Downeast 1000k

 The Downeast 1000k was a new route this year, created by Anthony Mennona and run by our local club, New England Randonneurs. First of all, I want to say a big thank you to Anthony for designing the route, arranging accommodations, and organizing the whole thing; another big thank you to my better half Jake, who’s the RBA for our club and who also put a lot of work into making it happen; and lastly a thank you to all the ride volunteers whose friendly faces greeted me at so many controls. 

The route started just outside of Montpelier, VT and went out to the Maine coast, with the turn-around atop Cadillac Mountain on Mt. Desert Island, in Acadia National Park. The sleep stop was in a dorm building at Colby College in Waterville, ME. 

I should mention at the start that in ten years of randonneuring in New England, I have been hoping to see a moose on a ride, and up until now, I never had. Everyone said that if one were going to see a moose on a ride, this would be the ride to see it!

21 riders started, at 4 AM from the Comfort Inn parking lot. The Comfort Inn was wonderful to us, and opened up the breakfast room for us at 3AM so we could get some food and coffee before the start. 

As usual, I rode my old faithful fixed gear, a 1974 Raleigh Professional. I was pleased to see that there was actually one other rider on a singlespeed (although not a fixed gear). The ride started out across scenic Vermont countryside as the sun came up. I chatted awhile with the other singlespeed rider, until he dropped me on a climb. The morning was humid, but the temperature was pleasant. It was one of those days where between humidity in the early morning and sweat during the heat of the day, my clothes pretty much stayed damp for the entire day.  There were a few sections of dirt roads, and overall the pleasant, scenic cycling one expects from Vermont. I started the ride feeling somewhat groggy and tired, and didn’t really feel warmed up for a good while (actually, not really until the third day) but that’s how it goes sometimes.

Downeast1000k1 Downeast1000k2

Around mile 60, we found the Connecticut River, which is much smaller than it is in Central Massachusetts. It meanders around and forms the line between Vermont and New Hampshire. We crossed the river into the first control in Lancaster, NH. Anthony was waiting there to sign cards. Between the terrain and the fact that I’m not really at my fastest this year, I think I was the last to arrive at the control, although I got there in good time. There were two riders still there, Mike Anderson and Larry Midura. They’d arrived maybe 10-15 minutes ahead of me, and left maybe 10-15 minutes before I did; that would turn out to be the pattern for most of the rest of the ride. I ate a pickle, filled my bottles, bought a snack, chatted with Anthony for a few minutes, and got back on the road. 

The route followed the Connecticut River north for awhile, then turned more northeast toward the Maine state line. The cuesheet recommended stopping for water in Errol, NH, since there would be no more services for awhile. Mike and Larry had gotten there a bit before me, and they left a bit before me, yet again. I got in some calories in the form of a nice big ice cream cone, then continued on into Maine.

The next stretch was, as promised, empty of services. It went between lakes and marshes on one side, and forest on the other. The pavement was brand-spanking-new, and minimally traveled. In Maine, state highways and numbered roads are usually one lane in each direction with the paved surface ending an inch past the white line, and a very soft sandy shoulder. On this brand new road, the pavement was perfectly black and the shoulder was light colored sand, which made for beautifully clear tracks on the road surface. Looking around, I kept thinking that this would really be an ideal place to come looking for moose, but of course they probably wouldn’t be out in the heat of the day. There were quite a lot of very clear moose tracks all over the road though, and in one place there were even some bear tracks. There were a few human footprints too, but those were less exciting. For that whole stretch, my biggest regret was that the route doesn’t return that way. I figured if we went that way on the way back, I’d be almost guaranteed to be there at a different time of day, and it was clearly a popular moose hangout. 

Downeast1000k3 Downeast1000k4

That was a fairly long stretch with no shade, but the scenery was just absolutely gorgeous and the road surface was buttery smooth. It made for a very enjoyable ride. Eventually the road diverged from the lake side as it headed toward the next control in Rangeley, ME. It was on this stretch that I managed to incur what Jake dubbed the “stupidest cycling injury ever”. On rides like this, I like to keep a bottled beverage (preferably caffeinated!) In the side pocket of my saddlebag where I can reach it while riding, in addition to my water bottles. In this case, it was one of those Starbucks Frappucino things, in a glass bottle with a metal lid. Drinking it requires riding with no hands while I reach back for it, use two hands to open the lid, hold the lid while drinking, and screw the lid back on. At some point, I’d taken a drink and been annoyed that the bottle was dribbling sticky all over the place, and screwed the lid on good and tight. So on this stretch, I reached for the bottle and tried to open it, but I couldn’t get the lid open. I got annoyed and just gave it a really good crank as hard as I could, and felt a sudden pain in the back of my right forearm. It was one of those things where you know you’re about to do something that’s going to hurt, but you’re annoyed and you just do it anyway. The lid still didn’t come off. I wasn’t really thinking about my arm, I just wanted the stupid lid off. So I tried a couple more times. I tried tapping the lid against the stem (although, not wanting to leave marks on  my stem, not actually hard enough to help). Still no dice. So I gave up on it, since I wasn’t even that far from the control anyway.

The control was a convenience store called The Looney Bin, which strikes me as aptly named for a control on a crazy ride like this. The selection there was unfortunately a little thin, but it sufficed. Henry van den Broek was there to sign brevet cards, and Mike and Larry were there too. My bottled Starbucks was passed around and remained stubbornly closed until Henry tapped it against something a few more  times and got it open. As I was getting ready to leave, the sky opened up. I hung around the control for a few more minutes until the rain died down, then got back on the road. The rain petered out, although the weather remained damp. 

Downeast1000k6

The Looney Bin: that place where randonneurs probably all belong, by definition.

It was sometime in the damp evening in the river and pond-dotted hinterlands past Rangeley that I saw my moose! I looked up and she was just standing there by the side of the road. I slowly rolled to a stop just past her as she looked around nervously, ears twitching. She was pretty close, actually. But while she seemed OK with me rolling past, she didn’t much like me standing there trying to surreptitiously get my phone out for a photo, and she disappeared into the brush before I managed it. She was the only one I saw on the whole ride, but still, I was thrilled to have seen her if only briefly.

Once it was dark, it got fairly foggy at times, which caused me to miss a turn at one point because I didn’t see the sign through the fog. But I didn’t go too far off course and was able to correct myself. For what it’s worth, I’ll mention that I was riding basically just using the cuesheet. I did have a GPS along in my handlebar bag – Jake’s newer one, which doesn’t fit on the handlebar mount for mine… I didn’t bring mine because I hadn’t gotten around to loading the route on it, but Jake offered me his, which he’d loaded the route onto. So the GPS was basically for verification purposes. I had my cell phone as well, kept in airplane mode to save battery, which I could also pull out if I needed it. But mostly I still tend to use cuesheets, especially in New England where our ride organizers work very hard to make them clear and informative. And the cuesheet has more information in it than the GPS would, anyway – such as where to find a convenience store .2 mi off the route that you wouldn’t otherwise know was there, if you need to refuel. Actually, having a GPS along but not mounting it to the bars, or having it on the bars but without the route in it, or having it along but not bothering to put fresh batteries in it, etc, are all sort of common, ummm, “strategies” for me, as I tend to take a sort of casual and last-minute approach to packing for rides, and I know I’ll be handed a cuesheet at the start.

For that matter, I don’t even ride with a computer. It’s not that I’m against them or anything, I just have been too lazy to get a new one since the last one broke some years ago. But I generally have a good feel for how far I’ve gone, when I know I need to pay attention. And for longer cues, I use my watch: At 12mph, a mile takes five minutes; at 10mph, it’s 6 minutes, at 15 mph it’s 4 minutes. So if I have to go five miles, I know roughly how fast I’m going, so I know when I should start looking for the turn. I always start keeping an eye out a little early, and keeping an eye on my watch and on the cuesheet gives me something to do. But what with my vintage steel bike and plain ol’ cuesheet, I feel like I need a t-shirt that says, “I’m not really a luddite, I just look like one!”

Downeast1000k5

Action shot cockpit selfie!

So, following the cuesheet’s instructions, I made a brief stop at the barely-off-route convenience store, and continued on to the sleep stop at Colby College in Waterville, ME. Actually, on my way into the college, I even pulled out my cell phone to find a campus map, since I hadn’t seen the street name the cuesheet mentioned, and it looked like I’d passed most of the campus buildings already. Because of course, neither the GPS nor Google Maps marked the actual street names of the campus roads, or the names of the buildings. But the dorm we were using was just a little further on, and I found it with no further trouble. 

The accommodations at Colby were excellent. I arrived at 12:30 AM, and there was hot food waiting. Jake was asleep when I arrived, but my friends Rob and Janika, who live nearby in Albion, ME, were there to take care of me. They carried my bike down into the dining hall, where lots of others were parked along the sides, and where Mike and Larry had arrived shortly before. I had a plate of hot food, and Janika showed me to the shower and my room. I rinsed off quickly, and asked to be woken up in an hour and a half. I didn’t sleep especially well, for whatever reason. But I knew that the first day was the easiest, and that the climbing would increase each day, so I wanted to be sure not to spend too long at the sleep stop. 

I left at around 3:30 AM, a bit behind Mike and Larry as usual, feeling somewhat less than refreshed. There was a neat little pedestrian bridge on the way out of Waterville, and more wee-hours fog. The early morning is often a challenging time of day for me to say the least, and I was going none too fast in my groggy stupor. Finally around 6 AM I crested a hill and saw a convenience store that was open, so I stopped for a snack and some caffeine. The stop helped some, but didn’t do as much good as I’d hoped. A ways down the road, I finally just sat down and took a nap, leaning up against a road construction sign. 

Downeast1000k7

The nap made a big difference, and when I got back on the bike I felt much more alert and finally started to go a little faster. It was a very pretty morning actually, once the fog burned off. Awhile after that I came upon another rider by the side of the road. He’d broken his rear shift cable and was calling it quits. I tried to talk him out of it, first by suggesting that he adjust the limit screws in the rear derailleur to pick one cog, since he’d still be able to shift the front (he wasn’t too keen on doing the rest of the ride with a two speed bicycle) and then by suggesting that he call Janika and Rob, who live nearby and would probably have a shift cable to lend, but he’d already made up his mind and called his wife to pick him up. 

As the day went on and the route got closer to the coast, the traffic picked up. In Maine, numbered roads/state highways are generally one lane in each direction and the pavement stops right at the white line, at which point there’s a very soft sand shoulder. I’m not a huge fan of this arrangement; people drive quite fast, including logging trucks, pickups towing trailers, etc. The wide, sandy shoulder creates a visual impression that there is plenty of room, but the sand is so soft as to be pretty un-rideable. The edges of the pavement are often crumbled, which makes it worse. Generally it seems that if I actually turn around and look over my shoulder at traffic that’s coming up from behind, they’re more likely to move over and give me a reasonable amount of room (maybe it’s a subconscious signal that I’m a person, not an inanimate obstacle), but craning over my shoulder over and over for miles gets tiresome, and makes for a stiff neck eventually too. I’d been in this same area with my heavily-laden touring bike not two weeks earlier on the way home from a gig, and while it was worse on a loaded bike, it’s annoying on any bike. During the day at least, some of these Maine roads can go from peaceful, gorgeous, and idyllic to obnoxious and terrifying and then back again faster than anywhere else I can think of. Rt. 1A was particularly annoying in this respect. 

