Sunday, May 17, 2009

New Jersey 400k Volunteer Ride - Smokin' in the Pine Barrens

With the hilly New Jersey 200k and the hillier 300k now behind me I continue my quest for the Super Randonneur Series. The upside here is the two remaining and longest rides are basically flat routes that utilize the southern parts of the state. These rides are considerably more recumbent friendly than the prior two.

I had agreed to help my friend Paul who is organizing the NJ 400k by volunteering on the day of the ride. Therefore I am eligible to participate in the volunteer ride, which is simply the identical ride undertaken the weekend prior to the calendar date by those who will be helping out with the ride. Only three of us take the start at the Days Inn in Hightstown. In addition to myself; Paul and Jon are on the ride, who coincidentally are my usual riding buddies. At 4am we depart the hotel parking lot heading south to Batso, in the heart of the Pine Barrens. We negotiate the small downtown area of Hightstown and head south on CR 539. It is foggy and misty with the humidity level quite high. We all need to stow our glasses as they fog up so badly they are useless. Daylight comes about slowly with the overcast skies, by the time we reach Pemberton, near Fort Dix, we are out of darkness, but under cloudy skies. We stop at the Wawa to refill water bottles. Back on the road we head south going through Chatsworth. We pass by Cranberry bogs which is a major crop in the area. The first official control stop is a campground in Batso, this volunteer manned stop will have no one there today. We will have to fend for ourselves for food and liquids, which could prove challenging in the Pine Barrens. We stop in to the campground, located on the edge of the Wharton State Forest, to look around. The approach is soft sand which causes me to immediately fall over. My machine is wobbly at low speed, add an unstable surface and it is downright unmanageable. I walk the bike the rest of the way in, and upon leaving walk back out to the road . We follow the route for another seven miles to the point where we cross US 30 in Ellwood. There is a deli on the corner where we top up fluids again for the 50 mile stretch to Salem.

The sun has now managed to burn it's way through the misty day warming the humid air. Although the Pine Barrens are behind us the area is still sparsely populated. The majority of people live in the northern half of New Jersey leaving the southern portion of the state mostly to farm lands. We pass by miles of blueberry farms with rows and rows of bushes which soon will be bearing ripe fruit. The roads are pleasant with light traffic. We maintain a moderate but steady pace enjoying the day and the scenery. We are faced with an increasing wind from the south which is quite strong when we pass by some of the more open farmlands. Most often on this stretch the wind is hitting us from the side, unpleasant but not daunting. The approach to Salem is an interesting one as Paul described it you go from the country to a quarter mile section of suburbs and then enter the city which consists of about three blocks. Our stop at the Bravo Pizza is a welcome one. The pizza there is actually quite good. After wolfing down a slice Jon and I decide to split another slice. It wound up being just the right amount combined with the bottle of Powerade I consumed with it. Paul gives the owner the heads up that about twenty very hungry cyclists will be appearing there in one week. Since the place was almost empty while we were there I think the business will be appreciated.

We head back out and are quickly back to the farmlands. The winds are bothersome but we are still managing, My spirits are high having just eaten and knowing that we are at the half way mark. Our next stop is the deserted camp ground at Batso again. Our challenge is to find a substitute place to get calories and fluids. We will not be passing by the Ellwood Deli on our way back, so we are hoping something else is around. The day has warmed considerably feeling quite summer like with the high humidity level. Thunderstorms were predicted for late afternoon, given the conditions it seems highly probably that could prove accurate. After a little more than forty miles we reach US 30 again. This time we are at a different point and at first look there is nothing around. We pick a direction (left) and venture in a bit to see what we can find. Within a half mile we find an outdoor farm market that has flowers, fruit and a soda machine. The soda machine has bottled water, of which we buy several, and the only ripe fruit appears to be the apples which we also buy several of. For good measure I eat a Clif Bar along with my apple and down a bottle of water. After the brief break we head for the camp ground which is about seven miles away. We reach the place and stop in, just to make it official. Back on the road headed for the Pine Barrens we come across a deli/liquor store that is open. We stop to get a receipt for proof of passage since there are no volunteers available to sign brevet cards. Paul handles the transaction, while Jon and I are waiting outside. I eat a half a peanut butter sandwich that I've carried in my pack all day and shoot in a Hammer Gel. We had only gone about ten miles since the apple and energy bar, but I still felt hungry. Once underway I feel ready for our second Pine Barens crossing en route to the next stop in Vincentown.

