May has not been a good month.
With three back-to-back finals, I was expecting a hard start to the month– maybe followed by a few days spent tying up loose ends with school. But I had also hoped the rest of the month would allow some time to recover from a heavy semester– ideally with some time spent outdoors– before tightening down again as I began to prepare for the bar exam.
Instead, the loose ends did not get tied down until the last days of the month. I have spent the majority of the last few weeks doing the mental equivalent of banging my head against a wall. The second half of the month has been spent in significant physical pain; the latest effect of this has been an inability to sleep for more than a few hours a night.
My bar exam preparation course begins this week. I feel as if I have just gotten to the end of a marathon and have been told to run the course again, immediately. It would have been nice to catch my breath.
Still, the month had a few pleasant days, and I find some solace by lingering in their memory.
I spent the day after my last final running errands by bicycle. The weather was good, I completed all of my errands, and clocked in about 80km of riding. It was a nice breath of fresh air after a couple of weeks spent mostly indoors, and a pleasant reminder of how much one can accomplish by bicycle. In the afternoon, after getting a haircut in Queens, I headed back into Manhattan for another errand. On my way, I saw a significant amount of police, firefighters, and media. A subway had derailed. As I continued to Manhattan, I wondered how I would have gotten home in the past, before I had started riding.
The next morning, I went on a short ride (~100km) with Team Lucarelli & Castaldi to Piermont, NY. Again, the weather was good. A short section spent riding through Tallman Mountain State Park made me regret not taking the camera. Unfortunately, I was already beginning to stress about the work that remained to be done. I spent the afternoon and evening struggling with that work.
The following day I attended a track clinic at the Kissena Velodrome, hosted by the Pink Rhino Racing Team. I have a hard time remembering when the last time was, on or off the bike, that I had as much fun as I did at the clinic. I think I might have fallen in love with the track, but that remains to be verified.
That evening I was back to work, and I spent the remainder of the week struggling. I thought I would have been able to wrap up the work in a few days. Instead, I barely made any progress.
Woodside LIRR Station.
Waiting for the 0624 train to Ronkonkoma. I had been looking forward to riding a brevet for months. I struggled to find my commitment to ride that morning, but by the time I reached the train station, I felt I had made the right decision.
Perhaps with the exception of dealing with reckless or aggressive drivers, I enjoy almost everything I do on a bicycle. Even the cold and dark winter commutes through Queens, coming home after a long day of classes, have provided some beautiful and surreal memories. Errands run by bike can be made fun, races are exhilarating, and touring can be meditative.
There are many things about cycling that I find attractive. The primary draw, though, is the ability to wander. Kant is known for his daily walks. Thoreau dedicated a work to praise walking. Nietzsche wrote that “only thoughts reached by walking have value.”
For me, cycling is primarily about taking very long walks. The machine is strange: it forces one to focus on sensory feedback, but at the same time provides moments of deep seclusion and introspection– as if these were two sides of the same coin. When I read about randonneuring and brevets– and understood the possibility of 200km, 400km, 600km, and 1200km walks– I knew it was something I had to try.
Check-in at the Ronkonkoma LIRR Station. I arrived at the station around 0730, and immediately sensed the cheerful mood that precedes a departure. After a bicycle and gear inspection, the riders were off at 0810.
I signed up for the Ronkonkoma 200K towards the end of March. I had just finished building up my road bike (a project that took more than a year), and was hoping to get several long rides in to dial in the fit and setup of the bicycle. I never found the time to do this during the semester, so the plan shifted to riding a couple of 160km routes in early May. By May I was struggling with the left over work, and the prevailing sense of guilt and frustration ensured that several beautiful days were passed indoors, glued to the computer.
I felt grossly unprepared the day before the brevet. I had not studied the route in depth and had not tested my equipment. The brevet would be the first time I used a front handlebar bag on the road bike. I had not copied the route onto my GPS or printed out the cue sheets. In the evening I realized I could not fit a rear saddlebag on the bike without changing the seatpost; despite predictions of rain, this meant the rain jacket would have to stay at home.
I slept horribly the night before the brevet. When the alarm went off at 0430, I spent a good fifteen minutes wondering if it was stupid to push forward. I felt tired, unprepared, and guilty about spending the day out. Eventually, I convinced myself to improvise. I wish I could say that I brought myself around by relaxing and thinking about the potential positives of the ride. Instead, it was the usual grim medicine. In any case– I got up, caffeinated, and was out the door by 0545.
Breadzilla, the first controle after leaving Ronkonkoma, came at 85km (~3 hours) into the ride. Here, I saw how little time experienced riders spent to rest: barely a few minutes. A quick head call meant that I missed the departure of the group I had arrived with to the control. I was on my own for the next leg of the ride.
I started feeling better as soon as I got on the bike. The ride to the train station was easy and quick. I passed by Sunnyside, probably one of the prettier parts of Queens. At Woodside, I purchased my ticket and began waiting for the train. I started to feel pretty good at this point. I enjoy waiting for trains– rail is another form of travel which seems to inspire contemplation. A couple of other riders showed up on the platform. Then the train, on time. I boarded and tried to rest.
