Saturday, November 21, 2015

My Coffeeneuring Round-Up (2015)

Autumn is a lovely time to be alive in the Hudson Valley and this year was no exception. In fact, it's been one of the most spectacular years anyone seems to remember. Mild temperatures, dry weather and gorgeous foliage have all contributed to create pretty much ideal riding conditions. While work and family demands kept me off the bike more than I would have liked, I was still able to get out for some remarkable riding and the Coffeeneuring Challenge helped me to make this happen for a fifth year in a row.

Coffeeneuring helps us celebrate and enjoy not only the coming of fall, but also the restful transition between the intensity of summer riding and the buildup to base-training for the cycling season ahead. No wonder this global phenomenon is so popular!

Ride 1 (October 17)
The Mudd Puddle - New Paltz, New York
3 miles
Double espresso

An important autumn ritual involves bike maintenance at the end of a busy season of riding. I stopped at the Mudd Puddle, one of my favorite cafes in New Paltz, on my way to the Bicycle Depot to have them investigate some shifting trouble I was experiencing. Turns out I needed a whole new drive train. Maybe I should have had something stronger than a double espresso. Ack!

Ride 2 (October 18)
Fika - New York City
8 miles
Black coffee and a blueberry muffin

While I had to work in NYC on this particular Sunday, I made sure to stop off for a coffee and a muffin on my way downtown from Grand Central. I was finally able to justify an annual CitiBike membership now that the network has spread above 59th Street and riding in NYC never gets old. It may have been the most expensive cup of coffee in this series, but it sure hit the spot.

Ride 3 (October 24)
Minnewaska State Park - New Paltz, New York
25 miles
Hot chocolate and chocolate covered macaroons

My daughter arrived home for a week-long college break just as the leaves reached peak form. I took the opportunity to swap my road tires for a pair of Clement 35mm cyclocross tires and we hit the gorgeous carriage trails in Minnewaska State Park to enjoy the season in all its glory. Since there were no coffee shops for miles around, we decided to fill a Thermos with hot chocolate and brought along some gourmet chocolate macaroons for nourishment.

Ride 4 (October 25)
The Apple Bin - Esopus, New York
14 miles
Black coffee and an apple cider donut.

One of the several short rides I was able to fit in this fall brought me to the local Apple Bin farm stand where I was able to enjoy a hot cup of black coffee and a fresh apple cider donut, one of their seasonal specialities.

Ride 5 (October 31)
The Bakery - New Paltz, New York
51 miles
Black coffee and a classic black and white

On my longest ride in the series, I arranged to meet up with my friend Doug, a fellow PBP ancien, to explore the carriage trails in Mohonk Preserve while discussing our travels to Paris in August. On the way home, I stopped at The Bakery in the village of New Paltz for a hot cup of coffee and a classic black and white cookie just in time to see the award-winning pumpkins in the annual Halloween pumpkin contest.

Ride 6 (November 14)
Slabsides - West Park, New York
4 miles
Black coffee

I spent the penultimate day of the challenge blowing thousands of leaves off my lawn with a rented leaf blower. As a result, there was no time for riding until sundown when I grabbed my bike, a light and some coffee and headed for the top of the ridge behind my house to the site of John Burroughs' rustic Slabsides cabin to watch the sun set.

Ride 7 (November 15)
Shaupeneak Ridge - Esopus, New York
10 miles
Black coffee

I spent the final day of the challenge on some important seasonal house chores, but I was also able to get in one final ride up Shaupeneak Ridge as the sun fell low in the sky. Thank goodness for the Coffeeshop Without Walls rule or I would not have made it this year! Thanks too, MG, for all of your Coffeeneuring leadership. Onward to 2016!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Paris~Brest~Paris as Seen in the Rear View Mirror

To say that my recollections of Paris~Brest~Paris are impressionistic is as clichéd as it is true. I have many memories, some vivid, some faint, but they are not tied together neatly into a linear time sequence despite my best efforts to reconstruct a logical narrative of my adventures. This has been one of the most challenging writing assignments I’ve faced since sophomore year in high school. How do I capture the magic of PBP? Where do I start? How do I end? Ultimately, I’ve chosen to present my memories in a thematic fashion to try to make some sense of the whole experience while leaving the chronology behind.

