I don’t remember exactly when or how I heard about it but I do know that at some point during my tenure at the bike shop I heard about this randonneuring thing and thought it sounded like something I might like: noncompetitive but hard. Obviously when you work at a shop (or at least at the kind of shop I worked at), you don’t actually have much time to ride your bike outside of commuting to and from work, so it took moving on to a different kind of job before I could really consider it. Then there was the pandemic, pushing my entry into the sport out further. So then I did my first brevet — a fancy French word for "bike ride" — last summer, a 200k (~124 mile) traipse from Providence, RI to Duxbury, MA, and back and had a pretty good time (both in the sense of time it took to do the ride (not super fast, really, but respectably quick) and time in terms of enjoyment). So this summer, I thought why not try to do the whole series?
A "whole series," or a series consisting of 200, 300, 400, and 600k rides, is normally done in preparation for an event like PBP, which though is next year I probably won’t actually try to go to (and not only because it’s a 1200k ride). Mostly I just thought it would be a fun cycling goal for the summer, and a good way to see if I might ever maybe someday want to do something like PBP, and if that ends up being the case, would then allow me to start stuffing the piggy bank now.
So anyway, the first ride was this Concord 200k. Here was the route, although RideWithGPS says it’s only 7,585ft of climbing whereas my GPS unit on the bike said it was more like 9,354ft. In any case —
What follows is a rewrite of some notes I took the day after the ride. Not exactly timely, as the 300k was on Saturday, but sometimes it takes the time it takes and I’d like to have the set of all of them if I’m going to write up any of them. So here we go.
The ride yesterday was really, really fun. Challenging but not horrific. I took no pictures except one really bad one at the final control in which nobody was looking at the camera so I’m not going to include it in a write up. It took about an hour longer than I’d planned for but that’s OK, as it was worth it to have my friend Adam along. This route had a lot of climbing. Even more than anticipated. And some of it was pretty pleasingly steep. And I had totally missed the whole "this is a challenging route" clause in the route description on the New England Randonneur page.
In my defense, that was the first clause of the first sentence.
Adam generously met at our house and then Alia generously drove us out to the start in West Concord, which at ~15mi from my front door was just a little farther than I wanted to ride-to-the-ride to. I’d gotten up early enough to make and drink a couple cups of coffee and I brought some of the blueberry muffins Alia had made earlier in the week to eat on the drive. An excellent breakfast, even if Alia didn’t think the recipe was the best she’d ever found. But the joys of recipe testing are another discussion entirely —
We were all in good spirits though I admit that when we got to the Dunkin Donuts parking lot and started unloading I was feeling a little anxious and underprepared. I think it’s because it has been so long since I’d driven to a ride rather than ridden to it, and so my usual routine was a little off-balance. For example, I was pretty sure my helmet was on my head, that my extra clothes and food were in the bar bag and that the saddle bag I’d put on was secure, but — it was fine. I wasn’t nervous about the ride itself, but rather if I had everything I might need or want (and I did, and it really was fine).
The temp outside was in the low 40s and would be getting up to around 60, which is very much April shoulder-weather but also my least favorite weather to dress for, at least based on the options I have handy. For example, I was wearing these tapered sort of “athletic” sweatpants over bib shorts, a base layer, a long sleeve, a wind-layer vest, and a earflap hat along with my “second warmest” gloves when I started. But the anticipated temperature change meant that I also brought my “you don’t necessarily need them but they’re nice”-weight gloves, a cycling cap without earflaps, an extra wind layer in case the vest wasn’t enough, and I had to make sure that there would be room in the bag in case I wanted to take off either my long sleeve layer or my pants. (And I ended up cinching the pants up to 3/4 length and taking the long sleeve off in the end.) I tend to run “cold,” but I also have little patience for being too warm although I’ll take that over freezing on the long descents… which is where all things zippered come in.
A thing I like about randonneuring — and I do like a lot of things about it, but one in particular I like — is how many different ways there are to do it. You can go all roadie and use a brevet as a fast training ride on your carbon blip-boop shifting bike, or you can get all retro-grouchy with bar end shifters and canti breaks, or you can be somewhere in the middle, you can be on a recumbent, a “gravel bike,” a fixed-gear… it’s always a good start line to geek out just a little on if you like bikes. I will note that what kind of bike one rode on didn’t seem to have any effect at all upon finishing, or upon time, and I think it’s further evidence that it’s the engine that matters. Anyway, my bike lives somewhere in the middle of retro-grouchy (downtube friction shifters, a dynamo, traditional-looking handlebar bag and so on) and “gravel bike” (disc brakes, deliciously overbuilt steel frame, wide tires, semi-flared drop bars, etc.,) and it is really the best bike for this and any other kind of ride, so I guess we can just stop talking about other bikes now.
