Consider it the world’s longest road trip to buy a sandwich. In French.
This wasn’t my original plan, at least at the beginning of the year. In 2011, I thought, I’d return to the lavender fields of France and ride Paris-Brest-Paris again, eight years after first doing so. But as the year progressed and my annual travel budget was quickly getting devoured by volunteering in Guatemala, vacationing in Costa Rica and visits to California, I was having second thoughts. Airfare alone from Denver to Paris in August, I learned, is nowadays more than what I spent for my 2003 PBP/France vacation in total. And there were other misgivings, such as I try not to do major events more than once for practical and philosophical reasons including “there are too many other things I have not yet done in my short life.”
But Susan Plonsky of Arizona posted an interesting alternative. The fabled Boston-Montreal-Boston (BMB)—call it the American version of Paris-Brest-Paris if you will—had ceased to be an official randonnée as of 2006 and was now strictly a permanent that anyone could ride on their own in a self-supported manner while still receiving recognition (validation) from Randonneurs USA. Susan was trying to organize an informal mass-start group ride on the BMB Permanent course.
I later realized that if I rode Boston-Montreal-Boston I could also combine it with a road trip that would enable me to check off seven more states from my Visited States list. The BMB event cost? Just $25. Sign me up!
Day 1: Newton, MA to Middlebury, VT (232 miles)
After driving 2000 miles over three days, I was allowed to enter Hotel Indigo—the official start of the ride—by a reluctant receptionist who had seemingly confused his workplace with the Pentagon. After using all the persuasion skills I could summon—including fetching my netbook to show him an e-mail stating that the hotel would grant riders the privilege of parking there for $7/day—his seemingly impotent manager finally became half-convinced that I was not some rogue out-of-stater trying to bum non-free parking at his high-class establishment for a few days. Eventually helping my cause were other lycra-clad folks who sauntered into the lobby at 3:30 a.m. and also claimed participation in BMB. Good thing I showed up to the start an hour early because the entire cash-for-car-parking ordeal made the hotel clock’s minute hand spin 180 degrees.
Lining up at the start were six cyclists including four Northeasters—Anthony, Chip, Ted, and Silo—and Susan and myself, the ride’s only rookie. As I rolled my bike over to the front of the hotel I was also surprised but delighted to meet BMB Permanent Owner Jennifer Wise and Pierce Gafgen, who were absolutely under no obligation to be here but had graciously woken up early on this Thursday morning to drive up from Rhode Island, shoot some photos and see us off.
When our watches read 4:00 a.m., we rolled out of the parking lot and had not ridden even ten minutes before all of us missed a turn and were already off-course. A good reminder of the importance of paying attention to the route sheets comprising 12 pages worth of directions.
For the first 100 miles over suburban, shoulder-less roads, Anthony, Chip, Ted and I were all riding within shouting distance—usually with me in front or dozens of yards behind as I absolutely did not want to draft, not just for anti-collision and ease-of-looking-at-scenery reasons but also because I preferred to ride the entire 753 miles under my own power, unaided by nothing but the occasional tailwind and the immutable gravitational pull in the instances that we found the front end of our bicycles actually pointing downwards instead of up.
First major climb: the “Barre Wall” (>10% grade) that caught my legs by surprise after practically being lulled to sleep by 58 miles of incessantly rolling-but-gentle terrain. The second major climb was 20-30 minutes long near the border of New Hampshire that Ted warned me was “not over until you see the cemetery” but actually did not feel that tough considering the relative freshness of my legs.
More challenging was Route 63 North beyond a residential area of New Hampshire. I actually missed the turn for this but after recognizing my mistake, I asked an elderly lady watering her lawn where it was.
“You passed the turn at the bottom of this hill,” she told me. “There’s A LOT of climbing on that highway. I’m so sorry.” I thanked her without assuring her that she need not apologize profusely for undulating terrain caused by inexorable tectonic movements of the earth’s crust, but less than fifteen minutes later came to the realization that she was not exaggerating at all.
At Battleboro, Vermont (Mile 113) I stopped briefly at a Taco Bell before heading the wrong way and doing a couple of extra-credit miles. From this point on for the next day-and-a-half I’d only see Anthony, Chip and Ted when we’d leapfrog each other, either on the road or at checkpoints. Basically, we’d see each other long enough to make one or two observations about the miles that just past.
“Man, that was pretty hilly,” I remarked about 60 miles past Battleboro.
“The climb you went up to Andover is probably the hardest section of the ride,” Chip vouched. “That and Middlebury Gap,” he added.
