Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Shiftless Vagabonds - NYC to Westfiled, MA Fleche

The Fleche is one of the most unique rides in all of cycling.  Participants are counted as number of bicycles and not riders.  Therefore, the number of persons on a team can range based on the carrying capacity of the maximum number of  bicycles (5).  No specific route or checkpoints are provided by the organizer.  Only a finishing location and a range of starting dates/times are pre-determined.   The route design, the starting location, and exact start time is the responsibility of the team.  The distance is to be a minimum of 360 kilometers.  The control points are also determined by the team including the all important 22-hour control which is to be no less than 25 kilometers from the finish.  The team must depart this control 22-hours into the ride and arrive together at the finish.  No more than two hours can be spent at any rest stop.  At least three team members must finish for credit.  Only those who finish receive credit, and no team member can finish earlier, or later, than the rest of the team.  The Fleche is considered a 24-hour event.  Each team must present a team name at the time of their entry.

I would have the pleasure and privileged of being on a team with four veteran randonneurs.  After much debate we settled on the team name of Shiftless Vagabonds, depicting our commitment to ride fixed-gear bikes.  We wanted to honor the original Fleche concept of a point-to-point ride.  We selected New York City's Penn Station as our start. Team Captain, Mordecai Silver, designed a route which avoided much of the severely hilly terrain through upstate New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.  Our designated start time was 9am on Saturday for a Sunday morning finish in Westfield.
The D&R Canal at Blackwell Mills Crossing on the way to the New Brunswick train station
My team mates where, Roy, Jon, and Mordecai (team captain).  We used our bikes and public transit whenever possible.  I would share a ride on the train with Roy to meet the two New York City resident team mates at Penn Station.

We started the ride on 7th Avenue in Manhatten utilizing the Greenway bike path along the river.  We would spend many miles on bike paths making our way to the north.  Our first 100 kilometers were almost entirely on paved trails to the town of Carmel, NY.   We continued our northerly trek utilizing both roads and trails through Millerton, NY and into Connecticut.  A rolling section on Route 44 would deliver us to New Canaan, Ct. 117 miles into the ride.  From there mostly gentle terrain would take us to North Adams, MA, near the Vermont Border.  We arrived around midnight and spent time at a 24 hour McDonalds   After a lengthy break we would undertake the hilly portion of the ride, including a 3-mile climb with gradient about 9%.  As cool temperatures set in we plodded on to the 22-hour control in Northampton, MA.  The rules required a 7am departure.  We would spend over an hour and a half there awaiting our opportunity to move on to the finish.  We did so promptly at 7am.  The final section was mild., as the day rapidly warmed up.  We arrived at 8:15 in Westfield for the finish.  Another team arrived shortly thereafter having ridden south from Vermont.  One of the riders Bill Russell is a regular on New Jersey brevets.

Roy, Jon and Mordecai on the North County Trailway
Roy catching a nap at Bruegers Bagels in Northampton, MA
 Roy and I would ride 10 miles to Springfiled, MA to catch a Peter Pan bus to NYC.  Incredibly Jon and Mordecai rode 65 miles to New Haven, CT to catch a train.  It was pleasing that despite finishing a ride far from home no one relied on a private vehicle for transportation.  We may be Shiftless Vagabonds, but we know how to go green. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Princeton 300k Pre-Ride - The Fixie Challenge

 The fun part of agreeing to undertake this ride was that I wasn't confident I could do it.  I've competed this route no less than four prior times, and, segments of it dozens of times.  This time, I would be attempting it on the fixed-gear.  Not my longest fixed ride, but, in my mind it would be the toughest.  To my amazement three of my four riding companions also agreed to ride fixed.  As the scheduled date approached, and my nervousness increased, the fact that others would be riding with a single cog kept me committed.

I'm not my best at three am.  With all my gear ready, the Jamis Sputnik in the van from the night before, I drive to Princeton Forestall Village, arriving fifteen minutes in advance of the four am start.  The four other riders are there already making final preparations.  I'm riding with Todd, Paul, Roy and Jon.  All but Todd will be on fixed-gear bikes.

