Friday, October 19, 2012

Misty Memories: the Vermont Fall Classic

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
When I think about why the Vermont Fall Classic holds such importance for me, it's because this ride marked a point of no return. I didn't want to fall in love with this kind of riding, but I did. And it happened with a sort of romantic finality, a "sometimes you just know" moment that stretched into hours. I will never forget it. Several weeks later and now stuck at home with a bad case of flu, I keep dreaming about it, hallucinating it. Did it really happen the way I remember? Yes, I think so. But before I lose myself in purple prose, let me start with the facts.

Vermont Fall Classic, Start
The Vermont Fall Classic is an official, RUSA-sanctioned event organised by the New England Randonneurs, offering a 100k Populaire and a 200k brevet (read more about these types of rides here). But unlike typical brevets, the Vermont Fall Classic includes significant portions of unpaved roads. And while brevets of this distance (short by randonneurs' standards) are normally offered at the beginning of the season, the Vermont Fall Classic is held at the very end. The idea is that participants get to see the changing leaves while enjoying a crisp Autumn day along beautiful dirt roads. A large group of us from Boston had been planning to do this ride for months, to carpool up to Northern Vermont and make a weekend of it. For me, the biggest draw were the dirt roads. I planned to do the Populaire and assumed that the route would not be overly challenging, since Populaires are the gateway to randonneuring and are meant to draw new people in. Operating under this assumption, I also invited my friend Bekka (bikeyface) and her boyfriend VorpalChortle, who were interested in trying some dirt roads. We were all looking forward to a lovely weekend and ride.

However, several days before the event some new information gave us pause. To our dismay, the forecast pretty much guaranteed rain, possibly heavy rain. And then we received the cue sheet and discovered that the 100k route was actually a 123k, with about 6,000 feet of climbing. So, instead of a sunny autumnal ramble, we were now looking at 76 very hilly miles in the rain. Was it worth it to drive up to Vermont for the weekend for that? My brain said "no, stay home." But my heart said "go." Many of the others decided to go as well. Unfortunately, Somervillain - with whom I was meant to carpool - got sick shortly before the ride and couldn't make it.

On Saturday morning I hitched a ride to Burlington with Bekka and VorpalChortle, who would take part in the brevet before continuing north to Canada on a little Autumn vacation. Being first time participants in a ride of this magnitude, they had no idea what to expect and made plans for alternative, shorter routes just in case. Discussing the route on the drive up, we were all hoping that the bleak weather prognosis would turn out to be wrong. But so far things were not looking encouraging. After more than 4 rainy hours in the car, we arrived in Burlington and headed straight for the Old Spokes Home - a legendary bike shop and museum that we had been looking forward to visiting. This visit cheered us up considerably and I wrote about it in detail here.

Later in the afternoon, Bekka and VC proceeded to their hotel and I to the lodgings I'd be sharing with about a dozen other riders from Boston. Out of concern for privacy I don't want to say too much about where we stayed, but it was thoroughly communal. We were all to sleep in what was basically one room, mere inches from each other, with our bikes lined up down the hall. It was an interesting arrangement. After dropping my bike and bag off, I managed to get out for a walk along the shore of Lake Champlain before it grew dark. After that I headed to the town center (Burlington is relatively small and very walkable) and had an unexpectedly social evening - first meeting up for drinks with a group assembled by ride organiser Mike Beganyi, then later for dinner with the familiar Boston crew: Jon D, JP Twins, and Emily among others. I usually don't drink alcohol the night before a hard ride, but it was so cold and miserable that all of us ended up having some beers. There was a great feeling of solidarity that night, because we all showed up despite the terrible weather. We returned to our lodgings some time after 10pm and fell asleep before midnight. 

Vermont Fall Classic, Start
At 5am the next morning I got up and prepared for the ride. Not knowing how bad the weather was going to be, I had brought several different clothing options including long winter tights. After stepping outside to check the weather I decided to wear those, as well as a long sleeve base layer, a cold-weather long sleeve jersey, and a lightweight rain jacket. I put on a visored wool hat. I stashed an extra pair of socks in my saddlebag, along with two small plastic bags in case of rain (more on this later). I made some coffee, ate some of my trail mix, and just after 6am headed out to the start at the Old Spokes Home with another rider. It was misty and raw out, but not raining.

Vermont Fall Classic, Start
At the start there were several dozen riders already gathered. Among these were many I recognised, even if I did not know them personally. One girl looked so familiar that I kept shyly circling her until she finally introduced herself as Lily, a recent addition to Seven Cycles. 

Vermont Fall Classic, Start
In the weak early morning light I noticed how ubiquitous all the bicycles looked. On closer inspection, the bikes themselves were actually pretty different, but nearly all of them - from vintage 650B conversions to titanium club racers - sported front racks with traditional handlebar bags. It was a curious sight. As for me, I was riding a work-in-progress Rawland that had just been assembled the day prior - ridable, but still missing some parts including a handlebar bag. Sifting through my images from the day, I am amused to discover that I took virtually no pictures of my bike. I kept photographing other people's bikes and figured I'd get to mine later, but never did. Well, I will post some once it's fully built up. 

