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Published: September 4th 2006
This Is What It's All About
"Randonneurs Mondiaux, Creation Audax Club Parisien 1983, Brets 1200 et plus"
“How’s it feel to be done?” my mom asked.
“Done?” In the eighteen years I had known of BMB, and during the nearly two years of preparation I had never really thought of being “Done” with it. I had read webpages and books on long-distance riding, prepared my body and bike for the rigors of riding through the night, night after night. I’d ridden out before the weekday dawn on training rides. I had slipped into my cubicle at work with a little smile on my face as I traded my biking cleats for the office shoes kept stashed under the desk, thinking, “I rode forty miles this morning, and dang! I feel good.”
I had cursed myself as I made just one more online order for biking gear, “Darn it honey, this is the last thing that I need to buy for BMB. I don’t want to buy new fenders and a bike computer, but I’ve got to! I need to keep the rain off my bike and body, and if I don’t have an accurate, reliable bike computer, I’ll never be able to follow the cue sheets and finish the ride.”
So I stood in front
Preparing for BMB
New brake cables & housings were in order before riding to Montreal.
of the scattered remains of a catered hotel party on the bottom deck of a parking garage in suburban Boston, the humming, buzzing smog of I-95 a hundred yards away welcoming me back to civilization, and blurring any thought process as my mother looked up at me expectantly and some guy with a camera directed me to turn around and put the golden medal on a scarlet sash around my neck. I tried to slip my 1200k randonee medal over my helmeted head, but got stuck halfway as camera guy said, “I think you’ll need to take your helmet off.”
“Right, right,” I mumbled in agreement, “helmet off.”
With a banner reading “Boston-Montreal-Boston” above our heads, my dad and I stood next to my bike, for him and I both a sense of giddy astonishment that I was done. I was really done. I had ridden for nearly four days straight from Boston, to Montreal and back to Boston, a distance of some twelve hundred kilometers, or seven hundred and fifty miles, with some 30,000 feet of climbing over wickedly steep roads. Maybe the total there and back was 60,000 feet. All I know was it enough more
I even had to take my chainrings off to get my 66cm frame to fit in the box.
than enough climbing, more than enough descents.
Two weeks later I sit in front of my laptop at my great-grandfather’s rolltop desk, still unable to completely process the thought that I really did ride and finish BMB. Even now the memory of BMB floats in the back of my mind as something slightly foreign, somewhat unreal; the body memory of inexorable pedalling, miles of asphalt sweeping under my tires, the aching wall of Terrible Mountain looming above me after three days of riding and an hour of rest at a control point, the solitude of a winding country road as the eastern sky began to glow over the mountains, the joy of a paceline in a tailwind, effortlessly rolling over the bridges lacing together the Champlain Isles, the sheer, whooping thrill of piloting my bike down a mountain at fifty five miles per hour, dancing around potholes and cracks, belly scraping saddle as I fold back into less air resistance and even more speed, the trickle of tears tickled out of the corners of my eyes by the wind roaring up at me as I barrel down the hills, the rolling family of randonneurs, bicyclists sharing the camaraderie of
the road, the stationary community of checkpoints as the staff helped each rider to a bed or food, a warm shower, a soothing massage.
I finished BMB. In the coming decades, no matter how pudgy I might get, no how matter how tall my baby daughter Abby may grow, no matter how skinny my legs may wither, I will always be able to pull open my dresser drawer and see that beautiful red and gold jersey. “BMB,” it reads, “The American 1200k Randoneé.”
I was in ninth grade, or maybe it was tenth, with a copy of “Bicycle Guide” stashed in my Trapper Keeper, the teacher droning on in a remedial lecture about evolution that I’d learned long before in National Geographic. I kept my head down, leaning towards my open textbook, but reading in the contraband pages of my bike magazine about some crazy ride that had practically gone past my backdoor while I was hanging out at the Springfield Public Library. “Boston-Montreal-Boston” they had called it. Said one guy even rode with his own espresso maker, just to keep himself going that far. It was the late Eighties in the backwoods of Vermont, and I wondered
Unbeknownst to me, I was riding with the President of Randonneurs USA.
what espresso was. Chewing a coffee bean from my pocketed stash (no coffee for students at Springfield High), I decided that it must be something good, something cool.
