The Pittsburgh Randonneurs Allegheny Mountains Cruel and Unusual Punishment (AMCUP) 400K – a scenic tour of the Alleghenies boasting around 18,000 feet of climbing over 262 miles (full description here) – has a branding problem.
Let’s agree that a brevet with such a title probably does not entice a lot of participation. Cruel and unusual punishment? That’s what I’d call my recent Managerial Accounting class and I am definitely not signing up for that again.
After riding this course, I’ve decided this event would benefit from a rebrand. Currently I am still sleep-deprived enough that it’s hard to see myself riding this course again anytime soon, but I could be convinced that a repeat might be a good idea. It’s definitely possible.
Was it cruel and unusual punishment? Maybe in parts. But it was also spikey, surreal, and spectacular. And with that in mind, I propose a rename of this brevet to Allegheny Mountains Wild Dream Ride 400K.
Surely you’ve had a wild dream a time or two. A wild dream only makes sense to the person who had it, but when you’ve had one you can’t help sharing it. You know, those dreams where you wake up and you’re like, dang! I dreamed I was on this 400K outside Pittsburgh and it had this wild name and only three people showed up to do it.
Three! Steven, Felkerino, and me. We started at 4 a.m. and as soon as we rolled out it started raining, my Garmin shut off, and Steven put his rain jacket on inside out. Sounds like a 400K start to me.
Early on we had a break in the rain, and Steven asked how long we thought it would be until the rain came back. Thirty minutes later it returned and kept up a steady soaking cadence until 6 p.m. or so.
I thought of all the times I’d forgone a ride because of rain. I used to see it as a badge of toughness. Then I decided rain just wasn’t my thing. I was made for sunny days. But something about these Allegheny Mountains has been enticing me this year and because their pull has been so strong here I was riding for almost 150 miles in steady pouring rain. For fun.
It’s been years since I’ve ridden in that much precipitation. It continued to shower down and down and down as we cycled steadily up and up and up. Felkerino and I stomped on the pedals and yanked our way on the handlebars until I didn’t think I could yank them anymore.
We ended up with around 16,600 feet of climbing while Steven decided to take a scenic route to win the climbing competition at close to 19,000 feet in 262 miles. Fortunately for all of us the temperatures didn’t dip below 60 and we had enough clothes and determination to persevere, although I did see Felkerino trying to warm himself by a hot dog stand at Sheetz at one point.
Because only three of us rode and two of the three of us were on the same bike, it allowed us to spend a ridiculous amount of time wondering where Steven was along the course. He had ridden ahead once the hills started in earnest. How wet was he? How far ahead? What was he doing right this minute? Would he take the optional windmill loop with the additional 1,400 feet of climbing? Of course he would, is that really a question?!
As for Felkerino and me, we took the easy way over the East Continental Divide via the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and even the easy way didn’t feel easy. You still have to cross the ridge and rain had made the GAP spongy in lots of places. We slip-slided and sank our way along as best we could and tried not to think too much.
Dreary conditions combined with the intense climbing meant that the food furnace started really going, and Felkerino and I stopped a few times to fuel our bodies and mind for the segments ahead. I was spending way more money than planned at our Sheetz stops, which fed into my fury about their terrible “Why the Sheetz not” marketing. Seriouslyz, can’t they make some improvementz to that?
Around 6:30 p.m. or so, the rain finally eased up and skies cleared. What a relief, as I had been dreading the night run in. Car tires are so loud on rainy roads, visibility worse, and temperatures that much cooler. We wouldn’t want to pack all the epic conditions (or should I say conditionz) into one ride so I was happy to save the rainy night ride chaser for some other day.
Even though the big climbs were behind us after making it over the East Continental Divide for the second time and we were back on pavement, there were still several steeps to heave ourselves over before the finish, with the last 15-20 miles a complete slogfest on legs that resisted our efforts to will them into action. I felt my aspirational 2 a.m. finish solidly escaping our grasp.
Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” suddenly lodged itself in my head and I realized I needed to ride like Stevie Nicks and channel all my intensity (and inimitable style!) into these final miles. Now I’m not a Fleetwood Mac fan, per se, but that song totally fit this brevet. Felkerino’s enthusiasm had flagged by now so I threw myself into this section. What would Stevie Nicks do? Time to get us home.
Roads were completely choppy and twisty, but so quiet and peaceful it was hard not to like them a little bit. I fell into my mantra of “every pedal stroke you take is one less that you have to make.” It ain’t great poetry, but it works to push me down the road.
