Back to 1996 Boston Brevet Series Reports

[From a series of ride reports I posted to randon (a mailing list for randonneuring).]

Ride Report
1996 Boston Brevet Series 300 km
June 1st
Tour De L'île, Montréal
June 2nd

Hello, this your NJ Ping Pong player reporting again.

What has the Boston Brevet Series 300 km ride got to do with the Tour de L'île? Not a lot except they start within 24 hours of each other, one country and about 300-odd miles apart. Of course, your correspondent wanted to enjoy both rides in one weekend. The scheduling was a little tight, but hey why not?

So my plan was to drive 5 hours up to Boston (after work) on Friday night, do the 300 km brevet ride starting at 4:00am on Saturday, a quick change and refuel, drive 6 hours through the night to rendezvous with two friends in Bouchervile PQ at 0700 hours, just outside the island of Montréal, get a spot of breakfast and merge with 45,000 other cyclists on the 69 km route.

In stark contrast to the 200 km brevet ride a fortnight earlier, the goal on the 300 km edition was not to finish completely hammered, but instead to try to finish with enough energy to stay alert all night lest I inadvertantly go for a spot of off-roading in VT. In theory this sounds fine, only question mark being I was unsure of what it takes to ride a 300 km brevet, reportedly with 9000 ft of climbing, and still finish fresh. In others words, this ride would represent several firsts for me, the first time I'd ever gone further than 200 km, the first time navigating on my own, and of course, further pushing the zero-bike-training hypothesis. My training therefore, consisted of the previous 200 km brevet ride plus one other ride a week before to acquaint myself with my nifty new present to myself (for completing the first brevet), a set of ultra-narrow Scott RCO clip-on aerobars that I thought might come in handy. I had a little trouble riding a straight line, par for the course I reckon for the first time out, but the idea behind the RCO clip-ons was that the narrower you were in the sense of keeping your elbows together, the more aero you were. I liked the fact they mounted next to the stem and pivoted out of the way, thus keeping all hand positions available plus leaving enough room on the bars to mount the ubiquitous bike computer plus the mandatory lights for night riding. This ride also afforded me the first opportunity to try out my new satellite navigation computer, an Apple Newton plus a small Garmin GPS antenna programmed with the brevet cue-sheet the night before. All this for only a weight penalty of two pounds! I mounted the whole contraption to the aerobars.

[2005 Note: So quaint. Boy, you can do way better now with something like a Magellan Explorist 600 or a Garmin GPS 60cs for way less weight and money. And it'd be actually useful.
My attempt to cobble something together stemmed from a very real concern about the difficulty of navigating unfamiliar roads at an average of 1 turn per mile whilst riding at speed and sometimes in the dark. The time and stress penalty for a wrong turn can be very high indeed: it can mean the difference between missing a checkpoint, getting disqualified, running out of fuel and adding hours to the ride. Good randonneuring navigation is an often undervalued skill. And I didn't really have it in 1996.]

Anyway, I arrived at Hanscom Field in Bedford MA about ten minutes before 4am. It was suprisingly warm, almost 60 degrees. I was very comfortable with my leg warmers and a long sleeve jersey. This time I cleverly managed to avoid getting sucked into the big, fast start. Actually, "missed" would be a more accurate description. I was still fiddling with mounting my computers and lights when I looked up and nearly everyone out of the 30-odd starters had suddenly disappeared. I panicked, slammed my car doors shut, jumped onto my bike and immediately found out I didn't know the way, I couldn't read the cue sheet in pitch dark, nor could I read my computer navigation screen since my Newton didn't have a backlit screen. Fortunately, I spotted a solitary blinking red taillight in the distance and managed to chase down the woman rider who seemed in turn to be trying to chase down a couple of riders a bit ahead of her.

Aside from those initial moments of blind panic in the darkness, I rode slowly, eventually latching onto a rider who seemed to know the course well and who seemed content to average out at about 15 mph. It was uneventful up to the first checkpoint at 41.3 miles in Sutton MA. (For comparison, I had ridden at an average of 20 mph for first 50 miles of the 200 km.) The 300 km route would next take us south in RI and further into the second checkpoint at 92.1 miles in Voluntown, CT. At the first checkpoint, I discovered why the screen of my navigation computer had stayed frustratingly blank for 40 miles. In my haste at the start, I'd failed to boot it up in the correct sequence.

