200K, Party of Two
This past Saturday was the New England Randonneurs 200K brevet out of Boston - the longest ride I have done so far. A brevet is an organised, self-supported ride, which participants complete within a time limit. The typically hilly routes must be carefully navigated, with control checkpoints along the way. 200K is an interpretive figure, which in this case translated to almost 130 miles with about 8,500 ft of elevation gain. The time limit was 13.5 hours. The week before I had done the 100K Populaire, the prelude to this brevet. This ride would be twice the distance. Having registered, I intended to finish, but beyond that I had no expectations. No matter what randonneurs would have you believe in their attempts to lure you into their fold, brevets - even the shorter ones - are difficult. There was only one way to find out just how difficult this one would be.
Up before sunrise, I felt calm - too calm. Neither excited nor nervous, I was also not especially enthusiastic. I felt prepared. I had my bike ready and all my things organised. But at 4:45am I no longer knew why I wanted to do an organised, timed 130 mile ride, from a location I had to cycle 15 miles to at an ungodly hour. This was not how I hoped to feel setting off. The previous night I had published a quick blog post, where I mentioned I'd be doing the 200K the next day. This is something I normally try not to do, as I believe it is bad luck to make such announcements in advance. Now I removed the post, lest it was the cause of my ambivalent mood and could later jinx the ride.
To make it to the 7am start with time to spare for a coffee along the way, I set off at 5:10am. When I left home, the temperature was 45°, and I knew that it would reach a high of 65° in the course of the day. I wore long tights, a thin long sleeve baselayer with a short sleeve jersey over it, a neckwarmer, fingerless gloves, and a windbreaker. Later I would remove the windbreaker, stashing it in my jersey pocket. While I like leg and arm warmers, I sometimes have chafing issues with the extra elastics. So on rides with milage in the uncharted territory, I go with long sleeves and full length tights to be safe.
Riding to the Hanscom Air Force Base on empty roads in the morning mist was quite beautiful, and I tried not to think about the extra miles I was tacking onto the ride.
Once there, I signed in, got my brevet card and looked for familiar faces. I was glad to see NER board members Bruce and Melinda there. They have witnessed me transition from outside observer to ride participant, and there was a comforting sort of intimacy in that. And Steve - with whom I'd staffed a brevet the previous summer - was now the ride organiser. Seeing him again and remembering that event made everything fall into place. This was a game I'd played before, only this time I'd be one of the riders. I am not sure how to express this, but at no point did I worry about finishing the brevet, despite being uncertain of my ability to handle it. It was as if I'd purchased a ticket to a rollercoaster ride and was already on it. No way out, but to finish it.
Walking around the parking lot in search of sun, I spotted Pamela Blalock. Earlier, Pamela'd mentioned that she would keep me company on the brevet, but I did not really expect to ride with her beyond the first few miles of this challenging route - a route that was, in fact, based on one of her own, designed around some scenic New Hampshire climbs.
At 7am, we took off in one long, drawn-out cluster. The faster riders were asked to go first, but only some of them obliged. As a result, the first few miles were defined by an ongoing jostle for position. I expected to lose Pamela in the chaos, but we emerged out of the shuffle unseparated, picking up a couple of other riders along the way. For some time, we rode 2x2 at a brisk pace, with me behind a very strong rider from our cycling club, whose pedal strokes were so even, so predictable and so quick, they were like a work of art. Of course, it was not to last, and eventually he took off, along with our other companion. I told Pamela to go on ahead with them and leave me to ride at my own pace. In response she informed me that I was "stuck" with her, as she intended to ride with me the entire time. I hadn't realised until then that she was serious about that. At that moment I would have preferred to ride alone, as my mood was not very sociable. Almost 20 miles into the ride now, I still wasn't "feeling" it; I was just going through the motions. "110 more miles of this," I thought. This was a factual thought, not charged with any particular emotion.
We rode straight North. The route would take us across the MA/NH state line, then up some more to the first control at mile 53. We chatted idly, until the topic of laundering bike shorts came up, at which point I remembered something and slapped myself on the forehead. "I need to stop after this hill to make a phone call," I said, "I left my shorts in the oven." With Pamela laughing, I explained that I will sometimes warm up my bike shorts in the oven (with the heat turned off) before a ride, and that this time I ended up not wearing those shorts, forgetting to remove them. They'd be fine in there all day, I'd placed them far from the pilot light. But just in case, I would call my husband and ask him to take them out. That I did, with Pamela giggling at our conversation.
Soon after that, we crossed into New Hampshire. Keeping up a brisk tempo, we cycled through a village fair where farm vegetables were sold and baby goats were on display in a large pen. A chorus of "Meh! Beh!" echoed behind us as we continued.
By the time we began the first respectable climb at mile 40, it was a different ride from the one we started. There were no other cyclists around, it was just us two in the middle of nowhere. Everything seemed funny. This 5 mile climb would be a warm-up for the more serious climbs that awaited, Pamela explained, as we pedaled at a much-reduced speed up an endlessly winding road. Sure, sure, I said. It seemed not to matter much.
We made it to the first control in good time; some riders from the faster groups were still hanging out. I refilled my water bottles, replenished my banana supply, and bought a couple of hot dogs in the country store across the street (I don't do well with PB&J sandwiches, cookies, and other typical control foods during strenuous rides).
Everyone around was amused that I'd gotten "bunless" hot dogs - two of them, laid out on a little paper plate and covered in relish. This is perfectly normal outside of the US, so I don't see what the big deal is. But I accepted my freak-show status and dutifully posed for pictures with my bunless dogs. Meanwhile, Pamela ate a chocolate muffin, washing it down with one of those bottled frappuccino things. Others ate chips, cookies and nutella sandwiches. Tempting as some of these things were, I know enough by now to not touch junk food during bike rides; it does not work for me. Hot dogs and bananas: Yes. Cookies and chips: No. Milk: Yes. Soda: No.
