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.

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