Vermont Fall Classic, Finish
As we fussed around before the start, there was a lot of speculation as to whether it would rain and how badly. This was when some of the riders explained how they keep their feet dry in the event of a downpour. Apparently, you are supposed to put plastic bags not over your cycling shoes, but inside them, over your socks. Frankly I could not imagine this working or being comfortable, but took the bags and an extra pair of socks with me anyway. The remaining space in my saddlebag was taken up by food, tools, a small medical kit, a roll of tape, extra cue sheets, and my camera. 

Vermont Fall Classic, Start
We received brief instructions from the ride organiser, who would be riding the Populaire himself. There would be no support except at the start and finish. Convenience store cashiers were to sign our control cards. We were responsible for our own rescue in the event of abandoning. 

Vermont Fall Classic, Start
After a double-checking of cue sheets and GPS units, both the 200k and the 123k group were given the green light to head out at 7am. My goals for this ride were vague in the absence of Somervillain. The two of us are more or less well matched in terms of pace and we had planned to ride together. Now that he wasn't here, I did not know anyone else doing the Populaire other than Bekka and VorpalChortle, so I thought I'd ride with them at whatever pace they wanted and not worry about the clock. We set off a little after the start time at an unhurried pace. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
The first few miles were paved, featuring rolling hills. We warmed up, with occasional stops to make clothing and bike adjustments. During this time I experienced and resolved two mechanical problems one after the other (headlight and drivetrain related). But after the first 8 miles of the route everything went smoothly. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
As pavement turned to dirt, we rode through beautiful farmlands with hardly any cars around. It occurred to me that if I wanted to take pictures, I would need to pick up the pace in between the picture-taking, unless I wanted the ride to take all day. So from that point on, we agreed that I would ride ahead, reconvening with Bekka and VorpalChortle at various landmarks and rest stops. We were in good spirits and glad that it wasn't raining. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
As I surged ahead, the landscape grew increasingly remote and rugged. But I wasn't alone for long. Soon I was joined by an older gentleman who must have started later than the others but was now racing his way through the course. We rode together for a couple of rolling miles and then began to climb a startlingly steep hill. I was impressed that this man gave no indication - in his breathing, speech pattern or bodily language - that he was exerting himself in any way. He just kept chatting easily while his legs moved in elegant circles. This admirable demeanor inspired me to try and keep up with him on the monstrous hill. By the time we reached the top I was red in the face and panting, while this amazing gentleman was hardly worse for wear. And then I saw the street sign: Duffy Road. We had just done the 4 mile climb the cue sheet warned about. I was grateful I had not realised this going into it; sometimes it's better not to know! Shortly after we parted ways as I stayed behind to take a couple of photos. After that I continued on my own.

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
The intense climb left me feeling nicely warmed up. As the scenery grew yet more dramatic, I began to fly through the fog and mist, as wild bursts of colour exploded all around me. And this is when the ride began for me in earnest. I loved the texture of the dirt roads under my tires and experienced an intense flow of pure unbridled happiness to be riding on such roads again. Uphill, downhill, loose, soft, slushy, I loved it all. No fear, just an unbelievable endorphin rush. I got into a rhythm where my legs spun effortlessly, my body on the bike felt weightless, and overall everything just seemed so free and limitless and utterly perfect that I could hardly feel the ground beneath me. A part of me wished that Somervillain and Brian P had been riding alongside, as they had been on similar rides. But another part of me savoured the loneliness of the experience. I've had glimpses into this high on previous rides, but now it was as if a dam broke and an intense bliss flooded my senses. And I know it's just a chemical thing; it's not magical or metaphysical. But try telling yourself that as you are flying up a dirt road straight into a cloud of mist through tunnels of gold and magenta. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
As I progressed toward the first control point, I saw that if I pushed the pace, stopped taking pictures, and nixed the idea of reconvening with Bekka and VorpalChortle, I could still make it within the official time limit. I considered doing this, but ultimately decided against it. What did finishing within the time limit mean to me? Truthfully nothing. If it had I should have approached the ride differently to begin with. Well then, logically there was no reason to strive for an arbitrary time frame just because it now appeared within reach. The first control point was at mile 35 and I arrived 15 minutes after it officially closed. I bought some water and asked the cashier to sign my card anyway, and she gladly did. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
When reconvening with the others, it was good to catch up and share impressions of the route. Though a bit shell-shocked by the 4 mile climb (as was I!), Bekka and VorpalChortle were clearly enjoying the ride. At a rest stop around mile 25 they were in great spirits and had no intention of implementing a short cut route. Ditto at the first control 10 miles later. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
I left the first control when I felt my muscles beginning to stiffen up, while the others stayed to have a bonk-preventive meal. I had been snacking pretty much continuously since the start of the ride and preferred to wait until later. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
The next 20 miles are when things turn hazy. Not hazy because I don't remember them, but hazy because my memories of this stretch seems improbable. The rain did not begin right away. First the mist and the black clouds gathered. And this gathering was happening in a way that was visible to the naked eye. I could see shapes forming right in front of me, the density of the fog changing, twirls of white and gray mist dancing over the mountains and the fields. It was like watching one of those nature shows where they speed up hours of footage to show visible patterns of change that would otherwise be unobservable. Well, they were observable here. This wonderous dark magic show coincided with a steep 3 mile climb toward Smuggler's Notch. I was so mesmerised that I could hardly feel the climbing in my legs; I was practically floating upward in the swirls of dark mist. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
Some time later, I paused at an intersection, trying to make sure the dirt road I was about to turn onto was the correct one. A lone station wagon was passing by and pulled over. The man rolled down his window and yelled "You don't want to go that way on a bike, trust me!" That's how I knew it was probably the correct road.

