To test a hypothesis, one sometimes pushes to the limit or slightly over to discover where that edge lies and at the same time observe the boundary behaviour or failure mode. A good idea for scientific research and engineering which can contribute greatly to our understanding but perhaps not for brevet riding. And so it was that the Boston Brevet Series 400km excursion into the hills of Western Massachusetts on Saturday, June 22nd nearly proved to be the undoing of this author's "no-time-to-train" just-go-and-ride hypothesis. In other words, at several critical junctures I entertained serious doubts about whether I was physically capable of being able to complete the ride. It's one thing to debate the limits of zero-bike-training in an academic setting, it's another thing entirely to approach those limits 120 miles from home.
I was one of only fourteen riders to set out from Hanscom Field in Bedford MA for what would turn out to be a very long day one minute after midnight on Friday - for comparison 65 or so riders began the 200km. I suppose by this point we're down to the hard-core randonneurs and, of course, fools. I was told five other riders had opted to start at 4am making for a total of nineteen but I did not encounter these other guys during the ride.
[2005 Note: they don't start the 400k at 00:01am
anymore. The midnight start is trouble if you have to work in New
Jersey on Friday and then jump in your car and brave rush hour traffic
almost all the way to Boston, eat dinner, change and get ready for the
The more sensibly timed 4am start is for the "elite" riders. In later years, I'd also start at 4am, but in 1996 I wasn't in any shape to attempt that.]
This time I was well prepared for night riding. I had gotten my first taste of night riding a few weeks earlier in the 300km. There I'd discovered it was basically impossible to read the cue sheet or bike computer in pitch darkness. On this ride, I neatly solved that problem with a tiny amber light (good for night vision) that you can wear on a finger without affecting digit mobility. Using a hearing aid battery, it weighs less than an ounce and lasts for eight hours. I had also just bought the newly-released Cateye Micro-Halogen light as a backup just in case my primary 10W Nightrider setup failed. Due to a lack of handlebar space, I attached both of these to a horizontally mounted 3/4" pvc tube which was in turn drilled for zip-tying to my Scott RCO aerobars (with which I'd rewarded myself for doing the 200km). Well, if I can find my receipt, I want my money back for the Cateye. It fell off less than an hour into the ride. Turns out part of the mounting assembly is simply glued on to the main body and this interface failed. [However, see endnote 1.]
[2005 Note: even in today's brave new world of higher-power LED lighting, the Cateye Micro (when overvolted by lithium AAs), especially when doubled up, is still the best off-the-shelf light for randonneuring because it's compact, light and simple to operate, and throws a decent beam pattern.]
Anyhow, riding into the night, about ten of us hammered all the way out to the Bullard Farm checkpoint at 69.5 miles, stopping only briefly to change batteries at Sterling Green at mile 30. The pace was too hot for me, I couldn't see well since there was a steady drizzle and my glasses were continually fogging up which made for some hairy, blind descents. There were also some tough climbs near Barre which the leaders hammered up. I grimly hung on telling myself I'd slow down and ride at my own pace once dawn broke. Didn't work out that way. The "train" arrived at the Bullard Farm checkpoint ahead of daylight and schedule at 4:14am. I was actually pretty tired by this point, I'd not even dared to stop and take a leak lest I got left behind in the dark. Still, I had to stop and chase like a maniac twice, once when the stupid Cateye fell off and once when a front shift went awry and disengaged my chain.
Since there was some reluctance to carrying 3 or 4 lbs of lighting all the way to the next checkpoint at the 125 mile mark, we all ended up sitting around at Bullard Farm for 30 or 40 minutes waiting for sunrise. I guess a 1am start might have been more appropriate in these circumstances. A member of the pack expressed some concern about the pace of the climbing and wanted to leave a minute or two early. (He had a 37lb Cannondale holding him back.) I went with him since I felt I might stand a better chance of not blowing up climbing at his pace. We were soon joined by a third rider. However, our little group lasted less than 10 miles. Approaching a series of rolling hills on route 78, I found myself riding alone. I slowed down and looked back a few times but did not see the other two guys. I shrugged my shoulders and kept going - reckoning that the "train" was going to blow by me pretty soon. So I got down onto my aerobars and rode at 90% on the flats and struggled up each hill. The hours passed by. Still no train appeared. The sun came out on the long and arduous ascent (5 miles? 8 miles? maybe more, I don't recall) along route 116 into the 3rd checkpoint at Ashfield. I arrived at 10:27 or so while the van was still setting up and promptly fell off my bike whilst trying to unclip from my pedals. It was mile 125, the halfway point. I'd basically soloed the whole section. Three minutes later the train blew into the checkpoint.