The Start
The Village of Kingston at 4:10am
 Exactly at the designated time of four am we take out from the quaint shopping village in the early morning darkness.  The first thirty miles are fairly gentle, a nice smooth warm-up before the difficult miles ahead.  The weather is reasonably pleasant with an air temperature in the low fifties and moderate winds.  The humidity is high causing a misty fog.  We spin quietly on roads that are totally void of traffic at the early hour.  At times chatting with each other, but mostly just taking in the pre-dawn stillness.  An overcast sunrise begins just prior to our arrival at Whitehouse Station.  The designated control is the Bagel Junction in the Whitehouse Mall.  We take the opportunity to partake in a nice breakfast of freshly baked bagels.  While enjoying the respite we discuss the severity of the terrain on the next section.  The four of us riding fixed are figuring there are hills we will be forced to walk.  For at least some portion.   We all agree that Ryan Road in Petersburg will likely be the first to take us out.  Although, there are significant hills to climb before we get there.

Whitehouse Station
Todd (L) and Roy (R) at Bagel Junction, Whitehouse Station
 Reluctantly leaving the comfortable environment of the bagel store we cross US-22 headed towards Oldwick.  We work our way to Rockaway Road, which is a slightly uphill run along the river to the tiny town of Mountainville.   The first lump of the day appears on Guinea Hollow Road which brings us up to Route 512 near Califon.  While not a particularly difficult climb it is followed by a long fast high-cadence descent into the small town.  With little chance to rest the legs we take on two quick kickers which lead to Route 513.  A quick turn-off is made on Sliker Road. This begins a long challenging climb along the side of Point Mountain.  We all manage to stay upright for the entire climb.  A fast twisty descent to the Muscenetcong River follows on Point Mountain Road.  We cross US-31 near Washington climbing again up to Rockport Road where we enjoy a pleasant rolling stretch into Hackettstown.  Each mile brings us closer to the first real steep climb at Ryan Road.

Ryan Road
Roy and Paul walking Ryan Road
 Traversing the western half of the town of Hackettstown on US-46 we climb up to Liberty Township.  We turn-off on Petersburg Road and are quickly met with more steep kickers.  A long gradual descent leads us to the turn onto Ryan Road one-half mile before the climb.  Todd has fallen back.  We all wait for him at the bottom of the climb, delaying the painful experience just a bit longer.  When he arrives we immediately start up the hill.  The road pitches up sharply very early on.  It is all I can do to turn over the pedals until finally I feel stuck.  I don't have the strength to move the pedal to the bottom of the stroke.  Clip out, or fall are my choices.  With little desire to break a hip I take option one (clip out).   With feet firmly on the ground I look around to see my fellow fixie riders walking their bikes up the steepest section of the hill.  Score one for the mountain.  No one with a single cog stayed on for the entire climb up Ryan.  Todd successfully climbed the hill with gears.  Once at the top a fast descent delivers us to Allamuchy.  We pass by sod and chickory farms on gentle terrain.  Interstate 80 is just off to our right.  The traffic there seems out of place in this farm community.   I'm happy when we enter the small town of Johnsonburg and can no longer see or hear the interstate.  We pass through the sleepy town headed for State Highway 94.

 Stillwater Loop
Despite running the biggest gear of the group Jon climbed strong all day
 Once Route 94 is reached signs pointing the direction to Blairstown lead one to believe the control is near.  Unfortunately, a cruel joke is played at this point.  The cue sheet quickly directs riders to the north for a little venture known as the Stillwater Loop.  This is twelve miles of challenging terrain in one of the northern most regions of the state.  A substantial climb on Sunset Lake Road comes at a time which makes it hard to enjoy.  None the less it is climbed successfully by our entire group.  There is a payback for the effort which is in the form of breathtaking scenery.  Millbrook Road has a view which seems to go on forever.  The remaining miles to Blairstown pass uneventfully.  We are soon enjoying a hearty lunch at the Gourmet Gallery in the small downtown area. 

