|Whenever you hear a bicycle bell ring, somewhere a cyclist is getting his wheels|
Hardy Menagh 8/19/09
(not affiliated with or compensated by The Farm Ride, Bicycle Shows U.S. or any of the other businesses mentioned in this article)
For the past few years, ever since I got back on a bike, I've been cycling in a vacuum. It can be weeks before I even catch a glimpse of another cyclist on my daily 15 to 30 mile rides around my rural community.
There are some benefits to cycling alone. You can set your own pace, you don't have to make excuses to anyone but yourself and you don't feel at all compelled to keep up with cycling trends and fashions. The drawback is that you can't share the experience or learn how others enjoy it and maximize it. It's lonely, plain and simple.
In March of 2009, I saw an ad for a group century ride on my own website, mulled it over for a day and then emailed the tour director, Glen, of Bicycle Shows U.S. He patiently answered my questions and eventually I settled on another one of his rides which my wife could attend as well. The base of operations for this ride was the deluxe dorms of the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst and that's where we would be staying.
The Farm Ride itself would be through suburban and rural areas, past fields of pumpkin plants in bloom, historic structures and farm buildings. Part of the route would be on a paved bike trail which would sometimes go through tunnels and over wood plank bridges. There would be some long flat-out stretches and some winding roads.
There would be no really uncomfortable hills, unless... you had the misfortune to get lost, but more on that later.
I had time to gradually work up to some longer rides. I was moderately confident that I could do a century or at least a metric century if I started training for it now.
The August 8th ride day approached quickly. I had upgraded one of my Cannondale SR300 12-speeds for the event. I gave it a new stem, wider handlebars, the same model of touring saddle that had been proven on another of my bikes, better tires, better brakes and a 7-speed freewheel which added another lower gear. It was still the lowest-end model of Cannondale's 1985 racing line but it looked newer now and felt more like the fast responsive touring bike I wanted it to be.
Although my bike was as ready as I could make it, I was recovering from Lyme disease, which I had contracted in June. My longest ride had been 45 miles and I had done only one of those. I hoped that the hilly nature of my daily route and the fact that I routinely rode an old heavy steel 10-speed, would be the equivalent of some extra mileage. I decided to opt for the 66 mile route and call for the SAG van if I ran out of steam before the finish. With no longer rides to my credit, it wasn't rational to attempt a full century when I really didn't know what to expect from the ride or myself.
On Friday, August 7th, my wife and I loaded the car. My wife, who rarely pedals, had shown a glimmer of interest in doing some short rides around town on Saturday, so I put her bike of choice, a Raleigh Ltd., 3-speed on the rack along with my Cannondale. The weather was forecast to be mid-to-upper 70s and mostly sunny with low humidity for Saturday, with a chance of showers on Sunday.
We arrived at the dorms and checked in. Bicycle folk were coming and going. I hoped they wouldn't notice that the seatpost on my bike was extended to the maximum and I had replaced the stem with a longer one with a greater reach. My bike, purchased for $25 at a garage sale, was obviously at least a size too small for me and I had made it fit.
No one even glanced at our bikes. They just smiled at the two of us and we exchanged pleasantries, even joked about the fact that my wife and I had been put on separate floors of the dorm due to a typo.
These bicycle people are friendly and non-judgmental. Who could know?
The room mix-up was easily remedied after a bit of a wait but it was now too late to join a group for dinner. We found the local Italian place and dined quietly by ourselves then, wanting to be well rested for the ride the next day, we went back to the dorm and to bed straight away.
A Small Dose of Insanity
I lay awake, staring at the ceiling with my mind churning irrationally: What am I doing here? I'm almost certainly not physically prepared. My bike can't possibly be good enough for the task. I don't have the slightest idea of how to ride with a group. What was I thinking?
At best, I got 4 hours of sleep, then woke up before the alarm went off.
We had our showers. I got dressed in my khaki bike shorts and a jersey that I figured I had better buy for the event. The cotton T-shirts I routinely soak with sweat at home weren't going to cut it with the real cyclists here.
When we arrived at the morning meeting place and breakfast spread, in the parking lot, my wife directed my attention to some cyclists wearing T-shirts. Oddly enough, no-one was pointing fingers and giggling at them.
We met Glen, the tour director. He seemed to have the ability to calmly and happily create order from chaos or at least make it look orderly. He was busy making sure everybody's needs were met and things were relatively close to schedule. You could tell he really enjoyed running these events. He's one of those confident folks that can make you feel relaxed because he genuinely seems to be.