Finally, I reached the Penobscot Narrows Bridge and the point where I reconnected with my exact route from a couple of weeks before. I do always enjoy crossing this bridge. It’s beautiful, and also brand new. It carries US-1 to the island of Verona. The control in Bucksport is right after leaving Verona. Actually, two weeks previously, I’d been heading the other direction on Rt. 1 and Janika and Rob had ridden out to meet me, and Bucksport was where we connected. 

Penobscot Narrows Bridge

Penobscot Narrows Bridge

 

Penobscot Narrows, as seen from the bridge

Penobscot Narrows, as seen from the bridge

Mike and Larry weren’t at the control when I got there – no surprise, what with my snack and then nap. I was annoyed that I hadn’t managed to gain much time on that leg, since I knew I’d need it later on when the climbing started in earnest. But the early morning sleepies will do that to you. 

This convenience store, too, was a little thin for selection, but I did find myself a solid 1200 calories in a pint of Ben and Jerry’s, bought my umpteenth disgusting bottled Frappuccino (seriously, I really hate those things, but they work), and then kept on. 

Breakfast of champions

Breakfast of champions

From Bucksport to Ellsworth, I was riding on US-1, a stretch of it that’s all too familiar from my annual trips to Maine with the touring bike to teach music. The road goes over a series of long rollers, and I always think there are fewer of them than there really are. I can say with confidence, though, that they do feel less onerous on a fixed gear brevet bike than on a 90-lb touring bike. Rt. 1 has a nice, wide shoulder most of the time, so although the traffic goes by very fast, the biggest problem it causes is the noise. The exception, though, is where the road adds a climbing lane on the uphills. The width for the climbing lane comes out of the shoulder, leaving a much narrower strip. There are two signs on those hills: one says “slower traffic keep right” and the other says “keep right except to pass”. These two instructions imply different treatments of the climbing lane, and the result is that everyone just spreads out into both lanes, going just as fast. So you still get passed by trucks going 60mph when the shoulder is narrowed, and that’s not really a lot of fun.

Eventually I reached Ellsworth, which has a steep descent into town, and then a right turn toward Mt. Desert Island (that always strikes me as a sort of awkward name… I always want to add another “S” and envision it as a giant pile of whipped cream!). Rt. 3 on that stretch was more of that narrow road, crumbled edges, sandy shoulder, fast pickups business for awhile, but as I got closer to Acadia the traffic got a little friendlier. Generally the tourist traffic in and near the park was somewhat better behaved. It was fairly hot though, and I was still feeling kind of groggy and slow. I wasn’t making up time very well, and I needed another water stop before starting the long climb up Cadillac. 

Just as I was feeling cranky and thirsty and in need of a pick-me-up, I heard some calling and cheering from the side of the road. There were a bunch of people milling around, and bikes everywhere, and they were motioning for me to join them. I rolled over, and they took my bike and offered me sandwiches and cold water and a chair. They were a church group from the Midwest (I can’t remember where now :( ) on a bike trip. They’d started from Brattleboro, VT, and were going about 450 mi in around 8 days. Their sandwiches, cold water, and friendly conversation gave me a much-needed boost as I continued toward the mountain. 

The road started going uphill basically by the visitor’s center. I wasn’t near Cadillac Summit Road yet, but I was climbing already. Even on Paradise Hill Rd, I’d catch occasional glimpses of a the distant mass of the summit, and it seemed impossibly far to climb. 

It was a long climb, but climb I did. There was a fair amount of tourist traffic, including some large tour buses, and while I found the whole tourist-y scene a little off-putting, the drivers were polite enough and gave me plenty of space. It seemed like I’d been going uphill for ages when I finally arrived at the turn onto Cadillac Summit Road, which was still 3.5 mi from the top. But the climb wasn’t terribly steep, and I settled into a good rhythm for what felt like the first time all day. At one point a woman who’d gotten out of her car to take photos of her son climbing around on the rocks around a switchback cheered me on and told me I was almost there. It still seemed to go on for a good long while after that, though. I always try to remind myself that people shouting encouragement from the side of the road may not necessarily be very good judges of what constitutes “almost there” or of how far it really is. The sun beat down, and I climbed some more. 

Finally, I arrived at the summit. There was a big parking lot and a gift shop and lots of people, but the weather was clear and the view was spectacular. I sat down and took a breather, and one of the other visitors took a photo for me. A few people asked me where I’d ridden from, shaking their heads when I explained. A common question I get, when they notice that I’m riding a fixed gear, is whether that’s a requirement or whether everyone does it like that. The next question is invariably why the heck I do it like that, since a modern multi-speed drivetrain would seem to be the logical choice. I have yet to come up with a good answer, and all I can say is that I do it because I’ve been doing it for years and haven’t gotten around to changing. 

Downeast1000k91 Downeast1000k92

You’ll notice that I’m wearing long sleeves and knee warmers, despite complaining of the heat. There’s actually a good reason for this! For the long sleeves, the explanation is that this jersey is not a thermal material, it’s just lightweight summer fabric. The long sleeves are a light color and help keep the sun off, so that I don’t have to bother with sunscreen. I’d sort of rather wear short sleeves, but the long sleeves are less annoying than sunscreen, and actually keep me cool pretty well. The knee warmers are because my knees tend to rub the top tube when I climb. This isn’t a problem in dry weather, and it isn’t a problem when it’s pouring, but when it’s sort of damp, my skin wants to stick and causes lots of irritation. So at a certain point I just put on the knee warmers and kept them on. But they’re fairly thin, and don’t really feel that hot either. It just looks like I’m overdressed!

The descent off of Cadillac was curvy and fun. I saw a few other cyclists riding up while I was spinning madly on the way down. They gave me some strange looks, to be sure. Descents like this always engender a bit of chagrin, because I worked so hard and it took so long to get up to the top, and then I get back down to the bottom in what feels like no time at all by comparison!

After the descent, there was a short loop through Bar Harbor. I could have done without the congestion and traffic of doing that, but I made another stop for water and iced coffee and a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich (extra bacon). I was still feeling sort of slow and draggy, but the food and caffeine helped pick me up. Out of Bar Harbor, the route went down some beautiful gravel carriage roads back in Acadia. These were really one of the highlights of the ride. The cool shade and lack of traffic was a welcome change of pace. I should have taken photos, but I didn’t. That short section ended, and the route reconnected with the outbound version again to head back toward Ellsworth. I walked up the steep hill out of downtown Ellsworth. The setting sun was in my eyes, and I was relieved when it dipped below the hills as I rode back down Rt. 1 to Bucksport. This was now my third time on that stretch of Rt. 1 in two weeks; the first time was on my touring bike, on the way home from teaching in Lubec. On the touring bike, I have a low gear of 30×34, and even on the loaded bike, I don’t need to walk on this hill, although I don’t go any faster than if I did. But walking a bike that heavy is no picnic; riding it is easier! With a low gear (and a high gear) of 44×17 though, walking is worth it.

By the time I left the Bucksport control, it was dark. I was tired, and it was a long trip back to Colby to sleep. After crossing over the Penobscot Narrows bridge again, I looked behind me and saw the bridge all lit up in the dark, with the full moon centered between the two soaring pylons. It was gorgeous, and I should have taken a photo… but my phone takes crappy pictures in the dark, and I’d have had to stop and brace the phone or hold very still to get anything at all. So here are some photos I stole from the internet, to give you some idea of what it looked like. 

Pretend there’s a full moon between the pylons!


Bridge and moon, but wrong vantage point.

The 57-mi leg from Bucksport back to Waterville was definitely the toughest for me mentally. I really needed to make up time, especially if I wanted to sleep at the control. I was tired and kind of groggy. The roads that were pleasantly scenic during the day were pretty boring by night, when there’s really nothing to see except the little circle of the world illuminated by my headlight, full moon or not. I could have done with another water stop somewhere, and every time I passed through towns I kept a careful eye out for a soda machine. I’d have really liked to find a soda machine. But they didn’t have any of those. I finally got sleepy enough to take a nap leaning up against… something or other. I can’t even remember what it was, just that I did it at least once. I guess there were some rolling hills in there, but I don’t really remember those either.

I finally made it back to Colby at around 3:30 AM, half an hour before the cutoff time. Jake was there waiting for me, as well as volunteers Sara and Gary. Mike and Larry were there, too. Not only was there hot food, but there was also cold beer! Jake had done the beer shopping and had even made sure to save me an IPA. The beer was just about the best thing I ever tasted, and it helped with getting the food down. This time when I went up to sleep, I had no trouble sleeping soundly for an hour and a half. 

The alarm rang all too soon, and I tried to get down some food and coffee, but as usual after sleep stops like this, I didn’t manage to get down that many calories. Finally I gave up on it and got back out on the road, for the last (and hardest, terrain-wise) day. As Jake was carrying my bike back up the dining hall stairs for me, he commented that he’d carried basically everyone’s bike up or down those stairs, and he was pretty sure that mine was the heaviest of them all. Whee, lucky me: It’s not enough to ride a fixie, I have to ride a heavy fixie, too! I don’t think it was the weight of my luggage; I don’t think I was carrying more than many other people, and the only stuff I carried with me that I didn’t actually use were the tools (only a small multi-tool, a y-wrench, a single tire lever, a few zip ties, and some electrical tape – I am not one of those people who carries a spare bottom bracket and a full set of cone wrenches!) and spare tubes, because I was fortunate enough not to get any flats. He did mention that my load was very well balanced between front and rear. But apparently my bike is not so light.

I had made my sleep stop as quick as I could while still getting done what I needed to, but I still left the control with a time deficit on the control closing times. But I still needed more in the way of breakfast, and made a stop at a cafe 20-30 mi or so into the leg. I had some chicken soup with rice and some sort of quiche thing and a big iced coffee, and that perked me up quite a bit. 

Actually, leaving the breakfast place, I actually felt as good as I’d felt the whole ride. Of course I was still tired, and my wrist was still sore from the unscrewing-the-lid incident, I still had blisters on my fingers from so much climbing in muggy weather, still had a few more saddle sores than usual due to wearing shorts that are too small, etc, but still, I felt like I had finally warmed up and hit my stride. Sometimes you just feel like it takes a long time to warm up, and sometimes 450 mi. Go figure.

Downeast1000k93

But it was a good thing I did, because the hard parts were still to come. There was a series of quite steep rollers, followed by a 700-foot climb that seemed to come out of nowhere. At one point, someone called from the side of the road that I was halfway. He said it in an encouraging way, but as I already felt like I’d been climbing for way longer than I was expecting, halfway was NOT what I wanted to hear at that point! Unfortunately, his estimate was spot on.

