Friday, July 17, 2009

What this is all about

If you are reading this, you most likely already know generally what this story is about. However, I thought that I would write it all down, both so that I can remember it better, and so that I can share the many, many experiences that I had on this trip with anyone who cares to hear about them. I have no delusions about the number of people who will likely read this. I am narcissistic enough to google myself, but not so much so that I think that more than a handful of people will want to read something about me riding my bike. But I had to share this experience, and a quick conversation just isn't enough. So if you're bored, this can take up some time. I know I like reading blogs at work instead of actually accomplishing something. I hope that you can get past the myriad misspellings and grammatical errors caused by engineering classes killing any writing ability I ever had and get a real idea of what RATS is all about. (I'm sure the errors exist, I'm just too lazy to sort them out. Sorry.) Anyways, here it is:


For quite literally my entire life I have heard stories about R.A.T.S., the Ride Across Three States. A bicycle trip from Orono, Maine to Burlington, Vermont it is a ride of absurd numbers. 300 miles. Nearly 20,000 feet of climbing. 22 hours straight. At different points in my life I have praised and reviled it. Dreamed of completing it and hoped that I would never have to face it. But despite a few major setbacks and some serious trepidation, on Saturday, July 11th, 2009 at 12:00 a.m. I set out with four other riders, determined to make it to Burlington.

There is no way that RATS can be understood by a rational person. There is simply no reason that anyone should want to ride 300 miles in one day. Rational people do not even consider riding RATS. Even having been convinced to do it, I’m still not exactly sure why I, or anyone else, would agree to subject themselves to that kind of guaranteed suffering. By providing some background I hope to give you, (the very few people interested enough to actually read this,) some insight into the motives behind this epic ride. If you are more interested in the how than the why, feel free to skip ahead, the story of my particular ride is interesting enough in itself. But if you want to know the particulars of how I came to be riding my bike to Burlington, at midnight, from Orono, then read on.

I'll try to explain it...

I am, in a way, responsible for the birth of RATS. In May 1988 I was born, my parents’ first child. Faced with the terror of parental responsibility, my father, Jim, was in search of an outlet. He realized that with another human being depending on him and my mother for absolutely everything he would be unable to do all the biking, (and more specifically bike touring,) that he wanted to do. So he came up with the idea of packing all the riding that he possibly could into a single day. One epic ride a year would allow him to satisfy both his cycling habit and paternal obligations. But where to do it? He spent two years searching for a catchy alliteration. Calais to Caribou? Bangor to Boston? For those of you that know Jim, the fact that he based much of his decision on a fairly cliché literary device should come as no surprise. Eventually, he decided on Bangor to Burlington, as his brother was living in Vermont at the time. However, he kept mentioning that the ride would cross three states, and the acronym RATS stuck.

The first RATS was, as I understand it, fairly epic. Jim found an equally crazy riding companion in Sean Dougherty, a 16 year old employee at his bike shop. He enlisted the help of a few of his friends along with my mother, Laurie. These people would drive “support,” stopping periodically to make sure that the riders were still on track, that they had enough food and water, and to pick them up if they were unable to complete the ride. In the days before cell phones, this was no easy task logistically. (It still isn’t, but the communication aspect has been made much simpler.) According to Jim, one of the methods of communication that he employed in the early days was leaving duct tape on road signs, Hansel and Gretel style. A piece of tape on the “welcome to New Hampshire” sign meant that the support car was to continue on, for example. Adding to the difficulties of driving support was the fact that driving a car very slowly across three states with a screaming two year old (me) is hardly a pleasant experience, one that my mother vowed never to repeat. (Apparently, even a visit to Santa’s Village didn’t calm me down.) But despite the logistical difficulties, Jim and Sean set out from Bangor in the early hours of the morning with lights on their handlebars, not even knowing if what they were setting out to do was physically possible.

Jim, sporting some seriously retro attire

Sean, to date the youngest RATS participant

As it turns out, it was possible. They made it, but only barely. Jim’s knee was in so much pain that he could hardly walk, and both he and Sean were completely exhausted. But they did make it nonetheless, proving to themselves that it was indeed possible. Had they given up, RATS may have never been attempted again, dismissed as an impossible goal, a fools errand.

I should mention the fact that the bikes that they rode that year are absolutely ancient by today’s standards. Jim was riding a Zeus, which had a steel frame, 32 spoke wheels, a 6- speed drivetrain, (with a double crank,) and downtube, non- indexed shifters. The thing must have weighed a ton. If you were to show up to a group ride on something similar today people would think you were completely out of your mind.

