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Monday, October 8, 2018

The Void 2018

The Void, held October 5-6, 2018, was my second rally. The learning continues.

I'm the pillion. In the first rally I did with Jeff, the MD 2020 in May 2018, my role was mostly just to hold the flag. I had seen the bonus list but didn't have the tools to do my own analysis, so I was limited to making comments based on intuition. I complained about being just a "sack of potatoes" on the back of the bike, and while Jeff assured me I was a "lovely sack of potatoes," he agreed that it would be more fun for both of us if I was more engaged.

Therefore, before the bonus list for the Void was released, Jeff introduced me to the spread sheet he uses for rally planning and analysis.  As soon as the list came out (very late) on the Friday night before the rally, I was able to populate my copy of the spread sheet and dump the data into Base Camp.  Then the two of us sat there for several hours independently poring over possible routes.

This rally had 3 possible starting locations for the "24 hour riders" (there was a 10 hour ride too), with everyone finishing in Fredericksburg VA. We were starting in Reading PA, which was the largest group. Despite the label "24 hour riders," the rally began on Friday at no earlier than 8:20 east coast time and no later than 9:30 a.m.; and concluded 31 hours after the start time (i.e., at 3:20 p.m. on Saturday, if you started at 8:20 a.m. on Friday, plus a minute to allow for time start confirmation.) Riders had to rest at least 3 hours and earned points for resting up to 3 additional hours.

Our approaches to planning were different.  Jeff developed and compared multiple candidate routes while I just added and subtracted from one.  When we compared notes, my candidate was the better backbone, as verified by comparison to his alternatives, so we focused on refining that one.  After more tinkering on Saturday morning, including trading possible bonuses for rest, the route was settled.  This rally didn't provide many options.  It wasn't as if there was if there were two or more possible routes, either of which might be a winner.  There was one possible winning route for Reading starters, and the only question was how many of the bonuses on that route each rider was capable of getting. Jeff is a polished rallier, but not aggressive rider, so riding a winning route well and getting into the top third of the finishers is a good result for us. Could we do it?

All the bonuses were worth either 13 points or 39 points. There were four bonuses on our initial candidate route that were 13 points each and consumed more time than average and, therefore, we designated them potential "drops" if necessary to get the route to close. There was a fifth 13-pointer that was such a stretch we didn't put into our proposed route at all, but which could have been a possible add-on if there was no traffic anywhere, anytime. (Luck is a part of rallying, and it doesn't always have to be bad!)  We dropped one of the four 13-pointers at the outset to assure we'd make the finish without a penalty. That gave us 33 planned bonuses (a mix of 39 point and 13 point ones), three of which were designated as potential drops.

Going into the 8th of our planned bonuses on the day of the ride, we had a pretty good margin over our predicted time and even began toying with the idea of the add-on, but then we got tangled in a traffic jam.  Ultimately we ended up pitching all of the other three contingency drops en route so that we'd finish with 30 bonuses (or "boni" in rally lingo).

Many of Jeff's past routines worked for us, but it's a continued learning process.  We picked a start location that was on the right side of a divided highway for our intended travel and checked it out the night before to assure our start receipt would have an accurate date and time.  The location was a 7-11 and when we asked what time was on the register we also explained why we wanted to know.  A woman, who I think was the owner, was seated near the door and asked a few questions about what we were doing. When we returned the next morning, she had already briefed the morning sales clerk about what we needed!  I brought a few things to the counter (Gatorade and snacks) at about 8:15, and the clerk scanned them in. Then we waited. At exactly 8:20 she hit the check-out button, gave me the receipt, and after texting it in, we were on our way!

For the rest bonus receipts, we also used a convenience store, next to our hotel.  For our rest-end receipt, I again arrived early and chatted up the clerk so she knew what I needed.  Despite the line, she had me at the register with items scanned at 6:28 a.m. (we needed a 6:29 a.m. receipt), and hit the button as soon as her register said 6:29.  Many thanks to all three of these wonderful women!

We were reasonably efficient at the bonuses.  I had the rally book and rules on my phone as well as my "cheat sheet" showing the order of the bonuses and notes about the picture, so I could double check Jeff, review all the details as needed en route, and answer any questions about the locations.  Jeff logged as we went, so there was no paper work issue at the end.  I knew his routine now, so if there was any variation I could question it, and that way we kept double-checking each other.  All that, together with Jeff's experience in taking good photos, helped us get a clean score at the end.  Nothing we thought we got was lost at the scoring table.

There was one area in which I think we got better at as the day went on - traffic anticipation. Since different GPS systems seem to react with different speeds and accuracy, it is helpful to look at multiple sources. Further, the GPS looks at the goals you've given it and the next location, and can't fully integrate options like "what if we reversed these?" or "what should we anticipate later today?" After we got caught unexpectedly in a jam caused by a truck with a wide load that had slid off the truck bed (!), I started doing more "looking ahead" on Waze and Google maps to see if there were things farther ahead on the route to anticipate.

The other learning (for me) was on placement of the rest stop.  We planned to do our first Saturday-only bonus at midnight and then continue on.  But with the earlier drops in the schedule, we arrived too early at our first Saturday-only bonus in Baltimore and so had dead-time while we waited for midnight.  Jeff had considered the hotel options in Baltimore, at least the part we were passing through, and concluded that there was nothing decent. (On rallies, the criteria for "decent" is pretty much "nothing that crawls, bites, or is contagious, and has safe parking for the bike" but with that last criteria included, it can still be hard to meet on some of our routes!)  However, had we stayed in Baltimore after the last of the Friday-only bonuses, we might have reduced that dead-time, even if we had to use part of it to get to a decent hotel.  That might have allowed us to put another 13-point bonus into the mix on Saturday.  But, that's the wonder and beauty of hindsight.