I rode my bike on and on through high school, dreaming of ever-longer distances. My parents took my brother Brad and me down south of the Mason-Dixon Line for “Bike Virginia.” I rode my first century there, struggling in earnestness to keep up. “You should’ve told us you didn’t know how to ride in a paceline!” someone who was older and faster yelled as they left me behind. I bled as I shave my legs and vowed to never walk another hill. I’d stop, yes, to ease my asthmatic wheezing, but I’d still pedal the whole way up.
“We started riding together as a family when Wesley started to grow apart from us,” my father said at more than one checkpoint between Boston and Montreal as he reined in two miniature dachsunds that were scampering under wheels and pedals in their hunt for a squirrel, “Bicycle touring was a way for the family to be together.”
Amazingly enough, I bit my sarcastic tongue and did not ask my father,
That Covered Bridge
Just about everyone's who's not setting a course record stops for a photo.
“How’d that work for you?” While my father may have had the best of intentions in introducing our family to serious cycling, mail-ordering four matching styrofoam Bell helmets with blue lycra covers, I rode away from the family as much as I rode with them. I didn’t want to wait for them, I wanted to go, go, go. They never climbed fast enough, and they certainly never descended fast enough. So I went. By myself. Cycling nurtured a need for solitude. Across the gaps and notches that mark the cresting roads between the Green Mountains. Smugglers’ Notch. Middlebury Gap. Hazen’s Notch. Brandon Gap. The harder the climb, the better the descent. Halfway through college I dropped out to ride across Europe on my own, precipitating a move away from my family that took me into the Navy and began my ten-year residence in Norfolk, Virginia.
My parents still live in Vermont, and my father volunteered to drive a support vehicle for me during BMB. Although his offer seemed like “randonneuring lite,” what with having a support person waiting for me at each control point, I agreed anyway, suspecting that as the ride progressed and my sleep deficit deepened, I
But it won't get you to Montreal...
would be grateful for a a set of full, cold water bottles and a change of clothes every seventy miles or so. But when I reached Middlebury on my way north and decided to rest for a few minutes before pushing on, the half hour of sleep that I tried to grasp in the back of my father’s RV was elusive. Every few minutes I seemed to wake up from a moment of near-sleep. So I headed out, less rested than I had hoped.
“And this intersection is where I fell over for the first time in clipless pedals.”
It’s a rite of passage for all serious cyclists. At some point in they muster the courage to lock their feet onto their pedals, ala ski-boot bindings, for more efficient pedalling. And inevitably, at some point the come to a stop at an intersection, forgetting that their feet are still firmly attached to the pedals, when wham! They fall to the side. If they’re lucky, there are no drivers present to laugh. If they’re really lucky, there are no other cyclists there to snicker in startlement and painful memory.
Leaving the control point in Middlebury, Vermont at two
Just 97 Miles to Boston
In a straight line, that is...
in the morning I had joined up with another foolhardy cyclist in the dark and cold. We weren’t even a third of the way through our 750 mile ride from Boston to Montreal and back. With no sleep to speak of, I was giddily pedalling down memory lane,
“My grandmother’s house was just around the corner, and of course I was born here in Middlebury. I grew up riding Middlebury Gap for fun.”
After riding for a few miles together, my nocturnal riding buddy and I parted ways amicably. My pace was simply faster than hers, and I rode off by myself, guided by a duo of cold-blue, battery-powered LED lights. One light mounted to the fork, the other attached to my helmet, illuminating whatever I turned my head to look at.
Twenty miles later though, I gave into exhaustion and laid down next to Bristol Rock, a twenty foot-wide boulder on the northern edge of Bristol Vermont inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer as a reminder to the lumberjacks coming down out of the mountains that they were returning to polite society. Wrapped in an aluminum foil space blanket, head resting on my Camelbak (it’s not just
Top Speed: 54.58mph
Speed Kills. But It Gets You There Faster.
a water bladder, it’s also an emergency pillow!), I heard several cyclists ride by in the night. Half an hour later the alarm clock on my cell phone woke me from a confused dream, and I got up, stowed my blanket, and resumed my ride north.