Since that first ride RATS has been attempted many times. The exact number is probably around 12, but Jim wasn’t able to remember exactly how many times he has convinced people to accompany him on this death ride.

Willie, the winner of the hotly contested "sweetest mustache" contest. (I'm looking at you, Todd Burpee.)

Some years people had to drop out part of the way through the ride. Some years everyone had to drop out. The stories are incredible. Guys unable to continue, literally sitting down at the side of the road. I won't go into the stories now, because it would take way too long. But here is a preview: Epic bonks, epic bad weather, epic mechanicals, a trip to the hospital, and more strange characters than I can even remember.

Hospital visit 2k5


A ride like RATS requires a crazy amount of logistics. Everyone has to know the route. (its actually really easy, follow route 2 all the way to Burlington!) Everyone has to have lights for riding at night. Everyone has to have enough food. People have to drive the support cars. Hotel reservations have to be made. Spare tubes have to be brought. The planning that goes into this ride takes some serious effort. I mostly benefitted from Jim’s planning, as I only arrived in Orono two days before we were to leave. Still, I helped to get all of our food together and into the support cars. We went on a massive shopping trip, brought the food back home and each divided it into portions. For the first six or so hours there would be no support car, we would have to bring all our own food and water, as there are no stores open in the middle of the night. A camelback was necessary to bring enough water. I divided my food into six portions. The first, night portion that I would bring with me when we started, four resupply bags each with enough food for roughly four hours, and one “bonk bag,” with the kinds of food that would help me to get over a bonk. This one had mostly potato chips, other salty things, candy bars and cans of coke.

Food for the ride

All the bags were put in the support cars the day before we left. The two cars were driven by Justin’s wife Marliesse and RATS alum Matt Cote. ( , its a great shop, check it out if you're in the Skowhegan area and Matt will show you around.) I really can’t say enough about how awesome Marliesse and Matt were. At every stop they had food ready, filled our bottles, fixed our bikes, encouraged us and generally made the ride as smooth as could be expected. Without such excellent support, both physically and emotionally, RATS would be completely impossible.

Amidst all the chaos of planning RATS, something very unusual happened. While at the bike shop on Friday afternoon, mere hours before we were to leave, I overheard one side of a phone conversation. It went something like this:
Corey: Tandems?...Recumbent Tandems?... Ha ha Matt, I know its you…. Yeah, the Friday night road ride is still on for 5:30… Well, Jim’s not going, because he’s doing his ride to Vermont… Tonight… Midnight… Well, I guess you could…
Matt McEntee, former Rose Bike employee and weirdo extraordinaire decided that he wanted to do the ride. At first I dismissed it as a joke. But then he showed up with a backpack and his bike, ready to load into the support car. Matt is one of the coolest people that I have ever had to pleasure of meeting, working with, riding with, and generally just interacting with. There is no way that you can understand the Matt experience except through direct personal contact. He may be completely insane. Around the bike shop he is commonly referred to by his nickname, “Grundle,” a name which he encourages the use of. With all of the planning that Jim puts into RATS, it was a real shock to everyone when Matt decided to join us in a spur-of-the-moment kind of way. Being a naturally athletic person and fairly interested in biking though, we agreed to have him come with us. I was seriously, seriously impressed with Matt’s dedication throughout this whole strange experience.

The Ride Starts

When planning this ride, I briefly considered liveblogging it using twitter or some other such service. I quickly nixed this plan for a few reasons. 1. I don’t want to have to worry about technology when I’m riding, i.e. having my phone out all the time to update twitter. 2. I’m lazy. 3. The posts would fall into three general categories, #1: mileage counts #2: my bizarre food requests and #3: patricidal fantasies. A typical section would look something like this:
Mile 165.
Mile 169.
Mile 173, could someone please leave me a clam basket on route 2 in New Hampshire? Thanks.
Mile 176, Jim says he’s feeling “chipper.” I imagine bludgeoning him with his frame pump.
Mile 181.

Yeah, it would be pretty boring. So instead I’m writing it here, which isn’t boring at all! Ha. So anyways, after rolling out of the bike shop at 12:00 am sharp, the five of us did a quick loop through Old Town, to make sure that in the event that we did make it to Burlington, it would be an even 300 miles. In the early years of RATS they didn’t do this, always planning on riding a little extra in Vermont. However, when you have ridden 292 miles and you see the hotel you’re staying in, no amount of persuasion or threatening is going to motivate you to ride 4 miles past it on your bike and turn around to come back. So we rode away from, then back in to, Orono, having a close encounter with some deer along the way and seeing hardly any cars other than an apparently lost ambulance, which passed us 3 times.