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
This next 5 mile dirt climb really wasn't bad compared to the previous two long climbs and all the other shorter steeper ones. In general, there were very few flat stretches on this ride, and climbing began to feel normal pretty quickly. Climbing felt like a state of mind and the dark weather felt oddly appropriate. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
It began to rain right after a long, out of control, I-should-be-scared-but-I'm-not descent. I remember the winding narrow dirt road finally dumping me into an open field with surround views of mountains, and that's when it started. Not hard at first. But here is the strange thing, and another one of those memories I don't trust: I keep picturing the rain being black. It could not possibly have been, but that is how I experienced it. Sharp black droplets of rain at first, then sheets of it. I did not take my camera out again after that. The rain enchanted me at first. But once the mist dissipated, the whole thing lost its supernatural appeal: Soon I was cycling in a nasty and in no way romantic downpour with several miles to go before the next control. 

Vermont Fall Classic, Finish
It is rather impressive how wet one can get over the course of those several miles. While my jacket was blessedly waterproof and my tights surprisingly water resistant, my shoes did not just get soaked through, they filled with water and became freezing little torture-buckets in which my feet were trapped. To make matters worse, the scenic dirt roads suddenly ended, forcing me onto a winding main road with heavy and erratic traffic. There was very poor visibility in the rain and drivers sped past sending tall sprays of disgusting water my way. With the constant traffic lights, I began to feel cold and shaky. My eyes burned around the edges, as if from a fever. Finally I approached the second control point at mile 54 ...except for me it was mile 58, as I'd accidentally done a bonus loop on one of the climbs earlier. I arrived 45 minutes after the official closing time. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
The second control was a very nice restaurant with the misleadingly casual name The Village Cup. Some other riders were just leaving as I left my bike on the porch and gingerly made my way through the entrance. This was a sit-down restaurant with white table cloths, where local families had gathered for early dinner in their Sunday best. Filthy, soggy and trembling, I half expected to not be allowed in, but the management was hospitable. I found a spot in the corner of the bar and ordered hot food, anticipating that Bekka and VorpalChortle would join me soon. But as I waited for my meal, I received a message: They were at a gas station, 5 miles behind me and were not going to continue. They planned to hitch a ride back to Burlington, then return in their own car to get their bikes. If I wanted, they could then collect me and my bike as well. That sounded pretty good right about then. But later - after consuming a cheeseburger, a beer, and two cups of scalding hot coffee, I felt much better. I could think clearly at least. The first step was to implement Operation Plastic Bags. Retrieving the spare dry socks from my saddlebag I went into the bathroom, removed my shoes, removed my wet socks and dried my feet with paper towels. Then I put on the dry socks and over those the plastic bags, tying the handles around my ankles. Then I put my shoes back on. It was amazing! Warm, and I could not feel the wet shoes at all. At that point I realised that no part of me was really uncomfortable anymore. My tights had dried out while I sat in the restaurant. My top layers never got wet in the first place under the rain jacket. I decided to make my way to the finish on my own two wheels. 

Vermont Fall Classic Populaire
But having stayed in the restaurant for as long as I did sealed my fate of not being able to make the cutoff; with only an hour remaining on the clock and over 20 miles to go there was no way to do it now. Given that reality and the relentless downpour that awaited me, I had a genius idea: Since I would not be finishing the ride officially anyway, I could take a short cut - shaving some miles off and minimising my exposure to the terrible weather. I looked at my map, memorised the direct route, then set off. The rain was just as nasty as it had been earlier. I was cold and pedaled hard to warm up. But the shortcut turned out to be a bad idea. The road was basically a highway, and the further I rode, the worse it got. A couple of miles later I had to admit defeat. I pulled over, studied the map, and figured out how to get back on course, having done yet another bonus loop. And then, on rolling hills along paved and dirt roads, I rode the remaining 20 miles to the finish in continuous rain. There was water everywhere at this point, with messy slush along the dirt stretches. I have never cycled in worse conditions, but I can't really say I was miserable. I remember feeling great as I rolled into Burlington. At an intersection I caught a glimpse of myself in a storefront window and laughed at how wet and dirty I looked. "Girl, you are nuts!" yelled a woman from across the street cheerfully. I nodded and smiled as filthy rainwater streamed down my face. Somehow everything about this ride made sense. I arrived at the Old Spokes Home and got my meaningless brevet card signed at the finish, just as I had done at the controls. I finished over an hour behind schedule, thus unofficially completing the course with some extra milage tacked on, for a total of 82 miles (132k) with over 50% dirt and over 6,000 feet of climbing. With all of these factors combined, plus heavy rain for the final third of the way, this was the hardest ride I have done to date. It was also the most enjoyable.