Awhile later on the same climb, Jake passed me in his rental car, and pulled over to see how I was doing. Not only that, but he’d been shopping! At the sleep stop, I’d mentioned that so far the convenience store controls had been fairly thin for selection, and often didn’t have the things that I liked. Foremost on my list were V-8, and those little Starbucks cans of espresso with cream and sugar. Those cans are like magic in the middle of the night, and they aren’t even that heavy to carry. If I were smart, I’d buy some in advance and carry some along and keep some in my drop bag. But I’ve apparently not gotten smart to that strategy yet. Anyway, I got a big delicious drink of V-8 and I took a couple of those magical cans onboard to get me up the big climbs before continuing up, and finally descending into the control in South Paris. 

Shortly after the control, the route passed Pennesseewassee Lake. As I looked out over the water, I could see some weather over the mountains in the distance.

Weather in the distance

Weather in the distance

After the lake, I hit a bunch more steep rollers between Norway and Sweden (must be all those fjords! ;-) ). They were relentless, and I walked up a couple of them. It was there that the weather I’d seen caught up with me in a short but torrential downpour. The temperature dropped, the wind howled in, and the sky opened up like a fire hose. There was even hail for a few minutes! It didn’t rain for long, but it rained hard enough to ensure that I was soaked, and my feet would be damp for the rest of the ride. 

As swiftly as it had come, the Sturm und Drang ended and the sun came back out. Steam rose from the pavement. I kept looking behind me to see if there was a rainbow, but either there wasn’t or the trees lining the road didn’t let me see it.

Downeast1000k95 Downeast1000k96

Shortly after that, the rollers gave me a reprieve until crossing the line into Conway, NH. I made a quick stop at one of the last convenience stores before the biggest climb of the ride, then headed into White Mountains National Forest and up the Kancamagus Highway.

Downeast1000k98

The sun was low and in my eyes as I continued west. Fortunately the mountains start shading it from view long before it reaches the actual horizon. It’s over 20 miles from the park entrance to the top of the climb. I went at a slow but steady pace, and as the sun set the traffic decreased. It’s not a steep climb in the east-to-west direction (in the 5-7% range I would say), and I got into a pretty comfortable rhythm. I’m not sure how long it took to reach the top, but it was full dark by the time I did, and the moon was up. When I reached the scenic overlook at the top, I heard a woman calling out, “Yeah! You made it! Good for you!” I didn’t realize she was talking to me, until I realized that except for the person standing next to her, there wasn’t anyone else around. I pulled into the overlook (which I’d have done anyway) and she gushed that she and her husband had seen me on their way up, and she thought, “Oh that poor man! (oh, sorry, I assumed you were a man, no offense!) That looks like such hard work!”. She said they lived nearby, and had driven up there to look at the moon, which was one day past full and was big and bright in the relatively clear night sky. The moon really was gorgeous; my cell phone photo can’t possibly do it justice. It was bright enough to see the faces of the couple I was talking to, and bright enough to cast real shadows on the ground. I enjoyed the brief chance to chat, especially with someone as bubbly and upbeat as this woman was. Her husband didn’t say nearly as much, although that would have been hard. 

I'm being chased by a moon shadow...

I’m being chased by a moon shadow…

 

Moon shadow, moon shadow!

Moon shadow, moon shadow!

The overlook was nice and all, but time marches on and so do brevets. So on I went. It was only 13 miles of spinning like mad to get me to the Price Chopper control in Lincoln. I managed to make it in time, and even managed to gain some time. I both love and hate grocery store controls. I love that there are finally more choices, but hate that it always takes me longer to figure out where things are, figure out what I want, and take care of what I need to do. They didn’t have any hot food anymore by the time I got there, but I found some cold soup and a microwave to warm it in. I didn’t wait for it to get very warm though, before eating it as quickly as I could and refilling my bottles, ready to press on. While I was in the store, there was a quick torrential downpour outside that had mostly finished by the time I was ready to leave. Also notable were the people I saw going in and out as I sat in the vestibule eating my soup. It was like Interfaith Night at the Price Chopper. There were a couple of families dressed in orthodox Jewish style (both with babies in strollers… I always sort of wonder what someone’s day has been like if I see them in a store with a baby at some weird hour of the night), a couple of families dressed in Muslim style (more people bringing small children to the grocery store at odd hours), and a couple of people with Sikh top knots. And a guy with lots of tattoos, of which a couple were varieties of crosses, but you expect tattoos in the middle of the night.

It was still dripping outside a bit when I left. The next leg was only 32 mi, and I had over four hours to do it in to make the closing time. But of course, the first thing on this leg was the climb up Kinsman Notch. This one isn’t as long as Kancamagus, but it’s steeper and darker and I was sleepier, so I got off and walked a bit. At one point I also pulled over and took a nap leaning up against a “White Mountains National Forest” sign. But finally I reached the top and started the more gradual descent into the penultimate control, in Bradford, VT, right on the Connecticut River. 

It was sometime along that stretch that I realized I didn’t have quite as much time as I thought! I’d been doing the math on the closing time of the Bradford control, and the finish time, and realized the problem. The control closing times are based on the required minimum speed for the full distance that the route actually is, in this case, 635 mi. The finishing time is calculated based on 1000km, or 621 mi. That’s a 14 mi discrepancy, and if one were not careful and were up against closing times on every control, one would have to make a much higher average speed on the last leg. And the last 34 mi was much more uphill than down. Uh-oh. 

The sudden realization that I was under more pressure than I thought roused me somewhat, and I focused on keeping the pace up. I arrived at the Bradford control a good bit ahead of closing, and got in and out of there as fast as I possibly could. I did my best to keep the pace up, but sleepiness was getting the better of me. Once or twice I stopped for a “standup nap”, where I didn’t bother to even dismount but “napped” by crossing my arms over the bars and putting my head down for a few minutes. It was all I could take the time for and it wasn’t much, but it was enough. As I rode into dawn, the morning light plus the realization that I wasn’t going to make it in time if I didn’t hurry, plus the motivation to be done helped wake me up. It was actually a glorious morning, and the Vermont countryside was really gorgeous up in those hills. Would have made nice photos, but damned if I was going to be bothered with that. Plus, my arm had gotten more and more sore. It basically wasn’t a problem while riding unless I moved it in a bad way while moving my hands around on the bars, but all kinds of other things irritated it, such as getting things out of my back pockets or fishing around in my handlebar bag. So that made photos more difficult, which is another reason I don’t have more of them. 

Those last few climbs felt like cruel and unusual punishment, tantalizing me with how close I was but slowing me down at the same time. But finally, I made it into the Comfort Inn with 15 minutes to spare. Being in a huge hurry to check in and get my card stamped, I walked right through the hotel lobby without looking at anything (like the signs that would have told me where to go) and went straight to the hotel room we’d been told at the start that we’d have at the finish. There were no bikes around, things were very quiet, the door was shut, and there was no sign, but that was the room, so I knocked. A woman in a nightgown opened the door and sighed and told me she didn’t know where we were supposed to go, but good luck anyway. She didn’t look that surprised to see me… apparently, the poor lady had been woken up quite a few times by randonneurs who thought they knew where they were going. In a panic to check in before 7, I called Jake. He was in a different room; the hotel had promised us the same one, but had accidentally given it to someone else. Jake had put up signs in the lobby, but in my brevet-addled stupor I missed them completely. 

I found the right room, where Jake was waiting, along with NER’s newlywed president Dan Greene and his wife. Mike and Larry were there too, having finished about 15 minutes before. The smell of cooking butter filled the room, and it turned out to be coming from a griddle from which I was served fresh scrambled eggs and pancakes.

So, thanks again to all the volunteers who made the ride possible. I’d definitely do this ride again if it were offered, and would highly recommend it to anyone looking for a taste of New England that’s a little bit off the beaten path. Maybe one of these times I’ll even get a light bike with gears. But then again, I think I’ve said that every year for ten years, and I haven’t done it yet.  

Post-ride treat

Post-ride treat

Share Button

“Extreme Commuting” – combining touring with transportation – the long version

It was 1AM. The train station in Brunswick, ME wasn’t open yet and the next train back to Boston from Brunswick that allowed bicycles wasn’t for another 17 hours. I found an ATM booth and hauled my 90-lb bike in with me, and slid down to the floor. I’d been riding more or less since around 10AM, although with a good number of stops, some of which were long-ish. I was tired of being on the road, tired of being on the bike, and most of all, just wanted to go home. I’d planned on finding a motel and doing half the trip on Saturday and half on Sunday, but it was late August on the Maine coast and there wasn’t a vacancy to be found.

Which brought me to my ATM booth by the train station. I had two choices: I could try and get comfortable on the floor by the ATM and get some sleep, then once morning came and things started to open up, find a diner and have a very lengthy breakfast, then find a cafe with WiFi and spend the rest of the day killing time in it until it was time for the train. The other choice was to just keep riding another 40 mi or so to Portland, where there was a train leaving for Boston that allowed bikes, at 5:30AM. 

How did I end up in an ATM booth in the middle of the night with a 90-lb bike? Well, when I’m not making bike bags, in my other life I’m a musician. So in the summers, I travel to a number of summer workshops where I either teach music classes or play for dancing. These things vary in distance, but they’re generally within striking distance by bicycle. That means a lot of riding with a LOT of load: instruments, music, clothes for a week, etc. It adds up to more weight than bike touring gear, and it’s not stuff you can just do without or buy a lighter version of the way you can leave behind the second cooking pot or buy a lighter tent. This is the long version of the story. If you just want the details on how I get around this way, click here.

In the past, this has been my ride: 

The frame is a 1972 Raleigh Pro, set up with a 9sp 11-34 cassette and a T/A crank with 46t and 30t chainrings. I bought the frame because I like my 1974 Raleigh Pro (the light blue fixie brevet bike) so much. The panniers are ones I made for touring a few years ago, and everything plus the kitchen sink is strapped all over the back. The bike actually handles surprisingly well that way, but it’s hard on rear racks!

But my birthday/Christmas present from Jake this year was to have Peter Weigle put S&S couplers in that frame, add some more braze-on’s, add a new fork with lowrider mounts, and repaint it. I got a bunch of new parts for it, too. The bike was something of an ugly duckling before, but now it is GORGEOUS. So of course, it had to have new bags, to make use of the front rack and redistribute the weight. 

Here’s the bike “before” on several of these trips:

Bike to Pinewoods 2013

Yeah, that’s a box fan on top. This was for the shortest trip, which was to a camp where one stays in cabins that can get very uncomfortable without a fan!

Bike to lubec 2012 Bike to New London 2013

 

And here is “after”:

 Bike to pinewoods 2014

It looks like a new bike! And actually, the fork is new. In addition to redistributing the load, I actually did manage to save a little weight in a few places. You’ll notice there’s no box fan this time, although that part’s really because the itinerary changed; it’s one thing to ride 50 mi with a box fan, but another thing to ride more than twice that with one. 