Matt aka Grundle


The early miles fell easily. In the dark it was impossible to see your speedometer, but it felt like going incredibly fast, as all the obstacles in the road were harder to see and seemed to come at you much faster than in the daylight. It was a cool night, but not cold, with a clear sky and no wind. Very quickly we were out in the country, far away from any streetlights. The moon illuminated the landscape around us and gave it an otherworldly feel, I almost felt as if I didn’t need the lights on my handlebars. The hours in the dark blend together in my mind, it seemed almost like a dream. Quickly the adrenaline rush of finally starting our trip faded and left me in a nearly hypnotized state, staring at the road in front of me, watching the stripes slide past in the dark. On a back road next to a field there was suddenly a thumping noise to our left. In the field, three horses were running alongside us. Gray in the moonlight, they made hardly any sound as they ran at our exact pace. Once they reached the end of their fence they stopped and stared as we rode away. It was surreal.

In Newport I got the first flat tire of the trip, a pinch flat. I have no idea how it happened, but I changed it quickly enough and we were on our way shortly. Soon the sun started to rise, making an incredible sunset at our backs. Before I knew it we were switching our lights off. I looked at my computer and to my surprise saw that we had ridden about 80 miles. I felt like we had just started, and already a significant chunk of the ride was out of the way.

Just before Farmington, at about 100 miles Matt passed us in the first support car. We made a quick stop to ditch our camelbacks and were shortly on our way again. With the sun up and the air still cool, it was perfect riding weather. Once we reached Farmington we met up with Matt again and stopped for a little while longer. Literally as we were pulling into the parking lot where we had agreed to meet Cam’s tire exploded. Matt fixed the flat while the rest of us grabbed food. I remember thinking, “Man, we’re over 100 miles in and I feel great, if the next 100 are like this then I’ll have no problem!” As we pedaled away from Farmington spirits were mostly high, except for Grundle’s. Having ridden 100 miles with his enormous backpack and without gloves had taken a toll on him. His back was hurting, he said he felt slightly dizzy, and he had resorted to wrapping his hands in duct tape. But he still managed to be cheerful and press on. About 120 miles in to the ride I realized that he was still wearing his (very not- aerodynamic) pack because he had no water bottle cages on his bike, and he was using it as a camelback. I offered to let him use mine, to which he replied with a tired but enthusiastic “YES. Thank you!”

This is the post where I talk about most of the ride (its long.)

The next miles blended together. We were moving along fairly quickly, and though each of us had our ups and downs the mood was still good. At about 130 miles in we met up with Marliesse for the first time, and snacked on the food that she had brought. At this point I began to feel the miles I had put in, and brought a few energy gels with me for the next leg of the trip.

The importance of eating during RATS cannot be understated. You are burning more calories than you could possibly recover, so you pretty much have to be shoving something down your throat every hour. If you start to feel hungry, its too late. I ate religiously, finishing off at least one food item every forty five minutes. I knew that this would be a challenge for me, as I have a tendency to stop eating and drinking as I approach a refuel stop or major milestone. But eat I did, regardless of taste or hunger. By the time we had ridden 170 miles I was pretty damn sick of Clif bars.

We kept riding through the heat of the morning. Except for a muted “halfway there!” from Jim at mile 150 we thankfully didn’t discuss the mileage we had left to do. Mile 170 was the next major stop, somewhere with picnic tables and shade. We took our time there, still in good enough spirits to joke around and snap pictures. As we got back on our bikes I made a few pedal strokes standing up, then sat back down once we were on the road. I immediately stood back up, the pain of sitting on my bike seat shooting through me. “It had better not feel like this for very long…” I said. Wincing, I sat back down, only to be greeted by the same wave of pain. I was very sure that there was a seat- shaped bruise on my ass. It was a feeling somewhat like what I imagine sitting on a drill would feel like. Gradually the pain faded, but I had begun to experience the discomfort that RATS is legendary for.

By this point we were in New Hampshire, and crossing the White Mountains. The climb out of Gorham, NH was immense. Our usually tight formation was shattered, with Justin pulling away, Matt falling behind, and Cam, Jim and I spreading further and further apart. Halfway up the hill was a false summit, which was terribly demoralizing, as what I thought was the top of the climb turned into a repeat of the pain I had just experienced. With as many miles behind us as there were, there was no way any of us were charging up that hill. But gradually we made it to the top and regrouped, very tired but still moving forwards.

