400K Ride Report

This is my first season of brevets; everything is a new experience. In
the middle of the 200k, riding up the false flats of Route 112 into
Vermont as the rain started to fall, it seemed I had been riding
forever, and would have to ride forever. How quaint that seems now,
five weeks later! Three weeks ago, the 300k felt really hard. During
much of the ride, I was promising myself I wouldn't start the 400k. But
the very next day, I was checking out the route online, and by Monday
morning I had registered. How quickly we minimize memories of struggle
and pain!

And so yesterday morning, I was up at 2:15 AM, and rode the
eight-tenths of a mile to the start. People and bikes are starting to
look familiar, although the crowds are now smaller. I think we had 48
or so riders for both the 200 and the 300; there were 31 starters today
(note to RUSA headquarters: everyone was bristling with lights and
reflectors!). I was pleased to see the Blayleys (and their tandem) were
there; I'd enjoyed chatting with them during the beginning of the 300.
At 3AM we started, cruising out Route 20, into the warm night. Soon
enough the aerobically gifted were up the road, never to be seen again;
the array of red lights spread across the road was quite a sight. I
fell in behind the tandem, and chatted a bit; for the most part no one
else was with us. John and Pamela were having a slow start (their 2:15
wakeup call came at 1:15AM!), and I found myself alone on the climb.
During the 300, I felt I missed out on the night riding experience,
since it got light so quickly. But this was the real thing. No wind,
not cold, not warm, just the sound of my tires and chain and breathing,
and the occasional scurry of animals in the woods. I felt like I was in
a bubble of quiet and peace, and didn't want daylight to come and spoil
the mood.

By the time I reached the top of the climb, it was starting to get
light. I dropped down to the first control, in a town park, and had
half a peanut-butter sandwich. Several riders were there, and
momentarily the Blayleys arrived. After some chatting and snacking, I
headed out into the early morning. By now it was starting to get a bit
foggy. This was classic rural New England, with farms and fields and
hills. A distant microwave tower appeared out of the mist. More
downhill than up, I felt like I was making good progress. At some point
I was joined by Chuck and Gary, and we cruised through Dalton and
Pittsfield together. Luckily it was still too early for shopping--there
was no traffic around the malls! We passed the starting point of the
Greylock Century, which was my first 100 mile ride last year (in
August!). Then up and over a ridge to Route 7, which must be the picnic
area capital of Massachusetts, as they were seemingly dozens along this
stretch of road. Then came the next big climb, I thought, over Brodie
Mountain Road to Jiminy Peak ski area. I started up, and after only a
mile I was at the top. Cool! A nice smooth downhill led to Route 43,
and an easy cruise past the NY state line to Stephentown.

"Detour ahead". Hmmm. The cue sheet didn't say anything about a detour.
What to do? I started out along the detour, had second thoughts, and
thought I'd try the closed road. The cue sheet is always right, isn't
it? "Road closed, 1/2 mile" said the sign. Bridge construction.
Luckily, a bike had no trouble crossing the bridge--I didn't even have
to dismount!

All of the sudden the road rises up, somewhat steeply. Ugh. A roller.
Down the other side, to Stephentown Center, not to be confused with
Stephentown ("The only Stephentown in the world") or West Stephentown.
And then another roller, but it got really steep, and didn't stop. Into
the granny for the first time today. A hell of a hill! Scream down the
other side. Repeat for nine miles--that was a hard stretch! Doesn't
look like that will be fun going back, either!

Then I pass a series of small lakes; looking more like resort country.
And then the second control, after about 73 miles. Our RBA, Don
Podolski, is there with his Australian Shepard "Sprocket". I make
another PB&J, eat some more, and turn into a summer biker. It's only
9AM, but it's going to be a scorcher. I put on sunscreen, take off my
knee warmers, and will ride in shorts for only the fourth time this
year. Again there's a bit of regrouping at the control. The Blayleys
arrive, feeling much better, having found coffee in Pittsfield. Soon
enough I head out in the company of the Blayleys.

