Monday, May 2, 2011

Blue Mountain 400k - One Spring Day

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In the days before the ride, I  kept checking three weather sites to make sure, but each site showed the same forecast - a full cartoon sun, complete with happy spoke rays - clear dry skies, a high near 70 degrees and a low near 50. A beautiful Spring day, almost perfect weather to ride a bike all day and all night. No excuse there. Had the forecast called for anything less, I just might have bailed before I started. 

Those in the know- folks who have ridden the 1200K Paris-Brest-Paris, multi-time Super Randonneurs, multi-time R-12 award holders, first finishers and fast finishers- told me that the 400K is the hardest official Randonneur distance to ride. The longest of the rides with no "sleep stop." Last year, my first season trying this Rando thing, I DNF’d my only 400k attempt when a flash of sanity finally interrupted a sleep deprived ride along a cliff side highway overlooking the Pacific Ocean and convinced me to call it quits at 200 miles. (click here to read the account)

I had a different plan for this year. A reasonable plan. This time, for my 400k attempt, I would get a full night's sleep the night before and then ride a nice flat course. That way, I could just deal with riding the 250 miles, get that distance milestone done and maybe think about a hilly course next year. A nice sensible plan.

I did not follow the plan. Instead, sometime in the last few weeks,  I signed up to ride the PA Randonneurs’ Blue Mountain 400k. This was not a flat course. The Pa Randonneurs don't stage flat events. I know that. Even the title has a mountain right in the middle.  I couldn't say I didn't know. No excuse there. My apprehension increased as the day drew near.

April 30, 2011

My pre-ride packing is not yet ritual. I have a list. I follow the list. Cross off the items I have and circle those I need to find. Check the bike. Check the air pressure - again. Doubt and uncertainty are not on the list, but I pack them too, in the back of my mind, where I hold them until, perhaps in the middle of the night or in a moment of weakness, they come  out and I examine them, one by one, in detail.

The ride starts at 5:00 a.m. I arrive by 4:30. I know a small but growing number of Randonneurs and a few greet me with mock amazement at my "early" arrival.  I tell them I have no idea what to do with all the extra time. I eat and sign in and get my brevet card.

At the final pre-ride meeting, Tom R. asks how many of the 32 or so assembled riders are planning on riding Paris-Brest-Paris. It seems like well over 20 people raise their hands. The PBP is like the Olympics of randonneuring. It happens once every four years and draws a multinational crowd to ride a 750 mile route from Paris to Brest to Paris in 90 hours our less. To ride you have to qualify by first riding a super randonneur series. Most of those around me had done that last year and would do again this year. In the tiny niche sport of randonneuring, I was with a tinier niche of riders, strong experienced riders. I would  bring up the rear - if I finished. One doubt needed repacking, it worked itself out way too early.

Joy comes early in the ride. The quiet simple joy of rolling into the pre-dawn night. Like a flock of birds that seem to take flight on cue, leaping into the sky from a seemingly random mingle to form a line in the sky, the Randonneurs take the static awkward balance of a bike standing still and turn it into graceful movement toward a dark sky, smoky purple on the horizon, as if warming from its eastern edge. 

The course starts easily enough. I ride with a small group, following floating carpets of light. When the morning light grows stronger than our generator and battery powered beams and I can finally see the faces around me, I realize I'm with Joe and Paul from the NJ Randonneurs. At first, I worry that I'm pushing the pace too early if I'm riding with them, but we are on level ground where I can hold my own and they are easing into the day, so I pack that doubt away too.

In a good year, there is one Spring day that seems to hold the essence of Springness. It comes after days of brown and white and gray. That day has harbingers. Robins act as heralds.  Start to look for it when the trees become a works of pointillism, pixelated with tiny leaves of red and shades of green, listen for it when hard wind and rain scrub away last year's dead leaf cover. Feel for it when the sun gently touches arms and legs with a warm and tender embrace. When that day arrives, the air brims with fresh colors, plants overflow with light, people turn their faces to the sun and open windows, long locked against cold drafts, to let in birdsongs. On that day, it is good to be outside. Saturday, during the 400k, may have been that day.

 Throughout out the brevet, the leapfrogging of riders began and continued. After starting in cool temperatures, we peeled off layers of clothing as the day warmed. By mid afternoon we wore short sleeves and, in some cases, shorts.   

The hills come in the second quarter of the ride. One after the other, up and then down. Up down. Climb and descent. Some people stand for the hills, their handlebars rocking back and forth like an inverted pendulum keeping time to the rhythm  of the climb. tic-toc, tic toc. I've come to think of it as the randonneur rock. tic-toc. I sit and spin, changing gears to keep the cadence up, hoping to ration the effort, save something for that one more climb that always seems to come at the end. Talking myself through it. On these climbs the doubts can come out. And they grow, take shape and take on names. I met the too family - too long, too steep, too far, too slow, but they did not get the best of me. Instead, I distracted them with the scenery. 

