Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200k, on a fixed gear

by Emily O’Brien

The Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200K started for me at around 2:30 AM, when I left my house to ride out to Newton for the start. The night was calm and clear, and when I arrived at the hotel it seemed that most riders weren’t out of bed yet. But it was not long before we were standing all together reciting Jennifer’s version of the Pledge of Allegiance (to the ride…), and then we were off. I was one of the first out of the parking lot, and I saw the long line of other riders snaking out up the driveway with their reflective gear and headlamps like a huge bioluminescent eel.

We all got coupons for free coffee and bagels at a Dunkin Donuts about 30 mi out, which I was all too happy to partake of, although I didn’t want to hang out for too long and waste time so early in the ride. There were three fixed gear riders doing the 1200k distance: myself, Spencer Klaassen, and Pat Hurt. I rode with Spencer after the coffee stop and into Bullard Farm. I still had not yet met Pat. I used my usual 42X16 gear; Spencer had a 42X15. Between Bullard Farm and Brattleboro, we rode together but the difference in our gears did become fairly obvious. I was climbing a bit faster and descending a bit slower. There are a few good steep bits between Newton and Brattleboro, including a short but pretty steep sucker in Barre and Mount Pissah (err, that would be Pisgah) in New Hampshire just before Brattleboro. It was early in the ride and all of the roads that far in were ones I’d seen this summer, so I wasn’t going to start complaining about hills yet!

As we got into Brattleboro, Spencer said that he was thinking of flipping over his wheel to the 18t cog on the other side. We met the other fixed gear rider there while we were stopped, and found out that he was using a gear of around 63”. When Spencer flipped his wheel, I was a little unnerved that of the three fixie riders on the ride, I had the highest gear by five or six inches! I tried not to worry too much though, because at least I was pretty familiar with the territory and figured I knew much more what to expect than the other two, who were both from out of town. The food at Brattleboro was just right, and the pork fried rice hit the spot. The volunteers were very eager to help and to wait hand and foot on all of us riders, even though we were all still relatively fresh. Two of the volunteers in Brattleboro were Kevin Main, whom I met at the 508 last year, and Elizabeth Wick who holds the record for being the oldest female finisher of BMB.

The section from Brattleboro to Ludlow was very pleasant. Spencer had gotten pretty dehydrated, and had also swapped to the lower gear, so we didn’t stay together for long after leaving Brattleboro. I was pretty much on my own. That leg was warm and sunny and rural, with plenty of good climbs, but nothing so steep that I couldn’t get into a good rhythm. Even “Mount Terrible,” which we climbed just before descending into Ludlow was not so terrible, although I do remember thinking that a couple of the climbs in that leg seemed to have much steeper grades on the way down, and would be much more difficult to climb in the other direction (irrespective of how many more miles would be in my legs by that point). In any case, I was feeling good and was having no trouble with any of the climbing yet. Honestly, Mt. Terrible was a hill but none of the others on that leg (some of which actually did have names, although I didn’t bother to remember what they were) was big enough to make much of an impression on me. I did some traversing, but didn’t walk. The descent off of Mt. Terrible was tough, and my hands and arms were getting tired, but it was still very managable.

The checkpoint in Ludlow had more food and gatorade, and chicken noodle soup that hit the spot like nothing else. I hung around and goofed off for awhile, then headed out on what I knew was the most difficult leg of the ride. Between Ludlow and Middlebury, you go up two big mountains: Killington and Middlebury Gap. Maybe technically it’s more than two, but those are the two that matter. Killington was a long grind, but I was more than happy to be climbing instead of descending, and got into a good rhythm with it. At that point it was very dark, and there was minimal traffic and pretty much no one around. But the stars were spectacular. A couple of times, I stopped by the side of the road and turned off all my bike lights just to look at the sky. It was a very clear night, and the stars were almost as spectacular as they were in Death Valley. The Milky Way was brilliant.

At one point I caught up with another rider (or he caught up with me, I can’t remember) and we rode together for a good chunk of that leg. The descent off of Killington, though, seemed like it would go on FOREVER. It was the first thing that really gave me any trouble as a fixed gear rider. By that point, I had been on the bike for a pretty durn long time, and my butt wasn’t really happy about spinning so fast for so long. The guy I was riding with probably thought I was off my gourd, but I couldn’t WAIT for Middlebury Gap to start. I was so ready to get out of the saddle and climb up something! But I kept going down, and down, and down. Some sections were pretty steep too, and I knew that this section would be much worse climbing on the way south.