Jenny Jump
Pain and suffering ahead
The departure from Blairstown comes with the knowledge that one of the most notorious climbs on the course is looming in the distance.  Seven miles of somewhat hilly terrain bring us to State Park Road, and the start of a long steep trek up the Jenny Jump mountain.  Roy and I are climbing together.  Jon is a bit ahead.  Both Paul and Todd are a bit behind.  Roy announces the percentage of grade as reported from his Garmin.  We are climbing fine until we exceed 16% of grade.  We are once again relegated to walking.  We watch in awe as Jon continues the climb, without walking.  We only walk a short way until the grade lessens.  We resume riding to the top of the climb.  What follows is a screaming descent down to Route 611.  After which we enjoy mostly moderate terrain to the information control at the Anderson Hotel in Washington.
A grimace on his face as Paul tops Westervelt Road in Washington

Penwell Road
Roy and Jon re-grouping at hill top
From the turn off Route 57 in Washington to the top of Schooley's Mountain involves six miles of climbing on Penwell Road.  The initial section, near the YMCA camp, is quite steep for about one mile.  After which the remainder of the climb is considerably more moderate.  All of the day I was thinking that the steeper section of Penwell would be too much for the fixed-gears.  To my surprise we all made it without dismounting.  When the gradient eased I felt strong and pushed a bit on the remaining miles to the top.  I rather enjoyed the climb and a nice break at the General Store conveniently located at the apex of the mountain. 

 Hacklebarney State Park

After a bit of rest at the store we descend off the mountain into the town of Long Valley.  From there it is a short distance to Califon, where there is an information control followed by the final big climb of the day.   The slow, steady grind up Route 512 actually buoys my spirits as I know that this is the last of the extended climbs.  All riders make the climb upright.  We continue on to Fairmount, near Chester and the control at Hacklebarney.  Once on State Park Road we hit a few smaller hills, but nothing compared to what we've been through.  Basically, the severe terrain is behind us.  Upon arrival at the control we are greeted by Todd's friend Leslie, who has graciously volunteered to provide food and drink for our small group of pre-riders.  We relax and enjoy warm slices of Pizza.  After a nice break we reluctantly resume the ride.  We have a couple of hours of daylight left and forty-five miles to the end.  We plan to make an optional stop at Three Bridges to switch to night riding mode.

Push to the Finish

A few steep kickers hit us on the way out of the park.  After which we manage with a long, bumpy downhill into Pottersville.  This is followed by a run along Black River Road.  We are headed downriver, moderately losing elevation all the way to the crossing of US 22 at Whitehouse.  We pass by the shopping center where we enjoyed bagels many hours ago.  The final thirty-miles from this point follows the identical route as the outbound.  Everything is familiar as we work our way to US 202 at Three Bridges stopping at the Wawa Market.  We keep our stop brief departing with lights and reflective gear functioning.  We still have some daylight left although the sun is quickly sinking.  Like horses to the barn we are covering ground quickly and efficiently.  We reach the tiny town of Neshanic Station as daylight yields to darkness.  I've ridden this section so many times I've no need for a cue-sheet.  Methodically, we work our way through South Branch, Montgomery Township, Franklin and Kingston.  The final one and a half miles on Academy Street feels like a sprint.  Although, night riding has the perception of feeling faster than the reality.  None the less we are soon enough at the finish in the Forrestal Village Parking lot.  We took 17 hours and 22 minutes to cover the hilly route.  All said and done it's a successful day on a fix.


My friend, and fellow Randonneur, Nigel Green posted a writing by Jane Flanders entitled the Hard Way.  http://eprider.blogspot.com/2012/05/friday-writings-for-randos-hard-way.html

I found the short piece thought provoking and relevant.   Why would anyone do anything in a manner that would make the task more difficult?  According to Jane Flanders this is done frequently in error, but just as often by intent.  The point being; sometimes it's the difficulty factor that makes something fun to accomplish.

I confess that my fixed-gear season is somewhat of a fluke.  I never originally set out to do this.  It all began when I took a trip west and brought along the fixie as my only bike.  I wound up spending months away from home in a very hilly region with nothing else to ride but a 46x18.  I made the best of it.  And, of a warm winter, by racking up many miles, and RUSA kilometers, on the single cog.  When I finally returned to the east I had little desire to ride anything but the fixed.  I expect at some point that will change, but for now my intention is to take it as far as a can.  Hopefully, accomplishing a full series on fixed, and, possibly a repeat K-Hound award.   With every one of the 10,000 kilometers ridden.......the hard way.        




Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Natchez Trace 400k - Nashville, TN to Cherokee, AL

 After a long stay in Arkansas I finally begin my trip home to New Jersey.  Convenient to my plans is a stop over in Nashville.  By amazing coincidence (not really) I find myself in the Music City the very weekend of the Nashville 400k.  Of special interest to me was the fact that the ride would be held entirely on the Natchez Trace Parkway.  Which, coincidentally, happens to be my favorite cycling roadway of all time.  The ride would begin at the northern terminus of the parkway, in the suburbs of Nashville, and continue for 200 kilometers to Cherokee, Alabama, then return.  I would be using my Jamis Sputnik fixed-gear, the only bike I've ridden so far in 2012.  I've ridden on the famous roadway several times.  The most recent was a 288 kilometer permanent done on the fixed-gear back in February.  I was reasonably confident I would be successful at the 400k distance, although it would be my longest fixie ride ever. 
The highest bridge in Tennessee is on the Natchez Trace Parkway
The 6am start is cool and damp.  The rain which fell most of the night before was evident with wet roadways.  Some twenty riders depart from the YMCA parking lot just a short distance from the entrance to the NT.  Once on the parkway the large group begins to break up into smaller groups.  Some light rain falls during the first ten miles or so, then things begin to dry out.  The temperature is comfortable in the low fifties.    I find myself in the vicinity of Alan, from Memphis and Jeff, the Nashville RBA.  The rhythm of the fixed-gear is different than that of geared bikes so we don't spend a lot of time tightly together.   Mostly, we pass by each other over the rolling terrain.  Which at the northern end is constant.  The geared bikes have the advantage on the downhills and flat sections.  When the uphills present themselves I make up the deficit and pass by.  This process repeats itself numerous times.  Eventually on a series of uphills Alan falls back and never reappears.  Jeff sails by me on a long downgrade and stays out in front until the control.  In the meantime, I catch up to Anthony,  a local rider, who does distance cycling as training for mountaineering.  I listen with great interest as he recounts some of his experiences with mountain climbing around the world.  We ride the remaining miles to the Collinwood control together (mile 90).  There is a good number of riders already there.  I opt for a quick stop.  I leave before any of the others.  I try to get Anthony to leave with me, but he's not quite ready.  I'm sure with the wind being favorable, for the remaining miles to the south, he'll be able to catch me.  I head back to the parkway alone.

I keep my pace steady without working too hard.  There are a few mild grades, but mostly the terrain is flat.  The day is very overcast,  not warm by any means, but for now it is not unpleasant.  Anthony catches me before the Alabama border.  The turnaround point, Cherokee, AL,  is thirty-five miles from the last control.   We're making good time.  It appears we will make the control before nine hours.  As we near the exit we see the first rider on his way back.  Soon thereafter two more riders together pass the other way.  The control is only one-half mile off the NT.  We see another rider depart as we arrive.  We keep our time at the stop short and head out just as a group of four riders is coming in.  Jeff is among the group.  Our departure is right at the nine hour mark.  If all goes dashingly well we hope for a finish by mid-night (18 hours).
Anthony phones home from Cherokee, AL
Back on the parkway we soon see Alan on his way south riding alone.  The wind is now unfavorable, making us cold.  We churn through it as best we can.  Anthony is riding strong taking the lead for a number of miles.  It's all I can do to hang on.  Eventually, that becomes too difficult and he starts to gap me.  I ease up a little to allow the gap to grow letting him  ride his own pace.  I know better than to push myself when there is almost 200k left and it's into the wind all the way.  Settling in to a comfortable rhythm I work my way to the north.  I marvel at how much colder it feels going in this direction.   I begin to look forward to the Collinwood control again.  I want a hot beverage, coffee or hot chocolate.  With ten miles to go before getting there I pass the rider we saw leaving the control.  In another few miles I pass a second rider who pulled off to don a jacket.  I want to put on more layers, but will wait until the stop to do everything at once.  A gradual upgrade for several miles precedes the exit for Collinwood.   The control is less than a mile off the parkway.  The flags on the NT Parkway welcome center are blowing stiffly to the south as I pass by.  I'm happy to be out of it for a few minutes.

