The Englewood (Hudson/Catskills) 600k – My Rookie Brevet Experience
Two years ago this July, I hopped onto my first road bike, and life has never been the same. Almost a year later to the day I found myself riding over the continental divide with a cross country charity group against cancer. Early this year I got word of this crazy sect of cycling called randonneuring (much too late to catch onto the PBP bandwagon), and scrambled to enter the last long brevet that was offered in the Northeast. I figured anything under a 400k would eventually be achievable within the time limit, and picked the Englewood 600k simply because a finish would not at all be a sure thing – and all the more of an achievement. I went out and bought a new plush Bianchi carbon ‘Coast to Coast’ bike advertised as being made for long distance cyclists (just 3 weeks before the event!), got a nice Schmidt dynohub and light, and put about 800 miles on the new bike to prepare for the 600k. Thus I found myself in a hotel parking lot in Englewood - nearly 2 years to the day that I hopped onto my first road bike – feeling very insecure around the other 35 riders, most of whom were probably heading for the 1200k PBP. Compared to what everyone else was carrying I felt like I had packed pathetically light, with a modest saddle bag, a small triangle bag fit between the water bottles, 2 tubes strapped to the stem, and some sponges taped to my bare carbon handlebars (these ended up saving me from worlds of pain). And my Sam Browne reflective belt was hanging awkwardly from my torso. But I was secretly pleased to know that this trial of mine would coincide with the start of the Tour de France…
Stage 1: Englewood to Beacon, 55 miles, Arrived 8:06 AM
Laurent (the RBA) gave the ok to leave and we unceremoniously rolled out of the parking lot at 5AM. I immediately ended up at the front of the pack, feeling like I had just made my first rookie mistake. It was here, literally in the first mile, that I met up with Nate Morgenstern, also inching off of the front. He may have been the only rider who packed lighter than I did. Apparently he has somewhat of a reputation amongst the regulars as someone whose wheel you just don’t bother trying to follow, and I slowly picked up on this throughout the ride. Upon mentioning that this was my first brevet ever, he chuckled to himself, probably marking me as a DNF. Perhaps rightly so I thought. But I found his pace agreeable for the time being, and as we hit the first hill we left the mass behind us and never saw another rider until Beacon. After the Bear Mountain Bridge, Nate I think decided to put me to the test, and we started trading pulls at a rather fast pace. Got my heart going quite a bit, but I wasn’t too concerned, since it takes a good 20-30 miles of this intensity before I come up to form for the day.
Stage 2: Ends at Catskill, mile 120, Arrived 12:00 PM
Despite our fast stint on route 9D, a good 25 riders showed up at the park in Beacon in the 20 or so minutes that we stayed there. I was still feeling at this point like the overzealous rookie who would inevitably burn out. I had my brevet card signed, grabbed a few bars from the 20 I had stocked in my bag, ate a PB and J sandwich graciously prepared for me, and we were on our way quickly (I was pleased that I was proving an acceptable riding companion). After a slight low point, and a convenience store stop to compensate a few miles in, I finally came up to speed, and we booked it through the remainder of our flat 120 mile prologue, enjoying some great (yet ominous) views of the Catskill Mountains and the gorge that we would eventually have to climb up into. I had memorized the map/cue for a good 2/3 of the trip, much to our benefit here as we wound around many side roads. We reached the pizza place in Catskill right at noon, and this time we were not immediately followed by riders. About 5 or 6 were just getting there when we left 30-40 minutes later, and Laurent and his right hand man Steve were surprised to see us already inside eating our 2 slices of pizza when they arrived. I think Nate was impressed now. He was also heading into a low point (something both of us would experience at different times throughout the ride) and morale would dip as we started climbing.
Stage 3: Ends at Phoenicia, mile 150, Arrived 2:50 PM
Now the pain starts. The rollers and slope up into the base of the gorge were hard on Nate, and with his encouragement I went ahead on my own to climb up Haine’s Falls, a 5-6 mile climb of steady 8-9% grades. In retrospect, this was my least favorite climb of the trip. The scenery was amazing, as the newly paved road wound its way around the inner veins of the gorge. But the road was tight, and traffic was a little intimidating. Pedestrians were everywhere looking at you like you were insane – probably some truth to that. And the entire thing was exposed to the sun during the hottest part of the day. I never felt like I got into a rhythm, nor did I get that euphoric feeling I usually get while climbing. I was glad to finally get to the top.
Then my right Achilles tendon started to complain – a bad sign when you have 250 miles ahead of you. I stopped for some water and to recover for a few minutes and saw Nate fly by. I caught up to him a few miles later as we headed over the next pass into a nice downhill section. It was much needed, because I felt quite impaired by my potential injury. We were both pretty trashed by the time we reached Phoenicia along Route 28. The town was quite a tourist attraction, and the locals had reacted by apparently putting a ban on all public restrooms. Nate started out the next leg while I fruitlessly searched for a bathroom. We saw no other riders from our trip while at this stop.