Our direction of travel was such that we were now enjoying a light tail wind. After a couple of miles I started to feel quite energetic. I took the front and picked up the pace a bit with my two companions latching on behind. I'm holding the pace at about 18-19mph but it is feeling way too easy. I juice it up over 20 and still feel there is more left. Paul and Jon are right with me. I go for all of it seeing my computer hit the 23-25mph mark. I entered a zone where I felt I could ride this way forever. I continued the pull for a number of miles, I'm not sure how many, or for how long it went on. I was internal, feeling nothing other than my steady breathing, enjoying the power that somehow found its way to my legs. At some point a request came from behind to please back down a bit. A sensible request as the pace I was setting was somewhat inappropriate with about eighty miles of the route still left to cover. I back down to a more reasonable 18mph which feels quite easy. Soon we are back in the Pine Barrens conversing and enjoying the remaining miles to the control. We predict we can make it in just as night is falling. The last ten miles to Vincentown were difficult for me. Perhaps I should not have pushed so hard earlier, it felt good then, but quite bad now. I've never been happier to lay eyes on a convenience market than I was seeing that Wawa just the other side of US 206. I'm feeling wrecked, as well as hungry and sleepy. I get myself a veggie sub, coleslaw and a bag of baked chips. Perhaps most important is the coffee to go with it. I normally don't use caffeine, only resorting to it on long bike rides. Generally the effect is quite dramatic given I have not built up a tolerance. We all sit outside eating and chatting. It is fully dark now and the air has a slight chill in it with the breeze, but by no means cold. I eat most of my food and consume all of the coffee after which I begin preparing for the final stretch back to Hightstown in the darkness. I change to a long sleeve jersey and full reflective gear. The three of us are ready to depart at the same time. We continue our northern direction with about 40 miles left to cover.

I'm feeling better after the nice break at the Wawa. The coffee has helped my alertness and I have a reasonable amount of energy to pedal the bike. This section of the route has been modified a bit. This is the first test ride of the newly selected roads. We come across some cue sheet discrepancies that take some time to resolve. The most critical being a highway crossing that didn't allow us to travel in the direction specified on the cue sheet. We needed to find a work around. Paul was able to do this with his GPS but it all took some time. One other point of confusion had the three of us split up. Jon and I mistakenly took the wrong choice at a fork in the road while Paul was behind, out of sight, making notes on the cue sheet. We were soft pedaling waiting for him to catch up. When he never came went back to the fork and found him waiting there for us. More time was lost on that minor misadventure. The rest of the new section goes very smoothly. We see lighting off in the distance, but hear no thunder and encounter no rain. Soon we are in Allentown and make the turn onto CR 539 for the final stretch to Hightstown. Other than a couple of overpasses and minor grades this is basically a flat run to the finish. I'm feeling better and pick up the pace a bit Jon and Paul stay right with me. We maintain a nice steady 18 to 20mph for the eight mile stretch into downtown Hightstown. Since no one will be at the finish at the Days Inn we stop at an ATM machine for a time stamped receipt documenting our passage. Receipt in hand the turn on Rt 33 is made, once past the Turnpike entrance the hotel is in sight. We pull in at 12:48 for an overall time of 20:48. The last time I rode this route was in 2006 on a wet day and posted an 18:38. I was riding an upright bike and rode with a group of four, my present companions were in the group. Checking each cue for accuracy adds to the time and trying to document our passage outside of regular controls took time as well. Most importantly we finished well within the legal limit. I enjoyed the ride and the companionship as much as the ride in 2006. In fact, this ride was considerably drier than that one. We were very lucky with the weather. It was raining and cold by the time I pulled the van into my driveway at home.

