A long ride in New Jersey

On Sunday (Oct 29, 1995) I went for a long ride. There were two goals for this ride. One was to do try out a route for the ride Jack Fisher and I are leading Thanksgiving Sunday, and the other was to more or less redo a ride I'd done last July. That ride was the first really long ride I'd done, and my second longest overall (only beaten by the double century Taylor and I did last August). The basic route was: start in Philly, cross the Delaware via Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden, go southeast to the shore (actually the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge just north of Atlantic City), head north and a bit west to go thru' the Pine Barrens, then northwest back to Camden, and then back to Philly. That ride ended up being 137 miles long, and it was really nice, except for the part getting out of Camden.

In order to use the ride to test out the bike club ride, I altered the route a bit so that the first part and last part would form roughly a 70-mile loop from Philly. I plotted my route using three maps: the Delaware Valley Bike Commuters Map, for picking out good bike roads up to about 10 miles into Camden County, a Camden County map, and a map of Southern NJ. I felt that the Southern NJ map would suffice for the other counties I'd be going thru' (Atlantic & Burlington) since once you get out of Camden County, if you avoid the populated areas (like Atlantic City), there are very few roads that aren't on the Southern NJ map.

I headed out Sunday morning at 7am, and went over the BF Bridge on the north sidewalk, which I haven't done for a long time. I vaguely remember going over the north side once before, maybe four years ago, with a friend. That was back in the days when I'd let other people plot the routes, and I'd just come along for the ride... It seems to me that the narrow section on the north side is even narrower than the narrow section on the south side, but maybe my memory is impaired.

The trip thru' Camden was much better than on my previous year's ride, since I was using better maps. Last year I'd plotted the route with a Philly 50-mile radius map, which had no details in Camden. This time I avoided the big roads as much as possible and went along the Cooper River Park. On my Camden County map I'd spotted a long, un-numbered road called Cooper Rd that looked promising. Basically, all roads of any consequance in Southern NJ have numbers, like 5XX, 6XX, 7XX. Usually only short streets in towns don't have numbers, so this made Cooper stick out. I followed suggestions of the Bike Commuters Map for getting from the Cooper River to Cooper Rd. Riding along the roads, I was pleasantly surprised to find them posted with "bike route" signs, and I recognized some of them from an MS-150 City to Shore Ride I did one year. Cool! Getting to Cooper Rd, I found that it was just great. I didn't expect such a lightly-travelled (and even lightly-populated) road so close to Camden!

When Cooper Road ended I worked my way over to 536, which heads into the Pine Barrens. I took this until it ended at 206 -- another nice collection of roads. I saw something along 536 that I've never seen before -- it was a group of game birds crossing the road. I wasn't exactly sure what they were. They're the kind of things you see in those old paintings of hunters in breeches and tall hats with happy dogs bouncing at their heels, coming back to camp after a good day in the woods. I'm pretty sure I've never seen those things in the wild before, so it was a nice sighting. (Back at home I looked it up in my field guide: they're ruffed grouse, a popular game bird, and very common in the Pine Barrens.)

From 206 I departed to make a big loop to the shore. I headed south to pick up 561, and then took that and 561 alternate to Leeds Point, in the wildlife refuge. I was on these two roads for about 23 miles. This is not a long time to be on the same road in a car, but in my riding around Philly, I'm very rarely on one road for more than 5 miles, so this seemed very long. Not to mention that the scenery along this road is quite uniform -- pines, pines, pines, and more pines, and the thing goes perfectly straight and is almost completely flat. Gads! Riding in Southern NJ requires alot of patience, just pedalling on and on, waiting until you get to where you're going. At least I had a nice tailwind to speed me on my way, so it took less time than it would usually.

Route 561 alt ended in the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge. This refuge, like Tinicum in Philly, is a collection of wetlands that seems to be set aside mostly for birds. Upon arrival I was rewarded by the sight of a great blue heron flying very close by, probably startled by my arrival. I took off some clothes (jacket, toe warmers), ate some food, and then headed back. After seeing "SOUTH 561" on the signs for so long, I was happy to see them now say "NORTH 561". At least, I was initially happy about this change. My happiness drained away when I realized that the tailwind which had sped me to the shore was now a nasty headwind. This was not going to be a pleasant trip back...

I stopped at Smithville for supplies. I carried all the food that I would need, but I felt that I deserved a treat. Smithville seems to have two parts. One is an ugly housing development. The other ("Historic Smithville") is a small collection of shops: produce, antiques, crafts, etc. There's a bakery there, and I stopped to fill up my water bottles and get a muffin and a brownie. My biking clothes were obvious, and one patron commented that I was refueling.