The variety of food that had been put out by the ride volunteers was exceeded only by the quantity. There was also a good selection of commercial and hand packaged items you could pocket for the ride. I was happy to find my usual morning fare, granola. As I consumed it, I noticed quite a variety of bicycles, including a tandem, a recumbent and a fixie. Some of the bikes had been modified in creative ways to suit the rider's needs. Still others were as old or older than mine. Maybe I really didn't need a $3000.00 bike for this ride.
My wife suggested that I leave with the escorted 66 mile group. I grudgingly agreed. She wanted me to be with a group if I had any problems and I figured it might be a good way to pace myself.
Our guide announced that we were leaving, so I got on my bike and pedaled away with the rest of the group.
It was easy to ride with this group but after 15 minutes or so, I was feeling uncomfortable with the relaxed pace. I saw a small group ahead slowly putting some distance between us, so I passed the members of the escorted group that were still in front of me, gave a nod and a smile to our guide and climbed the gradual grade we were on, to fall in behind the next group.
Although this small group was moving faster and more evenly, the pace was still slower than I felt comfortable with.
Up ahead, I saw two riders accelerating slowly away. I passed the second group and fell in behind these two riders. This was more like it! We were doing about 16 - 17 MPH on the flat places and moving at a fairly steady pace.
It made no sense to me that going slower than I was used to, seemed fatiguing and picking up the pace was energizing but that's how it felt. There was always the SAG van if I was making a huge mistake.
After 23 miles, we arrived at the Historic Deerfield rest stop. I introduced myself to my new ride companions. In the course of conversation, it turned out that one of them had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, as do I. Instantly, I knew the price this person had paid to get himself into good enough condition to ride a bicycle for any distance at all. It was also known but unspoken that we would both pay a price for this particular ride within a few days afterwards, when the symptoms would likely knock us down. Fortunately, regular exercise minimizes this effect and it would probably not be for long.
My wife had already arrived at the historic site by car. She met me, then spent several hours there, thankfully too enthralled by the collections to even think, let alone worry about me. It couldn't be more perfect.
The other cyclist, who said he lived in the area, left on his own. We never saw him again but the two of us continued to ride together, eventually picking up a third who would stay with us till the ride's end.
We stopped at the famous Herrell's ice cream shop but it was going to be a 45 minute wait for it to open, so we checked our route sheets and continued on course.
At 51 miles, when we got to the second rest stop at Atkins Farm, we were informed that our trio was the first to arrive from the 66 mile group.
There was a nice variety of ride food and drink here including three kinds of pie and a selection of fruit. We indulged for 15 minutes, refilled our bottles, then continued on.
The final leg of the ride to the North Hadley Sugar Shack would have a couple of surprises in store.
Part of the final leg was on a paved Multi-Use Path. There were sections of this path that had raised ridges running crosswise. It looked like asphalt moles had made tunnels through the pavement. Some of these buckled ridges were about an inch high. Thankfully someone had outlined them with spray paint so it was easy to see them coming and you could rise off your saddle as you went over them. No damage resulted from this and my wheels stayed true but I cringed every time I rattled over these diminutive speed bumps.
Soon after the path, I was following behind my original ride companion when his rear tire made a loud pop and promptly lost all of its air.
We verified that he had everything he needed to change the tube, then borrowed a section of someone's driveway so he could change it.
This was Just Supposed to be 66 Miles, Right?
By now we had become very trusting of the directional marks on the road and weren't consulting the route sheet much at all. In retrospect, this may have been a less than intelligent way to proceed... Okay, it was just plain stupid.
There had been some repaving of some of the sections of a well-used road we had been on for a few miles. Unknown to us, this repaving had happened after the marks had been put down. At about 56 miles into the ride, we missed a mark, now under the pavement, and rolled right past our turn.
There was now a long climb up a moderately uncomfortable hill. It wasn't much steeper or longer than a couple of hills I climb every day near home but with the better part of the ride now completed, my friends and I were getting a little tired. However, my legs still seemed willing and didn't balk at the climb. I said over my shoulder, "I thought there weren't going to be any major hills on this route", but my two companions were now about 150 yards behind me. I made it to the crest, then slowed down to allow them to catch up. I was glad for the 28 tooth sprocket on the new freewheel. The old one stopped at 24. Killer!
I noticed that we had stopped seeing marks at intersections or anywhere else and began to get a sickening feeling. We paused at the intersection of a major thoroughfare, Amherst Avenue. We consulted our sheets, then backtracked, or so we thought.
We made a wrong turn onto a road I didn't remember us being on and I mentioned this to my tired companions. A mile or so down this road, they concurred. Again, we backtracked and got it right this time.
