The J-Team Rides Again: Wherein a father and daughter attempt a foolishly long ride on a tandem bicycle. Will they get away with it?
While my oldest daughter is only 18 (actually, she turns 19 today), we have done several long rides over the last 5 years, up to an unofficial lap of the BBS 300k route. However, the J-Team, captain John and stoker Jane, hadn’t been seen on the roads for quite some time. Our last ride was in 2008; 120 miles across Massachusetts to attend my 25th college reunion. My lower back was in distress the entire ride, and shortly thereafter I received a diagnosis of a herniated disk (NB: the original injury was not caused by cycling, but cycling wasn’t helping it). After that miserable day, I spent a couple months not riding at all, missing all of last season’s brevets. I then bought a recumbent, which kept me from becoming totally soft. I don’t want to restart the recumbent debate, but I will suggest that people who say recumbents are inherently slow may never have ridden them long enough to explore their advantages – and you may see me on my HPV Speedmachine at a future brevet. And yes, I will look dorky, but I won’t care. It is, after all, a “Speedmachine!”
Hoping for a return to the roads, last fall Jane and I looked at the cycling calendar and circled 2 dates. The first was the BBS 400k. Hmmm, need to get ready! I have been back on a regular bike this year, albeit with a higher and shorter stem, and I’ve been able to bike commute a few times a week. Work and family balance issues had prevented any rides longer than 50 miles, but I had been riding fairly regularly.
Jane, in the meantime, wasn’t doing any cycling. She was, however, rowing for Williams College. Since they won the Division III national championship, she probably was training pretty hard. Whatever she lacked in souplesse, she would make up for with a prodigiously high lactate threshold and VO2max and loads raw power. I brought her home after the nationals and we hopped on the tandem for what we hoped would be a quick 50 miles. Disheartened by our mediocre speed, I determined a misaligned brake and an out of true wheel had slowed us down. After corrections, a subsequent 25 mile ride demonstrated our actual speed, she did a strong solo 50 and we then declared ourselves ready for 400k. This conveniently ignored the fact that neither of us had ridden more than 50 miles at any one time, and Jane probably had less than 200 total miles for the year. What could be more stupid than that?
Waking up on time may have been one of Jane’s greater challenges, but she didn’t complain. I’m guessing that getting up at 2:45 am is not something college students, even rowers, often practice. It was great to see familiar faces when we checked in at 3:30. Bruce Ingle, his father Jim, Jeff Scornavacca, Ted Lapinksi, Glenn Slater and Mike Beganyi were all there, and of course Tracey Ingle, but I missed other riding friends who I had not seen for a long time.
We started smoothly at 4:01, riding well within ourselves, hanging towards the front as all the riders rolled together through Concord. We enjoyed the beautiful crescent moon, with Venus hanging above, just to the right. A theme for the remainder of the day was established on West Road, where we encountered the first measurable grade. We went from the very front of the pack to the very end. Such is the nature of tandems. Unfortunately, the road surface was so terrible (can we suggest “shovel ready project” to President Obama?) that we couldn’t find space to pull around the rest of the riders safely and pass on the descent. This led to the conversion of lots of potential energy into well-warmed rims, instead of exhilarating speed. So don’t kid yourselves about bikes being a cure for global warming.
Off West Road and back on what passes for pavement in Massachusetts, we rode with Aaron Bigio for a while, talking tandems and education. There were four riders ahead, and the pack was gradually fragmenting. Glenn came up from behind, noting “Teddy doesn’t want to ride today.” I suggested that Ted always has a way of showing up. Glenn agreed, and bridged up to the lead group, which gradually pulled away, and Aaron gradually fell behind.
I thought we lost a lot of ground climbing on New Boston Road out of Amherst, but we clearly made up most of the time coming down Route 13. We reached New Boston just a couple minutes behind the leaders, where my greeting in French was met with stony silence from the fast riders. I shared with Jane, sotto voce, “What? This is a ‘brevet’, right? Isn’t ‘brevet’ French?” I guess they were all business. Or don’t share my admiration for Sarkozy and fondness for Chambolle-Musigny. We checked in with Glen Reed, and the Ingles, father and son. We quickly filled our water bottles and rolled out with the lead pack. Riding with this strong group worked very well on the flats, where we hung a few yards off the back of the paceline, but we faced a widening gap whenever the road turned up.