So the start time rolls around and we set off in a healthy group of about forty riders and proceeded to sort ourselves accordingly. It had been a while since Adam and I went on a longer ride together so I wasn’t sure of the pace, but he seemed OK with how we started and I frankly felt excellent, and I would feel, leg-wise, very good all day. We were in a middle-fast group and chomped up the first miles pleasantly.
As per the route notes, “much of the climbing [occurs] in the first 51 miles to Wachusette then Oakham.” I’d missed the part about the “significant hills in the latter part of the ride as well,” but anyway, the hills started and things were pretty OK for a while.
The first sort of notable thing was stopping in the middle of a climb to help get another rider’s chain on. This rider seemed to have a few mechanical issues over the course of the day (apparently because the RD hadn’t been reindexed after being on a direct-drive trainer for a while), but I can’t help myself, so we stopped, I threaded the chain back through the jockey wheels, back onto the crankset, and did the ‘ol “shift through all the gears and discover the limit screws are screwed up” trick. All of the cable routing on this bike was internal, the derailleur cable was “wicked frayed,” and I wasn’t about to try and reindex it with the suspicious-looking barrel adjuster (because we were on time and I also was pretty sure it was a limit-screw issue), but it was shifting through most of the cassette anyway and so we got them on the road and then ourselves after a little snack (Adam’s good snacks were in his saddle bag, not his bar bag, meaning we had the opportunity for a few extra breaks here and there to eat more leisurely).
So we went on, climbing and climbing. I’m not sure if this was true or not, but it felt like all of the controls were at the tops of hills. As the various groups formed and reformed I talked to a couple of folks about this and that, their bikes and my bike (I got a nice, “I didn’t realize what kind of shifting you had until we were climbing that hill — that’s like the opposite of Di2!” at one point thanks to my dear downtube shifters,), and every time this or that bike shop came up I tried to tell people to go check out my friend Jim’s shop, in part because they’re really good mechanics there and in part because if I’m going to be over there hanging out all the time and bothering them I may as well also try to send them some business.
We climbed the hill to the first real stop and took a little sneaky dirt path from the road to the vending machine upon which was written the answer to the information control.
The first control was lovely and nice and Tsun (the ride leader) was there with snacks, which was unexpected (to me, anyway). Bathroom, refill water bottles, eat snacks, stash a snack or two into the bag for consumption later, etc., then off we went again. More climbing. I have very little recollection of what we talked about during the various legs but I think between the first and second controls was when Adam told me about the “diarrhea” song, e.g.:
Something something rhyme, something else then rhyme diarrhea! diarrhea!
It was a nice way to start the second leg. I had the usual-lately songs stuck in my head ride, e.g., “God Only Knows,” “The Weight,” and pick-your-Beatles song, but also, curiously, “Streetlights” by Bonnie Raitt. I’ve been playing just a little mandolin, and apparently Adam’s played for years, so we also had a good sing on Sam Bush’s version of “Eight More Miles to Louisville” every time we were eight miles to some checkpoint or other (as you would expect).
Onto the second control, where we had a pretty good long rest (maybe longer than usually take, but part of the joy of riding with a group is that you can’t just pound yourself into the ground like I am most usually wont to), ate more snacks, I had a can of seltzer, packed more snacks for the next leg (as I had eaten through maybe 70% of the snacks I’d brought by that point, though not the end of baguette which I was waiting to eat once I no longer wanted to wear gloves), then set off again after using the bathroom at the deeply cute Oakham library.