Over the years I’ve developed an affinity for the Alleghenies. This land is so distinct to where I was raised and I doubt I’ll ever get over the novelty of riding through it. This wild ride excited me because of the challenge it presented. Several miles-long climbs awaited us: Mt. Davis (where my camera died); Little and Big Savage Mountains; the Eastern Continental Divide. And as if that weren’t enough, we had plenty of sawteeth to fill in the gaps between the big ups.
I’m called to these lush mountains, whether or not they call back to me. I want this land to welcome me even when it’s throwing 12% grades under my legs. I don’t know that that will ever happen, but I keep showing up. Me again, mountains, I’m back!
It’s a surreal joy to ride through hills I could not even fathom when I was a kid growing up on the plains of the Midwest. And to go up them on tandem with Felkerino is both back breaking, confidence boosting, and relationship building (or something!).
I see traces of the area’s history in the mountain towns we tour through, some of them casting shadows of more lucrative times. Aspects of these communities remind me of the little no-stoplight-town dot on the map where I grew up, and memories of my personal past occasionally extract themselves as we go.
This is not a 400K course for most first-timers or those just wanting to bag a 400K because they need it for a series. It’s simply too hard, and less experienced riders could time out or maybe even stop, worn down from the constant effort of it all. In those cases, it would be cruel and unusual punishment.
You can’t judge your progress by looking at the clock on a ride like this. As Felkerino said, don’t look at the clock. Keep pedaling and eventually the finish will show up. I wasn’t always so sure about that and my enthusiasm flagged at times.
But with the Fleetwood Mac’s lyrics still earworming their way through my mind in between pedal strokes, I thought about the beginning miles of our ride when we were rolling along as a threesome. Steven had made a comment about the importance of accepting where you are on a ride. If you don’t it can ruin you. You may push too hard. To spend energy wishing yourself somewhere you aren’t empties out the mental gas tank and leaves you suffering. That is cruel and unusual punishment.
It doesn’t have to be that way. If you’re up for and open to the challenge or you can reset yourself when the mental hijinks happen, this 400K ride will take on that wild dreamlike quality I described. Rather than cruel and unusual punishment, you’re on a wild ride that makes no sense from the outside looking in. Adding inclement weather to the mix only complicates matters.
It may take forever to finish and we have the 23-plus hour finish time to prove that. But to know you can keep pushing and complete this kind of challenge feels awesome. It’s like extra credit without actually getting any extra credit, just your personal satisfaction. You tested your mettle on a wild ride and came out the other side.
The combination of course, conditions, and distance means you pocket some good stories to share later with people who most likely will not understand them. But you’ll tell them anyway because it was just too wild a ride to keep to yourself. And your friends will listen because they love you.
I rest my case: Allegheny Mountains Wild Dream Ride 400K. Maybe even call them mountainz, just for fun. Nah, don’t do that. Just say you’ll sign up with me next time.
A kazillion thanks to Dan for organizing and for seeing us at both the beginning and the end of this exhilarating experience. And extra thanks for the pizza and pop, that was so nice. Thanks to Steven for being out there with us, it’s been great being out there with you this year. I have a small set of photos on my flickr here, if you want to see a few more from this wild day.
Boy that makes me wanna join in on the fun. Love that title though … they probably belong to the same marketing department that named the rides Terrible Two, Death Ride, Breathless Agony!
Breathless Agony, an excellent title. It is a great ride so yeah, sign up for it sometime!
for many moons, along with quilting, weaving, baking bread more often, getting another MFA or maybe a JD, i’ve had randoneuring on my ‘things i’ll do if i ever retire or at least work closer to normal hours.’
i doubt this will ever happen.
life changes, health issues, being the de facto guardians for my daughter and granddaughter, with the time restrictions that places on us, means that, even at this late stage of life, there are sacrifices to be made, and most of the sacrifice is our time together. you can’t leave toddlers unattended, you can’t leave a person at risk unattended. so we sigh, and we consider, and maybe we drool a bit.
and maybe, just maybe, things will turn around, and we can.
thank you for sharing Allegheny Mountains Wild Dream Ride 400K.
but AMCUP beats AMWD as an acronym.
Robyn, you’re so right, life is always changing and I know I’m so lucky to be able to be out there this year. By the way, you have a point on the acronyms! My renaming campaigns never get anywhere. I tried to rename our Gordonsville 300K to have it called Out-of-My-Gordonsville 300K, but nobody else thought it was as great a title as I did. Thanks for reading!