Dawn greeted me on the suburban outskirts of Burlington, and I met what I assumed was the lead rider on his way back from Montreal. Hunched over his aero bars and headed south, I figured it had to be the fastest guy. Half an hour later I met another dozen or so lean, south-bound cyclists. Although my legs felt strong, I still was taking it easy, saving my energy for the almost-flat Champlain Isles and the return to Boston. Although the islands offer the potential for rest betweens extended slogs over the Green Mountains, Lake Champlain is notorious for creating morale-sapping headwinds. I headed north at a conservative pace, betting that a paceline would soon catch up to me. And sure enough, eight or ten riders came riding past me in single file, barely a foot or two separating them, on the mile-long bridge from the mainland, their steady pace above twenty miles
My Dutch-Canadian buddy & friends.
per hour. I hopped onto the back, and in time worked my way to the front of the line. We picked up more riders along the way, and a couple of riders dropped off. We bantered back and forth about hometowns and families, bike clubs and bicycle setup,
“You’re from Halifax? How long did it take for y’all to drive here?” I asked while dropping my arms onto the aero bars, resting my wrists while riding to the left of the paceline
“Oh, about twelve hours.”
“Really? That’s about how long it takes to drive up here from Virginia. By the way, nice suspension on your seat rack there.”
“Nice, eh? Another guy in our club thought of it. I just copied it off him.”
“Y’all got a big club up there in Halifax?”
“Oh, ya know, not enough people volunteering to get all the work done. But we still manage to run a full series.”
Jersey City, Toronto, Victoria, Durham. Titanium, aluminum and good old steel. Lights on handlebars, lights on forks, lights on helmets and forks. Battery-powered lights and hub generators. Pedals from Time, Look, Shimano and Crank Brothers. Bags on
Champlain Isles Paceline
Heading north, 20+ mph, with a steady tailwind!
handlebars. bags on rear racks. frame-mounted bags and saddlebags. GPS units and cue sheets clipped to brake cables. Tri bars, mustache bars and clip-on aero bars.
For thirty, forty, fifty miles we took advantage of a southern tail wind and flew across the islands and bridges, making the most of a good thing. By the time we reached the last checkpoint before the border our group had been wittled down to five riders, Lisa from Jersey City, some Canadian guys from Halifax and Toronto, a Dutch-Candian and myself.
As we rode across Lake Champlain, the Green Mountains to our right, the Adirondacks to our left, Canada in front of us, tears welled up in my eyes and I sniffed back snot, “I’m finally doing it,” I confirmed to myself, “After all these years, I’m finally riding BMB!”
The month leading up to BMB had been a mixture of frustration and adaptation as I tried to balance forty hours per week as a PR photographer, weekend freelance gigs, childrearing responsibilities, training for BMB, and of course off-bike preparations for BMB. Jennifer and Joan, my wife and mother-in-law, sat with Abby for hours while I went
Another Paceline Picture
That's Lisa from Jersey City in the Green Jersey.
off on my rides. “I should be back in three hours,” I’d call out as I clipped into my pedals beside the heavy-laden tomato plants in the backyard, “I’m just going to Virginia Beach.”
“I know you have the weekend off honey, but this is my last chance to get any big miles before BMB. I’m just gonna ride a hundred miles today, and another hundred tomorrow. I’ll be home before it gets dark.”
“I gotta go. It’s the Monday night ride, and I’m supposed to be leading it. I want to spend time with you too, but Liz isn’t gonna be there to cover for me, so I gotta go. I’ll be back before eight, I promise.”
Two weeks before BMB, with Abby sucking her fingers while sitting in sling on my chest, I brought my bike inside from the triple-digit heat and humidity of a tidewater summer. I could barely last five minutes outside without sweating through a t-shirt, so there was no way that I could spend hours with the kid outside in the heat while preparing my bike for BMB. “Aw shoot,” I muttered as I found the crack on the top
My family's summer cabin at Breadloaf on the climb up Middlebury Gap.
tube. I threw down the allen wrench in disgust, “Shoot.”
I looked again. I torqued the tube. Sure enough, there was a little crack going around my top tube, just inches from my seatpost.
I ran through the options in my mind:
OPTION ONE: Just Ride It. Well, maybe it wouldn’t break. I’d take that gamble to the grocery store, but not across the Green Mountains.
OPTION TWO: Ride the Raleigh. Problem was, a fellow cyclist had pointed out that my Raleigh road bike, which was a good beater bike for club rides, was just as old as I was. With rust showing up on the forks, I didn’t feel quite safe in trusting the Raleigh to Montreal and back.