Vermont Fall Classic, Finish
At the finish I wasn't tired. I chatted with the 100k finishers and friends of the 200k riders as we waited for the latter group to arrive. I learned that a number of riders abandoned, finding the conditions unpleasant. 

Vermont Fall Classic, Finish
But those who did finish looked pretty good. The weather had been so over the top terrible for the second part of the ride, that it was frankly funny.

Vermont Fall Classic, Finish
One after another, riders arrived covered in mud, sand and grime, peeling off their rain jackets like some filthy bandages.

Vermont Fall Classic, Finish
"Man, that was awful!" they would exclaim, grinning ear to ear, as they reached for a slice of post-ride pizza.

Vermont Fall Classic, Finish
The pizzas did not last long.

Raleigh Portage
As we discussed the ride, we all seemed to agree that the climbing did not feel as tough as we'd expected. It was more or less constant, but it was also well distributed. Some said they found the dirt challenging once it started to rain, but this may have been due to tire choice. I was very comfortable on these particular dirt roads in the rain.

Vermont Fall Classic, Finish
Once all of the riders were accounted for, we took turns changing in the bathroom of the laundromat next door and eventually said our good-byes. I got a ride back to Boston with Emily and her boyfriend Jake in their rented pickup truck. We were all exhausted, and I do not envy Jake for having to drive 4.5 hours in the dark after the day we had. After rolling my cruddy bike into the house, I showered and climbed into bed after midnight. I was not physically tired, but emotionally I was drained. As I fell asleep, I found myself back in Vermont doing the ride again. I rode through mist and black rain, up and down endless hills, as my tires rolled through the slushy top layer of the smooth tan dirt. I had a control card in my pocket and it was many pages thick, like a small book. 

Vermont Fall Classic, Start
But there I go again, drifting away from the facts. And the facts are as follows: 50 riders were expected at the Vermont Fall Classic this year. Due to the weather, the actual number at the start was 40. In the course of the ride, 10 abandoned. 12 riders finished the 200k and 14 finished the Populaire within the time limit, with an additional 4 completing the course on their own time (myself among these). There were no injuries or accidents reported. Participants traveled from all over New England and beyond, many bringing spouses and staying in the area for the weekend or longer. 

I took part in the Vermont Fall Classic because it presented an opportunity to ride on dirt roads. The fact of it being an official brevet was incidental. At this stage, I am not sure that I am ready to do these kinds of rides on the clock. Not because I can't make the time limit if I try, but because these rides are too pretty and too new to be rushed through. Possibly next season I will join a few of the local brevets and see how I like those. But I can't help being more interested in the dirt roads, and regret that this kind of riding requires travel. I met some great people in Burlington, whom I would enjoy seeing again and riding with, and I know that others from Boston felt the same - it was a wonderful, welcoming atmosphere and an exciting weekend. I would like to thank organiser Mike Beganyi and the staff of the Old Spokes Home, as well as all the participants, for making this ride special and memorable. Complete set of pictures here

58 comments:

  1. I'm so jealous of you New Englanders! No such gorgeous scenery, quaint shops, packed dirt roads or well-organised rides where I live. I hope you realize how lucky you are! :-)

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    1. It is nice around here; on the other hand, I think she had to drive over 200 miles to get to that ride...

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  2. I thought this report was coming out around Christmas.

    The bag thing -- you couldn't imagine warm, dry feet would help? It's only expert advice. Beer, cheeseburger...remember that "theoretical" food argument in which many, including you, were going vegetarian blah blah? Protein, carbs, real hot food = priceless. Oh yeah beer is now being drunk on this blog. Food>bikey navel gazing.

    Reading btwn the lines all that base, lack of neurosis, lack of bikey overthinking means you just ride. I think the Rawland has a lot to do with your feelings on the ride. But everyone's bike had an h-bar bag is weird? Of course it isn't, they don't think about low or high trail just the trail. Speaking of which these dirt roads look super smooth and great.

    Your mechanicals were resolved; I have a feeling someone else did this, in which case that's no exactly in the spirit of self-sufficiency and should be something anyone who does a rando event should take stock of, regardless of feelings of "ew, mechanics". If you resolved them good.

