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The Evolution of the Tour of New England

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Osman Isvan
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While I was working on the guest list [for a reunion of old friends from the Charles River Wheelmen bicycle club], I found an article I wrote back in 1997, about the evolution and history of the Tour of New England. Interestingly, I wrote it so long ago but yet in a "historic" perspective and tone from that time of observation. I now realize that I was looking back from the turning point rather than the completion of the transformation (of course it is never complete). For example there is no mention that we didn't have cell phones. That is probably because even in 1997 when I wrote this, we still didn’t have them. GPS did not exist at all. Reading this article reminds me how different the world of cycle-touring was in 1970's and 80's, not only because of communication technologies but also because what "cycle touring" meant in those days, in terms of the intensity of effort. I remember being motivated to write this article when Jamie [King] took over from Jacek [Rudowski], when modern concepts such as luggage transport (and even SAG) were introduced, performance-oriented riders started participating, it was a larger group, and the event started changing character. As I say in the article, at first I resisted the changes and adhered to the old, self-supported format, but eventually that became nothing more than a pointless inconvenience. Ironically I had been one of the first among the old veterans who had started the trend towards a "lighter and faster" approach (I even did the 7-state version unsupported), but I was imagining a different end point to the transformation.

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I am not one of the first people to do “The Tour". But I did it in its early years, and repeated the ritual every year since. Over the years I acquired a special appreciation for this event, its history and its place in bicycle touring in New England. My perspective, of course, is personal and subjective, and perhaps controversial. Alas, it has been shaped by having ridden this tour more times than anyone else.

There is no official record-keeping, but according to available evidence, the first time that a closed loop over 6 states was covered by bicycle in three days was in 1976 when Boston Area cyclist Jacek Rudowski and two friends embarked on the challenge to determine if such a task could be accomplished. The idea belonged to Irving Pfau, then president of the Charles River Wheelmen. He wanted to organize "a bicycle tour of six states in three days", where the participants were expected to ride only during daylight hours and sleep at night. According to road maps of the United States, the most suitable geographic region appeared to be the six states of New England. Still, at least 120 miles had to be covered daily, and the terrain looked rather difficult. The idea appealed to a few other members of the club but they had no measure of the physical challenge they would be facing. It was decided that the adventure should be first undertaken by a select group of elite riders. Hence, on May 25, 1976, Jacek Rudowski, Tom Codroy and Steve Gobron left Boston with their touring bicycles. Steve endured as far as Keene, NH but there he decided to abandon the attempt due to fatigue. Jacek and Tom continued to ride on the planned route, and returned to Boston on May 27, having traveled, unsupported, approximately 360 miles covering territory that spans over Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. They had shown that a three day closed-loop bicycle tour of the six New England states was possible.

The "Second Annual Tour of New England" was a celebration of this original accomplishment, and "The Tour", as it is often referred to by its veterans, has been held annually on the Memorial Day Weekend ever since. Jacek Rudowski was the original tour leader. To put it in a time frame, the inaugural event occurred when derailer-equipped bikes were called "10-speed"; clipless pedals had not been invented;  and cycling shorts were made from wool and chamois. It was a year before Eddy Merckx had retired from racing, and several years before the term mountain bike was coined. It was then that this challenging and scenic tour became the beginning of a new tradition among New England cyclists.

I did my first Tour of New England in 1980. In those days bicycle touring was done exclusively on touring bikes. Relative to racing bikes, touring bikes were heavy, sturdy and slow. No luggage transport or sag wagon was provided. In retrospect this seems odd, especially considering the level of physical challenge. But the omission of motorized support was not due to lack of imagination or shortage of funds. Rather, the activity of bicycle touring was practiced only as a celebration of self-reliant mobility and muscle-power. At the time, the idea of a "support van" in a bicycle tour would appear to be as contradictory and irrational as the notion of using a motorized winch to assist with rock climbing.

Before the fitness industry began investing in cycling, there were not many adult cyclists in America. Cycling was not practiced as a means for losing weight or attaining general fitness. Of course, bicycle racers had to train to remain competitive, but touring cyclists were seen in a different light than they are seen today. In general, cycling was not practiced to attain fitness, but rather, fitness came as a consequence of cycling. Short jaunts were not called "training rides". Bicycle tours were neither presented as charity, nor did they have check-points, sag wagons, hotlines or registration forms. Bicycle commuters rode to and from work in work clothes. Cycling jerseys were not imprinted with imitation sponsor ads. There were no commercial touring companies. Cycletouring meant that you packed your gear and went, often without a firm itinerary, with no other reason or excuse than to enjoy the scenery and the activity of cycling itself.

