Sunday, May 20, 2012

PA Randonneurs Blue Mountain 400K

The 2012 Pennsylvania Randonneurs' Blue Mountain 400K provided a course that would test the 30 plus Randonneurs who signed up to ride the brevet. To complete the 250 mile route, they would have to climb hill after hill after mountain that added up to 18,899 feet and 126 miles of up. To put that in context, consider this: Denali (Mount McKinley) is the highest mountain peak in North America and, when measured from base to peak, it is also the world's tallest mountain on land. The base to peak elevation of Denali is 18,000 feet. In one day, the Randonneurs would climb the height of Denali.

The climbs are spread throughout the course. The brevet has a 27 hour time limit. To complete it, one has to climb in the beginning, middle and end of a very long day.

The course is an opportunity to learn whether what you think can do can survive the sometimes harsh reality of actually doing it. Bring a credit card. This is not a supported ride. There is no SAG wagon. If you cannot finish, you should be prepared to find a place to sleep and then to find your own way home. It is a route than can fulfill self expectations or mercilessly shatter them.

The course also provides scenic timeless beauty. From Quakertown to Wind Gap, Fredericksburg to Akron and then back to Quakertown, the route traces a large circle through pastoral settings of farms and small towns in eastern Pennsylvania. In the long history of hard physical work that define these areas, the actions of the Randonneurs would be both fitting and fleeting. This day, as unique as every other day, would be made memorable to a few by their willingness to test themselves in a setting of quiet country roads and ancient mountains.

I signed up for the challenge.

Start before dawn.

Another 4:00 am start. Having learned from the last early start, this time I arrive early enough to enjoy the breakfast spread provided by Pennsylvania RBA Tom R., and his volunteers. A bowl or two of hot oatmeal is a good way to start the day.

Minutes before 4:00 a.m., we gather in front of the Hostel under a moonless night. Tom's pre-ride meeting is short and to the point. The anticipation of what we are about to begin shows on the faces of the riders. Some people have traveled a good distance to get here. For some this will be the longest ride they have done. Everyone seems ready to start. 

For me, every ride starts with a sense of uncertainty. What will this day bring? How will it end? Will my plan for the day survive contact with reality? This year I want to go further than I've gone before. To do so successfully, I will have to rely on the lessons I have learned from experience and from friends. One such lesson, from friends and from experience, is to approach a hard course with patience and efficiency. That is my plan for the day. Patience and efficiency.

Under a star filled sky, we ride into the night. In the first few minutes, I ride with Bill F. A group has gone fast off the front. Bill says to me, "No one completes a 400K in the first few miles, but they can finish a 400k in the first few miles." Bill is riding a pace to complete the ride. 

Just as we turn onto the first main road, I realize that I have have not reset my odometer. In the process of resetting it, I dislodge it and its falls, a small black square skittering along a black road on a moonless night. Filthy foul cuss! I dismount and start to search the darkness. The Randonneurs continue to ride off along the course. Many ask if I am OK. I say yes and continue to look while thoughts of riding 249 miles without an odometer weigh heavily on my mind. Luckily, I find it and it still works. I remount and ride, getting back to my plan. I try to relax, remember that there is lots of time. No one completes a 400K in the first few miles, but they can finish it.

For a while, I ride with Dan and Susan from New York. I practice a lesson learned from my friend Chris and gently spin up each and every hill. Then I ride the downhills to make up the difference. As result, we accordion down the course as they gap me on the climbs and I catch up on descents. We are still together when the sun rises. We continue together for a bit more until they stop to refill water and I choose to go on. It will be a long day, I will see them again.
I ride with Paul S. for a while. He is taking on the course with a fixed gear bike. Over 18,000 feet of elevation on a fixed gear bike. The course will provide him with quite a test. Paul will have a day to remember.

But mostly, for the first part of the day, I ride alone. I revel in the scenery and take pictures to try and capture a bit of the blue sky, clean air and the sense of quiet resilience that wraps around me.

