Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Blue Mountain 400k - The best of Pennsylvania

A second 400k was needed to stay on course towards my double SR.  The nearby choices being the flat New Jersey 400k, or, the polar opposite of that, the very hilly Blue Mountain 400k.  The latter being offered by the PA Randonneurs.  I'm a big fan of our New Jersey series, but for this season hills are a desired component to prepare for Paris.  The PA ride would be sure to serve up the climbs like home fries at a Denny's breakfast buffet.  It was good news that my friend Paul was agreeable to go.  I would have company for the long day of climbing.  The weather forecast predicted a dry day.  All totalled it seemed like the right play to make.

On Friday, the day before, I decided to ride the fifty miles to the start in Quakertown.  Overnight accommodations were available at the Weisel Youth Hostel which is the start and finish location.  The entire facility would be occupied by riders for the day preceding, and the night of the finish.  Paul would drive up later in the evening.  I could catch a ride home with him if I was too tired to ride back on Sunday, which would be highly likely.

After a somewhat restless nights sleep in the dorm I'm up at just after 4am.  Appropriately dressed for the 48 degree start I head down to the Great Room for breakfast.  There are lots of familiar faces from regulars on our New Jersey Series.  I have an opportunity to chat with a few riders while consuming a bowl of oatmeal.  About ten minutes prior to the 5am start RBA, Tom Rosenbauer, ushers us outside for the pre-ride announcements.  Immediately following we are directed to depart.  The pack of 36 riders slowly makes its way to the main road heading towards Lake Nockamixon.

Quakertown to Wind Gap - 45 miles

After riding alongside the lake for little more than a mile we turn northwest towards the Delaware River.  We gradually lose elevation for the first twenty miles.  We had agreed on a ride strategy which has us undertaking the first leg very conservatively.  We are near the back of the pack enjoying the company of a number of riders known to us.  In the darkness I recognize Nigel, a fellow blogger,  on his Surly Long Haul Trucker.  Nigel has yet to complete a 400k.  He's hoping to make this his first.  I admire him for not cherry picking an easier one.  The miles tick off easily as daylight brings everything into focus.  We cross the Delaware River at Riegelsville riding through Alpha and Phillipsburg on the New Jersey side.  After which the river is crossed again into the town of Easton, Pa.  We negotiate the quiet streets of the town heading for the climb to Wind Gap.  Still riding with Nigel off and on, also with Laurent and Christine we begin the climb out of Easton.  I notice a visibly low tire on the rear of Paul's bike.  We stop half way up to add some air.  I take the opportunity to remove my jacket as the day is quickly getting warmer.  We continue to gain altitude until we reach the control, gaining about 700 feet from the river.  At the convenience store I re-stock my water supply, have an energy bar, then depart with Paul.  Most of the other riders are on the road already.

Wind Gap to New Ringgold - 38 Miles

We re-join some of the riders as we continue to climb to achieve the top of Wind Gap.  Crossing the Appalachian Trail in the process.  Once we peak we then gradually descend losing all the elevation we've gained.  Not to worry, we will gain it all back, plus a couple of hundred feet before the next control.  We ride for some time with the ride's signature Blue Mountain Ridge off to our left.  It is an imposing site as the ridge is 150 miles long.  There is a ski resort, closed for the off season, that still has a couple of patches of snow left behind.  After the resort we turn toward the mountain undertaking a series of climbs before reaching the next control.  None of the climbing so far is particularly unpleasant, but it is repetitive which takes a toll after awhile.  A restaurant called Blondies is our control.  I take the opportunity to consume a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich before heading back out with Paul.