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A Tour with a Firm Objective

The Tour of New England was different. There was a lot of ground to be covered. There was the firm objective of touching all 6 states in 3 days, and the route was carefully laid out to make this possible. There was relatively little margin of error. You had to train for it. In its early years it was still conducted in the style of ordinary bicycle tours of the period. But on this tour you had to know what you were doing or else you were at the risk of missing dinner. The soul of a 1990s style athletic tour ran in the hearts of its participants despite the tour's unassuming appearance (loaded with panniers, eating in diners and restaurants, etc). In this way, the Tour in its early years was as pretentious as the "training rides" or fundraising tours of the years to come; only, the disguise was in the opposite direction. We pretended to be ordinary tourists, but inside we were all business. Whether we had the best of both worlds or the worst, I am not sure. But Jacek's Tour of New England anachronistically embodied both the old and the new identities of bicycle touring. In that crossroads I enjoyed it more than I enjoyed the genuinely low-key touring practices of the period, and I also liked it more than I like the modern, high strung "power-touring" event that it turned into. This is perhaps because it has become, ironically enough, much too easy.

In 1980 a cycletourist carried, on his or her machine or body, everything that might become necessary to keep the system going for the duration of the trip. At the same time, the amount of weight carried on board had a significant impact on one's average speed. An important part of bicycle touring was the art of applying the best strategy to the particular conditions and carrying only what is necessary. The difference between the conservative "everything but the kitchen sink" approach and the daring "bare necessities" approach could be significant in speed and range. Furthermore, increased weight meant increased likelihood of structural failure; hence in actual practice excess weight was compounded by the weight of additional tools and spare parts. Wheels with more and heavier spokes, bigger tires etc. could be avoided only by hauling an unusually light pack. In short, before motor support entered the scene, Tour of New England participants were engaged in the ultimate exercise in the combination of athletics and risk-management.

For my first Tour of New England the leader was Jacek Rudowski. There were 8 or 9 riders and two of them were women. The inclusion of women was considered rather extraordinary in those days. We had maps and cue sheets, but parts of the route was in back roads too small to be put on the map. Jacek had memorized them, but not well enough to give reliable directions. It was necessary for everybody to ride together through those parts, so when we got separated we needed to regroup later. Certain towns were designated for that purpose. For ordinary touring this worked fine. But in the Tour of New England this meant that everybody, including the slowest, had to ride at what was then considered a fast pace that could be maintained only by exceptionally strong riders: 10 miles per hour including stops. That gave us 15 hours of riding time for the first day. For what we were carrying, this probably wasn't as slow as it appears now, but a good part of why we couldn't ride faster had to do with the same temporal cultural differences: Bicycle tourists did not have as much training in speed and endurance. Bicycling! magazine (That is how it was spelled in the seventies, with the exclamation mark) didn't run articles on lactate threshold or heart-rate training. There were no energy bars, athletic foods or drinks. Perhaps more importantly, as touring cyclists, we weren't used to riding hard. The intensity we ride today during club rides, training rides or fitness rides wasn't considered healthy. A rule of thumb was that if at any time you could not whistle a song while riding, then you were riding too fast and should reduce your effort. This was probably consistent with the idea that physical fitness was a welcome outcome, rather than the purpose, of riding bicycles.

In the early years the ride had at least two starting locations and times. One was 4 AM at the intersection of Routes 16 and 30 in West Newton. An earlier start, perhaps 3:15, was scheduled from Bob Fisher's house in Somerville. Generally, city dwellers were expected to start at Bob's and meet the suburbanites in West Newton. I lived only 3.5 miles from Bob's home, but to be sure to get there on time I had to leave my home at some ridiculous time, perhaps 2:45 in the morning. On my first Tour, there was a third group who joined us on Rt. 16 in Mendon as we rode near Jerry Campbell's home. I think the meeting time with them was 6:30 AM. We rode the first two ours before sunrise in light drizzle. The destination for the first day was Brattleboro, VT. The ride through the three-state corner (RI/CT/MA) up to Barre, MA was the same route as it is today, going by Thompson State Park and Wallum Lake. But after Barre the route was considerably different. The variations to Jacek's original route came as small improvements every year, but so many changes were made over the years that today the second and third days are probably not recognizable by old veterans as being part of the Tour of New England.