In good company

After 45 miles, I arrive at the first on course controle - Blondies Restaurant. Randonneurs are sitting down for a meal. My handlebar bag has rice cakes made according to Allen Lim's recipe (Bill R. - thanks for the tip). I have been eating them along the way, so I refill my bottles and Camelbak and make quick work of the controle. I am riding an all day pace, I will see most of the riders again.

Ed D. and then Bob. T. catch up with me on the road. We talk and we converse, but my slow uphills and fast descents is not a typical approach and results in hugely varying speeds. Sometimes 4 mph sometimes 40. So soon, I ride alone again.

Then Rick C. catches up to me. Up for the weekend from his new home in North Carolina, Rick is a very strong rider. He could ride with just about anyone in the event, from the leaders back to the lantern rouge. But on this day, for this ride, he would ride the course with me from that point forward. The RUSA website says, "Friendly camaraderie, not competition, is the hallmark of randonneuring." Rick is a Randonneur.

Having company changes the feel of the ride. We ride the rest of the day at a conversational pace.

  Midday Sun

The midday sun beats down on the course and the riders. The summerlike heat seems to drain energy from me like someone had pulled a plug. I recognize the symptoms; I am in the early stages of bonking. The thought of heat exhaustion crosses my worried mind. I granny gear hills even slower and drink the last bits of hot water from my Camelbak. This is not good. Getting to the next controle will be difficult. 

Rick waits for me at the top of a hill. He stands under the shade of a tree. As I get closer, I see that he is in front of a white clapboard house at the tail end of a yard sale. Just as I get there, a man comes out of the house holding two bottles of cold water. He gives one to Rick and one to me, as Rick continues the friendly conversation he had started with the homeowner while he waited for me. That act of kindness got me safely to the convenience store that served as an unofficial controle. Thank you Rick. Thank you stranger.

Leaning into the afternoon.

In mid-afternoon, we take a short break from the heat. We stop at a bar for a bathroom break. That leads to having a beer or two as the Preakness was about to begin.  Then off we ride again.


We soon see Andrew, a volunteer, who is on his bike and checking on status of the riders. He rides with us to the next controle. He and Rick catch up on recent events.

At each controle, and some intermediate stops, we meet up with other riders with whom we are overlapping. We regularly see Dan and Susan, Dawn and Walt, Eric, Ed and Laurent. At one stop, Rick goes to the aid of a rider who is ready to DNF. We are at the furthest point out on the looped course, just over half way done, about as far from home as you could get. The rider had been sick on the course and is ready to call it a day. Rick tries calling to get him some help. We offer to have him ride with us, to see if food and company will revitalize him. He opts to not continue. I later hear that he eventually checked into a hotel. The day is hot and the course is hilly.  The course will take its toll on more than one rider.

The afternoon brings cooler temperatures.  We pass farms. We see children playing basketball out by a shed. An Amish boy in suspenders walks side by side with a girl in a long print dress, both barefoot, on this warm spring day. Rick greets everyone we pass with a smile, a wave and often a hello. Soon I do too. We ride through the setting of the sun.

Rick and I ride on. The course is as promised - a challenging series of climbs and descents. But somewhere along the way, I begin to understand that this is not an event of man versus nature. Nature could not care less. It does not matter to the road whether a horse and buggy, tractor or a person riding bicycle uses it. The mountain does not care who climbs it. This is a personal challenge. Will I finish the course and, if so, how? We are doing well on time, so time is not an issue. As that understanding grows, I move along the course working on the now instead of the when.

Night Ride 

Norman, a volunteer, waits at the penultimate control. Despite the lateness of the hour, he cheerfully greets us and checks us in. He soloed the course last week and is here now, late at night, with a smile. Thank you Norman. 

Thirty miles to go.

Saturday becomes Sunday and still we ride. We climb in the dark and climb again. Thankfully Rick knows the route well, so I mostly focus on riding. 

