IT WAS 24°F and still dark in Princeton Junction. I should have realized the car in the lot with the Litespeed on the back would have to be one of ours, but I was preoccupied trying to figure out if we were on the correct side of the station. For some reason, Princeton Junction always screws me up. I’m never sure I’m riding out the right exit.
Angel and I had ridden from Inwood down to Penn Station at 4am and caught the 5:14. Small conversation was punctuated by bleary silence. Also with inner tube replacement, because despite all my checklist activity of the preceding hours, when I wheeled the bike toward the apartment door, the new back tire was completely flat. I pumped it up on my way out and hoped it was a slow enough leak that I could replace it once we were on the train, which is why my bike is bungeed upside-down in the luggage area:
I wasn’t able to find any glass shards or sharp spoke tips, so I hoped the mechanic at Tread had just forgotten to pump it up when he mounted the new tire, and I just hadn’t noticed because I walked it home instead of riding. Now I was down to one tube remaining in the saddlebag.
So the titanium Habanero with pink accents turned out to be Katie at about the same time an elegantly appointed forest-green Surly drove up, and that was Nigel.
ON A SUB-FREEZING ride, your main concern is staying warm, but the considerations aren’t necessarily obvious. Yes, you have to fiddle around with different gloves and socks and stuff, but this is the sport of anal-retentive introverts, so that’s the fun part. My main lesson this weekend was that even though I’ve become good at staying comfortable, my version of comfort is costing me performance.
I like cold. I used to sleep on my wooden floor when I was little, in just underwear, when the bed was too warm for me and the rest of the family was tucked in tight. But what I realized is my quads never really warm up when I dress for comfort. I’m losing performance because I like the skin temperature I get with Lycra bib shorts under wind pants in a blizzard—and as Nigel pointed out, there’s a lot of blood flowing through those leg muscles. After it passes through, it circulates up into the torso, which isn’t doing anything to generate its own heat. Better if the legs give that blood a warmup before shipping it upstairs.
So for January, I’ll add tights—which I already have; it’s not like I didn’t stand there and look at them that morning—and hope the extra layer of fabric doesn’t come back and bite me in the ischial tuberosities eighty miles in.
I AM STILL in love with my Thermos.
It’s real this time. Not like that thing with the inclinometer.
I GREW UP in Los Angeles and was raised as color-blind as my mother could manage, which was probably easier to do in Los Angeles, in the sixties and seventies, than in twenty-first–century New York City. I wasn’t in many groups of people that weren’t racially mixed. Mixture was natural. Monochromatic groups—including those organized around my own Pantone 7422, Eastern European Pink—make me uncomfortable. Not terribly, just enough that after about an hour, I go “Wait, where’s everybody else?”
Then I moved to New York. There may be more diversity here, but to me, it feels like it’s more clustered. You’ve got your 7519s over here, your 5035s over there, your 806s—OK, kidding. Haven’t seen any 806s yet.
Randonneuring is mostly male, mostly middle-aged, and mostly not ranging too far from 7422. There are a few women, but they’re also within a few shades of that same swatch. In two and a half years, I’ve never seen a woman of color on a brevet or in a group picture.
So in more ways than just returning to a sport I’ve let lapse, this Saturday’s sub-freezing New Jersey 200K from Princeton to Belmar to Princeton (it’s a pun; PBP is also the world’s most famous brevet, Paris-Brest-Paris) was a little bit of a homecoming. Because I was the only male 7422 in the foursome.
“YEAH…” I SAID, and let the word kind of stretch out. Angel, upon spying the hazard signs and the fence across the road, had ventured a sensible observation.
“Yeah…” I said, “randonneurs ignore stuff like that.”
This isn’t a weekend club ride; we have a route to complete and a time to beat, and we strive for self-sufficience. When we encounter a closed bridge, the question isn’t “What detour can we take?” but rather, “What are the odds the surface is passable and the other end of the closure has an opening somewhere?” Because, well, there’s closed—and then there’s closed.
I’ve often been too much of a rule-follower. Which is odd, considering how many of them I’m happy to break, but for whatever reason, I’m ridiculously sensitive to hierarchy. Some things are my place, other things aren’t. It’s probably related to my knowledge that I’ll take everything over out of sheer frustration with other people’s inefficiency and incompetence if I’m not strict with myself, combined with an oversensitivity to crossing lines and stepping on toes.