As I’ve written many times before, PBP was a goal toward which I have worked for many years. After being struck by a car in 2010 while training for PBP 2011, I was faced with many months of hospitalization and rehabilitation and a long period of rebuilding both strength and technique so that by 2015 the time for redemption had finally arrived. This exceptionally long build-up to the event turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing in that I was singularly focused on completing the ride within the timeframe I set out for myself and careful and deliberate in my planning, but it was also a curse in that it was bound to disappoint in some areas as my long-held fantasies met reality.

To maximize my comfort and the likelihood of success, I selected to ride with the 84-hour group, which provided me with a morning start time of 5:00 am. Not only did this mean that I'd sacrifice six hours on the road, but I'd also traded the opportunity to ride along with the large and festive group of 90-hour riders. As a result, I was not surprised that my ride was somewhat more solitary than I would have liked at times as there were fewer than 500 riders in the 84-hour start as opposed to more than 5000 in the 90-hour group. This was both good and bad. It was good because there was barely any congestion at the controls and bad because some of the exuberance of the event itself was undoubtedly dialed down with only 1/10 the number of riders on the roads.

The Start. I spent four days in St. Quetin before the ride connecting with old friends and making new ones as we prepared for the big event, but I only recognized a few faces at the start. We were released exactly at 5:00 on Monday morning and the first ninety minutes or so of the ride were shrouded in darkness, so I maintained a small buffer between myself and other riders to ensure that none of us got into an accident as the field began to stretch out. The excitement of an early morning group start always seems to lead to an elevated pace and this ride was no exception. I tried to refrain from riding full out, but it was hard to contain my enthusiasm and so I spun along with a group of fairly fast riders even though I knew that my pace was not sustainable over the long term. Watching the taillights ahead in the distance, it was easy to gauge the shape of the route as we wove our way through suburbs and then farmland in our westward march toward Brest. As dawn broke across expansive fields, the crisp air made us feel good to be alive and lucky to be part of this grand tradition.

The Riders. While I knew very few riders in the 84-hour start, one of the riders I did know was Keith C. with whom I rode a 400K out of Rochester this spring. Keith was in the 5:15 start and I knew it was only a matter of time before he caught up with me as his pace is brisk and his legs are strong. It was shortly before the first control that I heard Keith’s familiar voice, and it was nice to catch up with one another so many miles from our last encounter in the Finger Lakes. We rode together for a spell, but I knew that Keith’s pace would soon surpass mine and as it was still very early in the ride I wanted to protect my reserves. We ran into each other at several points along the route, though, and it was always a pleasure to see Keith and his friend Kristen who was providing support. Their good cheer and generosity of spirit was a real lift along the way.

It was not until well into the second day (or early in the third day), that I met up with NJ Rando stalwart Paul S. who was riding alone as well after becoming separated from his two riding partners, one of whom was riding a bit faster and one of whom was riding a bit slower. This meet-up came at a very good time for both of us as our energy was flagging and good conversation and companionship was a real morale booster. As it turned out, Paul and I rode together for a big chunk of the middle section of the ride. I’m a bit foggy on when exactly we teamed up, but we rode together until the stage between Villaines and Mortagne when I urged Paul to catch up with his riding partner Chris who was resting at the Mortagne control. It was a good thing that Paul took off, as my pace was grinding to a near standstill on what became one of the slowest and most molasses-like stretches of the ride for me.

The Spectators. The route between Paris and Brest is beautiful and very pleasant to ride. The roads are well paved and quiet, the hills are never too severe and the rollers and small villages provide interesting yet predictable variety. More memorable than the terrain, however, are the amazing French people who line the roads and occupy the villages along the way. Never in my life have I experienced such enthusiasm, support, encouragement and love from perfect strangers. Cycling has a long and storied history in France and the enthusiasm for PBP seems like the exact inverse of the typical reaction cyclists receive in the USA, where we are generally scorned and treated like trespassers on our own roads.

In contrast, the Bretons revere cycling in general and PBP in particular. It was possible to feel like a celebrity riding with enthusiastic families lining the streets, cheering us on, and offering us food, drink and words of encouragement at every turn. At times, I found myself weeping as a result of the pure joy, gratitude, and pride I felt to be a part of this amazing cultural and historical phenomenon. It felt like I was a part of something truly important. At times, the relationship between the riders and spectators and volunteers seemed actually symbiotic. We needed and derived energy from them just as they needed and derived energy from us. We reinforced each other in ways that brought joy and satisfaction to us all.