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Equipment, Routing

As always, I was fanatical about lightweight equipment, so I had a bike which I could lift. This is not necessarily true for all participants. A good touring bike weighed around 27 lb. as sold. When equipped with fenders and lights, racks, panniers, handlebar bag, pump and water bottles, the unloaded bike might weigh as much as a touring tandem weighs today. But that is just the beginning. For a 360 mile trip, most people would pack their rigs to capacity with tools, spare parts, clothing and food. Two panniers and a handlebar bag was the minimum. Some also had another bag carried on top of the rear rack. Front racks were not uncommon. Most everyone including me had generator lights and fenders on their bicycles. I remember something about Jerry Campbell's bike weighing 75 lb. but I am not sure if this was rumor or fact. I recall that he had a pastel green Holdsworth which actually looked better when fully loaded.

On the other end of the spectrum, there was I. I belonged to the "drilled-out tooth brush handle" school of bike touring. I would account for every ounce and leave it at home if at all possible. Eventually over the years I refined the system to carry as little as 5 lb. and toured with a racing bike with modified gearing. But on my rookie year I had two panniers and a handlebar bag, carrying only what was essential. This included, among other things, a cycling poncho. This was a waterproofed nylon rain poncho for cyclists, which attached to the brake hoods and the rider's legs by means of shock cords. It wasn't particularly heavy and packed well, but when it was in use the air drag was tremendous. Combined with fenders and mudflap, and nothing but wool underneath, you could ride in the rain all day without water ever touching your skin --unless of course, you were sweating, but we were doing only 10 miles per hour. On the first day of my first Tour we did ride in the rain almost all day. I remember Dick Lewis replacing a broken spoke in his front wheel while the rest of us waited under an awning. Spare spokes were commonly carried strapped onto chainstays and some expensive touring bikes had brazed-on bosses for this purpose. From today's perspective it seems ironic that we, being some of the most competent touring cyclists in the area, were not expected to be able to average much more than 10 mph including stops, but we were, on the other hand, expected to be able to remove the freewheel and replace a drive-side spoke in a fast-food restaurant parking lot with only carry-on tools. We spent the first night in Susse Chalet in Brattleboro, which is now Motel 6. We arrived just before sunset as we had planned. The now famous Steak Out Restaurant was conveniently across the lawn from the motel's parking lot.

The second day was the hardest, covering 119 hilly miles across New Hampshire. We started riding early but not in the dark. The main challenge was to arrive in Dover, NH, not necessarily before dark, but at least before 9 PM. What's the hurry, you ask? Jacek had arranged with the motel management in Dover to keep the restaurant open until 9 PM, on the grounds that for us to start at dawn and make it to Dover before their regular closing hour of 8 PM did not seem feasible. I remember one year we still missed it by half an hour. I called for pizza which was delivered from town and we had a pizza party in my room, an impromptu departure from our nutrition strategy. I think that was my second year. The reason that we were late was that Jacek, who was still the only one among us who could get there by himself, had three flat tires in a row. The problem was not with his tube but with his casing. Even though several people offered him their spare casings, Jacek insisted on self-reliance, and fixed it using only what he had with him. This was more a matter of principle than necessity. Jacek's spare had some miles on it, not to mention a sizable cut which was earlier repaired with "barge cement". When he repaired his third flat it was already dark. Then it started to drizzle. Some time thereafter Jill Eisman reported a broken rear derailleur cable. By that time it was pitch dark, and she didn't want everybody to stop and wait once again. She decided to continue in her smallest cog until we got to the Motel. If you have done this tour then you do know what it means to do the last 15 miles of the second day in your second-highest gear in a cross-chained combination. Now imagine doing this while carrying a load that equals about half your body weight, stuffed in panniers. One of our problems was to find our way. Another was visibility and safety for ourselves. On wet tar our generators did not cast as much light as we desired. It appeared that I had the best headlight (Union Halogen with Sanyo generator) and Bob Fisher had the best taillight (Berec with 4.5 volt battery). We formed a string of white and red lights with me up front and Bob at the back. Jacek was just behind me and called the turns. He had an amazing ability to lead us through the darkness. He would say things like "left turn after a red barn in half a mile" when visibility was 30 feet. How he knew where we were I have no idea. But we made no wrong turns. After that year we all had accurate cue sheets. The motel in Dover has changed hands so many times that I don't remember whether it was Ramada Inn, Quality Inn or Friendship Inn at the time. In following years there were times when most people would make it before 9 PM but some would roll in afterwards. I once ordered a take out meal from the motel restaurant for my roommate who was late to arrive. This motel/restaurant is at a highway interchange several miles before we reach town and there is no other eatery in the area.

