Monday, October 10, 2016
At this time of year, as summer turns to fall and the foliage begins to reach it's peak, I'm drawn to the Catskill Mountains to experience this magical transition up close and unencumbered by suburban distractions. This year, I was lucky to be joined by friends Jon L. and Mordecai S. With temperatures in the low 50s at the start, we bundled up with full-fingered glove liners and leg warmers, vests and woolen arm warmers. Dressing for a shoulder-season ride such as this isn't easy with hills to warm us as we climb and cool us as we descend and altitude variation to influence the ambient temperatures throughout the day. No one wants to cart around unnecessary weight on a climb-y ride like this either so extra gear and luggage is to be kept at a minimum.
As we clipped in at the start shortly after sunrise, the roads were slick from an overnight rain, but the forecast was for dry, grey skies throughout the day. Fortunately, the freshly fallen leaves that covered many of the side roads we traversed in these early hours were fairly dry and not slippery as leaves can become later in the fall when they've been lying around and decaying on roads for some time. The climbing on the Catskill Climbfest route begins early on with a gentle climb from Rosendale up to the Ashokan Reservoir near Woodstock through quiet back roads, which gets the heart pumping and the body warmed up without anything too terribly taxing. Upon reaching the reservoir, the road levels out and the trees open up to reveal a dramatic view that includes both this beautiful source of the NYC water supply and the majestic Catskill Mountains beyond.
Knowing that within the next hour we would be climbing that ridge off in the distance made us savor the level riding while we could. The climb from Palenville to Tannersville is dramatic and gratifying. Unlike the Slide Mountain climb further up the road, the climb along 23A is steady and never too acute. The traffic can be a bit much with leaf peepers and hikers driving and walking to trailheads that line the road such as the entrance to the famed Kaaterskill Falls. Tractor trailers occasionally carry deliveries up to Hunter Mountain at the top of the hill as well, but luckily none of this caused any drama this time around.
After the climb to Tannersville, riders are rewarded with a long and sloping descent to the village of Phoenicia along the Stony Clove Creek, which caused such dramatic damage (some still visible and ominous) following Hurricane Irene several years ago. Upon reaching Phoenicia, we were disappointed to discover that the Mama's Boy restaurant has closed up shop leaving fewer options in town for a quick bite to eat. We decided to hold off on our main meal of the day until reaching the control at mile 90, but grabbed muffins and snacks to fill our pockets and water to fill our bottles for the climb ahead as we knew this would be the last outpost for provisions until we reached Grahamsville 35 miles up the road.
The Grahamsville Deli, not exactly a foodie haven, was out of chicken salad when we arrived, which was the only real disappointment of the ride for me. As a vegetarian, Mordecai was even less thrilled with our food stop than Jon and me, but we were able to amass the necessary calories and liquids to make it to the finish 35 miles down the road. The next stretch of the route includes the wooded and remote Peekamoose Road deep in the Catskills, surrounded by high peaks. The cascading waterfalls along this stretch road were mere trickles but still evident to the discerning eye.
After a dramatic descent along Peekamoose, the final stretch of road trends downhill to the finish from the reservoir with only a few rollers along the way. We were aided this time around with a stiff tailwind that made us feel strong and victorious at the end of a long and enjoyable adventure. We finished the ride in 10 hours and 41 minutes, which seemed like a pretty respectable time for a late-season 200K with 10,000 feet of climbing. It was especially gratifying to align this annual ritual with weather, foliage and friends.
Up next: November R-12 - Back on the train.
Saturday, October 1, 2016
The NYC 200K was the very first brevet I ever rode back in 2007. At that time, it was scheduled in early April, but since then it has become a fixture on the NJ Randonneurs' fall calendar. I've ridden this route six times over the years and this past weekend was one of my favorites. With a year filled with slower than average times and weaker than average performance on the bike, I was eager to redeem myself with a strong showing to end the formal brevet season on a high note. While work and family commitments have made it exceedingly difficult for me to ride as often as I would have liked this summer, the beautiful weather and my overall enthusiasm for this ride combined to thrust me forward along the route at a good pace.
The ride starts and ends in NYC just a few blocks north of the George Washington Bridge, which riders cross in both directions at the beginning and end of the day. On the New Jersey side of the bridge, the route heads north through some fancy suburban towns along the western banks of the Hudson River towards Bear Mountain where riders begin to climb in earnest as they make their way west through the hills of Harriman State Park.