The Controls. Approaching the control at Villaines was especially thrilling as spectators lined the roads and cheered our progress on both the outbound and inbound legs. Early on the first day this was my first experience with what would become fairly typical in the layout of a French control. I quickly discovered that the various services were pretty spread out with the control point at one location, bathrooms in another, water in another and food in yet another. Luckily I did not need to rest or visit health services as these were in different spaces as well. One could burn up considerable time in a situation like this without even realizing it, and we did not even experience the delays and lines that plague the large bulge of 90-hour riders since they had long past this point. 

The Iron Rider beautifully and aptly described the route in his blog as a “charm bracelet of small quiet French towns linked by long and winding roads that border spacious golden fields.” This pattern with its predictable variation was both comforting and enjoyable. Entering a village was always a thrill with surprises around each corner, gorgeous historic buildings of all shapes and sizes and deeply appreciative locals around every corner. No one seems to mention the nearly unbearable stench of manure throughout the agricultural sections of the ride, but this was another reason I looked forward to the break that the villages provided.

Sleep. Managing sleep throughout the 3-1/2 days of PBP seemed at times to be a much greater challenge than pedaling my bicycle for 1200 kilometers. There never seemed to be enough time for rest and as my margin of time shrank, my time for rest shrank just when I needed it most. Things started out well enough, but they eroded considerably over the course of the event, as I will describe. On the first night, I held to my plan to cycle the 278 miles to Loudeac before sleeping. I rolled into the control at 2:19 am, about an hour and 19 minutes behind schedule. 

After checking into the control, I grabbed a little food, showered, changed clothes and signed up to sleep for 3 hours. The sleep area at Loudeac, fondly referred to as the “disco morgue” by several of my friends, was an amazing example of French organization and efficiency in action. Riders interested in sleeping simply pay a few Euros, indicate the time they wish to be awakened and place full trust into the hands of complete strangers to find them in a numbered cot among hundreds of other snoring and farting riders in a darkened room that resembles a large airplane hangar. Once I surrendered myself to this arrangement, I got some of the best sleep I can recall. After nodding off immediately, I shot bolt upright certain that I had overslept only to discover after dressing and running out the door that I had awakened 30 minutes before my appointed time. Oh well.

Following my long sleep at Loudeac on the first night, my sleeps got shorter and more frequent. Throughout the first two days, I was able to maintain a time cushion of over two hours. This lasted through to Loudeac at mile 485 on the return leg of the journey at which point I had reduced my buffer to less than an hour. It was from this point forward that I felt as if the clock controlled my every decision.

The Dark Times. While most of the ride felt like a magical adventure, a few sections were downright unpleasant. These times were dark both literally and metaphorically. I fully expected periods of great physical and emotional difficulty from my previous experience on long rides, but no matter how much this is anticipated, when the dark times hit, they can be somewhat overwhelming. While I generally love riding at night with the unique perspective on the world that this time affords, it can also be difficult, especially when riding on very little sleep.

The most challenging section for me came on the third night as I was beginning to feel like I was running on fumes having slept so little in the preceding days. Sleep depravation was wearing me down just as the coffee was losing it’s staying power, just as I was running up against control closures, just as I needed to ride through some pretty hills sections. As my time margin shrank, my ability to sleep or even to rest decreased dramatically. This had a snowball effect that was hard to correct. I was fighting off sleep as I rode and increasingly found myself taking 20-30 minute catnaps at tables hunched over my cell phone alarm.

To make matters worse, I began to hallucinate a bit as I rode through the stretch between Villaines and Mortagne. One of my emergency measures was to take a caffeine tablet that Paul offered me since there was no coffee at hand. As it turned out, my body responded very well to this intervention and I was chatting away in no time without a care in the world. I also swapped out my old contact lenses (that had become foggy and distracting since I had left them in for over 24-hours) with my glasses that I had luckily thrown into my trunk bag at the last minute as an afterthought. 

While these techniques helped me stabilize my safety and feel better about riding this stretch, my pace had slowed to a real crawl, which did not help my secondary problem of riding much too close to control closure times. When I snapped to attention and realized the combined impact of riding slowly, climbing hills and stopping periodically, I realized that it was entirely possible that without a concerted effort, I could easily run out of time. I dug deep into my reserves and began to chant (literally and out loud) the mantra “Relentless. Forward. Motion.” It is a phrase I attribute to my friend Susan O. who tells me it is one she learned from Mark T. himself.

Whatever the original source, I found this simple reminder to be remarkably helpful. Even slow progress in a forward direction is helpful while any time off the bike is potentially destructive. This mantra allowed me to focus on the only thing that mattered (moving steadily forward) and remove the things that did not matter (lack of comfort, sleepiness, the big questions related to WHY in the hell I was doing this, etc.) from my mind in a way that contributed to my success.

