blocks

Follow or subscribe to our blog to get notifications of updates to this site
as well as more frequent insightful, pithy commentary

 

bike logo

 

Loading

Boston-Montreal-Boston

by John Bayley

 

Did you ever wonder "What am I doing here ?" ? Well, that was certainly the thought going through my mind at 4 am on Thursday, August 20th last year. I was standing astride my bicycle, in the carpark of Newtown High School, on the outskirts of Boston. I was there with about 90 others, all faced with the prospect of cycling 1200 km / 750 miles, to Montreal and back, in the next 90 hours. A justifiable reason for feeling apprehensive you might say ! However, what was really worrying me was the fact that I had a very painful knee, and that was before I had cycled an inch ! I had done the damage almost a month before, while riding the Mersey Roads 24-hour time-trial in England. My knee had begun to hurt after 10 hours and I was forced to withdraw after 14 hours. Although my knee was too painful to continue, I was confident that it would recover in the three weeks before my trip to the United States, when I planned to ride both Boston-Montreal- Boston (BMB) and Bicycle Across Missouri (BAM).

The germ of the idea to ride BMB was planted a few years ago when I read an article about it in the International Randonneurs' Journal. I had ridden Paris-Brest-Paris in 1991 and found it a fantastic experience, an event with character, atmospere and history and not lacking in challenge either, thanks to a rolling route. When one of the many friends that I had made on PBP, Louis Branz, invited me to the US to ride BAM, I jumped at the chance. I then noticed that the dates of BMB and BAM were quite close together and I decided to do both. Boston-Montreal-Boston is a cycling event that is modelled on Paris- Brest-Paris. It is also 1200 km / 750 miles in length and features an out-and- back style route. First run in 1988, it starts on the outskirts of Boston, runs north through Massachusetts, cuts through a corner of New Hampshire and then runs through the Green Mountains of Vermont. There then follows a brief sortie into New York State before crossing the Canadian border into Quebec and travelling up to Montreal. The same route is then followed in reverse for the return journey. My understanding was that BMB was quite like PBP but with a mountain range thrown in for good measure. I wasn't too fazed by this description, because I knew that Americans knew how to build well-graded mountain roads, unlike Ireland, where the road goes straight over hills, with no regard for even gradients.

After my injury, there followed three weeks almost completely without cycling but with frequent anaerobic icing sessions instead ! However, with a week to go things were looking (and feeling) pretty bad. At this stage I was feeling very depressed because I could see all my plans going up in smoke, and I decided to cancel everything. I had been in e-mail contact with Pamela Blalock (she of the epic ride reports fame !) regarding BMB but, to make matters worse, I was unable to contact her to discuss things. In the end I rang Pamela to tell her of my decision, but she (to my everlasting gratitude) persuaded me to come over regardless. She and Steve, her tandem partner, were going to be supported during BMB by Steve's brother Dave. She said that if the worst came to the worst, I could help Dave support them. This provided a fallback for me if I had to pull out, so I decided to go ahead.

I arrived in Boston on Saturday, August 15th, flying in to Logan airport and had no problem finding Pamela and Steve. They made ingenious use of the PBP route arrows that they had scavenged after that event - they really stick out in a crowded arival hall ! Flashbacks to PBP continued when we visited the Belmont Wheelworks shop on our journey from the airport. Who did I meet there only Mike Bresnahan, another one of the American contingent at PBP, and who had actually shared a hotel room with one of my friends ! I was sorry to find that Boston was suffering typically Irish weather - an incessant, soft, misty rainfall. I was loath to venture forth in those conditions on my sparklingly clean bicycle, not to mention the possibility of the damp conditions iritating my knee. It was the Tuesday then before I got out for a spin (I had sweated quite a bit using Pamela's indoor trainer instead !). I ended up doing about 80 miles, up to the New Hampshire border and back, including getting lost on the way back, despite Pamela's explicit directions ! The countryside, after leaving Pamela's house in Lowell, was rolling and quite heavily forested, and indeed reminded me of some of the route of Paris-Brest-Paris. Misty rain clearing to blue skies and sunshine, surprisingly amicable motorists (considering some things I had heard about the Land of the Automobile) and quiet roads all contributed to good first impressions of cycling in the United States. This good impression was tainted a little however, when I came across two motorists fighting at a junction, one having annoyed the other somewhere back down the road ! My knee at this stage was painful, but bearably so. However, I wasn't too keen to think about what it might feel like half-way into a 1200 km ! I then missed a turn and inadvertedly added on a few miles. As a result, I had to race back to the house in order not to be late for a dinner date. Needless to say, my knee was not very appreciative of the fact !