After leaving the first control in Stony Point, around mile 50, riders soon enter the shaded, hilly and recently-paved roads that are used to criss-cross Harriman State Park in both directions for much of the afternoon before heading back down toward our final destination. Cyclists aren't the only ones taking advantage of the fine fall weather on a day like this and it was not uncommon to hear the sound of motorcycles or sports cars approaching from the distance. Despite their somewhat macho enthusiasm, everyone seemed to be on their best behavior, eager to share rather than to compete for available space on these gorgeous roads. Due to a newly-enacted traffic rule, the organizers were unable to include the famed Perkins Hill climb in the route, which chopped off a five-mile out-and-back up a rather tall hill.
The NYC 200K is not an exact out-and-back route, but the second half does follow many of the same roads riders traverse in the early part of the day. My pace over the back nine was not quite as brisk as it was in the morning, but I was pleased to be able to keep the pedals spinning at a fairly good clip, which got me back to the start in under 10 hours. While not my fastest time on this course, it was nice to end the season feeling strong and quick rather than weak and sluggish. With any luck, this is a good omen for 2017 when I hope to again have time to train myself into better shape than I did in 2016.
Up Next: The Coffeeneuring Season Begins on October 7!
Sunday, July 31, 2016
After the sun came up, Jan and I rode through the first control stopping only to get our cards signed. We had fallen in with a quick group riding at a brisk pace and it felt right to be making good time before the heat of the day was upon us. We stopped at the second control just 11 miles down the road from the first where I enjoyed a ham and cheese sandwich and an iced coffee before filling my bottles with ice water courtesy of the kind-hearted souls at the busy truck stop.
We hit Brattleboro just in time for an early dinner at the Brattleboro Food Coop that served as the northernmost control on the route. The food selection was outstanding. I wolfed down some pizza, chicken salad and a piña colada smoothie that was simply out of this world. Jan needed to take a bit of a break to regulate his body temperature and I was more than happy to take a few extra minutes to rest here as well after a long day in the saddle. Luckily, our friend Nigel and a cyclist from ME named Chris, with whom we rode earlier in the day before his crank broke, showed up with appetites and we all agreed to depart together.
As luck would have it, I did not really see much of anyone for the rest of the day and my ride became a solo effort with passing contact with a few other riders at spots I stopped along with way to refuel. At one point near South Deerfield, I waved at a passing rider wearing a telltale Rapha jersey only to be accosted several minutes later with cheers of “Hey George, how are you?” It turns out that John B. who recently moved to the area from Boston, recognized me and came over to share the road for a few minutes. Social media is a funny thing. It's not uncommon these days to run into friends you rarely see and have them ask you questions about your most recent activities they've been following online in real time. In this way, I knew that John had recently returned from a trip to Ireland and he knew of my summertime love affair with my new Brompton folding bike. After a few minutes, we went our separate ways and I was reminded of what great friends we make on these rides and how nice it is to feel the warmth of the cycling community in places far and wide.
As I hit the rollers into the final control, time seemed to stand still, or speed up, I’m not sure which. Despite the passage of time, I seemed to be making no progress at all as the horizon disappeared in front of me. At first, I had hoped to complete the ride by 4:00 pm, which (at 36 hours) would represent a middling effort at the 600K distance, an acceptable time for an event filled with socializing and sleep. As the day wore on, however, my 4:00 pm goal seemed less and less realistic and it increasingly looked as if 6:00 pm might come and go as well.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
When I first heard that NJ Randonneurs was sponsoring its first ever "arrow" event, I knew I had to assemble a team. Like an ACP "fleche," (fleche is actually the French word for arrow), this event would require that teams of 3-5 cyclists ride together for a minimum of 360 kilometers in 24 hours over a course of their own design to a predetermined finish location. All teams would start at 10:00 am on July 9 and finish at 10:00 am on July 10. The rest was up to us. Luckily, I was able to pull together a team of seasoned randonneurs with whom I've very much enjoyed riding over the years.
One of the first challenges of an arrow is that the team (through the team captain) is responsible for designing the route it will follow from a starting location of its own choice to the finish. Like "arrows" homing in on a target, the idea is that each team arrives at the precise same place and the precise same time, yet having come from a very different starting point. While I've ridden in several fleche events, this would be my first time serving as team captain. In addition, NJ Rando elected to host this event as a fundraiser so there would be money to raise as well.