The Final Push to Paris. After that long uphill slog through the dark third night, I finally arrived in Mortagne with time to spare, which was a huge morale booster. With 28 minutes until the cutoff and dawn not far away, I was able to eat, charge my phone and take a short nap before heading off for Dreaux, the penultimate control another 50 miles down the road. I picked up the pace considerably with renewed energy and excitement knowing that Paris was less than 100 miles away. At times, I was hammering along at 20 miles an hour and even as a light rain came, my spirits were not dampened. When I arrived a Dreaux, the rains had stopped and the sun began to poke its way through the clouds. I had also increased my buffer to almost 1 hour and 15 minutes so the time pressure was greatly reduced. 

In fact, as a result of some curious route calculus, I found that I had almost 6 hours to ride 40 miles and so timing out was no longer a serious concern. My dream was about to become a reality; I would make it back to Paris within 84 hours. I could feel the stress leaving my body. That was until about 45 minutes after leaving Dreaux, when I heard the telltale sound of air quickly escaping from my tire and pulled to the side of the road only to watch dozens of riders zoom on grateful not to be sharing in my fate. It was remarkably time-consuming to change the rear (why is it always the rear?) tire as my mind and fingers were not working at peak efficiency. I decided to swap out the entire tire rather than simply change the tube just to be sure that I wouldn’t develop another puncture from the culprit that had caused the current flat. In all, it took me almost 25 minutes to change the tire, but I was then back on the road with a light tailwind at my back. What I had envisioned as a fast and triumphant victory march all the way to Paris, though, was now a fairly gentle and mostly solitary ride plagued by a (probably irrational) concern that I might run into additional mechanical troubles that would claw deeper into my time buffer. 

As it turned out, I did not experience any further trouble and crossed the finish line 82 hours and 33 minutes after I set off, which left me with almost 90 minutes in the bank. While this was MUCH too close for comfort and leaves tremendous room for improvement, I had achieved my goal. What did it feel like to finish? Was I elated? Was I disappointed? In all honesty, it was a bit of an anti-climax. Since the large bulge of 90-hour riders finished hours earlier as a result of their Sunday night start, I ended my ride without much company, fanfare or enthusiasm. It would take over 24 hours (10 of which I was sleeping) for me to begin to put the ride and my accomplishment into some sort of perspective. Only in the days that followed, as I caught up on my sleep and began to feel like myself again and share in the excitement of others, was I bathed in a feeling of great satisfaction and excitement.

Postscript. I lost sleep in the days leading up to PBP, nervous that I had given myself a 6-hour handicap in exchange for a morning start, but reflecting back on it I think I would make the same selection again. While I missed out on some of the fanfare, I don’t particularly like crowds and beginning with a morning start got me off on the right foot. The general pace of the 84-hour riders was brisk and familiar and with additional training and a knowledge of the course, I think it will be possible to shave several hours off my time, while also affording myself the opportunity to stop more often between controls to enjoy Brittany’s culture and culinary riches more fully.

The most peculiar sensation I felt during the ride as I approached Paris on the return leg, though, was a feeling of relief. It’s not easy to hold onto a goal for such a very long time. In a weird way I feel like completing PBP has actually set me free. I’m no longer that guy with a single-minded goal on the horizon. I no longer feel the need to worry about whether I can ride long brevets again with my reconstituted physical condition following my accident. I was so fixated on FINISHING the event that dialing in speed and strategy was not really so high a priority. Successfully completing PBP feels like the end of an era and the beginning of a new one with the future unknown and the sky as the limit.

One of the fairly disorienting outcomes of a serious injury is coming to terms with one’s new strength and ability in the aftermath. In 2010, I was actually training for a Charly Miller (sub 56:40) finish at PBP. Whether or not that would have been possible, I doubt that such a performance is in my future at this point. Now that I have a solid 1200K finish behind me, though, I’m eager to test the new limits of my speed and climbing strength. Having just transitioned into my 50s this year, I'm eager to consider ways to make this my strongest decade yet as a cyclist. In fact, I just ordered a copy of Joe Friel’s recent book Fast After 50 for advice. 

