Our own Kelly Smith and Mary Crawley teamed up to ride the New Jersey 600K in early June. Kelly has written up a story about their record-setting ride.
N.J. Randonneurs’ Englewood 600K Brevet
June 7-8, 2007
by Kelly Smith
After completing our club brevet series, I wanted to try something scenic and difficult outside the D.C. area. My tandem teammate, Mary Crawley, suggested an event that I’d been considering too: the New Jersey Randonneurs Englewood 600k, on the weekend of July 7 and 8. At first, I thought work would prevent my riding this brevet, but fortunately, that conflict disappeared. Since I wouldn’t need to be very functional early the next week, we decided to go for it.
The route starts in Englewood, New Jersey, right across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, and heads up the Hudson River into central New York. There it loops across a large section of the Catskills and Adirondacks, returning down the Hudson again by a different route that retraces only a very short section of the outbound leg. I’d never been to this part of the country before, and was curious to see some places I’d only heard about.
I left Fairfax Friday after lunch to drive up to Mary’s house in Villanova, PA. I was fortunate to encounter light traffic, arriving in Villanova by 3:30. Off we went to the Big City, but Friday afternoon traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike delayed our arrival in Englewood until about 6 p.m. There we met Mary’s friends Nate Morgenstern and Cyndi Steiner for dinner at the Bennigan’s across from the hotel (after a few loops around town, NJ streets are different, more to follow).
That was a lot of fun for me, since Nate is also a member of the Mary Crawley Tandem Team and I’ve often heard of his exploits.
The hotel was a Crown Plaza, a far cry from the Warrenton HoJos, or even our beloved Middleton Super 8. We were on the 7th floor, which was a concern until we casually rolled the machine through the polished granite and brass lobby into the ‘tandem‑sized’ elevator to be whisked effortlessly aloft. On the negative side, the room had no fridge or microwave; I guess their usual clientele uses room service!
Neither of us had packed breakfast, so we headed out to pick up some food. This became a comedy of errors, since NJ towns in this area and of the era (40’s?) are laid out quite differently than the suburban sprawl I’m used to. We hopped on Route 4, the street we’d come in on, but nothing faced it. We could see store lights down some of the cross streets but only when it was too late to make a turn. Mary called her husband, Alan, who had family in the area and he helpfully pointed out that we “were on a limited access road, what do you expect?” So, we bailed from Route 4 and began to wander around aimlessly. The area near Englewood is mostly residential, very pretty older homes and traditional little downtowns from the original villages here and there. Unfortunately, none of these seemed to have anything open that sold food. We finally asked directions and found a CVS where we got some tasty junk that didn’t need to be refrigerated.
Weather was the next issue. I’d been checking the forecasts and they were all over the map, so to speak. One day they predicted nice weather and the next day, storms and heat. The Weather Channel was not helpful, giving us quick glimpses of maps for the entire Northeast, interspersed with bad pseudo‑documentaries. Another quick call to Mary’s house got the info, and it was somewhat alarming: mid 90’s for Sunday. Yikes! Not sure why I bothered checking the forecast, since I just jammed everything into my drop bag anyway.
The start was at 5 am, featuring the usual hectic scuttling around the room, then meeting the group in the parking lot. The temperatures were in the low 60’s. There were 39 riders signed up, and 36 starters, I believe. This surprised me since there were lots fewer last year, from what I heard. I liked the idea of a bigger group, especially in an area I did not know at all.
We didn’t check the official clock, so Mary and I were caught by surprise when the field began to roll out. In the empty, broad streets it wasn’t a problem to chase down the group and we rolled together through beautiful neighborhoods of Tenafly, Palisades, Piermont, Nyack, and Haverstraw. The first real hill split the group but over the next 5 miles or so we pulled the second group up to close the gap. The fastest couple of fellows were away by then, and we soon hit more climbs that put us off the back of the pack. We rode by ourselves over the beautiful Bear Mountain Bridge and past West Point to the first controlle, staffed by volunteers at about mile 55.
The second stage took us past Vassar College and through Rhinebeck, more pretty, prosperous areas. You could tell that there has been a lot of money in New York for a long time! We hadn’t been ready to eat at the first control, so we stopped at a sub shop in one of the pretty little towns, maybe Clermont. Leaving the sub shop, we met three fellows, including Grant Cornett on a beautiful Kirk fixed gear ‑ a FIXED GEAR! We chatted a while, and as we rode along I could see that he had a gorgeous rig: Berthoud bag, Brooks saddle, Schmidt lighting, and varnished bar tape. But how he would get over the mountains, I just could not imagine.