Paul in the PA countryside
New Ringold to Lickdale - 53 Miles
The profile for this leg of the ride is by far the most difficult.  It is also the longest segment.  Shortly after departing the control we are joined by Joe F, a rider we are familiar with.  Soon after we begin the steepest, longest climbs of the day.  The succession of hills is fairly relentless.  At times we would descend the ridge only to make a turn that would bring us back up on another road.  The word among Rando riders for this is gratuitous climbing.  While it is a grind we are not complaining.  It's exactly what we signed up for and speaking for myself I would be disappointed with anything less.  We pass through the town of Orwigsburg enjoying a brief flat road section.  Shortly after we begin a steep climb up Hickory Lane.  Upon achieving the top we are on Summer Hill Road.  I have a feeling of familiarity with this road.  I'm fairly certain I've been here before on a prior ride.  The road runs along the top of the ridge offering panoramic vistas on both sides.  It finally dawns on me that this was a segment on a late season 200k, which I rode last year.  We are in Schuylkill County, one of the most beautiful parts of the state.  After another ten miles of up and down we decide to take an unscheduled break at a Turkey Hill convenience store we happened upon.  Other riders are thinking alike as there are numerous bikes leaned against the store front.
Christine, Paul and Ed as the day warms up

Paul and Joe F.

Yours truly taking in the scenery
After loading up on fluids and calories we head back out to enjoy some more hills.  We are presented with a few more climbs of the short steep variety after which things get more gradual as we head through Swarta Gap.  This being a fairly gentle pass through the mountain ridge.  Once through the gap we ride on a mildly rolling section of Route 72 for a bit more than three miles to the official control at Jonestown.  The Hess Mini Mart used here is actually a nice large store with a full deli and indoor table seating.  A relaxing break is taken as we are joined by Christine, Laurent and Yip Ling.  Before departing I remove all cool weather gear as the day has reached the peak temperature in the low seventies.  I ride out with shorts and short sleeve jersey.
Bill and Ed heading to Swarta Gap
Paul and Joe headed through the Gap

Jonestown to Brownstown - 40 Miles

The terrain is moderate leaving the control.  The hills that soon present themselves are more of the rolling variety which feel quite good to me at this point.  Paul, Joe and I are riding together and making good time on this segment.  We are in Amish country where families traveling the roads in a horse drawn vehicle are quite common.  Also, we see many younger folks using bicycles for transport.  The population at large would do well to adopt some of the lifestyle habits of these people.  The rolling hills keep coming and we continue our aggresive style.  At some point Paul appears to be losing some of his snap and starts falling behind a bit.  On one of the larger rollers I look back for him, but he is out of sight.  I'm telling Joe we better wait up when we hear a rather urgent horn blast.  Concerned it could be an accident we u-turn to go back down the hill.  Halfway down Paul is sitting on the grass at the side of the road with a passerby with him.  We learn that he rather suddenly ran out of energy climbing the hill.  He intentionally laid the bike down on the grassy area.  The car horn was that of the fellow looking after him.  He was attempting to get our attention so we wouldn't ride away.  It was alarming at first.  Then, as more was explained to us the situation was not that bad.  Paul recovered within ten minutes.  We were on our way with him riding strong again.  Thinking about it, he must have suddenly bonked.  After some pocket food and a gel the condition was corrected. In a very short time it was as if it never happened. 

Two zero emission vehicles
The sun is rapidly working it's way to the horizon, and with it the air begins to chill.  Before long we find ourselves stopping by the side of a barn to put on our night gear, and, add some warm layers. Back underway the remaining miles to the control are uneventful.  We arrive together at the Turkey Hill convenience store in darkness.  The control is manned by volunteer Guy Harris who verifies our brevet cards.  There are about a half dozen other riders here.  We spend some time chatting before moving on.   