This third leg, though advertised as “a break in general for the next 33 miles,” still felt like it took for-goddamn-ever. I think this was the point in the ride when I started thinking about the end of the ride, and it was too soon to start thinking about the end of the ride. The thing was that I was worried a) about coordinating with my mother in-law, who generously offered to pick us up after the ride and we were on pace to finish about an hour later than I’d originally told her; b) my general time, as I was trying to use this ride to help gauge my expected timings for the rest of the rides I plan to do this summer; and C) it seemed like Adam was starting to hurt a little and that’s never good when your buddy’s hurting a little. We were well over 50 miles in, and that’s a tough point, especially as it was cold enough for the knees to begin to be bothered. He took some “Vitamin I” (i.e., ibuprofen), we focused on eating, and carried on riding and bullshitting. There was a bit of yo-yoing at this point, since I, feeling still great in the legs and being maybe just a little bit of an asshole, would fly up the climbs (“fly” being relative, of course) and wait at the top for Adam, who in his infinite good humor would say “See you at the top!” when we approached the beginning of an incline. I think/hope he wasn’t too annoyed with me about it. Nevertheless, we stayed together making jokes on the flats and made it through to the final control at “Purgatory,” which we agreed was very cool and wanted to go back to sometime when we weren’t how-ever-many-miles into a ride.
A good — though shorter — break at this final control for more snacks, water refills, etc. I talked to a volunteer named Rosie for a while about bikes and PBP and brevets and things and that was nice, and Tsun was running around making sure everyone had everything (and making lots of jokes as he seems wont to — the whole long-distance cycling thing appears to involve lots of comedy).
I should say here that the ride was super well-run and I was frankly surprised at how much support and food there was at the controls. Really, really nice and (to me) unexpected after so many pandemic miles where, if you forgot to bring something, you were pretty much SOL.
As a (hopefully relevant) aside, I should say that I didn’t really start doing much intentional distance riding until the pandemic. Sure, I’d done a couple 100k D2R2s, and when we lived in Wisconsin I’d do ~15-20mi fat bike “adventure” rides and 40mi “coffee” road rides, but these were always with a group, and the road rides in a pretty solid paceline that I could hide in. We then moved to Boston so I could go to grad school, and I was too busy to do much riding outside commuting, and then just when I finished grad school and had time to ride again, it was a pandemic, and so you couldn’t just stop anywhere to fill up a water bottle (at least for those first few uncertain months). All of which is to say that I have something of a “scarcity-mindset” when I’m on longer rides, and so the snacks were very appreciated. This is maybe the worst-written aside I’ve ever written but you get the point.
Anyway, I got in contact with my mother in-law and made a new plan with plenty of wiggle-room for the pickup and felt better about that, that we would ride the ride at a pace that felt good both spiritually and physically (we still had plenty of time to go before we were in any danger of missing the actual cut-off), and so we carried on towards the final 40mi leg.
We weren’t going too bad until we got to this motherfucking huge switchback climb (maybe it wasn’t so big, but it felt big by that point) in this cookie-cutter neighborhood thing with lots of new-looking fancy McMansions, but we made it up the climb no worse for wear and were treated to a nice little downhill around this golf course thing. We then ran into a group of seasoned Randos fixing a flat, so we stopped, hung out, and joined their group. At this point, Adam found a second wind or a second pair of legs (or the pain-killers and food started kicking in), and with the new group we were making great time, chatting about this and that, and generally having a lot of fun again (which isn’t to say we weren’t having fun before, but admittedly the middle-miles felt a bit like a slog, as middle-miles so often do).
The group we were with included a bunch of people I’d met or else ridden with before but whose names I’d mostly forgotten (save Emily O. of Dill Pickle fame, who had shepherded me for much of my first-ever brevet last summer), but I sort of figured out who was who (Steve’s “Steve” licence plate dangling from his saddle helped), and so we rode on. At some point Adam and I got a little ahead but we’d come back together often at stoplights and things. I still felt really, really good. A little tired, but I was still able to fly up the road to make room when there was a “car back” on steep hills (again, "fly" being relative) and that felt affirming so far as my fitness was concerned. We made what felt like short work of the last 30mi and were soon on the bike path back into West Concord, where we were greeted with pizza, more snacks, and 0 more miles to go. Adam and I even each both drank one of those “mini” 8oz Coke cans which turned out to be a perfect things (and neither of us really drinks soda in our usual day-to-days). The sugar, that little bit of caffeine — wonderful. We piled the bikes into my mother in-law’s van, said our goodbyes, and were off. It was kind of funny at the end, because it sort of felt like I was a kid again getting picked up by a parent after some event or other (which, I mean, was sort of the case).
I then showered, dressed, and went to meet Alia and our friends Lisa and Matt in Harvard Square for dinner. I was a little loopy and probably a little incoherent, but it was a very nice dinner and the Indian food was delicious and perfect, and really it was just a lovely day both on and off the bike. Just really wonderful.