This realization took place at the feet of two New Jersey Department of Transportation barricades near Mendham, New Jersey that, while they didn’t block our bikes, they did block our follow cars and this was somewhat disturbing being that we were a little bit shy of the halfway part of the inaugural Philadelphia to New York Deathride (yes, we like hyperbole).
To backtrack a bit – Jed Kornbluh, cycling promoter and racing fan, cooked up the idea of a ride from Philadelphia to New York City in a single day. Our finish line would be NYC’s own BXL – Belgian Cafe. Belgium is the home of the “hard men”- riders who shrug off rain, cold and distance to ride long and hard. His rough estimate put us at about 160 or so miles, which is farther than I’ve ever ridden, but a lack of preparation has never prevented me from trying something new before (see Ironman Lake Placid 2006 and Lean Horse 50 Ultramarathon in 2009 – finished both), so I signed onto this adventure.
As I like to say, “stupid, but my kind of stupid.”
Joining Jed and I were Stephen LeBoyer and Shaun Dean from Sid’s Bike Shop in NYC. I met them for the first time the night before the race as they finished up a Mexican dinner at Cantina in Philly after I drove down from a family BBQ in NYC. So, here I am in Philadelphia with three other riders, one master mechanic (Mark Purdy for Mayor!) and a friend of Jed’s, Julian, and his girlfriend, Julia (who I agreed to turn the keys to may car over so that they may provide support for us as we ride).
We got to the hotel in Manayunk at about 11 PM and I drew a room-share with Julian and Julia (yeah, ridiculous… right?). "Hi, nice to meet you and your girlfriend." I’ll be the guy in the other bed. After about 5 hours of sleeping with one eye open I got dressed and met the other Deathriders downstairs in front of the hotel promptly at 4:30AM, where the smell of embrocation and fear was both obvious and overbearing.
Please understand this, if you’re reading this for the route I recommend that you contact Jed. I merely pedaled and listened as he called out directions at every turn with nearly perfect precision. As we headed out under the streetlights and down some treacherously dark hills, Jed pulled us to the side of the road in Manayunk and began to fiddle with the newly purchased Garmin. My assumption would be that the cue sheet would be about the size of a phone book so the computer would become our best friend, that is, if it worked. Jed felt it appropriate to mention that he had never used the Garmin and this ride was the official test. Great!
I. Setting out –
We did a lot of riding in the dark, up hills and out of Philadelphia. It was silent on the streets as we headed north and the road conditions were ok, but not great. Jed, who had lived in Philly for over a decade, was familiar with these roads and let us with no problem at all. I made it a point to drink and eat regularly, even this early in to the ride. I’ve done a few long efforts and the beginning, unlike what many people think, is actually the hardest part. You’re filled with nervous energy and anticipation of the road ahead. Concern about your body and your bike is paramount to all else. The distance itself is too hard to swallow at this point, so just going forward is good enough and that means proper fueling at all costs.
II. Horse Country –
As the sun rose (good weather, Thank God!) and I had the chance to look around I was delighted to see the beautiful farms and countryside that Jed was bringing us through. Roads were newly paved, smooth and wide. Steve made it a point to thank Jed for picking such a beautiful route. We stopped for a quick bite in a Starbucks in Doylestown and had a chance to update those following the ride at home via Twitbook. Spirits were still high and we had minimal backtracks and turnarounds, mostly due to sleep deprivation and nervous minds. It did take us about 30 minutes get out of Doylestown as Jed considered a few different crossroads that the Garmin wasn’t interested in taking.
The Midlands aren’t an actual place. Rather this long stretch of riding felt to me to be the mid-point of the ride. We crossed the Delaware into New Jersey via New Hope/Lambertville and you could sense a change in the road – a little bit narrower and not as well kept. We also began to climb more hills as the terrain changed underneath us. All four of us were clearly filling good but Shaun was the real star of this ride. He kept riding up the road and waiting for us and seemed to dislike the moderate pace Jed was setting in an effort to maintain energy levels for the long miles ahead. As we approached Route 78 and the Round Valley Recreational Area the hills began to grow longer and steeper, with few rest periods between longer rollers. I remember merely focusing on turning the pedals over as we climbed. I was beginning to grow concerned as my mileage was creeping over 100 miles at this point and I knew that I was beginning to reach the top end of what had been my limit.
