I was at the Ludlow control around 5:00 PM on the first day of the 2001 Boston-Montreal-Boston when I declared to Jim Wilson that BMB is a ride designed to make philosophers of us all. "So," he asked, "what then is the meaning of life?" "Life," I replied, "as near as I can tell, is just the same damn thing over and over again!"
Indeed it was just one more day, one more road, and one more set of endless hills. Hadn't I put myself through this just last year? But just as it's impossible to swim the same river twice, it's impossible for me to dismiss BMB with a "been there, done that" and pass up the ride. For while I might say, "yes, I know this road" and "yes, I remember that turn", I knew that despite all I'd learned or forgotten, there are more lessons and reasons to ride that become clear only to those of us who let the kilometers unwind beneath our wheels. I don't ride because I'm a randonneur; I'm a randonneur because I ride.
Like last year, I rode to the start of BMB from my mother-in-law's house in Pawtucket, RI. Last year, I'd had only the vaguest notion of where I was going and route crudely plotted from a couple of state highway maps. I made the trip in three hours with no wrong turns. This year, armed with state-of-the-art computer-generated maps, I managed to make a couple of wrong turns. Still, I covered the 70-plus kilometers in about three hours.
Jennifer greeted me at the start and Pierce inspected my bike. Since I'd broken my Bike Friday on LEL, I'd had to put this bike together on rather short notice. The basic principle behind this machine was toughness; starting with old-stock Specialized Rock Hopper mountain-bike frame I'd pulled out of the rafters at Recycled Cycles in Seattle, I'd build a very sturdy 26" wheeled randonneuring machine. Last year I'd had a lot of flats running 700*25c tires on BMB so this year I was running 26*1.25 90-PSI Kevlar-belted tires. My gearing was standard and low, a set of 30/40/50 chain rings matched with a 13-28 six-speed freewheel and good old-fashioned, reliable Suntour thumb shifters. Completing the package was a Blackburn rear rack and a giant rack bag that I'd purchased the day after BMB last year. Even though I'd completed LEL with a good-sized Camelbak and no real problems regarding having weight on my back, I still knew the value of carrying most of my gear on the bike. I intended to let the Hopper carry most of the load. As was usual for me, I wasn't using a drop-bag so the rear bag held my spare clothes, tools, food, batteries and bivy sack.
While I'd bivouacked behind a hedge at the start last year, this year my pal Jim Trout was also riding BMB and he generously let me use the spare bed in his hotel room. Jim and I wound up sharing a table at the pre-ride dinner with Jim Wilson, Peter Noris, Si Little, John Riesenberg, Andrew Southworth and Hubertus Hohl. I knew Jim and Si from last year's BMB and I'd first met John a couple of years ago on PBP. Peter was a friend of Jim's from Florida. Andrew and Hubertus were both LEL vets. Hubertus was taking the fast-folks 6:00 AM start, while the rest of us were opting for the 4:00 AM start, which would give us the option of taking a full 90 hours to complete the course.
The weather was great at 4:00 AM: clear and 60 degrees. The ride started out fast with the lead-out van gunning to remain ahead of one rider who seemed intent on doing what Si Little later described as "getting the ride done in the first hour" and many of the rest of us following like hypnotized lemmings more intent on the van's flashing lights than our dimly-lit cue sheets. Eventually daylight and rationality dawned and we settled into the rhythm of the day. I rolled into the first control at Bullard Farm 8:56 AM and was back on the road nineteen minutes later with a full stomach, an empty bladder and fresh coat of sun-block covering my arms and legs.
After Bullard Farms we hit New Hampshire and this is where the hills really start. Like John Kennedy said about choosing to go to the moon, we choose to ride the hills of BMB "not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because the goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…" That simple fact doesn't make the hills any smaller and it's here that I saw the first of the walkers. A woman with a light and lovely titanium bike was walking along side her bike, pushing it up one of the hills. "I'm saving myself for the later climbs," she explained as I puffed by in my 30*28 gear. Well, I thought, those titanium bikes must be light to push. I didn't relish the thought of pushing the Hopper and it's full load, so I kept pedaling. I also thought that if the woman was already walking, she was in for some serious hurt on the climbs over Andover Pass and Middlebury Gap.
In keeping with randonneuring tradition, we had a secret control on the top of one of the hills. I filled my bottles and chatted with the control worker who commented on the size of my rack bag. I explained how I avoid the use of drop bags, so I was carrying three-days worth of gear. On BMB, every gram is contemplated, before and during and after the ride but this year I'm holding fast to everything I've chosen to carry. The equipment weighs less than worries at being caught unprepared. Lau Tzu tell us that
"Heaviness is the root of lightness.