In retrospect this is a great 400. The lack of hills takes nothing away from this ride as it is likely one will push themselves on the flats. Groups of four, five, or more riders pacelining through the Pine Barrens are a common sight. Although there are very few bumps on the ride that can be called hills, there are plenty of inclines that depending on your riding style will take a toll. I tend to not gear down for inclines I just push harder in the gear I'm in. I felt more beat up from this ride than I did from the very hilly 300k. Hopefully, that is good preparation for the upcoming 600k.

Stay tuned.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Princeton 300k Volunteer Ride - Bent up Frustation

On Saturday at 4am I and two other volunteers, Paul Shapiro and Jon Levitt, left Princeton Forrestal Village to undertake the Princeton 300k route. Known as the volunteer ride, or pre-ride, the purpose is two-fold. Firstly, a final check of the entire route and cue sheet. Secondly, the riders, who will be volunteering on the day of the scheduled event, receive official RUSA/ACP credit for the ride.

Rain was predicted for much of the day, but up until the starting time none had fallen. Similar to the start of the P-200 the first drops of rain started falling just as we were prepared to leave. Rain jackets were quickly donned and the three of us began the first section to Whitehouse Station. After a few minutes the light rain became somewhat heavier and then finally an absolute downpour. It was difficult to see as we rode along CR 601 in Hillsborough Township. It was beginning to look as if this would be a very long and trying day. The first 30 miles to the Whitehouse control begins on flat roads heading north up Canal Road, then west through Hillsborough, South Branch and Neshanic. Some rolling terrain is encountered on Fairview and Summer Roads just after the quaint little town of Neshanic. Route 202 is crossed at Three Bridges. Somewhere along this point the rain stopped and we easily navigated the remaining roads to the control stop at the Whitehouse Mall. The Bagel Junction was ready for us with hot coffee and warm, fresh out of the oven, bagels.

The next segment is a long trek to the northwest to the town of Blairstown. We cross US 22 at Whitehouse heading towards Oldwick. We are on Rockaway Road for awhile with the river on our right. We’re headed upstream so it’s a gradual uphill to the town of Mountainville. It rains on us again for a brief time. Not as heavy as before and fortunately brief. Guinea Hollow Road delivers the first climb of the day. While not one of the four big climbs my legs do feel it. We then hit CR 512 and head west to Califon. This is a fast and smooth downhill section for which my joy is only hampered by the thought that it will be climbed much later in the day when we head back through here. The only way out of Califon is up, which brings us to Sliker Road, again not one of the big four, but memorable just the same. The other side of Sliker is Point Mountain Road which is a very twisty downhill. While the surface is essentially good there is grit in the road on many of the turns, we decide to take it conservatively and survive. State highway 57 is crossed at Mansfield Township, where we hit a short but steep uphill before turning onto gentle terrain for the remaining miles to Hackettstown.

Just a few miles past Hackettstown the first of the major climbs looms. Ryan Road is the shortest of the big climbs but the steepest. We grind over the top to then tackle the somewhat tricky descent on the other side. Once on flat ground we enjoy the view of the chicory and sod farms of Allumuchy Township. The terrain is docile for a bit. It is good to conserve energy here as there is much more climbing yet to come. We manage a steady but moderate pace through the little town of Johnsonburg on through to SR 94. We are on 94 for a very brief time as the turn for the Stillwater loop is quickly reached. This twelve mile piece is the northernmost point of the route. As is typical with northwest New Jersey it is quite hilly. The most notable climb is Sunset Lake Road, it goes on for quite awhile. The redeeming factor is the peaceful setting and nice scenery. The end of the loop drops us onto Main Street in Blairstown. Our control is just down the street on Route 94. We purchase lunch foods at Dale’s Market and head across the street to Foot Bridge Park to enjoy our food on one of the park benches. The weather is taking a noticeable turn for the better. The sun is shining and the temperature range is in the mid to high sixties. We apply sun screen and remove some layers of clothing before heading out to tackle major climb number two, Jenny Jump.