From Smithville I took a varied collections of roads to get back to 206. All of these roads were nice, and the trip would have been quite enjoyable except for the constant headwind. I got back to 206, rejoining my tentative bike club route, and headed north. Altho' 206 is a biggish road, it's fine for biking, since it has a very wide, smooth, clean shoulder, so you can go along without bothering the cars. Still, despite being safe, it's not very pleasant: too much traffic. Route 563, further east, is fantastic, and it's what I took last July, but it's too far from Philly to be accessible on a 70-mile ride. I'll have to see if I can find a way around 206. The problem is that there are very few roads thru' the Pine Barrens, and most of the ones that are on the map either don't exist or are dirt (sand, really) and are completely impassable by bike. Well, I'll do some more scouting, and I'm sure I can find some collection of roads that will minimize the time spent on 206.

I had to push to keep moving against the headwind. Sometimes it was strong enough that I had to work hard to go anything over 10mph. I stopped at a restaurant on 206 for water, and the lady behind the counter commented that I looked tired: I was breathing pretty heavy and looked rather worn out. She said "I hope you don't have too far to go". I said "Unfortunately I do". I didn't feel like mentioning that I had to get back to Philly. It was too depressing...

At this point I began to have fantasies of someone with a pickup truck or van or other vehicle with bike-carrying capacity pulling over, saying "Gosh, you look tired, would you like a ride?" No one did, of course. I was still moving, so I guess I looked like I was doing fine. My bottom was also getting a bit sore, and I thought nice thoughts of being home, wearing some loose sweatclothes, drinking hot herbal tea with honey. After not too long, the sweats idea was replaced by the warm fuzzy flannel sheets on my bed... I thought of the phone card in my rack bag, and of my boyfriend, hanging around home, with the car nearby. I could stop at a phone booth to ask him to come get me. But, no, I was still moving, I may as well keep going.

I began to wonder: why am I doing this? Why the heck do I do these long rides? What am I trying to prove? What's the point of this? My trip last July wasn't nearly so bad: it was the headwinds on this trip that was doing it. I'd forgotten how demoralizing steady headwinds can be. While touring in Oregon in 1990 I called it quits after 30 miles on one particularly windy day. And my average for the trip was 60 miles/day, so that was a really wimpy move.

After leaving 206 I went on 541, another highway that goes on forever. Twice along the route I began to wonder if I'd gotten confused and missed my turn, and I stopped to check my maps, only to find that the road I'd just crossed was still well away from the one I needed. Once, I heard a noise in the back of the bike, and then the back wheel froze. I skidded, but managed to keep the bike upright, and also somehow managed to get my foot off the pedal before I came to a complete stop. Luckily I wasn't going very fast, or else I think I'd have been much more likely to fall. I checked out the bike: a wire (like what coat hangers are made out of) had done the damage. One end of it had gotten hung up on the straddle cable for my rear brakes, and the other had grabbed a spoke! I freed the wire, and happily, the wheel seemed fine, despite being stopped dead by force on one spoke. A well-made wheel! I went on...

It got very cloudy. But I wasn't worried, there wasn't any rain predicted. And then I felt the raindrops. I began to curse the weatherman. But it was a very light rain, and I didn't even get wet. I began to wish I'd brought clear glasses with me: I don't like to leave my eyes unprotected as I ride, so I always wear clear glasses at night and on dark days like this was getting to be. But I thought it would be sunny, and I'd get back before dark, so I only brought sunglasses. Oh, well, something to remember for next time...

Finally, after being on 541 for what seeme like forever, the turn came: 616, Church Rd. From here on, I knew all the turns, having been here a couple of times before, and my spirits picked up dramatically. The headwinds were still there, but I was in the home stretch -- only about 20 miles back to Camden. I pedalled on...

From Church Road I went to 537, which heads straight into Camden. As I got close to Camden night was falling. I took off my sunglasses, still wishing for the clear glasses, and turned on the Vistalight that lives on my rack. I've got reflective stuff all over my helmet and bike, so I felt reasonably safe, but I still wished I'd had a headlight to be more visible from the front. I think I'll get one of those front Vistalights. They're not great, but they'd be much better than nothing if I'm caught in the dark without a proper headlight.

I got into Camden and was at the base of the bridge at about 5:35. I was extremely tired. I contemplated walking thru' the narrow section, not being sure that I had the energy to keep the thing going straight on that narrow area, up the slope of the bridge. But walking would take longer, so I tried riding. Using lots of concentration, I succeeded. Then I was out of the narrow section and was safe. I pedalled on. And on. Suddenly, the thought occurred me: now, just how wide is the Delaware, anyway? I seemed to have been on the bridge for quite some time. Of course I wasn't moving very fast. But by that time I was at the halfway point, and then I started going downhill, and the rest of the bridge want by quickly.

I rode back along Walnut, going awfully slowly, about 10mph. I was beat. I finally arrived home and checked my trip meter: 137 miles, just the same as my ride last July. Oh, well. I was too tired to contemplate going out for a bit more to bring it up to something like 140. I barely had the energy to carry my bike upstairs.

My boyfriend was watching TV when I got back. He said "I guess you want to take a shower". I said "No, this is what I want to do" and I stretched out, still wearing my jacket and gloves, on the nice soft carpet, and enjoyed the feeling of not moving. Home at last!

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