And soon enough, the road turned seriously up. The second leg of the brevet was much hillier than I remembered from 2007. I had assured Jane that except for the first section to New Boston, there wasn’t too much climbing. I was now beginning to question my memory. They do say that the memory is the first thing to go... However, in 2007 I was on a single bike and in better shape. Tandems punish you on the climbs, and I started to develop conspiracy theories about the route designer and some of the more, shall we say, “gratuitous” hills. Let’s take Carter Hill Road, for instance. Here’s the scene: Tracey is cruising along Little Pond Road, and she comes to an intersection, musing, “Let’s see, do we take a right onto ‘Lakeview’ or a left onto ‘Carter Hill?’ Hmmm…have them roll leisurely along a scenic lake, or force them to grind up a steep hill?” I’m sure I heard soft sinister snickering as we made the inevitable left turn…
Just to be clear, the preceding trip into what goes through the strange crevasses of my mind while trying to get nearly 400 pounds of bike, riders, water bottles, repair parts, and clothing for any New England climate contingency up an 8% hill at 5mph is not a complaint. I love hills – that climb, and others, gave us several opportunities to hit 45 mph, even with the drum brake engaged. But we also spent a fair bit of time at 5 mph. Life is all about tradeoffs. I think Nietzsche said something appropriate for this situation…
The climb to Canterbury Shaker village was another tough one, but it is a beautiful stretch of road. As we slowly ground our way up, I glanced at my rear view mirror and saw cyclists in the distance. I asked Jane to see who it was, but she said they weren’t close enough to see clearly, and they might not be on our ride. However, before we could see clearly, I could hear clearly, and told Jane it had to be Jeff. Moments later, Jeff and Ted pulled alongside, with Ted bestowing on us our new moniker, “The J-Team.” After enjoying a brief minute of their lively wit, Ted and Jeff rose past us swiftly up the steep climb. Sure enough, Ted had indeed come out to ride.
After some more 45 mph descending, we had just about caught back on as we approached the intersection with Route 106. Jane wanted to stop, and apparently Ted and Jeff did as well, and we pulled into the Irving station together, and also joined up with Mike Anderson. I wanted to try to stay with them, because they are great riding partners and brighten any cloudy day, but it just didn’t work on the hills. Plus, our average speed wasn’t getting any faster as the miles piled up. While we would see other riders at the controls, there was no way we could ride with anyone else.
After the Irving came The Motorcycles. Lots of them. Thousands. In all sizes and shapes (of bikes and riders). Mostly big, loud Harleys, with lots of chrome and very stylish leather saddlebags – Carradice (or Emily!) should get in on that market. Some silly looking tricycles. Riders with lots of tattoos. And more leather. And of course, nary a helmet to be seen to restain the free-flowing locks waving in the breeze. Giving modern meaning to the old slogan, “Live Free or Die.” There was one poor guy on a scooter, hugging the shoulder. I can only guess at his position on the biker totem pole, and what harm must have befallen him on the playground when he was young. And might still be befalling him, for that matter. Jane and I developed a relative fondness for the quiet purring of BMWs and the big Japanese bikes. This fondness did not apply, however, to the crotch-rocket bikes – I actually prefer the rumble of a Harley to the shriek of a Kawasaki Ninja 650.
To be fair to the bikers, all of them gave us a really wide berth, no one deliberately down shifted and gunned it for extra shock and rumble, and one was downright useful in buzzing off a large hungry black dog that wouldn’t stop chasing us. So biker guy who tried to clip the dog for us, if you are reading this, thanks! And thanks to your girlfriend too!
Upon quiet reflection, I think there is considerable overlap in the Venn diagrams of values and needs of bikers and randonneurs. Basically, they were just doing what we were doing - enjoying the freedom of the road and the bracing rush of wind in one’s face. We just do it with a bit more exercise and a bit less noise. Just a bit.
We caught back up with Jeff, Ted and Mike at Blueberry Hill, home of our gracious hosts Joe and Judy Dever. Bruce MacDonald checked us in, and we were also greeted by his wife Lisa and their daughter. Jane and I each had a turkey sandwich. I checked with Ted on his food consumption; he allowed that he had limited himself to only two sandwiches, but assured me that they were “calorie dense.” Can’t afford to be malnourished out there. I’ll never cease to be amazed by, and jealous of, Ted’s ability to metabolize food.
Mike, Ted and Jeff headed out, and Charlotte and Andy Moriarty rolled in. Bruce assured us that the next leg wasn’t too bad, with just some “gentle ramps” up to Hillsborough. That conformed to my memory of the ride, so we headed out, hoping for the best.
We made good time on next leg – the rollers were well suited for the tandem. We were able to crest many of the small climbs by maintaining momentum from the previous rise. Jane had been an absolute trooper the entire ride. Although she was stepping way outside of what she had prepared for, there was no quit in her. However, by mid-afternoon she allowed that she was feeling sleepy. She was used to a nap before rowing practice; she had risen very early and now it was nap time. Fortunately, we were approaching the Crossroads Country Store in Salisbury, so we pulled in and bought some Coke. Jane headed to the rest room, and during this time I had my Coke, refilled the water bottles, polished my glasses, did the cross-word…okay, I’m exaggerating. But Jane was gone a while, and when she eventually returned, she admitted that she thought she had fallen asleep. Probably not where she wanted to take her nap!
Charlotte and Andy reappeared, just as we were getting ready to head out, so we agreed to meet at Peter White’s. Jane was remarkably revived after her mini-nap and caffeine boost. Each member of an experienced tandem pair always knows exactly how much power the other rider is generating, and Jane’s wattage had doubled. Rejuvenated, we played a game of leapfrog with the MacDonald family as they drove to Peter’s. I think we may have helped keep them on course at one intersection. Of course, we had redundant navigation systems - I had the GPS upfront, and Jane had the cue sheet in back.