    Being so intimately focused on your frame projects and their aesthetics, the sitting filthy in a nice restaurant in athletic gear is just rich. Boxes and boxes.

    The pictures are great.

    Growth is here, but maybe someday you'll write about the concept of mentoring, being helped by numerous people along the way and passing on some more of that knowledge because, if you remember correctly, you complained frequently about this knowledge base being unavailable on the web. It's only, like, fair.













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    1. "Your mechanicals were resolved; I have a feeling someone else did this..."

      Incorrect. The wording in my post uses the first person, so I did not intend for this to be ambiguous. It was easy stuff though.

      Self sufficiency is a huge issue on rides like this. A whole nother topic, stay tuned for the Xmas Special.

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    2. It should be noted, as I'm not sure what Jim was getting at, that self sufficiency is a large part of the randonneuring spirit, but you can ride to a bike shop, hardware store or general store on or off route (just get back on route where you left it), accept help from a passing motorist, another rider, etc. You can even have a family member or friend meet you at the controls, set up a chair and bike stand for you, oil your chain, pump your tires, and dump calories down your throat... (but generally this doesn't happen).

      Ask Cris about his adventures with a disabled wheel on a Boston Brevet and a ride to a shop just off the route, or some folks 2 years ago on my Lake 300k that came upon another brevet rider with a shredded tire - they had a spare, gladly handed it off to him - and he picked up a tire in the next town at a shop, and when they crossed paths again he handed the new one back...


      Not everyone had a handlebar bag. Most did, in either the rando style on a front rack, or an Ortlieb or Jandd or Arkel up front. I saw a few of those little Jandd pouches up front. I ran a Revelate Gas tank, there were a few tri style top tube packs, etc. I almost put on my Ortlieb the night before, but decided to leave well enough alone and not make any changes to the bike before a ride. Being able to access stuff while moving is a huge time saver - be it jersey pockets, front bag, tri pouch, etc. Any time you aren't rolling forward, even slowly, is time that is slipping away from you should you want to be finishing the ride within the time limits...

      Tires - 700c 25s on up to the 650b 42 Hetres. I've ridden many of these roads on Conti '28s'. Last year I did the ride on my Fargo with WTB Vuplines. This year 35 semi slick cross tires. The first official year on Conti 28s. For me it depends on my mood and a bit regarding the weather and conditions.

      Often our dirt is in better shape then the pave...

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    3. You can receive support to a degree but the question is how much. Big topic. I'm of the persuasion if you really really need help it's nice to get it. Otherwise expect to get none as there are very few humans in the back country in the Sasquatches or Sierras with a spare derailleur hanger or hamburger for you. What can I say, I'm old school. Fix it or forget it.

      As you may know, the author has some phobias regarding maintenance and mechanicals. As usual, I was directing at her. Best to read it that way.

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  3. Thanks for the wonderful report. Lovely Bicycle at its best!

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  4. What kind of tires? Did you have fenders installed? Nice report.

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    1. 650Bx42mm Grand Bois Hetres. VO Zeppelin fenders, but I did not yet have them on this ride.

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    2. Oh, and what kind of rain jacket? Thanks for the info! Hope you're feeling better :)

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    3. I wear a Rapha women's wind jacket. It's the same jacket I made fun of here and it's not perfect, but ultimately I have not found anything better. I get very very hot in other cycling jackets I've tried, but this one I can wear and even keep zipped up without overheating. While it's not described as 100% waterproof, it's kept me dry so far, so good enough. It is pricey, but Rapha has major clearance sales around Christmas and (for women) again in February.

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  5. Nice report.

    As an organizer of Populaires and brevets I find it curious that there was a time limit for the controls on the Populaire. In the end the length of time it takes is really immaterial because there is no 'official' body that ratifies Populaires, unlike brevets which are adjudicated by the ACP in France.

    Since, as you very correctly point out, Populaires are intended to introduce riders to brevets (and randonneuring) it seems to me that encouraging riders to finish, regardless of time, is key. I guess we have a slightly different approach to things here on the West Coast.

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    1. The thing is, the Vermont Fall Classic is a unique ride that's hard to classify. While it is technically a Populaire as far as distance, the climbing and the dirt make it not the right choice for beginners. And of course you are right that Populaires don't "count" anyway. I think the control times were just there for an extra bit of fun/challenge for those who wanted it.

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    2. Here in the NE we still put the times, hand out the control cards, and expect riders of Populaires to play in the same spirit as a longer ride. As most of our rides are self supported and self rescued (if you need) - the easiest way to get home is often to get off the bike, take on calories, rest, warm up, re-center oneself, and then ride back to the start.

      When I learn of someone new on a ride I will give full on encouragement for 'just finishing' - but I also think its important for folks to see how the mechanics of this style of riding works... hence the cards, times, etc.

