2004 Boston 400K Brevet

One word: asthma. I had not had severe allergies as an adult. My last asthma attack had been in the summer of 1996. My Albuterol inhaler prescription had long since expired. So I chalk it up to bad luck---and maybe a little too much pollen in the New Hampshire air---that my bronchial tubes chose June 12, the day of the Boston 400K brevet, to start spasming again.

I rolled into the finish at Hanscom Field in Bedford at 9:55pm, 17 hours and 55 minutes after the start. I handed Tracey Ingle my brevet card and leaned over the handlebars, my upper body heaving and sore from hours of exertion. With every breath my stomach spasmed outward, as if to expand my chest cavity. For some hours I had been unable to control this spasm: my body seemed to be doing whatever it could to pull air into my lungs. Tracey suggested that I take a cab home, but the thought of being cramped in a cab seemed worse than cycling the 20Km back to Cambridge. "I'll---be---OK," I wheezed, and indeed, slowly but surely, I pedaled all the way home.

The day had started well. The air was pleasantly cool when I set off from home at 3am. Usually Chip and I ride together from Cambridge to Hanscom Field, but this time Chip had chosen the 1am start, so I cycled alone through the still night.

The stillness ended suddenly on Rt 2A in Lexington: a police cruiser with lights flashing blocked traffic because crews were paving the road ahead. I rode by on my bike, towards a floodlit serpent of steam rollers and dump trucks. The smell of fresh tar filled the air. Trees formed crazy patterns of bright light and shadow against the night sky as I sped along on the fresh asphalt, little pebbles rasping and crackling against my fenders.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the construction site ended: I shot past the last flood-lamp into the dark, cool night beyond. For the first time on this ride---now that I was beyond the lights of the city and those of the construction site---I noticed stars in the sky. The Big Dipper hung overhead as I rode into Hanscom Field.

I think only five of us started on time at 4am: the construction work caused problems for those who drove to the start. Stars twinkled above us and the eastern horizon glowed in fantastic predawn shades of green and blue and pale yellow as we sped away from Hanscom on Virgina Road. I found myself in a group with Melinda Lyon, Glen Slater, and Jeff Scornavacca. I did not know Jeff, but I have a lot of respect for Melinda and Glen's riding abilities: I decided to take it a mile at a time and ride with them as far as I could.

We rode together well, alternating 10- or 15-minute pulls in a close paceline. By Ashby, a pretty hilltop town near the New Hampshire border, the sun was high enough in the sky to shine on the road and convey some heat, much to the relief of my numb fingers. Then, over the next 35Km or so to Petersham, the rollers became more "agitated," with several short but steep and poorly paved climbs. Never having ridden this course before, I asked Melinda whether the rollers would go on like this for long. "Oh, no, they don't start for real until after Bullard Farm." Aha. I began to feel that I might not be hanging out with this bunch for long. The pace stayed above 50Km/h as we flew down Rt 122 from Petersham towards the Quabbin, and we rolled into the Bullard Farm checkpoint (120Km) shortly after 8am (~30Km/h average).

Ted Lapinski was waiting for us at Bullard Farm; he lives nearby and planned to ride with Melinda to Bellows Falls and back. My hopes of staying with this group sank a bit lower. And sure enough, the time to say goodbye came on Wendell Depot Road, a tough climb with several false summits that began a few miles beyond Bullard Farm. The group climbed just a little faster than I could: slowly enough, in fact, that I never stopped trying to catch up. But there was no way. I was about 150m behind by the top of the hill, saw them turn right onto Montague Road, and never caught up with them again. On the steepest part of the climb, near the bottom, I had noticed that Ted was still in his big chainring..

In Millers Falls I had my first mechanical of the brevet season: my super-light 32-spoke rear wheel developed an annoying wobble. I found the loose spoke in question, tightened it, and got back on the road within a few minutes.

