Wonderful Memories

The following pieces capture three of the innumerable wonderful experiences that I have had as an adult riding my bicycle with friends. I savor these memories and hope to be lucky enough to repeat them.

There is not a scintilla of political, economic or social theory in these pieces, so they go into the “Fun Stuff” category.

1. Letter to PMC contributors, August, 2001

Thank you so much for your generous contribution to the cause of cancer research through the Jimmy Fund at Dana Farber Cancer Institute. Many of us have had a loved one suffer from cancer, but far from all of us try to do something about it. I’m sure you know as well as I do that lots of progress has been made against many kinds of cancer; in some part this progress is because of the generosity of people like you.

I am very, very conscious that although the riders in the Pan Mass Challenge are treated like heroes, the real heroes are those who open their wallets to fund the Jimmy Fund. This year, the PMC’s supporters gave $12 million to the Jimmy Fund.

Thank you.

This year’s Pan Mass Challenge was surely one of the most memorable events of my life. For the rest of this note, I will ignore the noble, charitable impulses behind the event, and focus on the competitive, athletic elements of the first of the two days.

The first day is ridden very seriously by a few hundred of the thousands of PMC riders. The fast riders are segregated at the front on the starting line, there is an official start and a finish line 112 miles away (it was supposed to be 106 miles, but I’ll get to that). Given these circumstances, it would be contrary to human nature to not see it as a race; and many participants certainly view it as such.

As many of you know, as in the past, I helped organize a team this year consisting of Walid, Carl, Jay, Doug and myself. Our goal was for Walid to win. I am thrilled to tell you that he did indeed cross the line first, and how the race developed makes for a heck of a story.

It was a hot, rainy morning with a 6:00 am start for the 1800 riders who started from Sturbridge. The route, as in prior years, could be summarized as forty miles of hills followed by sixty-six miles of flatland. This year, however, the organizers had made changes to the route, which meant that the course actually proved to be 112 miles rather than the advertised 106.

We started in a mad rush for the front, hoping to avoid the crash danger of riding with hundreds of slower, less experienced cyclists. The rain started at about mile ten. I kept myself in about the fifteenth position – gaining the full benefit of the draft, unaware of how big the emerging lead pack was. Carl, Walid, Doug and Jay were all with me. The pace was about 22 mph.

By mile 30 the lead pack was well defined, consisting of perhaps 90 riders. Each hill culled the pack, leaving it thinner and better organized. At about this time, Doug and Jay fell off the pace in the hills and were left behind. (For those of you who are non-cyclists, be aware that because of the drafting effect, membership in the lead pack is richly rewarding – it takes perhaps 30% less effort to go at a given speed when one is following a leader. What this means is that once you fall behind, you tend to be quickly left far, far behind because you’ve lost the protection of the pack).

It was pouring rain, and I found the descents on wet roads terrifying.

By mile forty and the end of the big hills, the pack was down to 80 or so riders. We were not yet well organized, meaning we had not created an efficient paceline. At that point, Walid went off the front of the pack in a solo attack. This took guts, since it meant he might go 66 (or 72, actually) miles without the benefit of drafting. He got a gap, and kept on going. Our sag wagon driver later told us that the gap at one point reached four minutes.

The pack continued to thin out by attrition. By about mile fifty, it was down to about sixty riders, and it began to reformulate into an efficient paceline. This was bad news for Walid, because an efficient paceline can always go faster than a solo rider, due to the work-sharing effect. Carl did his best to slow down the pack by riding erratically as a means of upsetting other riders’ rhythms. I tried to discourage the chase group/pack by telling everybody that Walid was a pro just back from racing in France. This wasn’t strictly accurate, but it bore some relation to reality.

A media car was frequently alongside the lead pack with a camera and mike. This drove me nuts, as I was scared of crashes.

Over the next forty miles we were really flying – averaging perhaps 24 mph (close to Tour de France averages). One by one, or sometimes in pairs, riders became exhausted and dropped off the back. As I began to really tire, about mile eighty, I kept telling myself that it would only hurt worse if I got dropped and had to ride alone. The pack had then shrunk to about 15.

Meanwhile, off the front, Walid was losing time. His lead was dropping steadily, as measured (and reported to him) by our sag wagon driver. He barfed three times while on the solo breakaway and made a strategic decision to stop, relieve himself and wait for the pack at mile 96. He figured it would be better to have something left when he was caught.

