Sunday, December 8, 2013

1974: First Double Century

The patch says it all.
There is just something about the eternal optimism of youth. After barely a year and half of cycling, and just a couple of months after my first one day hundred mile ride, I was ready to take on 200 miles in a single day. To be precise, it would be 200 miles in under 24 hours, but under the League of American Wheelman (now Bicyclists) “rules”, a century had to be completed in 12 hours, so a double could be completed in 24.

The ride was the Cloverleaf Double Century, hosted by the Jackson Freewheelers of Jackson Michigan, my first bike club. I have written of them before. The Cloverleaf and the Freewheelers are no more, but they were both a big part of those early summers that cemented my love of bicycling. I journaled most of this ride in the weeks and months after the ride, recording miles immediately, and then recollections in detail later. August of 1974 was quite a month.

The ride was called the Cloverleaf because it was four different 50-mile loops, originated form a community college campus a few miles south of Jackson. To add to the challenge, the ride actually started at Noon, to force you to ride at least one loop at night. The ride was also in mid-August, so we didn’t even have the advantage of a long summer day in Michigan. When you consider the precautions most organized rides take with night riding today, you are reminded it was a simpler time.

I drove to the start of the ride with John Whitehead, the other crazy cyclist in my high school. Since I was not yet 18, John was my in loco parentis for this ride, as he would be in a few weeks on my first DALMAC, a 4-day bicycle tour over Labor Day. He also brought along the tent we would be using on DALMAC, and this would be the first night I tried sleeping in tent, if, and when, a chance to sleep came.

We unpacked our bikes and finished signing up and started the first loop just a few minutes after noon. There were about 200 riders heading out in a soft mass start, and we were riding somewhere between the fast wool and leather helmets (this a few years before lycra) and ahead of the T-shirt and cut-off jeans riders. That summer I had my first pair of cycling shorts and a jersey, both polyester, and with a leather chamois in the shorts. I had a pair of black leather cycling shoes, and had even found some cleats to nail to the soles, cobbling one of the unexpected skills I had picked-up that summer

In the first 10 miles after leaving the college, we settled in with a group of about 15 riders, but it turned into a comedy of sorts for a couple of minutes. Three riders about my age in the front decided to start handing back and forth items from their seat bags, re-arranging who was carrying their spare tubes and tools. (I am not making this up!) By then, we had a couple of cars backing up behind us, and some of the riders starting yelling for the threesome to get out the way. That is when a fast group of riders coming from behind stated passing the cars behind our group. Finally, after some yelling and honking, one of the threesome finally dropped something, and then they all pulled off to the side of the road, and we were moving along again.

I would latter have my own little traveling fiasco, as one of the sandwich bags I had carefully filled with trail mix before the ride proceeded to split open when I tried to open it while riding, dropping raisins, nuts and M&Ms into my front wheel and fountaining them in the air. After that, I left them in my pocket, or only ate at stops.

John and I rode the first 50 together, finishing in about 3 /12 hours, but I was feeling better then him at the end. I headed out after about an hour of snacking and making sure the tent was up, but he decided to rest longer. I was on the road by 4:30, for the next 50 miles. This loop was pretty uneventful, but I did talk to a hand full of riders from across the state, and few who going to be on DALMAC in two weeks.

I finished my first 100 for the day at 8 PM, just before before sunset. I ate more food, and started getting myself and my bike ready for the night loop. I had two French-made Wonder lights, a flat while plastic flashlight that used these weird, flat batteries about the the size of 3 AA cells, for a 4.5 volt flashlight. About the only thing notable about them, other than their being French, was that they were designed for bicycling, and they had adjustable clamps that could be fit around handlebars to point the lights. They put a small puddle of light about 2 feet in diameter and 10 feet in front of your wheel on the road in front of you.

The Freewheeler Club patch.
I also had a leg light, which was another French made, plastic flashlight that strapped to your leg below the knee, with a single bulb lighting a clear lens facing forward forward and red facing back, all powered by two C-cells. Besides that, I had an oversize truck reflectors bolted on my bikes rear rack. This was state of the art bicycle lighting for 1974. I saw another rider who had a home-built 12-volt system (but it only lasted about 25 miles). Other riders were using generators lights, but I was above average in having two headlights and some extra batteries, but more on that later.

I set out at 10 PM, adding a sweat shirt and sweat pants, (both dark blue, of course) over my jersey and shorts. I did have white tube socks on. (No mention of any helmet in my journal, which I think is still a year off at this point.) There were Dan Henry’s painted in the road, and I knew some, but not all of the roads we were on.

I rode the first 25 miles to the half way food stop with two Dave’s, one who had 12-volt generator that had enough light for all 3 of us, so I was able to only run one of my Wonder lights. Even with that, we added two miles when we missed a turn, and were only averaging about 10 miles an hour at best, arriving at the halfway point about 1 AM. Progress was slow as you stopped at every intersection to check the road signs and maps before moving on.

At one point, one Dave began to tell the other Dave that once you rode over 12 hours, it was obvious you would be in pain and agony, and they discussed the aspects of this for next several miles. First, I wasn’t in any pain or agony; I was actually having the time of my life! Nor could I couldn’t understand why anyone would continue to do something they felt would cause pain and agony. We also encountered another rider who had missed turn and ridden into a pond, but had somehow managed not to drown, and recover his bike and continue riding

While Dave and Dave continue to carry on about pain and agony, I left the 25/125 mile stop on my own. This was in rural south east Michigan, on almost moonless night, 25 miles from Jackson, the nearest large urban area. I was riding past small lakes and marshes, on almost level terrain, with just my 1 or 2 small pools of light, and the yard lights of surrounding farms; with very few cars after 1 AM. That is when the riding took on an almost mystical quality or sitting motionless on bike, under a giant dark blue bowl that was slowly moving over my my head. I was also struck or the first time on how much light there under the stars on night like that. They were some truly magical moments of riding, and I have always enjoyed night riding since.

I was fortunate to still have lights and batteries at 40/140 miles after 2 AM, because that is when most of the battery lights began failing for the other riders. I came up on one group of 4 riders that were down to a single arm & leg light on their leader and no headlights, almost clipping the last rider while focused on my headlight and the light of the leader. I offered to guide them in, but they said they were doing fine.

I finally got back to the campus at 3:30 am and checked in at the control. I headed to my tent, and woke up John, who it turned out, had not left yet for his third loop. He headed out, and took over the tent to sleep. I slept until 6:30, and then after a peanut butter and banana sandwich (“a breakfast of champions” I wrote in my ride journal,) I was back on the road for the final 50 miles.

This loop was riding toward home, along all the familiar roads around Norvell, Fay Lake, on through Brooklyn, and past my high school. Along the way, I got to surprise my Mom and one of my younger brothers, who were covering my Sunday morning paper route in Brooklyn. After leaving Brooklyn, I even picked up with a pace line of 20 riders for a bit, something still new and rare for me.

I finished back the college about 10:30 AM, just under 4 hours for the last 50. My total time was just over 22 hours, with a riding time about 16 hours. All times were by wrist watch and peg cyclometer, there were no electronics to records distance or time. We packed up and headed home, where I slept and napped for almost 18 hours, only waking for dinner Sunday night.  I was back on my bike Monday, and continued riding and prepping for DALMAC, just  few weeks away.

I have ridden over a hundred and thirty centuries since, including a couple more one-day doubles and a couple of RAIN (168 miles) in the years since. The contrast between the preparation and gear of today with that long ago ride never escapes me. There was such a pure innocence and ignorance when I set off that afternoon; but the accomplishment and knowing of what I could do and experience on a bike has never left me.