The next day, the day before the start of BMB, I went out for a quick 20 miler with Steve. I know that we travelled through some more pleasant, quiet and wooded countryside, but I didn't take too much notice of it. My knee was simply crucifying me and my thoughts were elsewhere, like what I was going to do in about 18 hours time ? Was it going to be worth my while starting the event ? The more I heard about the route from Pamela and Steve, the more I began to question my sanity. They told tales of epic rides on some of the climbs that we would be traversing en route. While this had the effect of making me very apprehensive, I think it also subconciously brought out my stubborn streak and I decided to give this event everything. The rest of the day was taken up with packing our equipment for the event and attending the pre-event sign-on. Also, being a non-stop randonee event, all machines must be equipped with an adequate lighting system, so all machines were checked. At this stage, you could give in bags filled with spare clothes etc. which the event organisers would then send out to the various controls. However, being the headstrong fool that I am, I decided not to spare my knee at all, and to carry all the equipment, tools, clothes and various spares that I would need for the whole event, in time-honoured randonneur fashion. If I was going to complete it, I was going to do it fair and square !

I ran into another PBP veteran here too, Chris Koehller. He also intended to ride BAM in the following month, along with a mutual Australian friend whom we had both met in Paris . Pamela and Steve also got a surprise at the sign-on. They had understood that they were the only tandem entry for BMB, but arrived to find another, to be ridden by two men. This provided some competition for them, because they wished to use their completion of BMB for publicity, in an attempt to raise sponsership for a possible RAAM attempt. They would however, be the only mixed tandem to take part.

The start was to take place in two groups. The first, off at 4 am., would have 90 hours to complete the course, while the second, off at 10 am., would have 84 hours. Of 100 odd starters, only 14 serious cyclo-sportifs, as they are known in Europe, decided to go for the later start. The entry was made up of people from all over the United States and Canada, as well as two foreigners, a Frenchman and myself. Two people from the UK were listed as entries but did not start. Pamela and Steve will tell you that I wasn't exactly exuberant at the start. I was scared of getting dropped by the group at the very start, so my first goal was not to let this happen. I at least wanted to stay with a group until dawn, when it would be easier to follow the route descriptions (unlike PBP, which has a huge army of volunteers who post the route, BMB leaves the navigation up to the participants. To do this, it's necessary to have a cycle computer, calibrated in miles (in Ireland, we use both miles and kilometres, but I always use my computer set in kilometres)).

The start, in the grounds of Newton High School, was milling with people come 4 am.. It was here that we met Nancy, who had rang Pamela and Steve earlier in the week. She was making a documentary about the event and was interested in featuring our intrepid tandemists and one mad Irishman, amongst many others. Speaking naturally in front of the camera proved difficult at first, but we would get plenty of practise ! Powerful Nightsun front lights and flashing rear Vistalites seemed to be the lighting system of choice. Pamela, Steve and I were the odd ones out in the latter repect, having the non-flashing UK version. It's illegal to attach a flashing light to your bike in the UK so this version is produced specially. It produces an excellent rear light, which has only slightly heavier battery consumption that the flashing version. After a brief speech by Hauke Kite-Powell, the event organiser, we were off. It's amazing how much apprehension can melt away with the turning of your wheels, because I immediately began to enjoy myself. I chatted away to those in the group around me, swapping tall tales of past rides and sharing fears about the current one. The enjoyment was helped by a mild, dry night and quiet roads. The latter was helped by a route which took in a quiet road through a golf course at the beginning, complete with speed ramps. At least no one's water bottle hopped out ! This was fun because I remembered Pamela mentioning the golf course route in an earlier posting to the net, so this was a bit like living out something you've read in a novel. Keep up the good work Pamela !