[2005 Note: Ahem, quite an admission from someone with a bachelor's, a master's and a Ph.D. in computer science. Randonneuring is surprisingly busy and input intensive. You barely have to time to fiddle around with opening food packets or adjusting clothing never mind booting a finicky computer if you're trying to ride at a decent pace, keep your eyes on the road, watch out for potholes and stay with a group.]

The temperature warmed up dramatically as I made my way through RI and on towards CT. It was 80-something degrees, the sun was shining, my GPS system was now working perfectly, and I was a happy camper. At the Voluntown checkpoint, I remarked to Dave Jordan, the series organizer, that I was feeling better as the ride went on and we'd already gone halfway. He replied that it wasn't quite halfway plus the real climbing was still to come.

He was accurate. The next section of the ride from Voluntown via Route 169 through Canterbury, Pomfreit, Woodstock, Dudley MA seemed to consist of an never-ending series of hills. I also decided to step up my efforts at this point, dropped my riding companion albeit with some guilt but averaging 15 mph wasn't really my pace, and rode the last 110 miles or so solo. (Another first for me.) The temperature soared into the nineties and my satellite navigation system packed up for the last time. It had only functioned for about 50 miles. I got out the paper cue sheet and discovered that it not only weighs considerably less than two pounds but also worked amazingly well. Because of the heat and the length of the section, I (and I heard later several others did so too) ran out of water. So I stepped into a ValuMart to buy a nice cold drink only to discover that in my haste at the start, I'd forgotten to bring my wallet. I left empty-handed. Approaching Dudley MA, I walked into a bar (sign over the door said something about Harley bikers) and asked the barmaid for a coke but I had no money to pay her - _but_ I'd leave my name and address and send her a check later. She looked at me as though I was some kind of a nutcase. Fortunately, one of the tattooed patrons decided it'd be fun to buy me a drink.

[2005 Note: The Route 169 section never becomes easy even in later years. It's a wonderful test.]

So it was wonderful to reach the third checkpoint at mile 150 in Sutton MA and stock up on all the gatorade I could carry. With only 40 (relatively flat) miles to go, I was still feeling good. So I decided to up the tempo to full training speed and use the aerobars to hammer home. Arriving in Bedford MA, I still had relatively fresh legs. I'd ridden way too conservatively, which was just as well, as I still had a night of driving plus the Tour de L'île to get through. Back at Hanscom Field, I was filled with a sense of euphoria, so much so I immediately signed up for the 400 km, although my total time of 14:18 was nothing to write home about especially compared to that of the first finisher who was done in 11-something. Still, I couldn't help but marvel at the wonders of randonneuring. Effectively, the 300 km ride had shown me it was actually possible to cover real distances in the time between dawn and dusk and still be fresh enough to participate in other activities when you arrive. (Well, I must confess I pulled over to a rest stop and took a little two hour nap in Burlington VT on my drive up to Montréal.) Riding the Tour de L'île the next day was somewhat of a surreal experience (no doubt aided by sleep deprivation). Here I was, riding with friends in a sea of cyclists as far as the eye could see, whereas scarcely 24 hours earlier I'd been riding the 110 miles from CT back to Boston solo. It's a glorious memory I'll recall with fondness for a long time to come.

[2005 Note: In later years, I'd go under the 11 hour mark for the same course: with training of course. Also, in a later year, I'd do the L'Express version of the Tour de L'île on a lowracer recumbent averaging 34 km/hr. But that's another story.
However, I have to say I'm much more impressed by my ability to drive up to Montréal under such circumstances without putting the car in a ditch. Nuts.]

So with any luck, the experiment will continue. Onto the 400 then. What present should I buy myself to augment the aerobars for completing the 300 km? I'm thinking of a pair of aero wheels or a new drive train.


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