Being the first arrival at the halfway point was definitely a bad move. I could've saved substantial energy by drafting in the paceline that arrived but three minutes askew instead of relying on my aerobars and Spinergys. The latter being the shiny new 4-spoke carbon-fibre wheels I'd ordered a few days back - my new toy for completing the 300km. I don't think they have any effect on the hills, but on the flats and definitely on every descent I felt tangible benefits. There is also no weight penalty for me as they weighed almost exactly the same as the 36-spoke wheels they replaced. Not that I'm that picky about weight, since I was already carrying a few extra pounds. I had my Apple Newton-based GPS system plus spare batteries, digital multimeter, portable butane-powered soldering iron, electrical screwdrivers and other assorted equipment to debug the whole setup. Plus a cellphone just in case I had to call 911 or tech support for help. As it turns out, this time I didn't need the tools, the third iteration of the GPS setup programmed with all the turns worked perfectly. However, I didn't have time to use it very often except on the solo stretch since I was too busy gasping for air whilst trying to keep up with the leaders. Dave Jordan suggested a heads-up display...
[2005 Note: Spinergy wheels, aka "rabbit choppers", are the worst wheels I've ever bought (and I've bought a few). Spinergys aren't made anymore. They are horrible in side-winds: on one ride on the Pacific Coast Highway, one gust from the ocean took me instantly into the lane for approaching traffic. Fortunately, there was no head-on. I have other deep rim wheels that are much less suspectible to cross-winds. I think it is the paired-up four-spoked design. They are also delicate and unreliable. I went through several wheels. Finally, the warranty was also worthless. At that time, the Spinergy headquarters was in CT, on my way back from Boston to New Jersey. I once stopped in with a cracked wheel for warranty purposes. They denied my claim, saying I must have crashed it. Of course, this was not true, and I repeatedly said so. But my claim was denied after "expert examination" and I was out major money. Although I completed Boston-Montreal-Boston in 1996 on them I never rode them again after that. I have (unavoidably) encountered potholes in New England, and the truth was that these wheels (unlike aluminum wheels I had ridden) aren't up to them. I vowed never to buy from Spinergy or its descendants again. Not that they care...]
Anyway back to the 400km, the ride returned to the Bullard Farm checkpoint by way of Amherst and a very long, nasty series of climbs on Pelham Rd. This was the section I almost gave up on. Payback I suppose for soloing the last section. A bit late perhaps, but sensibly, I waited for the others before attempting to leave Ashfield. We were now a group of six. I had immediately difficulty staying with the group on the hills. They were moving much faster than I could solo, I could scarcely believe this group hadn't blown by me on the way in to Ashfield. On each climb, part of me kept saying "let them go, just let them go". Another part, obviously insane, kept saying "you can hang on, hang on for just one more climb". I held on but suffered badly, even sometimes on the flats. I was basically toast. Fortunately, just as I was contemplating quitting the lead group, someone called a halt at a country store with 10 miles to go. Downing an orange juice, I was able to suffer in silence the rest of the way in. However, approaching Bullard Farm again at mile 176.9, somewhat ominously, it began to rain.
[2005 Note: even in later years, the Pelham Hill Rd climb always made me apprehensive. Given its position in the ride, it should be treated with respect. I think I only ever had one 400k when I found it fairly easy and I could attack it. All the other times, it was a grind.]
Six of us arrived together at 12:38pm. Of course, we still had a good 70 miles to go, through Petersham, Barre and Concord, and of course more climbing before making it all the way back to Hanscom Field. Well, the conditions turned miserable on this final section. For example, my socks turned black. My cellphone was waterlogged and filled with road grit when I flipped open the receiver the next day despite being in my jersey pocket. My Spinergys, (sob) instantly aged several years on its first ride, the aluminium brake tracks pitted and scored with black marks and the previously gleaming carbon fibre surfaces lost their shine. It started to get cold too, one of the guys was visibly shivering for most of the last 30 or so miles. Fortunately, at the last checkpoint I'd put on my arm warmers plus a helmet cover. Somewhat surprising, I actually didn't seem to mind having my face sprayed with rain whilst riding just behind someone's back wheel at 21mph. However, I did have a lot of road grit to spit out. After the ride, I had to rinse several times to get all of the black stuff out of my mouth. Probably typically of New England roads - the accumulation of sand and grit through many winters I suppose.