It was bright by 6 o'clock and the first thing that struck me was how early (well, compared to Ireland !) people were up and commuting into work. Although we were now 40-odd miles from the centre of Boston, I was informed that many of these motorists drive there and back every day - what a life ! Now, if they cycled ... The group I was with got a little lost in a town called Berlin - we couldn't find The Wall - but we were soon back on course. A lovely sunny morning hinted at a good day to come, at least weatherwise ! We were soon cycling through a forested region with a continous series of rolling hills, very similar to Paris-Brest-Paris. This was quite a magical section. Tall trees had mist rising from the ground between them, catching the low, early-morning sun. It was quite chilly in the shadow of the trees, but those hills were keeping us warm ! I was reduced to twiddling small gears with my good leg doing most of the work, so I concentrated on keeping a good rythm and not worrying about keeping up with others. The road surface was getting worse and worse though, with huge cracks running all over the road - I was feeling right at home ! I made a quick stop to take off my night-time reflective gear and some excess clothing.

I started off again just as a group of riders came by and I found myself riding with Tom Nezovich, from Ohio. Tom had to be about the smoothest rider in the whole event; one of those people who never look under strain. Our respective paces proved to be very compatible and we were soon chatting merrily together and moving along at a good pace. With about 50 miles/80 km done we reached Barre and I started to get really worried. This was supposed to be the easy section of the event and yet I found myself in my 28 x 21 bottom gear, out of the saddle (not easy using one leg !) and working hard on the hill leading (up) into Barre. As I inched my way upwards, I passed a young lady from Florida walking her bicycle. And this before we reached the mountains ! The severity of this hill may have helped because the following roads to Brattleborough didn't seem too bad. The day was getting hot though and we had to make a stop for liquid along the way. I was using a Camelbak drinking system (which consists of an insulated water bag worn on the back and a tube from which you suck the liquid) for the first time, having reckoned that I could do with all the liquid I could get. The result was pleasing, because it was quite easy to drink from and was comfortable to wear. Tom was showing the experience of a two-time PBP veteran and was being very careful negotiating some tricky turns around beautiful Lake Mattawa. I too was keen not to repeat my PBP mistakes (mostly made during the night and by following French riders) and add 30 miles/50 km on top of what we already had to do ! We then entered New Hampshire for about 10 miles before crossing the Connecticut River and passing into Vermont.

The first control, at 120 miles/200 km, was in Putney. I met Dave, Pamela and Steve's one-man support crew, just as I stopped and he immediately asked me how my knee was faring. It was painful, but I found that if I kept things steady the pain was at least bearable. Considering how it had felt the day before, I was frankly amazed to have even got this far ! Steve and Pamela were apparently going well and had left the control about ten minutes before I arrived. Having stoked up on some food and liquid, Tom and I were soon off. In best randonneur tradition, this was straight up a hill ! We were immediately back into rolling, wooded countryside on very quiet roads. About 20 miles on we entered a town called Grafton and made a sharp right turn, leading straight onto, you've guessed it, a non-too-small steep hill. There was a person on a bicycle just ahead of us, cycling up the hill with a child on the back of his bike. We had a job catching him, but just as we did this, he climbed off and we exchanged pleasantries about the hill. It was just as well he stopped because I don't think we could have kept up that pace for much longer !

Soon to follow was the climb of Mount Terrible. I was hoping that it wasn't named by cyclists, but I was assured that it was not too difficult in this direction. My knee was glad that it didn't live up to it's name as it turned out to be a gently graded, although long, climb. The descent though was terrific, long and really fast. So fast in fact, that I went flying by the Ludlow control, which was right at the bottom of the descent, and had to make a U-turn further down the road. 170 miles done and only another 580 to go ... Some delicious pasta and some of that American delicacy, PBJ's, later, we were back on the road. The next control, at Middlebury, was almost 70 miles away and we would be passing over some of the toughest climbs on the event before we got there. We largely followed Route 100 on this section, which is a main north-south route through the Green Mountains. Despite this, there was again very little traffic, apart from what were, to me, surprisingly large numbers of cyclists. I hadn't expected to see anything like that amount of people cycling in the country where the car is king, but instead of that, I was seeing many more people cycling than I ever do in "green" Ireland. Against that, Tom informed me that Vermont is one of the most popular places for cycling in America. The beautiful scenery, which must be mind-blowing in The Fall, and the challenging terrain, act as a magnet to cycling afficianados, and there are many companies which offer organised cycling tours in the area.