Going back down the hill was significantly easier than coming up and as we approached the turn we missed, the angels on our left shoulders beat the devils on our right and we saved some other riders from making the same mistake.
We were back on course on the same MUP, in the opposite direction now. We ran over the mole tunnels again then made it to the North Hadley Sugar Shack parking lot, just a few miles later.
Again, the variety and quantity of food was terrific. The Harpoon Brewery had provided a very generous supply of the various exceptional beers they produce. I ordered up a veggie burger, added a couple of side dishes, then sat down with my food and a cold brew to share ride stories, joke and sympathize with two young ladies who had to end their ride early due to injuries sustained while riding.
I realized that somewhere along the way, without even noticing it happen, I suddenly felt like I really did belong here. I was a real cyclist. Well of course! I had been one ever since I first learned to stay upright on a bicycle as a kid, and liked it.
A few hours later, I was pedaling the short distance back to the campus alone. I was a little tired but I felt really good. When I arrived, I checked my mileage. Thanks to the wrong turns, I had pedaled 77 miles that day, better than 3/4 of a century.
Could I have done a full one? Well, yeah! What are you, new?
Saturday night was Dorm Party night. There were themed parties in several rooms hosted by the occupants and paid for by the ride. At my wife's urgings, we stopped in at the Smoothie and Milkshake party briefly before retiring for the night. She had a milkshake. I had a beer.
Across the hall from our room was Glen, hosting the Margarita Party. You could tell from the sounds coming from the doorway, it was quite popular and crowded.
The happy noise permeated our room and was so loud that I fell right to sleep and slept very soundly all night.
Volunteering for the Ride
On Sunday, we had agreed to volunteer for the ride. It was still dry in the morning but eventually turned into an overcast drizzling day.
We helped arrange the breakfast spread in the parking lot then went to our respective jobs.
My wife's job was to wait at Herrell's with the SAG van and answer the radio calls as they came in. She would then have to hasten to distressed cyclists and carry them back to the dorms. No calls came in on Sunday.
My job was to help with SAG support in the morning then wait outside Herrell's at noon and pass out free ice cream vouchers. I passed out a handful but not many people were riding on Sunday after noon, so I got to pass some time in pleasant conversation with my wife, until we were recalled to the campus.
Feeling guilty about the cushy nature of our jobs, we decided we would just volunteer at another ride to try to make up for it.
The rest was just saying, "Goodbye, we'll see you again soon!", then reluctantly packing up and going home.
Oh, and in case you were wondering, polyester bicycle jerseys really are better than cotton T-shirts. They wick away moisture, don't ya know.
A few days prior to the Farm Ride, I was about halfway through my morning ride when I saw a man next to the road waving to flag me down. I thought: Oh great, it was some honking motorist with a bone to pick because I took the lane somewhere when it wasn't safe for him to pass me.
As it turned out, he was a local cyclist of some repute, who had seen me riding several times and was curious about me. It wasn't the first morning he had waited for me but he had missed me the prior times.
Keep in mind that I tend to be a little reclusive and believed that my daily rides had gone unnoticed by anyone other than a few irritated motorists. This cyclist indicated that this was not the case. Others had spoken to him about me. A fantasy scenario of a cycling turf war in rural Upstate New York, briefly ran through my mind.
His motives for stopping me were much more benign. He wondered if I would like a ride partner sometime. I told him I would appreciate that and after exchanging phone numbers and URLs, I went on about my ride wondering why anyone would spend his mornings waiting to meet somebody who he knew nothing about.
The following Saturday after the Farm Ride, he called and we arranged to meet for a 25 mile ride on Sunday. This cyclist, also a school teacher who was older than I am, had just done his third century this season. He seemed to know everybody in the neighborhood and knew many interesting facts about the area. The ride was relaxed, enjoyable and quite educational. He told me about the other cyclists in the area he knew, in detail and talked about rides they had done together. We discussed my bike collection. He had just one (rather nice) bike and seemed a little incredulous that I had so many. I pointed out that he seemed to collect cyclists, a notion that he said he liked.
After our ride, I completely understood why he had stopped me. I had a slightly unsettling feeling that my reclusive bicycling time was over. I wondered how long it would be before I would meet the rest of the cyclists in the area. For some reason, the movie, "Interview with the Vampire" flashed through my head. I trust that any resultant events stemming from our ride, will turn out to be far more pleasant than that.
The names of my two Farm Ride companions have been withheld because none of us thought to share contact information. I couldn't ask permission. So guys, if you see this and want your names mentioned, or if you want to take issue with any of the lies I told, email me.
Copyright © 2009 Hardy Menagh