By Jerry Phelps
Editor’s note: I’m proud of my N.C. riding buddy Jerry. In his rookie brevet season, he went from zero to 1200. Not many can say that. He had his fair share of first-year trials—the bonus miles, the broken spokes, the black skies that split open and dumped a river of rain. He persevered through it all, then showed up and kicked booty—mine!—on the saw-tooth hills of BMB.
Jerry often included his family in his training and rides. His wife Beth and daughter Emily were on hand in Newton, Mass. as he completed the 750-mile course.
Space does not permit the printing of his complete ride report. Following are excerpts from the first three days, and his full account of day 4.
August 17-20, 2006, I completed what some people consider the hardest bike ride in North America: Boston-Montreal-Boston—“The Premier American 1200km Randonnée.” The route covers 1,205 km (744 miles) and courses through four New England states and a bit of Canada. Riders enjoy some breath-taking scenery and equally breath-taking hills. My middle-of-the-pack time of 81 hours and 40 minutes might seem unimpressive considering the first place finisher covered the distance in 49 hours and change, but this was my first 1,200 km randonnée and many veteran randonneurs consider BMB the most difficult. 121 riders started; 103 finished within the prescribed 90-hour time limit; 3 pre-registered riders came to their senses before the ride began and didn’t show. It was the toughest, longest, steepest, meanest, and most relentless ride I’ve ever done, and I wouldn’t take anything for the experience.
The first 78 miles to the control in New Salem, MA went by fairly quickly. Once the sun rose, I could tell the day would be clear with a pleasant if not warm temperature. The terrain over the first leg was relatively flat—not too different than riding in the Piedmont. The scenery was beautiful and of course everyone was excited, fresh, and damn near giddy.
The organizers of BMB put on a great ride. The cue sheets are exceptionally understandable and accurate. They’ve even gone to the trouble to paint arrows on the road at every turn along the entire course. I can’t say enough for their hospitality and support. The food is good and plentiful, mechanics are knowledgeable and prepared, and control staffs are helpful and go out of their way to pamper riders when possible.
The stretch [after Killington] offered a nice descent and then a flat stretch along a river through farm land. I met Jim Melville from Albany, NY during this section and rode with him to the base of Middlebury Gap as the sun set and the sky quickly darkened. This climb is not very long, but the grade is at least 15% in places and the road surface is frankly terrible. I concentrated on completing ¼ mile sections. With my standard double chain-ring (53:39) and 12:25 cassette, it was a real knee buster—by far the hardest climb I’ve ever done. I am not ashamed to admit that I had to stop twice to get my heart rate down and catch my breath. I was maxed out completely.
Passing through Williston, we spotted a Friendly’s restaurant and I got a craving for real food…. I think we shocked the restaurant patrons and the staff at how quickly we could snarf down a plate of food.
Soon we were in the region of Lake Champlain as we traveled with a nice tail-wind through small, tidy New England villages such as South Hero, Grand Isle, and Alburg. New York was to our west and we were treated to beautiful views of the lake on both sides of the road. Somewhere in this area we were met by the fast guys on the return leg. They had ridden through the night and some would ultimately finish in less than 50 hours. A rough calculation impressed and depressed me when I concluded they were 150 miles ahead. With nothing to do but keep riding, we crossed a tall bridge that brought us to the end of this 90-mile leg and to the control at Rouses Point, NY. Here I almost made a critical mistake. When changing my jersey, I removed the plastic wallet holding my brevet card and forgot to put it back on. I left it hanging on a peg in the locker room. But the efficiency of the controle workers saved my ride. They make a habit of checking each rider in and out of the controle. As I was leaving the checkpoint, the BMB staffer asked to see my brevet card and I discovered my mistake. Had he not asked, when I reached Huntingdon 49 miles away, I wouldn’t have had my card and I would have been disqualified.
Covey Hill kicks in at about 350 miles and goes up at a minimum of 8% for about 3 miles. The temperature was about 85 with no shade and the road surface looked more like a gravel pit than asphalt. Finally at the top we enjoyed a view of Montreal off to the east and a long, gentle descent with better road conditions for the next 20 miles. We rolled through fertile farmland reminiscent of the American mid-west to the halfway point at the Royal Canadian Legion Hall in Huntingdon. Another fairly fast stop ensued and we were on the way home! The trip back to the U.S. was fairly uneventful with a few exceptions. The high-speed descent of Covey Hill was an absolute blast. I stopped at the top to take a few pictures. One was of Mike who in the span of about 15 seconds had opened a gap on me of at least 300 hundred yards. I clipped in to move out, and within three pedal strokes I hit 26 mph and topped out at about 40 on the descent.
In Rouses Point, we took a leisurely stop to shower, change clothes, and fuel up for the 53-mile trip to Williston, VT. We donned our required reflective gear, and turned on our lights as dusk was approaching. For once, we didn’t have to pay the full price of having an earlier tail wind as the wind speed had dropped considerably. We made good progress for about 20 miles, but two-days of riding and about 440 miles were having the expected effect. We were dog-tired and the shoulder of the road was looking very inviting and comfortable. With 26 miles to Williston, I asked Mike if we could pull over and he readily agreed. We found a pizza joint that was just about to close. The college-aged workers treated us like celebrities and stayed open. They even let me sit in their walk-in refrigerator to cool off! As we ate the pizza and shared a two-liter Coke, the two Steves and Dave came in. They sat down and I thought, “Damn, I hope I don’t look as bad as those guys do” but I was sure that I did. We were all essentially out on our feet.