We joined up with a few other riders along this section, with Tom setting a steady tempo on both the flat and on the climbs. The drag up to Killington sticks in mind as quite tough, as do the ski-lifts on the way up the climb. So there is an easier way to get up these things ! However, the climb that I was trying to keep something in reserve for was the one over Middlebury Gap. Steve and Pamela had told me a few tales about it that left me a bit apprehensive. Because of my knee I was unable to apply anything like full power to the pedals, which made the long climbs a slog. I found getting out of the saddle very painful and could only manage this by unweighting my left leg each time. Darkness fell before we reached the hill and once we started to climb I switched my generator off and relied on my battery front light and Vistalite at the rear. There were a few steep sections where I found myself in bottom gear and out of the saddle, wondering how much longer this would go on. However, a guy from New York, who was at the head of our group, rounded a corner and yelled out that we had made it. We heaved a collective sigh of relief as we got onto the flat section of road, thinking that it wasn't so bad after all. I reckoned that it was probably just the usual randonneur Chinese whisper effect, where roads get longer and hills higher as you talk to more people. But no ! We then rounded another corner and hit the steep section of the climb ! There followed a struggle to the top, but we made it. Not too far now to the control, and all downhill. Even the descent though, proved to be tricky. It was very fast and twisty but extremely exhilarating by night. My kamikaze instincts took over and I tore down it, nearly freezing to death in the process. The lure of the control and somewhere to rest my weary body was pretty powerful !

We all arrived at the control, with 240 miles/400 km done, just after 10 pm.. We were alsolutely frozen but the warm welcome and excellent food more than compensated. The sleeping accomodation, in a large, warm gymnasium, was better yet and I enjoyed snoozing on a very comfortable vaulting mat. Four o'clock seemed to come rather too quickly though, and the road beckoned. Or at least in a figurative sense ! It was a chilly, foggy morning that greeted Tom and I when we ventured outside, wearing most of the clothes that we had with us. Dawn was a prolonged and painful affair. It seemed to take forever for the sun to crawl above the horizon, while simultaneously, BOTH my knees were feeling swollen. Thankfully, this soon eased away as I warmed up, something that was easily accomplished, thanks to a series of rolling hills. We soon found ourselves cycling in a small group, trading stories of the previous day's exploits. A secret checkpoint in Burlington came at a convenient time to remove reflective gear and warm clothes. Then it was on again, destination Montreal. I didn't quite know how to feel at this point. I was elated to have got so far, especially considering the terrain. Against this was the fact that I knew that we would we returning through the same mountains. Miraculously, my knee didn't seem to be a whole lot worse than it was at the start, although that wasn't saying much ! It's always important in long-distance riding to adopt a divide and conquer approach. So, while I was tempted into thinking, for the first time, how great it would be to finish, I dismissed the thought and aimed for the next control. This was to be at Rouses Point on the U.S.-Canadian border.