But if I didn’t also love experimenting with personal boundaries, I wouldn’t be randonneuring in the first place, and a blocked-off, carless bridge with pieces missing is fun to ride on. And yes I do believe the rules don’t apply to me, and screw authority.
Photo: The EP Rider
THIS WAS MY first randonnée since completing my SR Series in September, and my first ride of an R-12 attempt. An R-12 is a trinket they’ll let you buy if you complete one RUSA-sanctioned ride of 200K or better per month for twelve consecutive months. Despite having spent the previous two weeks coughing my lungs out in bed, and not really having been on the bike in a serious way since August, I knew I’d finish. Well, knew is too strong, but having succeeded at something a few times previously is always reassuring. But I chose Princeton-Belmar-Princeton for a reason:
Not completely flat, like the 600K in North Carolina with 200 feet of total elevation gain that Nigel told us about, but nothing a randonneur would really call a hill. Right now, getting back up after being knocked around for a while, insignificant rollers are about right.
“Little bumps,” Katie called them, and from the rando perspective, they are. But in this shape, I could have fallen completely behind everyone on the shallow climb after controle 4, lost the momentum and impetus that group psychology gets you, slowed down even more once I was riding by myself, and DNF’d.
In fact, I did. Not the DNF part, but the rest. Nigel hypothesized too much blood drawn away from my muscles for digestion (I had a roast beef sandwich), but I tend to go with general underconditioning. Whatever—I was struggling. But here’s what makes randonneuring, while inarguably a time-based event, not racing: My partners slowed down, came back, waited, rode behind, and when I finally rallied before controle 5, I wasn’t five miles behind the group. We rode in, more or less, together.
If I hadn’t rallied, they’d have gone ahead and I’d have DNF’d. It’s sport, not philanthropy. But there’s enough play in the system for helping out your bud.
IT TURNED OUT that 18 hours in sub-freezing weather was finally too much for my sweet, beautiful Thermos. The hot chocolate I’d made at 3am was cool chocolate milk by the time I cracked it open at 9pm, on the train home, and shared it with Angel in two little plastic mugs my family used to use for “night-night milk.” Slightly odd-tasting, but it had been in my saddlebag for the whole ride.
That’s my personal tradition on brevets. I buy a small bottle of sake for my saddlebag, and then afterward I drink the sake that went on the ride with me. This not being a brevet—it was a “permanent,” which is identical to a brevet except (1) you can ride it any time you arrange in advance with the person in charge of the route, (2) you only get RUSA credit for it, not ACP, and (3) there are no volunteers helping you out at the controles, only mini-mart employees—anyway, this not being a brevet, and me being broke, a Thermos of hot chocolate seemed like a good compromise. (And we hadn’t drunk it during the ride, so it was there to improvise with—which is how traditions start anyway.)
So we toasted Angel’s joining the club, and we drank the cool hot chocolate, and then we sat on a stopped New Jersey Transit train for five hours because an Amtrak train hit somebody and they suspended all Northeast Corridor traffic between Metro Park and Trenton.
Travel tip: If New Jersey Transit comes on the loudspeaker and says that due to a trespassing event, trains have been temporarily stopped and they’ll give you more information when they have it, trespassing event means a 650-ton train going 125 mph creamed somebody down the tracks, and more information when we have it means they won’t be telling you a damn thing, ever, so get out your phone and search Google News.
I WASN’T GOING to ask Angel what he thought until a couple of days had passed, but Katie jumped on it at controle 5, after we’d been back in sub-freezing darkness for a while. That was the stretch during which I had my period of struggling, and his sentences had gone from cheery and totally into it to single-word grunts. We’ve all been there, and it’s usually in the dark. You don’t know why you should go on. This is too hard, it’s not fun, and the miles—just—keep—coming—and—coming—and—coming—and—coming. There’s no earthly logic to it anymore. The romance has completely sloughed off. Your hands are numb. Your toes are frozen. Frigid wind is leaking in where you’re sweating and unable to warm up. You won’t be doing this again, and these people you’re riding with are just…nuts. And not the cute kind. The kind you thought was romantic until you got there. Kind of like those cool kids in high school. They weren’t actually that cool.
But by now, the quickest way home is just to finish. And then you can pack it in, exercise some bragging rights with the local club riders, and never, ever do this again.
You’re allowed to quit.
You’re just not allowed to stop pedaling.
“YOU GONNA COME back?” she asked him as we chowed down on hot food at Cranbury Pizza, the fifth controle.
There was a moment. And then he started to nod.