I still can't believe this, but over the weekend I took part in the first annual Dirigo Dynamo - an unsupported overnight bike ride from Boston to Maine along the New England coast, returning by train in the morning. An homage to the Dunwich Dynamo in the UK, the Dirigo Dynamo was designed to end at the seacoast and to coincide with the full moon. Dirigo is the state motto of Maine and it means "I lead." When this ride was suggested to me, it sounded exciting and knowing both of the organisers (Jon and Brian) I had faith in their leadership. But I also had serious doubts about my ability to do it. The full length of the route was over 200K (120 miles), and I had not ridden that kind of distance before. Neither had I done long rides in the dark before, let alone any all-night rides. As the weekend of the Dirigo Dynamo approached I grew increasingly worried. Could I handle the miles? Could I handle the unlit roads? Could I ride through the night without sleep? Expressing these concerns to others was pointless, because for most cyclists I know a ride like this is either a piece of cake ("Of course you should do it! How else will you ever work up to a 1200K?") or too absurd to contemplate ("Are you insane? You are taking this cycling thing too far!")
When I finally made up my mind to go, there was only a week left to prepare and I started making frantic changes to my bike. I swapped saddles twice, unable to decide which was less likely to cause me pain after 100 miles. I switched my tires for wider ones. And I borrowed a dynamo front wheel from a friend. I then quizzed every randonneur I knew about the merits of various reflective vests and helmet lights, finally acquiring these items days before the ride. In the end it all came together, and my bike - though looking rather frankenbikish - was well equipped for night riding on country roads.
I studied the route and made a plan, my strategy being to pace myself and stick with the slower riders. I also made a bail-out plan in the event of emergency. I thought carefully about food, deciding to opt for specific foods based on my experiences on previous rides.
Everything I packed on the ride fit either into this deceptively small Dill Pickle bag or in my jersey pockets. This included: tools, two spare tubes, a bungee cord for securing the bike on the train later, a jacket, clear glasses for when it grew dark, band-aids, pain medication, sun screen, chamois cream, food, and a small toy cat (lucky charm). In my jersey pockets I carried money, ID, phone, and more food. I had the route downloaded on GPS and also brought cue-sheets in case the GPS malfunctioned or someone forgot theirs.
The food I carried included: 6 single packets of almond butter, a bag of sun-dried tomatoes, a bag of dried cranberries, a packet of Stinger "energy chews," a banana, and a small carton of chocolate milk. There was a dinner stop planned at midnight, so this was meant to tide me over in addition to that meal. I filled my water bottles with a home made "salty lemonade" mix, over ice. One had a higher concentrated mixture than the other, identified by the colour of the bottle.
The meeting point for the ride was at 5:30pm on Saturday evening, at a cafe just a mile from where I live. I planned to stay up late the night before and sleep late on the day of our departure, but I was too nervous and woke up earlier than intended. All through the night I had anxious dreams. In one dream, my hands went numb and I lost the ability to shift gears, just as a hill was coming up. In another dream my dynamo light stopped working. Not only did I fail to get a good night sleep, but I was so nervous that I had trouble eating all day. But finally I force-fed myself an early dinner, got ready, and set off.
When I arrived, the reassuring sight of several familiar bikes calmed me down a bit. The Mercian, the Rawland, the Bianchi 650B conversion - I was in the right place. Before I even entered the cafe, I knew who would be there. There was a total of 6 of us gathered. In addition to the ride leaders I was pleased to spot JP Twins and Somervillain.
I also recognised Scott (on the right) from the Ride Studio Cafe. He comes to the Sunday rides but we'd never been introduced until now. I had mistakenly thought Scott was a racer, but it turns out he is a long distance rider. The only person in our group other than myself riding a modern roadbike, the contraptions he had it equipped with were fascinating.
As planned, we set off at 6pm and aside from a quickly-resolved mechanical issue (loose fender bolt) our departure from Boston went off without incident. Nonetheless, I found this first leg of the trip to be highly stressful. There is no easy way to leave town heading North and for what must have been 10 miles we navigated busy suburban roads, with tricky intersections and impatient drivers, in 90 degree heat and humidity. The hyper-vigilance and constant clipping/unclipping this required exhausted me. But just when I was starting to feel worn out, it was over and we were cycling on idyllic country roads.
Before I knew it, we were at mile 25 and approaching our first rest stop. At this stage I had just gotten warmed up and was feeling remarkably good. The cycling frog that greeted us seemed to be cheering me on.
The next 30 miles were the part of the ride during which I felt most energetic and optimistic. The night came gradually and there was no distinct moment when the realisation of darkness hit me. Some roads had occasional street lights installed, others were pitch black. When we rode under overarching trees it was darker than when we rode under an unobstructed sky with the full moon. There was a lot of variety and not just a blanket, uniform darkness. All three of us had excellent lights, and riding in a cluster we had a cozy little oasis of light surrounding us. Descending in the darkness was a thrill. I conserved my energy and coasted a great deal downhill, and without the visual context it felt like falling. Climbing in the dark was a different kind of thrill, because often I would not see the hill coming but would all of the sudden feel it - having to downshift quickly. I have no idea why I enjoyed this, but I did; it became a sort of game.