Route design proved to be about as challenging as I expected it to be, which is to say significant. The catch is that unlike standard brevets, which typically follow circuitous routes, we would be riding in a linear (point-to-point) fashion with the added challenge of getting 200 miles back to the cars and belongings we left at the start. With two riders on the team from New England, I knew that we should try to start as far north as possible. Another challenge I faced was mapping the unfamiliar roads in the southern third of the route after crossing out of New York and into New Jersey. I discovered that my first attempt was a disaster when I drove the southern section and realized that there were no safe shoulders on a considerable stretch of road. As a result, I reached out to Joe K., the NJ Rando RBA, and he shared a RUSA-Approved permanent route with us that solved our problems perfectly leaving a gap of only several miles between our familiar northern route and the finish.
The forecast for the weekend was both favorable and unfavorable. The incessant heat was scheduled to break and when we clipped in temperatures were in the upper 60s (whereas they had been hovering in the 90s for days). The downside of this change was that we would encounter unstable weather with showers pretty much inevitably at some point in the day and/or night. Luckily, we only encountered two real rain storms and neither was as bad as we feared. Luckier still, the most serious storm took place just a few yards from a convenience store as we were cycling through some pretty remote countryside. While we stayed a bit longer than five minutes (see photo above), it did not take too much time out of our budget. Wet, gritty roads often lead to tire trouble and this event was no exception. As a team, we tallied four flats in 24 hours and while this slowed us down quite a bit, it did not present any challenges we could not handle.
A critical component of route design on events such as this involves identifying suitable 24-hour establishments where teams can find food, water, and a place to catch a few hours of shut-eye. Our first two checkpoints were outstanding. Tivoli, NY provided both a lovely bakery and a general store where each of us was able to procure a baguette sandwich (some with ham, some with salmon) that had the effect of connecting me instantly with the food of Brittany I enjoyed so much at PBP last summer. Our next checkpoint was located in New Paltz at The Main Course, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner. The following checkpoint, at a McDonald's in Port Jervis, was more of a necessary evil, but the staff was welcoming and the furniture comfortable. Trouble came around 3:00 am when we arrived at a 24-hour Dunkin' Donuts with a plan to sleep for 60-90 minutes before sunrise. Little did we know that only the DRIVE-THRU window was open for 24 hours and we would need to push on in search of a safe, dry place to catch a few winks.
Luckily, we would soon be entering towns from my childhood and I was confident that we'd find something suitable before too long. As we rolled into Peapack-Gladstone and passed the school from which I graduated, I remembered a covered gazebo in the park at the town's center. Not only was it dark, but it was quiet, dry and empty when we arrived at 3:45 am. Setting my alarm for 4:45 am, we could get an hour's rest and still be off before the sun rose and no one would be any the wiser. Dawn brought new energy to our legs and bodies as it always does and we pedaled our way to the penultimate checkpoint where all of the other teams would meet before the final push to the finish.
The fundraising aspect of the event added excitement and purpose. While I normally ride for the selfish pleasures that spending hours on my bike affords, on this event, we would be riding to raise money for Hunterdon Youth Services, a wonderful community organization that sponsors programs for young men in need of a helping hand. What started out as a modest effort to raise a few dollars resulted in the collection of far more money than I would have anticipated. As a result of the generosity of friends, family, and fellow riders, we raised $1000 shattering my initial goal of $500.
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
As I was frantically tying up loose ends and packing for a trip to Milwaukee, where my wife is working on her MFA this summer, I thought all hope for an R-12 was lost. Then it dawned on me to check the RUSA database to see if I could locate a suitable permanent route in the area. When I contacted Ted D., the owner of the Holy Kettle 205K, not only was he happy to accommodate my last-minute request, but he also offered to throw a bike loan into the bargain! While I figured I could arrange a rental from an LBS in the area (or ride on the Brompton I brought along to explore Milwaukee), Ted was more than happy to dial-in one of the beautiful machines in his collection to meet my exact specifications. So rather than ride some assembly-line special, I found myself enjoying the company of a gorgeous Rivendell complete with 650b balloon tires, bar-end shifters and handlebar bag. I felt like pinching myself at several points during the day in fear that I might be dreaming.
