Sunday, March 13, 2011

My R12 ride: reflecting, considering, remembering.

March 12, 2011 -

The 200 kilometer ride that would be my R12 began on Saturday morning. Each month, for the last 11 months in a row, starting with my first ever Brevet, I completed at least one timed ride at least 200 kilometers long. With the completion of this ride, I would earn the award for consistency that an R12 represents.

On Friday, I woke to the news that a massive earthquake stuck Japan. It triggered a tidal wave of biblical proportion. A Tsunami hit Japan. Newscasts and the internet showed clips of the relentless, inexorable, mass of water moving across Japan with such size and speed that a mental firewall seems to prevent me from taking in the full meaning of what transpired. Instead, a single piece of data keeps flashing in my mind like an error message for which I have no response. A Tsunami hit Japan. A Tsunami hit Japan. Homes, cars, bridges and thousands of lives were mere toys before a rising tide - sand castles built at low tide's water's edge, helpless before the force of the unstoppable ocean.

The reality of nature brushed aside the fiction of order we impose on the face of the earth. The information and images are there, but some sort of self-preserving denial keeps the full reality at bay. A Tsunami hit Japan. As children we used to scream the word "Tsunami!" playfully shouting the singsong foreign word, accenting each syllable TSU-NA-MI and running in mock fright. A Tsunami, like Godzilla, was an unimaginable and fantastic impossibility, the making of a game. Ring around a rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes ashes we all fall down. No longer. For those taken by the real Tsunami, there was no place to run.

The long-term weather forecast gave an optimistic prediction for Saturday. I decided to make this the weekend for the last 200 kilometer ride of my first year of Randonneurring. A Facebook message to some Rando friends and an email exchange with local permanent route owners led to the scheduling of a group of three riding the Nockamixon 200. I would ride with Katie R. and Chris N. in a group that formed less than two days before the 7:00 a.m. start. Because of Randonneurring, I now know people who are willing to ride 200K on short notice over a challenging route.

The Nockamixon 200 starts in Princeton Junction, NJ, crosses the Delaware River, and goes to the Lake Nockamixon area of Pennsylvania before returning to the start. It is a ride with rolling hills, a few long climbs and a sprinkling of steep pitches - a good opportunity to test my end of winter fitness and the changes I made in the off-season as I learned more about this sport.

Just before 7:00 a.m., we meet in a parking lot in a strip mall in Princeton Junction, NJ. Katie and I rode together once before, in November. This was my first time riding with Chris. Grover's Mill, a funky artsy coffee shop, served as the first controle. After a quick cup of coffee, we were off.

Katie and Chris had ridden this permanent before, but it was my first time. At the outset, Katie told me that she basically planned to keep moving until controle number three. Doing so would allow her the most time to ride most of the hills on the course. Sounded good to me. RFM - relentless forward motion - is always my initial plan for a one of these Randonneuring events.

I spent a good portion of the ride in my head; reflecting, considering, remembering. In the last year, I grew to truly understand that successful Randonneuring depends more on the mind than the body. Over the year, I pitted my will against some courses, threw my heart onto the route, used its pumping metronomic force to push myself forward, daring the pump itself to fail. I have cursed, cajoled and determined my legs to move forward through pain and cold and cramps and weakness, walking when I could ride no more, riding when I could walk no more. At various times in various places, I have been hot, cold, wet, dry, sleepless, hungry, thirsty, alone, in the dark, weak, strong, desperate, despondent and joyful. But each time, each ride, I briefly, ever so briefly, held it - a tenuous soap bubble of understanding reflecting a liquid shifting rainbow of unspeakable transcendence. In the last year, I also learned that the course is not your competition. You do not defeat a mountain by climbing it. It remains a mountain; but if you are lucky and willing to learn, you are changed. 

The course starts easily. We begin on a level field, riding together, shifting positions, making acquaintances, moving directly into the cool steady headwind. Katie warns of the climb coming at Poor Farm Road. I laughingly tell her that right now it is flat and sunny with no wind. The climbing will come later. It does.