As we approached the New Hampshire border around mile 50, I felt strong and elated from the newness of cycling in the dark. And as if to celebrate this, we were greeted with fireworks. I have never watched fireworks while cycling before, so this was quite an experience. Just as we made a brief stop to eat and check our equipment, the last burst of them lit up the sky and we managed to take some feeble snapshots with our camera phones. We then proceeded across the bridge to the New Hampshire Seacoast - briefly catching up with the faster group, which was now joined by one more cyclist - Hugh, and his beautiful Heron bike. Once in New Hampshire, the 5 of them surged ahead again as we maintained our tamer pace. In another 20 miles, we would meet up for dinner in Portsmouth.
The faster group was already waiting for us, and they'd ordered plates heaping with nachos covered with vegetables and cheese, to which we gladly helped ourselves.
I then snuck away to the ladies' room with some diaper rash cream in my pocket. Now that I was off the bike for a few minutes, I became aware that I had developed painful rashes everywhere. What I saw in the florescent bathroom light was worse than I'd imagined: The skin around my shins was broken where it came in contact with the edges of my socks. The skin around my calves was broken where it came in contact with the hems of my cycling knickers. My wrists, the skin around my collarbone, and other, less publicly visible areas, were suffering the same fate. A couple of fingers on my right hand were bleeding from rubbing against the brake hoods. I have very sensitive skin and it must have been unusually humid for this to happen. I applied diaper rash cream everywhere I could and wrapped my fingers in band-aids. Later I took an Advil while eating some more nachos. I also went outside and stretched, trying to understand what muscle I'd pulled to cause the kind of pain I had experienced for the previous several miles. Would it improve after some stretching or would it only get worse over time?
Amidst the merriment I was trying to decide what my course of action should be. What bothered me about the idea of bailing, was that I wasn't even tired. My legs were fine, I could keep pedaling. My energy levels were far from depleted. I ate, I drank, I went at a moderate pace - I'd done everything right. Where was this weird back pain coming from? As I brooded over this, my cycling companions suggested an alternative scenario: As the slower group, we could alter the route slightly and make our trip an even century (160K). As it happened, there was another train station at exactly this distance, making it a perfect end-point for the ride. Brian was under the weather and not feeling strong enough to do the 200K route. Somervillain did not mind the shorter option either. And for me, this would mean cycling "only" another 30 or so miles. Frankly, at that stage I did not feel that I could ride another 5 miles, let alone 30. But somehow this plan nonetheless seemed perfect and I did not want to break up our nice trio.
In order for the milage to work, we edited the rest of the route to hug the coast the entire way. The original route involved a lengthy detour, because the main bridge connecting Portsmouth, NH to Kittery, ME (they are separated by a bay) was under construction. However, I happened to know that there was an alternative bridge allowing for the same coastal crossing. Though technically not open to cyclists, in reality it was perfectly cyclable and allowed us a scenic and direct coastal route all the way to the train station in Wells, Maine, without the inland detour. This would make our total trip an even 100 miles. We said our good-byes to the fast group and set off.
I led the way to the nuclear submarine, behind which the onramp to the bridge was hidden, and we crossed over to Maine without incident. The next 25 miles were a bit of a blur. My back pain kept returning. When it got to be too much, I'd ask to stop and stretch. I was also grateful that Brian asked to stop occasionally. Our progress through this section was slow and laborious. It was a gorgeous route and I tried to enjoy the beauty and the quiet despite my discomfort.
We encountered almost no cars along this stretch, but we did encounter a bicycle policeman around York Beach, at what must have been 3 in the morning. I believe he asked about a lost boy or maybe a suspect in some misdemeanor. I wish I'd taken a picture of him, because now I am wondering whether I imagined this. Around 3 in the morning was also when I got quite sleepy and came close to hallucinating. A couple of times I thought Brian and Somervillain were taking to me, when they weren't. The road ahead got blurry. I saw things from the corner of my eye that weren't there. It was as if I was starting to dream while still awake and pedaling.
Around 4am we began seeing food delivery trucks, joggers and dog walkers on the roads. Feeling a fresh surge of energy, we made the final miles to Wells, even circling around the train station a couple of times to make sure our ride was a full 100 miles. We checked our computers and saw that our average speed had been 13mph.
As the sun rose, the station opened. We then waited inside for the 6:30am train. The lady at the station was delighted to learn that we had cycled all night from Boston and were about to take the train back.
On board the conductor allowed us to take our bikes right into the passenger's car. We sort of jammed them in between the seats. The train car was air conditioned and for the first time on this trip I felt cold. I was glad that this allowed me to make use of the jacket I'd packed. I put it on and promptly passed out in fetal position next to my bike.
When I opened my eyes we were in Boston, and still half-awake I ushered my bike out of the train. We then took the commuter rail to Somerville (all three of us are practically neighbours) and I - just barely - rode the last mile home from the Porter Square T-station. Then I collapsed and did not wake up until 2pm. And then I took the longest bath ever. And I ate. And I ate some more. Cycling, eh?
To those of you still reading, I will say this: Randonneurs tend to downplay the difficulty of these rides, but since I am far from a real randonneur I can tell you the truth. Riding long distance is difficult; it is not all flowers and sea breezes and happy pedaling. It is difficult to cycle 100 miles with almost no breaks for the first 68 of those miles. It is difficult to ride all night without sleep. You might get tired. You might hurt in ways you did not even expect. You might feel miserable. So the question is, why do it? As I find myself longing for another ride, I wonder the same thing. For some it's an athlete's high, for others a sense of accomplishment. But I think for me it's more about the magical adventure - adventure that overrides the occasional pain and effort of it. I mean come on - riding my bike from Boston to Maine under a full moon? Beyond my wildest dreams, plain and simple. Thank you to everyone who supported me through this, you know who you are.