Cool Ride! Crotona Midnight Run, Midwinter, Uh, Fun?

Doing in the dark and snow. New York's Crotona Midnight Run, held in February, pits you and your motorcycle against the clock and the elements. Two wheels never felt so cold. But it's fun right? **By Mark Zimmerman.

The inaugural Crotona Midnight Run took place on New Year's Eve, 1911. It's taken place every year since, except for a hiatus during the first and second World War. Although the Run now takes place in mid-February (the 87th Midnight Run will be held on February 19, 2005) the timed road-run format and the challenges facing the riders remain much as they were during the early years. Riders must be able to follow the route sheet and maintain a 30-mph average speed while contending with bitter cold, darkness, ice-spotted roads and, if it comes to it, snow. Fortunately, most motorcycles now come equipped with electric headlights, an unaffordable option for many riders during those early years. Originally sponsored by the Crotona Motorcycle Club, the Midnight Run was adopted by the Ramapo Motorcycle Club in 1999. The 2004 run marked the event's 86th anniversary.

Friday, February 20, 11:15 a.m.-2:05 p.m.

I'm thrashing like a madman trying to get ready for another Midnight Run. As usual I've waited until the last minute before making any serious attempt to prepare myself. At this point I've yet to come up with a practical route-sheet holder and some way of illuminating it. Riding with a flashlight in my mouth just doesn't seem like the hot setup. Since I'm blind as a mole, the task is somewhat more difficult than it would be if I had anything like normal vision. This year I'm riding a brand-new Moto Guzzi California EV Touring, so at least I don't have to worry about breakdowns.

After two hours and a rampage through the junk bin, I've cobbled together what I need. An ancient license-plate light controlled by a toggle switch is bolted to an el-cheapo clipboard. Power is fed through the Guzzi's accessory electrical outlet. Velcro holds the temperature controller for my heated socks and gloves to the top of the clipboard. The whole megillah is tie-wrapped and velcroed to the top of my magnetic tank bag. It ain't rocket science, but it works just fine.

Friday, 8:30 p.m.

Friday night I knock off a quick 100 miles just to acclimate myself to riding in the cold and dark. During the ride it starts to spit snow and ice, not enough to make the road slippery, but more than enough to make me wonder why on earth I want to do another Midnight Run.

Shortly after 11:00 p.m., I return home and flick on the Weather Channel only to have some chirping imbecile inform me that Saturday will be rainy. Snow and cold I can deal with, but the prospect of riding through a February night while soaked to the bone sucks. I lie awake trying to dream up some excuse to bail. Since I doubt Jamie will buy any of them, I resign myself to my fate.

Saturday, February 21, noon-10:00 p.m.

I can't believe it—no rain, bright sunshine, temperatures in the high 40s. All afternoon I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, expecting a nor'easter to blow in at any second. By 9 p.m. little has changed on the weather front. The night is clear, with a few scattered clouds and temperatures in the low 30s. Oddly, I'm somewhat disappointed—harsh conditions are what make the Midnight Run a challenge. Two slightly addled riding buddies have agreed to make the run with me.

As we head to the staging area, about one hour south, it begins to flurry. My spirits rise.

The trip down is uneventful. The Guzzi works fine; its heated grips keep my digits warmer than I'd expected. I've managed to score a mint pair of Vetter Hippo Hands (circa 1974). Between the grips and the fleece-lined Hippos my hands are as warm as they'd be on any summer day. Last year I damn near froze my toes off. This year a pair of Gerbing's electric socks means I'll be able to walk without assistance at the end of the ride. I've never ridden with electric clothing before. As the temperature continues to drop, I decide to make them a permanent winter accessory. In case things really turn frigid I've got a pair of Gerbing's electric gloves in my saddlebags. Ironically, last year the temperature never rose above 8 degrees. I rode all night wearing the same basic gear I'd wear on any cold day and nearly froze my butt off. This year I've got it dialed, yet the temperature refuses to drop much below 30.

Saturday, 10:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m.