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1989 --

In 1989 Jamie King became the tour leader. He moved our second night accommodation to downtown Dover and the tactical challenge of finding food was eliminated. By that time the general pace of the tour had also increased considerably, but I do remember some riders still arriving after dark. To put this to perspective, over the years arrival times in Dover have become as early as 2:30 PM. My earliest arrival is 4 PM. Today the route of the second day between Keene and Epping has completely changed. Also, augmenting our nutritional needs with a fundraising breakfast at a volunteer fire station about 10 miles into the ride has become a new tradition. Connecticut River puts a natural barrier into our path. To make the route as short as possible we used to stay mostly on main roads. The two bridges we could use were in Nashua and Manchester. The ride through Manchester includes countless traffic lights, and one could easily get lost in the city. I preferred the southern option through Nashua, but just outside Nashua traffic was hectic. After Jamie became the tour leader we started seeing some changes which were variations on the northern route. We didn't go through the downtown sections and avoided the busiest streets of Manchester. Then we had a new route which avoided Peterborough. The present route of secondary roads through Hancock and New Boston is a delight in comparison to the old routes. Surprisingly it ends up being not much longer either.

The third day is the shortest. It used to be even shorter, about 85-90 miles depending on where you started. Now it seems to be more than 100 miles. The brief incursion into the state of Maine remained unchanged. The original route included Rt. 28 in Massachusetts which is avoided now. Instead, it follows Rt. 1B along the coast. On my second year I remember that in Haverhill Dick Lewis stripped a freewheel (more specifically he sheared the splines off one of the earliest designs of the Shimano 600 freehub). This was the kind of failure that there was no way to repair with carry-on tools. What we needed was a bike shop during Memorial Day holiday. This seemed impossible. We were trying to figure out how to obtain the home phone number of a local bike mechanic. As we were looking for a pay phone, a red van pulled up and the driver asked if he could help. We asked him if he knew anybody who rode bicycles. It turned out that he rode quite a bit himself and owned the biggest Schwinn dealer in Massachusetts. We just couldn't believe our luck. He opened his shop. Dick bought a whole new rear wheel and continued with the trip.

The ride also went through crowded areas of Cambridge and Somerville at the end. Even after the Somerville start was moved to Jamie and Lindy King's home in West Roxbury, I think those who started there rode through Harvard Square and Watertown before the finish. But now that has changed too.

With the changing times and Jamie's leadership the ride has become easier then it used to be, and many more people are enjoying it now. Typically between 25 and 30 people do the ride every year. But it still is a very challenging trip. The terrain is hilly, especially across New Hampshire. To ride 120 miles a day three days in a row in hilly terrain is still not an easy task for the uninitiated. The weather can be unpredictable.

In the first year of luggage transport it got very cold and wet in the afternoon. I remember riding next to shivering, bare-armed riders who wore trash bags for 40 miles while their Polarfleece and Gore-Tex clothes, hats and gloves traveled ahead of them in a heated mini-van. In the 17 years that I did the trip the temperature extremes have been 100 degrees and 39 degrees during riding time. Both of these temperatures were reached on the same trip, about 30 hours apart. Until two years ago I didn't take advantage of luggage transport, so I am not too familiar with it, but I think it started as "sag service" which looked like it might attract too many people unfit to do the tour, and the following year the format was adjusted by replacing the sag wagon with luggage transport.

Before I changed to the luggage transport method I also did a longer version of the self-supported tour by starting and ending in Oxford instead of the Boston area. This was in 1988. In this 470 mile long "Tour of New England Plus" I added to my itinerary New York to be the seventh state to be covered in three days. I carried no lights and on Saturday rode 190 solo miles between sunrise and sunset to arrive in Brattleboro, where I met with the regular tour. I went northwest over the Berkshires into New York, took Rt. 22 north and went back east on Rt. 7, which becomes Rt. 9 in Vermont. The following year, Lindy King did the same route with me. I thought that as the tour became more athletically oriented and had van support, this longer and hillier option might gain popularity, but it didn't.

One thing that hasn't changed is the festive food party at the end. It used to be at Bob and Joan Fisher's home in Somerville. Now the tradition is moved to Jamie and Lindy King's home in West Roxbury. The amount of pizza consumed has increased as did the number of tour participants, but nothing else has changed otherwise. It is still held in the same happy atmosphere of celebration.

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