Ride Report: Intercity Express

WARNING: Since I know that cyclists of all experience levels read this page, I have to say this here. The Intercity ride is not for everyone. I am an experienced cyclist with about 50,000 miles on my legs, including extensive long distance, hot weather, and nighttime riding experience. If you try some of the things I mention below, you could be in a tough place. I'm not liable for your actions.

On June 7, 2008, I finally managed to ride from New York, NY to Boston, MA in one go. This is something that I've wanted to do for five years, and have been trying to complete this without success for three years. This is how I did it.

Intercity is not just a double century. There is no cue sheet, no support van, no prearranged rest stops, no trip marshals, no infrastructure. There are two guys, two bicycles, countless hours, and the road.

There was a huge amount of preparation involved in this ride. I spent countless hours thinking about a route, equipment selection, fueling, and pacing. Many of my previous articles detail these hours. I had to figure out the best time of day to leave, the best time of year to do the ride (it's not November), and how to train for a 220 mile ride. My route optimized distance, sacrificing flatness, in the interests of being done sooner. I chose the most aerodynamic equipment possible that would allow me to run a largely conventional road bike in all conditions with maximal benefit for my weight and riding style. I chose to fuel on a combination of Gatorade, Clif bars and Perpetuem, to keep the protein levels high, and supplement this with table salt, to keep the electrolytes high (should have used sea salt). I always had to stay overhydrated, which meant having to pee all the time. I brought a friend to make sure I did this. Finally, I chose an 0430 departure from the Upper West Side, so that we were on the most trafficked portions of the route the earliest, and would ride through the least safe areas of the route in broad daylight.

The week leading to the ride was insanely hectic for me. I was finishing up some projects at work, and as a result, staying awake for more hours than I would have liked. I was not riding, and not eating or hydrating the way I was used to. The stress levels were high. If I do this again, I'd like to have an easier week beforehand. I still incorporated a taper, with a hard 78 mile ride the weekend before.

So, at 0400, Dave Miller and I woke from a restless sleep and began the preparations. I left with four bottles full of double-strength Perpetuem and quadruple-strength Gatorade, a Camelbak with three liters of water, eight additional helpings of Perpetuem, and twelve Clif bars, as well as a handful of salt packets. Dave, weighing two-thirds of what I do, did not have a Camelbak, and had slightly less fuel on hand. After a quick breakfast of yoghurt and bagels, we departed at 0445.

Within 0.69 miles of departure, I got a flat tire on Central Park West at 78th Street. Someone had broken a glass bottle there only a couple of hours prior. The flat was New York's way of saying how much it hates cyclists. I'm looking forward to not returning for some time. After some unpleasant riding on First Avenue, the Willis Avenue Bridge, and the Bronx, we crossed the city limit at about 0600.

The riding conditions were pleasant. Sunrise was at about 0530, with temperatures in the 60-65 F range and no direct sun (cloudy). We were doing well to fuel, eating a Clif bar and having a serving of Perpetuem (total 500 calories) about once an hour. We rode comfortably through New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, Rye (where Dave got a flat), Port Chester, and Stamford.

The riding began to get difficult after we left Stamford. We were still feeling just fine, but the road conditions were less than ideal. The road was under construction, resulting in a bumpy ride for about 10 miles. Kristian, a Bike & Build director and a Darien native, told me after the fact that the reason for the construction was the installation of new electrical and fiber optic wiring under the road. I'm glad that Connecticut is getting a modern infrastructure, but wish that they had waited until after our ride! I joked that the state of Connecticut knew that we were coming.

Through Connecticut, we took frequent stops, about once an hour. When we stopped, we hydrated, used the restroom, filled our water bottles, and had a salt packet, if needed. (Prior to the trip, I grabbed a handful of salt packets from McDonald's. These were a life saver.)

The ride through Bridgeport and New Haven was, as always, unpleasant. I'm just glad that we were there during the middle of the day, since poor roads and unsafe neighborhoods make a dangerous combination at night. It was in New Haven that we had really the only incident of our trip: while crossing railroad tracks at grade, we both hit a nasty pothole that sent our rear mounted water bottles flying. I stopped abruptly, was unable to unclip my left foot, and fell. This is a clear sign that I need to replace my Speedplay Zero cleats, after roughly 6,000 miles of use. I lubricated them, and this was not an issue again, but it's been happening too often.

The ride becomes substantially more beautiful, and less eventful, after leaving New Haven. We stopped for strawberries at the usual spot on Route 17, since it was the middle fo strawberry season. We continued along green, empty, friendly roads north to Middletown, where we stopped for some time to cool off and refill. At Javapalooza, my favorite stopping point in Middletown, we re-assessed the situation. It was about 13:00. We had cycled a century. It was above 95 degrees and humid. We had 120 miles of hilly riding ahead of us. We went for it.

As I predicted, the riding on Route 66 was the hardest riding of the entire trip. We encountered a number of long 6% grades, and considering the heat, the lack of shade, our creeping dehydration, and the slow shutdown of our digestive systems on account of all of it, we were in no condition to attack these climbs. We rode them dutifully, stopping just outside of Willimantic (both before and after) for more rehydration.

