Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The CRW Fall Metric Century

Signs and symbols, I love them.  And the most fascinating signs are those that are a completely mystery to most people, but totally understandable to those in the know.  Like this little symbol, painted on the side of a country road northwest of Boston:

Can't see it?  Here's a closer look at that tiny yellow speck on the right side, almost invisible to cars:

Does it point out some sort of utility pipe beneath the pavement?  Maybe it marks a future construction site?  If you look closely at roads, you'll see all sorts of strange markings you may not have noticed otherwise.

But in this case, the symbol represents something far more interesting.  It's a ride arrow!  In particular a right-turn ride arrow.  Thanks to that little guy, nearly 400 cyclists can depart a parking lot in rural Littleton, Massachusetts on a cool September morning...

...follow the arrows, and discover something like this 30 miles down the road...

...before returning back to Littleton for a late lunch.

Which is exactly what I did on Sunday, September 16th, when I rode the Charles River Wheelmen Fall Metric Century!  A "metric century" is 100 kilometers (62 miles), and this was my first ride as a CRW member.

The club offered three distance choices for their annual fall ride:

50 miles (half-century)
62 miles (metric-century, 100 kilometers)
100 miles (century)

All routes were quite hilly, but the 100-mile century seemed to verge on mountainous.  My longest previous "event" ride was the two-day, 150-mile MS Ride from Boston to Provincetown -- 75 miles each day.  So while I considered training to do the 100-mile century, I decided that the metric century (62 miles) was just right for me.

I packed my bike and supplies in the back of a bright red Zipcar SUV at 5:45 a.m. on that clear Sunday morning, stopped by my local Dunkin' Donuts to fuel up with an iced coffee and bagel, and then headed north to the ride start in Littleton.

Parking lot photos may not be all that interesting to most people...

...but I love these pre-ride moments.  There's something very gratifying about driving through the city in the pre-dawn darkness, arriving at the ride-start by first light, turning off the engine, taking the bike out of the hatchback, and then watching the parking lot transform into a mini bike festival.  There's a sense of both anticipation and calm in the air, with everyone excited about the ride ahead, but carefully conserving energy.

On this particular morning there was one more feeling among us as well ... a shared wonder that the weather could be so perfect for our big day.  It was chilly enough to wear a very light cycling jacket, but not so cold that the sun wouldn't warm the air later that morning.  It felt great.

Now, for huge charity rides all of the cyclists line up in a large pack, listen to some speeches, and then head out together with lots of fanfare.  But this CRW ride was a much more relaxed event, as most club rides are.  Registration lasted from 7:00 - 8:30, and once registered you could simply take off whenever you liked. 

So at 8:00 a.m., I pedaled out of the parking lot and followed the friendly little ride-arrows through 62 miles of beautiful late-summer New England scenery.

The ride wound its way into the towns of Ayer, Groton, and Pepperell, looped up into New Hampshire for a few miles, and then came back through Pepperell, and headed on to Westford, Carlisle, and Acton before arriving back in Littleton.  The church in the above photo is on the historic Pepperell village green, across from which sits the Town Hall.  It's such a common sight here in New England.

The landscape of the ride consisted of rolling hills the entire way, which to me is very pleasant -- and actually somewhat easier than a completely flat ride.  You can use the momentum from the gentle downhills to get up and over each uphill.  That's not to say there weren't some steep sections though.  Miles 10 through 20 had a number of steep inclines, as did the last 10 miles.  The final segment was really quite challenging, coming at the end of the ride.  But I felt good throughout, especially rolling into the rest stop around Mile 30:

Shortly after after departing the rest stop, cycling along some lovely roads, I thought to myself, "Wow, this is, like, the perfect ride!"

And it truly was.  I rode on small roads through dark woods, by old homes full of character, through quaint village centers, past amazing views of Mount Monadnock off in the distance, alongside picturesque farmlands, and even into a covered bridge.  While fairly rural, the route was definitely not out in the middle of nowhere.  There were houses along the road just about the entire way.  But as soon as the ride arrows led to a busier street, I'd come across an arrow about a hundred yards later leading me down some nearly-hidden wooded lane -- a real credit to the creativity and sensitivity of the event organizers.

By riding such an inspired route, I discovered that this otherwise well-populated area is really a fascinating warren of narrow and hilly roads, with well-lived-in homes set back deep in the woods.  Lining so many of both the wooded and more open country roads was that quintessential New England feature ... the old stone wall.

And then there was the loop into New Hampshire.  To be honest, I wasn't exactly sure where Massachusetts ended and New Hampshire began.  I was hoping for a big "Welcome to New Hampshire" sign, but the only clue I had that I'd left the Bay State were the New Hampshire license plates!

But that being said, there was something wonderfully different about New Hampshire.  The "Live Free or Die" state felt just a little more rural, a little more woodsy than the woods of Massachusetts.  New Hampshire is the home of the grand and somewhat terrifying Mount Washington, the awesome Franconia Notch, the Kancamagus Highway, and the mysterious Great North Woods.  Its rural character is wilder than that of Massachusetts and Vermont, which gives it a beauty that is truly unique in New England.  We only cycled in New Hampshire for a few miles on this ride, but somehow pedaling through that dark pine forest I could sense the magnificent natural beauty further upstate.

Those are the kinds of things you can only experience on a bicycle, where there's time for the surrounding scenery to mix with your memories.  A friend of mine once asked me, "what do you think about when you're riding for five hours straight?"  Honestly, I don't actively think much at all.  On a bicycle, new thoughts simply present themselves, seamlessly intermingling with the pine trees, red barns, stone walls, and rolling hills.

Throughout the entire ride, as if to remind us that this is magical cycling country, arrows of other annual rides would come in and out of view, often right beside our own...

I'm pretty sure that "M" symbol is from the MassBike Summer Century ride, and the "N" is the symbol for the Neshoba Valley Pedalers.  But the cycling hieroglyphics really got fun as the route wound through Westford.  Just look at this...

If you look closely, you can see our dark yellow Fall Century arrow toward the top of the photo, pointing straight ahead.  The MassBike ride "M" is there too.  And according to a great page on the Charles River Wheelmen website, also included on this little stretch of road are markers for the "A River Runs Through It" ride, the "Northern Exposure" ride, the "Tour de Cure", and my personal favorite...

The "Apple Pi" ride!  All of the other markings will remain a wonderful mystery for now (if you can identify them though, feel free to leave a comment!).  But I wouldn't be surprised if I find myself on this road again in the future, following another of these unique cycling shorthand symbols to new discoveries.

I rolled into the parking lot in Littleton about five hours after I began the metric century, experiencing the post-ride feeling I have grown to love: happily tired (but not so much that I couldn't have ridden a few more miles), and full of new memories, stories, and images that I knew would never leave me.  Once again, my love of New England was deepened, lived to the fullest on two wheels and some beautiful roads.  It was a great day.

To all the organizers at the Charles River Wheelmen club, thank you for a truly amazing ride!