A couple hours later as fatigue set in and my arse was getting noticeably more tender, I asked Anthony “just how bad is Middlebury Gap.” “Oh, it’s steep,” he said. “But I think it’s harder coming back.”
That I had to go up the easier side today was sort of welcome, because by the time I hit the climb it was about time to switch on my lights and I already had 219 miles in my legs. The real climbing came two miles from the summit. Here I was glad my low gear was a 34X26, which I was able to turn at a slug-like 3-5 miles per hour. On some of the 15+% parts, I not only had to resort to dancing out of the saddle but also a little bit of weaving—not so much that I was utilizing the entire width of the road, but enough that if my vehicle was a car and not a bicycle, a state patrolman would have surely pulled me over for suspected intoxication.
“This is just like Jamison Creek Rd.,” I kept thinking of one of the most grueling and unrelenting two-mile climbs of the San Francisco Bay Area, “but after already riding a double century.”
What goes up must come down, but this was one of those rare times where I didn’t care much for the descent. The backside of Mulberry Gap was equally steep, and since it was enshrouded in trees with limited visibility I had to brake virtually the entire way down lest I overrun my lights. An eight-mile downhill that could have taken 20 minutes in daylight took over half-an-hour in pitch darkness.
Finally, I made it to Middlebury where I briefly encountered Anthony and wished him well since he was going to pedal an additional 40 miles to his hometown of Williston. In contrast, I rolled into the Blue Spruce Motel where I had a reservation, checked into my room, oiled the chain and pedals (since they were squeaking), showered, shaved and jumped into bed. What a day! Tomorrow would be easier, I thought.
Day 2: Middlebury, VT to Huntington, QC to Rouses Point, NY (198 miles)
If Day 1 was a nonstop hillfest, then Day 2 was a most welcome reprieve from all the climbing.
First, the majority of the miles until Rouses Point, New York was rural farmland home to cute tiny houses and old barns, and the calm blue waters of Lake Champlain. Highway 2 was a bona fide scenic cycling route, with wide shoulders and smooth asphalt traversing the lengths of the island towns of South Hero, North Hero and Alburg. I arrived in Rouses Point where I enjoyed a hot dog and the six miles I’d be pedaling in New York State, and quickly made it through the U.S.-Canada border station in Champlain, NY after showing my passport and answering a couple easy questions like “where are you going in Canada” and “will you be dropping anything off?”
I had made it into the Northern Lights Country, land of Canucks, and in this particular province—as if a toggle switch had been flipped—all the signs were in French. Kilometers too, of course. Ah, Québec.
It has been three years since I had visited Montreal and Québec City, but this is the first time I got to pedal into the wind in the Québécois countryside. There were no cars or lorries whizzing by, just acres of farmland and picturesque homes with manicured yards accentuated by rust-colored tractors that looked utterly appropriate in this landscape. It was the apotheosis of serenity.
I was alone with my thoughts until about 25 miles from Huntingdon, QC when—while stopped to remove my cycling gloves for the day (I had hot spots on both my left and right palms, and I suspected the gloves were chafing)—Ted passed me with Chip about 200 meters arrears. I started pedaling again about five meters behind Ted when, to my utter surprise, the until-now gentle Québécois pavement was suddenly pointing sharply upwards.
It was Covey Hill. After many minutes in my lowest gear, I announced to Ted, “This feels as steep as Middlebury Gap!”
Fortunately, my legs were up for this unexpected challenge, and the climb wasn’t some epic multi-miler. There was a plainly visible top and it wasn’t a false summit. Here Ted stopped to take some photos of Chip coming up while I carried on, only to see the duo again about ten miles later—this time with Anthony.
Anthony—who at that point was about 30 miles farther on the route than we were due to carrying on to Willinston the night before—was pointed in the opposite direction and was truing his front wheel while chatting with Ted and Chip. Apparently, just moments before, he had taken his eyes off the road to read the route sheet, spotted some gravel in a rapidly approaching curve, hit the brakes and launched over his handlebars head-first into a tree. He showed us his helmet that was now cracked in multiple places. Anthony was understandably a little shaken up but showed no signs of injury, having landed in a soft spot of grass.
“I was planning on going all the way to Brattleboro, but now I think it might be a good idea just to go Willinston and sleep in my own bed for the night,” he told us. We then parted ways and wished each other luck, but not before he gave us a tip as to where to find a Subway in Huntingdon where we could stop and refuel before riding back to the States.
Chip and Ted arrived at the sandwich shop first, and when it was my turn to order food, I was face to face with a Subway girl who was strictly a Francophone. Hooray, I thought, I can finally talk to someone in français!
