2003 Boston 300K Brevet

I don't frequently participate in organized sports. The only pre-dawn starts I can remember are undergrad crew races and an event called the "Dogwood Half-Hundred," a 50km run-hike in the mountains of western Virginia that I did a couple of years ago. Rowing and running are sports in which technology, no matter how sophisticated, is rarely apparent.

So it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I looked around the parking lot at Hanscom Field in Bedford, a little before the 4am start of the Boston Brevet Series 300km ride last Saturday. The scene was a cross between a "Mad Max" movie and Hanna Barbera's "Wacky Races" cartoon series (remember Dick Dastardly and his sidekick Muttley?). There were fancy Italian road bikes by Moser and Colnago. There were Merlin and Litespeed titanium racers specially outfitted with racks and other long-distance accessories. There was a recumbent with aerodynamic fairing and an astroturf seat (more grippy?). There were lighting and hydration systems the likes of which I had never seen: special water packs designed to nestle into the frame for better aerodynamics; handlebars arrayed with computers, heart rate monitors, and GPS navigation systems; multi-beam halogen headlights worthy of a pickup truck.

I turned to Chip and our two bikes. Chip was riding his elegant but resolutely retro touring bike with the Bob Jackson frame. He was chewing on a banana and seemed unperturbed by all the activity. I had my trusty Bridgestone tourer, the same bike I've been riding to work or to class daily for the last twelve years. The night before, I had stabilized the rear fender with electrical tape and revived the old Suntour front derailleur with some WD-40. I did not feel high-tech. The legs, however, had felt fairly strong on the way up from Cambridge, and at least I was confident there'd be no surprises with my equipment.

The start was a thing of beauty: a long serpent of blinking red lights under a moonlit sky, the night silent and still but for the gentle hum of chains and wheels. On climbs, the serpent would break into an excited metallic chatter as everyone downshifted. On descents, it would surge forward in a rush of air and whirring freewheels.

Chip and I stayed with the lead group at first. The pace was fast---we kept looking at each other and wondering whether this was a sane thing to do. We concluded that the aerodynamic benefits of being in a large, fast group outweighed the risk of burning out. Night gave way to a misty grey morning as we rode past Hopkinton. Chip had a chain problem on the first major climb, Leland Hill road, but overall we were doing quite well. On the descents, my heavier bike (and body), combined with a decent aero position, appeared to give me an advantage over the smaller guys on ultra-light frames. We rode into the first checkpoint, a Shell station in Uxbridge, MA, at 6.35am, side-by-side with one Sandiway Fong. Sandiway is one of the fastest Brevet riders, and his on-line diaries of the events are almost legendary: http://www.neci.nj.nec.com/homepages/sandiway/bike/bbs/index.html

I was a bit surprised by my performance, but my satisfaction was short-lived. Seeing Sandiway pee in a field by the side of the gas station rather than wasting time waiting for a restroom, Chip and I decided to "go animal" ourselves, but it wasn't enough. By the time we had eaten a banana and refilled our water bottles, Sandiway and a handful of top riders were long gone. We never saw them again.

So Chip and I set our own pace through much of Rhode Island, around 16-17mph. The sun gradually burned the clouds away, and by the time we were in Connecticut the weather was gorgeous. I started to feel warm in my rain jacket, but not uncomfortable enough to stop. The scenery was bucolic: open fields, rustic stone walls, grazing animals, big red barns. And, of course, the pungent smell of fresh manure.

Max: Isn't this beautiful?! Chip: Yeah, very pretty. But the smell... Max (inhaling deeply): Aaah.. The smell.. I *LOVE* this smell! It feels like home. Chip: Dude.

We hit the second checkpoint, in Voluntown, CT, at 9.35am. The fast group, apparently, had preceded us by about half an hour. It was barely breakfast time, and we'd already ridden almost a century. Getting up early gives you a whole new perspective.