Two things I know for sure, I am back and I’ll be back. I’d like to include a final word of gratitude to my loving wife and family for their eternal support and confidence in me and to all of my friends - thanks for your ongoing patience.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Top Ten Things to Remember at PBP

I can’t remember the last time I approached something with this much anticipation. Getting my driver’s license as a seventeen year-old, perhaps? Having been sidelined from the last edition of P-B-P in 2010 following a run-in with a car, I have been steadily building towards this event for the past five years. I first learned about P-B-P during 2007, though, during my inaugural year of randonneuring, when it seemed that everyone around me had caught the bug.

With fewer than ten days to the start, I’m afraid that we’re long past the time when additional physical training will provide any benefit. In fact, hard training this close to an event is more likely to leave a rider tired, sore or even injured. At this point, the best I can hope for is not screwing things up. Here are my top three goals at the moment:
  • Showing up with everything I need.
  • Showing up well rested.
  • Showing up with the best possible attitude.
While there will be many things running through my mind during the event itself, here is a list of the top ten things I hope very much to remember along the way:
  1. Enjoy! This is an amazing cultural, historical and athletic experience. I have no real goals other than to finish within the time limit and to enjoy myself throughout the event. I hope to connect with old friends and make new ones as I soak up the beautiful countryside and spirit of this unique event.
  2. If it won’t hurt in two weeks, keep riding. This famous advice attributed to Lon Haldeman has helped inspire countless ultra cyclists to work through difficult times. While it’s easy to focus on the discomfort or pain during the ride, it’s also important to place things into context and remember that most ailments feel better shortly after the ride ends.
  3. This too will pass. Every long brevet or ultra race I’ve completed has had its share of highs and lows. I’ve been known to compose Craig’s List ads for my bicycle during certain lows, but I’ve also found over and over again that the lows always pass and the highs will return. A short break, a tiny nap, some additional calories, a good conversation - these are just a few strategies to shift the energy.
  4. It’s really just a long bike ride. As special as this event is, I don’t want to be intimidated by its uniqueness. It is, after all, just another bike ride. I hope to keep my focus on completing the various stages within a favorable timeframe, while remembering that I have successfully completed events as physically demanding in the past.
  5. Sleep mostly at night, ride mostly during the day. I chose the 84-hour start since it provided the opportunity for a morning start, which is my strong preference on long rides. I can function on very little sleep, but riding through the night without sleep has left me in unpleasant and unsafe situations in the past. While I love night riding, I feel safest and most productive during the day and so hope to complete most of my riding in daylight.
  6. Every minute counts. Time not wasted can be applied and enjoyed elsewhere. I don’t plan on pushing the envelope through every moment of this ride, but every minute I save through careful efficiency is a minute I have in the bank.
  7. Eat before hungry, drink before thirsty. My nutrition plan hinges on moderation and never getting so hungry or thirsty that it affects my performance. I’ll be riding with a range of pocket foods, but hope to also eat mostly real food in moderation.
  8. Keep focused at the controls. A great deal of time can be consumed in the controls. My top four priorities at every control in order of importance are: get the card signed, fill the bottles, use the bathroom and grab some food. If the lines look terrible, I’ll be sure to grab food or use the bathroom outside of the controls, but this will mean separate stops, which of course means more time off the bike. 
  9. Shoot for a negative split. While I don’t imagine that I will literally be able to ride stronger in the second 600K than I will in the first, I try to imagine that I can do just that throughout the event to help me preserve the gas I've stored in the tank. 
  10. Stop and smell the roses from time to time. Since this is such an amazing event, I want to savor every minute. By riding efficiently, I hope to be able to stop for the occasional photo or take advantage of the unexpected. 
If I'm able to stay focussed on these ten things, the rest should take care of itself. Now if I can only be sure to show up at the airport with everything I need.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Rapha Rising Challenge: A Little Bit of Cramming for PBP

Like clockwork, the Rapha Rising Challenge appears each year in the third week of July to coincide with some of the most epic climbing stages of the TdF.  This year, though, I was unable to lock in any of the details despite several attempts, so I figured they made a shift at Rapha HQ. As I've said before, I'm a sucker for a good challenge. If I know that a group of cyclists are off somewhere trying to do something possibly not possible, I have a hard time not joining in. Throw in a patch and I'm there! As luck would have it, I happened to be scanning Instagram a week ago Saturday and found that #rapharising had begun that very day. The challenge? Climb 9366 meters (30,728 feet) in 8 days. What could be so tough about that?