OPTION THREE: Fix It. As I gave Abby a bottle I confirmed with the guys at East Coast Bikes that the frame was unridable in its current condition, but might be repairable. Three days later I was on my way up to Baltimore for work, my hobbled bike strapped to the trunk.
Tom Palermo at Proteus Bikes in College Park, Maryland said he could do the job in the few days I had before
Brattleboro, 6 AM
It was still raining when I left Brattleboro, and it didn't clear up for another 30 miles.
heading up to Boston for the ride, so I shelled out still more money in a bid to finance my dream. Ten days later I plunked down still more money to rent a van to haul my bike back to the train station from Tom’s garage. Watching the Northeast Corridor slip past my window in a coach car, I vowed to myself, “I’m gonna finish BMB. I have spent too much time, money and energy to come this far and quit. I will not stop.” So I pulled out my Palm Pilot, looked up a few phone numbers and started making a few phone calls,
“Yes, I was wondering if it would be possible for y’all to fax my lens prescription to a Lenscrafters in the Boston area. You can? Great! No, I don’t know what their fax number is, but I’ll call you back with it...Your receptionist isn’t in today? That’s fine. I’ll leave a voicemail.”
And then a call to my mail-order dealer,
“I need a pair of your sunglasses with the prescription inserts. No, I don’t have my customer number from the back of a catalog; I don’t have a catalog with me. No,
I don’t have a product number, either. Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? Sorry, I’m on a train.”
Twenty minutes later I had ordered a new pair of sunglasses, to be overnighted to my aunt’s house, just a few miles from the BMB starting line. I had climbed onto the train in Newport News with an oversized bicycle carrying case (sans bicycle) that I knew for a fact exceeded Amtrak’s baggage policy, a backpack stuffed with more clif bars than clothes, and a totebag of snacks, music, books and, oh yeah, my helmet and sunglasses. I’d meant to pack them in my backpack, but I’d run out of space. So I slipped them into the totebag printed with dozen of different bicycles (“Fietsen in Amsterdam Holland”). I got off in DC at Union Station to pick up my bike, and as I dropped the totebag into the passenger seat of my rental van, I reached for my sunglasses. That was when I realized they weren’t there. I’d clipped them in their case to my helmet. Helmet and glasses. Gone. Oh yeah, an $80 headlamp gone, too. Shoot.
I called three train stations, visited two different lost&found offices at
Me & My Support Team
Thanks, Dad! I would've done it slower without you!
Union Station and bothered half a dozen Amtrak employees before finally giving up on my missing gear. “Shoot. Shootshootshoot.”
“I’ve got an extra helmet you can borrow,” my father offered when I called to commiserate. “And you can borrow my clip-on sunglasses.”
“Let’s make that Plan B, Dad.” My wife Jennifer liked my ultra-thin tortoiseshell glasses, and I doubted the clip-on lenses from my father’s sensibly-sized would fit with any less than an inch of overlay.
The next day I was navigating my father and I by satellite in the family minivan through Suburban Boston to the nearest REI outlet. Ten minutes after the front door opened, I was whipping out my credit card to make another interest-due payment on my BMB dream, buying a helmet and a headlamp. “I’ve got an extra helmet you can borrow,” my dad offered again. “I know, but I’m gonna need a helmet when I get home anyway,” I replied.
Tom’s frame repair was good and true. As I bombed down one hill after another, I never felt the dreaded “frame shimmy” that can ruin the thrill of a high speed descent. But ten miles past the third checkpoint
85 hours, 15 minutes. 750 miles of riding on nine hours of sleep.
as I approached the heart of the Green Mountains I felt an odd wiggle in my pedals. I looked down to see my front chainrings wobbling beneath the derailleur. I hopped off my bike, grabbed my pedals and twisted. Sure enough, my pedals slipped side to side. I cursed to myself as I remembered the rushed look on Tom’s face as he turned my bike over to me. While my top tube had been cracked, Tom had also had to replace my seat tube as well, since the seat post had rusted right into it. In his haste, Tom had neglected to sufficiently tighten up my bottom bracket. Standing on the side of the road, I contemplated my options. I could turn around and head back to the control point, hoping that I might be able to get some mechanical support. Or I could keep riding towards Middlebury. With forty miles to go before Middlebury Gap, chances were good that I would get passed by one of the BMB mechanics before having to make the climb. So I delicately pedalled away, straining to keep my feet moving in consistent, even circles, and thus avoid loosening my bottom bracket any more.
