Well, my first populaire is in the books. Here’s how it went down:
I rushed home from work on Friday to pack and get ready. I was hoping to be in bed no later than 10 PM, as I had to wake up around 4 AM to have time to get ready and drive to the start. The Wife™, who is awesome, offered to cook up a batch of Allen Lim’s famous rice cakes so I could focus on packing. That was a huge help. I was running around like a chicken without a head trying to get all my gear together. I couldn’t find my headlight charger, but it had enough of a charge to turn on and I didn’t think I would actually need it during the daylight ride (regardless, we had to demonstrate working lights at the start for insurance purposes). I packed a backup light just in case.
I finally finished packing, helped get the rice cakes wrapped up, and looked at the clock. It was almost midnight! Cursing, I got ready for bed and drifted off to a restless sleep. I woke up at 3 AM after tossing and turning all night. I managed to stay in bed another 30 minutes until I gave up. I was exhausted and had no idea how I was going to ride 75 miles later that morning. It was raining pretty heavily as I packed up the car — I thought about going back to sleep and forgetting this madness, but the forecast promised clear skies by dawn so I forged ahead. I had a slight panic attack when I couldn’t find my Garmin Edge — I ran around for 20 minutes looking for it (finding the missing headlight charger in the process!) until I realized I had put the GPS on the bike the night before so I wouldn’t forget it. Did I mention I was tired?
The drive out to Princeton, NJ was uneventful. The rain eventually stopped, the sun was coming up, and it looked like we might luck out with a pretty nice day. I stopped off at a rest stop to top off my coffee and had two Clif bars for breakfast. When I got to the start, it was pretty easy to find the randonneurs. Bright reflective vests and sashes stood out like beacons in the nearly empty parking lot.
I checked in, got my brevet card, and chatted for a few minutes with Jud (the ride organizer) about the terrain. I finally hit the road shortly after 7 AM. I got about two blocks from the parking lot when I had a nagging feeling like I had left a car window open or something. I almost dismissed the thought and kept riding but I was close enough where it wasn’t a big deal to circle back and check. Good thing I did — I didn’t leave a window open, but I had left my brevet card sitting on my trunk! That would have been a disaster.
Card in hand, I set off for a second time. The riders who had started before me were all out of sight — this was fine with me, as I was feeling a bit anti-social due to lack of sleep and general crankiness. It was a bit cool out and I was really glad I had purchased a new pair of arm warmers — I would’ve been freezing without them. As it was, I was hoping for some hills to help warm up my legs. I got my wish!
The event description said the ride was hilly, but I was still a bit surprised at some of the terrain. These climbs appeared very steep compared to the Connecticut hills I am used to, but I must say most of them looked worse than they really were. A thousand times worse than the hills, however, was the WIND! There was a vicious headwind I had to fight against almost the entire trip out to Frenchtown. This wind was cold and mean and it just sapped your energy as you pushed against it. I forged onward — the day warmed up a little, I found a rhythm, and I was having a really good time despite the wind.
The scenery in this part of New Jersey is absolutely beautiful — lots of farmland, big houses with lush lawns, and charming little towns. We crossed over the last covered bridge remaining in the state, which I thought was really cool. There were a few bigger climbs thrown in there, too — nothing super steep, but some long, sustained grades you just had to grind your way up. They couldn’t stop me, however — I just clenched my teeth and slogged along. I was feeling pretty good when I pulled into the Frenchtown controle.
I made a rookie mistake at the controle and grabbed a plate of food before having my brevet card signed. This occurred to me as I was stuffing my face full of sandwich and brownie and I quickly found Katie, the RBA for the NJ Randonneurs. Katie is an extremely nice woman and I was impressed that she remembered my name even though we’d met just briefly back at the start. She signed my card and I got back to the serious business of lunch. I felt bad — there were a few other guys at the table I was sitting at, but I didn’t talk to anyone besides saying a quick hello. I was still feeling a bit grouchy from my lack of sleep and I just wanted to finish eating and get back on the road. I was really hoping that that headwind would be a tailwind all the way back!
When I got back on the bike, I had just about half the distance to go. This leg brought us back to the same parking lot we started from, but followed a different route than the one we rode out on. I was enjoying the scenery but not the hills, which were starting to wear me down. I stopped every now and then to eat some Hammer gels and rice cakes and rest my legs. I highly recommend the rice cakes, by the way — they are a great alternative to the sweet, sugary stuff cyclists usually consume on rides like this. Easy to prepare and they taste pretty good, too!
There was one climb around mile 60 that Jud had warned me about at the start – a long 5-6% climb. I had been dreading this climb the entire ride — 5-6% grade didn’t sound too bad, but my experience shows that if a ride organizer or cue sheet mentions a climb, it probably sucks! I finally got to the hill and found it wasn’t as bad as my mind had made it out to be. Sure, it was a grind, and it was pretty long, but I think I climb pretty well and I just got in the zone and kept the pedals turning. And that, I suppose, is the ethos of randonneuring in a nutshell. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single pedal revolution and all that. Just keep those pedals turning and you’ll get there — eventually!
After the long hill I wound up on some nice flats. I finally caught a bit of tailwind and was flying along this stretch. The miles were counting down and I was ready for the ride to be finished — I just wanted to get home and have a celebratory beer! 15 miles, 10 miles, 5 miles… finally, I saw the parking lot and the finish line! I rolled up to the controle and turned in my card. The volunteer manning the controle (Janice, who makes some of the best brownies I’ve ever had!) offered me some snacks. I grabbed some mixed nuts and a soda and called The Wife™ — I had done it! Not only that, but when I checked the ride results later, it turns out I was the first rider to complete the 120K! I was shooting for a time of 5 hours — with stops, I finished in just over 6 hours, with almost exactly 5 hours of saddle time, so I consider that a success!
I packed up the car and drove home, where The Wife™ and I went out to a relaxing dinner where several adult beverages were consumed. When I got back to the house I just wanted to lay down for a minute on the couch. That was around 7 PM, and I didn’t wake up until the next morning.
Overall, I had a great time. The distance and terrain were a bit challenging given my sleep-deprived state, but were nothing I couldn’t handle. The scenery was great – having grown up in NYC I’ve been exposed to urban North Jersey, and I’ve been to the Jersey Shore and the suburbs of South Jersey, but I’ve never been around the Princeton area and seen all of the farmland before! Jersey is nothing if not diverse. I could’ve done without the wind, but if the ride was completely comfortable and easy I wouldn’t have felt like I accomplished anything. I also regret not being a bit more social on the ride, but I think I’ll loosen up as I get more comfortable with the whole rando experience (and get a decent night’s sleep!). Finally, I wish I had taken some more pictures to document the journey — I have this problem on all my long rides, especially when you get towards the end and don’t want to stop.
So, what’s next? I think I’ll be traveling to Westfield, MA for the Berkshire Brevet Shelburne Falls 200K this Saturday. I’m still pretty upset that I have to miss the Ronkonkoma 200K on Sunday — it sounds awesome! — but I’ll make up for it by (hopefully) riding the Bethpage 300K in June.