The countryside was beautiful as we passed into Vermont, but it was hard to notice with my mental sharpness fading with each pedal stroke. In Vermont, around mile 200, we were met by Chris Jolly, a RATS and Rose Bike alum, along with his wife, Meaghan, and one year old son, Gavin. We took a fairly long stop, during which Chris announced his plan to do RATS with Gavin one day. Its amazing how quickly people forget about the pain of riding a bike that far. I had definitely started to feel fatigued at this point, and even though it felt like we were starting the last leg of our trip, I had to remind myself that we still had about 100 miles to go, no small distance. If I were at home, planning a 100 mile ride, and I for some reason felt like I did at the top of that hill in Vermont, there is no way that I would even get on a bike, much less ride one 100 miles. The others were starting to show signs of fatigue as well. Cam was dropping back noticeably on the climbs, and Matt was consistently lagging behind. However, we were all still motivated, and set out from the meeting with Chris feeling like we were almost there.

Then the wind started. Increasing gradually from a breeze to a consistent, strong head/ cross wind, it slowed our progress immensely. This was the first of many times that I thought to my self, “yeah, I can keep turning the pedals over at this very moment, but there is no way I can keep this up until Burlington.” In Saint Johnsbury, Vermont, with the headwind having buffeted us for miles, I experienced something completely new. It wasn’t a bonk, I have felt those before. I was hydrated and well fed. This was a feeling covering my entire body, as though everything was suddenly heavier. It felt like all the fat had been sucked from my legs and my calves were trying to escape. Far from bonking or running out of fuel, I was simply coming up against what my body was capable of doing. It was terrifying and frustrating. There were still miles and miles to go, and I was sure that my legs would soon give out. Riding out of town I looked up to the sight of endless hills. Greeting me at the worst possible time was a 7- mile climb. I shifted into my lower gears and, determined to keep going, basically crawled up the hills.

Luckily for me, everyone pretty much felt like taking the hills extremely slowly at this point. As we progressed up the climb we set an easy enough pace that we could talk to each other. Thinking about the distance we had come, and the relatively small (only 70 miles!) distance to Burlington I was filled with a renewed sense of purpose. Miraculously, my knees were feeling good, and I was determined, no matter how much my body screamed at me to stop, to make it.

Then the thunderstorm hit. With 50 miles left the sky turned black, and the rain poured down in sheets. We took shelter in a barn at the side of the road and waited for the support cars to find us. While standing on the dirt floor, watching the rain create streams in the road and listening to the thunder, we discussed our situation. 50 miles to go. Storm. All feeling relatively good. Raingear in the car. It was decided fairly quickly that we should ride through the rain. Matt eventually found us and doled out the rain jackets we had packed the night before. Through a communication error between Jim and I (which turned out to be my fault) we were unable to find my rain jacket. Faced with the prospect of riding in the rain in just a jersey, I grudgingly accepted Jim’s softshell rain coat, which he uses mostly for skiing. It was giant, it was purple and it was hardly aerodynamic, but it did a pretty great job of keeping me dry and warm. It did not, however, keep my phone from getting completely soaked and dying.

I should mention that at this point I was in a new kind of discomfort. I will spare you the details, but suffice to say that it was intestinal, and it was uncomfortable. Frequent stops mostly negated the problem, but it slowed me nonetheless.

Setting out in the rain, all five of us were hit with a surge of adrenaline. We realized that our situation wasn’t looking good, and that the rain could easily halt us within veritable spitting distance of our destination. So we hammered on, upping the pace and once again splitting up. With the rain pouring down it was nearly impossible to draft off each other, and it was inevitable that our group would break apart. Cam and Justin managed to pull away when I stopped to strap on my tail light for better visibility. Jim and I stayed mostly together, riding side by side when we could. We rode on for about an hour in the rain, during which time my mood worsened. Talking to Marliesse at a quick stop I suddenly realized exactly how screwed we were. If the rain continued into the night, it could very well be too dangerous to continue. The rain would soak our lights, make us less visible, and as the temperature fell we would freeze. Jim and I discussed this as we rode next to each other in the deluge. Jim admitted that riding in the rain at night would be a deal breaker, and that we would likely have to quit. I secretly hoped that his drive to finish the ride would overcome his fear for the safety of his children, and put my head down to ride.