At  Poor Farm Road, something is different. Hills have been my weakness. I spent the winter trying to find a way to climb hills efficiently and effectively. I spent hours doing step-ups, changed the rear cassette on my Surly and questioned my go hard approach. Now, at Poor Farm Road, I change gears, spin and climb and the hill recedes before me.

To get to the second controle, we cross the Delaware River. Inches of rain fell in the last two days. The fast flowing river is chocolate milk brown, thick with dirt, silt and branches. It overflows its banks. Houses flooded. Docks damaged. The reality of nature casually brushed aside the fiction of order we impose on the face of the earth. 

This is nothing compared to Japan - just a small curiosity. As a child, I brushed dirt over the entrance of an ant nest. Inevitably, an ant would return from its forage, carrying some treasure whose size dwarfed the ant. A Herculean task. When it reached the place where the nest entrance should have been, it wandered and circled, never dropping its burden, searching for what it expected to find, intent on completing its mission.

We continued the ride into Pennsylvania. Along the way to the third controle, Katie's rear wheel went out of true. The rim rhythmically rubbed against the brake. I waited for her at a turn. The time for the controle to close kept approaching. I felt awkward and torn. I did not want to continue forward knowing that she was having mechanical problems but the controle was closing and we had not reached the halfway point. Within minutes, Katie arrived. Before I could get a word out, she insisted that I not wait for her and jeopardize my R12. I told her I had more weekends to get it done, but she would have none of it. She insisted I continue. The controle was only a few miles away. I went forward to wait for her there.

The controle closed at 4 minutes past the hour. A digital bank clock was visible from the parking lot of the convenience store we used for a controle. Chris and I watched the clock while we used the building to shelter us from the constant wind. Katie rolled in at 3 minutes past the hour, with one minute to spare, understandably stressed and upset. We took her bike and sent her inside to refuel and regroup. I can't true a wheel, but I gapped the brakes just enough to allow the wobble to clear them without touching while still leaving her some brakes.

In minutes, Katie was ready to ride, despite having just gone through what must have been a very trying experience. 20 miles to the next controle. We remounted and cherished the long awaited tailwind. 

River Road runs along side the Delaware River. After the recent rains, the Delaware River reclaimed its namesake. After a long downhill descent, we discovered that the road was under water. My capable companions were also adaptable to changing conditions. After a detour through almost hub deep water, we rode to Frenchtown on the crushed red stone trail that runs parallel to the road.

My mind linked the unrelated events of the overflowing river and the devastation in Japan. As I have gotten older, something in me has changed. I sometimes feel as if I am running out of mental compartments to store those things that need to be kept at a distance. Holding my newborn children, standing at the bedside as my father passed away. Hearing the last words of a wonderful graceful woman, the mother of my wife, before she left this mortal coil, seeing the inconsolable grief of a dear friend whose daughter was brutally murdered. My experience with grief, loss, life, death - unexpected, violent, natural and peaceful- joy and sadness, make the reality of others' loss more real, more personal, at times too close. A Tsunami hit Japan. Thousands have lost fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, lives, towns, everything. For thousands in Japan, the world just came to an end in an event of biblical proportions. Today, here, it is warm, verging on Spring. I am riding my bicycle and searching for a way to cross a swollen river. My eyes brim with tears that test the limit of my lids. My throat tightens, speechless. It is still a beautiful day.

Crossing back into New Jersey meant a few more climbs. I welcome them. I climb them without anger or fear or dismay. My legs respond. You do not defeat a mountain. You face it and climb it  and live through it with grace, humility and acceptance. My throat loosens. My thoughts wander. I live. I breathe. I ride.

After darkness falls, we make out way back to the start. The final miles pass under a star filled blue black sky and half-moon. We completed the ride with time to spare. I text a message to Facebook: R12: Done. Within minutes, my phone signaled the messages of congratulations - some from friends I have known for years, some  from friends I have known for months and others from friends I met just once.


When I arrived home, my son told me about the potential nuclear power plant disaster in Japan. This tale is far from over.


  1. Much earned and a well deserved accomplishment Nigel. Now onto "bigger and better" or should that read "onto longer and much longer" chellenges.



  2. Fantastic writing; I feel your spirit!