The route from the Blairstown control to Jenny Jump was just revised to detour around Ackerman Road, which is closed for re-paving. The new roads are very nice to ride with some small to medium hills and pleasant scenery. Soon we turn in to the entrance of Jenny Jump State Park and begin the long climb to the top. This two mile climb has a few steep sections that really take a toll. Fortunately, once over the top the next several miles that follow are on milder terrain. The mild part ends abruptly with a steep uphill on Westerveld Road en-route to the tiny town of Port Colden. After which more mild terrain brings us to Washington and SR 57. The next turn, off of SR 57, presents big climb number three, Penwell Road. This is a six-mile grind to the top of Schooley’s Mountain. There is a one mile steep section followed by five miles of more gradual climbing. Many veterans of the series believe this to be the toughest climb on the route. It seemed so to me on this day as the hill just wouldn’t end. There are numerous false peaks in the last mile. I kept thinking each one was the end only to be faced with another. When finally the intersection of Schooley’s Mountain Road came into view I was ready for a break. Conveniently my two riding companions were waiting for me at the General Store right after the turn. I’m riding the recumbent and am climbing quite slow. Paul and Jon were nice enough to wait after all the climbs. They had Gatorade and food all ready for me when I arrived. I sat on the covered porch and enjoyed the respite. With 24 miles remaining before the next control, and another big climb, the stop was much needed. The next ten miles to the town of Califon are moderate. We enjoy a nice fast descent on Naughright Road. The descent is smooth, fast and curvy but somewhat hampered by an abrupt turn to be made onto Fairview Ave. Soon we make the turn onto CR 513 for the remaining five miles to Califon. This is a pleasant section of road with a light tail wind it can be heavenly. Once in the small town of Califon we join CR 512 and begin the final big climb of the day. This late in the ride the climb feels quite tough. It’s steep enough, or I’m tired enough, that I use my granny gear to make my way up. My friends are again waiting patiently at the top. I’m kind of longing for my upright bike at this point, but I vowed to see the season through on this machine. It's just frustrating to know I would be climbing much faster on any of my other bikes. The remaining miles to the control are not especially difficult. Some rolling hills are encountered but nothing tough to climb. We make our way without incident to the control at Hacklebarney State Park. On the calendar date of the ride there will be much activity here with volunteers to greet the riders and food at the ready. But, today there is no one, so we simply pull in to the park eat an energy bar and move on. I have a sense of relief now that all the major climbing is behind us.

Some rolling hills remain between the park and the town of Pottersville. Again, nothing tough to climb, but with over 140 miles in the legs any hill is noticed. Once into Pottersville the terrain really becomes gentle. We are headed down river on Black River Road and it is easy going. We make good time through this stretch and arrive at the crossing of US 22 and Whitehouse Station for the final 30 miles to the finish. The roads used at this point to deliver riders to Princeton Forrestal Village are the same as the outbound miles. The one change is the return control is at Three Bridges. We pass by the Whitehouse Mall, where we stopped many hours ago for breakfast. We are still enjoying daylight. The sun, although low in the sky, has stayed predominant for most of the day. Once through Whitehouse Station we hit some rolling terrain on the quiet roads that lead to US 202 and the control at the Wawa Market. One of my companions would state that no bike ride is complete without a Wawa stop. The final control would meet the requirement nicely. We make quick work of the food and beverages. We then don our night riding gear for the impending darkness. It is still light when we depart for the remaining 22 miles, but nightfall will make an appearance soon. We complete Summer Road and Fairview Road and quietly pass through the little village of Neshanic. It seemed like so long ago we rode through here in the pre-dawn darkness. There was enough light left for us to appreciate this peaceful little spot. Soon after crossing the Elm Street Bridge darkness finally overtakes us. We become UFO’s again with our lighting systems and reflective gear confusing motor vehicle drivers. With the smell of the barn my energy reserves kicked in and we were able to maintain a nice brisk pace for the final easy miles to the finish. We pulled into the lot at Forrestal Village with a total time of 17hr 48min. My riding partners would have finished quite a bit sooner, but they had chosen to wait for me as I slogged up the many hills on the route. I much enjoyed and appreciated the companionship. Certainly it would have been a much harder day undertaken alone. I was pleased with my result as it was proportionately faster than my 200k time three weeks earlier. I was never under the pressure of the clock as I always had more than an hour in hand. I spent much time the prior two weeks training in the hills. Although I'm still climbing slow there appears to be some improvement. Also, I'm less beat up after tough rides. There is hope for me yet.

Stay tuned!