We rode faster and faster, averaging speeds I had thought impossible this far in to the ride. Trying to make up all the distance I could before darkness, I willed myself forwards. At this point my mood was so bad that everything that Jim said annoyed me. This annoyance developed into outright anger. I realized that I was only angry because of the situation we were in and my fatigue, but still anything Jim said, no matter how benign, grated on my nerves. Digging deeper, I tried to drop him, but every time I would pull away he would close the gap. The sky was darkening, and we were still roughly 35 miles from Burlington. I was starting to lose hope. Then, as we rounded a corner, sheets of rain pounding the pavement around us, we saw the sun in the distance. “SSSSUUUUNNNN!!!” I yelled. We were riding towards the edge of the storm, and even though we were still being poured on, we could see steam rising from the distant, sunlit hills. We surged ahead, the sun getting brighter and brighter as we went. In a few miles, the rain slowed to a drizzle, then stopped altogether. I saw Cam, Justin and the support cars a few hundred yards ahead, and rode up to them with my hands off the bars, palms up, grinning. Looking back we could see the gray clouds receding, and a huge rainbow arcing across the drenched road. Almost giddy, we took off our jackets and set off, Burlington a mere 30 miles away, 90% of the ride behind us.

Night Again

After enjoying the fact that it was no longer raining, the five of us set out again, but seemed to make slower progress. We were slowed by a string of flat tires from Justin, (four total, an impressively unlucky amount.) Quickly, the sun dropped and we put our lights back on. Riding towards Burlington, we could see lightning flashing in the clouds in front of us, illuminating them with a bright orange glow. We were all splitting up again, with Matt falling off the back and Justin charging ahead, despite his frequent stops to change flat tires. When Justin flatted, Jim, Cam and I would stop to wait/ help him out. Matt, being pretty far behind us, would eventually catch up, and just keep on going, not wanting to slow us down any. As we got moving again we would close in on him, and eventually pass him. Despite our offering to stay with him, Matt insisted that we go ahead, he was intent on not slowing us down.

During Justin's flat change #3, Matt caught up to us, and I jumped on with him, not being able to stand just waiting for the others while I could be making progress, however slow. Talking with Matt, I realized that he was in rough shape, but still determined to make it. Quickly enough the other three caught up to us, and Matt was once again dropped. Cam and I rode together about 30 feet in front of Jim and Justin, discussing how late it was, and how we needed to keep making progress. We were at mile 285, and it was 10 pm, getting dangerously late. Then I heard the familiar cry of "flat!" behind us. Not wanting to stop, Cam and I pressed on, knowing that Justin and Jim could handle fixing the blown tube.

Cam and I pushed on, meeting up with the support cars and letting them know about the flat situation behind us. Sleep deprived and wanting to get there as quick as possible, Matt Cote was almost as disheartened as we were. Soon, signs for Burlington began to pop up. Cam and I marveled at how far we had come. I was only able to look at my computer when we passed under street lights, but I could still see it creeping up through the 290’s. Finally, at a stoplight just outside of Burlington, I saw 300, the magic number. I took my hands off my bars in a tired celebration, and laughed. It seemed impossible that I had ridden that distance, that I had come that far. I had made it 300 miles.

Then, it finally happened. With my psychological goal out of the way, I bonked. I simply had no motivation, no drive. I found that I could barely turn the pedals over. Cam slipped ahead of me as I labored through the streets scanning the signs at the side of the road for our hotel. I thought we must have passed it. I imagined riding on for miles and miles, unable to find the endpoint of our trip. I was so disheartened. Then, from behind me, I heard a friendly honk. It was Marliesse, and she zoomed past me, then slowed. “She must be telling me I overshot the hotel, I’m at 302 miles.” I thought. I considered my options. Should I turn around and find the hotel? Just get in the car? I was so exhausted I thought I might just let myself be driven back, even if it felt like cheating. Then I saw the sign above the parking lot where Marliesse had pulled in. It was our hotel. I rolled into the parking lot at 11:04 pm, about 20 seconds behind Cam. We shared a high five and congratulated each other, but were too tired for much more. I stumbled into my room and found that I almost didn’t have enough strength to lower myself onto the toilet seat. I took a quick shower, and ate half a bag of chips before I heard the other three arrive. There were more congratulations, then I lowered myself into bed, my entire body one huge ache. I was still stunned by the feat that we had accomplished, but was too tired to fully grasp it. I was just grateful to be in a warm bed and NOT on a bike seat. As I fell asleep I heard rain pouring into the pool outside my window, and thanked god that I wasn’t still outside. I don’t think I have ever fallen so deeply asleep so quickly.