Stillness is the master of restlessness.
Thus the sage wanders all day
Without discarding his heavy load."
Like last year, the control at Brattleboro, Vermont was in the parking lot of the Motel 6 and featured Chinese food. My son Peter has accused me of writing only about what I eat on these adventures but as anyone who rides these roads will tell you, food is not just eaten on these rides, it's obsessed over. Obsessed over and inhaled. I Hoovered in a carton of fried rice before heading off to face the next set of hills.
I was very tempted to stop at the used bookstore called "Over Andover" in Andover, Vermont, but I reminded myself that the clock was running, books are heavy and there are other days for browsing. Besides, I'd already stopped for ice cream at Chester and I had to make up time. I climbed slowly over Andover Pass, swooped down to Route 100 and then over that wicked climb before Ludlow. I was pretty sure I knew the answer, but I had to ask when I got into the control at Ludlow, "that last climb, does it have a name?" "Oh yes," I'm told, "that's Mount Terrible." There are times, I note, when the English language is an extremely precise instrument.
In my mind, Ludlow will always be the brownie control, although the macaroni and cheese there was wonderful and life sustaining as well. Jim Wilson, Peter Noris and I left together at 5:25 PM but we didn't stay together for long. Jim was riding his Festina low-racer and Peter was on his Tour Easy. On the flat sections we were pretty evenly matched, on the climbs I'd pull away from the recumbents and on the descents they'd fly past like extremely low-flying missiles. We played leapfrog for a while and then they left me somewhere before Rochester. But after Rochester comes Middlebury Gap and I had a feeling I'd see them again.
It was dark when I climbed the gap. Jim was still cheerful when I passed him but when I passed Peter a few minutes later he was looking like Sisyphus on a bad day. I tried to think of something encouraging to say but all I could come up with was the lame assurance that "once you've made it over this, you've dealt with the worst BMB has to offer." I don't know if my words were at all helpful.
I paused at the summit to pull my rain jacket on for warmth and I realized that it was quite a bit warmer this year than last. The road coming down from the gap was just as choppy as last year, but even though my tires were skinny by mountain bike standards, they're fat by road standards and I was able to keep up some pretty good speed on the descent. I pulled into the Middlebury control at 10:25 PM. I ate my late supper, changed my shorts, socks and jersey and settled into a cot in the hockey arena at 11:00 PM.
I woke at 1:15 AM, had a nice breakfast and was back on the road at 1:50 AM. Shortly after I turned onto Route 116, it began to rain. It was a light rain and for an hour or so I ignored it but then it got heavier and I pulled on my rain jacket. I was riding almost on autopilot, knowing that I had a twenty-mile run on 116. I rolled on through the darkness.
I saw the turn for 2A but at the time it seemed to have very little to do with me. I blissfully kept rolling along 116. It was a bit later that it actually occurred to me to look at what the next turn might be and when I saw the notation "Right on Rte 2A North" I thought, "Hmm, 2A, that sounds familiar…Oh yeah, it was back there a couple of kilometers, right before I zipped down that big hill!"
It was a slow climb back to 2A. I amused myself by watching the rain seep its way into my route sheet holder. "This could be a bit of a problem," I thought.
The ride over Grand Isle was super. The sun was up, the rain lessened and then stopped and there was a terrific wind from the south. Of course, if the same wind was still blowing later in the day it would be an evil headwind but I tried not to think about that.
I pulled into the Rouses Point Civic Center at 9:05 AM. I had waffles and juice and coffee while I worked at drying out my route sheets. I'd made a rookie mistake, packing all my sheets into my untested home-brew route-sheet holder and now all the sheets were wet. The holder consisted of a plastic pencil pouch zip-tied to flat sheet of coroplast and held onto my Cateye headlamp with a couple of big rubber bands cut from an old section of inner-tube. The problem was that I'd cut holes in the pencil pouch to route the zip-ties and water had seeped into those holes. If I'd been smart, I would've sealed the holes, laminated my route sheets or at the very least only had one sheet at a time packed in the holder. I was smart enough to have a spare set of route sheets packed deep in my rear bag, but they were the originals marked in miles and I preferred to use my modified sheets marked in kilometers. I used a big bunch of paper towels blotting the route sheets into a state of mild dampness and packed the next sheet into a zip lock sandwich bag. I packed the rest of the sheets together with a supply of paper towels into a dry corner of my giant rack bag.