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  6. So, the hetres are that good? Now that the pnw rains have returned, the dirt road I live on is all smooth now. I have problems with vibration causing itchies and hives when going down gravelly roads. So much as I love dirt roads and the feel of wet hard clay under my tires, gravel makes me nervous. Maybe the logging roads out here are just more gravel than dirt.
    Wow, what a ride. Plastic bags do work! They are also good for general cold weather/winter outings too. I started wearing them at work when I spent hours in produce coolers. I got caught in an unexpected downpour the other day in regular clothes. ugh! Were any of the riders in capes or head to toe in gortex?
    Is the Rawland still on loan for testing and review?

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    1. Ditto with regard to the plastic bags! As a former Oregonian I remember, fondling, wearing them much of the winter -- so practical :)

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    2. The Rawland is my own bike. The build is almost finished now and I'll write about it when it's done.

      No capes or head to toe raingear on this ride.

      Hetres good... yes, but I want to be careful here, because I seem to prefer them specifically in combination with bikes such as the Rawland (responsive, and low trail handling). I also like the very different feel of several cyclocross bikes I've tried, and 700Cx35mm seems to be the sweet spot for that style of bike for me.

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  7. ""Man, that was awful!" they would exclaim, grinning ear to ear"

    What it is all about, at least for me.

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  8. Stopping all the time to take pictures makes the ride harder. Much harder.

    You take great pictures. This place would not be the same without them. It remains that constant pedalling is vastly more efficient and comfortable. On a constant pedalling program you'd have made this ride easily.

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    1. GoPro?

      Rambles and randonnees and photo shoots are different concepts. Even if the bloghost has ably demonstrated how they can be mixed. I wonder, would you ever just go for the 200k and take a handful of phone photos? Would editing out of a GoPro feel like photography to you? That was a hard 80 miles.

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    2. I go on lots of rides where I take no pictures at all. I go on lots of rides where I take just a few iphone shots. On this specific ride I wanted to have my DSLR.

      In general, I guess I don't think of rides purely in terms of distance, be that distance 20k or 200k. It's more about what I want out of a specific ride.

      The GoPro is a nice, useful camera. It is however a completely different look than the composed, manually controlled shots I was interested in taking on this occasion.

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    3. It is always apparent and appreciated that your shots are composed.

      If I had done that ride I would aspire to do it in the spirit of the gentleman you met describing elegant circles with his pedals. The course profile would lead me to expect a bracing good hard time. I think I could do it in 6 or 6-1/2 hours. With stops breaking the rhythm not sure I could do it at all.

      Little story about what can be done when riding and just riding. My first organized century ride I fell in with old racers who maintained a full double rotating paceline. Four abreast the entire ride. I was 17 years old and hadn't learned to ride yet. The old guys pushed and nudged me into position, fed me, showed me the drill. One hundred flat miles went by in 4 hours. It was no harder than any other 4 hour ride. The hardest centuries I've done have been the ones where I accompany novices who stop frequently and stretch it out to 8 or 9 hours. Those are grueling.

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  9. Great post and great pictures, I really enjoy riding gravel too although I have a stretch in a local park you mostly don't find it much in Urban Seattle. I'll have to search out some longer gravel roads in the surrounding areas to work out my 700x38c's and practice my gravel skills. As for getting a riding high you say "And I know it's just a chemical thing; it's not magical or metaphysical." Don't be so quick to dismiss the magical or metaphysical ;-)

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  10. Wow, nice ride story. That shortcut on the main road must have been a jolly moment! The wider tyres and mudgaurd combo seemed to work for the surface and weather conditions. Hopefully Emily and Somervillan will be with you next time. Good job again, inspirational.

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  11. Well described, excellent photos -- adding up to kudos for a repeat post. It all sounds wonderful except for the rain -- no fenders, too!

    Plastic bags over socks and under shoes work well in cold, dry weather, too -- my choice when temps fall below 40 but down to about freezing. Over wool socks, of course.

    Gravel roads: wide tires certainly help. Just did a much shorter and dry mixed terrain ride in the hills outside of Santa Fe, with crushed stone (there's a technical term for the stuff that I forget -- smaller than gravel, much coarser than sand) along much of it that "puddled" in ruts and at the bottom of hills. 60 mm Big Apples at ~25/30 or so turned out to be a good choice, as they performed surprisingly well on the paved uphills while keeping me afloat in the gravel puddles. Had to be careful on loose-surfaced corners.

    Front bags: why so popular for this ride and crowd? Is it the accessibility? Have always used saddlebags and panniers myself.

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    1. Patrick: Randonneurs started using front bags because they can access while riding or at least without fully dismounting.

      Definitely what I prefer for city riding. Longer rides I tend to prefer the weight lower on the bike. Proper low trail you do not notice the weight of the front bag though.

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    2. The pictures are beautiful. Hard not to be happy riding in country like that, no matter how dire the weather. I suspect more would have dropped out if the ride were in flat farmland.

