Midnight Marathon Tips

Recently we’ve been on about the Midnight Marathon, when 700+ cyclists take a train to the Boston Marathon start line and, at midnight, bike back. Well, the race sold out, we posted some suggestions (*) on how to participate if you didn’t snag a ticket (we did). Today the Boston SOS asked for suggestions on their website. As a bike commuter, professional evangelizer and possible blowhard, here are some suggestions to having a safe, fun ride:

  • Choose a comfortable bike right for the conditions. I, for instance, have three bikes to choose from:
    •  I could take my road bike. The pros: it’s fast and rides dreamily. The cons: do I want to have my carbon bike jostled amongst other bikes on the train, if the road is wet it won’t be that great a ride, it doesn’t have a fender, and I’d have to wear by not-walky bike shoes. Also, if I want to carry a bag (with layers and street shoes, perhaps) it’s less conducive to a comfortable riding position.
    • I could ride my mountain/commuter bike. The pros: it’s reasonably road-worthy. There’s less of a chance of flatting out compared with the road bike. I can walk in the cleats, and it’s a little more comfortable from a bag position. Oh, and it has a fender if it’s wet. The cons: it’s certainly not up to roadie speed, but it’s also no slouch. So I might not be taking pulls, but I can probably do some drafting. Plus, I got the brakes repaired last spring. The granny gear is a little sticky to get in and out of, but I doubt I’ll need it on the mostly-downhill route. I’ll probably go this direction, unless I really want to go fast. But in the dark, speed is not necessarily your friend.
    • I could ride a Hubway. The pros: pretty comfy for short rides, and it has a basket. The cons: It’s heavy as sin. And slow—good luck breaking 20 mph except on the longest downhill. It’s a bear to get on to the train. And at the end of the ride, I’d have to bike it back to Central and then walk home at 2:00. Oh, wait, I’d be on a Hubway. 3:00. Plus, if they don’t waive fees (they probably will) it’s a pricey ride.
  • Wear comfortable clothing, bring layers, and if it might rain, bring something rainworthy. Last year, we stood in the rain for an hour while everyone detrained, and then the first uphill to Hopkinton was pretty wet. It wasn’t cold—the next day would be scorching hot, remember—but with wind and rain it was not a good time to be in jeans. This year looks dry and seasonably cool, with temperatures during the ride in the upper 30s and light winds. Certainly bring and wear gloves. And remember that at 20 mph there’s a bit of a wind chill. Brr!
  • Bring some flat-fixin’ stuff. Other people will have it, sure. And bicyclists love each other. (Last week, after I blew out a tire in Arlington, a passerby brought me a new tube and floor pump. Hooray!) But still. Bring a patch kit, and maybe even a spare tube. If you can’t use it, someone else can.
  • Bring lights. You know what, bold isn’t enough here. BRING LIGHTS. And while we are at it, WEAR A HELMET. First, lights. State law stipulates a front headlight and a rear reflector or light. Bring a rear light. Or two. The more light, the merrier. Sure, everyone else will have lights. But there are cars along the route. And you want them to see you. Plus, everyone else has lights which is really cool:

    While we’re at it, helmets. For god’s sake, wear a helmet. I do not need to explain this.
  • Obey the laws. The lights are a law. Staying in the right lane is a law. Not running red lights is a law. While you might skip the letter of the law, at least comply with the idea of the law. Don’t get hurt, and don’t unnecessarily piss off motorists (not that you’ll see many). And don’t bike down 135 at 40 mph in the left lane. The roads are open to traffic. There’s just not much of it.
  • Don’t get your ass kicked by the police. Okay, that was a Chris Rock reference; more to the point: if the cops show up, do what they say. Last year, a couple of Southborough cops showed up at Southborough, and then left when they saw there wasn’t much fuss. But last year pretty much no one knew what was going on except those of us on the train. This year, we’ve been all over the Globe and social media, so there might be cops out patrolling in various towns along the route. They’re there for our safety. Be nice to them.
  • Know the route. The route is well-marked and pretty intuitive. Basically, follow the port-a-johns. A quick primer for the route:
    • Start on Route 135. It’s downhill at the start. A lot.
    • There is a traffic light in Ashland on a downhill. You might be going 40, so you might have to brake. A lot.
    • There are DIAGONAL RAILROAD TRACKS on both sides of Framingham. Last year it was wet and there were lots of crashes and some injuries here. Even if it’s dry, slow down and turn to cross them perpendicular. And let others know about it, too.
    • 135 merges with 16 in Wellesley, but there’s no real turn.
    • You’ll begin to see some more traffic around Route 128.
    • About a mile after 128—half a mile past the Woodland T stop and Newton Wellesley—the course turns up Commonwealth Avenue at mile 17.4. These are the Newton Hills. There’s a firehouse on your right. (I grew up a block from here, too.) Take a right on to Commonwealth. If you get to West Newton and the Mass Pike entrance, you’ve gone (a mile) too far.
    • There are three major hills in Newton. The first climbs about 100 feet over half a mile, and there is then a gradual descent to Walnut Street (City Hall). For there, it’s another 100 feet up Heartbreak Hill, followed by a flat section across Centre Street. Then it’s another 100 feet up to Hammond Street, followed by a screaming descent through BC.
    • Once you cross in to Boston, traffic will pick up. The streetcar tracks are in the median to your left.
    • At about mile 22, you take a right on to Chestnut Hill Avenue and a left on to Beacon Street. A few very important notes:
      • Chestnut Hill Avenue has embedded streetcar tracks. Stay in the right lane to avoid these. There shouldn’t be much traffic, but this is not a place to speed up. I can tell you from experience that if you put your wheel in the track you will go down. The one time I did that I somehow flipped over the bike, unclipped and somehow landed on my feet, but I wouldn’t want to try that again.
      • At the bottom of the hill in Cleveland Circle, you take a left on to Beacon. There’s a pretty elaborate light, and you’ll be taking a left on to the inbound lanes to the right of the streetcar tracks in the median.
      • Speaking of which, holy streetcar tracks, batman. There are lots of tracks in Cleveland Circle. Slow the fuck down and don’t die, okay?
    • Beacon Street is nicely paved and has a bike lane. And some traffic. Watch the downhill in to the light at Washington Square.
    • After Kenmore Square, the marathon route crosses under Mass Ave. At the Bowker Overpass (Charlesgate) get over to the left (there’s a left-hand bike lane) to go through the underpass.
    • The marathon route then takes a right on to Hereford. This street is one way in the opposite direction. It’s only two blocks, and it’s not well-traveled at this time of night. Plus it may already be closed to traffic and certainly won’t have any parked cars. Still, go slowly and watch for oncoming traffic. Or go another block to Gloucester (not quite the official course).
    • Take a left on Boylston. And sprint to the finish!
  • Hang out at the end, especially if you are an early finisher. The marathon folks had no issue with us hanging around in their finish pens last year; how nice of them! Cheer on your compadres as they come down Boylston. Make some friends, and see if there’s anyone going home in your direction (or to an all-night eatery; stupid Boston won’t let us drink after 2 a.m.). Then, once you’re ready, head home. With 1000 cyclists (or so), for the first few miles, you might have some company.
It should be fun!
(*) According to the Midnight Marathon FAQ, bikes won’t be allowed on other trains. However, according to MBTA policies, they are. If you are taking another train (9:20 to Franklin, 8:30 to Framingham) consider printing out or having on your phone the MBTA bike policies, and be firm but polite with both MBCR staff and non-biking customers. Kindness goes a long way. And if they don’t let you on and you’re still keen to ride, you can probably bike to the start by the time the train loads, travels, unloads and then we all make our way to the start.

Moving Bicycles, part deux

Update: the train sold out in 12 hours.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about trainloads of bicycles. The Boston Globe has an article about the bike train, and it’s trending in their most viewed list. It should  be exciting; I’m hoping the line for tickets isn’t too long over at South Station (I’m headed over there later to buy my ticket).

Now, it’s entirely possible that fewer than 700 bicyclists will buy tickets, and there will be no mad rush or secondary market. It’s also possible the train will sell out. (I’m only buying one ticket, buying extras to make a profit seems a bit uncouth.) In that case, here is Ari’s Unofficial Guide (I’ve written other unofficial guides in the past) To Getting To Southborough If You Can’t Get On The Train. In order of feasibility:

  1. Take the 8:30 and bike out to Hopkinton from Framingham. It’s 7 miles from Framingham to Hopkinton, which is only 4 miles further than the ride from Southborough. The train gets in at 9:20, which gives you a good hour and a half to bike up the hill to the start. If you were really keen, you could bike out to Southborough (6.5 miles) and join the ride there. One caveat is that they may be somewhat reticent to put a bunch of bikes on this train, but since Framingham is the final stop getting all the bikes off won’t delay any other passengers. Just make sure to leave room for the “normals” on the train. Need to kill an hour? There’s a bar in Ashland right on the course. Hopkinton isn’t dry, but there don’t seem to be many bars there. Update: The MBCR tweeted that it is a “regular train with room for only a few bikes.” So if you take it, arrive early, board early, and then get ready to get off quickly in Framingham. This train turns and is the 9:45 back to Boston, so it can’t stand to get delayed by an hour. Make sure to leave a couple of cars bike-free for non-cyclists. And consider buying a higher-zone pass to give the T some extra dollar bills.
  2. Take the 9:20 to Franklin. At 13.1 miles, this is a longer ride than the Framingham option, but it does leave a bit later. The train gets in to Franklin at 10:12, more than half an hour before the extra train gets to Southborough. From there it’s a ride mostly along back roads with one big hill at the end in to Hopkinton (the ride from Norfolk, the stop before Franklin, is not much longer, and you get an extra 7 minutes to ride). It’s probably a very nice ride, but you should be able to ride it in an hour to meet the rest of the gang from the Extra. Assuming a 45 minute run time, the Extra will arrive at 10:45 and should be done unloading by 11:15, and it’s a 15 minute-or-so ride to the start from there. If you can ride 12 m.p.h. you should be able to get to the start around the same time. (i.e. don’t try to do this on a Hubway, but if you’re a roadie, you should be fine.) See the suggestions above to keep the train, and yourself, on schedule.
  3. Just get on your bike and ride! Who’s not up for a metric century in the dark, anyway? You could trace Paul Revere’s footsteps (that’s what the holiday is all about—it’s not just a random day off for government workers) and ride up the Minuteman to Lexington and on to Concord. (This is more like 70 miles, and more if you follow Paul Revere’s route through Charlestown and Medford.) Then drop south to Cortaville/Southborough, meet the train, and ride on.
  4. Play coy, catch the 11:00 to Framingham and ride from there. For this option, get on the 11:00 train and buy a ticket to Framingham. Tell the conductor that you live there and are riding home, and that is within the bike regulations of the T. The train gets in to Framingham at 11:50, so you would have plenty of time to detrain and bike backwards on the course to go and meet the rest of the ride (or just hang out in Framingham; the first riders will shoot down the early hills in 15 minutes easily). You wouldn’t get the full experience, but it would work, in a pinch. Major caveat: even if you cite policy, they might not let you on this train.
  5. Play coy and try to catch the 11:00 to Southborough. (Not Suggested) Word on the street is that bikes won’t be allowed on the late train. There’s a canard that it will be full from Red Sox traffic from the game which starts at 1:00; I don’t believe this. But they don’t want a ton of bikes clogging the train and slowing it down; that’s why they’re running the extra. Still, it might work as an option, but I wouldn’t suggest it. If you were to take it, you’d arrive at midnight, and have a tough time getting to Hopkinton by the start, although you could probably catch some stragglers. If you are going to do this, I’d suggest buying a ticket to Worcester, claiming that’s your final destination, and getting off at Southborough. Unless there’s no one else getting off there. Have fun biking home from Worcester. (Actually, this train turns in Worcester and runs back to South Station, so you’d get a nice, dark train ride. Fun!) Anyway, don’t do this.
Whatever you do, be sure to express gratitude towards the MBCR employees—who are mostly volunteering for the event!—and the T in general. And ride safe.

How do you move 1000 bicyclists by train?

This seems like it should be a rhetorical question. It’s not.

In 2010, about 70 bicyclists got onboard the late train to Worcester at 11:00, biked to the start of the Boston Marathon at midnight, and rode back in to the city. In 2011, 250 bikers showed up. Last year, by most estimations, 750 bicyclists made the trip, 150 on an early twilight ride and 600 on the traditional midnight ride.

If history is any guide—if the event triples again in size—2000 bicyclists will attempt to cram aboard the train and get 25 miles west to Hopkinton. Even if the growth of the event slows, a good 1000 bicyclists will likely show up to the event. (It is being advertised as “limited space” right now—we’ll see what happens.) The issue here is that with 600 bicyclists last year, the MBTA (well, really the MBCR, which operates commuter rail service) had to couple two trains together with 14 cars in order to accommodate these travelers. Any significant increase will have to have advanced planning, or some riders will get left behind.