Pedaling away from the first control, I felt great. We had not stayed long, but the time off the bike allowed me to do some nice stretches to help with the uncomfortable, tight feeling I get above my tailbone after long climbs. The stretches involve a sequence of twists and backward bends, after which I am good as new and ready for more climbing. Timely, as the next leg of the route was a loop through the middle of New Hampshire, with one long climb after another. After another.
I do not want to downplay the hills on this route, they were difficult and like nothing I'd done before. But this tough middle section was my favourite part of the brevet. The day was beautiful, sunny with dry heat, and we rode through pine forests strewn with wildflowers. The pines and flowers released scents that mingled with the heat in a way that, to me, was simply intoxicating. I felt my lungs open up wide to get the most out of this, and I felt my body wake up and orient itself toward the sunshine flickering through the tree branches.
We started out with a gradual 7 mile climb, followed by a shockingly steep 2 mile climb, followed by a steady 10 mile climb with some steep stretches. These were punctuated by steep, winding descents - which I was better at handling this time than on previous rides, feeling more in control around bends and relaxed the whole way down.
In the midst of this was a secret-question control at a farm, then an unmanned control at a country store. We stopped at the first to get the requisite information, then lingered at the second to refill our water bottles and eat more food. Me: a frozen BBQ patty heated up in the store's microwave and a bottle of strawberry milk. Pamela: ho-hos, cookies and another frappucino. I felt sick just looking at her food, and I'm sure she felt the same about mine! We moved on quickly after finishing our meals.
The next stretch of the ride was tougher for me than the previous. There were still some good climbs, and even though they were tamer than the ones we'd just completed, my legs and body were now feeling the cumulative effects of going uphill for so long. We pulled over a few times along this section, which was an effective way of maximising my energy. I also enjoyed the descents here, taking as much advantage of them as I could.
Although this part of the ride was taxing, there were never any "dark moments" as some riders call them. We were making good time, we rode at a brisk pace, and I knew that as long as we pulled over every so often, my body could handle the rest of the ride without much drama. We even took a couple of short scenic detours, to incorporate parts of Pamela's original route that the official brevet omitted.
We were now past mile 90 of the brevet, my cyclo-computer reading 105 starting from home. Seeing that number and knowing there were still 40 miles left to go, I could feel my mind making room for a new "I can do X distance" figure. There would be one more control coming up before we crossed back into Massachusetts, after which it would mostly be rollers till the finish.
At the final control we did not need much food or water, and moved on fairly quickly. After that, it was all a blur. I was proper tired by the final leg, but the terrain had flattened out and the finish felt in sight. 35 miles to go. 20 miles to go. It began to seem like nothing. We sprinted for town lines, reminisced about past rides, discussed future ones.
At some point Pamela got a message from her husband, who was taking part in the Rapha Gentlemen's Race at the same time as we were doing the NER brevet. The Ride Studio Cafe team had finished 3rd. In previous years, Pamela had done this race herself and I was reminded again of the discrepancy in our abilities, feeling guilty that she was riding with me - when she could have easily been in the lead group. But Pamela is not one to indulge that line of thought. Had she wanted to be in the lead group, she'd be in the lead group. But today she wanted to "enjoy a gals' day out in the country." Saying this, she winked slyly, making a fishing reel gesture with her hands. Of course it dawned on me where this was heading: The next time she'd invite me on a little ride, I'd be expected to handle 200K as a matter of course. I laughed at the realisation, imagining some surprise dirt roads and maybe an extra hill or two thrown in next time for good measure. My heart swelled with love for Pamela; the woman is adorable.
At 10 miles to go, the adrenaline kicked in, masking the pains I was starting to feel. "Let's get this over with," I thought, and Pamela, as if reading my mind, said the same thing out loud.
With the cool evening wind against our faces, we rolled up to the finish screaming at the top of our lungs, at 6:59pm - having ridden the brevet in 11:59 hours. Some other riders were there, lingering about, and more were still expected. We had some nice conversations at the finish, after which I was not too proud to accept a lift home from Pamela in her motorised vehicle (a rare and welcome occasion!). I had ridden over 145 miles that day.
For those interested in logistics: My overall average speed for the brevet (clock keeps going during all stops, etc.) was 10.83mph. Rolling average was 13.2mph.
Consumed in the course of the ride: 2 bananas, 2 hot dogs with relish, 1 BBQ patty, 1 bottle strawberry milk, 1 cup chocolate milk, 2 slices watermelon, 2 packets Shot Blocks, 7 bottles of water containing Skratch Labs electrolyte powder.
Difficulties during ride: strain above tailbone during prolonged climbing (relieved by occasional stretching), gearing not low enough for a couple of climbs, slow to warm up at start of the ride.
Notably absent: headache, nausea, numbness, cramping, low energy, thirst, lightheadedness.
Damage post-ride: two small saddle sores (healed a day later), some swelling in wrists and fingers (gone several hours later, possibly water retention), mild sunburn, moderate thigh muscle soreness.
I do not plan to do longer brevets. But I am glad I managed the 200K, and hope that over time this distance will become easier.
As always, I thank everyone involved - directly and indirectly - for making this event happen, and for contributing to my ability to do it. As for 12 hours of riding with Pamela... That was an experience in comradery I will not forget. Though I could have managed this brevet on my own, it would have been a very different kind of ride, very different. As I was falling asleep that night, an endearing image of Pamela making the reeling-in gesture popped up in my mind's eye. Oh those charming randonneurs. Watch out for them.