The run starts from a mall parking lot in Yonkers, New York, right next to a Nathan's Famous hot-dog stand. For those of you not from the greater New York area, Nathan's hot dogs, especially a Nathan's hot dog fresh from the grill, are the only hot dogs worth having. Predictably, that's what I do. What the hell, no sense riding on an empty stomach, is there?

Sign-up starts at 11:00 p.m. I'm 10th in line, meaning I'll ride out at midnight, plus 10 minutes. The hardcore road-run guys line up first. These dudes are all experienced road-rally types, adept at reading route sheets and keeping perfect time. They are hard to beat, but I aim to try. We'll be heading north through rural New York. The course is tough, not suicidal; for the most part we'll be riding on decently maintained back roads. At exactly midnight, the first rider is flagged off. The rest follow at one-minute intervals.

Sunday, February 22, 12:15 a.m.

Expert navigator that I am, I lose four minutes right off the bat when I overshoot the first turn and get stuck at a light before I can pull a U-turn. Unbelievably, I lose more time when, oblivious, I sail past the second turn. Figuring three knuckleheads are better than one, I hook up with my buddies, who are also way off schedule. We decide to pool our resources to make things easier. Riding like lunatics, we make up some time, but I'm nine minutes late at the first checkpoint. Last year's winner only lost six minutes all night.

Sunday morning, 1:00-2:00 a.m.

Things begin to settle down and we fall into a rhythm. Headed down one icy hill, I lose it and almost collect a guardrail, but other than that the ride is becoming routine. Then we blow another turn. Pretty soon six of us are milling around trying to decide if we're on foot or on horseback. Turning around on the narrow road, one rider tips over. By the time we pick up his ST1300, we're seriously behind schedule. Eventually we get back on track and manage to find the rest of the checkpoints without incident. We roll into the halfway point, the Carmel diner, about 12 minutes late. In the world of timed road runs, that's a lifetime. Stick a fork in this one, buddy, it's done. The best I can hope for now is a finisher's pin.

Sunday, 4:00 a.m.

Two hours and a plate of see-through steak and greasy eggs later we're ready to hit the second leg. At least I am; two boneheads at the next table have spent the break tanking up on Budweiser. I'd noticed them wobbling around earlier and assumed they were having trouble with slippery roads or something. Now that I know better I'll give them a wider berth.

We're in my neck of the woods now. We make good time, riding on our minute and not missing a single turn or checkpoint. At one point I'm maybe a mile from home; I contemplate calling it a night for maybe three seconds. Then we press on.

The southbound leg is always the easiest. You're heading home, and by about 5:30 a.m. or so it's getting light. Unfortunately, my eyes are shot. I can't read the route sheet without stopping, so I have to follow someone. I ask my buddy to play pathfinder. He's tired, cold and bored. We've no chance at a decent finish, so he turns up the gas, causing us to hit the remaining checkpoints way too soon. Since the penalty for arriving at a checkpoint early is double that of arriving late, we're really hurting ourselves.

Sunday, 6:15 a.m.

Finishing the Midnight Run is always a relief. The scorer checks in the riders as they arrive, and we can all relax. This year 27 riders started and 23 finished. That's many more than usual. The first four will get trophies, the rest, a small commemorative badge. It'll be a few days before the results are posted, and maybe a week before the finisher's pins and trophies are mailed out. Since I dropped more points by the second check than the top four riders combined did in total, I'm pretty sure my name won't be on the top of the list.

Right now, I really don't give a rat's ass. All I can think of is the ride home, a hot shower and a warm bed.

A week later I get the results and my finisher's pin. Nineteenth out of 27—not a stellar result, perhaps, but like they say, there's always next year.

Crotona Midnight Run
Ramapo Motorcycle Club

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Illustration by Douglas Fraser
Lots of Vetter Hippo Hands get dug out of garages and closets for this ride.
The author's Midnight Run rig. To win the Midnight Run, you'll need to stay warm, have some way to read your route sheet, and be able to navigate. Two out of three ain't bad.
_Time to find your warmest—and most reflective—riding gear.
A sidecar might make ice less precarious, and you can bring a crazy friend.