When I saw Walid waiting for us at 96, I assumed he was toast. Usually, when somebody gets caught, he is mentally a broken man. Walid did his best to appear beaten to others, but he spoke with Carl and smiled at me. I was struggling ceaselessly to stay within drafting range of whichever wheel was right in front of mine, and hoping to last to the finish line. If I could make it to the final few hundred yards, perhaps I could summon the strength to participate in the sprint.

I stayed with the leaders until about mile 108, at which point I was surprised and miffed that the damn thing wasn’t over. At that point, I got dropped by being the last (and scaredest) guy going around a wet corner. When I came around cautiously I found myself five or six bike lengths back and I didn’t have the strength for an unexpected chase. I coasted home alone at about 21 mph, crossing the line at 10:57 AM. 112 miles in 4:57, a 22.7 mph average. I would have preferred to have seen the sprint of course, but I can’t complain.

Meanwhile, after the leaders left me, Carl played a crucial (and well thought-out) role in helping Walid take the sprint. With a half mile to go he led out the sprint, causing a furious reaction from three of our strongest competitors. As they chased Carl, Walid positioned himself perfectly. He attacked last, coming around and gaining four or five bike lengths at the finish.

The results: Walid, 1st (4:55); Carl 5th (same time); me 10th (4:57); Jay 14th (5:25); Doug (about 40th) (about 5:45).

2. Cleveland-Boston Notes, 2002

(Brief, daily emails to friends who had contributed to a research cause on behalf of which we rode from Cleveland to Boston in six days).

June 17, 2002 Dear Friends:

I am writing from a hotel in Dunkirk, NY, where we arrived after cycling 127 miles today.

We began the day in Mentor, OH, and followed rte. 20 all day along the southern contour of Lake Erie, about three miles from the coast. Perhaps 45 miles of the way were in OH, 45 in PA and the rest in NY. We found the state line designations to be surprisingly meaningful. The OH portion was tired and post industrial in character. PA was nicer right from the start, and much more rural in character. When we crossed into NY we suddenly found ourselves passing many miles of beautiful vineyards, with a view of the seemingly endless lake to be seen over and beyond the vines. When a train passed alongside at one point, the whole scene reminded us of tapes of the Tour de France.

Those of you who are cyclists might be interested to know that today’s conditions were ludicrously perfect. The road was all but flat, we had a strong tail wind the whole way, and the weather was a warm, dry 65ish. These dreamlike conditions were responsible for the fact that Jay and I threw out all our plans for a restrained first day and set a pace for a rare sub 5-hour century, ultimately averaging 21 mph the whole way. Doubtless we will pay for our sins tomorrow.

June 18, 2002

Dear Friends:

I had a feeling that we had overdone it yesterday, but by no means did I anticipate just how different today would be.

We started a bit later this morning (7:00) in order to be able to be joined by two of the women runners, Margy and Liz, who had brought bicycles along as a means of breaking up the running routine. Unfortunately they only rode with us for an hour or so because Liz found the pace uncomfortable and Margy had trouble with her chain. They left Jay, Cindy and me at just the point when we began to find ourselves in rolling hills.

The scenery gradually became less bucolic, more suburban and hillier as we approached Buffalo. We kept to a very aggressive pace anyway, until we turned due east, and away from Lake Erie, just shy of the city. The topography took an immediate turn for the worse even as the scenery took a turn for the better.

About ten miles after turning due east, tired from this morning’s and yesterday’s exertions, we ran smack into four enormous ridges that the road went straight up and over. Our pace while climbing fell to seven or eight miles an hour, at which speed the cows alongside the road could give us looks of curiosity and pity. This was also the time when our sag wagon driver disappeared for an hour, leaving us out of water and nutrition.

With sixty miles to go before arriving in Rochester, we never really recovered from the stress to our systems caused by the ridges. A sore, tired, and slow group finally reached Rochester three and a half hours later.

Notwithstanding the difficulty of the day’s ride, it was a joy to see the countryside SW of Rochester. It’s full of beautiful, and prosperous looking farms. New barns and tractors, pretty farm houses and immaculate fields are framed by lovely hills. In the midst of these bucolic hills, incongruously, sits Attica Prison.

Tomorrow is the longest scheduled day, and my friend Jay will not be around to help since he has to work for the day. In my present state of fatigue and soreness, I dread it.

June 19, 2002

Dear Friends:

I wish I could focus my mental energy on describing the beautiful scenery we saw today while crossing the tops of the Finger Lakes. We saw fantastic old towns with immaculately restored 19th century mansions. We even met some people.