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    3. Re my original handlebar bag comment in the post: Just to clarify, I was not questioning their usefulness or making a comment on bike-specificity; I love handlebar bags and will have one (again) soon. What surprised me is that almost everyone had one on this ride; that's not typical. Was there something specific about this ride that attracted hbar bag users, I wonder, or are hbar bags simply becoming more popular with each passing month.

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    4. For a brevet it's hard to deny the super practicality of a front bag: access to food, camera and clothing while I'm moving (crucial if you want to keep moving or are riding with others and can't aways stop when you might otherwise); the slight wind break on chilly mornings with my hands on the handlebars behind the bag, and a convenient place to mount your route sheet.
      I love my front bag!

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    5. Thanks so much for the great description of your day. We chatted briefly after the ride and I apologized for the bad weather and you said that that it only added to your experience. I fully appreciate how you feel and enjoyed the sense of bonding that the adverse weather created for everyone riding that day.

      I'm the guy in the Rivendell jersey and I love the photo you took. Just as you describe, at the finish I felt a deep satisfaction and joy along with being damp and tired. I feel grateful to have been a part of such a memorable event.

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    6. It was nice to meet you Dave; I hope we meet again on future rides!

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  12. These wonderful posts show how you keep growing and pushing your horizons, earning merit badge after merit badge. Lovely that you so humbly share your emotions and awakening to the beauty and fulfillment that you've found in cycling and the surprise within you that you have this capacity and aptitude for cycling.
    Endearing that your posts are always limned with an acknowledgement and gratitude to those who have helped light your way. The photos melt your heart! Thank you. Jim Duncan

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  13. Ahhh, it is wonderful to hear you rhapsodizing about dirt rides. Part of the magic of them, I think, is that they make you feel connected to the roots of cycling -- 100+ years ago it was pretty much only dirt roads to be had. Another great post. It makes me want to organize a ride to showcase some of our amazing dirt roads here in Maine.

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  14. I've really been enjoying these gravel ride posts, I've spent more time this year on a 'cross bike than on my road bikes and Mtb's combined and am really beginning to understand the appeal. I missed all the local club centuries this summer helping to get a new shop opened so I'm going to do a dirt road century of my own in W.V. or Western Md. in a week or so. I hope it's half as nice as you make that ride sound.

    Next year I think I'll add a couple of Brevettes to my plans, I've never done one and I'm beginning to think it might be just the thing.

    Spindizzy

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  15. Another beautifully written and photographed story. I value the information I get from this blog, but it's the aesthetic qualities of your writing and photography that keep me coming back for more. As a college professor, I wish my students could write as you do. I would assign "Lovely Bicycle" as required reading, but I'm not sure I could justify it to my Political Science students. Maybe you'd care to start another blog?

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    1. Heh. I have a book in Political Science that's been used as college reading material. Trust me, your students would not enjoy it; even I have a hard time reading that stuff : )

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    2. You wrote a book on Political Science? For some reason I always thought you were a microbiologist.

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    3. Psychologist &neuropsychologist, with some overlap with foreign policy/IR.

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  16. Great read of your weekend ride! You captivate us,our emotions and bring us along to get a sense of what stirred your emotions,I could almost feel grit in my spit. Really enjoy reading your blog! Hope one day we'll see you in Oregon, our rains are just starting. Glenn in the Northwest.

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  17. This is a wonderful post, your blog at its best, as others have said above. It gives me a real hankering to be out on the road. There's no explaining how it can be so exhilarating and joyous to be soaked and exhausted and still have miles to go but sometimes it is.

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  18. Re: plastic bags and socks-- I've done this and it generally works well for me in wet weather, but my feet get cold easily, and once the temps creep down to the 40s or colder, regular wool socks and plastic bags will no longer keep my feet warm enough, even if they keep them dry. That's when I turn to cycling shoe covers. They not only keep my shoes and feet dry, they're toasty warm! They cover not only my foot but my ankle as well, so my leg tights fit over them, allowing the water to shed over the cover and not into my shoe. The downside is that they take up more room than plastic bags, so when you're not using them they take up extra storage space on the bike.

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    1. You know, all through last winter I rode in thick wool socks and Adidas sneakers, sans plastic bags, and the only time my feet began to go numb was on a ride in sub-20degF. My hands are more sensitive though and they don't like those lobster glove things very much... so maybe I'll sew some glove liners out of plastic bags.

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  19. God forbid I try to make sense here...

    The aitch bar bag comment -- here's your mission, should you choose to accept it:

    Get one, put it on a decaleur or rack. Put some stuff in, including a dslr. Low trail fork or not, doesn't matter. Learn how to ride no hands, take your jacket out, take pictures, put it back. If I can do it getting stuff (including cam) out of the BACK of my longtail, this is a piece of cake. Save you TONS of time.

    GRJ -- shut up. This falls under skill building.