Along this section, we passed through the campus of Bard College, home of Bob Olson, with whom we rode for a while later that day. We re-crossed the Hudson on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, which featured another dramatic view, and reached the second control at mile 120, Catskill, New York. The Catskill control was at a great pizza place, which would have been right at home on our D.C. rides. Mary and I each had a couple of slices and refilled our bottles in anticipation of the first noted climb, Hain’s Falls. The miles leading to this were shady and pleasant riding, but we noticed steady gentle grades and then moderate climbs that made us wonder when ‘the climb’ began. We entered the Hain’s Falls Park and the question was settled.
The RBA had described Hain’s Falls as 5 miles of an 8% grade. This seemed about right. The road had been recently repaved, but was narrow and twisting. We saw many signs saying “no shoulder,” with cars parked along the no shoulder. There were also hikers in the street and traffic going both ways. The climb somewhat resembled Hogback heading north on Skyline, on a holiday weekend perhaps. We got in a rhythm and climbed steadily; enjoying the encouragement from the hikers we passed. One fellow rider passed us and disappeared, never sitting down while we could see him. At the top was an information control, which allowed me to get my heart rate and breathing settled down some. Grant (fixed gear guy) and friends overtook us here, so he had tackled the first big climb OK.
The next section was very pretty and easy going with gentle downgrades or flats in deep valleys. We took a bathroom break and one of the many motorcyclists out for the weekend complimented me on the bike, which pleasantly surprised me. From here to the control in Phoenicia we were feeling pretty good, but dreading climbing out of this deep valley. The Phoenicia control at mile 151, was at a supermarket where we met Bob and Bill Olson, Sebastian Maurer, Jonathan Levitt, Stuart Stiffey, and several others. The cue sheet made it clear this was the dinner stop: “Eat here! There is nothing beyond!” We had tasty takeout burritos from a Mexican restaurant down the street, and girded ourselves for the biggest climb of the event: Slide Mountain. At 4200 feet, it’s the highest peak in the Catskills. We had been told that the climb was 1.5 miles at 15%. Rather daunting, to say the least.
At this point I was still dreaming of a 9 or 9:30 arrival at the sleep stop, but my body was saying “it ain’t happening”.
From Phoenicia, the route climbed easily on quiet roads. We had been told where Slide Mountain was, and we were pleasantly surprised as we apparently tackled it without too much drama. Ha! We rounded a turn and the road tipped up like the roof of a house! It had been described as a ‘stair step’ climb, and it was as steep as a staircase. We had just caught up with Sebastian and we suffered through the climb together. This was maximum effort climbing. Fortunately the grade varied somewhat; we’d give it all we had for a few hundred yards, and then it would ease to only very, very hard. Sebastian teased us that Mary wasn’t breaking a sweat and it fired her up to provide an extra boost when I was about to pop. We met a jogger who just laughed at us, and a backpacker who I advised to rope up for the descent. We made it to the summit, and caught our breath on a nice downhill into a beautiful valley. The next section was mostly flat or downgrade and was a treat after such a struggle. Due to the climbing, my left knee began to twinge beneath the kneecap, which was new for me. It wasn’t bad but with half the ride to go, I was worried that it would get worse. One disadvantage of a tandem is that anything that forces you to abandon takes your teammate out too, and I really did not want that to happen.
A missed turn and a short steep section separated us from Sebastian, but soon we were passed by the Grant and friends again. An enormous descent just at dusk caught us up to them again and I had a chance to see him tackle a steep pitch on the fixee. He stood, spinning quickly, then looped to the left and right several times. This wasn’t grinding zigzags like I’ve done before but almost acrobatic as he tossed the bike back and forth, keeping his cadence up. It was very impressive and though I don’t see how one could keep it up for a long climb obviously he did.
Making our way toward the sleep stop at mile 215 in the town of Liberty, New York, the last miles of the evening were a little frustrating, as we made many turns around the town. In our tired and confused state of mind, we just wanted to STOP! At one point we stopped to examine the cuesheet before what looked like a big descent. We’d been standing there scratching our heads a few minutes when a car passed and its lights picked out the sign for the next turn just ahead – doh! We did go through the pretty part of the town though; there were fireworks going off and several big backyard parties. There is a big Hasidic community in the Liberty area as well, and we passed many people walking home after Sabbath services as well as a lot of kids in a playground all dressed in old-fashioned clothing, the girls wearing turbans and dresses, the boys with payes, black pants and white shirts.