I followed Rt 63 north into New Hampshire. Near Hinsdale I passed a couple of riders who had started at 1am; this was going to be a long day for them. The subsequent climb up Mt Pisgah, billed as a difficult challenge, gave me little trouble. What got me, though, was the road beyond that, the last few miles through Westmoreland and Walpole to the Bellows Falls checkpoint. I began to wheeze, probably allergic to something in the beautiful fields around me. I felt weak, and had a difficult time even on moderate rollers.

I met several riders going the other way, returning from Bellows Falls. Most were 1am starters, but I also recognized the fast cyclist who had ridden off alone out of Hanscom Field at 4am: very impressive. A couple miles from Bellows Falls I crossed Melinda and crew, and then, immediately before the checkpoint, I finally met Chip. I had been wondering where he was. He obviously did not feel well, and rode in full thermal gear despite the hot summer day. We headed off in separate directions, planning to meet further down the road.

By this point I was experiencing mechanical #2: my wheel had redeveloped a wobble. But I was in luck---Peter White, master wheelbuilder, was manning the Bellows Falls checkpoint! Within half an hour I was riding again, rehydrated and with a much truer wheel.

I caught up with Chip on the north side of Mt Pisgah. We finished the climb together, cruised down the other side, and rode on towards Ashuelot. But he was having a truly terrible day, and despite my asthma, our pace was very different. We parted ways, and I enjoyed the shady climb through Mt Grace State Forest at my own pace.

Near Warwick I ran into Ernie Landry and John Kruse. They had started somewhat after 4am due to the road construction, but were riding a faster pace than I. Ernie is a very fast rider, wiry and aggressive. His bike is fitted out with special Zipp aero wheels. He seems to say "Hammer!" a lot. John looked like he was, in fact, getting hammered by Ernie.

I rode with them until the Bullard Farm checkpoint. Maybe it was the pace, or maybe it was more allergens in the air, but by the checkpoint my asthma had intensified from problematic to debilitating. I sat down, rested, and ate watermelon and pretzels, but my breathing got no better. I decided to just get back on the bike.

It was almost 5pm, so I reasoned that if I could maintain 22Km/h average speed, I could make it to Bedford by 10pm and achieve my goal of a sub-18-hour ride. Easier said than done: on some of the short steep bits into Petersham and Hubbardston I noticed myself doing less than 6Km/h. I was literally gasping for air. My stomach began its bizarre, uncontrollable spasms that continued through the rest of the evening. But eventually I caught something of a second wind. As I rolled through Princeton and entered territory familiar from numerous Mt Wachusett rides, I thought I might make it back as early as 9pm.

I hadn't reckoned with mechanical #3, a flat tire that broke up the momentum of the lovely descent from Princeton to Sterling. I was no longer coherent: wheezing and uncoordinated, I took almost half an hour to fix my flat. I stopped for a Coke and sugar cookies in Sterling, and then vowed to never let my speed drop below 25Km/h until the finish. My stomach pumped air in and out of my chest as I crouched low in the drops and pushed through Clinton, Berlin, and Hudson. The sun set over Wachusett Reservoir, and I mingled into the Saturday night traffic of Boston's western suburbs. I hoped I wouldn't meet any 16-year-olds driving daddy's SUV.

When I arrived in Stow I became sure that I would make it. The last few miles to Concord and then Bedford were familiar from countless weekend rides: I pedaled on autopilot. Relief overwhelmed me as I pulled into Hanscom Field. And I was proud of my 17:55 time, considering the asthma and the three mechanical problems. I'm sure I could achieve sub-17 in better conditions.

When I arrived home, I decided---foolishly---to try to sleep without taking any medicine. But Kara had been wise enough to obtain a new prescription for my inhaler. My stomach spasms were so violent that I woke her up in the middle of the night. She tells me that, between one spasm and another, I wheezed that I thought I would suffocate. Kara got on her bike, cycled to a 24-hour CVS, and brought back the Albuterol. Two puffs later, at last, I was once again breathing normally. I slept for many hours.