I requested a sandwich with le thon (tuna), fromage suisse, and seulement des tomates— partly because this is what I wanted, but also because my French vocabulary for les autres légumes was sadly limited. The jeune femme understood about 80% of what I was trying to say but I could only understand about 25% of what she was asking. In any case I refused to revert to English or Franglish and ultimately I got my petit sandwich just how I wished it. Hence, I declare the ordeal a success. Well, mostly.
I ate half of the sandwich but, upon remembering my pre-race declaration that I was going to keep stops to a minimum, I stashed the rest in my jersey pocket to eat on the bike and was back on the road quicker than you can say j’aime bien faire du vélo. After that stop I’d only see Chip and Ted one more time, and that was back in Rouses Point, NY near our hotel for the night.
There was still the matter of pedaling 50 miles back to Rouses Point, however, and this segment comprises my fondest memories of the entire ride. As I leisurely rolled along snapping photos of the verdant Québécois countryside and plebeian (but interesting to me) French road signs, I marveled at the windmills in the mountains in the distance, a scarlet sunset and a full moon rising over old barns and fruit orchards. I smiled at a beige-and-brown feline that scampered by without thinking up any “why did the cat cross the road” jokes, and gave my best cheery bonsoir! to the locals who were out for joy rides on their bicycles themselves. Happily, all of them either waved or replied with a similar salutation back, and for the first time all day, I didn’t feel so much as a foreigner in a part of Canuckland that seemed so enchantingly French. Instead, I felt at home, as if this was a place I very well could (and did) spend the entire evening, a region I didn’t really want to leave.
But I had to, of course, and by 9:15 p.m. I was back in Rouses Point buying some food, drinks, and an ice cream bar before checking into The Anchorage Motel where I showered and slept for the night. A good day—the best of the ride.
Day 3: Rouses Point, NY to Brattleboro, VT (215 miles)
I woke up 20 minutes before the alarm clock went off and fifteen minutes later—or 4:00 a.m.—which turned out to be a brilliant move worthy of Bill Belichick. This had the makings of a tough, tough day, and ultimately I was going to need every minute of daylight and then some.
Actually, the span from Rouses Point to northwestern Vermont was rather mild in difficulty and very, very pleasant, particularly because it wended through the relative flatland of the Grand Isles along Lake Champlain on that fabulous byway, Scenic Route 2. I also had some welcome social contact. For example, when I arrived at le controle ravitaillement (supply control point) of the Fairfield Inn in Williston, I chatted with a curious gentleman who wanted to know where I started from, how far was I riding, and—“What? You’re biking how far?”—how old I was.
“You can STILL do this at age 36?” he asked incredulously, as if 36 was an age ripe enough for Social Security or the AARP. Maybe sensing that he didn’t exactly mean that I was ancient, he quickly added, “I’m 30 years older… and I would just like to be able to run ONE mile.”
“Stick with those distances,” I advised. “They’re probably a lot healthier than this ultra-distance stuff.” At that point I was reminded about how my butt felt like it had been given a permanent wedgie, and how my other bicycle contact points—namely, my hands and my feet—had hot spots as if an branding iron had been placed on them.
So even though that whole morning was relatively gentle with the terrain, I was slowly succumbing to small aches and pains. But I suppose it could have been worse. I was reminded of this when while approaching Middlebury, I encountered Susan Plonsky heading the other direction at Mile 518 for me, or Mile 235 for her. This was a big surprise to me because even though I knew of her intention to ride Boston-Montreal-Boston in five days instead of four, I would have expected her to be in Canada by now.
“I was sick the first couple days,” she explained, “so I stayed in hotels.” Silo, on the other hand, had turned around early on the first day due to a wheel problem on his recumbent, ultimately abandoning the ride altogether. I wished Susan luck and counted my lucky stars that at least I wasn’t ill or had gotten a mechanical problem, not even a flat tire.
But by the time I had reached Middlebury—the same college town that got a shout-out in George Lucas’ iconic coming of age film, American Graffiti—I had already resorted to drinking two 12-ounce bottles of my bonking cure of good ol’ regular Pepsi, and I hadn’t even gone up Middlebury Gap yet. Oh, goodness.
Actually, the climb turned out not to be that bad. Maybe I had so built it up in my head after talking with Ted and Anthony earlier in the ride that I was expecting to really have to dig deep, but instead my body seemed to really come alive at the challenge. Or maybe it was the caffeine and high-fructose corn syrup of those Pepsis working some magic. In any case, I’d say the climb was almost as enjoyable as playing with a couple of rambunctious kittens.
