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 600 km
July 20th and 21st

The 600km ride is the last brevet in the Boston Brevet Series: by simply finishing this ride within the 40 hour time limit I would complete the formal requirements and be duly qualified to participate in Boston-Montreal-Boston come August 22nd, the main event or highlight of the season, if I so wished. Having completed the previous three (200, 300 and 400 km) rides without running into major problems or time limits, I thought this ride would be a mere formality.

My pre-ride expectations were further bolstered when I was on a conference trip to Santa Cruz the week before. I found myself with a spare Saturday --- courtesy of the Saturday night stipulation imposed by United Airlines in an attempt to weed out the business travellers from the holidaymakers. Visiting the Santa Cruz table tennis club to check out the local competition, I lucked into meeting another table tennis fanatic who happened to be a cyclist. (What can I say? It's a small world.) I asked him for ride recommendations in the surrounding mountains and he responded by marking out this absolutely wonderful hilly century route for me, complete with a detailed cue sheet. A brief note is in order here: a West Coast netter had earlier posted that "The Santa Cruz mountains are full of the greatest bike rides I can imagine..." in response to my enquiry about suitable rides. I must confess I was kind of skeptical about this and was fully prepared to put this down to West Coast hyperbole. In fact, I am happy to report the ride I went on that Saturday was simply brilliant, it's definitely the best ride I've ever done. Complete with 9000' of climbing, most of it coming in the first 30 miles. Ideal preparation for brevet riding. Oops. Does this break my no brevet training rule? I don't know, I just couldn't pass it up. Stopping only once, I completed the ride solo in just over 7 hours without really working very hard. It's amazing what brevet riding can do to one's confidence. After all, once you've hammered out a fast 400km with maybe 20,000' of climbing, these century rides no matter how hilly somehow don't seem quite so hard anymore. Plus on the West Coast they believe in switchbacks, so no knee-popping grades like we get over here --- yes, even in New Jersey --- try Fiddler's Elbow some time if you don't believe me. A double was more than sufficient in Santa Cruz.

Anyway, fast forwarding one week to July 20th, I was in understandably good spirits when I started the 600 km brevet at 3:00am from Hanscom Field in Bedford MA. I arrived at the first checkpoint (41.3 miles) in Sutton MA at 5:30am, not long after dawn so it was a good time to drop off the heavy duty lighting equipment. Somewhat strangely, I had stopped eating or drinking at around the 30 mile point. Nothing to worry about I thought, I'll just catch up on that at the checkpoint. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I visited the bathroom (twice) at Sutton for an extended period, I had an upset stomach or some gastric problem. Now I understood why I didn't want to eat or drink. At this point I thought of quitting, but after a few words with Dave Jordan, I decided to ride on to the next checkpoint (81.4 miles) and see how I felt.

I struggled into the Stafford Springs checkpoint at 8:37am in a semi-bonked state. It was not looking good. I was now getting stomach cramps every time I tried to drink or eat something, and I was just waiting for an offer of a ride back before I quit. Morever, I had just broken a crown in a futile attempt to bite through a Powerbar. As if I needed any further confirmation that today wasn't going to be my day, I also somehow managed to drop my cue sheet at the top of a steep descent and had to climb all the way back up the hill to pick it up. I discussed quitting again. However, Dave Jordan popped into a pharmacy and got me some stomach pills. I don't know why, but I decided to ride on.

[2005 Note: after years, I now understand these stomach upset episodes. Basically, I am attempting to take in too many calories. And since my body is working hard, my stomach is unable to process them, leading to a major tummy upset. It doesn't matter if the calories come in liquid or solid form. In cycling, this is really bad because if your stomach is backed up and not converting food in energy, you're not refueling, and you'll eventually bonk. It's a guarantee. Finding the intake limit is an individual thing and subject to modification depending on ride length and intensity. On a long ride, I generally cannot take in more than 50% of my short ride intake. However, I need more calories on those long epic rides than on short rides, where I can afford to run a deficit and refuel afterwards.]

The third checkpoint at the General Store in Tolland MA is at 131 miles. I suck wheel the whole way in, arriving completely wasted at 12:51pm. I am dehydrated and my legs feel completely used up. My average speed between checkpoints has been going steadily downhill, 16.9, 15.2 and now a pathetic 13.6 mph. It is the lunchstop, so I go in to the General Store and buy a ham sandwich. Unfortunately, I can do little more than try to stare it down, as I am unable to take more than a couple of bites before visiting the toilet again. I buy Maalox and Tums and eat that stuff instead.