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    1. There is no disagreement here. Remember, I had a handlebar bag on my non-low trail Rivendell and liked it fine. I will soon have one on the Rawland.

      Don't tell anyone, but I can actually ride the Rawland and the Brompton no hands, sort of, when no one is watching. In a decade or two, the jacket changing thing should be a piece of cake.

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    2. I could ride no hands a few days after learning how to balance a two-wheeler. Every bike for five decades has been ridden no hands. Still can't do the jacket thing.

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  20. I'd quite like to live in the USA.

    It is so sparsely populated.

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    1. Riding in the US is only nice in some parts. I also loved riding in Austria and Ireland.

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  21. your metamorphosis from a wannabe peloton rat to a bicyclist seems to moving along very nicely!

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    1. I can only assume you are referring to my discovery of paceline rides last summer, but it is still an an odd backhanded compliment considering my background as a cyclist. I have been rambling around with a camera for years, there is no metamorphosis. Interestingly, paceline rides have helped me make those rambles longer and more comfortable. All kinds of cycling can be useful and fun, it's good to keep an open mind.

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  22. What a wonderful write-up! And amazing photos. I remember years ago when I went from being a fair-weather cyclst to giving riding in the rain a try. It was such a liberating feeling.

    Thanks so much for taking us readers on this incredible journey. Really enjoyed it!

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  23. To those who wish to live in the U.S. or in Vermont: Before you move, look at some good maps of your region. Dirt roads are almost everywhere, once you know how to find them. And fortunately, we are getting more and more "Allroad" bikes and "Allroad" tires that are ideally suited to these rides. (In the past, dirt meant "mountain bike," but you wouldn't want to do a ride like the VT Fall Classic on an mtb.)

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    1. Jan, I've completed much of this course (and the short loop last year) on a 'MTB' - a Salsa Fargo with 2.1" tires. A friend did the same but on a Voodoo Bokor 29r. Several other folks have completed these rides on MTBs. I've even had a very fast finish on our 98% paved Lake 300k by a gent on a hard tail, with locked out front suspension, running a road set of wheels - likely 28s or 25s.

      I've also ridden many of these roads on 25s and 28s, as well as 32s and this recent event on some semi knobby cross tires. And others have ridden on modern 'all road' bikes, and ti race bikes, and even carbon.

      Its not about the bike, in my experience, although it can certainly make a (small) difference.

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    2. FWIW, I did this ride on my normal fixed gear brevet bike with my usual 25mm Michelin tires and they were fine. This ride in particular had, for the most part, very smooth dirt roads and the only problem I had was when the surface was turning just gluey enough to get packed under my fenders like wet cement. I've ridden the same bike with the same tires over much rougher dirt roads also with no problem. I rode with the same group (which sort of aggregated to include the majority of the 200k riders by the end) for most of the ride. Most had wider tires, but one guy did say to me, "Oh good, I'm glad I'm not the only one with skinny tires out here!" :)
      Not saying that wider tires wouldn't be appropriate, just that these New England dirt roads are generally not so loose or rocky that they can't be enjoyed on any ol' road bike if you don't mind getting a bit dirty. Actually, 'round these parts, the dirt ones are often smoother than the paved ones because the "paved" (a generous application of the term...) ones have more craters than the surface of the moon.

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    3. "Its not about the bike, in my experience, although it can certainly make a (small) difference.

      Having now done some (of the same) local unpaved rides on everything from a road/race bike with 23mm road tires, to a cross bike with 32-35mm knobbies, to a 650Bx42mm bike, to an upright 700Cx35mm commuter, my 2 cents are:

      1. Yes it is about the bike(+tire combination), inasmuch as the rides can be very different experiences when done on different bikes

      2. At the same time, it is hard to say which is "better." Just go with what you like, or ride the same roads 10 different ways, why not.

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  24. Great report! It's in our nature to want to be comfortable and coddled, but you celebrate the joy of pushing yourself through rain and mud. My weekend ride featured neither of those, but it did include a very strong cold headwind. Thanks for the motivation to get out and ride.

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  25. I've always wanted to do one of the Populaire but didn't know a thing about this type of riding. Thanks for taking the time/pictures; it almost seems accessible and possible. Good for you for finishing up despite the cutoff time. Some time it just feels better to go your own pace!

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    1. I think it's worth pointing out that, at least as far as most populaires go, "this type of riding" isn't really any particular "type" at all. It's really just like any other organized road ride, except that you have to check in a couple of times and there's a time limit if you want credit. But plenty of organized rides expect you to be back by a certain time, if only so that you won't miss the picnic or so they know when it's time to go out looking for you. Just because lots of us in our region have discovered a fetish for dirt en masse doesn't mean that it's necessarily representative of populaires in general. ;) Dirt roads notwithstanding, it's similar in length to plenty of weekend group rides and not really any different, even if it may often attract lots of people who happen to be accustomed to and equipped for longer. Ultimately, it's just a ride. :)

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