Sunday, March 20, 2016

On the last day of Winter: Lackawanna 200K

The first edge of sunrise lightens the sky. The surrounding woods slowly materializes from the darkness. Close to thirty randonneurs are here, ready to set out on the Lackawanna 200K. Bill, acting as ride organizer, gives the pre-departure briefing. Outside of the Hostel, sharp crisp air reminds me that it is the last day of Winter, not yet Spring.  It's been a long time since I rode a Pennsylvania brevet. My mind wanders. Standing here, in this familiar setting, on the landing outside the hostel as the dawn breaks, random memories of past rides seem to emerge with the daylight. I relive them without intervention, a raft of consciousness floating on a slow river of thought. Collectively, they carry me back to this time, this place. I have ridden before but each ride is different. Am I wearing the right layers? I don't want to be too cold or too hot. I just want to ride. It's time to ride. Let's go.

My wheels crunch gravel as we roll out to the main road. Gil and Michael are just arriving, car door ajar as the brevet gets underway. They will have 200 kilometers to catch up. The fast ones, the climbers, quickly become red lights lining the road ahead. The first control with food is 77 miles way, until then stopping to refuel is optional.

The Lackawanna 200K delivers the austere beauty of the Delaware Water Gap at the end of winter. Shades of red brown ochre color the trees, their last leaves and the carpet of dead winter vegetation. Yet tiny buds create a green mist that hovers in the woods on the verge of spreading and blooming with the growing days of Spring.

This is my first time riding the course. It reverses the departure from the Hostel and we descend a series of light rollers to Milford, NJ along the Delaware River. At first, I ride an easy pace with an PBP Ancien and a newbie. Then Gil and Michael catch us at the first information control. They have been riding in North Carolina and already completed a 600K, 400K and 300K. They pick up their pace and open a gap. I decide to go too and ride with them on the flat stretch along the Delaware river, cruising through the thirty degree air at 17-18 mph. We have a rando conversation about rides and people. Gil and Mike had ridden with the four North Carolina Randonneurs who were struck by the driver in February and suffered some serious injuries. Another unnecessary reminder of how vulnerable we are to others' negligence. I check my mirror more often but still ride.

Milford, like the other towns along the river at the bridge crossings, is quaint and picturesque. Their shops appeal to exurbanites seeking a rustic getaway. We skip the optional stop at the Milford bakery and continue. Climbing away from the river, into the hills and ridges, we see the hillside farms, faded barns and fields that give way to towns and communities that seem built around churches and the hard labor of their residents.  On the climb from the river, Mike and Gil start to pull away. I settle into my own climb. This is Pennsylvania. Early hard efforts can prove costly later on. That is not a lesson I need to learn again.

Climbing up from Milford, it was fun to see so many familiar locations coming from the opposite direction. There is a square church with aging white paint with gravestones on either side. From this approach, the early light streams through its tall arched windows filling the space within.

The climbing was a reasonable challenge for an early-season ride. With some effort, I was able to complete them all without using the small ring on my triple. James H. and I shared company through a good stretch of the course. The only bonus miles we picked up were totally due to a lack of attention we were busily chatting and planning our meal at the diner. Luckily, we were on a flat stretch and were able to get back on course without too much of a delay.

Having a 77 mile stretch to the first control with food was an interesting change. All in all, I liked it because it gave me time to build up a cushion of time to sit down and enjoy a meal at the Portland Bagel Diner. Plus, the places to get food along the way were well marked on the cue sheet and that allowed us to decide for ourselves when and how long to re-fuel. 

The course ended with a long climb from the river back to the hostel. But the last few miles were slightly downhill and they flew by as I raced the clock to try to beat a self imposed time deadline. It was good to end strong and fast but it had taken a while to get my head in the game. My legs were tired from three weeks of daily riding and months of winter strength training and my mind was occupied by thoughts of four North Carolina Randonneurs who were struck by car while riding and the realization that none of us are safe. I searched for the rando spirit that compels me. Vinnie M. gave that spirit a name. In May 2010, when I was one month into the beginning of this part of my life, I read The Loneliness of a Distance Rider. Near the end of that post Vinnie wrote:
When a child living just east of the River Niger (from which Lady Lugard coined the term Nigeria) there was much myth about the Great Onitsha Market on the Niger. Rumor had it that as much as half of the beings at the market were from the world of "spirits". One could easily find out who they were by pretending to drop a coin, and then bend to pick it up, and look to see whose "feet did not touch the ground" (Ukwu Elu Ani).
On the Country Link Train from Melbourne to Sydney, I learned that Kole rode up to 17.000K in the villages of West Africa without his feet touching its red (laterite) earth. I there and then bestowed him with the title. On a brevet you may hear me salute with the title, if I can get within earshot.
Ukwu Eli Ani. A spirit whose feet does not touch the ground. There is a thing, of if there isn't a thing - there should be, where when one hears the name of an essential part of your being, the name ring true and echoes in your consciousness as recognizable as your reflection in a body of water. I am not an Ukwu Eli Ani. I fall short of permanently dancing in flight just above the earth, like a whirling dervish of the chainring. I am no Zazen cycling master. I worry about the cold, I second guess my second guesses and fear the distracted driver behind me, but sometimes, sometimes, when my feet do not touch the ground, a nameless spirit within me takes flight.

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