Cranberry bogs, blueberry fields, horses, cattle. Pine barrens, open spaces, long stretches of straight roads. A train graveyard. The NJ 400 is “easy” because it is flat, but it’s challenging because you have to keep your mind entertained when you look ahead to a long stretch of road that you have to pedal over. And as anyone who has done this route knows, it’s very likely that you’ll hit some headwinds on your way to Salem. If you’re lucky, you might get a decent tailwind for part of the journey back.
We were lucky. Chris Newman and I rode the route a few days ago, on a day that was a little cool but clear and beautiful. It was a predictable ride in that we had headwinds for 40 miles or so before Salem, but then we had glorious tailwinds for nearly 60 miles all the way back to the tavern in the Pine Barrens. Weeee…. That was fun! And then the winds died down with nightfall so that we had a calm quiet night with a sliver of moon and a few stars. Roads seemed much more quiet than they are on weekend nights.
It was a day for layers of clothes so we spent a fair amount of time putting on or taking off jackets, long pants, arm and leg warmers, hats, gloves… The temperature was in the high 30s when we started but got into the 60s in the afternoon. The weather was a bit cool but dry…better than the weather that our buddies had for the real event this weekend.
The first stage, Hightstown to the Lower Bank Tavern, can be split in half with a stop at the Dunkin Donuts in Pemberton. After 29 miles, we were ready for our second breakfast of bagels and coffee. Those first 29 miles went pretty quickly as conversation and familiar territory allowed us to relax and just keep the pedals cranking as quickly as we could in those couple of hours before sunrise. By the time we got to Pemberton, we were able to turn off lights and remove a layer of clothing. As I leaned my bike against the storefront window, I remembered doing this event some years earlier on a rainy day. I remember pulling up to this Dunkin Donuts and having one of the employees inside looking out at me with an amused expression on her face. She had apparently not ever seen anyone use a shower cap as a bicycle helmet cover. Today, however, the shower cap was stowed in my trunk bag. Yeah!
We stopped for a very short time at the tavern as no one was there at 9am on a Tuesday morning. Chris took a photo and we kept moving, stopping at a deli some miles down the road to top up our water bottles and snacks for the remaining 40 miles or so to Salem. I don’t think the wind was as strong this year as last but it was strong enough that we had to resign ourselves to moving forward as well as we could, not fretting too much about our reduced speed. Chris was keeping track of our progress this year compared to last year, and our pace to Salem was nearly the same as last year although it didn’t seem like such a struggle this year. Perhaps my efforts to teach myself to relax and breathe when conditions get difficult are starting to pay off. I knew that the wind was slowing us down, but I wasn’t experiencing the same fatigue that I remember feeling last year so that I did not feel totally wiped out when we got to Salem.
At Bravo Pizza in Salem we ordered sandwiches and fries. We looked at the mountain of food in front of us and did the best we could but had to throw too much of it away. I’m always sluggish after lunch and this day was no different. Fortunately, we had the wind behind us now and eventually my system digested the lunch and I started to enjoy the substantial tailwind that was assisting us in our return journey to the Lower Bank Tavern. On this part of the trip, we passed by acres and acres of blueberry fields although the bushes seemed planted in lifeless ground. Toxic warning signs posted at the front edges of the fields make it clear that the ground and/or the plants are being treated with something that will, presumably, bring about the miracle of blueberries. But I’m always a little skeptical of miracles. I think I’ll try to get my blueberries close to home.
In any case, the tailwind blew us right through these fields. We made a quick pit stop at a Wawa about half way back to the tavern and then kept moving along, arriving at the tavern in time for a well deserved dinner and beer (deciding to follow the Bill Olsen model on this matter). The proprietor, whose name is also Bill, fed us and entertained us with his narrative of doing the same ride a couple of days earlier with speedster Joe Kratovil. Although Bill is a relative newbie in terms of randonneuring, it seems that he was able to hang on to Joe’s rear wheel all day–quite an accomplishment. He was already talking about doing the 600. I think he’s hooked.
The section through the Pine Barrens from the tavern to Chatsworth, nearly half of the next stage, is the most difficult for me. It’s long, relatively unpopulated, straight and there is even less to look at in the dark than during the day. When a car passes you, if you watch the rear lights, they get smaller and smaller but remain visible for a very long time. The wind wasn’t pushing us along at this point, so we pedaled the same distance as those cars, it just took us a little longer. More deep breathing required. “Patience,” I tell myself. And have a snack.
I’ve discovered that I need to pay more attention to eating while riding, and I think that my effort to eat more regularly on this ride paid off. I didn’t bonk before getting to Salem, and I didn’t totally run out of energy 20 miles before Hightstown. I ate at every stop and kept something in a pocket to eat while riding: whole wheat fig newtons (Katie’s favorite), Be Kind bars, bagel and cream cheese, cookies. On our way back through Pemberton, we stopped at the Wawa controle for coffee and snacks but ate pretty quickly because it was cold again. Too cold to sit outside for long, but too warm inside in all of the gear we were wearing. Time to move along and get home.
The last stage, after the first few miles, is familiar territory, and this is reassuring at the end of a long day of riding. Again, we could focus on riding as well as we could and not worry too much about going off route. Iron Bridge Rd, Old York Rd, and then Main Street through Allentown and over I-195 and then the NJ Turnpike, past all of the closed up stores and darkened houses and finally, the right turn on Rt 33 in Hightstown and the Day’s Inn just up ahead on the right.
It was a great day for a ride, for conversation, for quiet, for singing snippets of old songs in my head, and for seeing how others live. At 2am we pulled into the Day’s Inn, 22 hours after starting. We had filled a day, entirely, doing something we like to do.