The hills have their up side. With each climb come vistas and scenes that stretch as far as the eye can see. A road through a farm field is a waving ribbon of contrast against a sea of green. Farmscapes of silos and barns. Mountains and rivers. The course runs through beautiful countryside and this is that one Spring day. And I can climb, to see each and every one.

One segment is 55 miles long. A long stretch without a planned stop. As water runs low,  a dad and his three daughters are out, probably called by the Spring day. The girls have a cooler and a cardboard sign. They call out for me to stop, "Are you thirsty?"  They look to be between 7 and 10. They had made a water stop for the bike riders. How incredibly cute. Of course I stopped, they filled the bottles and handed them back and wished me to "have a day, fine! I mean have a fine day!" well thank you and you too. I smiled and waved as I rode off. That Spring day has magic.

Just down the road, I approached a bike repair/blacksmith shop. The proprietor, called out by the Spring day, sat on an inverted plastic kitty litter bucket wearing a cap, overalls and a blue flannel shirt. Bicycles, in various stages of motorization filled the yard. He was working on a bright red seatless bike. I stopped. Too good to pass up. Asking if I could take his picture led to him describing his work. He was installing an engine on a warehouse bike. The next step would be to add a tank so that it would look like an old Indian motorcycle. The bike was black originally, but when he saw a friend's red antique motorcycle, he just loved the color, he stripped it down to the frame and painted it bright cherry red. He then asked about all the riders he had seen ride past, I just told him we were all on a ride, but I didn't say how far. I think he earned the right to be oddest guy around. In a good way of course. Eventually, I moved on.

Somewhere in the afternoon, the course offered some relief from the climbing as it leveled, if only by comparison. 

As the shadows began to grow, I came upon Eric K. We had been leap frogging with a few others, but our paces seemed to converge with the end of the day. This would be my first all night ride and the possibility of having company seemed like a very good idea. It was. Eric and I rode through the night together, talked, shared navigational duties, led and followed and worked our way through the night together. Turns out the doubts stayed packed away- mostly.

One thing we talked about was being the lantern rouge - the last rider to officially finish a race. Eric used to race bikes, I did not. I came to randonneuring from a background of bike commuting, occasional self-guided long tours and even less frequent charity and century rides. I was not in a club or on a team. I ride simply because I love to ride a bike. Randonneuring is not a race. First or last you get the same credit. Randonneurs are not my competition, they are my collaborators.  

The talk of lantern rouge made me think of a question someone asked me before the start of the ride. They wanted to know if I had a goal in mind, like to finish in the dark.  I laughed and said my goal was to finish. I made that goal and finished with lots time to spare. In the process, I set a new personal distance record, a one ride length record and accomplished something I would not have even considered a few years ago. Lantern rouge in a group like this? On a ride like this? I'm totally okay with that. Plus, after a long cold night, I got to ride through a second sunrise and witness the start of another beautiful day.


  1. Congratulations to you on defeating the "too" family. And heck, congratulations to myself, as last year I decided I was "too hot" to complete that 400K. This year, with Bill O's endless series of deer hunting stories as the fascinating soundtrack, I made it happily through all 400 klicks without "too" much trouble. (Although, I do now have a strange craving for Bambi Bordelaise.)

    And as for Lantern Rouge, I consider it a badge of honor. I spent many years racing and I'm _so_ over the need to go fast. Eric and I were Lantern Rouge for the PA 600K last year.

  2. Thanks Chris and congrats to you too! But don't get me wrong, I have no problem with folks riding fast, hell, I'd enjoy averaging a few more mph and am training hard to try and get there. I applaud those who can hammer these distances. My point was more that finish position doesn't matter much to me. For me its ride hard ride far and enjoy. The rest is gravy.

  3. Nigel, congratulations. Reading your words makes me for the very briefest of moments, wish that I was there to have ridden with you. Congratulations!

  4. Beautiful post! I'm inspired.

  5. And when is the Philly-Middletown Springs-Philly event? Happy spokes to you.

  6. That's it. I'm getting my bike fixed, today!

  7. It was really good riding with you. I'm still laughing about our discussions about navigation
    Me: we're in a valley, and have to climb out of it
    Nigel: of course we do
    Me: it gets a little steep
    Nigel: of course it does

    later, looking for a turn
    Me: I'm pretty sure the turn is at the top of the hill
    Nigel: Of course it is.

  8. Same here, I guess I've just come expect to have to climb every climb in or near a PA Randonneur route. . .