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2010-06-02 5:05 PM
Scenes from a brevet
At dusk the bugs were hitting me in waves, ratapat like lightweight shot. I didn't have my goggles on because fourteen hours earlier, I'd almost hit a parked car—the cue sheet holder blazing white in my forehead lamp, the world beyond it a black void, rain clinging to my lenses and refracting in drops and rivulets as I traced with a finger to find the next cue.
I blew bugs out of my lips; another few died when they collided alongside their swarm mates at 15 miles an hour and couldn't get out of my eyes. Dead bug is bad for the clarity of your contact lenses. I put my head down and tried to take the swarms on the helmet. As it got darker, they came less frequently and then they stopped.
I rode down to the Upper West Side to meet a client on Thursday and picked up the replacement for a small check that hadn't shown up in my mailbox. Deposit Thursday, available Friday—and then Hotels.com had a same-day deal on two nights at the same hotel where the brevet started and ended. Still nowhere near justifiable in our personal economy, but the Super Randonneur medal is the goal I can actually get a grip on this year. Self-respect all wrapped up in a little piece of painted metal. Quite healthy.
So I didn't have to take the train all night and start with zero sleep the way I did for the 300K—not that New Jersey Transit allows bicycles on trains the Friday before a holiday anyway.
After I bought my ferry ticket in midtown, I found out the next Belford-bound boat wouldn't come for another two hours, so I sprinted down to World Financial Center and caught the 4:15 instead.
With 50 miles of transportation and 250 miles of brevet ahead of me, and money gone that could have been used on groceries, I listened to both my drive train and the little voice, the one you don't usually listen to. It said get the drive train adjusted. This was while I was still heading down Manhattan towards the first ferry terminal.
Woooooooooooo! went the two girls, in unison, the pitch descending like a chirp on a police siren. They were over on the sidewalk to my right, half a block ahead of me, being silly. A leafy bike path and some suburban streets near the New Jersey ferry terminal were taking me toward the bike shop that hadn't sounded like a bunch of bozos on the phone.
Bikes can startle people because they're quiet, and men can make girls who are being silly when they thought they were alone feel self-conscious. Half a block gives you a few seconds to think. I passed on their left, felt them shut up in response, and then went Woooooooooooo! over my shoulder and without delay got an immediate and happy-sounding double Wooooooooooo! in return.
Some bike shops just feel good when you walk in.
When the guy started giving me choices of which compromises he could make while adjusting a worn-out drive train, I got an estimate on replacing a couple of parts instead, considered a different set of compromises (with what he had in stock, I could have a better climbing gear at the cost of not being able to cross-chain from little to little, which in non-geek just means "something you're never supposed to do anyway"), subtracted the number from my bank balance, thought about when more checks are coming, and said do it.
There's always stuff to look at in a bike mechanic's bay. Half-completed jobs, tires waiting to be installed, stuff the owner bought on his way to work so he can take it home later...in your nicer shop, there might be a wheel rim clamped on a work bench with spokes being installed. Wheelbuilding and framebuilding are beyond your average family place.
"Probably didn't expect to see wood wheelbuilding when you came in."
I'd seen it, but the unusualness hadn't registered. A wooden bicycle rim with a few spokes sticking at angles like a straw basket coming apart.
"What are they going on?" I asked, and he pointed over his head to a 70-year-old racing frame hanging head-down from a rafter. It's a family of racers, with things from their history on display in their museum of a basement, and he's helping them do up this bike.
It's when I exclaimed, Wow, look at that! and ducked over to get a better look that I think he decided I was okay. The family had also provided brand-new 70-year-old wheel hubs for it, still in their brand-new 70-year-old cardboard boxes, with 70-year-old receipts.
His day was ending pretty soon, and the conversation was good, so he gave me a lift to a point about 8 miles from my hotel. Saved me 30 miles or something of riding.
There's grace and beauty in a brevet, and there's also mastering the snot rocket. I give. I've resisted the snot rocket for years because I think it is
to launch one out of a nostril onto the street. But so is snorting and sniffling and wiping your sinus drip onto your gloves every ten seconds. "You loved the little birds so much, you gave them this to perch on." —Roxanne. This schnoz has capacity, man.
