2004 Westfield 200K Brevet


It was after midnight when I finally went to bed, a little late for the night before a big ride. The last thing I remember before falling to sleep was the deep rumble of distant thunder and a heavy downpour hitting the bedroom windows. I did not give it much thought. But it was still raining when I woke briefly around 4am, and had not let up at all by the time I got up, at 8am.

It was the morning of Friday, April 23, and my friend Chip and I had decided to cycle from Cambridge to Westfield to participate in the Westfield 200K brevet on Saturday. We delayed our 9am departure in the hope of better weather, but eventually became impatient and set out around noon under a steady drizzle.

Conditions were a bit too damp and chilly to encourage exploration, so we took the most direct route we could think of, and one that required no looking at maps: US 20 West for about 100 miles, from Weston, just outside Boston, all the way to the Elm Motel in Westfield. US 20 begins as a busy thoroughfare near Boston, but we thought it would get quieter as we moved west. No such luck: the traffic, not to mention the rain, continued unabated for most of the way. To make things a bit more unpleasant, the roads were still covered in gravel and sand from the winter months. Occasionally a large truck would overtake us, blasting us with a high-pressure wave of water, exhaust, and fine grit. By Worcester, my fluorescent rain gear was a dull brown, and Chip had taken off his glasses to see better.

With very few exceptions, notably Brimfield, the route was a case study in the destructive effects of strip malls on the aesthetics of small towns. It was also a stark reminder that the economic strength of Boston and its suburbs does not extend to all of Massachusetts: decommissioned factories, boarded-up houses, empty lots---all made grimmer by the leaden skies and leafless trees. The "hollowing out" of America's manufacturing base may be a topical election-year issue, but it's been happening for decades in towns like Springfield, as the textile industry and other sectors gradually abandoned the region.

Springfield has some of the worst pavement that Chip and I, in all of our bicycle touring experience, have ever seen, but we took the punishment in stride and arrived in Westfield shortly after 7pm. We refueled with severely overcooked pasta at Pasquale's "Italian" restaurant, and went to bed early after 169Km and 1170m of climbing for the day.


We woke up at 6am to a chilly but beautiful morning, with just wispy clouds on the horizon. There were about 50 people at the start, and the usual colorful array of bikes that one sees at a brevet: several titanium and carbon Serottas and Lightspeeds; a beautiful Motobecane with high-flange hubs and a Berthoud handlebar bag; a faired recumbent; even a hand-powered vehicle. I was not the only Rambouillet rider: there was also a cyclist from Providence whom we had met at our motel the night before.

The group set off briskly, but Chip and I kept our own, more moderate pace to prevent injury to Chip's knees, which had been bothering him. Beyond Westfield the road wound through beautiful farmland, vapor rising from the dew-covered fields and distant hills blue in the morning haze. By the time the sun burned through the night's moisture, Chip and I started catching up to and passing other cyclists.

I felt good, so I would sprint ahead on the climbs and then wait for Chip. I never had to wait long: somehow, despite his twinging knee and his impressively solid Bob Jackson touring bike, Chip was usually the first rider to join me at the top, even when on the climb up I had passed cyclists on super-light racing frames.

We reached the first checkpoint, in Shelburne Falls, shortly before 10am. There we met Paula, a woman from Fitchburg who was continuing the ride despite a large bloody welt on her forehead and various cuts suffered in a collision with a pedestrian. How one collides with a pedestrian on deserted roads in rural New England is an open question, but she certainly exhibited unusual pluck and determination in riding on.

The second part of the ride was a loop into Vermont starting and ending at Shelburne Falls. We battled a stiff headwind on the gradual climb across the border on Rt 112, and then enjoyed several unexpectedly punitive climbs on Rt 8A back into Massachusetts. I had misread the topo map: what I had interpreted as a swift descent back into the Bay State was actually a series of tough climbs with grades consistently above 10%. Oh well. Eventually, after Charlemont, the road flattened out along the banks of the Deerfield River. Powered by a fabulous tail wind, we covered the last few miles into Shelburne Falls at almost 40Km/h, sailing into the second checkpoint before 1pm.

Paula arrived into the checkpoint after us but left before us, while Chip and I sat at a cafe table, enjoyed a sandwich, and basked in the warm sun. Well, it was probably in the low 60s at this point, but I gather that means summer in Western Massachusetts: some local girls were walking down the street in bare feet.

The first few miles out of Shelburne Falls were hilly but beautiful, as we made our way along deserted country roads in the warm midday sun. About an hour into this leg of the ride I realized that I no longer had my brevet card with me---either it had fallen out of my jersey pocket, or I had left it at the last checkpoint. Without the card---which needs to be stamped and signed at each checkpoint---I risked being disqualified from the official brevet results, but the ride was really too nice for me to care much.

We caught up with Paula in a pine forest about 15 or 20 miles from Westfield, and rode together all the way to the finish, exchanging stories about past brevets and plans for the upcoming season. We clocked into the final checkpoint at 3.49pm: 8 hours and 49 minutes for 200Km and 1750m of climbing. Not super, but not bad for a pleasantly relaxed ride early in the season. (And the organizers were nice: Chip vouched for me and they validated my time despite the lack of brevet card.)


Oh boy, the stiffness! In the morning I felt like a block of wood; the night before Chip had cramped almost into a pretzel. We set off gingerly in the early morning, picking our way along the potholed roads of Westfield. At 7am we were the first customers of the day at the local Bickford's diner, where we put away a hearty pancake breakfast.

The sun did nothing to warm the crisp air as we pedaled by the sad empty lots of Springfield, past the "Co-Ed Billiards" (!) hall in Ludlow, and along the tree-lined main street of Palmer. Mindful of our experience from the ride out, we left US 20 in favor of Rt 67 to Warren. On the way there, twice we were passed by pelotons of racers escorted by police and other official vehicles. They weren't going all that fast---maybe 34-35Km/h---but it was cold, we were stiff, and they slowly pulled away before we managed to grab a wheel. We never did ask anyone what race it was.

Much of the rest of the ride was a succession of climbs and descents through scenic Massachusetts farmland: Brookfield, Paxton, Holden---we rolled through each little town in turn. Max: "Isn't this beautiful!" Chip: "Yeah, but damn hilly." Max: "Oh, come on, when the scenery's this nice the hills don't matter, they just fade into the distance." Chip: "Huh."

Remember to wash those apples, though. We stopped on a hilltop so that Chip could examine his rear wheel, which was making a strange clicking sound. Nearby a farmer on a tractor was spraying some apple trees. On closer inspection, I noticed that he was wearing a full-body rubber suit with a hood. We were downwind of him. As he turned into the row of trees nearest to the road, he stopped his tractor and motioned that we should leave. I was disgusted and scared.

In Sterling Chip and I rejoined the route that we follow on our customary Wachusett Mountain ride. I really felt like we were almost home, so I increased the pace a little bit. We alternated pulls through Lancaster, Bolton, Stow, Maynard, Sudbury. We were on Rt 117 in Concord when I checked my cell phone messages (easy to do at speed, if you're drafting someone) and learned that Kara was at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln. So a few miles later Chip turned left to head home along Trapelo Road, while I stayed on Rt 117 to Drumlin. Kara is a very different cycling partner from Chip---more talkative, though in greater need of encouragement on the climbs---and it was fun to ride with her for an hour. We arrived home around 4pm, after 176Km and 1300m of climbing for the day.