Inaugural NYC Dirt Audax Invitational

Origin tales that define the genre: we were drinking beers.

“You know all those dirt sections on the east side of the Hudson?”
“Uh huh.”
“And the ones on the west side? We should link them up together.”
Immediately the virtues of the idea are conceded, to which is added, “Yeah, and we should do it in a day in one crazy ride.”

Some months later, one of us would venture that it would be amusing to pedal single speed road bikes. It was. And painful. But the steps leading up to the outing originated in that earliest vigorous babbling enthusiasm. The next week I drafted a save the date, gave it a hyperbolic name, Margaret and I spent a couple of hours together laughing and clicking photoshop on the famous photo of Aussie John Bange (Image: John Oxley Library, Queensland). Sent it to a dozen riding friends who I had reason to believe might be rightly askew minded.

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At 8am when it feels like the daylight hours afford essentially infinite time ahead, it’s easy to linger and screw around with perfect cups of coffee and premonitions. The only urgency we had about us was the hurry to have a good time, and we were certainly already doing that. Chris confesses with triumphant sheepishness that he hasn’t looked at the map of the route. Andrew smells like embrocation. Matt A. says that it’s going to be the longest ride he’s ever done. Welshman Mat S., co-organizer from that first misinspiration, fiddles a bit with the electrical tape holding one bottle cage onto his track frame, recently with its seat stay bridge drilled so as to more or less kind of accept a rear caliper brake. I’m on a Cooper Revival Championship 50, to which non-aero levers have been added. We clip in, slow ratchet down the cobbled block.

The trip northward is familiar enough, a crowded path, a bridge, a river road. That’s when we detour to secteur one, a hundred meter patch of gravel, just a giggle, soon followed by a mile long rocky dirt climb that has us ruing and retching our before ride cakes, out of the saddle with a comedy left right cantilever sway to twist every available leverage, slip sliding traction, line-hunting, hollering that this is what we’re in for today. Autumn beautiful and trail stupid, we insist along, cross the highway to single track, hike-a-bike to a river lookout, and now the old main road now abandoned.

These are broad trajectories that we know so well, we ride them weekly but never on the parallels as now, obscure cracked unpaved variants. Sometimes we can see the asphalt we’d normally be on, from this vantage like hovering over one’s own body, astrally projected onto a displaced part of the landscape. A rail trail, the perimeter of a city park, a riverside crushed gravel strolling promenade with abandoned stone who knows what. We blink tears into a fierce headwind, huddle behind one another trying to make progress, through a sandy side trail and avoiding fallen power lines.

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It’s later in the day than we might have hoped when we cross the Bear Mountain Bridge, but the sunshine pouring down reflecting off the shaking yellow leaf ridge ahead heats and evaporates those feelings. We’re narrowing vision hungry, I declare eight to go to the refreshment stop and that’s evidently answer enough.

68 miles in, a shade past midway, we roll up to the Peekskill Brewery. Matt A.—co-author of Brewer’s Apprentice—guides us through beer choices, two different pints each. He eats a plate piled with waffle and chicken, there’s a jolly denial of 3pm and, anyway, we have tiny inadequate bar mounted torches. Heavy bodies up a big climb, the last nameable one of the day, up from the Hudson to the reservoir. We decide that the beer makes us slower but in the satisfaction of consuming it we care about the fatigue less, a fair trade. Onto dirt roads again.

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The final secteurs back to the City are on the Old Croton Aqueduct trail, a fragmented fiddlesticks line back behind town buildings, suburban back yards, college or high tech firm campuses. It’s an enigma of a trail, contradictiory signals of being in a built up dense human environment and on an isolated woodsy track at the same time. The charming stone aqueduct vents are either cairns or sentinels or just masonry historical reminders. This was how New York City got its water when it was making the transition from ambitious pre-industrial port town to what it is now. Begun in 1837, water flowed in 1842. It’s a National Historic Landmark, but we can at this point only see the trembling faintly blue ellipses of our headlight beams fogged by breath and encroaching fatigue.

“What time is it?” I don’t hear the answer because I’m crunching stuffed cheeks of Combos and probing about in my bag for, I know there are some more mini donuts in here, dammit. The lightheaded feeling is an unacknowledged part of the point, legs feel fine and the wet Fall smell ferries us down trail. Southward, of course the Aqueduct pipe goes downhill, for which we’re thankful. Someone cries out, yes!, when we catch our first glimpse of a shimmering tall building in the distance.

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Finale. Apropos seemingly nothing except that we’re punch in the gut exhausted, zombie pedaling up yet another 40 meter climb, Aqueduct behind us, in the resignation that we’ll find another after cresting and descending the same. Mat S. says, “C’mon, cycling is not a sport for pansies!” Matt A. doesn’t pause to inhale, “…or people with common sense!” Someone mumbles something about coming back on the solstice, someone else fires back, “which one?”

Hours yet in the half night, half radiant illumination of NYC, we’re looking forward to next year’s running. The route is long and hard-ish, an uncommon amount of fun. That’s how I recollect it.

Here’s the ride report:

Five riders set out in ideal Autumn conditions to pedal a 204k loop from Manhattan primarily on dirt. They succeeded.

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APPENDIX

The terms randonnée and audax are often used interchangeably to describe a long fast bicycle tour on a set route with a time limit. Riders form groups or pedal solo depending on impulse and taste, there are control points to make sure the entire course is completed, and—since it is not a race—records only of completion are published. The event can span days and success under the cutoff requires a measured effort. The format is popular world wide, with Paris-Brest-Paris the most famous running.

There is, however, an older, distinctive sense of an audax that separates it from a randonneé. In 1897, Vito Pardo led a sunrise to sunset 230k ride from Rome to Naples. The finishers were described in newspapers as “audace”—audacious, bold, adventurous. A Napoli bicycling club subsequently equaled the feat in the reverse direction. This led in the winter of 1898 to the formation of a cohort of enthusiasts dedicated to riding such 200k+ distances. Taking on the Latin form, they called themselves “Audax Italiano.” What lends a special meaning to an audax in its original use is that the riders stayed together at a set pace. One imagines them helping one another, egging each other on, and relishing the camaraderie in the exhausting day.

Cycling surely has a place for individual effort. We train by ourselves to achieve perfect intervals, the glory of a solo breakaway victory is undeniable, and it is typically the single rider who raises her arms on the top step of the podium. But an audax is different: from start to finish we support and cooperate with one another, sharing in the joy of riding.

Thanks to Jan Heine and David Herlihy for thoughts on the history.