Pulling out of my driveway at 5 AM this past Saturday, I contemplated the task ahead of me. I was driving out to Westfield, MA to take part in my first real brevet – the Shelburne Falls 200K. I can’t say I wasn’t a bit nervous since the course was described as moderately hilly and would be 25 miles longer than my longest ride to date. However, I felt prepared — my training had been going well and I had completed the Princeton Populaire 120K a week prior — so I focused on the positive as I sipped my morning coffee and turned onto the Merritt Parkway. It looked like it was going to be a beautiful day for a bike ride!
I reached the town of Westfield and saw a sign that made me smile:
A few minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of New Horizons Bikes on Franklin Street. This shop is owned by Don Podolski, the RBA for the Berkshire region and organizer of this brevet.
I signed in, collected my cue sheet and brevet card, and waited for the 7 AM start. There were a good number of cyclists milling about the parking lot getting ready to ride, including one randonneur in a pretty cool velocar!
Amid the chatter of cleats finding pedals we rolled out onto Franklin Street and my first brevet was underway. I found myself riding with the lead group — I knew I needed to pace myself for the long ride ahead, but I wanted to see if I would be able to stay with them for awhile. I didn’t have any trouble holding a wheel in the back of the group and even moved to the front for a bit after a strong climb up a small hill. A couple of miles into the ride one of my leg warmers started slipping down my leg, so when we stopped at a red light I took a moment to fix it. Boom! The light turned green, the group sped off, and I wouldn’t see them again. This was probably for the best, as I was now free to slow it down a bit and ride my own pace.
As we worked our way out of Westfield, the landscape turned to farmland and fields. The pungent smell of manure filled the morning air. It was a beautiful day out, but still pretty cold at this hour — I was regretting my decision to wear half-finger gloves, but aside from my hands I was feeling alright. The arm and leg warmers I was wearing were definitely a smart move. I kept the pedals turning through some beautiful rural scenery.
Passing through Florence, a small village in the city of Northampton, MA, I saw this interesting lawn art:
The miles started adding up and I was getting closer to the first controle in Shelburne Falls, MA. I was feeling good — the temperature was rising, there was a nice breeze but no headwinds, and the terrain was hilly enough to be interesting but not enough to hurt (yet). As I cruised along at a good clip, I thought of something I had read about randonneuring: “No matter how good you feel or how bad you feel during a brevet, it will not last.” I think that gem can be attributed to Joe Kratovil, a New Jersey Randonneurs legend, but I can’t find where I originally read it. One thing I am sure of — it is absolutely true. I realized that this ride wouldn’t be quite as pleasant the entire way through so I tried to enjoy this high point.
About nine miles from the controle I saw the first sign for Shelburne Falls outside of Pages, a cool little coffee shop/bookstore. A bunch of riders had stopped here to adjust their gear and I took the opportunity to snap some pictures and remove the arm and leg warmers that had served me so well up to this point.
Nine miles…doesn’t sound like a lot, does it? Well, when you start hitting some hills and are overdue for a nice break, it feels like a lot more. Keep the cranks turning! I rolled into Shelburne Falls and quickly found Mocha Maya’s, the coffee shop that served as the first controle. Here’s my Vigorelli leaned up against a tree outside — also note that the Shelburne Falls police department has a reserved parking spot outside the coffee shop. Insert witty comment here.
The brevet fee included a drink and snack at Mocha Maya’s and I opted for a large iced coffee and a chocolate chip cookie. I used the restroom, relaxed for a bit, enjoyed my snack…and then it was time to leave. The next section of the brevet was a 48 mile loop that wandered north into Vermont before ending at the second controle down the street from Mocha Maya’s. This part of the route would include the worst climb of the ride around mile 63 and I wasn’t looking forward to it!
I set off on my way and settled into the ride. I passed some cool looking farms, a bunch of sugar shacks, and some lazy cows laying down on the job!
I made it to the Vermont border and the halfway point of the ride. This was a big psychological boost for me, as I could now rationalize that every pedal stroke was bringing me closer to my car! However, I was also going through some hilly terrain and it was starting to wear me out a bit.