Stage 4: Ends at Liberty (sleep stop), mile 215, Arrived 7:40 PM
With the Slide Mountain Climb approaching, and feeling quite low and pained at this point, I felt that finishing could be questionable. Then, as I entered the large valley along route 28, I was hit by the most oppressive of headwinds. I fought my way back up to Nate and we were able to share the load for a while, but it barely helped in such a wind. Finally we turned onto the road leading up to Slide and the wind disappeared. I was very excited to find a much needed bathroom at this point, as my digestive system was in shambles and further complicating things, and so I parted with Nate once again to stop. Still feeling like I could not possibly put more food into my body, yet desperately needing energy, I spent 3 dollars on a small bottle of organic juice at this store, and to my surprise, felt instantly better. I donned my IPod Shuffle in one ear for further inspiration and set off into the now cooling afternoon to climb Slide.
Alone and with some music, I was able to let my mind drift towards everything and everyone in my life that had led me towards this point of insanity (it’s amazing what will flash through your head while under such physical stress), and with a surge of inspiration I flew up Slide. Until the long 15% grade hit. Then even my compact crank could do nothing for me, and I started pounding slowly out of the saddle, feeling my right knee start to go. The energy surge continued as I flew down the gentle slope on the other side, feeling like I was riding a time trial pace all the way through the desolate roads to Livingston Manor.
I pushed onward towards Liberty, over what Laurent had called ‘rolling hills’ (I think our vocabulary is vastly different – I came across many an incline on this trip that I would consider much more significant than a roller or a hill). Now the knee and Achilles complained much more, and I resorted to favoring my remaining good leg for most of these hills. The route crept up and along ridgelines, revealing scenic views as the sun fell lower and lower into the sky, my energy waning all the time and various body parts failing to function. But I finally reached the sleep stop at the Howard Johnson in a complete daze to find Nate and Laurent waiting in the lobby. I filled out my food order form, enjoyed a meal brought to our room by our volunteers, showered, and crashed for a good 3 hours. Our wakeup call would be at midnight. I only hoped my injured parts could recover before our final 165 miles…
Stage 5: Ends at Hurley, mile 266, Arrived Around 4:00 AM
As promised, we were awoken at midnight, and breakfast was brought to us soon after. I felt amazingly awake and refreshed. I threw on a new jersey and shorts (I am very glad that I broke down and bought a second pair of really good shorts to change into on this ride), threw on some gooey, sticky, lanolin based Lantiseptic, and prepared my bike for another day as the next shift of riders came into our room (and were sleeping in minutes). In the end I was amazed at the amount of volunteer support and service we received for our relatively modest entry fee!
Before leaving at 12:40 AM, Nate stole a glance at the time sheet and saw that 3 other riders had come and gone while we were sleeping, one at 12:15, another at 11:40, and yet another at 8:40 PM! Now his competitive side started to show, as for the first few miles he seemed to talk nonstop about the possibilities of catching these riders. At which point, in the dark, I could only think about how much my knee hurt and that this zealous attitude would inevitably infect me and eventually result in a debilitating injury. I resigned to reason, telling myself that finishing this event would be quite enough of an accomplishment. And then we saw what could have been a red cycling tail light. I was immediately infected, and we started booking it again. I figured out, with some advice from Nate, that if I pointed my toe inwards and downwards on the down stroke, the knee/Achilles problem would be somewhat alleviated (this, however, along with the increased bump impact at night and softened skin from the shower became quite painful in the saddle). We passed the 12:15-departee a few miles after first spotting his taillight.
The night ride was amazing. It was still warm enough to ride without arm warmers. We passed the Neversink Reservoir dam with all the stars reflecting on the water. We saw the moon rise and eventually loom above us in Peekamoose Valley – a most desolate stretch of road with a significant climb and descent over a pass in the mountains. The valley was very narrow and deep, with a rushing stream to our right the whole way up. Upon our descent we heard a nightmarish sound of a huge (think Kujo) dog coming at us invisibly from the right. Quite freakish when you can’t even see your adversary. We also hit a gravel section unexpectedly while descending at about 30 mph. Nate was quite a descender, even at night, and it was good practice keeping up with him. We passed by the Ashokan Reservoir and went over a few rollers before descending into the valley leading to Hurley, where we caught a glimpse of the next taillight. Sure enough, when we reached the closed Stuart’s at Hurley, we were greeted by a friendly volunteer, Althea, offering food and drink from the back of her car, and the 11:40 departee, Sebastian Maurer, was asleep in the front seat.
Stage 6: Ends at Chester, mile 319, Arrived Around 8:00 AM
Upon hearing that the 8:40 departee had left Hurley less than 90 minutes before us, Nate started to get a little fired up again, and this time I caught on as well, my knee problems mysteriously disappearing (perhaps from my muscles warming up?). With much energy we both approached and climbed Mohonk Mountain. This climb was by far my favorite: we were just getting enough light as we started ascending that we could see the blue shades of the Catskills off to the West. Soon after I turned off my light. I climbed with a good rhythm this time, finally free of pain in the legs. With good feeling, we descended into the valley, turned southward, and saw the sun rise behind us.