Anyway, in spite of the rain (or because of it?), around mile 220 or 230, the pace starts to creep up a little at a time. Or is it my imagination? Hills can no longer be taken while sitting down, I have to get out of the saddle and stomp on the pedals to keep from losing contact. It is now raining pretty hard. After the last long climb in Bolton, we motor along on 117. I bring out my two Pocket Rockets (gel energy), not wanting to bonk during the last twenty miles. The pace has definitely picked up again. Over a slick railroad crossing, the guy in front of me slips and goes down, his head hits the pavement inches from my front wheel. He is ok. I am lucky, I was too surprised to take evasive maneuvers. Approaching the towns of Maynard, Acton and Concord about ten miles from the finish, it becomes clear someone at the front is pushing quite hard. I don't think anybody wants to get dropped, but I don't believe our group of six can hang together now. Crossing route 2 just before Concord Center, six miles to go, one of us is dropped. He comes in almost 20 minutes behind, later he told me he just bonked. Instead of cruising in, the 400km seems to be ending in a hammer ride. One more guy gets dropped in the last couple of miles. He later finishes three minutes back. Fortunately, my Pocket Rockets have kicked in and I can now easily keep up. I breathe a sign of relief. I will not ride 400km only to get dropped on the last couple of hills. I attack the three rises to the top of the hill on Virgina Rd. A couple of left turns later we are home. The remaining four of us finish together. It has been 17 hours and 35 minutes and 246.6 miles.
We are also the first guys back so far. In contrast to the 300km, I am totally exhausted. It will not be possible to hop in my car and drive the 5 hours straight back to Princeton NJ tonight. I am also cold and extremely wet. As I get off my bike, I suddenly realize it is not raining anymore. I was concentrating so hard in the last 20 miles, I hadn't noticed. My lower back and right shoulder are hurting but my legs are ok. I don't think my saddle is uncomfortable, it's just that I've never ridden this far before and my body is unused to 16 or so hours in the saddle. My left ankle is also bleeding slightly, a consequence of my left heel occasionally turning in and my ankle hitting the crank. I have noticed the problem before, but I guess I've never ridden far enough for my ankle to get bashed enough times to get bloody. To put the results in perspective, the 4am starters had not come back yet. It turns out four out of the five riders on that schedule beat our time by a very substantial margin. In fact, the first and second place finishers completed the ride in a little under 16 hours.
Conclusions? It is clear that for me at least that this 400km was about the limit of my no-training experiment. I am not sure I want to continue on this series without at least doing a little training. In fact, I think I'm very lucky I didn't have to come back in the sag wagon this time. On the other hand, speaking as a beginner - after all this is my first 400km - I have to say I am pleased with my time. I reckon I have earned the triple crankset I'm going to buy as my reward for completing this one. Hopefully, this will be a big help on the long climbs. Of course, I also need a sleeping bag for the upcoming 600km brevet. Five weeks to recover before that one...
[2005 Note: a 400k is about the beginning of ride distances where the word "epic" can be used appropriately in the context of randonneuring. In my experience, it is also 400k when it starts to get serious, and any lack of preparation (wrt. training or acclimatization) will be ruthlessly revealed. A later edition of the Boston 400k, done in pouring rain, is still the ride that comes to mind when I think of epic.]
P.S. I'd also appreciate any tips about ride food. I calculated I'd need to eat a dozen Powerbars on the 400km, about one every twenty miles or so. I got so sick of them on this ride, I only managed to eat eight.
1. Actually, as it turns out I was wrong about the construction of the Cateye Micro-Halogen. It is not bonded: instead a small (and short) screw goes between the mounting hardware and the main body of the light. This screw came loose and the light fell off despite the thumbscrew being securely fastened. The problem is probably exacerbated by the shortness of the screw. This can be solved by apply Locite thread compound to the screw --- since there is no reason for the user to adjust the screw anyway since it is not part of the release or cinch mechanism.
However, also see the 600 km report for further problems with this light.