Once we turned onto Routes 6, 198, and 197, conditions improved somewhat, as shade was more common. Route 198 is an awesome 12-mile slight downhill going in the Boston to New York direction, which meant that we had a really humiliating "false flat" climb for many, many miles. These miles just ticked away: Dave and I had conversations about any old thing, and started to get quiet. We had been on the road for a long time. This section of the ride was not as event-filled as the first 80 miles of urban riding, so the miles just tended to blend into each other more.

We stopped at a really strange diner run by a Greek family in Wilbur, MA, around 20:00. At this point, Jane confirmed that we were 55 miles away from Boston. I wanted breakfast food, but this place did not serve pancakes in the evening, so Dave and I each ordered a plate of pasta. The portions were absurd; I'm fairly certain we each got our own box of pasta. We were genuinely weary after 165 miles of riding in some of the hottest and most humid conditions that I've ever encountered. I had been hydrating the entire way through, and peeing clear for the entire trip, but since my body can't process as much water as I was losing, the effect was a net negative. The heat also interfered with my digestion. I was able to force about five bites of that huge plate of pasta, sending much of it to waste. The waitress at the restaurant was pretty confused, and was constantly asking us if we needed this or that. Really, we just wanted to be left alone, and recuperate from the heat a bit. We decided to continue, anticipating better riding conditions as it got later and darker, and about 3-4 hours of riding into Boston.

It was at this point that Dave telephoned a friend of his who lives close enough to the area to offer a ride. What Dave failed to communicate was that this friend was driving to meet us. 20 miles outside of Wilbur, Dave makes us pull over for an unknown reason, and a white car with two roof racks on top pulls up. The driver, a man who is to me a stranger, begins to tell us what a "bad idea" this is, how "dangerous" it is, and how "hilly" and "far" it is from Boston. I was beyond frustrated here - Dave did not tell me that the friend was driving down, and now here we were, stopped on the side of the road, while some guy who didn't know what he was talking about was trying to convince me, a seasoned veteran of the Intercity route at all hours, to get into his car. This is where Dave cracked: he had been riding with a nearly-dead headlight and sunglasses at night, and as a result, was almost unable to see. After private discussion, we continued, then Dave cracked again. He called his friend and got a ride.

I had to make a serious judgement call, at a car dealership in Douglas, MA, 35 miles and 2 hours from Boston. Did I get into this stranger's car, abandoning my dream of completing this ride once and for all? Did I continue the ride, heading into dark forest road conditions on a Saturday night alone and abandoning my friend? I was furious with Dave for forcing me to make this choice. I felt like our pact was broken, and he just didn't want to do this anymore. I called Jane, who echoed my own thoughts: that it was probably safer overall to take the ride, but I would hate myself forever if I did. Mike called too, and echoed the same concerns, with a little more experience of the route ahead (having done previous two-day Intercity runs).

In the end, I made the irrational call: I took Dave's lights and fuel, replaced the batteries in his lights so that they were useful, and sent him on his way. Dave thought I was crazy, and I could tell that his friend was less than pleased with me, but I was on a mission.

The next 20 miles were some of the scariest riding I've ever done. Route 16 gets pitch black at night, and the road conditions aren't ideal. To boot, it was foggy. My lighting, two Cateye headlamps and two blinking rear taillights, ensured the ability to see and be seen on the road, but it was still scary. I got a flat, and fixed it only by the light of my headlamp - using only my bare hands and in record time, no less.

At roughly 23:00, I gave Jane a call. I was in Wellesley. I was 13 very familiar and well lit miles away from Boston, safe and in good condition. The cooler weather helmed me rehydrate and recuperate, and surprisingly, I was feeling amazing. My face lit up when I saw that every-so-familiar turn onto Route 135.

So, at five minutes past nidnight, I time trialled across the Mass Ave bridge, rode past MIT, hopped onto the sidewalk just south of WILG, and met my beautiful girlfriend on the sidewalk. I felt like I had just ridden from my old dorm, not from New York.

I have finally finished this ride that I first envisioned as a high school senior and first attempted as a college sophomore. In the process, I have learned more about myself than I anticipated. I think I have finally earned the ultimate bragging rights of an ultramarathon or Ironman athlete - not quite PBP or the RAAM, but I'm in at the same level as those guys.

The key to completing this ride was hydration and nutrition. Before the ride, I ate a bagel and some yoghurt. On the road, I has ten Clif bars (2500), ten servings of Perpetuem (2500), about eight servings of Gatorade (700), a banana (100), and five bites of pasta (100). Dave's Powertap estimate was 4000 calories, so, accounting for my larger size and additional mileage, I estimate burning 7000 calories for the ride. Considering the usual metabolic processes as well, and the decreased efficiency from hot weather riding, I was probably about 3500 calories in deficit. It took me about 14 hours to regain my appetite, but I've made up for that in the following days.

I could not have completed this silliness without the help of my good friend, Dave Miller. He was largely the reason this was possible. Our countless hours of trash talk and equipment discussion helped get everything together, and helped solidify the ride in our heads. On the road, he was a great riding companion. We shared stories, drafted each other, and made certain that we were eating and hydrating properly. Without him, I probably would have abandoned on account of poor fueling. Yes, he did quit early, but I think he made the right call: he was having trouble seeing, and was not familiar with the route. To Dave: Thank You.

Jane was right. I would have hated myself if I had given up. I've never been happier.