Finally, the road started going up, and we were on Middlebury Gap. In the South-to-North direction, we road over the Gap in the same direction that the Green Mountain Stage Race goes during the road race. I’m glad I won’t be racing up that dang hill! I got into a good rhythm for the most part, but I did do a bit of traversing, and I was by no means going fast (just faster than other riders around me). The hill got steeper and steeper, and finally I saw 1k to go for KOM painted on the road. I told myself, “Okay, it’s only 1k, you can make it without walking!” I kept climbing, but at that point it was steep enough that there was no rhythm to my climbing; just a bunch of mashing. I kept it up for what felt like an eternity, thinking I must be close to the end any second now… when I saw 500m to go for KOM painted on the road. I realized that I had only gone 500m and still had half a kilometer left, and that was when I got off my bike and walked for the first time. I only walked for a couple hundred yards until the road levelled off somewhat again and I got back on. And since the guy I was with, who had gears, walked some too, I didn’t feel too bad about it. The descent couldn’t get over with quickly enough, and my butt hurt from the bad pavement and my worn-out saddle, but finally it was over and I got into the Middlebury checkpoint.
They had just stopped serving dinner food in favor of breakfast food, so there was no more lasagna. I was very disappointed in the lack of lasagna, since all I had been thinking about on the long chilly descent before the checkpoint was hot food, but I ate what there was and then took a good 3-hour nap. I woke up feeling groggy and crummy, but felt much better after getting on the road for a little while.I could have made better time at the checkpoint or gotten more sleep had I been efficient instead of sitting around shooting the breeze, but I figured I had time and might as well goof off if I was so inclined. I got out my gel seat cover, which I had put into my Middlebury drop bag, changed into clean clothes, and got going.

After Middlebury was a 90-mi undulating section to Rouses Point, NY. It was long and took in some relatively major roads and the higher traffic volume that passes for rush hour in the mostly rural sections near Burlington. I briefly rode with two other riders during that leg, but the first wanted to go slower up the hills than I did and the second wanted to go faster down the hills, so I was mostly on my own. But soon after Burlington, we arrived at Lake Champlain. The lake was beautiful, and I’d really forgotten that there were inland freshwater lakes that were so big! The road through the islands in Lake Champlain was well marked as a bike way, and we saw lots of locals out on their own bikes. It was on that leg that I started seeing other riders passing in the other direction on their way back south. It was windy, and there were lots of huge trucks passing and giving me very little space. To be fair, they didn’t have anywhere to go because there was lots of traffic (and a big military truck convoy) in the other direction, but that made it no less nerve-wracking. The bridge going over into New York was big, wide, and windy. I really love going over big bridges, and this one had a much wider shoulder than the road before, so the traffic wasn’t so bad.

After goofing off, eating, and adjusting my chainline (which had gotten a little slack) in Rouses Point, I set out for Canada. So many other riders had gone through already by that time that the Canadian border control knew exactly where I was going and when I’d be back. So I rode off down the road, past the signs warning me that now the metric system was in use and the speed limits were no longer in miles per hour. Once over the border, everything was different. It was like… well, like being in another country! All the signs, street names, billboards, and slogans were in French. The landscape looked completely different from Rouses Point; there were no services, no kitchy touristy stores, just gently rolling farmland and fields of corn, blueberries, livestock, apple treets, etc. At one point I saw another cyclist ahead who had a trunk bag on her bike and I figured she was on the same ride. I rode up next to her and said hello, and she was very confused to be spoken to in English! She said a few words in broken English, then quickly apologized in French.

I rode on, and a minute later broke out laughing hard! I realized that I had started from my own home, and ridden my bicycle into another country where the landscape is different, the people speak a different language, and use a different system of measurements! I rode on very excitedly.