[2005 Note: 13-14 mph is classic bonk speed territory. Enough said.]

To my surprise I decide to soldier on. I ask the organizers to keep an eye out on the road ahead just in case I'm reduced to lying by the side of the road. 27.4 miles into the stage, there is a turn at East Lee Steak House. I spend the best part of the next hour in their bathroom. I emerge somewhat surprised to find my two riding companions still waiting for me. Continuing on, later there is a long, fast and bumpy descent. I must have been so wasted at this point, I did not get off the saddle and simply rode straight over the bumps and potholes at 36 mph. Not a smart move. My backup light, the Cateye Micro literally explodes on one of these bumps. I also lose a water bottle and my Blackburn pack breaks at the point at which it attaches to the saddle rails. (The pack stayed on by virtue of its velcro strap attachment at the seatpost.) I am too tired to stop and pick up the bits. But to my amazement, one of my riding companions recovers not only my water bottle but also a substantial number of the fragments from my Cateye. Unknown to me at this point, it also turns out I'd trashed my Spinergys. (I only discovered the aero section of my rear Spinergy was cracked in three places when I heard something rattling inside the rear wheel while I was wheeling my bike back to my car the next day.) Anyhow, I struggle into the next checkpoint, the fourth at 173.3 miles in Pittsfield MA at 5:15pm. I wave my riding companions goodbye --- no point holding them up any further, and I settle into a chair to wait it out and see if there is anyone behind me before deciding what to do. At this point, I should mention I had just replaced my drivetrain with a 1996 Shimano XTR triple setup a few days before the ride as a reward for completing the 400 km brevet. It is a pretty nifty setup with 46-36-26 at the front and 12-21 at the back. Funny thing is, the 4-arm spider mountain triple with hollow crankarms and splined bottom bracket actually weighs less than the Shimano 105 double I had before! The Ultegra rear derailleur I have shifts fine, but there is not enough tyre clearance for the redesigned 1996 XTR front derailleur to fit. I end up using the 1995 XTR incarnation instead. Since I rode both the 400 km and the Santa Cruz century with just a double, I had expected the granny to have novelty value only. Well, on this death-march of a 600 km ride, there is no way I would have made it this far without the triple.

[2005 Note: it's important to gear for worst-case scenario (not best or average case) if you still want to finish a brevet when the legs turn to jelly. Otherwise, with hills, it's just not possible.
I later sold the XTR triple for a more flexible and lower-Q drivetrain.]

I gratefully hook up with the next rider (Brian Wiedle) for the final and most difficult section tonight: it's only 44.7 miles but this section includes the long ascent up to Petersburg Pass. It will get dark soon. It's not the ascent that bothers me, I'm bonked so I can just climb at 4 mph following the centerline in the dark without fear of falling off. However, the thought of descending from the top of the pass in the dark (although I do have lights) with my Spinergys fills me with trepidation. To marshal our efforts for the pass, near dusk we rest awhile near Berlin MA, lying flat on our backs on the shoulder of Route 22. We grind up the pass and I descend with hands gripping both brakes the whole way down. My hands almost cramp up with the effort but we make it into the 218 mile checkpoint at Williamstown in New York state at 9:55pm. At this point, I estimate I have spent well over 2 hours in various bathrooms.

At Williamstown the checkpoint is in a high school with shower and sleep facilities --- i.e. mats on the gym floor. I am assured that a shower and some sleep will do me a world of good. I am somewhat dubious about how my bonked legs will recover from this, but I am so tired I take a 4 hour nap anyway. Anyhow, I am somewhat giddy with amazement that I actually managed to make it this far. It turns out the organizers were not completely wrong about the virtues of a little sleep. Come 4:30am, my right leg has made a partial recovery but my left leg is still dead. Only two riders remain behind us as we leave Williamstown. Into the second day, the ride has turned into a race against the time limits. We have a close call with a bunch of deer sprinting across the road, but Brian and I make it into checkpoint 6 at Whately (270.9 miles) at 8:10am. We have made the 9am cutoff by a mere 50 minutes.