The first trip was to Pinewoods Camp, to play for English-Scottish Session (English country dance as well as Scottish). It’s actually only about 60 mi from home, but I wasn’t going straight there. My first stop was a rehearsal with a friend on Cape Cod, which is another 35 or 40 mi past the camp. The ride down to the Cape from the northwest side of Boston isn’t a particularly nice one; it’s congested and built up, and any more scenic route one might take makes it substantially longer. When one is time-constrained and riding a very heavily laden bike, taking the scenic route isn’t really an option. But one nice option is taking a ferry to cut off some of the most congested areas. Practically speaking, it only reduces the distance and the trip time by a little, but it does mean I only have to ride into downtown Boston proper instead of all the way through it. 

Plus, the ferry is cheap, convenient, and fun, and allows bikes. It’s run by the MBTA and goes from Long Wharf in Boston down to Hingham, bypassing some of the worst traffic of the trip. 

bike on ferry 2014

 

After that, the ride was uneventful, if long and hot. One problem with traveling this way is that it’s kind of difficult to make pit stops. Generally, no one bothers a loaded touring bike and it’s normal to just leave the bike outside a convenience store while you go in. But I feel a lot less comfortable doing that when my panniers are full of expensive musical instruments than if they were just full of camping gear (although don’t get me wrong – having your camping stuff stolen while on a tour would really suck, too), particularly in the busy suburban South Shore and when using the bathroom means my stuff will be totally out of sight.  But I’ve found that a lot of convenience stores, Dunkin Donuts, etc, will actually let me bring my bike inside if I ask politely and explain that it’s because I have so much stuff and don’t want to leave it outside. Not all of them are willing, and if they aren’t, I just move on. And on that trip, I only made one stop at an ice cream stand where I didn’t need to leave my stuff.

Unfortunately, I forgot both the sun sleeves and the sunscreen. This was just after the Fourth of July, so there was lots of sun; there’s not much shade on that route, and I didn’t have a good opportunity to buy any en route. When I arrived in Chatham, I was well and truly toasted to a crisp. We rehearsed in the evening and the next morning, and then I left to go to the camp. I really should have left more time – I’d forgotten about how I’d be trying to get off of Cape Cod at the end of the Fourth of July weekend, probably the single busiest vacation weekend of the season. There was no place to stop for so much as a snack, let alone sunscreen, and between the load and the traffic, I was going nowhere fast. It was under 40 mi, but I spent quite a lot of it in stop and go traffic. By the time I finally turned down the dirt road that leads to the camp, I’d barely have time to shower and change and grab a snack in time for the staff meeting. 

Then I got passed by a pickup truck going a bit too fast, which kicked up a stick behind it. The stick went straight into the spokes of my front wheel and took my front pannier with it, and down I went. I scraped up my elbow and hip, knocked my helmet, and taco’ed my front wheel. So now I was sunburned, running late, bonking, bleeding, and on a dirt road with a 90-lb bike that wouldn’t roll. The best I could do was remove the front panniers and hook them onto the sides of the rear ones, and stumble awkwardly down the road while lugging the front end of the bike a few inches off the ground and letting it roll on the rear. I was actually passed by a number of people heading the same way I was, but it wasn’t anyone I knew, and they didn’t stop. After all, why should it occur to them that the sweaty, spandex-clad weirdo hauling a bike covered with bags was the same person who was going to spend the week playing for their dances? 

Finally one did stop and I was able to at least unload my luggage into his car, which made it much easier to carry the bike and walk the rest of the way. I arrived at the staff meeting still dirty, sweaty, bloody, spandex-clad, and un-showered, but I did make it just in time. I got cleaned and bandaged up afterward, and was ready to go when it came time to play for that evening’s dance. And in the end, had a fantastic week of making music.

I called Harris Cyclery, and my friend Elton shipped me a new rim for my front wheel and a spoke wrench, directly to camp. Miraculously, the panniers and front rack seemed to have protected my new paint from damage, so aside from the trashed rim and a somewhat bent (but fixable) fender, everything else was fine. I rebuilt the wheel on the porch of my cabin, with the front portion of the front rack as a truing stand. I used a piece of electrical tape with pine needles stuck to it as feelers, and made sure the wheel was centered by flipping it back and forth. This method actually made for a surprisingly precise (if delicate) truing stand, and I think the wheel came out just about as well as if I’d done it at home.

Pinewoods truing stand

 

That first week was actually a short one, and we all went home on a Friday. I had an uneventful ride back to the ferry in Hingham. Total summer “extreme commute” distance so far: ~180, over three days of travel. 

I had one day at home to do laundry, rest, and re-pack, then left for the next workshop. This one was in New London, CT where I’d be playing for an English Country Dance workshop attached to an early music festival. This one is 100 mi from home, and it’s a constantly hilly 100 mi with a whole lot of pretty steep grades. And the bike was loaded more heavily too, since I needed more clothing (for a longer week), plus concert clothes and shoes, plus a few more instruments, plus my tablet. I didn’t weigh the bike before or after this trip, so I’m not sure how much heavier it was, but here’s the photo:

Bike to New London 2014

In order to make it for the staff meeting, I left the house before 6AM. On top of the hills, there was a stiff headwind. Maintaining a 10mph rolling average was a real challenge. The whole trip took a bit over 11 hours, and this time I was able to shower and change and look like a regular person at the staff meeting. I’ll admit that I was tired that evening while playing for the dance! 

Dance Band

The week in New London was musically intense because in addition to playing for three dance classes per day plus an evening dance every night, the pianist and I played a recital together on the last fully day, and we spent all our free time practicing for it individually or rehearsing together. Actually, that was what the rehearsal on the Cape was for, too. 

So when I left to go home on the last morning, I was feeling pretty tired and a bit stiff, since I hadn’t ridden the bike since arriving. But I managed to keep my rolling average over 10mph and made it home by 9PM. Total “long commute” mileage: 380, over five travel days.

root beer float

Root beer floats make great bike fuel!

I had barely two weeks at home before the next trip. Well, mostly at home. They also included a short family reunion and a 600k on that middle weekend! It was a hard 600k, actually. Well, the route was familiar, but I was feeling pretty tired when I started it, and I felt like it took me 15 hours to warm up. And I rode my usual fixie in a 42×16. So it wasn’t what you’d call a “recovery” ride! I think I basically made it through the 600k by force of habit – if there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s keep slogging away on a bicycle.

The next trip was back to Pinewoods for CDSS’s English Dance Week. So the trip down was my easy weekend. It was pouring down rain, but at least it was under 10 mi to the ferry and then 40 mi to camp.

Back on the ferry. Note the rain, and also the greater necessity of Starbucks this time!

Back on the ferry. Note the greater necessity of Starbucks this time!

But this time, I wasn’t just going for a week. The following week, I’d be teaching a private recorder workshop in Lubec, ME, and I’d be going directly from one to the other. So I had a few more clothes, plus all my music, photocopies, teaching materials, etc, for the Lubec week as well as my instruments and music for the dance week.  But this time, I had plenty of time. I road gingerly down the dirt road, met with no mishaps, and this time made it to the staff meeting clean and presentable and not oozing blood. 

English Week was also an amazing week of music and dance. I played with fabulous musicians all day every day. But these things are exhausting, too. The days are packed, the nights are long, the mornings are early, and they go by quickly!

I spent my days like this: 

playing in c-sharp

 

And a little of this:

playing two recorders

Before I knew it, I was saying my goodbyes at the last night party, since I’d be leaving before breakfast. The good part about traveling light is that packing is quick!

I left Pinewoods at 6AM on Saturday headed for the commuter rail station in Middleboro, MA. There isn’t a particularly direct route, so I did the best I could which ended up being a bit over 20 mi, including a couple of fairly rough dirt roads. Some of those started to really make me nervous because there were just too many giant holes to be able to go fast with so much luggage. With the limited train schedule, that meant I was really booking it to reach the only train that would get me into Boston in time to catch another train up to Maine. I was riding pretty hard, but I made it maybe five or ten minutes before the train arrived. The platform had an arrow pointing one way that said “outbound” and the other way that said “inbound”. The train arrived headed in the “outbound” direction; I even asked a couple of passengers who were getting on if this train was going in or out, and they said it was going out, so I ignored it and figured that the one to Boston must be the next one, and didn’t get on. As it rolled away I heard the conductor say something and and said, “Wait, is this the train to Boston?” and as the train rolled off he answered, “Yeah, what did you think it was?” 

I stood there sort of stunned. I was tired and I’d gotten up early and booked it to make the train, and then stood right there and missed it. Of course, I did know that Middleborough was the end of the line, so of course it would have to be a Boston-bound train. Of course, I should have asked the conductor. Or something. But I’d just paid attention to the arrows and the passengers (what did they think I was asking about??) and had stood there while the train left. 

 So I sat down and freaked out and wondered what to do. My schedule had been tight and demanding to start with. The next train wouldn’t get me into town in time to catch my train to Maine; the next train to Maine wouldn’t get me there until evening, which would mean riding all night with no sleep…. Finally, I called my better half Jake and asked him to search for cab companies in Middleborough that could take me into town. There wasn’t much to be found and in the end, Jake (saint that he is) rented a zip car and drove down to pick me up and drop me off at North Station. He should be canonized. 

So I just made the train at 11:30 and was back on track. The Downeaster is the Amtrak route that runs from Boston up to Maine. It has a bike car, and it actually goes as far as Brunswick, but not every train does. The 11:30 train stops in Portland, ME. My final destination was Lubec, ME, about 230 mi up the coast from there. 

The train got in, I got my bike, and was finally on the road for the lion’s share of the day’s miles. I’ve made a tradition of staying at the Yardarm Motel on this trip for the last few years; it’s a nice little mom-and-pop motel in Searsport, almost halfway between Portland and Lubec. It has a nice breakfast room with basics like bagels and cereal. If I let them know I’ll be in late, they just leave the door to my room open and check me in in the morning. 

You don't do this for the cuisine.

You don’t do this for the cuisine.

 

By the time I got off the train and got my bike all loaded up again, it was 2:30. That’s fairly late in the day to start a fully loaded 110 miles. For a lot of the route, I basically follow Rt. 1 and 1A up the coast. But in a couple of places, the coast curves out and Rt. 1 isn’t the shortest, so I take a short cut. This time I decided to get creative with my short cut, between my Garmin and Google Maps. Even with panniers, I enjoy dirt roads and if there’s a shorter way that’s dirt that’s fine with me. Well, it turned out that one of the roads that Garmin and Google both think goes all the way through actually doesn’t; it dead ends in a driveway. And of course I found that out after going a couple of miles down the road. At that point I was way behind schedule; I was up in the hinterlands outside of Belfast or somewhere down a dead end dirt road; it was maybe 1AM and the only sound was the buzzing of mosquitoes, I was exhausted and wanted a shower and a bed, and I was switching back and forth between electronic devices trying to find a road that was an actual road. So much for short cuts. 
But I did get myself straightened out and found my way back down through Belfast and Searsport and collapsed into bed after 3AM. 