The [breakfast] stop in Bristol was right out of a Norman Rockville painting. Bristol must be the quintessential New England village with tidy homes and businesses on an active main street. The sturdy folks in the restaurant were obviously curious, but too polite to be nosy. After a few minutes the waitress asked us where we were headed and where we’d come from. I gave her my pat answer of “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you” and then proceeded to layout the details of the trip to that point. She and the other customers were astounded. Over plates of eggs, sausage, and pancakes, we got to know the folks a little. As we were walking out the door, one of the ladies said, “My, you fellows sure are brave.” I replied with a wave of my hand, “Not brave, maybe just insane.” Their smiling, laughing faces are an image burned in my brain.
We left Middlebury knowing we had the two hardest stretches left totaling 110 miles. Within 5 miles we started the climb up Middlebury Gap. It’s a longer climb headed south and the best I can say is that I survived to the top. No king-of-the-mountains points, but I was happy to quietly summit it and move on. It was here that I absolutely knew that nothing would stop me from finishing.
The hard part to Ludlow was now over and I thought I could just cruise on flat roads with good surfaces. BMB is notorious for rain—it rains every year on at least some portion of the ride and this year was no exception. A gentle mist quickly turned into a frog strangling, cats and dogs downpour within a couple of minutes. I was soaked within seconds, but I took some solace in knowing that I had dry clothes in a drop bag at Ludlow.
The control was fairly busy as lots of riders were taking an extended break to muster up the courage and the fortitude to tackle the highest summit on the ride for the second time—Mt. Terrible…. I think the controle staff was taking some twisted pleasure in knowing precisely what lay in store as I was about to make the left turn out of the Trojan Horse Inn and immediately begin the 5-mile climb. One of them said “Remember; it’s not that bad, it’s just Terrible.” If looks could kill....
I got out of bed Sunday at 3:30 AM with the knowledge that only 112 miles stood between me and the finish in Newton. As I was dressing, I reflected on what a difference a few months had made. In March or April, I would have had a certain amount of apprehension at tackling 112 miles, but on that morning, it seemed like a piece of cake. Then I looked out the window and saw the sky was dumping buckets. The previous day’s machismo went out of me with a long single sigh. I hate riding in rain.
But there wasn’t much to do about it other than to get it over with. So by 4:00 AM I was on the road and tackling, that is if you can tackle something with a feather, the only significant climb of the day—Mt. Pisgah. Once out of Brattleboro and across the Connecticut River, I said goodbye to Vermont and entered New Hampshire. The rain was incessant and even though I was wearing a “waterproof” cycling jacket, I was soaked in a matter of minutes. Fortunately, the only souls on the road were me and bunch of toads trying not to drown. I reached the top of Pisgah moving at an average pace of about 7 mph. In fact the first 14 miles took me 1½ hours. I was crawling. I think one of the toads passed me going uphill! I stopped at a bank with a dry front porch for a few minutes just to regroup and try to buck up my spirits to tackle the final 100 miles.
Shortly after pulling out the rain lightened and pretty soon the sky started to grow brighter. My attitude improved as I neared Massachusetts and the controle at Bullard Farm in New Salem. I think I woke up the lone worker who had been there for 4 days at this point. She was as tired as I was. She kindly fixed me some oatmeal and coffee as I changed into dry socks and gloves I had packed in my Camelbak. Unfortunately, this was not a drop bag checkpoint, so I had to continue wearing my wet clothes. With only 78 miles to go, I decided I could do without the Camelbak and left it with her to bring to Newton. I made sure I had a spare tire and tube in my seat bag. She gave me a quick run down on the route ahead, where the hills were, and an idea of a breakfast joint in Barre. Eighteen miles later I was drinking hot coffee and eating a big breakfast complete with pancakes. I had a nice conversation with a lady who thought I was insane to be covering so many miles in so few days. She revealed that she worked for the local humane society and had 27 dogs and 22 cats of her own! And she thinks I’m crazy?
A few miles farther down the road, I happened upon Mark Thomas, president of RUSA and a resident of Seattle. He was literally asleep on his feet. Huddled with his arms across his chest and leaning on a guard rail, he was catching a few winks. I didn’t mean to wake him, but I didn’t realize he was asleep either. We exchanged a few words and when it was apparent he wanted to resume his sleeping, I pulled out quietly.
I next caught up with John Lee Ellis of Louisville, CO with about 50 miles to go. We had been playing tag since before Ludlow the day before. It was his turn to be “it” as I passed him on a particularly bad stretch of Highway 62 on the way to Princeton.
The rain had stopped finally and the sun was beginning to make brief appearances through the slate grey and white clouds. I was tempted to pull into a Dunkin Donuts, one of the official sponsors of the ride, but I was more interested in finishing than eating. As the sun warmed me, I began to regret not having the Camelbak; although I didn’t regret not having the weight. I stopped again for water, orange juice, and a cookie in Weston with about 25 miles to go. John Lee passed me again as I enjoyed my brief repast.
Traffic increased dramatically on the home stretch and I tried my best to stay alert. As I reached the final hill into Newton I tried to savor the moment. I had been visualizing for months what the finishing few miles would be like and now that I was almost home I didn’t want the experience to end. A nice crowd had gathered to welcome each finisher. I pulled in at 81:40, one minute behind John Lee. We had our official finisher’s picture taken together and I took off in search of my friend, Sam Adams! Beth and Emily and Mike congratulated me and the moment was quite emotional.
Fellow North Carolinian and friend Tony Goodnight accomplished his goal to qualify for RAAM by finishing in 68 hours and 37 minutes. A bit of luck is required to finish BMB, but an iron will is also necessary. BMB is the ultimate physical, mental, and spiritual test of a rider and his machine.
Finishing BMB has cemented my interest in randonneuring. I’ll be back on the bike soon pursuing other goals and I plan to ride in PBP next year. I think my experience shows that it’s entirely possible to go from zero rando experience to conquering a 1200 km ride in a single season, so I hope to see some of you in Paris in August 2007.