So, being your project-oriented variety of obsessive, that was the project. One of two projects, really; the other was to avoid saddle sores and iliotibial band tightness by changing my saddle position a lot. I did okay on both counts: The saddle sores didn't start until around 300K, the ITB didn't tighten, and nothing's splatting on the left shoulder of my jacket.
That's right; it seems there are nostril dominances, and I'm a righty. The things we learn when we step out of our comfort zones.
Then there's the bladder.
Urban daytime: Business owners won't let you use their restrooms unless you bat your eyelashes. Advantage: Women.
Rural nighttime: I don't even have to dismount. Advantage: Men.
At each controle, the volunteers congratulated me for being hours ahead of my time last year. This was very nice of them, but it was a little embarrassing to be remembered for such a dismal performance. It was even more embarrassing than turtling on the deceptive sand entrance to a campsite controle.
Turtle ~verb: Fall over on your back with your bike still attached to your feet because you couldn't clip out in time. Only occurs when there are people of your preferred sex watching.
At least I wasn't the only one who turtled there. Apparently it was just short of an assembly line. Another rider slid into home while I was on my way out.
For months, I've had Lewis Taylor playing in my head on every long ride.
Thomas Dolby for an hour or two on this one, The Ability to Swing. Lewis for the rest.
This is the story I told my children the next evening after, during cuddle time, before teeth and bedtime.
I was riding my bike in the middle of the night, while you were sleeping, and it was very, very dark. The sky was dark, the trees were dark, the road was dark, and I could only see where my headlight was shining. But do you know what I saw?
Fireflies. Here... and there...
(You'll have to imagine the little widenings of fingers to indicate tiny lights.)
I was on a straight road, going just a little bit down, just a little bit of a descent, and there were no turns or holes coming up, so you know what I did?
I turned off my headlight.
I could feel the bike going forward and feel the road and the air, but I couldn't see anything. It was all black. There were no streetlights, no lights at all, and it was very quiet. The sky was gray, just a little bit gray, but I couldn't see the road or the trees or anything. They were all...black.
But do you know what I did see?
In the trees, over the bogs, everywhere.
(Fingers here too: all around, the silent twinkle of fireflies.)
And I thought, I want to tell my boys about this. And now I did.
I rolled into the finish at 2:32 AM. Still dark. Last year's finish was in morning light. Total time for 250 miles: 22:32, and I wasn't the last on the course this time.
I remember a guy outside a Wawa market asking me about what I was doing while I ate. He was a bicyclist and very interested. "A double century and a half?" he said, before respecting my need for time and bowing into the market without my needing to hint.
There were problems with the drive train in the last hundred miles or so. I basically finished up on a four-speed. After another check comes, I may try to get back to Atlantic Cyclery for a revisit of the subject instead of taking it over to my local shop and letting them redo it all.
The volunteers at the second-to-last controle looked at me like I was insane for asking if anybody knew the overnight weather forecast.
Dark, said one. Dark tonight, chance of scattered light in the morning.
You got seventy miles, said the other, the tone adding, "Who cares what the weather's like when that's all you got left?"
I was really just making small talk, guys.
"What's the best place for this thing?" I asked the conductor. Central casting, portly, blue uniform and blue cap.
Out of the cab window, the engineer yelled down, "Put it up on the roof rack!"
"Works for me," I yelled back. "I got bungees!"
When the train was rolling toward New York and it came time to collect fares, the conductor slipped the stub into the little metal stub holder and sidestepped my money.
The Cranbury 600K is on June 24, and is a different beast. I need to figure out my sleep strategy, can't just ride through without a plan. May need to reconsider hydration, not to mention protein—half a gallon of Silk that a small grocery store happened to carry made all the difference around mile 120, and the Wawas these rides often encounter don't stock it. And some more thought about the saddle sore issue, and drop bags are allowed, which I've never had to think about before.
After that, I need to make up the 300K I failed to complete last month. The NYC 300K that weaves in and out of the same course I usually follow on my Sunday training rides occurs on the day I'm supposed to be best man at my oldest friend's wedding, so I'm going to have to go looking out of town for another one.
That's assuming I don't DNF on the 600, in which case I'm probably finished for the year.
So there's some strategizing to be done.
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