I got myself off to a sow, sluggish start; it was still another 120 miles to Lubec. The bike felt heavier and heavier, and every hill just made me feel slower and slower. By midday I was dragging my feet about eating my snacks and getting back on the road at a convenience store at the corner of where I turn off of Rt. 1, since Rt. 1 curves around following the coast. My snack breaks were getting longer and longer. I was feeling the beginnings of a cold, too – dance camp is a great place to pick one up! I finally made it into Lubec at around 9PM, about two hours later than I’d have preferred. But then I was there, to a homey house, a shower, a warm bed, and a fridge full of all the assorted leftovers I could want. I was hoarse and sniffly when it came time to teach the next morning, but steady doses of hot coffee kept me functioning. 

The Lubec week was much more relaxing than the previous week. It’s just a small private workshop where I work with one self-selected group in the mornings, and then everyone has free time for the rest of the day. Some of the participants stay in the same house (the hosts play in the group too), and there’s often more informal playing in the afternoons. So I’m able to relax, take naps, clean my instruments, practice, walk around, etc. Campobello Island is right across the bridge and makes a nice afternoon trip (but not this time because I forgot my passport). And the group I teach are enthusiastic, musical people who work hard and play well together.  

Lubec has lots of fog

Lubec has lots of fog

 

That's Canada on the other end of the bridge.

That’s Canada on the other end of the bridge.

By the end of the week in Lubec, my cold was mostly cleared up, I’d mostly caught up on lost sleep, and I was more than ready to go home after two weeks away. In previous years, I’ve made the trip over two days and have stayed with Jake’s brother, a ways outside of Belfast. That makes the first day about 140 mi, but the second only 90, which is nice when I have a train to catch. But this year, between one thing and another, I hadn’t gotten it together to contact them. My host was driving a couple hours down Rt. 1 to visit someone on the Saturday I left, so she put my bike in the car and dropped me off before turning off. That meant it was only 150 mi to Portland, and I had two whole days to do it and catch the evening train; even less if I caught the train in Brunswick. I could find a motel, have a good dinner, get a good night’s sleep, and take it easy the next day heading into Portland. 

bike from lubec

Somewhat recovered I might have been, but I was still slow and kinda tired. But that was OK, I had plenty of time. I stopped and took a few photos in places I’ve never wanted to take the time to stop before. I was pretty ready to be home, but at least I finally had the time to take it easy. I even stopped at an actual restaurant for an actual large and lengthy meal in Ellsworth. While stopped there, a lady told me she LOVED my bike, and that it looked like an advertisement for a bag company. Heehee. 

penobscot narrows

But I really should have thought harder about the “I’ll just find a motel” plan. This was, after all, Downeast Maine, aka “Vacationland”, on one of the last weekends of August at the peak of the season. There wasn’t a vacancy to be found for love or money, anywhere near my route. I tried asking in person, I tried Google, I tried asking locals I saw at gas stations if they knew of anything. Everything was full. With no other option, I kept riding. If nothing else, I figured, there was bound to be something in Bath, which would be a very short ride to Brunswick the next day. Nope, nothing in Bath. I kept going. I figured I’d surely find something in Brunswick. It would be a late night, but I could get cleaned up, sleep in, and then find a cafe to hang out in until it was time to catch the train the next day. There was nothing in Brunswick either. So I rode over to the train station, and thought maybe I could at least go inside and sleep on a bench. It was August, but it was still chilly and damp outside. This is still Maine, after all. The train station was closed, but there was an ATM nearby. I dragged my bike into the ATM booth with me, and lay down on the ground. It was 1AM.

And that’s how I got to that ATM booth, wishing for a shower and a bed and maybe a cold beer, a big breakfast, and some hot coffee before I rode another yard. 

But I couldn’t have those things. The closest place to get them was home. If I waited in Brunswick for the evening train, I’d be bumping around town all day with my stinky, sweaty, sleep-deprived self and a bicycle I couldn’t practically leave anywhere even just to take a leak, for 17 hours. But there was a 5:30AM train from Portland that accepted bicycles, and I did have plenty of time to get there. The fastest way to get what I really, really wanted was to be on that train, which would have the added bonus of getting me home 12 hours ahead of schedule. So I got up off the floor and back onto the bike. 

In the end, that worked out actually really well. Having caught up on sleep in Lubec, I actually didn’t have any trouble staying awake. Aside from a motorcyclist outside a bar who yelled out to me “Wow, you’re loaded for bear!” as I rode by, I saw practically no one. There was no traffic to speak of, which made getting through Freeport (shopping destination and home of the LL Bean flagship store) into town actually much faster and easier than it usually is during the day. I had Rt. 1 completely to myself and didn’t even bother with taking the bike routes around some parts of it that I’d have taken during the day. It’s more downhill than up, and the wind was still. So in little more than three hours, I was at the train station. I’d gone 150 mi more or less straight through except for food/bathroom stops. I waited in the vestibule, chatting with a couple of other passengers, until they opened up the station. The oddest comment was from a guy who asked if I was a bike cop or something, because of my reflective sash. 

Before boarding the train, I started chatting with a couple from Germany who had been bike touring in Maine and Nova Scotia. They’d spent the night in an ATM booth because they couldn’t find a vacancy anywhere, either. I finally got on the train, drank a beer, and took a nap.

The fuzzy photo is pretty illustrative of how I was feeling about the world in general at that point! ;)

The fuzzy photo is pretty illustrative of how I was feeling about the world in general at that point! ;)

The train got into North Station, and rather than ride home, I rode with the German couple to South station by way of a cafe in the financial district. At South Station we went our separate ways, and I took the T to Alewife, and a mile and a half later, I was HOME. 

Aside from the issue of lodging though, I do think this “extreme commuting” strategy is actual a viable, useful part of the transportation mix, especially if you are car-free or car-lite (as in a one-car household where one person will be gone awhile and the other might need the car in the interim). Since this post is so long, I’ll do another one dedicated to just the nuts and bolts of it.

Share Button

Appalachian Double Cross 1000k redux… this time with photos!

I rode this ride last year, and enjoyed it very much. It’s been a tough year for getting brevets into the schedule for me, but this one was able to fit in just barely. Of course, that said, it sort of snuck up on me, what with preparations for the Builders’ Ball and everything else – I hadn’t even been riding that much for the entire month of September – so I wasn’t entirely what one might call “ready”. I was even hurried and haphazard with packing for the trip, just throwing stuff into bags. I arrived at my mom’s house to find that I’d brought two arm warmers that matched, and three that did not. But at the same time, I figured I’ve done enough rides where I know what I need to bring and how to load my bike, plus I’ve even done this one before. Actually, last year I encountered some navigational difficulties, so I put the ride into GPSies when I was done and had the track in my GPS this time, so I figured I could at least regain a few hours for that.

This ride has a really very scenic route, and it’s right at the height of the fall colors. It isn’t well attended, but the organizer Matt Settle doesn’t seem to mind at all doing the whole thing for only one or two people. Last year it was just me and he didn’t even mind running it for just one person. But this year I was joined by Spencer Klaassen, whom I had met a few times on other rides. Like me, he kinda got started riding brevets on a fixed gear and just kept doing them that way. He’s a strong, steady, and experienced brevet rider, and the fact that we were both riding fixed made it much easier to ride together, especially on a course like this. I think that on this route it would take a fair amount of work to ride with anyone riding gears on this ride. For those who are curious, my gear is 42×16 and Spencer’s is 42×15.

The route is absolutely relentless. In some ways I’d almost forgotten just how relentless it is – the major climbs from last year stuck out in my memory, but the rest of the ride is still actually full of climbing too. But the payoff is a mostly low-traffic ride through a very scenic state. It’s mostly an out-and-back route, except that the routes diverge for the section that goes over the big ridges between eastern West Virginia and western Regular Virginia.

My mother drove me to the start at IHOP in Gainesville, VA in the wee hours of the morning, where I met up with Spencer and Matt. It was raining at the start, but it wasn’t forecast to keep raining for too long. After a good breakfast, we were off down the road. With last year’s navigational difficulties ironed out, we arrived at the first control in Front Royal in good time, unlike last year when I was already falling behind at that point due to a wrong turn (error in the cuesheet, which has now been corrected).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After Front Royal is where the climbing begins. There are three gaps, but they’re really just a warmup. It was still foggy and raining off and on, which was really too bad because in clear weather the views are gorgeous and this year I actually had a camera. But the roads were nice and quiet and filled with the scent of wet Autumn leaves.

 

Finally after descending again, we arrived at the control at the Lost River Grill an hour and a half ahead of the control closing time, with 103 mi down. We sat down and had a good square meal and some hard cider to tank up for the next climb. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Just like last year, the climb up after Lost River State Park just does not friggin end. It goes on and on, and when you think you’re almost done with it, it goes up some more. It was raining, so the guy who told me I was almost at the top last year (I wasn’t anywhere near) wasn’t out. And there are a lot of scenic views that we couldn’t see. But we got a photo of the bikes with the state line sign.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s under 60 mi from Lost River Grill to the store in Seneca Rocks, but it’s a long haul of 60 mi. After the big climb, there are still a few other smaller but still substantial ones. The road into Seneca Rocks is very pretty though, with open pastures and dramatic mountains all around, covered in fall colors. As you approach Seneca Rocks there are more mountains, and more sort of kitschy, touristy lodges and cabins.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Again, it’s too bad that the visibility wasn’t better, but there’s also something beautiful about the mist rising off of the mountains. My grandmother said that was the foxes cooking their oatmeal, which I find a somehow very satisfying image.

Spencer is generally a faster climber than me, although I make up some of it on the descents. However, on steeper hills he typically uses the “two foot gear” more than I do. But he walks a lot faster when pushing the bike up hills than I do. So on most hills he goes faster, but on hills with a grade that he prefers to walk and I prefer to ride, I go a bit faster. He got a ways ahead on some of the climbing after Lost River, but we arrived at the control at almost the same time.

And he has an awesome bumper sticker on his rear fender:OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

If you can’t read it in the photo, it says “Randonneurs go all night long, but they’ll need a receipt.” (although actually in our area, the organizers don’t usually ask for all the receipts so much except on permanents and the Fleche)

We were still doing okay time-wise, but I knew that the next chunk was especially difficult and we hadn’t built up a huge buffer, but we were still ahead of where I’d been the previous year, so I felt good about it. The route between Seneca Rocks and Buckhannon (the overnight) is probably the hardest part of the ride. Last year it was particularly hard because I didn’t really even know what was coming. There are six or so big climbs all in a row before you get to Elkins, and last year they were the biggest mental challenge of the ride. This year at least we knew they were coming, but that doesn’t make them any less work to ride up, and that stretch just takes a long time. But at least the weather was reasonably cooperative; it wasn’t raining too much, and at least it wasn’t freezing cold, like it was last year. At one point, Spencer was getting drowsy and wanted a nap in a post office we passed. I didn’t feel the need for a nap so much, but figured sitting down to eat and drink for a few minutes wasn’t a bad idea. It’s always hard to eat when you’re working hard on climbs or you’re on fast descents where you really need to be paying your full attention to the road. But it’s even harder on a fixed gear because you need both hands for leverage. I sat down and started eating a granola bar… and suddenly, after taking a big bite, chewing and swallowing that bite just seemed like the most arduous task imaginable. I closed my eyes, and next thing I knew I was waking up 15 minutes later still with my mouth full of food.