Sitting at a table in the store with a cup of coffee I pull out a jacket and reflective vest from my backpack to prepare for the cold.  Darkness will arrive in a couple of hours at which point I expect it to get pretty chilly.  One of the riders I past by earlier arrives saying he is freezing.  A support crew who is waiting for their riders offers him some extra clothing which he gratefully accepts.  Not wanting to waste any more daylight I head back out to the NT.  As soon as I make the turn to the north I feel the cold headwind.  I'm happy to be wearing the additional layers.  There is an optional volunteer manned stop in fifty-three miles at the Gordon House, one of the NT rest stops.  Using the markers on the right side of the roadway I begin counting off the miles.  Daylight slowly begins to give way.  The prediction is for a low temperature below forty.   I'm hoping that it wont be quite that cold by the time I finish.  I cover about half the distance to the Gordon House stop before it is fully dark.  The NT is one of the darkest places I've ever ridden.  There is no artificial light, with the exception of the rest stops.  Occasionally, I hear animals moving about off to the side of the road, but it is too dark to see them.  Thankfully, my lighting system clearly shows me the roadway.  The rolling hills help keep monotony at bay.  There is nothing steep to climb so mostly I'm enjoying the ride.  There is almost no traffic at all.  It is a feeling of total isolation which I have come to appreciate.  An acquired taste of sorts.

I notice a sign for the Gordon House announcing it is two miles further.  As I get closer I see the dim lights of the rest area off in the distance.  There is one car parked there which belongs to the volunteer.  When I arrive he prepares a cup of hot chocolate and offers a variety of food.   The warm beverage really hits the spot.  I munch a couple of cookies for good measure and  head back out.  There are about forty miles left to the finish on the hilliest section of the NT.

I resume the practice of counting the mile markers.  It gives me something to focus on.  Keeping my mind engaged helps me ward off the sleepiness which begins to set in about now.  The rest stop was at mile 408, the end of the NT comes at mile 442, thirty-four of the carved wooden markers remain to be counted.  After about ten miles of rolling terrain a car eases up alongside me.  The passenger rolls down the window and asks if I am okay.  I recognize the car as the support vehicle for one of the riders.  I assure them that I am fine.   I give the situation no further thought as I am way too busy counting mile markers.  At mile 427 my headlight goes dim indicating the rechargeable battery is low.  I pull off at the next bridge to replace it with a fresh one.  The darkness is so total on the NT the task could not have been completed without my helmet lamp.  I'm quickly rolling and my quest of the wooden posts continues.  The largest hills are on the last ten miles.  I feel good surging up them and a little chilled on the way down.  Overall, the effort feels good and the miles quickly pass by.   The post marked 442 is reached with mixed feelings.  The end of the ride is near, but I have no more markers to seek out.  Shortly after the NT comes to an abrupt end at a "T" intersection with McCrory Lane.  The finish of the ride is at a different location than the start.  This requires a final climb to the top of the ridge.  It may be the steepest of the day, although not all that bad.  A private home belonging to one of the volunteers serves as the finish control.  I miss the turn for it and almost descend the other side of the ridge.  Fortunately, before doing this I check my cell phone GPS to learn I had passed by it a half a mile earlier.  I turn around, find my way to the finish, and am greeted by Bill.  A heated and furnished barn, which is more like a bike shop with a variety of machines hanging from the rafters, makes for a fine spot to warm up.  Food and beverages are available.  The support crew is there waiting on their riders.  They comment on my lighting saying I was very visible on the road.  Soon after the two they were supporting arrive.  I learn they are from North Carolina.  We all chat for a bit.  It dawns on me that my car is about two miles away at the YMCA.  Given it is after 2am I decide to call it a day.  It's a cold ride back down the hill.  My starting location at the YMCA is a welcome sight after a long day.

The ride was finished in a time of 20 hours and 8 minutes.  I was genuinely pleased to have completed my first fixed-gear 400k, even if it took a bit more time than I had hoped.    


This was my third official RUSA ride on the Natchez Trace, and my fourth time riding on it.   There is and indescribable draw that the famous roadway has on some riders.  I feel like I need to ride the entire distance.  Every inch from Nashville, TN  to Nathcez, MS.  I am hoping an planning to do this in September.  There is a series of permanent routes that offer RUSA credit for every kilometer ridden.  That would be over 700 of them in one direction.  With the option to double that by reversing the permanents to return to Nashville.  The exact date and ride format is yet to be determined.  Contact me if interested in joining.