I saw lots of other riders in the other direction at that point, who gave me lots of encouragement for making it that far on a fixie. I also saw huge clouds of bugs! I guess that’s what happens when there’s lots of livestock. The bugs hovered over the road in the afternoon sun like a dark cloud; I waved my hands and got down low in my aerobars trying to stay below more of them. Even still though, my helmet vents were full of bugs when I got into Huntington; my jersey was speckled with bug bits, and I had bugs inside my jersey as well.

I had heard that there was one big hill in Canada, which everyone seemed to think was the most intimidating of all, because you could see it stretching up like a wall from miles away. But I had made it up Middlebury and only walked a little bit, so I wasn’t worried. Also, they made a point of telling us that you don’t have to go back down the other side, so you don’t have to climb back up in the other direction. I think it wasn’t strictly true that you didn’t have to go down the other side of that hill; I might have been more sensitive to descents than most, but there were some definite downhill parts after that! In any case, the hill was really not so bad. I walked up a short steep section near the end, but the rest was not bad at all. There were jugs of water at the top marked “BMB”, which tasted very good.

I rolled into the Huntingdon checkpoint feeling a little tired, but excited to have made it that far. I found that I had cell phone reception, and couldn’t resist calling some people from Canada, just because I could.

I turned around and headed back to Rouses Point. In the evening light, the ponds and fields were breathtakingly beautiful. As the sun got lower, the bats came out and started swooping around snapping bugs out of the air. The toads came out, and at times there were so many of them hopping all over the road that it was actually hard to avoid running over some. The ride back was uneventful, although I hadn’t realized how much I’d actually climbed on the way out. There was a looong predomintantly downhill stretch, which seemed to go on forever. Finally, I made it back to the US border control. I’d heard that the first group of riders heading back into the US had been pulled over and searched and questioned, but by the time I got there the only question the border control officer had for me was whether I was going to sleep in RP or push on to Middlebury.

The checkpoint is only a few miles from the border, and I was getting pretty ready to be there already, when I came to the train crossing only to discover that there was a train crossing! It was a long freight train, neither end of it anywhere in sight, that seemed to be going at about 3 mph. I stood there waiting for that damn train for over ten minutes, so close to the checkpoint that I could smell it, but unable to get across.

I ate and slept for a couple of hours in Rouses Point, then got up to get ready to head out again. I woke up feeling groggy and crusty and annoyed to have to be awake. That was when I realized I’d gotten my period, and no one at the checkpoint had any tampons. So I left the checkpoint and figured I better find someplace to stop pretty soon to buy some. In the wee hours of the morning, I found a convenience store right by the bridge between Vermont and New York that was open for the truckers driving back and forth. I was pissed off at having to stop, but it was actually sort of interesting because that place was the only thing I saw on either side of the border that gave any remote indication that there was another country just a few miles up the road. They had signage in both French and English, and they had tampons. I did my business and headed out into the stiff headwind across Lake Champlain.

Here was one of the times when riding a fixed gear was very beneficial, from a mental standpoint at least and probably from a physical standpoint as well. The headwind gave me something to focus on, something to push against that wasn’t a hill that would have a descent down the other side. As I started riding into it, I felt better and better and pushed harder. I started catching up with other riders who had left the checkpoint long before I had. They were chugging along into the wind, and probably didn’t really appreciate the enthusiasm and gusto with which I mentioned the headwind. At one point I caught the guy on a recumbent on a descent; you know it’s windy when a fixie catches a recumbent going downhill! He was feeling tired and groggy in the early morning, whereas all my sleepiness and annoyed mood had been blown completely away in the breeze, and I felt great. My rolling average for that section was over 1 mph faster than it had been on any other leg.

That section is rolling, but not really hilly. I eventually hooked up with a group of four riders that I could stay with more or less comfortably, and was happy for the company since I hadn’t ridden with any one else for more than a couple of miles since Brattleboro. We stopped in Burlington for greasy breakfast at Friendly’s, and discovered a handful of other riders already there, including Spencer. While we were there, Pat showed up was well, and all of us fixies were there. After breakfast, we were passed by a group of riders who were out training for the Green Mountain Stage Race, one of whom was my teammate Linda Lampila! It was neat to see people I know, dressed up in the same colors as me. She asked if I was out training, and I replied that no, this was the event. We said a few words, and then they went their way and we went ours.