Finally we found the sleep control, a dreary HoJos (very like our Warrenton HoJos) at an interstate exit. We rolled in about 10:10, very happy to get off the bike. Mentally, I was pretty tired and had a hard time dealing with the details of checking in. A kid at the HoJos with his family was fascinated by the tandem and wanted to ask a million questions. Like most of us, I love to talk bikes, but not when I’m trying to go to bed in the middle of a 600k!
The sleep stop was manned by volunteers, who delivered sandwiches to the riders’ rooms for dinner (with drinks, fruit, dessert, the whole deal!). This was quite a time-saver. They also delivered breakfast to your room, at your requested wakeup time. Very nice! We debated when to get up (Mary was much more dedicated at the time than me, suggesting a 2 am departure, which I couldn’t face), and settled on 3:45 for a 4:30 start with some other folks. This helped me a lot the next day I think, since it allowed 4 1/2 hours of sleep to fortify me for the tough riding ahead (no espresso bars for a long way). We slept like logs and had breakfast delivered to the room like in the movies!
Surprise, when we went out to the lobby no one was there! Some misunderstanding meant the only people not on the road were DNFs. Yikes! This was a little disappointing but I wasn’t concerned, since we had 17 hours to ride the remaining 165 miles.
The first miles of the morning were rolling and it took a while to get warmed up. The dawn comes noticeably earlier there; you could see by 5. This was welcome because after passing the Neversink reservoir we came to a couple of big descents. They would have been dicey in the dark. We rode along the Peekamoose River in a beautiful valley that looks like West Virginia, and then entered a very pretty park with several miles of easy climbing on a very narrow and recently rebuilt road. Apparently it washes away occasionally; you could see new stonework at the edge of the pavement. Here Margaret and Monty Green overtook us and we chatted about the great morning. She mentioned the cutoff for the next control was about 9:30 a.m., and a bit of panic went through my mind. I hadn’t thought about the intermediate cutoffs, only the overall. We should have enough time but what if we hit some climbing that slowed us way down? I’d been taking it pretty easy (Mary had suggested upshifting at one point, saying she could work harder, never call me a slave driver!) but began to pick it up, keeping us with the Greens. If we didn’t make this control we’d be out of it with 110 miles to go!! Mary would kill me; I’d be cut from the Mary Crawley Tandem Team! I’d never worried about cutoffs on our local rides and had gotten careless. Up to now we were ‘winning the brevet!'(Tandem Division), couldn’t blow it now.
Soon we began a twisty downhill through the woods, with a bit of excitement when we hit 1/4 mile or so of dirt in the middle of the descent. From there to the Hurley control, it was great tandem riding through a valley of farms, and we made it there, mile 266, at 8:05 a.m., with almost an hour and a half in hand, whew! Four or five riders were there, and volunteer Althea Pineda with homemade pastry (she had been there since 11pm in case the fastest riders rode through!). It was getting warm so we loaded our Camelbaks with ice and headed out with a bagel egg sandwich in my pocket for later. We had a few more easy miles then the last ‘featured’ climb loomed ‑ Mohonk Mountain.
Mohonk started as fairly easygoing, then took a hairpin turn and entered the trees, getting steeper but still fun. Another hairpin took us out of the trees and onto a serious grade. It was described as 15% and I’d say it was every bit of that. Too steep to stand, just grind as hard as we could and hope to not fall over. We had the rare treat of passing a couple folks there who didn’t have our winch gears, and we made it to the top. From there the route descends into pretty farmland, but this was the worst part of the ride for me.
We’d made it over the mountain, but it took everything out of me. The section after Mohonk Mountain seemed to have no breeze and the heat was becoming oppressive. My bottom was killing me, and my knee was acting up again so both sitting and standing hurt. Mary had to have been alarmed since I was moaning and groaning every time I moved. We stopped while I used the last Chamois Butt’r pack which began to help, and my knee settled down, but the heat did not. My Camelbak was almost dry when we spotted a store with an ice machine and immediately pulled in. Mordecai Silver was already there, and Margaret and Monty Green joined shortly. They had been ahead of us but had apparently stopped on the roadside for a spell. Ice was loaded into bottles and camelbacks, and we all lamented not bringing tube socks (they called themselves a general store, but no socks were available). The store didn’t have Gatorade so I put a mixture of Lipton White Iced Tea and Mountain Dew in my Camelbak ‑ let’s just say you don’t want to do that!
