By: Art Williams
A high school athlete I was not. I have never raced. I have never received an athletic award. But August 13-16, I rode (and occasionally walked) my bike 750 miles from Boston, MA to Montreal, Canada and back. Why? Well, just because. Maybe it's a mid-life crisis or maybe I just like cycling and wanted to see how far I could take it. Whatever the reason, it was a wonderful experience.
Training began several years ago after reading the article on Paris-Brest-Paris in Bicycling magazine's book on long distance cycling. I joined an organization called International Randonneurs. Every rider is required to complete a series of 'short' rides of 200K (124 mi), 300K (186 mi), 400K (248 mi), and 600K (372 mi) as preparation for the trip to Paris which is only held every 4 years.
Boston-Montreal-Boston is the American equivalent of PBP and is held every year except a PBP year. I used the book above by Fred Matheny to learn about the longer rides as well as the Ultracycling magazine by the UMCA. I completed the Ride Across INdiana (RAIN) first because it was so flat and then slowly built up the miles over the last few years. I did the first brevet of 200K in Lexington, KY with Johnny Bertrand and me as the only entrants. Johnny had done PBP several times and was a great inspiration to continue in this long distance thing that I was experimenting with. The next year (1997) I completed the 200K, 300K and 600K in St. Louis and found the distances to be surprisingly feasible. My confidence leaped and in 1998 I rode through the winter averaging about 125 miles per week and started doing regular centuries in March. I completed the entire brevet series in St. Louis about 15% faster than the year before, but St. Louis is very flat and BMB and PBP average 50 feet of climbing per mile.
I decided to use BMB as a training ride for PBP. My brother and best friend agreed to SAG for me (the fools) and so at 4AM on August 13th, I left the Holiday Inn in Newton, MA in the company of about 50+ riders. I hardly slept the night before in anticipation of the ride and in fear of not waking up on time. (Next time I'll bring some sort of sleeping aid.) The first 40 miles were flat with lots of small towns and it went by quickly. At mile 40 there is a long climb that actually seemed pretty easy with my BMB low gear of 24-28 (a gear-inch of 23.18). We continued to climb and descend over and over and didn't meet anything too ugly until a terrible place called Middlebury Gap, 1500 feet of ugly hill that made me walk right at the end. I have to admit that the descent was incredible. I met up with a tandem at the top of the hill and followed his taillights down the mountain at 50 miles per hour (in the dark, because it is now midnight). I rode 237 miles in 20 hours. Sounds slow, but I was 2 hours ahead of my schedule and felt great.
After 5 hours of sleep at a local hotel I was back on my bike and not feeling quite as chipper as the night before. Lesson learned-"If you feel good, don't stop." With 14,000 feet of climbing on day 1, the ride to Montreal actually seemed easy with only about 3,000 feet. I arrived at the checkpoint in Montreal right on schedule having slowed down a little due to fatigue and lack of calories. Lesson learned-"Eat more than you think you need." After the turnaround in Montreal, I was in new territory never having completed more than 360 miles at one time. That's when the wind started. I met up with Russ, a veteran of last year's BMB, who was riding with an icebag duct-taped to his knee due to an injury in the 600K. We struggled all night trading pulls and only averaging about 12.5 mph on flat ground. Yuucck! We rode through the night and arrived in Burlington VT at about 6 AM.
After some 3+ hours of sleep we left the hotel and climbed back into Middlebury, VT with 'the GAP' still ahead. At this point Russ had pulled away as my legs were shot. I walked up the steepest sections of the rolling hills and was mentally down on myself for not training harder. I planned to quit at Middlebury, but my support crew and the BMB staff would have none of it. "How many miles do you think you have left." I answered, "just a few" and so I did.
The hills are much steeper on the way back and this time it was a 2,000 foot climb up that previous 50 mph descent. Once again, while I suffered a bit, it was not nearly as bad as I had imagined. I took a nap in the grass at the top of the mountain and awoke refreshed and ready to ride back to Boston. I am NOT a quitter. The rest of the night I rode efficiently and steadily to Ludlow, VT, feeling relieved that I would not have to face my friends back home with the fact that I was a DNF (did not finish).
Another terrible climb awaited me out of Ludlow and the 4.6 mile climb of 1,500 feet took me 45 minutes and sucked the wind out of my sails. It was now 1 AM and I was looking at 50 very hilly miles before the next rest stop, but once again there was still a second wind available (about my 9th or 10th-I lost count). I cruised through the night at a blistering pace of 11mph and arrived in Brattleboro,VT just in time to watch the well-rested and well-fed riders ahead of me leave for Boston 113 miles away. I ate, showered, slept 3+ hours, and then headed out for the final leg.
The break really helped and I rode well to North New Salem, MA and actually saw another rider, but I was still dead last. He left ahead of me while the staff forced fed me and the tech staff attended to my dirty bike that was now not shifting too well. 72 miles to go. This leg took me 5:15 three days ago, but I figured I only had to average 10 mph to finish and I didn't think I could go much faster anyway. As I got closer to the city, I could feel my legs get stronger and stronger and I finally caught the other rider (he had slowed down and was lost).
We cruised into the Holiday Inn at 89:17 with 43 minutes to spare and received a standing ovation. The feeling of accomplishment was overwhelming and I almost, but not quite, burst into tears. There was so much adrenaline in my body that I was actually shaking. My support crew was waiting at the finish line and didn't let me down.
Two beers and a massage later we headed back home. It felt good to ride in the car and watch how fast the scenery went by. The adrenaline would not go away and even though I had only 14 hours of sleep in 4 days I could not fall asleep now. I played the ride over and over again in my mind recalling all the highs and lows with vivid memories. I had actually done it. Unbelievable! And I honestly believe that ANYONE can do 1200K if you just put your mind to it. If you have questions or want to be involved in distance cycling feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you on the road.