At that point I started thinking about what my strategy should be for the rest of the ride. The logical thing would be to get through Middlebury and Ludlow quickly, and sleep in Brattleboro. However, I hadn’t reserved a motel room and didn’t want to spend the money for one (I know it sounds super cheap, but BMB was expensive already!). So I figured the best thing would be to take longer and get more rest in Middlebury and Ludlow, and push through Brattleboro without sleeping. I could nap at Bullard Farm if it became necessary.

It was starting to drizzle when I got into Middlebury. I hung out and gooffed off for a long time, realizing that I really had plenty of time to travel the next two legs, and dragged my feet about leaving because of the rain and because I was tired. I took a short nap, and the volunteers were waking me up as they were trying to pack up and close the checkpoint.

I finally got out of the checkpoint and was on my way, probably the absolute last rider on the road. The climbing started almost immediately, but wasn’t too bad right away. As it started to get steep, my achilles tendons started gently telling me that they were starting to be less than happy. As I went on climbing, I started getting off to walk on sections that weren’t nearly as steep as some that I’d normally have been happy to climb, to give my tendons a rest. Of course, it’s not the greatest rest since walking up a steep hill in stiff shoes isn’t generally the best thing for tired ankles, but that was life. I tried to be very ginger as best I could. I stopped for a second at the top to down a clif bar, and then kept going (eating isn’t the easiest thing to while descending a steep hill at high RPMs on a fixie).

At the bottom of the hill I saw two other riders, Nick Bull and Chris (don’t remember his last name) stopped at a convenience store. I sat down with them for a minute and ate another clif bar. I rode with them for a minute or two, but they were going much slower than I wanted, so I was on my own again. It was still very rainy, foggy, misty, and wet. And it only got wetter as it got darker. I was wearing everything I had with me, but it wasn’t quite enough once it got darker and started raining harder. I couldn’t ride any harder down the hills to stay warm, but I was still glad to be on a fixed gear that would keep me a little warmer than a bike that could coast! Actually though, I couldn’t really ride harder on the flats to stay warm either because I didn’t want the added pressure on my tendons. I rolled along through the darkened streets singing “Summertime” at the top of my lungs.

Finally I rolled into Ludlow in the dark and in the rain, along with Janice Chernekoff, who had been overlapping with me at a number of the checkpoints. I was cold and wet and wanted to hang out at Ludlow long enough to get warm and dry and eat some hot food. The food at Ludlow all smelled a little odd, but I ate it anyway. I couldn’t bring myself to eat much of the beans though, which tasted like they might have been spoiled (none of it had any ill effects though, so I think it was fine). Janice wanted someone to ride with, and couldn’t afford to hang around, so I was figuring I’d leave with her when the volunteers at the checkpoint mentioned that there was another rider upstairs sleeping who wanted to be woken up when someone else got there so he’d have some company. So the volunteers woke up Anish, who left with Janice, and I took a nap on the floor so I wouldn’t get too comfortable. Nick and Chris finally showed up at the checkpoint shortly before it closed; I dragged my carcass off the floor, put on dry clothes (well, it feels good for a few minutes anyway, even if you’re just going to get soaked) and finally dragged myself back out onto the dark road in the pouring rain.

I listened to some more 16th century harpsichord music as I started up Mt. Terrible. As I had expected, the climb was definitely more difficult southbound than northbound. My tendons were sore, and I carefully trudged my way up large chunks of the hill. It was raining pretty hard, and it was very dark. As that leg wore on, the rain got harder and harder. It was still misty and foggy, and the road was turning into a river. It got more and more difficult to see, and I couldn’t descend very fast with such low visibility. But, I told myself, at least it wasn’t my fixed gear slowing me down this time! There were many bright red salamanders, lots of frogs, a few large toads, and some snakes. At one point I saw a fairly large (well, large for Vermont) snake trying to cross the road on a hill. The poor thing was swimming for all it was worth, but sliding down the hill faster than it was making it across. I have always liked snakes, so I stopped and shone my helmet light on it to see what kind of snake it was. I think it was probably a rat snake of some sort, but between the mist and the torrential rain, I couldn’t see its markings even bending over it with the light shining on it. I belted out as many randonneuring lyrics to “she’ll be comin ’round the mountain when she comes” as I could think up.