The stop did help though, and we hit the road with renewed energy. Finally we reached the gas station at the bottom in Elkins, which isn’t a control, but is a welcome stop. The clerk in the convenience store even remembered me from last year… I guess a lone cyclist out in the middle of the sub-freezing night in an area without many cyclists at all makes an impression.  I didn’t really remember the terrain between there and Buckhannon (which I always think means it must be easy, since I don’t remember it being hard… but that’s actually not what it means at all!), so I figured it must be relatively flat. We decided that a beer before our sleep stop would really hit the spot, and an extra pound isn’t really that much, so we each bought a can of Blue Moon to haul all the way to Buckhannon.

The rest of the way to Buckhannon proved to be rather more of a grind than I remembered, but the beer was well worth its weight. We got into the control just a bit before closing time, which was an improvement over last year where not only did I get in late, but I was also pushing pretty hard to manage even that what with losing time over navigation. We drank our beer and got an hour and a half of sleep or so, then got back on the road.

We started off the day on a wide divided highway with minimal traffic and a relatively fast downhill false flat. The morning was overcast, but the mountains around the highway were visible and the countryside was very picturesque. The highway was named after the late Senator Robert Byrd, like several other stretches of road on this ride. We made a quick breakfast stop at a Hardees. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We stayed on US 33, but it became a much smaller road after awhile, winding through farms, trees, hills, and small unincorporated hamlets with funny names. I remembered one called Pickle Street from last year, but wasn’t able to get a photo, so I made sure to get one this year. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The second day is the “easier” day, in that it doesn’t have any real mountains. But it’s all relative – it still has a lot of hills that still take a long time to slog all the way up. They aren’t mountains, but some are big enough for switchbacks. They have really nice switchbacks, by the way. Nice and smooth, banked a little, and rounded enough that you can just kind of glide around them without having to lose too much speed. I like those, they are just somehow so pleasant and satisfying to roll through.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But the climbs are still relentless, and we weren’t making up much time. But we were feeling good, and the Glenville stop had a pizza/sandwich counter and a $5 special on 12-inch subs. While we were there, we were commenting on how that beer had hit the spot last night, but that we didn’t want to haul it all the way back to Buckhannon from Glenville if we wanted some more. So we called Matt from the control and asked him if he would have a chance to pick us up some during the day.

After Glenville, we were on smaller roads for awhile, with more climbs, more farms, and a few more loose dogs. It was pleasant riding and after awhile actually got a bit boring, but before long the hills started picking up again to keep things interesting. As we got closer to Parkersburg, the traffic picked up, too. The road was narrow and lots of trucks and trailers were hauling ATV’s back toward the city or toward Ohio, having presumably spent their Sunday offroading. But we finally arrived at Tim Hortons in Parkersburg, still behind the eight ball time-wise, but still ahead of where I’d been at that point on the ride last year. We had a meal and set back off for Glenville, happy to be at the halfway point.

As we were climbing away from Parkersburg, a young dog started trotting after us. It was a puppy, really; it wasn’t chasing the way loose dogs usually do, it was just sort of wagging its tail and tagging along. This was a pretty busy road, with a fair amount of fast traffic, and the puppy was just happily trotting back and forth. It followed us for awhile, and we kept thinking it would turn around and go back where it had come from, but it didn’t. It seemed like a sweet, friendly dog, actually. It would run by us, wagging its tail, then go sniff around the side of the road, then come back and say hi again. The traffic whizzed by, sometimes honking and slamming on the brakes when the puppy wandered out into the road, oblivious to the danger. I was sure we were about to watch that poor puppy become roadkill. I also wonder how many of those drivers thought we were a couple of morons who decided that letting a puppy run around with us on a busy street while we rode bikes was a good way of taking it for a walk.

We were going uphill, so there was no way we could outrun the puppy. We stopped riding a couple of times and he stopped with us, tail wagging the whole time. He had a pink collar on, but no identifying tags. Finally, Spencer thought maybe if he could distract the dog with food, we could make our exit. We  thought that if it didn’t have us to tag along with, it would wander home through the yards and fields and not on the road. He opened his handlebar bag and tossed a piece of bread off to the side of the road and the dog happily ran after it, but having snarfed down the treat, came running back just as happily. Not knowing what else to do, we kept riding and soon crested the hill and started going faster again, at which point the puppy lost interest or decided to go home. I hope he made it safely.

By the time we got back to Glenville, we had made up a bit less than half an hour, and we’d been starting to get drowsy, too. I sang and recited stuff and we kept on trucking. We had been thinking that the long false flat downhill out of Buckhannon that morning was going to be a bit of a slog in the other direction, but actually it wasn’t really – if anything, it was one of the easier sections, and the prospect of beer waiting for us at the control was a great incentive. Matt was waiting for us, and true to his word, had picked up some more Blue Moon for us. It tasted even better than it had the previous night, and knocked me right out for another hour and a half in an actual bed.

In the morning (well ok, I really mean an hour and a half later) we packed up our drop bags and got ready for the final day of the ride. Matt looked up the weather forecast and said it was supposed to be warm, so we actually packed most of our warm clothes into the drop bags before leaving. With 433 mi in my legs and brain, I wasn’t thinking entirely clearly about what I packed and what I didn’t. Although I did have the presence of mind to pack the last bottle of Blue Moon into my drop bag.

But as we headed off, the morning was mostly clear, and the sun even began to come out. By daylight, the long, grinding stretch between Buckhannon and Elkins was really, really pretty. The fall colors were spectacular in the morning light – the photos do not do them justice. If two roads diverged in a yellow wood, that’s where the yellow wood is.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Last year when I got to the control in Elkins, it was pouring down rain and about 33 degrees. I was shivering and behind schedule and stood in the corner of the store eating microwaved pasta and taping garbage bags around my legs. This year, it was warm and sunny, and I sat outside to eat my food. Spencer had gotten into town a bit ahead of me, so I was confused when he wasn’t at the gas station and they hadn’t seen him. But a couple of minutes later he turned up, having stopped at a Taco Bell where I didn’t notice his bike outside as I passed. It’s a long road over a whole bunch of passes between Elkins and Seneca Rocks and he was anxious to get going, so he pushed on while I finished eating, and then finally got back on the road.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Last year, the scenery on this road was obscured by bad weather, but this year it was clear and beautiful. The mountainsides were covered in dramatic, fiery colors and the visibility was good. This is the section that has the whole row of climbs and descents, one after another. They are Cheat, Shavers, Middle, Rich, and Allegheny, plus a couple of other smaller ones without signs on top. Having now slogged my way up them twice in each direction, I took photos of each sign as I passed it. The sky was clouding over, but for the most part it was still basically clear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I got back to Youkum’s market in Seneca Rocks still feeling pretty good. Spencer had already passed through, so I bought a bottle of milk and headed off. Sometimes it’s nice to have the motivation of trying to catch someone, plus I figured that the more rolling terrain was relatively favorable to catching up. I was making bets with myself as to whether I’d catch him before the Moorefield control, or at the control stop.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A bit before the control, I saw Spencer’s bike parked outside a DQ. I went in and got myself a quick basket of deep fried calories while he put his head down on the table for a few minutes, and then we headed off. I couldn’t remember exactly what time I’d been there the previous year, but I thought it was still later because it was dark when I got into Moorfield. But with the fast food stop, it was dark when we got to Moorefield anyway. I didn’t want to admit it, but I think we were losing time against my times from last year, which wasn’t a good sign since I’d barely made it in time in the end and had had a few navigational difficulties besides.

It was getting a bit chilly, and we were regretting having unloaded quite so much of our warmer stuff. I bought a pair of gloves at the Sheetz and a couple of Starbucks “Doubleshots”, but we kept the stop short since we’d already had our meal. Incidentally, it must be awful to work in that store. The music was blaring really loud, it was obnoxious just to be in there to buy a couple of things and leave. I can’t imagine being stuck in there all day with it every day. I know I’m more touchy about that than most, but still.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After Moorefield, the return route diverges from the outbound. You still have to get over the same bunch of big ridges through George Washington National Forest as on the way out via Lost River, but this route is a longer, steadier, more gradual incline. It goes up about 1200 ft in around 9 miles. The road is a large divided highway with a wide shoulder and only the occasional truck. Matt said that apparently it was supposed to be a major thoroughfare that would connect with a major highway in Virginia, but that Virginia never finished their side of the project. So there’s this enormous brand new highway (also dedicated to Robert Byrd) that hardly anyone uses. But it makes for not a bad bike ride, being smooth and graded and well marked and practically empty. It was a long climb, but it was an even grade that made it easy to get into a steady, comfortable rhythm even if it seemed like it would never end. There are a few more little ups and downs on the way down, and the road turns into a much smaller country road, then another ~900-foot climb, and finally the Virginia line. There were some more ups and downs, and we finally pulled blearily into the penultimate control in Middletown, VA.

I had some cup o’ noodles and Spencer had a quick nap, and we got back out on the road. It’s basically predominantly down between Middletown and Gainesville, but the first part of that leg still has a lot of ups and downs and steep rollers on country roads, and even one more 500-foot climb. I’m sure that on a Saturday morning with fresh legs, I would love that part of the ride. But at nearly 600 mi in and being down to the wire, it’s a bit like purgatory. Plus it was dark and very foggy, which made it impossible to see very far ahead. Spencer was getting discouraged too, because I kept insisting it was mostly downhill to the finish, but it sure as hell didn’t feel like it and we did not have time to spare.

Finally we got back onto the John Marshall Memorial Highway that we had started the ride on. At that point, it really is smooth, fast, and mostly downhill. So I turned up the gas and tried to take advantage, always keeping an eye on the remaining time and remaining distance. I did my best to keep the speed up on the descents while keeping Spencer in sight behind me. Finally on one of the bigger ones, he whizzed by me with his feet off the pedals. After that, we both unclipped on a few of the steeper descents to get a little more speed out, but most of the time the grade was such that at least for me it was faster to stay clipped in and just keep pedaling hard.

We spent a good hour and a half in full time trial mode. I just tried to focus on breathing and pedaling. It’s amazing how the endorphin rush makes everything else disappear – the mental fatigue, the saddle soreness, the clammy clothes, the little aches and pains that are the result of three days and nights on a bicycle. We just pedaled for all we were worth. As we got closer to the end and it flattened out a little, we went into team time trial mode, swapping very short pulls to keep the pace up. We were all set to make it with a good few minutes to spare, when we hit a red light. And then another one. And then every single other one after that. Last year I was down to the wire and finally got to the right block of shopping centers (I swear, they all look identical) and ended up riding circles in the parking lot looking for the IHOP. I was bound and determined not to do that again, and carefully watched the cuesheet…. but we still ended up riding back and forth through identical shopping center parking lots before we finally found it.