The fact that the terrain would be getting flatter from here to Montreal did nothing to dampen my bouyant mood either. After a quick mid-morning food and liquid stop (at which I was introduced to the poor man's Powerbar - BitaHoney (if I've spelt it correctly !), Tom and I found ourselves alone again. The gentle terrain and pleasantly warm and sunny conditions ensured good progress as we passed alongside Lake Champlain. Compared to the previous day, the scenery was less inspiring but nonetheless pleasant. The traffic though was a bit heavier but not unduly so. Tom's route awareness again paid dividends on this stretch. I was leading, intent on catching a few riders ahead. They went straight past a left turn and I did likewise, only to have Tom call me back. Unfortunately, they were too far ahead to call back and we didn't have sufficient excess energy to chase after them. One of the riders ahead was Scott Sturtz, who had qualified for RAAM, but who had broken his collar bone shortly before he was to take part in the race to end all races, and had to withdraw. He had taken the later start time and had caught us, but unluckily for him, was to get in a few extra miles today. We later met his friend, acting as his one-man support crew, frantically searching for Scott, and were able to tell him that he had gone astray. Just short of the control at Rouses Point, we met the first person on their way back. It turned out to be the sole French entrant who seemed determined to do in an American event what Scott Dickson had done in Paris- Brest-Paris - finish first. Leaving that control, Tom and I teamed up with Karl Stuermer, also from Ohio.

Crossing the Canadian border, I was the cause of some delay, due to being a non-American and having to get my passport stamped. The border official seemed surprised that I was only planning to spend some 6 hours in Canada ! The landscape now consisted of flattish, very badly surfaced roads and corn fields. We were also getting buffeted by a cross/headwind and were glad to join up with a group of about half a dozen other riders. We traded introductions and stories and were soon travelling along very merrily. However, we were doing too much talking and nearly missed a turn again. Luckily a woman who was doing support for another rider saw us and chased us down ! As if that excitement wasn't enough, the Canadian road authorities had decided to resurface some of the roads on our route today. We came to a section of road works and were waved on through. Seconds later we were all yelling in agony ! The freshly laid tar was not only soft but very hot. It stuck to our tyres before being sprayed up onto our legs and causing some not inconsiderable pain. We took our only option, dismounted and walked up the side of the road until we had got past the road works. I still maintain that I cycled the whole route though !

Entering the outskirts of Montreal, we followed a tortuous route to the turnaround control. This was the only part of the whole route that I didn't enjoy. The frequent stopping and starting at the Montreal-style four-way stop junctions played havoc with my knee. I was surprised at this stage to see Steve and Pamela on their return journey because I thought they would be much further ahead. It later turned out that all the stopping and starting had also strained Pamela's achilles tendon. To make up for that, the reception at the Montreal control was superb, as was the food. I was on top form, as I had just achieved what seemed an impossible objective at the start, and cycled the whole route in one direction. I was getting plenty of teasing though about my tomato-coloured face - I had forgotten to put on sun screen at Rouses Point and was now paying the price ! I wasn't too sure how my knee might handle the return section out of Montreal, but I couldn't wait to find out ... It was now late afternoon and our group began to wind the pace up in an effort to get back to the Rouses Point control before dark. The group was working together really well and the pace got faster and faster. Curiously, my knee started to feel better and better and my overall level of well-being also improved. This is an effect I've noticed several times in the past on long rides where a feeling of fatigue and lethargy can actually be improved by going faster ! However, Tom and Karl thought the going a bit too fast and decided to drop off the back of the group. After so many enjoyable miles together, I wasn't going to leave them at this stage, so I dropped back too.

We made our own way to the control and actually got there before the others because they ended up taking a wrong turn ! I was all for grabbing the bull by the horns at this stage and continuing on to the next control at Middlebury, which would mean riding through the night. However, Tom persuaded me to spend the night at Rouses Point with the help of a little bribery - the offer of a motel room in Brattleboro the following night. And when some fresh pizza arrived at the control, it helped me see the logic of Tom's idea, so stay in Rouses Point we did ! Unfortunately, I didn't have a great night's sleep because the sleeping quarters were cold to say the least. (this by the way, being totally beyond the organisers' control). Tom had sent on a sleeping bag and mat to this stop, so he had everything under control. We were on the road again before dawn, with the target of a diner down the road. It's lights had a Dickensian-style welcome to them, offering the warmth and comfort you normally take for granted. It was still slightly dark as we left, feeling the better for some pancakes and coffee.