Walter Page welcomed us at Peter’s, and we came in and said hello to Linda. I helped myself to a cup of ravioli, and fumbling with the spoon, promptly deposited one on the floor. After cleaning up that mess, I switched to easier to grip pickles, and Walter, Bruce, Linda and I provided Jane with a lesson on the virtues of pickles. Charlotte and Andy came in and fueled up. Jane really wanted to stay for a while, but I thought we needed to get back on the road – the skies were threatening. Linda checked the online Doppler radar report, reporting that it was raining at the New Hampshire – Vermont border, heading south-west. Unfortunately, we were headed south-west.
We discussed with Charlotte and Andy the prospect of riding together, but agreed that the tandem wasn’t going to allow for a harmonious pace. They left a few minutes before us, but we soon saw them stopped, about 4 miles down the road. We offered to help, but they said they were ok. So we set off to finish the last 100km.
There was only one major obstacle, the climb up Crotched Mountain. It was an effort, but we made it, and enjoyed the predominantly downhill run until the abbreviated climb to Mont Vernon. Jane began to grow sleepy again, but just as we turned onto Route 13, Tracey appeared, an angel from heaven bearing caffeine and encouragement. Jane returned to vibrancy and high wattage; I took back every nasty thing I had said about the route designer. Really!
We turned the lights back on in Amherst, and climbed back to Hollis. We enjoyed a beautiful run back down to Dunstable, and then Jane’s sleep demons returned. I maintained a constant stream of annoying chatter to keep her awake, and explained in detail every climb we would face for the rest of the ride. Getting up to Westford was tough, but we did manage to catch the lights on the way down. Soon we were back on West Road, cursing the Carlisle highway department. The terrain helped both of us stay alert, but once pavement returned in Concord, Jane again became sleepy. Without her realization we went right by Middlesex, her old school. When I told her we were on Lowell Road, with less than 5 miles to go, she suddenly dropped the hammer. I told her she had done the same thing 5 years earlier on our first 200k. When it is time to get home, Jane gets home.
The treacherous circle in the center of Concord was deserted, and we had a clear shot to Hanscom. We felt a few sprinkles on Route 62, but no serious precipitation. We were annoyed, as always, by the last hill on Virginia Road, but were very relieved to see Tracey, Bruce and Jim at the finish. We chatted for a few minutes, sharing our adventure, and I got the bike dismantled and mounted on the roof. Tracey took our picture, and Jane observed that it had just turned midnight, and that it was now Father’s Day. Jim and I offered each other congratulations, and I thought proudly of how good my pre-father’s day had been. If your 18 year old daughter thinks it’s cool to ride 250 miles with you, you are having a great Father’s Day.
Given our cumulative lack of preparation, a 400k ride may have been a foolish venture, but we did get away with it. We finished in one piece (individually), still working as one “J-Team” (collectively), relatively lucid and with no apparent lasting damage, either physical or mental. However, the longer term effects have yet to be established. I’m assuming my left hand will regain functionality sometime soon, and Jane has similar hopes for her right.
We want to thank Bruce for his leadership in organizing the ride, and all of the volunteers who made it a perfect day for a ride!!!
For others who might consider anything of similarly foolish dimensions, I’ll offer a few lessons learned:
You don’t need long miles to ride long miles:
While neither of us had any long rides, we had each done a lot of intense interval work; Jane in her boat, me, on the hills of Trapelo Road during my commute. “Studies have shown” Intervals develop capillaries and all that jazz better than long steady distance. Obviously not as pleasurable, but brutally effective when time is your scarcest commodity.
Pay strict attention to nutrition:
We both were very careful to maintain a steady regulated flow of calories (~250/hour), liquids and electrolytes. Neither of us had any bonking, cramping, or any real problems at all. I won’t recommend brands; the key is familiarity with the sources and regular intake. Unless you are Ted and can eat anything and everything. And don’t forget the pickles!
Lay off the caffeine before the ride:
So that when you need it, it really works. I had detoxed for a week; Jane for the whole season. That gave us both heightened response to legal doping. (I am willing to entertain a philosophical discussion about the prohibition of steroids and EPO vs. the legitimacy of caffeine.)
But, you do need long miles to ride long miles:
“But wait John! You just said…” Yes, I did. But while intervals and sound nutrition can get your legs through 400k, other parts of you are going to be really sore afterword. You really do need miles to toughen your contact points, especially on a tandem when opportunities to stand are greatly reduced. Also, while hill intervals during my commute conditioned my legs, most of my riding this year has been on a fixie, so my shifting muscles were not well-conditioned. The hilly route dictated an enormous number of front shifts, performed on a vintage 1993 Campy Ergopower, which over taxed my left hand. My right hand is naturally stronger (that happens when you are right handed), so no problem there.
Next up, 12 hours at Saratoga. The changes to the program will be more handlebar padding, switching to a bar-end shifter for the front derailleur, and shedding several pounds of lights, bags and racks. But other than that, we are ready to roll!