Two out of three finished. One succumbed to hot foot.
I asked each cyclist I met, “Do you have a bottom bracket tool?” But like me, every cyclist I met had gambled like myself that there’d be no need for a bottom bracket tool. But then Bill Olsen came up behind me. Bill’s not from the States. Maybe his accent is from England, maybe it’s from Australia. But now he lives in New Jersey and rides frequently with the DC Randonneurs.
“Do you have a bottom bracket tool, Bob?” I asked,
“Of course!” he happily replied, “But do you have an eight inch adjustable wrench?”
“Well, we’ll just have to find one.”
Bill and I set our taillights to flashing, the indication for assistance on BMB, and rode on. About half an hour after sunset, a Jeep pulled up next to us, and a few minutes later my bike was in a repair stand as we extracted the chainring and tightened the bottom bracket under a gas station awning. Bill joked himself in a well-practiced manner for the preponderance of tools he carried with him, while I apologized for not bringing my own bottom bracket tool. If Bill hadn’t shown up, I might have found myself wallking up Middlebury Gap, or even worse, failing to make the control point before the time limit.
It’s in the back of my mind that I could fail. For the most part though, I leave the worrying to my mother. She dreams of the cliffs I could fall off, the trucks that could hit me, the potholes that could shatter my fork on a descent. I just ride. Eighteen riders out of a hundred and fifty never made it to the finish line, including a couple of riders that I knew from the DC Randonneurs. Bob Olsen (no relation to tool-laden Bill) dropped out at Middlebury on the way north, literally unable to hold his head up anymore, or so I heard. Chris Burkhard was overcome by hypothermia after a night of riding through a driving rain. My dad picked up another guy who broke his collarbone in a run-in with a racoon on the way back from Montreal, and apparently it wasn’t his first time DNF’ing BMB. That’s the thing about BMB- even the guys who get marked on the results list as “Did Not Finish” still come back to do it again. It’s not uncommon to hear of guys who DNF two or three times before finally finishing BMB.
My saddle is glistening under the mercury vapor lights of the Middlebury Town Rec Center as I waddle very carefully to it. After five hundred miles in the saddle my ass doesn’t hurt while walking if I avoid bending my hips just so. I’ve smeared half a can of Bag Balm in my crotch, and the antiseptic lubricant has soaked through the pads of my bike shorts and oiled my saddle to a lustruous sheen. I have only another two hundred and fifty miles or so to the finish line. I rode as hard and long as I could with the paceline on the flats, but after eighteen hours or so I finally called it quits. It was past midnight and we had dropped a few riders in Burlington at a hotel along the route, while the rest of the group was pushed on to Middlebury. I had been on the tail of the paceline, having told the other riders that I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep going. More than once I jerked my head up, waking myself from a brief dream. Finally I told the rider with me, some guy from North Carolina aiming to qualify for the Race Across America, that I couldn’t go any farther. It was a warm night, so I didn’t bother with my space blanket. I fell asleep on a patch of almost-smooth ground beside a new set of storage units and gave no thought to setting an alarm to wake me. I had been riding long and fast enough that I had a sufficiently comfortable margin built up on the clock that I could sleep without worry.
An hour or so later I awoke, pushed my bike to the top of the driveway and resumed my ride south. It was nearly four in the morning by the time I reached Middlebury, where I found my father asleep in the RV. I stumbled to the rec center for a half dozen slices of cold pizza, a shower and a massage. I stumbled back to the RV as the sky began to glow with dawn, swallowed a handful of ibuprofen, massaged a steroid cream into my tender crotch and crashed out on the bed. Before I went to sleep I told my father that my intention was to sleep for at least four hours, maybe six, before making one final push to Boston. But barely two hours later I woke to hear my father talking with one of the BMB staffers,
“Wesley said that since he doesn’t have to worry about his time now, he’s going to sleep for another couple of hours, maybe until noon, and then get going.”
“Well, he may not have to worry about time anymore, but he does have the weather to worry about.”
I pushed away the dreams that were still beckoning to me, and listened to the latest weather report,
“There’s a storm moving up the East Coast, and the winds pushing it are going to be blowing right into everyone heading south. He might want to join up with another group of riders for the ride into Ludlow down Route 100.”
Realizing the wisdom of his words, I pushed myself off the pillow with aching arms and called out, “Sounds like a good idea...”