When daylight did come, it did so with a vengence. Temperatures rocketed and I made sure not to forget to put on my sun-screen. We were now heading back into the mountains and sure enough, the roads began to roll. The control at Middlebury was a welcome sight, even if it did signify the beginning of the big climbs again. After yet more haute cuisine, we were on the road again. It was so hot that Tom and I striped down to just shorts for the climb of Middlebury Gap, although Karl was comfortable the way he was. The steepest part of the climb was at the bottom, so pyschologically it was an easy one to surmount. The descent was magnificent and we followed that with a quick stop for liquid. I felt absolutely fantastic on the gently rolling roads that followed - one of those (all too rare !) effortless, floating moments. On this section too, we had the most sensual moment of the whole trip. Tom's feet were killing him and both Karl's and mine were overheating. We all had the same thought at the same time as we passed a gurgling stream on a flat section of road. We stopped, took off shoes and socks and waded in. The icy cold water trickling over our feet and between our toes was sinfully pleasant and well worth the stop. Thus refreshed, we hit the road again feeling like new - well almost ! Reaching the control at Ludlow, we had 580 miles done and 170 still to do, with 56 of those to our planned stop at Brattleboro. This section had a tough start to it, with Mount Terrible living up to its name in this direction !

Darkness soon fell, and with it came the exhilaration and devastation that only cycling during the night can bring. The climbing and descending brought an andrenalin high, but at other times drowsiness took over and it seemed that we would never get to Brattleboro. The extra care and attention needed to find your way at night was also hard to muster, but also added to the adventure. Even when Karl had trouble with his lights, it all seemed great fun. We finally arrived in Brattleboro at one o'clock in the morning and I was really surprised that Steve and Pamela hadn't already been and gone. I had been talking to Dave at Rouses Point and he had told me of Pamela's achilles tendon problems. I sincerely hoped that they hadn't got too much for her, having suffered from achilles tendinitis before myself. That motel room suddenly seemed not just a good idea, but a brilliant one. A shower and a soft bed seemed luxurious beyond words and we soon settled down to appreciate their benefits.

Dawn, of course, seemed to come all too quickly and we reluctantly dragged ourselves out of bed. Breakfast was taken care of at a local eatery and we were soon back on the road. Unfortunately Karl was suffering from a painful back at this stage and was unable to pedal with his usual fluency. Barre, 55 miles away was our next target, with some delightful scenery en route. We ended up riding in a group for much of the way, with everyone very relaxed now that the end was in sight. It was on this leg of the trip that I met my namesake, John Bailey, from California. He saw my Irish jersey, put two and two together and guessed who I was. John, showing that age is no barrier to long-distance cycling, rode totally at his own pace and put many younger guns to shame. Also at around this time, I was surprised to have Steve and Pamela overtake me on their tandem. I had assumed that they were bored waiting for me at the finish but they were having trials and tribulations of another type instead. Pamela's achilles' tendon had been troubling her again, but a good night's rest had happily seen it recover totally. They were now really moving and we just managed a few words before they disappeared into the distance.

We met Dave again on this section too, offering us iced water. I shocked him by throwing the water over my head instead of gulping it down. He reckoned I had a drinking problem ! At the Barre control we sought the shelter of the trees on the common in the middle of the town while we topped up on liquid. Karl was now tinkering with his saddle position in an attempt to reduce stretch on his back and he told Tom and I to roll on without him. Reluctantly we left him behind as we pressed on to the finish. I again found myself feeling really strong and enjoying the heat, the roads, the cycling, the ambience, everything in fact ! With about 25 miles left, Tom and I rewarded ourselves with a stop where we consumed a sinful amount of Hagen Daz icecream and enjoyed every last little bit ! Nearing the finish, we made our only navigation error of any note on the whole event and added a few exasperating miles on ourselves. However, this didn't take away anything from the pleasure, pride and satisfaction we felt when we rolled into the grounds. Everyone at the finish was on a high, elated from their involvement in the event. I made a pig of myself at the barbeque and enjoyed every second of a superb massage from Mike Bresnahan. And to really top things off, Dave, in between his support duties, had made a video of the event with a simply off-the-wall commentary. We laughed our way through this back at Pamela's while devouring heavenly pizza (long-distance riding always seems to sharpen my taste buds !). It was a fantastic end to what had been, for me, the most enjoyable cycling event I've ever done, bar none !

 

read about Pamela's ride