Down on the other side were a few other notable events going on—impressive for a gorgeous part of the Green Mountain State that given its low population and lack of urban centers you’d expect to be more of a yawn in terms of things to do. There was the 100 on 100, which was a relay of 100 miles on Route 100; the Tweed River Music Festival; and a lot of folks sporting colorful lifejackets while inner tubing on the Tweed River.
I made it to Ludlow, VT by late afternoon feeling much more energetic than I did in the morning. This was a good thing because shortly thereafter, I had a massive brain fart and ended up going 3.5 miles down Route 103 instead of Route 100. This meant that I had to climb back up another 3.5 miles (or 7 off-course miles total), which was a real shame because before the navigational error I was already at risk of my “finish the day before darkness” goal. “Good thing I left so early this morning,” I thought.
One good thing about getting off course is that it seemed to get the adrenaline pumping again through the veins, which came in particularly handy for the climbs over Andover Ridge which were steep enough to be visually intimidating. Nevertheless, despite my decent climbing prowess my average speed for the next few hours remained mired in the low teens, resulting in checking into a Motel 6 room in Brattleboro, VT at around 10:15 p.m.
Day 4: Brattleboro, VT to Newton, MA (109 miles)
After three consecutive days of riding double century distance or longer, the final leg of 109 miles at least sounded as doable as running an hour or two on a treadmill. Ultimately, however, this ended up being one of the toughest centuries I have ridden in years.
Part of the reason for this was general fatigue and extreme butt discomfort resulting from sitting on a narrow, lightweight saddle for over 54 hours. But another reason was psychological, having mentally checked out after having already conquered Middlebury Gap, Covey Hill and Andover Ridge—the three hardest climbs of Boston-Montreal-Boston. Hence, I was not primed for the seemingly endless rollers of the last 100 miles, including the stupefying segment with a lot of false summits past a cemetery that Ted had warned me about on the first day, but didn’t feel so difficult then.
There turned out to be another problem, too: my equipment. No, not my bike but rather, my shoe!
Above is how my right cycling shoe looked like at the end of the ride. Apparently, the climbs of Boston-Montreal-Boston were so abundant and steep that the sole of the 12-year-old shoe completely delaminated. No wonder it seemed like I couldn’t generate any power on the upstroke on the last day and felt like I had the climbing strength of a fish.
But I kept plugging away and finally I was back riding past the million dollar homes of Newton, Massachusetts. It was when I hit the city limit that came the rain promised by Susan, just five miles from the finish.
Arriving at Hotel Indigo a quarter past two, the receptionists there were markedly more accommodating than those I had dealt with in the hour before the start of the ride, and were happy to sign my brevet card certifying that I did indeed finish. Finis!
As I drove away from Newton in search of a milkshake I couldn’t help but reflect on what a great journey the ride was, despite the fatigue of the last day and the achiness of all contact points that weren’t getting much relief by sitting in the car.
There was the beautiful New England countryside with its red barns, green tractors, eco-friendly Tiny Houses, blue lakes, classic sports cars and moseying cows. And how could I ever forget riding through the Québécois countryside to the cheerful greetings of bon soir! towards a dawning sun and rising moon?
Of course, there are the sheer numbers of this adventure. They include 753 “on-course” miles, 30,000+ feet of climbing, 82.4 hours start-to-finish and a remarkable 0 flat tires. And 1 sandwich ordered entirely French, even if it required a total of 4400 miles of driving and 750 miles of biking to obtain it.
Never mind that the sandwich consisted of Swiss cheese and Italian bread…
- Day 1: 234 miles (2 off-course), 4:00 a.m.-9:45 p.m. -> 17.8 hours
- Day 2: 198 miles, 5:20 a.m.-9:18 p.m. -> 16.0 hours
- Day 3: 221 miles (7 off-course), 4:00 a.m.-10:15 p.m. -> 18.3 hours
- Day 4: 109 miles, 5:00 a.m.-2:17 p.m. -> 9.3 hours
- Total: 762 miles (9 off-course); >30,000′ of climbing
- August 11, 4:00 a.m. start — August 14, 2:17 p.m. finish -> 82.4 hours
- Hours of sleep: ~18
(Scale of 1-5, 5 = best)
- Scenery: 5
- Support/Organization: self-supported
- Food: self-provided
- Weather: 4
- Relative Difficulty: 5
- Overall Rating: 4 (downrated only due to the lack of shoulder for much of the ride and condition of the roads)