While no one will lose their job if they can’t fit on the train (i.e. no one is missing work due to an overcrowded train), it would be lost revenue for the T, and bad publicity. The event garners some news coverage and probably will continue to do so, and if these cyclists are unable to cram aboard the Midnight Marathon train they’re less likely to take their bikes aboard trains the rest of the summer, and genrally at off-peak times. This is discretionary ridership which adds revenue without adding operating costs (or crowding rush hour trains). It’s in the T’s best interest to make sure everyone gets onboard and happy.

The problem is that unless changes are made, the train is nearly maxed out. So, there need to be some strategies to maximize the number of cyclists per train, streamline boarding and detraining, and have enough room to get everyone to Southborough, and staging them not in an intersection. Oh, and garner enough revenue for the MBTA that it is worthwhile to run extra trains to accommodate these passengers.

Maximizing cyclists on each train. Last year, when lines of cyclists snaked through South Station and on to the platforms, there were few guidelines to maximizing the number of bikes on board. The T ran single-level coaches (so cyclists didn’t have to haul bikes up and down stairs—this is probably for the best) with, for the most part 2-3 seating. For the most part, bikes were set in to the three-seat side of the car, and people sat in the couplets. This meant that, for all intents and purposes, 40% of the seats on the train were occupied.

This can be improved. With a minimal bit of cajoling, three bikes can be fit in each row. This means that every six rows of seats can see 15 bikes and 15 passengers. How? The first row has three bikes and two seats, so there’s a leftover passenger. The second row has three bikes and two seats, so there are now two leftover passengers. This goes on until you get to the sixth row which has five extra passengers and, very conveniently, five seats. Fill those up and start from scratch. You’ve raised capacity from 40% to 50%. With a seven car train and 120 seats per car, you can now accommodate 420 passengers.

How do you assure that there are three bikes per seat? Get volunteer riders-turned-ushers to enforce these rules. Have them walk down the cars from either end and assure there are three bikes to a seat and nothing goes empty. This doesn’t have to fall on T employees (who were mostly amazed at the turnout last year); I’m sure a couple dozen volunteers could be marshalled in to showing up at 8 to make sure everyone gets on the train. I’d probably be one.

Streamline boarding and detraining. Boarding is relatively simple at South Station. It’s time consuming, but with wide, level platforms it is relatively easy. The goal should be to get people on the train early, and board multiple cars at once. Last year people seemed to board one car until it was full and then move to the next. If we know how many bikes can fit in each car (and we should, see above) we can shepherd carloads of cyclists down the platform to the further-down cars and have everyone board at the same time.

Last year was that the extra train called in didn’t arrive until after 10, and people spent a while waiting (although the service did leave on time). If there are multiple trains, when a train is full, it should go. Last year the train had to be staged—detrained in sections—which more than doubled the time it sat at the station. In fact, here’s an idea. The 11:00 train makes all stops to Southborough. It should be boarded full except for one car, which can be reserved for “normal” passengers, and leave at 11:00 and make all stops. A second special train could begin boarding a bit later—say, at 11:00—and make an express run to Southborough (in about 35 minutes). It could cross over at some point and detrain on the inbound track (since it would then turn back to Boston) at the same time as the first train, doubling the speed people can get off. If there was a need for three trains, an early express could make a run out to Southborough and clear the tracks before the later trains arrived. It’s not like there is a lot of traffic on the line on Sunday evenings, so all of this would be possible.

In fact, there is a large parking lot on the inbound side, which would be a better place to assemble than last year when cyclists took over the streets (not that there was much traffic).

Sell and collect tickets. This worked well last year, for the most part. One change is that this year many participants may use smart phones to buy their tickets, and a question is whether there would be an issue with checking these tickets en masse. A certain suggestion would be to cordon off the platform at boarding time, and check tickets before boarding, so conductors wouldn’t have to ply the coaches en route.

Finally, it might be advisable to suggest that Midnight Marathoners buy a higher-zoned ticket to help the T cover the costs of this train. If the ride organizers told everyone to buy a Zone 8 one-way ticket, it would only be a dollar or two more for each rider, but it would be a few thousand extra for the cash-strapped T. Furthermore, requesting that riders buy a specific ticket ahead of time (Zone 9, for instance, which otherwise serves only the TF Green airport) could give a pretty good read on expected turnout. They are doing a tremendous service to the community by running extra-long trains, or extra sections, and putting a little extra money—which most anyone riding their bike at midnight on Marathon Monday can afford—in their coffers is good for all.