This is where we hit the road block. It appears that construction had shut down the bridge to car traffic, but bikes could sneak through. GPS didn’t work to well here, due to the low elevation and dense forest, and the roadmaps weren’t helpful. As Jed began to consult maps, I figured that a bike with full bottles is a happy bike so I set about getting drinks. It was at this point that I learned that Jed, a wee bit wild eyed at this point, was more focused on proper direction rather than proper hydration. Taking note of his concern, I hastily capped my bottles and found an alternate route. All needs satisfied off we went!
At one point, an invisible line in the road if you will, we passed from a group of riders out for a long ride and instead became a group focused on finishing. The climb into Kinnelon, with its narrow steep roads and multiple turns, burnt our legs and the collected time in the saddle, over nine hours at this point, was starting to wear on us. The descent from Kinnelon onto Route 23 gave us a taste of the busy roads that we happily missed for the first parts of our ride.
We began to scratch for home and all were showing signs of fatigue. The “bobbling” was setting in.
Standing at a gas station on Route 23, we were thoroughly turned around and not quite sure of how to get down into the valley of Pompton Plains. The cans of cold Coke that we bought, combined with some solid food (i.e. Ring Dings), helped us focus and we set off down the steepest hills of the ride. Moving from Passaic into Bergen County we also began to move into steep hills and annoyingly crowded roads. The cruel irony of this part of the trip is that when we craved quiet and clear roads the most we were presented with the busy, choppy roads of NYC’s bedroom communities endless sprawl.
Coming into Ridgewood, I had the opportunity to pass within a mile of my house. We were over 150 miles and this time but I wasn’t heading home. I began to smell the finish line and was getting there no matter what. We stopped in Ridgewood in a bank parking lot to gather ourselves and it was clear that Stephen was really beginning to hurt. We noticed that he was eying our support wagon and, being the good friends that we are, promptly told Mark Purdy to beat it and head for the city – our final destination. The presence of a seat in a moving car would be an unnecessary distraction. With the safety raft of a car removed from us, we had no point but to ride.
After climbing up from Englewood onto the Palisades we crossed the George Washington Bridge and turned our eyes south towards midtown and BXL. Knowing that, yes, we were to finish this ride enabled us to catch our breath and enjoy the final few miles down the crowded streets of NYC. Without much fanfare we pulled up outside of BXL and they were kind enough to let us store the bikes inside as we ate. The funny thing about the ride was that when we told people the time and distance (10:36 total ride time and 175 miles) as well as the route from Philadelphia to New York City they would nod their heads and smile, but you could tell that they didn’t understand the immensity of the ride.
Looking back in retrospect on this ride, I have no illusions about how this ride fits into the big pictures of long rides. Yes, we were fully supported with maps and follow cars and we were never far from a phone or help, so this ride was clearly no Iditabike or Furnace 508, but, and just for us, it was further, longer and more difficult than we had ever done. And for us, that was good enough.
Jed enjoyed “The Midlands” section (which rolled through parts of Hunterdon and Mercer Counties) so much that, when looking for a new home in Central NJ last autumn, ended up purchasing one along one of the more bucolic section of the 2009 route, in Hopewell.
The 2010 edition, or DR2010, will take us through NJ and PA in a loop from Jed’s house near Princeton. Though the official route hasn’t been released Jed has promised a total of 201 miles with little to no traffic on a mix of country roads and gravel paths through Hunterdon Co, up through Phillipsburg, and back down through PA with some nice climbing mixed in for good measure.
I don’t know if I’m ready for it or not, but that really doesn’t matter now, does it?