As tender as my trembling legs were as I slid the last water bottle into place and slung my butt over the saddle, they felt just fine once I started spinning the pedals. I had a good six miles to warm up before Middlebury Gap. Although I’d ridden the gap in the dark before, having to prudently retard my descent, I was looking forward to riding the gap in daylight. However I knew that the two 15% sections, one at the bottom, the other at the top, would present a serious challenge. So I found myself being passed by another rider who was out of the saddle and bobbing back and forth while I sat back in the saddle and spun up in my granny gear of 30x30. Thirty teeth on the front chainring, thirty teeth on the rear cog, one revolution of the wheels for each revolution of my legs. After the climb moderated to only 7 or 8% I caught up with the rider, and he marvelled at my granny gear while I marvelled at his double chainring in front. Only the fastest riders eschew a triple chainring for a double chainring, and my fellow rider confided that he would go with a triple next time, as the double forced him to climb out of the saddle for the steepest sections.
Halfway up Middlebury Gap the road flattens out for half a mile or so at Breadloaf, a Victorian resort that is now a summer arts retreat run by Middlebury College. My father was waiting for me in front of the Cornwall Cabin, named after his grandparents who summered atop the mountain. I stopped and posed for a picture before continuing my ascent, passing the president of Randonneurs USA, Mark Thomas. For five hundred miles we had ridden at almost the same pace, sharing a paceline or two along the way. Mark and several other members of the Seattle International Randonneurs were out in their distinctive blue and yellow jerseys, a psychedelic mishmash of orcas and cyclists. Just about all of the Seattle randonneurs had functional fenders and mudflaps, and I had complimented Mark on his mudflaps a couple of days earlier. It wasn’t until I stood at the finish line with another DC randonneur admiring Mark’s titanium time trial bike ingeniusly outfitted with a rear rack and fenders that my fellow cyclist pointed to the nametag on the rear of the rack and said, “Mark’s the RUSA president!”
“Really?” I asked in startlement, “I had no clue that was who I was riding with!” When I got home and picked up the RUSA newsletter from the stack of mail on the dining room table, sure enough, there was Mark’s picture on the front.
The climb to Ludlow was strenuous, but the descent into Brattleboro was even worse. The rain had started, and for most of the afternoon I fought to find the right layer of clothes. My full rainsuit was too much, trapping heat and sweat next to my body, but without it I was soaked to the skin. When I got to Ludlow I swapped my drenched jersey for a dry one, then set off again up Terrible Mountain. With a grade just as challenging as Middlebury Gap, Terrible Mountain was all the more difficult since there was no warm-up flats before the climb. Instead, it began right at the checkpoint, and continued climbing for a good five miles. I passed several other randonneurs on the way up, including one guy pushing his bike. I passed on my mother’s advice to him, “There’s no hill that my bike and me can’t walk up.”
Not even twenty miles later the rain increased, and I slipped my helmet off in order to pull up the hood of my gore-tex jacket and traded my ruby sunglass lenses for clear lenses. Head to toe I was sheathed in gore-tex: gore-tex jacket, gore-tex pants, gore-tex socks. As the rain grew harder and harder, I forced myself to drink every ten minutes or so, knowing that my body was losing the sweat cues to hydrate. Every hour on the bike I’d eat again, gnawing through Clif Bars and bananas, dreaming off greasy, salty, convenience store pizza, fresh out from under the heat lamp.
Once over Andover Ridge it was a cumulative downhill to Brattleboro. But the light was fading, and my rear wheel was startingto make the odd, disconcerting noise. On my first brevet of the season I had DNF’ed ten miles in due to a loose freewheel, and the sound I heard was suspiciously similiar. Now I had the tools to fix the problem, and so when I flatted out on a potholed descent, I tore open my rear wheel while sitting in the dirt on the shoulder of a lonely road, rain trickling down my nose. Much to my relief, my freewheel was just as tight as I had left it, but there was scant grease in my rear hub. I put my rear wheel back together and pushed on into a hellish descent.