After eating some food and watering a nearby cypress tree, Chip and I set off on the third leg of the ride, west into Connecticut, then north on route 169, and back to Oxford, MA. The 30-mile stretch along 169 turned out to be the hardest part of the whole ride: a seemingly endless series of steep rollers, each a few hundred feet high and maybe half a mile long. Most climbs were visible from the summit of the previous one, leaving little joy in the brief intervening descent. 9mph up, 40mph down. 9mph up, 40mph down. On and on. "Chip, feel the pain!" "Max, make this stop! Make it stop!" Yeah.

It didn't stop for a long time, but we did take a break at one point to buy Cokes at a little pizza joint. We also enjoyed some distraction in Pomfret, a hilltop town home to a very exclusive-looking prep school, complete with gothic buildings and an astronomical observatory. They were having a crew race that day, and there were plenty of shiny black SUVs and proud middle-aged fathers and tall blond boys in blazers and ties. I guess it's places like this that average out with Willimantic and Bridgeport to make Connecticut one of the richest states.

By the time we were done with 169, the fabled climb to Nichols College in Massachusetts seemed pretty tame. Chip took it easy while I decided to pump up the heart rate, so I waited for him at the top. We rode the next few miles together with a brother-sister team who had caught up with us, and we all arrived at the checkpoint at 1.35pm.

I thought it would be realistic for us to make it to the finish in Bedford by 5pm (13 hours total elapsed time), so we left after about 15 minutes, before anyone else who was with us at the stop.

Chip was content to have me set the pace. We started slow, at about 15mph, but gradually the food I'd eaten at the checkpoint kicked in, and the terrain became easier, and I started to feel the excitement of finishing. We passed a couple of other riders. The roads became more familiar. Quick stop for Gatorade at a gas station. Southborough, Framingham, Sudbury. We cruised onto 126 north at 20mph.

Thirsty. Need to drink more Gatorade. I fumble putting the water bottle back in its cage: it falls off my bike and under Chip's wheels. We stop to pick it up. Drat, it's late. We'll miss our recently-set 5pm goal. Back on the bike. A guy on a road bike asks us for directions. I ignore him; Chip shouts "Lincoln Road" as we go sailing past. One last slog up the steep hill on Bedford Road: 10mph, the legs are still there! We plunge down the other side. Long red light at route 2. It is 4.59pm, I'm disappointed. The roadie passes us, but I won't have any of that. We blow by him on 2A. Sharp left onto the Hanscom Field access road. Chip pulls up alongside me, and we motor motor MOTOR into the airport parking lot, to brief applause from the handful of people manning the checkpoint. 5.07pm.

I felt nauseous when I got off the bike. Maybe it was a psychological effect: as long as I had been riding, I felt strong and alert, but when the ride suddenly ended, the accumulated exhaustion overcame me. I nibbled on some watermelon and potato chips, and took a couple of photos. Soon, Chip and I decided it was time to cycle back to Cambridge. We rode back very, very slowly.

I arrived home at about 6.30pm, almost 16 hours after leaving to meet Chip and cycle out to the 4am start. I rode around the block once so that my computer would tick over to 348km (216mi) for the whole day. We completed the 300km (190mi) brevet in 13:07, more than an hour of which was actually spent off the bike. The top finishers (including Sandiway Fong) had finished in 11:29. We hadn't done great, but our effort was nothing to be ashamed of, either.

I napped for an hour, and then I felt ok for the rest of the evening.

So what did I learn? The first half of a 300km brevet is really fun. The second half is painful. The next day, both halves seem like fun. A 300km event is a challenge for stomachs and minds much more than for muscles and lungs. Lack of sleep was probably the biggest problem. I also did not eat enough at regular enough intervals, and I definitely did not drink enough. Powerbars became unchewable after about 150 miles. Next time, I will carry an extra water bottle (I had just one) and maybe some liquid food. Finally, it became clear that to have a good brevet time, riding fast is not sufficient: one also needs to spend little time at checkpoints.

I'm looking forward to the 400K. I think.