Now it's time to learn to ride with a tandem! I was spit out the back
instantly on the first descent, but the Blayleys kindly waited for me.
Need to stay realllllly close to that back wheel! I began to dread the
descents, because they required such concentration and effort (my puny
gears didn't help either). But I got better; on the second downhill I
stayed with the tandem, and got the thumbs up from Pamela & John! The
uphills were relaxing; I seemed to climb at the same speed as the
tandem, and we could ride side-by-side and chat about Brattleboro (my
home, and one of their preferred destinations).

The day keeps getting warmer, the navigation is challenging;
occasionally it's a struggle to stay with the tandem, and I sometimes
think I should drop back, but I was having fun, both in the riding and
the conversation (and we were going much, much faster than I could go
by myself in that terrain). So I think, maybe if I can hang for 20
miles then I'll drop back. Just a few more miles. Well, no use quitting
now; just get a little closer to Saratoga Springs . . .

We cross the Hudson, and ride up the left bank, with heavy traffic and
occasional industrial scenery. What a relief to turn off that road!
Lots more rollers, quite warm by now, Saratoga Lake is huge; hammering
along the lakeshore road I'm hanging on by the skin of my teeth. We
start to see lots of folks out for regular bike rides (not to mention
the returning randonneurs; several people rode the first 200k in
7:04!). So weird to think they're out for a few hours, and home is
nearby. We finally get to Saratoga Springs! We pass the racetrack, and
start looking for "Circular" street. Then we're downtown, John & Pamela
manage a beautiful track stand at a traffic light, and we're finally at
the turnaround. The first 200k took 9:40, faster than my 200k time even
with relatively long stops at the controls.

It's nearly 1PM, and getting seriously hot. Bright sun. I'm probably a
bit overextended, struggle to eat a sandwich at the control. It feels
good to sit in the shade, drinking a soda. I wander into the bike shop
that's hosting the control, to use the restaurant. I'm not sure I've
ever seen such an elegant bike shop! I'm more used to piles of parts in
every corner, not polished wood floors and minimalist displays!

The Blayleys and I start heading back at 1:20PM., joined by Bogie (his
bike was covered with electronics; I wouldn't be surprised if he was
actually using a Uranium Q36 Explosive Space Modulator with his
dynohub!). Painfully hot. I'm hanging on for dear life along the
lakeshore; I tell John and Pamela not to wait if I drop back. They
offer to drop it down a notch, we decide to play it by ear. I do ok
along the lakeshore for a while; it's feeling hotter and hotter though;
I'd mixed my Gatorade way too strong; the sun beats down. And then the
turning point: my rear tire turns to mush.

I had one flat last year, and one the year before. Last Sunday, on my
last long ride before the 400, I had the first flat of this year. Huge
piece of brown glass. A surprise, but no big deal.

But now I've already ridden 140 miles. Bogie lets the Blayleys know
I've flatted, they turn around and come to help. We try to find shade
behing a telephone poll, and I try to smile at the homeowner who's yard
we've commandeered . . . can't find anything in the tire, change the
tube, get going again, feeling wasted. Why does fixing a flat feel like
it uses up more energy than a five-mile climb?

I'm so grateful for the help, and promise to buy cold drinks for the
whole crew. We're really suffering in the heat now, and the first
chance we get we stop at a Stewart's along the Hudson, and sit in the
little booth with our cold drinks, dreaming of air-conditioned
bicycles. Off again into the brutal heat, after telling a curious
motorist what we were doing. He couldn't believe the answer, and
neither could I.

Ten miles later. Damn! Another flat. At least I'm learning from
experience, and decide to get a flat tire in a shady spot! John finds a
suspicious object in the tire; we apply two boots (courtesy of St. John
and St. Pamela), and are off again. I have a decided "hop" to the wheel
because of the boots. And my head is filled with despair. The heat,
and fatigue, and 150 miles, and two flats--I'm ready to quit. This is
too much. It's more and more of a struggle to stay with the Blayleys.
On one hill I just don't react quickly enough at the start, and never
catch the draft. Mulling it all over, I talk to John and Pamela, and
tell them I need to drop back, and think my own thoughts, and struggle
through on my own. I thank them profusely for their kindness, and their
help with the flats, and the enjoyable conversation. I owe them dinner
in Brattleboro sometime! They take off, I take a break, and try to eat
something, and figure out what to do.