But I am too tired to share any real detail. We covered 144 miles today and I ran out of gas (bonked, in cycling parlance) at mile 92. The last 52 miles, which included 3 consecutive Bear Mountain sized climbs were a picturesque Hell to me. In 31 years of participating in competitive endurance sports, I had never seen the particular world of pain that I inhabited this afternoon. If I never go there again, it will be too soon.

Tomorrow should be much shorter and flatter. I hope to finish in good enough shape to relate some of the funny things that have happened to us and to the runners.

June 20, 2002

Dear Friends:

Today was much easier than yesterday: it was a mere 100 miles of rolling hills from the pristine college town of Hamilton to the less than sparkling town of Schenectady. Also, since my legs were still rubbery with weakness from yesterday’s disaster, I let my friend Jay do 100 percent of the work of leading. Rarely have I so shamelessly relied on others’ work.

Tomorrow is the last hard day: we will traverse the Berkshires. It is expected to be 90 degrees. I just pray that it’s less hard than yesterday.

The countryside was much less beautiful today: more run down farms than we had seen before, no genteel resorts. Tired towns losing population.

I’ve decided to write the anecdotes after we’re done.

June 21, 2002

Dear Friends:

Today we rode from Schenectady, NY to Northampton, MA. The terrain consisted of some long, long climbs, but they were not nearly as steep as the horrible climbs of the second and third days. Also, the route was much shorter at 100 miles. We departed at 6 AM to miss the worst of the day’s heat, which proved to be a great idea because by mid day the air was unbearably hot and thick. By then, we were on a twelve-mile descent into Northampton.

The countryside around here consists of woods rather than farms as in NY. The town of Northampton, home of Smith College, is large, and prosperous in a collegiate kind of way.

My cycling today was quite weak. I am amazed at how much damage I did to my legs in Wednesday’s fiasco. Over the last six or seven years Jay had only beaten me up a handful of hills: today both he and Cindy beat me up every one, and I had to rely on their infinite forbearance as to the pace. A good lesson for me in humility and manners.

June 22, 2002

Dear Friends:

By riding today from Northampton to Boston, we have concluded our participation in RunAmerica, so this will be my wrap-up note of observations and thanks.

Since my notes have been personal in nature, and we cyclists were generally far from the runners, I have neglected commenting on the runners in previous notes. Let me just say that their efforts in running every step of the way from Tillamook, Oregon to Fenway Park, Boston were nothing short of astounding. Two vans full of runners did relays and round robins from coast to coast, accompanied by Barry, in whose honor the research funds were raised. Most of the runners were academics, lawyers or students, as one would expect given that my law professor brother organized the event.  The oldest participant who went the whole route was a sixty-year-old former professor of my brother. The web of friendships that made this effort possible was something wonderful to witness and participate in, even if only for a week.

I had promised a few anecdotes:

When, on day two, we had just completed the huge ridges east of Buffalo and were heading toward Rochester we stopped at an Arby’s so Cindy could use a bathroom. I asked a lady who was approaching the restaurant how far it was to Rochester; she responded “Oh, about an hour, but I’m a cautious driver; maybe 45 minutes for you.” Then she looked at me harder and added: “It would take forever on a bike.”

As you will recall, on day three I suffered badly through the astoundingly hilly Finger Lakes region. The hills took everything out of me that there was to take, in part because the day was hot, hot, hot and there was no shade at all on the interminable climbs. After what proved to be the last of these hills we rolled into the hilltop town of Cazenovia, NY and I spied a beautiful lawn with shade provided by an enormous tree. My legs were seizing up with lactic acid and my concentration was shaky so I made the obvious choice and threw down my bike and body for a rest on the lawn. I was joined shortly thereafter by our concerned sag driver with cold Gatorade.

As I lay gasping for cooler air, an elderly lady carrying lawn chairs approached us from behind. Offering the chairs, she asked: “Would you fellows like to sit more comfortably? You could sit on my porch, but I don’t think there’s as much breeze.” I was astonished by her kindness, but declined the chairs since I didn’t want to move at all. She then paused and asked: “Would it be any comfort to you to know that lots of cyclists collapse on my lawn?” It was, indeed, a great comfort.

Other comments:

I have written about the varied sights among the many small towns through which we passed, but I have not yet written about the smells. Each area had its own air: I will remember the rich, earthy smells of farm country, the unbearable smell of new tar on hot roads and the distinct change to a smell of the distant salty sea in eastern Massachusetts.

