated a bit ramping up the pace to the low 20's. Doug jumped on the break like a beagle after a rabbit. He said, didn't you think I would cover the break? I laughed because I knew he would. 

Easy like Sunday morning

On Sunday we had three segments to cover: 36 miles, 45 miles and the final 47. At every control a volunteer met us to sign our cards and offer water. One volunteer had manned his post, outside a convenience store, since 9 pm the night before. 

The day was gorgeous for riding. The wind was still, for the most part. A hint of rain never materialized but it kept the air cool, for the most part. We rode through the New Jersey Pinelands on well paved roads through acres of pines forests. Some light rollers gave us a chance to stand and "stretch the legs" and even get in a little coasting. And every once in a while, maybe a couple of few times, I would rabbit into the distance and laugh as Doug would jump to "cover the break."

If, as a kid you ever went for a long ride in the Summer with your friends riding fast but not racing, stopping when you needed too and riding when you didn't and enjoying the easy talk that separates the quiet times, then you know what Sunday was like - a day to celebrate our collective journey through the universe. 

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A huge thank you to all of the volunteers who made the ride possible. No words of gratitude are sufficient.  

I took some pictures. You can see them here

10 comments:

  1. Such a great ride it was. This proves it.

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    1. I enjoyed meeting you. Good luck with your knee!

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  2. Well told! I almost feel the wind in my hair and smell the ocean... :) Great post.

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  3. I wish I was there! Sorry to have missed it.

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    1. You would have enjoyed this one for sure.

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  4. I think the 600K is my favorite distance, too. "A hard core pocket adventure vacation for the working class." I like that very much. It had not occurred to me that it was the Solstice until the sun came up shortly after we started. It was almost disorienting. I agree, while I did not plan it, a Solstice ride is almost a primeval ritual. See you soon!

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    1. And a good ritual it is. See you at the lake.

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  5. Concerning the summer solstice, I think that this comic strip captures it very, very appropriately: http://www.gocomics.com/frazz/2009/06/20#.U69an_ldWSo

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    1. That's perfect. Thanks for the link.

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