Michael Lau and some of the other fast riders were at Rouses Point the same time that I was, but they were already on their way back to Boston. I was still headed up to Montreal. I rolled out at 9:50 AM.
Last year the Canadian section of BMB hadn't really felt like it was part of the same ride as the American sections. The Canadian route had been flat, with too much traffic and poor road conditions. This year, the BMB crew had worked out a new route and I'd heard that it was much nicer. I'd also heard that it featured a big hill.
Shortly after crossing the border, I followed the new route west onto a nice road without much traffic. A while later I noticed something interesting, the terrain in front of me was much higher than the terrain I was on. And the route sheet mentioned something called "Ch de Covey Hill." It's never a good sign when they mention the hill in the name of the road. And back at Rouses Point Michael Lau had mentioned granny gears and thinking about walking when he hit Covey Hill.
Chemin de Covey Hill goes straight west and straight up. Well maybe not straight up, but it's impressive. At least with Middlebury Gap, it's kind of dark and twisty and you don't get to see the whole thing at one shot. With Covey Hill, the best I could think was "golly, I hope I'm seeing the whole thing, because if that's just a false summit, I might be in trouble!" I also thought maybe my words to Peter Noris the previous evening had been incorrect; perhaps Middlebury Gap no longer was the worst that BMB had to offer. I climbed slowly upward.
There's some sort of observation tower at the top of Covey Hill, which helped reassure me that I had in fact reached the summit. And the hill proved to be asymmetrical, lacking a steep descent on the western side. This was good news, since any descent would have to be climbed in just a few hours.
I began seeing more returning riders now and I recognized a few of them. Si Little was distinctive on his Stratus recumbent and he looked like he was having a terrific ride. My friend Jim Trout was looking strong as well and I was happy to see that I was really only a few hours behind him at this point.
The last section before the control featured quite a headwind. I was riding with some other riders for part of this but as the winds picked up I found myself pulling away from the others. I'm a skinny guy and the forward section of my Scott AT-3 bars let me stretch out and keep punching the big gears.
There was a bit of tree-cover for the very last section and the route went right alongside a lovely little section of river. I pulled into the control at the Huntington Royal Canadian Legion Hall at 1:35 PM. I got my card stamped, drank a lot of Gatorade, ate a really nice ham and cheese sandwich and was back on the road at 2:02 PM.
I got to enjoy the nice tailwind for the first part of the ride back and then I was getting to see some of the other riders who were still headed up. Jim Wilson was smiling his big recumbent grin when we crossed paths. On that Festina, he was so low he probably didn't even know that he was facing a headwind. An hour or so later, I saw his friend Peter Noris and thought, "well now, you've definitely seen the worst BMB has to offer!"
I couldn't really let the Hopper rip on the ride down Covey Hill as a crosswind kept tugging at the bike and little bumps kept trying to make it into an uncontrolled low-flying aircraft. Since I'd neglected to file a flight plan, I kept the speed down to a fairly sane 60 kilometers per hour.
At the border I managed to follow the instruction "Right onto 276" without really executing the previous instruction "Left out of Border Controle" which resulted in another one of those "down a big hill, wonder why the route sheet isn't matching up, slowly have it dawn on me" situations. Another rider was behind me at the border and while he made the same error I did, he was pedaling slower and thinking quicker. By the time I figured out what I'd done wrong and looked back, he'd already reversed course. I felt guilty for leading him astray, but back at Rouses Point he assured me that he'd made the same error as I had completely independent of my stupid actions. And he'd felt guilty about not being able to yell loud enough or chase me down once he'd figured out we'd gone wrong. But of course, I'd zipped down a big hill and into a stiff wind.
There was a lot of discussion of wind at the Rouses Point control. All day long a wind of 25 to 30 mph had been blowing up Lake Champlain and across Grand Isle. As I ate supper, one of the other riders expressed the hope that maybe the wind would die down now that it was evening. It seemed to be a faint hope, but at 6:25 PM, I pulled out for the long ride back to Middlebury.
Amazingly, the wind had actually subsided. It wasn't down to zero, but it wasn't bad. As it began to get dark, the air got still and the bugs started swarming. I rolled through clouds of gnats and a couple of times had to wipe a layer of smashed gnats off my arms and legs. The breeze picked up a bit and as it got darker the gnats dispersed.