Climbing is good training. On this there is no debate. Ever wonder why the winner of the Tour de France is always a good climber? In part because being good at climbing makes you good at other things, too. It's also easy for a good climber to put some serious distance on a poor climber, but that's another story. I love that I live in a hilly area because I've found that riding hills can often make up for limited time on the bike. My general equation is that as a ride shortens, it needs to go vertical. Climbing this much in a week would hopefully make the hills of Brittany a bit easier to roll over next month.

It occurred to me more than once while I was riding this week that 30,728 feet is a respectable cruising altitude for a 747. It's almost 6 miles above the Earth! To climb this high on my bike was going to take some planning. Since I was working this week and needed to take care of a few important family jobs, I didn't have endless time to get this done. As a result, I chose some of the steepest hills in the area and rode up and down them multiple times. Since I live near a ridgeline with multiple hills, this wasn't as monotonous as it sounds, and doing a few hours a day of hill riding put me in some very lovely spots.

My planning wasn't perfect, though. On the final day of the challenge, I awoke with over 8200 feet left to climb! To make matters worse, it was raining with thunderstorms in the area. I had risen at 5:00 am to get out and finish things off in the first half of the day by riding over the Shawangunk Ridge in New Paltz multiple times, but when I got there in my car the storm had actually picked up intensity and the entire mountain was shrouded in fog. This was not looking like a particularly safe way to train for PBP, so I threw in the towel and drove home. Who needs a stinking patch anyway? After sitting in bed reading the paper for a few hours, I saw the sun poking through the clouds and threw on my kit and rode out the door to hit the ridge a bit closer to home.

As a result, my profile looked like this:

All in all, I slipped in under the wire. My patch should be here when I get back from Paris.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Catskill Climbfest 200K: PBP Tune-up Edition

Passing the Ashokan Reservoir with the Catskills off in the distance.

Some days it feels like I'm attempting to complete PBP on the absolute minimum amount of training possible and on others I remind myself that I've ridden a full series, a few hilly 200Ks and a fleche this year so everything should work out OK. Having completed the Lap of the Lake 1000K last summer without difficulty also brings me comfort as I realize that there is likely some residual fitness in there that I'll be able to draw upon in a pinch. With PBP a little over a month away, I wanted to top off whatever training I have under the hood with a challenging 200K and so put out the word and collected six friends to join me in the effort.

It was great to have such broad geographic representation on our little adventure with Robin L. (NYC) and Ed S. (NYC and Millerton, NY), Bob T. (NJ) Don N. (CT), David D. (CT) and Andrey B. (Rosendale) clipping in at the 7:00 am start.

One would be hard pressed to find a nicer 200K to ride on a warm summer day. There are two epic climbs on the Catskill Climbfest that give the route it's name. On each of these hills, our band split up a bit, but regrouped at the following controls, which made for a nice day of social riding that was (hopefully) neither too fast nor too slow for any of the participants. In between these two climbs are some healthy rollers and absolutely lovely valleys. It's a route replete with low traffic roads and stunning views. Deep in the heart of Rip Van Winkle country without cell phone coverage for much of the day, it's easy to feel like you've entered into a different world. I've never ridden a 200K I like as much. To ride it with friends brings additional pleasure.

There's nothing quite like a chicken salad sandwich at mile 90.9.

Even with some leisurely stops at the controls, we all finished at around the 10.5 hour mark, which left me feeling as though the day was not only fun, but that it, perhaps, also left us stronger than when we started.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Qualified! The Catskill 600K Ride Report

The Catskill 600K out of Westfield, MA is one of my all-time favorite brevets. As I've written before, this one has a little bit of everything: epic hills, rolling farmland, quaint Hudson Valley towns, abundant roadkill and more! The most noteworthy characteristic of this year's Catskill 600K, though, from my point of view, is that it marks the final qualifying brevet in my run-up to PBP.

There was a small field on this late season event with only 13 riders clipping in at the 4:00 am start. Fortunately, several were friends of mine so the early leg of the ride was filled with anticipation and small talk as we caught up and discussed plans for both the current weekend as well as PBP down the road. One of my friends, Patrick C. did not even need this brevet for PBP qualification having recently completed the NJ 600K, but he was up for adventure and hung in there like the true pro that he is throughout the weekend. By the time we reached the first control, the field had spread out a bit so that it was just Patrick and me riding together. We held onto this partnership for the rest of the event with Chris T., Jim R., and David D. riding at roughly the same pace just a short distance behind us. This would be confirmed each time we pulled out of a control to see this group rolling in throughout the second half of the ride. 