At Ronkonkoma I disembarked and headed to the check-in area. It was great to see the congregation of riders, and, to be honest, beautiful bicycles. In a way, the sight– of embarkation, I guess– felt remarkable. It felt like a very organic sight– something uncommon in my typically urban context– it was human, and elegant. I am not sure if I can describe the sentiment. I have often seen this quote, by H.G. Wells: “Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race.” The line never really struck me or made much sense, but I felt I began to understand it at that moment.
After checking in, I received my brevet card, a cue sheet, and some other safety information. A quick gear and bike inspection followed, and I was cleared. I made a final head call, the organizers gave a brief safety presentation, and at 0810 thirty-seven riders were off.
The South Ferry to Shelter Island, approximately 100km into the route. I caught up with GS and SV here– they had just missed the previous ferry– and finished the rest of the route in their company. I did not know it at the time, but I had been following GS’s writing for some time, and had read articles written by and about SV.
The first 85km to the next controle were easy. The pace was comfortable and supported by a good tailwind. With the exception of a few wide and trafficked segments, the route was quite scenic. There were vast stretches of two-lane road surrounded by forest on both sides. Later sections of the leg passed by the coast, which provided glimpses of the sea, and whiffs of seabreeze. Towards the end of the leg, we passed by a few villages, and then through a few vineyards, before arriving at the second controle.
Regrettably, I did not take any photographs from this leg of the route, and not many for the entire brevet. I found I was quite easily absorbed by the riding. The camera was also somewhat inaccessible, and later the viewfinder had fogged up from staying in my jersey pocket. Towards the end of the ride, fatigue also cut my desire to do anything but arrive at the final controle. I think I have a solution for future brevets, and I may also try to do the route at a more leisurely pace in the future.
I was in a sizeable group for this first leg of the course, probably about eight riders. This helped tremendously with navigation and maintaining a steady pace. Because I had not prepared my GPS or any cue sheets, I would otherwise have had to navigate by the print out given at check-in. While adequate, this would have made navigation slow and cumbersome. Riding in a group also had other benefits– I was also able to gather some insights from talking to the more experienced riders.
I had a minor equipment issue during the first leg of the ride: my handlebar bag began to slump and make contact with the front tire. I tried my best to fix this while riding, but my attempts would not hold. After a few minutes, the bag would slump again onto the front tire. I was eventually able to tighten the bag up during a stop at a stoplight. It was not a problem for the rest of the ride, although a dime-sized hole had already developed at the bottom of the bag. Overall, despite my lack of preparations, it seemed that the ride was going to work out.
The view from the northern shore of Shelter Island. The island was picturesque, in what felt like a very American way. My impression was that it resembled South Carolina more than New York. The island seemed to remind me of some vague memories– maybe some from childhood, and others from Recruit Training on Parris Island.
Breadzilla was the first controle after the departure. SY from Long Island Randonneurs, the organizers of the event, was waiting with food and drink. I handed in my brevet card, ate an energy bar and a banana, and filled a bottle with an electrolyte drink. I went inside to make a quick head call, and managed to resist the tempting smell of the baked goods at Breadzilla. There is probably a reference in The Odyssey for carbohydrates and cyclists. By the time I got back outside, all but one of the riders from the group had already left.
Fortunately, I still had the cue sheet that was handed out at check-in. I hopped on the bike and headed north, passing through woods and a small airfield. Except for the fact that I had to hold onto the cue sheet and the handlebars at the same time– a bit clumsy– I found navigation easy. I managed to proceed swiftly to the next controle– also the halfway point of the brevet– the South Ferry dock to Shelter Island. There, I managed to catch up with GS and SV, who had been in the group I rode with for the first leg of the journey. They had just missed the previous ferry.
The next ferry arrived and we embarked. It was nice to spend a few minutes off the bike and just enjoy the scenery and breeze. It was starting to get quite hot outside. We disembarked on Shelter Island and quickly rode through it. At the north shore, we waited for the ferry. When it arrived, we boarded.
At some point during that ferry ride, through conversation, I realized who SV was. I had read some of his articles on Streetsblog NYC, and had also heard about what he was doing for transportation safety in NYC. I thanked him for his work. I did not recognize GS until after the brevet (though perhaps I should have earlier). I have been following GS’s site for many months now, and was surprised to see his Ronkonkoma 200K post in my RSS aggregator the day after the brevet. I was even more surprised to see SV and then my bicycle in his photographs. It is a small world.
SV and the bicycles on the North Shore ferry. The two ferries provided an opportunity to rest the legs and enjoy the scenery and wind. One bottle on my bike is already empty, I remember the other one did not last much longer.
Things started getting rough on the next leg of the route. We had 45km to the next controle, a Mobil gas station. For the most part, my legs felt fine– but I was beginning to experience some serious discomfort in my sit-bones and hands. I was paying for not having a dialed in a good fit on the bike. The route also started to have some elevation gain, and we were now heading west into the same wind that had pushed us eastward in the morning.