From here we entered some mercifully shady stretches and the breeze returned until the control at the Chester McDonald’s, mile 319. We arrived there at about 2 p.m., and I’ve never been so happy to see the Golden Arches in my life! Milkshake, iced coffee, coke, Big Mac (first in probably 20 years!) and fries ‑ yum!! The party room had been reserved so we settled into the little Ronald McDonald chairs and relaxed. We now had 2 hours in hand and I was feeling confident we’d finish in time, if not in comfort. Locals were discussing the next stage, only 38 miles, which I had been avoiding thinking about. It was described as ‘serious climbing’ but I had somehow convinced myself that that couldn’t be true. My mistake; we rolled out into the furnace heat and almost immediately were in the granny gear grinding up an exposed hill. This continued for miles until we came to a desperately needed stretch of shady flats. We stopped with Larry Powers and Stuart Stiffey from whom I begged some Assos crème (which worked wonders, thanks Stuart!).
From here, we entered Harriman State Park, which was shadier but featured more relentless climbs, some steep. This is a beautiful area, with winding roads overlooking many lakes in fern-filled woods. However, it was also packed with cars! I wondered about this for a while, and then realized we were only about 30 highway miles from New York City and probably 15 million people!! At one of the largest lakes we looked across and saw a big beach, every inch of which was covered with people. There were thousands! We agreed we had to get out of the park before they all hit the road-lol. Generally people were polite, though distracted, and we had to dodge a car or two. Scarier were the motorcycles: there were lots of the ‘café racer’ types out, including one fellow who was trying to put his knee down in one of the tight turns. He didn’t have enough room for that, and had to pop up quickly, crossing the centerline and weaving. We talked about this nutcase for a while, and a short time later met police cars racing by with lights and sirens going. We immediately thought of that guy; we heard later that a motorcyclist had hit a guardrail and had a fatal accident.
At around 5:30 p.m., we staggered into the last control, at mile 357 in Congers, New York. Actually, we met it on the road, so to speak, as a van full of volunteers stopped us to say that the restaurant was closed and the time stamp waived. The volunteers bless them; found us an ice‑cream shop and deli across the street, which allowed us to take a desperately needed rest. An iced coffee and turkey sub worked wonders, plus more ice to dilute the nasty brew in my Camelbak.
From Congers, the route was familiar from the ride out. Only one more climb, which was more an aggravation than a major challenge. The last miles included a beautiful descent through old neighborhoods, views of the Tappan Zee Bridge, gorgeous streets in Piermont and Nyack, and lots of turns at the very end when we were mentally already done. Finally we rolled in to the hotel at 8:08 p.m. for just over 39 hours out. Since this was not a BRM event we had an extra 38 minutes, I believe, so we had about 1 1/2 hrs in hand at the end. Stuart and Larry finished with us, and Mordecai and Goon Koch just after (Mordecai and Goon had been caught by the road closing in Harriman State Park, due to the motorcycle crash). I found out Grant on the fixed gear and his friends had finished in a little under 38 hours, an impressive feat. He reported that he didn’t have to walk (!) but did question himself at one point whether bringing the fixed gear for this ride was the right thing to do. Hmm, I wonder?
Both on Sunday and after the ride, Mary and I talked a lot about our start time Sunday morning. Since Sunday’s ride was so long, we could not have avoided the heat unless we rode through, and I wasn’t ready to do that. We could have started maybe 1 1/2 hrs earlier, at 3 a.m., but the dark would have cost us time in the tricky roads and descents near the overnight, so it would have only saved an hour or less overall. We would also have missed the scenery, and that was a big part of why I went. On balance, we had enough time and the sleep helped me out.
At the finish in Englewood the RBA had a hotel room for showers (thanks Laurent!), we cleaned up and chatted a while, then drove back to Mary’s house. The drive back to Pennsylvania was a little tough, but we were both so wound up from the ride that it was fun. Mary’s family kindly put me up and Mary invited me to breakfast Monday. After breakfast, I drove back home to Virginia and collapsed in bed the rest of the day.
So, a success! I believe we now hold the Tandem Class course record (by virtue of being the only tandem so far!), but the bar isn’t too high. I recommend some of our other teams go up next year and take a shot at it.