The Holy Kettle 205K gets its name from a mash-up of two of its most defining features. After leaving the northern edge of Milwaukee along the shore of Lake Michigan, the route heads due west to a church known as the Holy Hill Basilica, located high on an outcrop above the verdant farmland below. The climb up the "holy hill" gets one's attention, yet the rider is rewarded with a peaceful setting high above the troubles of the world. After a brief stop at this control, I rode back down to earth to continue my journey north through the Kettle Moraine region, a beautiful area left behind following the last ice age that features smooth rollers as far as the eye can see. The headwinds were manageable throughout the morning, but took a little bit of the joy out of riding through the picturesque expanse of farmlands I saw before me on this first half of the ride.
The northwestern corner of the route, located within the boundaries of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, requires some climbing along lightly traveled scenic highways to reach. The control is located at a small shop run by a kind and welcoming couple who had clearly seen a few cyclists riding through over the years. As the sun had been beating down on me for the past several hours, a bottle of cold Gatorade and an ice cream cone really hit the spot. Bottles filled, I headed out to the east again in search of Lake Michigan and the tailwinds I was sure to encounter along the way.
The ride east from the third control begins with a series of welcome descents away from the park and into the more open farmland below. The roads along this section are generally smooth and straight and afford the rider plentiful views of the countryside that contributes to Wisconsin's well-deserved reputation as America's Dairyland. The penultimate control is found in the small village of Oostburg, close to the banks of Lake Michigan. The last stretch of the route that follows is divided equally between paved rail trail and sections of Lake Shore Drive, which seemed to be a very popular after-work cycling destination as I passed dozens of cyclists heading north out of Milwaukee on this fine summer evening.
As an added bonus on this 10-day trip to Milwaukee, I was able to watch a former student of mine race as a pro in the Downer Classic, one of several stages in the Tour of America's Dairyland. It was my first criterium and boy was it exciting! I only wish they had organized a Brompton category.
Sunday, June 5, 2016
I don't think I've ever clipped in for a long ride without wondering what I left behind. At the first turn on the recent Eastern PA Blue Mountain 400K, I realized that this time around it was my wallet. Now, I can scrounge and forage with the best of them, but a flask of Hammer Gel, a few Clif bars and two bottles of water really didn't strike me as a large enough stash of rations with which to set off on a 250-mile journey, so I turned back to collect my money and begin again. It would be some time before I reconnected with the group, but my ride through the misty early morning hours along the Delaware River was exceptionally beautiful and reminded me of why I love to get on my bike before dawn to see a world that most people don't even know exists.
After 30 minutes or so I came upon my first randonneur repairing a flat by the side of the road. Establishing that he had all of the necessary tools, I continued on feeling noticeably more comfortable to be riding within the rando-fold. It was not long before I encountered several other randonneurs who were either currently or just recently dealing with issues that caused them delays. One of these was Jan D., who had just repaired a flat when we fell into riding at a common pace. My story made him realize that he too had forgotten his wallet and that combined with some unexpected house guests back in VT made him almost throw in the towel. He decided to hang in, though, and by the first control we ran into several other riders with whom we would spend large chunks of this brevet.
The skies became increasingly ominous as we headed into the expansive farmlands of Lancaster County with the option to ditch into an available barn balancing the panic of being trapped in a thunderstorm out in open fields. Fortunately, the ominous skies never lived up to their full potential and we never suffered more than some passing showers throughout the event.
The group with whom I rode hovered between three and seven throughout the day, but ultimately settled into just Jan and me riding together for long stretches of the afternoon and evening. As luck would have it, I became extremely fatigued in the final hours of the ride and found myself having to stop every 20-30 minutes to close my eyes for fear of falling asleep on my bike. As a result, our pace slowed to a mere crawl and I felt increasingly sorry for Jan who hung in like a trooper to keep me from crossing the final stretches of the ride alone. It probably would have been more efficient to lie down for a proper nap, but each short rest provided the illusion that I would be able to carry on to the finish without sleeping.
As we slowly turned our cranks on the final approach to Quakertown, we saw lights approaching from the rear and were rejoined by two additional riders who had been following at a slightly slower pace. When we finally arrived at the hostel, the clock would confirm that it took us just over 24 hours to complete a ride I had planned to finish in 20. So much for muscle memory. I guess my lack of training and sleep during this busy spring caught up with me.
Up Next: the Catskills SR600 in two weeks. 30,000+ feet of climbing in 600K. What am I thinking?