A final observation about the roads themselves is that the older roads followed rivers, circumvented most hilltops and provided ample tree cover; the newer roads, designed for cars and trucks rather than horses and men, blast right up over the tops with twenty foot clear cuts on each side. These are the roads that caused us trouble, even while shortening our journey.

The northeast is a varied, interesting, and often beautiful place.

My warmest thanks for the support you all provided to the cause.

3. October 16, 2010

The following email to friends describes an astonishingly lucky opportunity.


Since I share race results even when humiliating (e.g., my Battenkill report this year), I am going to take the liberty to tell the story of a happy result in a “racelet” that took place yesterday. Not a real race, you understand; but a sharply defined sprint in the midst of a long ride.

This weekend Josh and I had the privilege of riding with two pros and numerous highly experienced racers. Among those with whom we were riding were: one of the top female racers in the USA, a pro male racer, a former masters champion, a coach and some friends who are extremely avid racers: Lewis, Greg, Mike, Dan, Lars, Walter, John, Michael, and roughly 20 other avid cyclists whom I didn’t know. All of the named riders are close friends and wild animals, and they are all are vastly stronger than I am, with the partial exception of Michael, whom I beat once in a while.

Anyway, yesterday we did a 51 mile ride, punctuated by a 6 mile sprint through a state forest – my favorite place to ride. The road follows a small river through the woods, winding and undulating every few hundred yards. It is enough of a descent so that solo average speeds can be 23-25 mph; but around many corners there are small rises that allow for moves to be made in race situations. It’s such a great place to go fast that every time I’ve done it with a group, we’ve put down the hammer. No traffic is expected.

The action begins:

I find myself in front as the road turns south and tilts downward. We are in a double paceline – Greg is to my right, a group of  twenty five (?) strong riders is in close formation. Greg and I accelerate to perhaps 27 and hold the lead for 60-80 seconds. I tell myself: this is not wise. I peel off the front and find a spot perhaps a dozen places back. Greg stays at the front; the coach takes my place. We all know that the gun has sounded.

The pace rises to 29. In front of me, the pack is very tight. I have no idea who is hanging on behind me. There are some rotations at the front. The topography and the corners make the pace exciting and a little terrifying.

After about a mile and a half, Dan attacks and gains maybe 50 yards on the front of the pack. I wonder: what the hell is Dan thinking? Two years ago he won the sprint on this road – but this crowd is ten times fiercer than that one. Amazingly, nobody chases, and Dan stays off the front for maybe a mile. We are going 29-30 on the slight descents/flats, 26 on the rises.

After 2 ½-3 miles Lewis  is fed up with waiting for somebody to chase Dan down. He attacks, and is followed by one other guy (I’m not sure who). I wonder: is this where the rest of us lose because the strongest three have gotten away? I can see all three guys who are out front. Lewis and the other guy are slowly, slowly catching Dan; the pack is still behind by maybe 30 yards. This goes on for a mile or so. We have maybe 2 miles to go.

Lewis and the other guy pass Dan; Dan doesn’t catch their wheels.

I start to lose it. My legs are on fire and a small gap – 5 yards  – opens up between me and the dozen or so guys in front of me. All I want to do is get back to the pack. I am now 7 yards back, and slipping. The (spectacular) woman professional racer passes me and I grab her wheel. She tows me back to the lead group while the lead group is slowly reeling Lewis and the other guy in.

I’m back on! Thank you! Meanwhile the pack is closing in on the two leaders. There’s only about a mile to go. Now it occurs to me: my advantage is that I’m the only rider (who I know to be up front, since I haven’t seen Michael or Lars) who knows exactly where the finish line is (i.e., where the road will end in a T with another state road). The finish is only a few hundred yards after an S curve, so it can’t be seen until the very end.

Lewis attacks again with maybe ¾ of a mile to go. He is swallowed up by the crowd after a few hundred yards. This is it.

Lars (another local who knows the finish line!) explodes past me. Barely daring to believe my luck, or that I will be able to hang on, I grab his wheel and thread my way through a narrow opening between others in the lead pack.  To my amazement, I am able to hold his wheel and I note (as we come around the first corner of the S curve) that Lars has created a break – 20 yards (? I’m not looking back!), so he and I are alone. There are only a few hundred yards left. Lars hammers all the way to the line, keeping us away. I pass him with maybe one yard to go.

It’ll never happen again.


M.H. Johnston 8/12/13


P.S. (a/0 12/30/15): I intend to ride my bicycle from Los Angeles to New York beginning on April 12th; I will post about the adventure daily.


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