Sunday, May 4, 2014

PA 300k: Grace and Humility

A while back, when I began Randonneuring,  I was talking to the husband of a friend of my wife - which kind of makes us friends by some marital variation on the transitive property of equality but not the kind of friends who do stuff together when the wives aren't involved which is kinda odd when you think about it in detail - but, I digress. Anyway, I tell the guy - I will call him "the guy" to protect his identity and because basically his real name is really not what this is about  - I said to the guy - 
"Yeah, we do these long bike rides under a time limit. The shortest distance is 200k  - about 125 miles- and the longest is about 1200K -about 750 miles.
Now the guy was no couch potato. He had ridden a bike across the country and had lots of  real outdoor adventure trips under his proverbial belt. When I tell the guy about the sport, he replied with something to the effect of  
"Wow, you must have some real demons chasing you." 
That kind of took me aback. Because even then, I knew that ultra distance bike riding is one sport where the one thing you cannot escape is yourself.

That conversation came to me again during the arduous 300K that the PA Randonneurs put on yesterday. In the course of that ride, I came face to face with some unexpected realities. But instead of demons, I would call them angels. And each of them had a name.


After the almost freezing pre dawn temperatures had risen. After the early climbing to cross Blue Mountain was done - but before the later climbing - lies Route 209. 

On route 209, all the stars aligned for me. The bicycle was an instrument and I played like a maestro - no - I played like a child, without limits, without fear, without pain, discomfort, without age and without doubt. I danced down the road and felt the rush of life, of being present in the moment, flood my being.  I rode without effort. If there is a bike equivalent of a runner's high then this was a borderline overdose. A timeless moment  verging on perfection. Not the perfection of the flawless, but the perfection of multiple imperfect facets working together in transcendent unity. The perfection of unconditional forgiveness.

On Route 209, I came to know grace.

Old Mine Road is no stranger. I have crawled up its steep face before, picking my line through its pocked contour. Old Mine Road is a cantankerous bastard but I had taken its measure before and would do it again. The false summit could not lie to me again. I knew to keep climbing until the blue sky filtered through the trees.

Then came Millbrook. Climb Old Mine Road and then turn left to climb again. Paved, but just as steep, Millbrook added injury to insult. 

My granny gear is ridiculously low. In my lowest gear, 26-34, my pedals turn faster that my wheel. I have yet to meet a paved road which that gear cannot climb. I may go
ridiculously slow but I can climb it.

On Millbrook, my granny gear had me ascending at 2.8 mph with great deal of effort. My thighs burned and heart raced and the climb just kept coming. MillBrook broke my will. Just a score of yards shy of the summit, I got off and walked. My speed was 2.6 mph. I could live with that.

On Millbrook, I received a lesson in humility.


Even after Millbrook, the course rose and climbed in short but incessant repeats. I finished my water with more than an hour left of hard riding to the next controle. On tired legs, the time to the next controle grew longer. Thirst became an issue. We were riding in rural farmland. Stores were few and far between. The cue sheet had us turn on Main street. I had hoped to find a place there but Main street was a residential street with no businesses. It looked like I would have to make it to the next controle.

Even a bad ride can teach a good lesson. Early in my randonneurring, my first 300K, a difficult and thirsty ride, eventually led me to a hospital visit. Ever since then being overly  dehydrated has understandably been a particular concern of mine. However, after the Montezuma's revenge ride, I learned the hard way that I can now ride a long way without much water. It is just painfully slow and difficult. I resigned myself to do that again, drawing deeply on reserves of will, burying my fear. 

Then I saw a woman and her eight or nine year old daughter loading, or unloading, a car in a driveway. A mom! with her daughter! No way would she say no in front of her daughter. I veered into her driveway and, from a respectful distance, in a dry and cracking voice, asked if I could have some water. She said yes and immediately went in and returned with two bottles of cold water. I thanked her profusely. We chatted briefly as I drank from one of the bottles and used the other to fill my own bottle.

Starting back on course, the sensation of cool water in my parched throat flooded me with an almost overwhelming sense of relief. I didn't realize how stressed I had become until, as I drank again and thought of how that simple act by the mom had made such a difference to me, the water seemed to not only quench my thirst but threaten to leak from my eyes.

On a forgotten road on the way to the controle. I received a gift of kindness.


Chris N (from NJ) and I had started the ride by riding to the first controle together, not so much by plan as by practice, since we often ride together and our pacing is very similar. Before this ride, I had planned to make a determined effort to spend as little time off bike as possible so as to maximize "efficiency" and thereby minimize overall time. It would be practice for longer rides where building sleep time is a priority. It also means that you spend lots of time in the saddle with very few breaks. As a result, I planned to ride alone because that is a lot to ask of someone else. Especially on a tough course.

We rode through the dawn and the near freezing temperatures. As we approached the first controle, I told her that I planned to move through the controles quickly. And then I did so, leaving within minutes of arriving, taking on the course as a solo challenge.