Most of us hit the sleep stop at about the same time, due to a nasty flat I developed as we pulled into Saratoga Springs in the gentle night rain. When I couldn't find the sharp culprit, I was pleased that Patrick recommended simply using the spare tire I packed for emergencies.  The sleep stop was moved about 12 miles closer to the start this year, which was excellent as I far prefer crossing the rollers into Cambridge, NY in the morning rather than late, late, late at night. After a delicious dinner of lasagna, salad, pickles and salty chips, we took turns showering and falling into bed in one of three rooms devoted to the purpose.

Patrick and I optimistically gave Mary a 3:30 am wake-up request, which allowed us 90 minutes of solid sleep. Rolling out at 4:00 am was not as painful as it might have been, but it was not so wonderful either. The skies were brightening, but the rain fell as a mixture of thick fog and drizzle and we feared it was only a matter of time before it worsened. After the morning rollers, we hit Cambridge and confessed that we both really needed some additional rest. We found a Stewart's Shop with hot coffee and warm benches and set our alarms for 30 minutes to allow for a solid caffeine nap to regain our focus. I'm pleased to report that we both knocked off immediately and found the nap remarkably restorative.

The break in Cambridge allowed Bob O., who had slept a little longer at the overnight control, to leap frog us so when we arrived in Bennington, VT, we met up at the McDonald's for coffee and eggs. We knew that the next 15 miles were destined to be all about climbing, so we lingered as long as possible to ensure that we were fully caffeinated and caloried for the ride ahead. The climbing starts almost immediately upon leaving Bennington and represents the final epic climb of the route. Once at the top of the pass, riders must continue through a series of rollers, but soon the route involves quite a bit of descending into and through Western Massachusetts.

Patrick, Bob and I would ride together for the balance of the day with a nice stop in Shelburne Falls at the legendary McCuskers Market for lunch. The skies cleared in the afternoon and, as luck would have it, we even ran into ride organizer Don P. about 30 miles from the finish and so had a lovely conversation (complete with a motivating pace) on the final approach. Ultimately, we finished in 37:20, which was far slower than I had originally hoped, but well within the required time for PBP qualification. Thanks to the attentive approach taken by the Don, Lois S. at RUSA HQ and the ACP liaison in France, results were processed in record time and I found myself officially registered for PBP within 48 hours of completing the 600K. This meant that I successfully made it within the pre-qualification window and would not lose my spot at the 5:00 am start with the rest of the 84-hour group.

While I might like to feel a bit stronger at this point in the season, I could not be happier with my qualification for PBP, which represents an accomplishment years in the making. There are still many details to line up yet so far, everything has fallen into place. With only 52 days left until the start, though, I need to redouble my training efforts without crossing the line into overtraining and compromising my ultimate performance.

Up next: Plenty of riding both near and far. The Catskills Climbfest 200K permanent on July 12 should provide a good tune-up as well as a way to measure my overall fitness as I work to dial in my exact PBP strategy.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Central / Western New York 400K: Just One More To Go!

As a result of a very hectic spring calendar with work and family obligations around every corner, I found myself riding through the Finger Lakes on a 400K last weekend in one of the very last brevets of this distance on the RUSA calendar. While not completing the ride was not really a possibility, the added pressure did cross my mind from time to time. Living in the Hudson Valley, I'm blessed with four brevet series within two hours of my house, so it's rare that I pack up the car and drive 4-1/2 hours to a ride start. This means that I rarely get up to the Finger Lakes region, which is too bad since the vistas are gorgeous and the roads ideal for long distance cycling.

The ride began on Saturday morning at 6:00 AM at RBA Pete D.'s house side-by-side with a 600K. Due to the lateness of the season, the field was extremely thin with only three starters on the 400 and seven on the 600. With a field this small, I knew that it was quite likely that this would be a solo attempt at the distance for me and so I settled into a pace that felt good from the start. The first and last 30 miles of the route hug the beautiful southern shore of Lake Ontario and conjured fond memories of my experience on the Lap of the Lake 1000K last summer among a much larger field of riders.

After about 30 miles, the route turns south and heads towards the Syracuse area and into the heart of the Finger Lakes. Not long after the start, I was approached by Boston rider Keith C. who had gotten off to a late start riding a sweet Seven Mudhoney with an abundance of youthful energy. When we were chatting and he asked if I was retired or still working I realized that it may be time to step up the training a wee bit or to at least grab a bottle of Grecian Formula at the pharmacy. After our initial conversation, Keith and I leap-frogged a bit until finally settling into a more or less common pace. While he took a bit longer in controls than I had planned, I'm sure that I was riding a bit slower than he would have preferred, especially on the hills when my legs seemingly turned to stone.