Thursday, April 28, 2016
How is it possible that I haven't posted anything to this blog since January? It certainly can't be due to my outrageous training schedule. Those plans didn't fall into place as I had hoped. I guess things just got busy around here with work and family and there didn't seem to be much to write about in the doldrums of winter. Now that spring is here, though, I feel reborn as a randonneur. Recently, I was presented a nearly perfect brevet experience. The weather was ideal, the route was spectacular and well-suited to early spring riding and the company was quite pleasant.
I've wanted to ride the Old Saybrook 300K out of Westfield, MA for many years, but the timing never seemed to work out. This season, though, it fit into the spring calendar just perfectly. The route is advertised as "moderately hilly," but it seemed mostly flat to me as I pedaled with enthusiasm from the foothills of the Berkshires down to the Connecticut shore and back. While I haven't gotten out for as many long rides as I would have liked, perhaps it was the rest immediately before the event that left me feeling full of energy.
It was great to see Bill R. at the start, but I knew that with his sleek velomobile well-suited to the terrain this would be the last we saw of each other for the day. Little did I know that Bill would rack up a personal best on this route with a nearly 10-hour finish. After RBA Don P. said a few words to those assembled at the 6:00 am start, I quickly fell in with a spirited group at the front and hung on until just before the first control when I decided to back off the pace a bit to preserve my stores for the long ride ahead.
My favorite section of the route was the state park we crossed on our way to the shore, which was peaceful and beautiful with the early spring sunshine cascading through the trees. The pavement felt like butter under my new tires. I'm a sucker for a ride with a destination and the Connecticut coast did not disappoint with deep blue water glistening in the mid-day sun. The rest stop at the turnaround just a few feet from the beach was maintained by a very enthusiastic group of cyclists from a local cycling club who pulled out all the stops to provide world-class care and feeding. After a tasty barbecue chicken sandwich, I was back on the road again.
I reunited at the controle with two of the fast riders I had been riding with earlier in the morning and we continued on together for the second half of the day. I had ridden with Simon and Jan on previous brevets and it was great to catch up as we enjoyed the weather and the route on our way back to Westfield. After the penultimate control, when we started to smell the barn, I could hardly contain my enthusiasm. Luckily, since I had held back a bit in the morning, I still had plenty of energy under the hood. As a result, I jumped to the front of our little group and laid the hammer down for the last 20 miles into Westfield.
I had privately set a goal of finishing within 13:30 as this was both my time on a different Westfield 300K route last year AND the time at which we were required to switch on lights and don reflective gear. These were both motivating enough to keep me going and I was pleased to end not only within my target time, but also without having to stop to set up my lights.
Up next: "The Return of the Five Boro Bike Tour" starring George and Elias
Sunday, January 24, 2016
As the latest Snowpocalype devastated our southern neighbors, we were blissfully spared her wrath. So while my Facebook feed filled with images of shovelers up to their waists in snow, I took to the roads to enjoy a brisk afternoon along the icy Hudson River. It's a bit late in the month to be riding a permanent route that I'm hoping to apply towards a P-12 award, so my nerves were percolating this week as the forecast for a snowstorm of Biblical proportions intensified. Having missed a P-12 award last year (presented by RUSA to riders who complete at least one permanent route between 100K and 200K each month for twelve consecutive months), I am determined to finish what I began this past October.
The sky was a lovely crystalline blue this afternoon and the ambient temperature hovered around freezing. With a slight 5-10 mph wind out of the northwest, any extra work was front-loaded into the first half of the ride as I made my way north to Red Hook. Along the way, I stopped at a waterfront park managed by Scenic Hudson, our local Hudson River preservation champions who had recently created a small teaching area right at the water's edge. The sign above is a helpful reminder of where we stand relative to our neighbors and my proximity to the river allowed me to see not only the historic lighthouse off in the distance, but also the various ice formations arriving at long last from the north.
The roads were generally quiet today, but there was some pedestrian activity at the Bard campus with students returning from winter break and in Rhinebeck, which always seems to enjoy a festive atmosphere. As I followed the riverside roads south of the village, though, I was often the only one in sight for long stretches, which suited me just fine. Perhaps the storms to our south kept the tourists and weekend warriors closer to home today. Even the Walkway Over the Hudson was quieter than usual for a Sunday in January. As a result, there were not many witnesses to see the magnificent ship being pushed northward by a strong tug as it made its way beneath the span on which I stood. While I completed the route successfully, in February I'll be sure to plan my P-12 ride in the first half of the month assuming the weather cooperates.