I caught and passed Anish and Janice somewhere along that stretch. I felt better knowing that they were still riding together. I had been alone for most of the ride, and had expected as much (it’s hard to ride with others on a ride like this when they can coast and you can’t) but I didn’t want to slow down enough to stay with them and since they were together, I didn’t feel as bad about passing them.

That whole leg, I kept going thinking that when I got to Brattleboro, my wonderful boyfriend Jake Kassen (who was riding the Quad Centuries, also on a fixed gear) would be there waiting for me and we could ride together for the rest of the trip. I was cold and wet and miserable, and desperate to see him. I finally rolled into Brattleboro at around 7 AM, and he had left already. The volunteers said he had waited around, but decided he couldn’t wait any longer and had left. But I did see Spencer and some other riders who had slept in Brattleboro and were just leaving. Kevin Main, who was working at the control, stuffed hot food and coffee into my hands and I sat huddled in the corner trying to eat and get warm. Finally I was talked into taking a hot shower to get warm before heading back out again. Elizabeth Wick saw me standing around the shower waiting for it to be free, and took me into her room to shower and warm up. By the time I was done, the volunteers were desperate to get me out of there so I could make it to Bullard Farm in time.

Mount Pisgah was a long, laborious grind, and my tendons were getting more and more unhappy, so I walked some good chunks of it. It was still wet and misty, but wasn’t pouring torrentially anymore. At long last, the sun came out and the weather warmed up. Then I realized that I’d forgotten my reflective gear back in Brattleboro; I would have to make it back to Newton by 8 instead of by 10, but I was happy for the motivation to get the ride over with.

It was beautiful and sunny when I rolled into Bullard Farm. I ate some cookies and milk and talked to Charlene and Rowan, two riders whom I had known online for a long time but met in person on the BMB. I didn’t stay too long, and left the control with Pat, the other fixie. My tendons were feeling even worse after the break, and I had various other assorted aches and pains from compensating for them. I yelled some of the time, and I belted out “Summertime” some of the time. I made up new words, which went:

“Summertime, and the cycling is easy,
Pedals spinning, and your speed is high.
Well, your legs feel fresh, there’s a-nothin’ can stop you
from watching the wide world rolling by.”

In Sterling, there was a convenience store with a whole bunch of bikes parked outside, including both other fixed gears. I stopped and had a couple of ice cream sandwiches and refilled on water. It looked like I would probably arrive at around 6:30. I finally shoved off from the convenience store for that last stretch home. Route 62 is one of my least favorite roads, and it seemed to go on forever. My tendons were aching, and I even took my feet out of the pedals on some of the descents to give them some relief. As I got into Weston, a woman rode up next to me and started a conversation. She recognized my jersey because she was a friend of my team manager’s. She was out on a training ride and going much faster than I really wanted to, but I worked to stay with her tendons and all, because I knew that extra speed would get me back to the hotel sooner. Finally she dropped me as I slowed down to look at my cuesheet and not miss any turns so close to the end… but by then I was almost there. I rode into the parking lot to a big cheer and Jake’s big smile waiting for me.

Kent Peterson, who is known for all kinds of long rides by fixed gear, took a geared bike when he rode BMB because he compared doing it on a fixed gear to crossing the Sahara in a snowmobile suit. Sure, it was possible… but why would you do that???

I am proud of having finished BMB on a fixed gear bike, but I said when I finished that next time I’d be using gears. A couple of days after the fact, I’m now saying that I’d like to do it with gears at some point… but maybe I’d do it again fixed sometime too. There were definitely times when it had its advantages, although it really does slow you down. I was overall happy with the gear I used. That’s no surprise since it’s the same one I always use and have been happy with for the whole brevet series and the Furnace Creek 508, but if I were going to change it I don’t know whether I’d go up or down. So if I can’t decide between gearing up (nice for descents, but the climbs would suck more) and down (nice for climbs, but the descents would really suck), then 42X16 must be a pretty good choice.

The whole ride was big and epic, which is what I love most about long distance cycling. The scenery was beautiful, and the checkpoints were run smoothly. It was a great event, which I hope to be able to ride again!

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