The conversation went as follows:
Whit: “Dude.. What are you doing?”
Whit: “You need to get up right now. GET. UP.”
Whit: “Eat this.”
Me: “I don’t like gels. Got any cookies?”
We were roughly 112km in to our 200km mile fat bike journey and there I was asleep on the side of the trail. The memory of how I ended up asleep on a rough patch of frozen grass alongside the D&L Canal Path is a bit clearer now than it was on Saturday afternoon, but the thought process that put me there isn’t.
The day started off like a normal ride/race day. We rolled up to Washington’s Crossing National (?) Park way too early and realized we were the first of the riders to arrive. Jim and the Hilltop crew were setting up the main race tent and seemed a bit busy so we drove the minivan over to an adjacent parking lot, cranked the heat, and waited with nervous anticipation.
One by one, riders were arriving. Whit and I hopped out of the van and started unloading our bikes and gear. I curiously scanned the parking lot for signs of life. I was also interested in seeing how other people had set-up their bikes for the day. Considering this was the first of it’s kind – that is, the first fat bike ONLY event – on the east coast, I was hoping to learn a thing or two by what others had packed for their 200km adventure. Some were setup for a full-on expedition, with every bag imaginable strapped to their bikes, while others were running lean with only a couple of bottles and a simple bag or backpack. Some just stuffed their pockets with food, gear, gels, and whatever else they needed to get along for the day.
At around 7:45, we lined up at the starting line with 30 or so other intrepid souls for the first D&L Fat Epic. Our course for the day was simple – Ride along the canal path adjacent to the Delaware River, turn left at Easton and continue along the canal path until it reached the state park in Allentown, turn around and roll back. The race started and the pack was off – racing furiously toward the service road exit and onto the dirt canal path leading us North along the river. Whit and I were at a slight disadvantage – and I’ll put this on him.. his speed was limited to his top cadence. You see, Whit’s fat bike is a single speed with a 17T cog. This turned out to be a boon, as it kept our pace manageable at around 12-14mph for the day, and then 10-12mph in the evening when the sun dropped along with our collective spirits, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
We rolled from the front group to the back and settled in. Somewhere around the 32km mark we met up with Rob from Boston. He apologized for being a triathlete and we agreed not to hold that against him, as he set a nice pace and provided great conversation. We arrived at the first aid station (50km mark) and Whit took a few minutes to repair his ailing front tube, which had punctured a few clicks back. Just as we started back on the trail the first of the 1/2 distance riders were hitting their turnaround for the day. Yes, there was a shorter option but we’re not that bright.
We pressed on, riding through what seemed like an eternity of boggy mud and grass, eventually hitting a construction site on the trail, forcing us to dismount and hoof it along the ridge. This cost us a few minutes but provided a nice photo op.
The story isn’t very interesting from here to the half-way point. We rode, ate, chatted, rinse, repeat. As we traveled north the air got a bit wetter and the temperature a bit colder – I was glad I picked up a pair of 45NRTH Cobrafists from Bicycle Revolutions earlier in the week. Riding with lightweight fleece gloves and pogies was much better than having to deal with the bulk of soggy lobster mitts. If you haven’t ridden with pogies, get a pair.
We got to Easton and pressed on. Hitting the Bethlehem town line we started to see the lead group of 6 coming from the opposite direction – they were already 1-2 hrs ahead of us and were hauling like a freight train. This didn’t bother us, though. We had no visions of standing on the top step, or any podium step that day. Our goal was simply finishing the event.
Our group picked up another rider, Tim C. from Philly. He was riding a Surly didn’t seem to mind us blasting Kill Em All (which gives me a 10% wattage boost.. true story) from a bluetooth speaker. Arriving at the turnaround at the 100km mark we were a bit bummed to see lots of water but no food. While we were all prepared to carry more than we needed for the day, the empty boxes of gels disappointed us. I sat down and ate some macadamia nuts, drank a bit of water, changed my hat, and we got back on the trail.
This is where things got strange. Whit passed around his flask of Makers Mark and I took a short swig, passed the flask back to Rob and Tim, and then drifted to the rear of the group. I started riding slower and slower and the distance to my group went from a few bike lengths to 50 meters. I saw Whit drift to the back as if to wait for me, but I just stopped riding altogether. I laid my bike down on the side of the trail and sat down. A few minutes later, Whit arrived and found me asleep on the trailside.
Whit’s a good friend, the best, really. He had a look of pure panic in his face but kept cool – I think he was genuinely worried that I was beyond cracked with a long way to go and he was probably right. Over the past several weeks I have been experimenting with different ways to fuel my body during the day. This is a good experiment for winter riding when most of my riding is slow and steady and my burn rate is lower, so I didn’t think that it would be an issue on this journey. I thought wrong. Apparently, I was totally depleted and had no color in my face when Whit found me passed out. Thankfully he had the wherewithal to pump me full of gels (I really hate gels) and an Italian cookie, got me back on my bike and continued to watch me for the next few miles.
The color returned to my face and I felt great. That little bit of glucose was all I needed and we pressed on. We were now a duo – Rob and Tim kept rolling when Whit turned back for me. Our spirits were dampening and the daylight was getting dim as we drifted past Easton. Our goal of finishing was beginning to drag on and we kept hope alive that the promise of hot soup at the final aid station at the 136km mark would be a reality. When we got to the blocked path this time around, we simply hopped the fence.
Dusk had passed and our lights were on. We had a feeling the aid station wasn’t coming for a while and thankfully noticed a road side cafe somewhere north of Reiglerswhatever and stopped in. I picked up a week-old egg sandwich and Whit grabbed a hot dog.
A few miles later we were glad to have stopped. Apparently the pesky park rangers forced the final aid station to pack up early – no permit, no aid station. Pffft.
It was right around then that I received a text from Tom @ Hilltop asking about our progress. We checked in, he wished us well, and we pressed on. It was now a ride for survival.. We just wanted to finish, eat some fried chicken, and go home. Yeah – that’s how you know you’re knackered.. we started talking about food non-stop.
Whit and I rode single-file and I pulled at the front the rest of the way in. We stopped here and there for nature breaks, etc, but kept the pace steady. By the time we entered Frenchtown we were certain we had the Lanterne Rouge award locked up and figured we’d do our best to maintain that by riding at an easy pace. We actually saw Rob and another rider up the path and pulled over to give them some distance. Any hero can WIN a race, however, it takes a real moron to race for last place. That red trophy was going to be ours and we were going to ride as slow as possible to get it.
We passed Bulls Island, Stockton, New Hope, and eventually rolled into the park at Washington’s Crossing. The Hilltop crew was there and cheered us on as we crossed the line together, riders 21 and 22 – the Lanterne Rouge was ours. Whit and I ate pizza and relaxed for a bit before we packed up the minivan and headed back to Hopewell.
Whit stopped by the next morning and we took another photo. We look terrible.
My haunches still ache, my bike needs to be cleaned, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Thanks to Whit for being a great friend and riding partner. And thanks to Jim Vreeland and the Hilltop Bicycles gang for putting this thing together. Can’t wait to see what they cook up next.
EPILOGUE: Oh.. and the passing out thing. Whit was concerned that I might have a sugar issue (my father is diabetic) and tested my blood sugar on Sunday night (he’s got the sugarbetes and knows a thing or two). All fine, but I’m going to have a chat with my doc just to play it safe.