Back on my bike, exhausted. It's probably 35 miles to the next control,
it's 86 degrees in the shade, and I've had it. I crawl along, up and
down the hills, trying to figure out how to drop out. But there are no
options. The finish (and my car) is 100 miles away. I have a suspect
tire, and no more tubes. Another flat, and I would have to patch a
tube. I don't want to think about that.

I struggle along, thinking dark thoughts, defeated. Stopping at the
next convenience store, I'm surprised to find randonneurs in the
parking lot! Chuck and Phil and Bill are trying to cool off, and share
their jug of water and bag of ice with me. I feel slightly better
knowing I'm not alone; that everyone is suffering in the heat. They
ride off; I drink and get organized. No choice but to get on the bike.

I feel slightly better, but am still plotting how to quit. I doubt my
ability to even make it to the control, 25 miles away. I know I won't
finish the ride. Now it's 20 miles to the control, going so slowly . .
. an eternity passes . . . now 10 miles. And then the stretch of road
I've feared since this morning, Route 43 from Sand Lake to Stephentown,
with a profile like a stegosaurus. Nine miles to the control. The start
of the first hill. I start up, and immediately feel like I'm riding in
quicksand, it's so hard to turn the pedals. I look at my back wheel; it
looks dangerously low. I panic. Adrenaline shoots through me, but I'm
afraid even to stop and check. I'm not riding on the rim or anything; I
struggle up the hill in my lowest gear, dreading the moment the tire's
completely gone. But the bike sortof goes, and I don't want to stop,
and I roll over the top, and the bike more or less goes downhill (not
too fast; still lumpy and sluggish) and then up the next hill, back in
the granny. 9 miles to go. 8.5 miles. 8 miles. It feels like it would
be faster to walk. Can I go even 8 miles in an hour on this terrain? I
ride; I have no choice. Up another hill. All steep; all feel like 12%
grades, using the 24 x 30 gear, although I have no idea how it would
feel in normal circumstances. 7 miles. 6 miles. The tire seems the
same. I calculate how long it would take to walk to the control, where
I have a drop bag with a new tire and two tubes! 5 miles. Still riding.
4 miles. Some big downhills; easy to hit a lumpy 35mph. 2 miles. Almost
there. I'm going to make it! Across the closed bridge, wait forever at
the stoplight, where's the control? There it is; too tired to ride
around so I cut across the grass. Chuck and Phil and Bill are there; I
can't find a place to lean my bike. None of the food looks appetizing.
I replace my tire; what a relief! And my drop bag also has lots of
Ensure Plus--a godsend; I've been completely unable to drink the fancy
Perpetuem, and I can't even imagine solid food. Wow; four bottles! It
takes 35 minutes to do everything; I still want to quit but can't
figure out how to stop there. Way too far for my girlfriend to drive
out. Maybe I can ride the next 15 miles and get a hotel room in
Pittsfield. Then Sarah can pick me up tomorrow, or I can ride back to
Westfield on Sunday. But I want to rest on Sunday, not ride a bike!!

Anyway, I leave the control, and I actually don't feel too bad. I'm
amazed that I'm even functioning. Only sixty miles to go! It's 8:05. If
I average 10mph, I'll get to Westfield at 2AM. After a mile, I'm back
in Massachusetts, which is a psychological boost. I thought the climb
past Jiminy Peak would be really steep from this side, but it's fine.
Cruise up to the turnoff, past the ski area, still OK although It's
getting dark. Switch on the headlight. Keep climbing, not long now.
Less than a mile to the top, still in the middle ring. Drop down to the
granny for the last 200 meters, and I'm on top. I take a break to put
on some layers (oh, how good it feels to be cool again!) and have a
snack. Down the hill to Route 7. Down Route 7 in the dark. Worried
about traffic in Pittsfield. Along this stretch this becomes the
longest bike ride of my life. and then there's a strange glow behind
me, and I see my own shadow, ten times life size, ahead of me. Must be
a seriously weird headlight; it's another bike! Turns out it's Phil,
with his Nightrider light mounted to his helmet. Phil has been having a
hard time too; if there had been a sag wagon at the last control, we
both would have dropped out. But continuing seems much more possible
with company. We decide to continue.