Although I rode alone, I often had company along the way. As my ride overlapped with others, we shared the road for a bit, until our rides parted ways.

By the last control, Chris caught up with me. It turns out that she was also moving quickly through the controls. As a result, we had doing basically the same ride just minutes apart. We put an end to that by closing out the ride the way we had begun it, together.


Randonneurs understand this old joke all too well:
Why do I keep hitting myself with a hammer? Because it feels so good when I stop.
The hostel that serves as the final controle is a clean well lighted place.  Riders that have finished greet us we arrive. There is food in abundance. We began here just over 16 hours ago and filled that time with hard earned memories. We rode long, rode hard and did this difficult thing. We experience a sense of accomplishment and with it, a sense of simple joy. 

 For more pictures click here. or for a slide show click here.


  1. Very well written with plenty of food for thought as I embark on today's ride!

  2. Fantastic! I'm sure you know this, but you were visited by 5 of the 7 graces that obliterate the 7 deadly sins. Incredibly beautiful and profound experience. Thank you for the humble generosity it takes to share it with us!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting. I guess I only have two sins to worry about. Gluttony is a requirement for these activities but I'm not quite sure what the other might be . . .

  3. Great stuff, Nigel. Yes, Grace, Humility, Kindness, Sharing and Joy are old familiar friends. Thanks for inviting them all to the party. I hope that the PA 400K route is as lovely as the 300K seems to be from you photos. See you down the road.

    1. I can all but guarantee that the 400K route will be lovely. That is practically a given on the PA rides. May the weather be as beautiful as the course.

  4. Nigel,

    Thanks -- and I would agree, even by Eastern PA standards, it was a tough course. That segment from Hainesville to Great Meadows was especially a challenge. I also ran dry, and went looking for water on Main St in Johnsonburg, with no luck. And I also had to rely upon the kindness of strangers. In my case, it was a fellow cyclist, who saw me sitting on the side of road, eating the rest of my sandwich I packed from Flat's deli. As it turns out, he lived 2 houses away where I followed him to get topped off. He told me there was a store in town -- I'll have to check it out a bit more closely next time I pass through there.

    -Tom R.

    1. I don't sign up for the PA rides expecting easy and I wasn't disappointed. However, the next brevet I will take a closer look at the cue sheet and route profile! Glad to hear you found an assist. Its kind of amazing how that works out.

  5. I don't know if my sin was a deadly one yesterday but I lied to myself twice-blamed a well aged prostate for needing a Bio break half way up Millbrook and then I lied again when I pretended not to be able to mount on a 15% grade then used my 24 inch gear, which indeed was not much slower than riding. First time that I ever walked a hill while cycling and that one is not a lie. It seemed particularly evil when the clouds opened and the sun glared down on my parched lips and all I could think of was how badly I wanted relief, any kind, just give me relief. Aside from earlier bonus miles, the icing on the cake was the stretch all the way down the Musconetcong Watershed. I used to live in that area and know the roads like the back of my hand and I was licking my chops at the prospect of a fast easy go from there down to the big River until 20 mph headwinds from the weather front made 13 mph a challenge but at least the drenching rain in the final stretch cleaned the bonus mile mud from the bike, so, it was a good ride.

    1. Oh yes, the headwinds that killed the downhills! Another detail I left out. If you are who I think you are, and you had to use the 24 inch gear, then I am in good company.

  6. I saw so many turkeys but none of the hunters I chatted with bagged one. The hunters were so nice in PA. I suppose they aren't accustomed to lycra cladded cyclist chatting them up. Two gave me guidance onto Community from River upto Rt 209 when my Garmin was in Purgatory and I wasn't sure where I was going. A coyote scampered across the road in the early hours just beyond Blue Mt. It high tailed it like no tomorrow when it saw me. Coyote sightings are rare. I also saw a beautiful, stunning pair of Wood Ducks. I thought I saw a bear but it was a cut silhouette from wood. I am always looking for a bear on these kinds of rides but no luck yet. Plenty of Hawks and I heard an Owl nad heron but did not see either. First ride in ages that I did not see deer, which should have been my tipoff to the impending storm.

    BTW....nice blog post as usual. I am sure plenty of people like me read and enjoy them. To be honest, your accounts were instrumental in getting my fat lard back into the game. Thanks for your tales of adventure and life.

    1. Chris Newman got a picture of bear (on NPS615):

      -Tom Rosenbauer
      Eastern PA RBA

    2. The sightings of birds and beasts is a special Pennsylvania treat. Thanks for reading and for the kind words.

  7. Nigel, it's amazing how you turn a bike ride into a poetic experience. Thanks for such a refreshing story on Monday morning.

    1. Bill, Thanks for the comment and thanks for sharing the pictures of your rides. They are always something to look forward to.