Musings on Bicycling and Buddhism

Monday, May 14, 2012

Tales from the Road: Midnight Marathon Ride

Sometime last year I came across the blog of the inestimable Greg Hum, who had come up with the fantastic idea of starting something I came to learn as the Boston Marathon Midnight Bike Ride - in coordination with the Society of Sponateity.

I found out about this long after the fact and found myself overcome with the excitement to participate the very next time this came around.  So I put it on my calendar, and did what anyone would do  ~ kept riding my bike.

Months and adventures pass and the end of March approached and I asked myself, are you serious about this?  On a fixie, are you crazy?  I read as much about the previous years as possible, and informed all the bicycle-prone people in my life.  In the end I was joined by the Beard and Watson.  Beard on a single speed, Watson with gears and a mixte frame, and me with Charlie the fixie.

The forecast didn't explicitly say rain even though it was swampy humid.  We set off from 1369 in Central (thanks for caffeine, this ride was past my bedtime to say the least) and made for South Station.  Watson procured some commuter rail tickets for us along the way.

Not having biked to South Station myself, and being the designated leader of this little menagerie, we were most fortunate to run across the founder himself, Mr. Hum - and were able to follow his and his companion's lead to South Station.

Then we waited.....

....the station filled with bicycles and their humans.  Spandex clad with advanced equipment, rust buckets, mixtes, fixie whips, folding bikes, and even a few Hubways - in every color! Mardi Gras beads, glow lights....

... and we waited.

They called the train and we queued up and we waited.

The cars filled and people crowded in with bicycles....

Our car:

Some were neatly stacked, some thrown about.  And we waited.....

The train left more than 20 minutes late because they had to add another car, there were so many of us.  More than 600 I am told.  And the train ride commenced.  And so more waiting (or in my case a bit of a nap)...

And although I write "waiting" a lot, cyclists aren't the waiting type.  Waiting in this story means jokes, questions, exchanges, finding out things you never knew, admiring a stranger's bicycle, eating, and telling stories. So there is much more to these hours of the night than just waiting.  (Swapping tenses!)

Anticipation rises as we approach the Southborough stop.... people begin final checks on their bicycles and equipment, unfold from commuter rail resting positions.  Start to get ready to disembark.

And the train pulls up and the platform isn't long enough.  So half the train unloads and they move the train up.  We gather in the parking lot across from the train stop.  There are more of us than fit into it's confines.

A small undulating sea of blinking lights, the great mass of bicycles unseen in the darkness.

And then it begins to rain.

Mutterings of general contempt for the sky ensue.  The newbies are not prepared for this.

This is when you wish for fenders if you don't have them, and grin if you do.

We set off!  The writhing mass unsure of how to all fit under the train bridge on the road to the Marathon's starting line.  Our little menagerie is separated.  

The next miles to the starting line all seem to be uphill with no streetlamps.  The only visage upon the road is a constant stream of blinking bicycle lights reflected upon the wet road.  Looking ahead - a sea of red, looking behind, white shining.

For whatever reason some cyclists start singing, first this:

then this:

Both of which I know by heart, the later from what is, admittedly my favorite Disney film.

So it's not that strange to be in your mid-late-twenties and sing mildly obscure Disney songs at the top of your lungs in the middle of night whilst riding a bicycle in the dark with hundreds of people you've never met, right?

Uphill, uphill, passing each other here and there.  The tick-tick-tick of derailleurs hard at work, Charlie and I continue, pedal, pedal.  One large hill looms, streetlights emerge, have to stand up - for the first time wishing for gears.  Somehow it ends up feeling like a great big version of Prospect Hill back in Somerville - the steep bits anyway.  Many walking their bikes up.

At last we of the menagerie find each other.  We reach the starting line.  The rain continues but with less enthusiasm.

Then it's downhill.  Not some gentle lowgrade, but something kids with sleds dream of.  Beware of wet brakes ladies and gentlemen.

But I can't coast, choosing to do this fixie.  Bomb!  Legs spin round and round and round.  Apply resistance to pedals to achieve deceleration, don't want to waste the breaks on this one.  Watson and Beard go on ahead, I'm a bit over-cautious, these are some of the longest, swiftest downgrades I've ever navigated with Charlie as a fixie.

Eventually the rain stops.  Eventually the downhill is less intense.  I don't know how many miles it took, it was so exhilarating it goes by too fast.

Porta-potties provided, untouched, for your convenience along the way.  Really they are for tomorrow's crowds, but how often are they observed unsullied?

The miles continue.  When a car approaches from the front cries of "car!" flow through the throng, when from behind, "car back!".

The miles go on. The throng stretches out over miles as the paces stretch out by speed.  You can go for some time without another cyclist in sight. We pass well-known places, Wellesley College, much later Boston College.... but I get ahead of myself.

Framingham is our Skylla and Charybdis:  The commuter rail tracks cross the road on a curve.  The tracks are wet, the road is wet.  The rubber track liners, meant to ease the passage of car tires, with much larger contact patches, are too flexible, the rubber too slippery.  The first wave of cyclists, these people by no means beginners - take a hit, there are several severe falls, and badly damaged bicycles.  By the time we arrive there are police cars warning the oncoming bicycles, two ambulances, and a fire engine.  We dismount and walk across.  I later learn that over the course of the night these tracks claim their share of cyclist blood and bicycles.

As the miles continue we encounter bike drummers.  Drunken enthusiasts who wait outside their homes in these late hours to cheer us on and give us high-fives as the night wears on.  Folks with flat tires being aided by strangers. Every time we stop people going by never fail to ask "Are you ok?".  We ask the same to others.  Cliff bars save the day, and a bag of mixed nuts.

Never really register HeartBreak Hill, by that point legs are mush, have been pedaling the whole way, Charlie and I.  Have already biked twenty miles that day before we went to South Station.  Our menagerie is fatigued but determined.  We pass into more familiar parts of Boston.  We pass Superb Bicycle.  We come upon the final blocks, turn onto Boylston, and sprint down this multiple lane street toward the finish, down a road that is usually a taxi cab death trap for the uninitiated cyclist.

And under the finish line.

By this point it is 4am.

We got to South Station around 9.  The midnight train left late. We flew, then tired and slow.  It didn't matter, we made it.

A brief rest.  By the time everyone, wet pants and all, were safely cycled home, it's almost 5, and the new day is beginning.  I pass several cyclists headed down to do Hal's ride on my way home.  Maybe, when I'm faster, I'll do that one.

A great adventure, certainly worth all the wait.  A great thanks to the organizers and support volunteers. To the civil service individuals, police, firestation personnel, ambulance, and emergency services folks.  To the wonderful people who always asked, "Are you ok?".  To the people who stayed up all night to wave to a bunch of silly bikers.  To the people at the T and Commuter rail conductors.  The fine folks who pointed the way in the dark so we didn't get lost.  To the founders and all the intrepid folks who dared to do such a thing.

See you all next year?:)

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Tour de What You Will by Jessie Calkins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License