Going through Pittsfield at night was the scariest part of the ride.
Heavy traffic on multi-lane roads, past malls, with right-hand turn
lanes everywhere (and a two-lane left turn lane we had to use). At the
end of the worst of it, we stopped at a store to refuel, and then into
the night, up Route 8. Amazingly, it felt like we were moving well,
considering. The climbs were never steep, and the traffic was much
lighter (although a car almost ran into us; how distracted must a
driver be to not two notice two slow-moving UFOs?)

I learned that I've never really ridden at night before. It seemed so
much darker than the start at 3 AM. The lasting image of the ride for
me will be my shadow, huge, against the trees on the side of the road,
like David Byrne's big suit in "Stop Making Sense". We're counting the
miles to the top of the climb, as many people claim the ride is over at
225 miles, because the last 25 miles are downhill. I don't believe it,
as I've done the descent before, but the top of the climb is a worthy
goal. We keep plugging away. A cat scurries across the road. I look up
at the stars. A bug flies into my shoulder. I feel faint a few times,
but it passes. I start to feel sleepy. We keep riding into the night.

Closer to the top. We see flashing lights ahead--it's a cyclist on the
side of the road! It's Bogie, who was trying to take a nap on the side
of the road and wait for us. He's seriously sleep-deprived from earlier
in the week. He joins our slow procession. One of us pulls ahead, and
then another, as our own strength ebbs and flows, but we stay generally
together. So much easier, knowing someone else is out there, in the
dark, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Up and
down, mostly up, but never bad. and then the base of the final climb.
close to midnight, and only 25 miles to go. I have my first thoughts
that we might make it. We make a last stop on the steps of the Beckett
community center. Put on warmer clothes for the descent, drink some
more, Phil changes his battery. A cop car pulls up, wondering what the
hell is going on, but his questions are easily answered. Or maybe we
just look too tired to do anything bad!

We turn towards Westfield on Route 20, and start the descent. Never
terribly steep, which is good because the pavement is sometimes
"interesting." I reset my computer at the top, to count down the last
22.6 miles on the cue sheet. It seems to flatten out all too soon, and
we face some rollers. Not much traffic; we ride way out in the lane to
avoid the worst of the broken pavement. The miles crawl by. We shout
"car back". Phil pulls ahead, the strong veteran of a 1200k. One last
stop to pee. too hot now, after the frigid descent. More rollers, but
downhills to compensate. A loud noise and bright lights--a freight
train! We're glad the tracks don't cross the road. We wouldn't want to
wait! The miles pass, too slowly. Counting down in our heads, comparing
notes on mileage. We've been running on fumes for a hundred miles, it
doesn't matter how tired we are. I stand on all the climbs, it hurts to
sit. We pass the Westfield town line. A few miles to go. We're all
togther, rolling in the last few miles. I wouldn't have made it without
Phil's help, he feels the same way. Two miles, one mile, a police car
by the side of the road--what must he think? And then we pull into the
shop. I can't believe we made it! Chuck signs our cards; he's filling
in for Don who is out looking for the last riders on the course. It's
1:30 in the morning. We started twenty-two and a half hours ago. I
can't believe we made it.

Phil and Chuck and I chat, and I look over the result sheet. Someone
finished at 5:40 PM. 14:40. Amazing! And Sandy didn't even do this ride
today! I drink a soda, can't think of eating. I sign my brevet card. I
don't take off my helmet; I have to ride back to the hotel. I check my
computer: 257 miles.

I can't belive we made it!

Dave Cramer
Brattleboro, VT