Vermont, like the rest of New England, is susceptible to frost heaves, the buckling of the land as it freezes in winter. When frost heaves hit the roads though, bumps, cracks and potholes result. And the stretch of road down into the Conneticut River Valley was filled with all three. Two hours before sunset I already had both my lights on in an attempt to see through the gloom, trying to pick my way through the maze of cracks on the roads, avoiding any standing water, unsure of the condition of the road beneath the windswept surface. As true night enveloped me fog began to rise in the valleys, forcing me to turn down my headlamp in an effort not to be blinded by reflected light. Each car that passed me blinded me momentarily, leaving me standing on the pedals in the hopes that I might absorb whatever impact I couldn’t see. Even when a car wasn’t passing me, I was standing on the pedals, using my legs and arms to absorb the jarring bumps and holes in an effort to avoid bending my rims or, even worse, breaking a spoke. But while my chafed ass was grateful for the pressure relief of standing on the pedals, my legs and knees were increasingly tormented. By the time I reached Brattleboro, nearly two hours later than I intended, I ached from head to toe. My neck and shoulders ached from holding my head up. My arms ached from holding my body up. My lower back throbbed. My buttocks hurt. My knees were tinged with pain at every movement. My thighs and calves screamed. Only my hands and feet didn’t hurt, and that was because they had long ago gone numb.
I rolled up to the checkpoint table at the Motel Six in Brattleboro and performed a clumsy dismount in the cold, dark rain when a BMB staffer walked up to me on the other side of my bike, placed his hands on the handlebar and saddle and declared to me, not a foot from my face, “Wes, I have your bike.”
I looked in confusion at his face, and then down at his hands. Finally I looked back up and said, “Yes, yes you do have it.” He continued to hold it, with the air of someone who expects obedience to an unspoken command. After another dazed moment I figured out that he expected me to let go of my bike, and when I did, he rolled it under the overhanging second floor balcony and placed it in an orderly line of bicycles leaning against the motel wall, as though he were a junior high assistant principal inventorying another successful confiscation.
My father stood up from his seat underneath the canopy at the checkpoint table and asked, “What do you need to keep going, son?”
“Well I’m going to need to repack my hubs.”
“Why?” the assistant principal/BMB staffer asked in an accusatory tone, “What did you do to your bike?”
I looked at him in confusion and replied, “Well, it’s making a clicking sound in the rear wheel at low speeds, and-”
“When was the last time you had your wheel relaced?” he interrupted.
“What? I, I don’t know.”
“Well, that’s what your problem is. It’s clicking at low speeds when your climbing?”
“But not at high speeds.”
“Yes, you need to relace your spokes. They’re rubbing and clicking. That’s your problem, not your hub.”
“Well, actually I broke my rear hub apart not thirty miles ago, and it doesn’t have enough grease in it.”
“But that’s not causing your clicking.”
“OK,” I muttered, turning to my father and threw my most adolescent “Whatever,” over my shoulder.
I had originally planned on eating, showering, changing clothes and getting another massage before continuing on to Boston, but the rain was a constant deterrent. “What’s the weather report?” I asked my father,
“Rain.” The assistant principal told me from behind my back. “Rain all night, continuing into the morning.”
“So what are you going to do?” my father asked,
I looked out at the glistening black asphalt, and contemplated another six hours of riding in the dark, alone in the rain, blinded by Friday night drunks on their way home after last call.
“Screw it. I’m sleeping here till dawn.”
And after gobbling another handful of ibuprofen I did just that.
I pushed on the next day, confident that I had plenty of time to make it back to Boston by 10 PM. I caught up with a few friends along the way, and shared a decidedly-slower paceline again. The closer we got to Boston, the heavier the traffic grew, and I focused my attention on the road in front of me and the cars around me, unwilling to forfeit my finish to a moment of inattention. Finally I made one last, well-marked turn into the Holiday Inn, and rode down the hill and around the back. As I approached the parking garage a chorus of cheers, whistles and claps rose up around me. Someone began ringing a bell as I pulled to a stop in front of a folding table. My mother and father rushed up to me, two dacshunds circled my feet, my brother and aunt grinned from the corner, and fellow ancíennes, 1200k brevet veterans, slapped me on the back, congratulating me on my finish.
“How’s it feel to be done?” my mom asked, looking up at me with the pride that only a five foot two inch mother can feel for her son towering over her at six foot five inches,
“How’s it feel?” I smiled and thought of all I had been through to make it to the starting line, let alone the finish. I thought of all my friends and family who helped me along the way, and the distilled stubbornness that had fueled me for so many miles. I thought of the credit cards I would have to pay down, and of a warm shower, a warm bed, and my daughter and love waiting for me at home,
“It feels good.”
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