It took a hard team effort, but we made it in the end, after spending the last hour and a half or so just how I spent it last year – riding as hard as I could humanly manage for an hour and a half at the end of 75 hours. When we got to IHOP, we picked up our drop bags. I took our water bottles with me when I went to the bathroom to change, and split the last bottle of Blue Moon between the two while I was at it. I may tend toward beer snobbery in every day life, but half a warm Blue Moon in a scungy water bottle in an IHOP at 7 AM was actually beyond delicious.

Looking back, I guess I must have been generally riding faster last year, since I had a few wrong turns but finished in the same time. I was definitely pushing harder last year generally because I was so much farther behind for a lot of the ride. But last year I also felt like I needed more recovery time at many of the controls, between the freezing temperatures, the snow, and pushing the pace. This year I actually basically felt pretty good for the whole ride. Except for that last final push, I mostly felt like we were keeping a steady but comfortable pace. We didn’t rush or stress at controls, but we were for the most part reasonably quick and efficient. It’s just a very hard ride that doesn’t go fast. Matt said that in his experience, the slower folks who have done this ride (among whom I would definitely count myself!) generally seem to like it fine, because they figure on going slow in the first place and the just chug along. The faster ones don’t like it as much because, well, it slows them down too much. He said he hasn’t had anyone finish it in under 69 hours or so. It’s not the route to set a personal record! But it is a very scenic, challenging ride. In early October the fall colors are at their finest, and it isn’t hot, which some of us greatly appreciate!

So, thanks very much to Matt Settle for running the ride, and again for doing it for only two riders, meeting us in the motel, and picking up the beer. And thanks to Spencer for being good company, a steady, strong rider, and a glutton for punishment on a fixed gear. This ride was fun last year when I was alone, but it’s definitely more fun with someone else. This route is gorgeous and well worth the work, but it is not for the faint of heart. If I ever do it again, I might seriously consider using a bike with gears. And it should tell you something that it’s been a few years and a lot of long miles since I said that. But you can probably take it with a grain of salt, since I did this ride fixed last year and came back for more.

IMG_20131015_081343_201

 

Share Button

2012 – Appalachian Double Cross 1000k

I’ve been wanting to do some of the rides in the DC area where my parents live for some time, and haven’t ever gotten around to it. So when my schedule conspired against me when it came to the New England 600k’s, I went looking farther afield. The ROMA 1000k looked perfect, plus it would have the added bonus of being late enough in the year to not be swelteringly hot. When I wrote to Matt Settle of Randonneurs of the Mid-Atlantic asking if there was still room in the ride, he replied that yes, there was room, but that it tended to be “sparsely attended”. It turned out that I was the only participant, but that Matt has run it for only one or two riders plenty of times before and doesn’t mind, so as long as he doesn’t mind, I’m happy enough to ride by myself.

The route starts in Gainesville, VA and heads more or less due west through West Virginia to Parkersburg on the Ohio river and then back. It’s pretty much mountains straight across – they don’t call West Virginia the Mountain State for nothin’. When I got home, I entered the route into GPSies, which calculates it at 57,362 ft of climbing. Maybe I should be glad I didn’t know that before I started!

You can also see the route, with more Google functions, here: https://maps.google.com/maps?t=h&output=embed&q=http://www.gpsies.com/files/kmz/k/krxkhazsxrnkipnf.kmz

So my Dad dropped me off at IHOP in the wee hours of the morning. Matt shook his head and muttered when he saw my bike, which is my trusty and beloved 1974 Raleigh Professional named Archie, and which is a fixed gear. It was a little odd to have the pre-ride spiel about various route related details sitting across a plate of eggs from the organizer rather than standing around in a parking lot in a group. We’d had a bit of a hard time finding the IHOP in all the shopping centers, so we got there with only a few minutes to spare, but I took a few extra minutes to have breakfast before starting the ride anyway. It’s not like the rest of the group was going to leave without me, after all!

The beginning of the ride was quiet and pleasant. It’s a bunch of crappy suburbia to get out of town, but at 4AM there’s no one around and it’s peaceful and nice. The route for the whole ride is pretty straightforward. The whole cuesheet fits onto three pages with room to spare, and each leg fits onto no more than a quarter page so that it fits neatly into a cuesheet holder with no page turns. On the other hand though, there were a couple of spots where I managed to get thrown off and it didn’t take me long to find the first one. Even looking at the map after the fact, I’m not totally sure how it is that I got off course given a really quite simple cue, checked the map on my GPS and found what I actually thought was the right road, even though it was fairly rustic dirt and turned out to be quite a steep climb. Hmm, maybe all the New England dirt road rides I’ve done this year have messed with my instincts, if it seemed reasonable to me that a steep and gnarly dirt road might actually pop up in a 1000k with a 3-pg cuesheet. But with a couple more GPS-checking stops, I found my way back onto the actual route without having gained more than a couple of miles. Actually, I didn’t even figure out what went wrong until going back through on the return, and even then, I am not sure how or why because it really wasn’t that complicated.

The next detour came just a bit before the first control in Front Royal, where a typo in the cuesheet sent me to the right where it should have been a left. But when the next turn didn’t show up, I figured it out and no great harm was done. I was a bit concerned when I got to the first control one minute before its closing time. But I’d started a few minutes late and made one wrong turn (actually two, but I hadn’t figured that out yet), so that was that. I made it a short control stop, but ended up wasting yet more time in Front Royal trying to figure out what was wrong with the first couple of cues. At that point, I made it a policy for the rest of the ride of setting the GPS to automatically route to the next control and using it to verify that I was going in the right direction, verify each turn, and just letting it re-calculate whenever the cuesheet differed from the GPS route.

Front Royal is in a gorgeous, scenic area of Virginia that I’d been back and forth through a lot recently for various family functions, each time thinking how nice it would be to have my bike with me. The last time I was down there, my uncle and I had some time to kill before he dropped me off at Dulles Airport and we drove down Fort Valley Rd and went walking around on some of the trails for a bit. So I very much enjoyed riding down the same road.

After Fort Valley Rd is when the first section of real climbing started, including Edinburg Gap, Wolf Gap, and Mill Gap. The weather was nice, cool but sunny, the perfect riding temperature and with clear visibility for the spectactular views. It was somewhere along there that I realized that I’d brought my camera, but had left the battery in the charger, which is really unfortunate because I had lots of cause to wish for it over the course of the ride. I took a few with my cell phone, but it didn’t have much battery life out in the sticks, so I don’t have very many.

Edinburg and Mill were good climbs, but not terribly out of the ordinary. Wolf Gap could be aptly described with the same terminology as the female of its namesake. Most of it wasn’t too steep; actually, an impressive percentage of the climbs on this whole ride were neatly graded to around 7-8%. Wolf Gap was probably mostly around there, although with some steeper parts as well. But it went on and on…. and on…….. and on.

Finally the West Virginia state line appeared, and the road started going down. 

At the bottom of the hill, I arrived at the control in Lost River, WV with 15 minutes to spare, feeling reasonably pleased about that since I’d lost so much time leaving Front Royal and then climbed three gaps in a row. I was hungry though, so I stayed at the Lost River Grill for a real meal before heading back out.

Rt. 259 in Lost River is a wide open road in between rows of mountain ridges on each side, with fields and farms in between. I was feeling good about having completed one of the major climbing sections, and the next section of cuesheet didn’t have any roads with “gap” in the name, so I figured the next section might be smaller rollers or something. Well, I had another think coming. The route turned into Lost River State Park, where the road wound around and went up and down, but more up, until the climbing started in earnest. I’m pretty sure it was longer and steeper than Wolf Gap, and it had a long section that wound around the top of the ridge in steep little upward-trending rollers. It was tough, but it was completely worth it. The views were spectacular. This was one of the few sections on smaller, narrower, more out-of-the way roads, with sharper corners, a few potholes (although not like New England potholes!), and steeper grades. I am not ashamed to admit to having gotten off to walk more than a few times. It definitely warranted a photo of my bike with the scenery:

It was somewhere in there that I began to discover what my Super Power is: I apparently have the ability to make every dog in West Virginia go berserk. I got chased by the first one while climbing a moderate grade. There was no way I could outrun him uphill. The owner was there across the yard and found the whole thing fairly amusing, while assuring me that the dog was friendly. Meanwhile, the dog was coming at me with bared teeth and I started yelling at the owner to call the dog back. The dog ignored the half-hearted calls. I came to a stop and stared the dog down as he stood there growling at me. I didn’t really want to squirt my bottle in his face because I figured I’d want to drink the contents of said bottle at some point. I finally just started yelling “NO! Bad Dog!” and pointing in my best mean and authoritative voice, and the dog backed down and I kept riding.

I got chased in earnest at least five or six other times, but for all of those I was either going fast enough to outrun them, or they responded or at least hesitated when I yelled “NO! Bad Dog! NO!” and I didn’t encounter any more dog owners. I did get barked at by every single dog outside a house or chained to a tree, though. Guess they don’t see a lot of cyclists. I didn’t see any others for the whole ride, except a handful going the other direction on Wolf Gap. Actually, I felt bad for a lot of the dogs I saw; they were chained to trees outside of houses, sometimes five or six of them chained to five or six different trees, apparently there most of the day and most of the night. I guess barking at the cyclist is the most excitement they’re going to get all month.

After the descent, the road wound around through the setting sun between the ridges for awhile until arriving in Seneca Rocks.

The night was young, but I’d already started getting sort of sleepy. True to form for the ride so far, I made it in one minute after the control’s closing time.

It was getting chilly, too. So I had some Ramen noodles to warm up, as well as one of those disgustingly sweet Starbucks coffee things, and put my head down on the table for a few minutes until the owners were ready to close up for the night. The guy there asked where I was headed and I told him; the response was, “But there’s like, a big mountain in between! Actually, there’s a couple of ‘em! I used to ride bike, but I wouldn’t ride that way.” He did go on to say that he used to go on 20-30 mi rides on the C&O Canal towpath. He also said he’d heard something about snow in Elkins, but so far I’d managed to dodge any rain and was keeping my fingers crossed.

Having been thus fairly warned of the mountains, I started on my way. Yes, it was getting chilly. Some stupid weight weenie voice in my head back home had told me that I didn’t need to pack tights. Well, with no one else to talk to, I gave that little voice a stern talking-to. The temperature was in the low-to-mid 30′s, and there were indeed mountains.  Six or seven of them, including the Eastern Continental Divide. They were all long, steady grades mostly at 7% or so. Actually, I was generally impressed with the road quality over most of this route. The roads were evenly graded with good pavement and nicely banked switchbacks. If you like switchbacks, you’ll love this ride. Nice switchbacks make me absurdly happy, generally.