Then began – hands down - the worst part of my ride. The road was flat, but endless. I found myself very cold as we rode through mists rising out of the fields. I felt my blood sugar plummet, despite whatever I ate, and as a consequence every single body part that had had some previous reaction started screaming with pain. My big toes felt like they were being squeezed flat. I started thinking that I would rather be anywhere except on my bike, and the side of the road began looking very attractive to just curl up on and pass out, despite the cold wet dew. I think Nate was in a low as well, but not nearly as severe as mine. I tried to do my share of pulling, but such efforts were pretty pathetic and short-lived. I was happy to reach the town of Montgomery (17 miles from Chester), where, warming up in a corner store, I did the unthinkable out of desperation: I chugged a Mountain Dew.
Then came an amazing turn around. I felt like I had sold my soul to the devil for one last stint, and much to Nate’s surprise I surged forward over the rollers all the way to Chester, with a diabolic rush of good feeling all the way. I felt like there was nowhere I would rather be than on my bike. Nate could barely hold my wheel for awhile before his slower burning bagel kicked in after a couple of miles. We were both waiting for me to crash again, but to our amazement, the surge held all the way to Chester, where upon entering the McDonalds controle we saw Anthony Mennona, the rider who had ridden straight through the night, and who had arrived just a few minutes before. I shuddered to think where on the side of the road I would have ended up if I had attempted such a feat, remembering how awful I had felt approaching Liberty. We spent nearly an hour at McDonalds.
Stage 7: Back to Englewood, mile 380, Arrived 1:24 PM
At this point I was finally starting to understand the cycles that my body was going through, and based upon my recent Mountain Dew success story coupled with our proximity to the finish, I decided to take my chances with more sugar. The final crash would be severe, but it would hopefully fall close to or after the finish. I drank lots of Sprite, and ate 2 apple pies, some nuts, and yogurt. All problems went away, and even my stubborn digestive system, plaguing me for the entire ride, cleared up. Nate ate an egg sandwich which reportedly caused a little nausea a few miles in, but his strength remained constant nonetheless. We were now on his home turf, and barely needed to consult the cue sheet as he quickly navigated us through the next three ridgelines, our last barrier between us and the finish.
Pumped full of sugar, and still beating the worst of the heat, these climbs felt like a fun addition to a nice Sunday ride. We flew up and down windy roads, temporarily delayed by a flat in my rear tire. Nate was enjoying flying around on his turf, and had a story about nearly every road we were on. Harriman State Forest was beautiful. The climb was no problem, completely shaded and at a steady grade. I found myself simply enjoying the amazing scenery all the way up, passing through both open lake areas and dense forests. Upon descending out of Harriman, the brutal heat hit us for good. What perfect – and lucky – timing (those poor cyclists behind us!). A few more miles of navigation through heavy traffic found us on familiar roads from the day before. We pushed through Congers, and I put my last real energy into the quite taxing last hill on 9W before descending into Nyack.
Cyclists owned the roads in Nyack! Quite a contrast from the empty roads we had seen at 5:30AM the day before. Nate introduced me to the infamous Spoon café, and ran into a friend of his who commented that we looked as if we were just out for a Sunday stroll (like the hundreds of other cyclists on the roads). We pushed back towards the NJ border, and I felt my final crash starting to approach. At least now adrenaline could move me forward. But severe pain was returning to my toes, knees, Achilles tendon, and now to my left shin just above my foot (new!). The facial expressions must have been priceless. But timing was perfect. I probably would have had to take an extended break had this happened 10 miles earlier. I suffered through the last few miles, and we rolled into the hotel side by side at 1:24, 32 hours and 24 minutes after we had started. Anthony would come in 90 minutes later, and the first words out of his mouth were “Those were the worst 75 miles I have ever ridden in my life”. I was amazed at what he had accomplished with no sleep, but was now convinced that more sleep time means a faster and more enjoyable ride! I left about 30 minutes after that, not seeing any other riders. I wish I could have stayed for more homecomings, but body and mind were about to shut down for good!
At the Finish
I had entered this ride unsure as to whether or not I could even finish, and this made my surprising result all the more gratifying for me. The fact that I had happened upon Nate in the first few miles played a large part in my success. His long distance experience and his advice were instrumental in the mental transition that took me from insecure rookie to sharer of the fastest time. And mental solidarity is everything. I remember Laurent cautioning me in an early email how one’s mind can easily trump physical wellness. I am excited because looking back on the ride I see much room for improvement. We probably spent a good 10 hours off of the bikes, even though we clearly demonstrated that some of that rest was instrumental in maintaining our speed. All in all a great experience to cap off my second year of riding. I am excited now for what the next year will bring!
- Ryan terMeulen