The route was still quite scenic. I remember more glimpses of the coast, then vineyards. We passed briefly through Mattituck, which I remembered was where my Senior Drill Instructor was raised. Otherwise, this section of the ride feels like a blur. For me, it was the most painful portion of the day, and my focus was mostly on getting to the next controle. I ran out of fluids at some point, which probably did not help.
GS and SV navigated. I tried to spend time in the wind to return the favor. Eventually, around 1400, controle number five arrived. I was incredibly relieved. Again, Long Island Randonneurs was there with food and drink. I filled a bottle with water, drank it, and then filled the two bottles again. I made a quick head call, dunked my head in the sink, ate a protein bar, and sprawled my legs out on the sidewalk. We were approximately 150km into the ride.
Shelter Island Sound
The view from one of the Shelter Island ferries.
I felt considerably better when we returned to the road. My legs still felt intact, and the discomfort from the contact points had reduced.
Then, the hills appeared. I had mixed feelings about the hills. They were certainly not pleasant for the legs– I was dropping to my smallest gear (39×28) for the longer ones. But the advantage was that I could ride out of saddle on the uphills, and then rest my thigh on the saddle for the downhills. This probably helped keep some of the discomfort away for a few more kilometers.
Next came the rain. We took refuge underneath some shelter, hoping that it would pass quickly. We chatted for some time, I do not remember how long. Time passed, and the rain did not stop. This was not good. In a brevet, the longer one waits, the more one throws away the effort of a solid pace.
Cooling off the engine. I felt I had improved from the longer rides completed in May of the preceding year. Those rides were shorter, but I stopped more frequently, and suffered more. I occasionally had recurring pain in my right hip, and my legs were usually very sore towards the end of a ride. Since then, I have probably made some improvements in my fitness. The biggest difference, though, has come from learning to eat and drink frequently on long rides. I still have some tightness in the right hip– probably piriformis syndrome– and am not sure why it has not caught up with me on longer rides.
We set out into the rain and thunder. I allowed myself to think for a few seconds about the weatherproof jersey and bib shorts I had left at home. I was soaked through by the time I put those thoughts away, but also found I was not uncomfortable. Except for a few chilly descents, the temperature was still high enough to make the rain bearable. I usually enjoy riding in the rain, and I was happy to see that the kilometers already covered had not buried that spirit.
Our next destination, only a few kilometers away, was an information controle– a methodist church with its year of construction listed on its exterior. The date was the answer a question on the brevet card; the answer would prove that we had, in fact, traveled the necessary distance to the controle. By the time we had answered the question, the sun was already beginning to shine through. Perhaps the soaking could have been avoided. This time around, luck sided with the patient.
The next controle was also the last: our origin and destination, the Ronkonkoma LIRR station. We had 20km to go. At that point, it felt like nothing. But I reminded myself that the distance was slightly longer than that of my commute to school. We still had some time on the road.
Another Form of Shelter
Located somewhere on Old Post Road, this building provided our shelter from the initial downpour.
I was in a cheerful mood for the remaining kilometers. The sun slowly dried me out. Somewhere, a part of my soul was probably celebrating the fact that, however much discomfort still had to be borne, it would soon all be over. Those celebrations were calmed when GS and SV realized that somewhere, we had taken a wrong turn. We stopped, and GS and SV mapped our location, then recalculated our route. We had not gone far off course. We returned to the intersection, then crossed it. Despite some lingering confusion, we were back on track, and had even earned a few “bonus miles” in the process.
At some point, some of the riders from the morning’s group caught up to us. We rode the final– and happily uneventful– kilometers together. Soon, railroad tracks were in sight, and a final left turn brought the destination to our eyes. We stopped and dismounted. I rushed to make another quick head call, which was the main source of discomfort for the last leg of the route. I handed in my brevet card, and the ride was done.
It had taken us around nine hours and fifteen minutes to complete the ride. Most of that time had been spent riding. I thanked GS and SV, and then left to catch the train back to Woodside. SV caught the same train, and we chatted for the ride back about transportation issues, the law, and cycling in NYC. The air conditioned car did not mix well with the damp clothes, and fatigue finally started to set in. The final ride back home was uneventful, but as I passed through Northern Boulevard, and then 36th Avenue, I could not help but note the contrast in scenery. I had gone from vineyards and seabreeze to potholes and speeding traffic. The brevet was already beginning to feel like a dream.
I clocked in a few more kilometers the next day, cycling to meet and spend the afternoon with MF, my rackmate from the School of Infantry. Seeing him brought back many memories, some more pleasant than others. I would gladly choose to do two back-to-back 200km brevets rather than relive the 20km hump I did with Charlie Company.
Speaking of longer brevets, although I am not sure they will be possible, I am hoping to ride a couple more before the end of the year. I should be better prepared for the next one; a better fit on the bike will go a long way in making the ride more bearable. It would be nice to complete a 300km brevet before winter. Hyperbole aside, I still cannot imagine a 400km or 600km ride.
I should probably take this opportunity to thank GS and SV again. I learned much from their company. They covered for my lack of preparation, and I can easily imagine a far more unpleasant ride without them. The final thank you should probably go to SY and Long Island Randonneurs for organizing the event, and for the beautiful route. ∗