Brownstone to Limerick - 45 miles

Upon leaving the control I notice how clear the night sky is.  While on one hand it's good to know there will not likely be any rain falling.  However, on the other hand clear nights get colder.  Without cloud cover whatever stored heat the earth has is quickly evaporated.  The forecast called for an overnight low in the upper 40's.  My guess is it will be somewhat colder than that before we cover the remaining 75 miles to the finish.  The terrain in front of us features some elevation changes, but nothing larger than 350 feet in a single climb.  My legs still have a lot of life in them, so my only concern is surviving the cold.  I have one underlayer in reserve and a lightweight balaclava.  I'm holding on to them for the last segment which is bound to be the coldest.  Christine joins us on this stretch.  I'm a beleiver that riding through the night is best done with a group.  Four riders staying together we will be more visible and safer.  And, truth be told, company is appreciated on dark lonely stretches.  With the cold settling in the climbing on this leg is welcomed.  I'm able to generate some internal heat by standing and pushing up hills.  However, to the contrary, any downhill section is absolutely loathed as the wind chill cuts through me.  Not surprisingly, I find myself getting very sleepy at times.  Many people believe that cold air keeps one awake, but the truth is actually quite the opposite.  I'm looking forward to the Super Wawa control, which is at 220 miles into the ride.  I'm planning on having some real coffee (not the decaf I usually drink)  and some piping hot mac and cheese.  I'm officially cold to the core when I see the store's bright lights ahead.  There are about five riders there when we arrive.  After consuming the above mentioned food, beverage, and putting on the remaining two clothing items, our small group departs together into the cold night.

Limerick to Quakertown - 35 miles

The last segment features some climbing, but nothing killer.  There are two single climbs above 300 feet of gain and a lot of less consequntial up and downs.  Feeling a little more awake with the caffene and hot food in me.  I start out in good spirits.  I've never DNF'd on a final segment, which bodes well for my chances of a completion here.  After about ten miles we basically depart civilization.  We are the only things moving, excepting some wild animals here and there.  There are no cars, no businesses, no houses and no farms.  We are riding though the Unami Creek Valley which is some kind of protected sanctuary.  I learn it is a favorite spot for bird watching.  Which I assume is more of a day time activity.  Consequently,  the place is abandoned at this late hour.  If this were a warm summer evening I would be enjoying the experience of passing through here.  As the temperature drops to 40 degrees, I can only think of getting to the finish.  We encounter some larger hills here.  Paul suddenly takes ill on one of the climbs.  I hear him getting sick on the side of the road and turn around to check on him.  He stays on his bike laying his head on the bars for a minute or two then resumes riding.  Twenty minutes later on another hill the episode is repeated.  Joe, unaware that we have stopped, continues riding and we lose sight of him.  Once again, after only a brief time on the roadside Paul resumes riding.  Chris and I continue riding with him.  We are about ten miles from the finish.  It appeares, despite the problem he's having, he will be able to finish.  There is one final brief espisode just a few miles out where he spends less than a minute on the side of the road and resumes riding.  He is totally focused on getting to the finish, ignoring any distress he is feeling.  I feel greatly relieved when the three of us arrive at the Hostel at 4:50am for a total time of 23hrs 50min.  Paul and I had selected a target of 24hrs.


After some food, graciously provided by RBA Tom, I went upstairs to catch a couple of hours of sleep.  Paul had gone immediately to bed not wanting to eat anything.   He woke me at 8am asking if I wanted a lift home.  It took me only a second to say yes.  I could probably have managed to slog home on my bike, but it definately would not have been fun.  I was glad that Paul seemed fully recovered from his ailment last night.  Stopping off at a local diner we each enjoyed a hearty plate of pancakes while discussing the highlights of the previous day.  We were both pleased with the outcome.
It was satisfying to finish my second 400k of the season before May.  I enjoyed sharing many miles with familiar faces.  Despite the challenges of weather and terrain it was a very pleasant experience.  My thanks to Tom Rosenbauer, Andrew Mead, Guy Harris and all others involved with this great event.       


1 comment:

  1. Nice writeup Joe. With every story I read and each photo set I view, I become a little more sorry Barbara and I decided to pass on this ride. That Summer Hill Rd. you mention is a favorite of mine in the PA series. Looks like you and your merry band of randos had a good day on the road. In related news, we've decided we're not going to Saratoga Springs for the 400k next weekend - we've signed on for your Princeton 300k instead. See you at the start!