Luckily, the weather could not have been more favorable. There was a slight wind out of the north, which aided our progress during the first half of the day and dropped off completely after dark as we made our way home to the finish. There was only one long stretch of open field were we caught a headwind and this reminded us just how lucky we were and how bad it could have been. As the sun began to fade, we approached Lake Skaneateles, one of the loveliest of the Finger Lakes, and arrived in the charming village of the same name on the lake's north shore just as the sun set in time for a welcome meal.

The last time I rode this course, I recall not liking the last 100K all that much, but this time around it was quite pleasant despite the very cold temperatures that set in after midnight. The sky was filled with stars and the moon rose over expansive fields that would soon be filled with corn and other treats of summer. The roads were largely free of traffic and, despite some concern over the quantity of alcohol purchased by drivers at the penultimate control, we did not run into any trouble with cars on the last stretch. Shivering at 43F along the final 50K, I have to thank Keith for his graciousness in not dropping me like a bad habit. We both finished in 21:13, long after we had planned, safe and sound and 3/4 of the way qualified for PBP.

Up Next: One of my favorite brevets of all time, The Catskill 600K on June 20-21.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Another Step Closer to Paris: The Bash Bish 300K

What do you call the Bash Bish 300K when the road that leads to the falls is closed and forces a detour? Easier. Like many of the Westfield brevets, this route has been fine-tuned over the years and takes in some outstanding roads very well suited to long distance riding. We found ourselves on either quiet back roads or larger state highways with low traffic and wide shoulders throughout most of the day with all of the roads providing beautiful views of some pretty majestic countryside. One can see why the Berkshires are a popular vacation and retirement destination.

We could not have asked for much better weather on May 9 for the Berkshire Brevets Bash Bish 300K out of Westfield, MA. The start was scheduled for a civilized 6:00 am, which allowed for a bit of sun to erase the dawn although there was some fog during the first segment that forced me to remove my sunglasses for a short while. The route, which I have completed once before, is lollypop shaped with both the start and finish covering the same 50 miles or so. The first and last 25 miles take in a lovely stretch of “blue highway” known as Jacob’s Ladder Scenic Byway, a one hundred year-old road that was the first to cross one of the peaks in the Berkshires. The climbing on the way out of Westfield is never really too extreme and more than worth it on the return after 160 miles of hilly riding.

The controls were a bit of a time-suck on this event. The first, at the Great Barrington Dunkin’ Donuts, comes at mile 49. I ordered a yummy bacon, egg and cheese sandwich and an iced coffee that really hit the spot, especially since I had not eaten a proper breakfast at the start of the day. The bottleneck at the checkout line was less than ideal, but all told, the control took about 10 minutes to get through. We hit the second control in Kent, CT right three or so girls’ tennis teams from a local tournament seemed to descend for lunch. The café makes a mean sandwich (the cost of which is covered by the brevet entry fee) so it’s unlikely that I’ll change plans in the future, but it would be possible to simply get the card signed and stop somewhere else in town for a little caloric resupply to make it through in less time.

I did meet up with a few other riders, but none of us rode together for very long. I caught up with Maine randonneurs Christine T. and James R. at the start and spoke a bit about Paris logistics before we each fell into our own comfortable paces. I also rode between controls one and two with fellow Hudson Valley rider Hans J. and was pleased to catch up and meet the man behind the Facebook profile. A few other riders, such as Ted L. and I seemed to leapfrog one another for most of the day.

As I dial in my training for PBP, I’m eager to gauge both my fitness and my efficiency in controls, knowing that both will make PBP not only easier, but also more enjoyable. Through stronger riding, better planning and greater efficiency, I’m hoping to shave a bit of time off of my previous attempts at the brevets I will be undertaking this spring as I fine-tune my riding, eating and sleeping plans for PBP.  This strategy has had me riding solo for much of the past two brevets, but the information I’ve been able to gather while listening to my body and focusing on my own performance and limitations has been well worth it.

I was pleased to finish the 300K in 13:30, which was a bit under my target for the day, shaving 55 minute’s off of my 2013 result. Of course, the detour shaved a bit of climbing off the ride so the comparison is not exact, but I was pleased with the results anyway.

Up next: the Western and Central NY 400K through the Finger Lakes on June 6.