I finally reached mile 63 and the worst hill of the ride. It did not disappoint! I dropped into my easiest gear and started to slog my way up. A rider in front of me jumped off his bike and started to walk up — I almost did the same, but I knew if I took it slow and just concentrated on controlling my breathing and turning the cranks I would be OK. The climb went on and on for at least a mile or two… I just kept thinking of the Tour de France and how this could be a 20 mile climb up an Alpine peak! My quads were screaming and my heart rate was maxed out, but I kept going. Finally, the end was in sight. I stopped for a snack and a rest at the top and congratulated myself on a good climb. I knew from here on out, the rest of the ride was mostly downhill. Sure, there would be some climbs thrown in there every now and then, but the elevation profile was definitely at its worst during the first half of the brevet.
I cruised back into Massachusetts and passed through this nice covered bridge. Apparently, the bridge was just recently re-opened after an extensive renovation, so I was pretty lucky to be able to ride through it during my first Berkshire brevet. Both of my randonneuring rides so far have passed through covered bridges, a trend I would not mind continuing!
Up until this point, I had been riding the brevet solo. This time, it wasn’t due to feeling anti-social — I just couldn’t find anyone riding at a pace I liked. This changed briefly as I neared Shelburne Falls again and hooked up with a group of three riders. There was no real conversation (I think we were all pretty tired and ready for a break) but I had a good time riding with them to McCusker’s Market, the second controle. I wanted to stop in the Big Indian tourist shop to see what that was all about, but we had a lunch stop to get to!
The brevet provided a nice spread at McCusker’s — half of a wrap (I chose tarragon chicken salad), a water, a banana, and a cookie. I sat outside and enjoyed my lunch, completely forgetting to take any pictures of this nice country market.
OK – time for the final push! I had 41 miles to go to get back to Westfield and there was a touch of climbing to deal with as well. I set off from McCusker’s and found myself once again enjoying the nice scenery of rural Massachusetts.
I was starting to feel the distance now, and started watching my odometer and wondering why the distance to the finish was decreasing so slowly! I picked up two riders who were a bit unsure of the route. They decided to trust me and my GPS so I pulled them along for a bit. I was happy when one of them went to take a pull at the front to give me a break, but luck was against us as he suffered a flat right away! I offered to stick around and help, but they urged me to keep going and I set off to finish the ride on my own.
I was starting to bonk a bit so I started eating some of my emergency food — Sour Patch Kids! They definitely did the trick and I got a small surge of energy to push me through the last few miles. Unfortunately, here’s where the only unpleasant part of the ride happened. Traffic, which had been pretty light the entire ride, was picking up slightly as we got closer to Westfield, and I had one driver in a giant pickup buzz past me without moving over at all, and a second (also in a massive truck) scream a homophobic slur at me as I pedaled along. That was a bit depressing — I really don’t understand some of the animosity drivers feel towards us cyclists. I mean, just read the comments on this article (written by the mayor of a Texas town, no less!) to see that some drivers truly hate the fact that they have to share the road. By the way… HOLY COW LOOK AT THAT GUY’S HAIR!
I put the ignorant motorists out of my mind and kept going. I passed by the Black Birch Vineyard — at the start, Don had mentioned the vineyard was having an open house. It looked awesome and I almost stopped in but I just wanted to finish the brevet and I was afraid if I stopped here I wouldn’t be able to get myself back on the bike!
Finally, I wheeled into Westfield and made my way back to New Horizons. A smiling Don took my brevet card and noted my time — 10 hours, 10 minutes. Not too shabby for my first time! I grabbed a cold soda, packed my bike up, and drove to the nearest McDonald’s to indulge in the guilty pleasure of a Big Mac. Awful, I know, but I figured if there was ever a time to eat fast food, it was after burning 5,000 calories on a brevet! As I stuffed my face full of burger, I reflected back on my successful ride and the fact that I had just earned my first brevet medal and could now truly call myself a randonneur.
Now, let’s see if I can make it through a 300K…