But in this section, the descents were COLD. At one point I squeezed my water bottle to drink, and I heard a loud snap. It turned out my water bottle had cracked like a plastic cup, but I didn’t even realize it until I noticed how it kept dribbling all over the place when I tried to drink from it.

It was impossible to dress appropriately without stopping at the top and bottom of every hill to change clothes, which I don’t like doing. So I blinked sweat out of my eyes all the way up each one, and then froze all the way down. For some reason, being cold makes me get sleepier, and I had to work hard to keep alert. Incidentally, you might think that descending switchbacks on a fixed gear ought to keep you awake pretty effectively, but it doesn’t. The overnight control wasn’t until Buckhannon, still 30 mi away, but I was getting very drowsy. So I stopped in Elkins quickly for some more iced tea for my water bottles (I still hadn’t figured out yet that one of them was cracked… guess I wasn’t at my sharpest!) and another one of those disgusting (but caffeinated and caloric) Starbucks things. I stayed much more alert on the road to Buckhannon, which was for the most part just hilly enough to keep me a bit warmer but without the frigid descents.

I got into Buckhannon a little behind closing time for the control, and then rode around in circles for awhile looking for the motel because the cuesheet listed street names and the signs had only route numbers, and my GPS apparently had out of date street names. But I found it eventually, now 45 minutes behind schedule. But the good news about 1000k’s is that after the first 400k, the required pace slows down a bit so you have a bit more time. So I took a couple of hours and got some sleep before heading out again.

Day two was an out-and-back to Parkersburg, WV. It’s the so-called “flat part” of the route… but that’s all relative. It’s still constantly relentlessly up and down, except that none of the climbs are all that long. They’re still long enough that you can’t make it very far up on the momentum from the previous one though, and they still have nice switchbacks. The first part of the day was more like what one thinks of as stereotypical Appalachia. Most of the stereotypes about redneck houses (falling down roofs covered by tarps, hay sheds leaning at 45° angles, etc), yards (littered with rusty junk and partially-disassembled machinery), vehicles (aging pickups), and clothing (woodland camo) apply. The people also have very distinctive mannerisms and regional accent. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where I felt like such an alien walking into convenience stores in a bike helmet and brightly colored non-camo spandex, or even just by opening my mouth and speaking.  Definitely a cultural experience.  I stopped a short ways into the first leg of the day at a breakfast buffet place, which was great because the buffet meant I could try a little of everything and then get more of whatever went down easily. Ham, home fries, and fruit salad got enough calories into me to keep me going for a good while.

The route from Buckhannon to Glenville was mostly on US 33, which is a large divided highway for some of the time. But yet it is also a marked and designated bike route with regular signage instructing bicycles to use the shoulder (which was wide and smooth and not too terribly full of debris). It felt really strange and somehow illicit to be riding along on a divided highway like that, but otherwise it was actually pretty nice and there wasn’t much traffic. I might not have liked it so much if it had been hot and sunny (not much shade), but since it was cool and overcast, it was nice.

I rode through lots of little unincorporated hamlets with odd names. My favorite, for obvious reasons, was Pickle Street. The road was called Pickle Street at that point, too. I didn’t want to stop and power on my cell phone for a photo, which is too bad.

The fall foliage was out in full force, as far along even as that we saw the previous weekend in northern Vermont. There was mist rising from the mountains like steam; my Grandma used to say that was the foxes cooking their oatmeal.

It was noon by the time I got into Glenville, technically three hours after control closing time, but Matt didn’t seem to concerned about intermediate control times as long as I made it to the end on time, and I had gained some time since leaving the motel room in Buckhannon. I had some lunch at the Go Mart and continued on toward Parkersburg and the turnaround point.

As I approached Parkersburg, the landscape changed. I swear that as I entered Wood County, I went straight from Appalachia to the Midwest in less than half a mile. All of a sudden, the lawns were neat, the houses were in good repair, and the cars were sedans and SUV’s instead of pickups. And even the terrain was a little different, in that it was composed of more single distinct hills than long, wrinkled ridges as before. Actually, it reminded me quite a bit of the Black Forest, so much so that a couple of times I could think of specific locations it almost could have been, had there been a little less vinyl siding and a little more Fachwerk. The hills were more like large rollers, with open views and well-kept pastures.

Just before Parkersburg, I had another minor navigational glitch because the cuesheet said L on Rt. 50, which was another major divided highway. But the cuesheet didn’t say whether that was 50 West or East, and I wasn’t sure where the junction was in relation to the town. So when I saw a sign saying go left for 50 East and straight for 50 West, I turned left. A couple of miles later I hadn’t found the exit, so I stopped and messed around with the GPS until I figured it out. When I finally got into Tim Horton’s, I’d only gained 30 minutes on the time limit instead of the hour I’d been hoping for. But, I figured, at least I hadn’t lost time and at least I’d be unlikely to have any navigational difficulties on the way back since it would all be familiar territory. A hot meal and a quadruple latte hit the spot, and I ordered another five shots of espresso as well, which I dumped into the remainder of a bottle of chocolate milk I still had with me.

Thus fed and caffeinated, I piled on all my various layers on my top half, still with only shorts and leg warmers on the bottom, and headed back out. The ride back to Glenville and then Buckhannon was dark, cold, and uneventful, but pleasant. I talked to myself, recited limericks, sang songs. I made it into the motel at 5:45 AM, “only” an hour and 15 minutes after closing. The heat was on full blast, which was a welcome contrast from the cold outside – I’d just passed a bank whose sign said it was 34°. Not that we don’t ride in plenty of colder weather in Boston in the winter, but we usually wear tights.

I was still running late, but Matt assured me that I had time to sleep a bit, so I got a couple hours’ sleep and left a bit after 8AM.

By the Go Mart control in Elkins, I’d brought my deficit down to two and a half hours or so.  It was clear that it wasn’t warming up much though, and it had started to rain a little. So I took some inspiration from the local aesthetic (by which I mean tarps on roofs) and taped some plastic bags over my feet. Then I cut a trash bag in half and made makeshift “rainlegs” out of it, taping one half to each leg at the knee, thigh, and hip, and tucking the rest up under my jersey. This solution actually worked surprisingly well, believe it or not; it kept my legs much warmer and drier, and was more functional than any actual rain pants I’ve ever owned (not that that’s an exceptionally high bar to clear). If you’re ever stuck, it’s a great trick, even if it looks goofy as you please.

After Elkins was the series of six or seven climbs. I think the climbs are easier in the east-bound direction, but that might also just be because it was daylight and I was feeling a little more alert. But it was also raining steadily. As I ascended the first climb, I noticed the rain drops were getting chunkier… and then realized that it was turning to snow. It was actually snowing. On the way down, it turned back into rain, but on the second climb it turned back into snow again and even started sticking a bit. At the sign at the top, I decided that this was worth turning the phone on for a photo. There was a car stopped there, with a couple who had gotten out to take photos as well, and they saved me the trouble (and battery power) by taking one with their phone and texting it to me.  Or rather, they entered in my number and sent it the next time they had cell service.

 

When I got to the Eastern Continental Divide sign, I decided that it was still worth stopping for a photo:

By that point the snow started to stick to the road a bit too, on top of wet fallen leaves, so I went down the descents quite a bit more gingerly than before. It was still freezing on the way down though, to the point where it got hard to grab the brake levers. Seneca Rocks wasn’t a control on the return trip, but I still had to stop and get some hot Ramen noodles to warm up before I kept going. I’m sure I missed lots of fabulous mountain views in all that fog, but fog is pretty too in its own way.

The route was still rolling heavily, but slightly more down than up, and by Moorefield my deficit was down to two hours. I was still entertaining hopes of finishing with an hour or two to spare, but that was dependent upon not getting so sleepy on the bike, which I’d been having difficulty with the previous two nights. So I did my best to caffeinate myself again, and I got going. The return trip differed from the outbound route, skipping the Lost River climb and staying on Rt. 55 instead. But one road or another, there are a bunch of long ridges in between West Virginia and Regular Virginia, and you have to get over them somewhere or other. This section, I have to confess, is something of a blur. I climbed for what seemed like forever through the unchanging dark, trying to get glimpses of the mountain profiles against the overcast sky for clues about how much longer it was likely to go uphill. I descended, legs spinning like egg beaters but eyelids drooping nevertheless. I climbed again. I descended again.

Finally, I got into the last control before the end in Middleton. I was tired and sleepy and my deficit was down to only an hour, which should give me time as long as I kept the pace going. The last leg is more down than up, which obviously helps keep the speed up, but also makes it easier to get drowsy. Caffeine, sugar, and all, I was getting drowsy and slowing down more and more. I started thinking that the patches of wet and dry pavement were in fact bumps or other features to be ridden over gingerly. At one point I even stopped by the side of the road and stood there with my head down over my handlebars.

I’m not sure how long I stood there like that, except that at a certain point I woke up and realized that I really had to book it if I was going to make it in time, but also that booking it hard was probably the only thing that could keep me awake and alert, anyway. So I put my head down and pedaled for all I was worth. I spent the last hour and a half or so in a mad dash of a time trial, keeping the pace up as hard as I could go. That was kind of fun, actually; I guess that after three days of it, my legs were used to doing what they were told. I was excited to be almost done, and it was getting light out too. Between the light and the hard pace, I perked up considerably.

The approach to Gainesville had a little more morning traffic on it, and the last couple of traffic lights were excruciatingly long. Then finally, true to form, I got to the right area but couldn’t find the IHOP. I’d had a voice in the back of my head at the start saying I should pay attention, since we’d had a sort of hard time finding it at the start too. It’s a bit off the road, and all those friggin’ shopping centers look the same. I was cutting it really close on the time and getting desperate. So finally I called my Dad, who was waiting for me there, to see if he could talk me in, as it were. But just then, I spotted it. I’d made it, and I was done, in 75 hours.

 

This was a fun, scenic, and very enjoyable ride. That said, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s relentlessly hilly, and I think I might have had a very hard time had it been really hot. There are some long-ish sections without much in the way of services, and there are lots of dogs. But the scenery is gorgeous and the pavement is good. Even though a lot of it is on major numbered roads, the traffic is generally light. And it’s nice to have a ride that’s in the fall, since so much of the brevet calendar is long over by now.  Plus, the fall foliage really is pretty. In a way, I think it’s actually a good route to do alone, because so much of it is long climbs that you just have to settle into your own rhythm on. I realized at the end of the ride that I’ve never had so little in the way of chafing or saddle pressure by the end of a ride this long before (not that I usually have much, but after three days and nights on the bike I expect a little), and I can only attribute that to the high percentage of the ride that I spent out of the saddle.  My arms and shoulders are feeling it more than usual though, even for a hilly ride, since climbing on a fixed gear involves so much hauling up on the bars. This isn’t a beginner’s ride by any stretch, but if you’re looking for a scenic and challenging ride that may or may not have any other participants, it’s a great choice.

Share Button