I knew it was a long run back to Middlebury, so I stopped at a convenience store in the town of Grand Isle where I bought box of granola bars and a couple of Starbucks Frappiccinos for the journey. I might not be rolling real fast, but I knew that as long as I had food and coffee, I could keep going damn near forever.
While I was by myself for the ride over Grand Isle, other folks caught up with and passed me as the night wore on. Still later our differing speeds converged and we formed an informal little group as we closed in on Middlebury. It's hard to identify everyone in the dark but David McCaw was distinctive thanks to the twin Canadian flags on his Carradice saddlebag. Andrew Southworth of England was also easy to recognize thanks to his heavy British accent and the astounding power he still had in his legs. Andrew was just flying up those hills.
We all slowed down while we looked for the white church that would mark the Quarry Road "Don't miss this turn!" turn. As a BMB vetran it was my job to reassure the group that the church is huge and always farther down the road than you think it should be and no we hadn't missed the turn yet. We all breathed a sigh of relief when we actually found the church and made the turn. The final navigation into Middlebury is a bit convoluted and seems backwards, but I remembered the whole thing from last year and we all got in fine at 2:20 AM.
I jotted a few lines in my notebook, ate and headed over to the hockey arena where I slept from 2:45 AM to 3:45 AM. As usual, I didn't use an alarm, instead figuring that my body would know when I'd slept enough.
My main headlight had been doing it's "feed me" flash when I'd pulled in, so I took some time to change it's batteries. In past years, I'd ridden with a SON generator hub but the Hopper has 26" wheels and I didn't have time to build-up a 26" wheel around a SON hub. Instead, I'd taken a page from Francis Cooke's book and was using a Petzl Zoom as a bike headlamp. I was using 8 lithium AA cells connected to one of Willie Hunt's LVR circuits to drive the lamp and the results had been amazing. The light had run for nearly 15 hours! I replaced the batteries in the headlamp, my Cateye Micro (which serves as both a spare light and a high beam for descents) and my twin taillights.
After I had some breakfast, I hit the road at 4:45 AM. It was getting light as I climbed Middlebury Gap. The morning sun shone through the trees and the gurgling river seemed to echo my measured breathing. A small salamander watched intently from the roadside as I crawled past Middlebury College.
At the summit I pulled on another layer of warmth and then I thoroughly enjoyed the descent. The climb up to Killington wasn't bad and even though the road surface on the descent was a bit choppy I didn't have to slow the Hopper down at all. My idea of having a tough bike was paying off.
I got into Ludlow at 10:36 AM and fueled up, making sure I ate enough brownies to get me over the climbs that I knew lay ahead. Before he left the control, John Riesenberg offered the sage bit of advice that I could get by with a single bottle of water for the climb up Mount Terrible and refuel at the Mobil station before Andover Pass. It's a good strategy and John has ridden BMB more than anyone (I think he and Si Little have each ridden BMB something like seven times) but I stuck with my usual routine of making sure I left the control with all my bottles filled. I left at 11:10 AM.
When I was climbing Mount Terrible, I saw a car pulled over and a couple of people taking pictures. It was the Lepertels, the grand family of randonneuring. As I rode past Mr. Lepertel jokingly indicated by a combination of French and hand-signals that he hadn't quite gotten the shot he'd wanted and would I mind going back down and doing the climb again? I still had the energy to grin and shake my head, but I made it clear that there was no way I was going to be granting his request.
I looked for John's bike when I went by the Mobil station, but he'd already left. I did pass the Dutch rider Sybren Zandstra on the Andover Pass climb but I didn't catch up with John until I pulled into the Brattleboro control at 4:00 PM.
I scarfed down some more fried rice and discussed strategy with John. John lives in New Hampshire and this year he really looked like an illustration from a Patrick O'Grady "Old Guys Who Get Fat In Winter" cartoon. "Yep, I really should loose this," he said shaking his belly, "it's not helping me on the climbs." Still, I was thinking, we're both here more than a thousand kilometers into BMB and we're here at the same time! How fast would John be if he was thirty pounds lighter? We agreed to pull out together, but split up if our paces didn't match. We took off at 4:30 PM.