At this point, my stomach also seems to have made a partial recovery and we head off to get some breakfast at a restaurant --- the first hot food I've had since beginning the ride some 30 hours earlier. This turns out to be a good move. Feeling somewhat less miserable, we start discussing strategy for Boston-Montreal-Boston with still a century (100 miles) to go in the 600 km ride. I also learn about the virtues of Gu (Vanilla Bean flavour) somewhere in this stage, and became an instant convert. We roll into the penultimate checkpoint (312.4 miles) at Bullard's Farm in New Salem MA at 12:18pm. Cutoff time is 1pm. We learn that one of the two riders behind us didn't make the last cutoff. I donate my remaining Powerbars to no-one in particular at Bullard's Farm and stocked up on bananas instead. I had been riding with the Powerbars in my jersey pocket unopened for more than two hundred miles. By this point, I simply couldn't bear the sight of them, preferring to go hungry rather than eat one.

[2005 Note: when the stomach finally recovers, it's time to down as many calories as you can manage without upsetting it again. Then riding at non-bonk speeds finally becomes possible. Even on my 57 hour Boston-Montreal-Boston ride, a pretty successful ride, I managed to bonk. But once I recovered, I turned in some of the fastest splits I'd ever seen. But in 1996, I had no idea how to debug these situations correctly.]

Leaving Bullard's Farm just before 1pm, we ride back to Bedford MA stopping only once at the top of the hill in Princeton MA where I just had to stop to buy drinks and ice cream. Leaving Princeton, I remarked to Brian that we were behind schedule to make the final cutoff time. He then proceeded to immediately address that problem by doing the next 10 miles in under 30 minutes. I fixated on the rear hub of his bike and tried not to let it go out of focus as I grimly tried to hang on to his wheel. We finally rolled back into Hanscom Field at 6:23pm, barely half-an-hour ahead of the 7pm (40 hour) cutoff. I realize we have finished the 600 km ride (385 miles) dead last (of those that made the time checks).

[2005 Note: I wanted to avoid a DNF at all costs. Now I'm older and wiser, I'm more willing to DNF to avoiding damaging my body.]

At the finish I recalled one of the net responses I received when I posted my first (upbeat) 200 km brevet report. The author pointed out how he rode a 200 km brevet in New York this year with a mild cold, but in his words: "suffered unbelievably, barely making it to the final checkpoint --- losing his voice, being barely able to breathe, and with completely dead legs" --- despite being well-trained and having breezed through such rides before. I see what he meant now. However, several questions come to mind immediately.

Would training have helped? I don't know for sure, but to my mind, once you've used up your legs and are unable to refuel properly, you probably hit the same base level performance irrespective of training. For example, I've seen riders at this year's Corestates barely riding faster than 14 mph on the flat section after the Manayunk Wall.

How much better would I have done if I'd been healthy? This question remains unanswered and it is the question that really worries me. Perhaps I wouldn't have done a whole lot better. Although I was sick, I gave it everything I had. Played mind games with myself, the works. Perhaps the no-training strategy is inadequate for rides like this 600 km brevet which extends more than one day. After all, up to now all the rides I've done have not required riding more than one day. In particular, this ride has cast considerable doubt on whether I should attempt Boston-Montreal-Boston on August 22nd, a ride Dave Jordan warned me was another whole new level (higher).

Anyhow, it took me a week to recover from this death-march. Fortunately, I had planned to take a week off work anyway to attend the Olympics in Atlanta. Four days before I could eat a proper meal again. I lost 15lbs in weight, gave away all the Powerbars I owned and spent two hours in a dentist's chair to fix the broken crown the very next day. Since the tooth was still live, I am surprised I didn't feel any pain during the ride. I suppose the adrenaline and stomach cramps must have had higher priority interrupts to my nervous system.

[2005 Note: 15 lbs! That's more than 10% of my body weight. Mostly dehydration, as well as fat and muscle. Why dehydration? Well, if your stomach isn't working, drinking lot of water will make you feel pretty nauseous, so you don't drink.]

On the way back to New Jersey the next day, I popped into the Spinergy offices in Wilton CT to get the wheel replaced. I complained about the rattle and huge radial cracks in the rear wheel (from sudden compression I suppose), but they said it was not a manufacturing defect. They marked it down as a crash, although I didn't. So I was out $199 replacement cost. On the bright side, the wheel had not only stayed together during the two hundred miles afterwards but also stayed true. I thought I'd better have them check out the front wheel as well, which to my untutored eye appeared to have escaped unscathed. Turns out, the front hub had cracked. Fortunately, they replaced the front for free.

[2005 Note: well, they broke several times after that too...these wheels sucked. Newer is not always better in the world of bicycle equipment.]

This brings my reports of the Boston Brevet Series rides to a close. As a neophyte in the world of brevet riding, I have had a lot of fun writing the reports. I hope you've enjoyed them too.


Back to 1996 Boston Brevet Series Reports