My bike commute is 12 miles each way. When we get 10 miles from the finish, I know that the end is within reach. I drink whatever is left in both bottles. For these last few miles, I muster up the energy to make a spirited push to the finish. At the very last turn before the end of the ride, we catch up with Jud and Michelle, both of whom I had not seen since the start, and Ed whom we had seen off and on throughout the day. The five of us finish together. Back at the Hostel, I am happy to have finished, but even more pleased that I had such good company for most of the day. 

Back at the Hostel

I eat vegetable lasagna, talk, listen and laugh. Some earlier finishers are still at the Hostel. George M. is still there. George rides so fast that he is usually long gone by the time I arrive at a finish. He and Rick have ridden together often. They share stories of the day. The heat and course were a challenge for George, despite his speed and fitness. I found that information both surprising and oddly encouraging. The day was tough for him too. 

Other riders would soon arrive. Randonneurs that I saw throughout the day arrive intermittently. We greet each one with a heartfelt congratulations. Volunteers Glenn and later Chris check each one in. Thank you Glenn and Chris. Later some riders nap in the great room.

Some riders did not meet the test they set for themselves that day. I learned that two found a place to spend the night and will have to end their journey on Sunday.

When I rode this course last year, I shared the lantern rouge position with another rider. As a result, we got to see a second sunrise. This year, that honor went to another rider. He had to solo through the night to earn it. An inspiring achievement. A testament to his will and perseverance. Bill A., if you are reading this, good work and congratulations! 
In fact, to all who took on the challenge of the course -  well done. Well done indeed.


  1. Congratulations on a successful ride well executed. I whipped up a double batch of those rice cakes for our fleche; the lads raved. I'm spreading the gospel!

  2. I'm riding the dc rand 400K next weekend. Any chance the recipe for these magic rice cakes could makes it's way online with enough lead time that I could whip up a batch? Sounds like they might break up the monotony of my standard far of Nature Valley granola bars and peanut butter crackers.

    1. The recipe is very simple and fast to make. This is the link I use:
      It goes to a youtube video that explains it all.
      Good luck on your ride!

    2. I find it helpful to rinse the rice well before cooking, then I don't cook all the water out of the rice, leaving it moist. This makes for nicely juicy rice cakes, just the thing on a hot day when eating is tough enough. I did find the "Martha Paper" through Ebay; it works a charm.

  3. And congrats on your successful finish!!!! It will also be my longest event to date.

    1. Thanks Mike. And good luck on your ride! I recommend a plan based on patience and efficiency - it worked for me.

  4. Hey Nigel! once again , a beautifully written ride report, with terrific photos. I'm glad to see tah you and Rick found the same bar that I stopped at ( and saw part of the hockey game). The bartender was just so helpful, but had no idea where Quakertown was- or if there was a shortcut. I would have been tempted at that point, so I just fixed my flat and moved on!
    Congradulations on finishing a challenging on a particularly tough day.
    Len Z

    1. That is too funny! Stopping off at a bar is not something I think I would considered if Rick weren't there, and yet you were there earlier checking out the game. Love the out of box thinking.

  5. Nigel,
    Another great ride report. While easy spinning up the hills is a good idea, speeding down the hills is a waste of energy. You are just unnecessarily fighting additional air resistance for a tiny percentage gain in speed. If you are coasting faster than your cruising speed on the flat, then just coast!! In short, the marginal return is better if you put the additional energy to use going uphill, when virtually all of your effort is devoted to the essential task of lifting your mass to the top of the hill.

    @Bill R: You and your team looked happy and cheerful at the finish in Westfield; I guess I have to try those rice cakes too.

    ...Roy Y

    1. Hey there Roy! It's good to hear from you. I take that you were up in Westfield for the Fleche? I am looking forward to hearing about it.

      As for my hill descending, I may have left you with the wrong impression. I definitely aero tuck and coast on the descents, I am able to make up distance only because gravity works in my favor on the downhills.

  6. Nigel,

    As always a great read-with 9 days to the Englewood 400K-in 2019. I will use the lesson of spin up the hills/climbs. Can you post the great bread recipe for a snack for me a non-climber to have?