Just after the control we turned onto Route 9 and crossed over into New Hampshire. The road went up and the combination of fried rice and hot coffee hit my bloodstream like rocket fuel. I dropped John like a bag of wet dirt. But a bit later after I'd turned onto Route 119 I was riding along when I heard this voice beside me. "Thanks for waiting up," John said as he pulled alongside me. "Umm, to tell you the truth, I wasn't really waiting," I explained. We chatted for a while. "So how many miles do you do in a year?" he asked. "It varies," I told him, "but it's usually around 12,000." "It's gotta be nice to be able to ride year 'round," he said wistfully. "Yep," I agreed, "it's one of the things I really like about living in the Seattle area."
John started to slow again and I wound up drifting ahead. At Brattleboro I'd filled one of my bottles with a 50/50 mix of coffee and water with about seven sugar packets mixed in and every time I started to fade, I'd take a shot from the bottle and eat another Payday or granola bar. I pulled into Bullard Farm at 7:20 PM.
Last year, I'd gotten to Bullard Farm later and sleeping there made a lot of sense. This year they had the barbecue going and I had a lovely breast of chicken and couple of ears of roasted corn before putting on my reflective gear and filling my bottle with coffee. Somewhere along the line Sybren had caught back up with me. Sybren, David McCaw, Andrew Southworth and I all left Bullard Farm together 7:55 PM. John was holding back a bit. He was also planning on riding in, but he also knew he might need to pull over if he got too sleepy.
I'd warned Andrew that I'd learned my lesson on the previous night and that I wasn't going to try hanging with him on the climbs but it seemed like the intervening miles had subdued him somewhat. After the third or fourth car buzzed close by our little pack, David expressed the view that night riding was "stupid". I assured him that it's just like any other riding and the more you do it, the more you get used to it. With the lower traffic volume, our lights and reflective stuff, we were probably safer riding at night than we'd been in broad daylight but we still felt kind of twitchy and stressed at the night navigation. Sybren seemed to have no fear of cars and he'd tend to hug the centerline, a trait which none of the rest of us wanted to emulate.
I've done loads of night riding since I bike commute year 'round and also tend to favor training rides that start at 3:00 AM, but I don't do a lot of night group riding. Eventually, I decided that the pace was a bit fast and I really had to stop for a pee break. I let David know I was dropping off the back. "Don't wait up," I said
Riding solo was more relaxing and I settled into my own rhythm. At one point one of the BMB van pulled alongside me. Throughout the ride this van had been running up and down the course, making sure riders were OK. I assured the driver I was fine, but I did ask if he had any coffee with him. "Sorry, no coffee," he replied, "but there will be something open in Clinton." As he drove on I checked the coffee supply in my bottle. Heck, I was still doing fine.
It was a great night for riding; warm and quiet and as it got later I saw fewer and fewer automobiles. At one point skunk ambled alongside the road as I rode by and a bit later a pair of juvenile raccoons scampered across my headlight beam.
At Clinton I saw Andrew, David and Sybren all stopped at the Dunkin Donuts. They yelled that I should stop and redeem my coupon (one of the BMB perks) but I was feeling good and told them I was going to press on. A short while later the three of them caught up with me and we rode together for a while. As we got closer to Newton, our little pack split in two: Sybren and I rolled off the front while David and Andrew dropped back. Sybren and I soon paid for our haste and a bit later missed one of many turns that punctuate the final kilometers of BMB. We cautiously backtracked and got back on course. Sybren speaks very little English, but he can read street signs and recognize the BMB arrows on the street. We rode the last kilometers very cautiously. At 2:54 AM, we pulled into the parking lot of the Newton Holiday Inn. Andrew and David were looking relaxed and happy having finished fourteen minutes earlier.
The control workers were cheerful and astoundingly alert given the hour. I was still jazzed on coffee so I had a good chat with Elizabeth Wicks and a woman whose name I neglected to note. I ate some cold pizza and eventually I wound down. I unpacked my bivy sack and stretched out on a row of chairs in a dark corner of the garage for a very relaxing three-hour sleep.
I woke up feeling pretty good. I had some breakfast (more cold pizza) and called my wife to let her know I was done with the ride and would be seeing her soon. I hung out for a while watching other riders come in and chatting with Bruce Ingle. Bruce and I share an obsession with bike lighting so we discussed various potential tweaks to get the most light for the least weight and cost.
John Riesenberg finished at 7:30 AM, having taken a couple of naps since I'd last seen him. He looked at least as fresh as me and ready to ride another few hundred kilometers if needed. But I think he was glad to be done.
I was done, but I still had a few kilometers to go. At 8:50 AM, I said my good-byes and rode off toward Pawtucket. True to form, I managed to miss a turn and tack a few extra kilometers onto the ride!