The bonuses were a typical collection of oddities, mostly large sculptures of some sort. Our first stop after leaving Reading was The Red Caboose Motel, which is an entire motel composed of cabooses turned into rooms. We continued on, picking up photos of a cow at the Turkey Hill Experience, a donut, a dragon, and a fork. I started to describe each of these as large, but it was so repetitive! From here on, unless stated otherwise, if we had to photograph it, it was large!

The next was a change of pace. A Keith Haring sculpture of Figure on a Dog actually had artistic merit. Then we were off to a photograph a very unattractive attempt to replicate a set of barbells that was sitting on the edge of an equally unattractive parking lot. We crossed from Pennsylvania into New Jersey for a photo of a sculpture of a fireman made of tin, which was an immense improvement artistically from the barbells, although lacking the whimsy of Keith Haring.

The most touching stop of the day was the statue of an eagle clutching a mangled I-beam from the World Trade Center at the top of Mount Mitchell in Monmouth County NJ. It was erected as a memorial to the county residents who lost their lives in the attack. The Mount Mitchell park has a stunning view of the NYC skyline and would be worth a stop for that reason alone, even if not on a crazy scavenger hunt.

An eight-foot replica of Bruce Springsteen’s guitar graced the lawn of the library in Belmar NJ. After that, we found a piece of salt water taffy in Long Beach NJ towering over the adjacent candy store; a fence decked with glass insulators from electric poles; Lucy the Elephant, who is well-known to anyone who has spent time in southern NJ; a Muffler Man-Halfwit” fiber glass figure in the parking lot of a burger joint; a Muffler Man variation dressed as a Viking; and the cow in front of Cowtown, another recognizable southern NJ sight for anyone who has traversed Rt. 40.  (We did not have to photograph the Muffler Man cum cowboy that is also there).

Moving on, we made our only Delaware stop – a doctor’s bag, complete with stethoscope. In Maryland, our first stop was a metal dinosaur sculpture; followed by the “Obvious Bus Stop” in Baltimore; the flamingo on the outside of CafĂ© Han in Baltimore’s Hampden district; and a crash test dummy named “Lamont” outside the National Highway Safety Board in Glen Burney MD. And then we rested.

The next day brought a statue of Jim Henson and Kermit on the campus of the University of Maryland, where Henson studied; a “man” built of duct work in the parking lot of an HVAC contractor; Yogi Bear at Jellystone campground in Luray VA; a cyborg with a TRUMP sign in front of it (only to make me cringe?); one of the many LOVE sculptures in Virginia, this one with a fishing theme, in Waynesboro VA; the flower pots near the watering can (other side of the bridge) in Staunton VA; a “sculpture” of a butt (yeah, really) for which we had to pose as if kissing it (thanks, Scott); a rooster, which we’ve been to before in Scottsboro (and we’d been to the flamingo too – something about birds?); and finally a tower painted to look like a giant nutcracker, which was draped with Christmas lights. We made it to rally headquarters in Frederickburg VA with about 10-15 minutes to spare, despite the many lights and congestion on Plank Rd., did a double-check of the paperwork before handing it in, and stopped the clock with several minutes to spare!

As anticipated, the results were tightly bunched.  Scores were calculated and then (for 24 hour riders) subtracted from 2018 -- so lower scores were better.  Ties were broken based on points per mile, and even there the margins were razor thin.

For the twenty-five Reading PA starters, spots 1 and 2 went to Jeff & Erin Arsenault and Ken & Felicia Aman, respectively, each of which logged 664 points.  That suggests they did the same route we had initially looked at with all four of the 13-point options. Very challenging! Congrats to them on completing it! Steve & Charlotte Gallant, took third place with 677 points, having apparently skipped one of the 13 pointers -- i.e., they did what we hoped to do. Another terrific performance!  Fourth place was James Epley at 711 (not sure how to get to that number except possibly having all the same points as Steve and Charlotte but with a shorter rest bonus?).  We took fifth with 716, although the 6th place finisher, Steve Giffen, had the exact same score and the rankings were purely a matter of the points-per-mile tie breaker.  Dave Schroeder was 26 points lower and then there was a bit of gap.

The points per mile calculation seems to me to be a theoretically good tie-breaker but, in practice, far from optimal.  In the ten-hour rally, the lowest score was 238 by Eric Bray who is a terrific rider. Well-deserved!  The next lowest score was 277, which if scored purely on points would have resulted in a five-way tie for second place, including among the Cover trio (Marty Cover, Lisa Cover Hecker, and Steve Rufo).  At least two of those riders rode together, and all five likely rode the same route, yet you'd never know that from the odometer readings. As with any calculation, garbage-in/garbage-out, and so without normalizing odometer readings, the rankings based on points per mile are somewhat arbitrary.  All five of those riders deserve kudos for a great ride, yet two got podium finishes and three did not.  Perhaps points per minute would be fairer, since at least everyone is on the same clock?

Rankings aside (which are just icing on the cake), for us this was fabulous ride. We learned more about working as a team. We had fun and saw some interesting stuff. (I really liked the Fork in the road, the Keith Haring's "Figure Balancing on Dog" (right), and The Red Caboose Motel). And, it didn't even rain (except on the ride to Reading).  Many thanks to Scott for making this event -- poised to become the premier rally in the east in 2021 -- happen again this year, so that I got to enjoy it live!

By the end of the rally, Jeff was checking to assure I'd be on board for the Rock 'n' Ride for next April. Of course!  Looking forward to more time "onjeffsbike."

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