Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Catskill 600K: The Perfect Brevet?

The Catskill 600K is one of my all-time favorite brevets. It seems to have everything: stunning views, epic climbs, thrilling descents, plenty of low traffic roads and incredible support, put on by an all-star team that includes organizer Don P. and his family as well as PBP ancien Brian B. who operates the sumptuous Woodstock control where riders take lunch at mile 110 just before entering the big hills. Not only is this route ideal, but the weather on this edition was simply perfect. Temperatures rose into the 70s with no wind or humidity of which to speak.

The route out of Westfield is lovely, ridden over smooth roads with no traffic. As the sun rises, which happens early on June 21, riders are treated to the bucolic misty fields of Litchfield County, CT. I realize that the uniformity of the Colonial architecture will transition into hardscrabble chaos later in the day as we enter the Catskills, but for now, I'm soaking in the views. The quick pace at the start settled down with several rabbits jumping off the front intent on riding this one for “time.” I decided not to attempt to keep up with those at the front of the pack and so instead settled into a comfortable pace on Rt. 40 which brought me all the way up to the NYS border at Millerton where I met up with Andrey and David who would be my riding companions well into the wee hours of the night when we finally arrived at the sleep control in Cambridge, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The ride through the Litchfield Hills into Eastern New York is gorgeous and Rhinebeck, on the shores of the Hudson River, is a gem. It’s always fun to ride down Main Street on a brevet as I often run into someone I know and this time it was Susan, a former colleague who shouted out “are you on one of those long rides of yours?” as I came to rest at the one stop light in town. “Yup, Westfield to Saratoga” I replied, not sure I had the heart to include, “and then Cambridge, Bennington and Shelburne Falls before heading back to my car in Westfield."

After our cruise through Rhinebeck’s civilized downtown center, we turned north on River Road, which afforded us spectacular, panoramic views of the Catskill Mountains we would be riding in for much of the afternoon.  The view is a bit closer and grander from the top of the Kingston-Rhinecliff Bridge a bit further down the road, but there is little time to savor it while each rider seeks to stay safely within the shoulder while avoiding sharp debris laying in wait. Once on the western shore of the Hudson, we make the short climb into Woodstock, (a harbinger of the hard work ahead) and we arrive at the control ready for lunch promptly at noon. This time around, Andrey's family is there to greet us, which was an unexpected treat.

The climbing out of Woodstock is never insane, but definitely gets one's attention all the way up to the next control in Windham. Shortly after leaving the Windham control where there is a fully stocked bike shop with professional mechanics, I blew the front derailleur cable and so was stuck with the use of my small front chain ring for the balance of the ride. With all of the climbing left to go, this was not a show stopper, but it would have been pretty difficult to maintain a 20mph+ average on the "flats" in a paceline. Good thing there were no flats to speak of on the remaining sections of this route. I actually found that the high cadence work helped to restore the vitality of my legs and will remember, when dragging along on future rides, to shift into a lower gear and avoid looking at the speedometer.

Midway through the ride, I began to consider petitioning Don to change the name of the event to the “Roadkill 600” as a result of all the local fauna in evidence on the course. Over the course of the ride I saw at least one of each of these animals (no longer breathing) on the pavement: Blue Jay, House Sparrow, Snake, Turtle, Weasel, Chipmunk, Squirrel, Groundhog, Opossum, Cat, Skunk and  . . . wait for it . . . a Black Bear. While some of these are “life-listers,” we strangely saw no roadkill of the deer or a rabbit variety, both of which are common sights along these rural roads.

It’s not uncommon for me to encounter a period of dark despair on a long ride and on the Catskill 600 this year, this time came as we made our way from Schenectady to Saratoga. Riding in the dark can be a joyful, meditative and clarifying experience or it can be sheer hell. On Sunday morning, between midnight and two a.m. it was the latter.

Like Mother Theresa, though, Don’s daughter Mary ministered to the beaten and downtrodden among us with offers of hot lasagna and salad. After a quick bite and a hot shower, I headed off to catch a few winks before getting back on my bike for the final push.

90 minutes later, amidst a chorus of snoring, I awoke to a quick coffee and a bite to eat and clipped in for a very pleasant ride from Cambridge down into Bennington. This is a lovely stretch of road, which is relatively flat and filled with stunning views along the rural NY-VT border. Since I often catch this ride at dawn after a rest, I am often overwhelmed by the beauty of the area and this day was no exception.

In Bennington, a group of us stopped for a protein-rich breakfast at McDonald's and contemplated the ominous climb ahead. We all knew that after we clipped in, we faced a serious hill whose peak was about 2000 feet above our heads and required cycling up about 6 miles of road to get to. Luckily, my cocktail of rest, food, coffee and 600 mg. of ibuprofen was working its magic and I hit the hill with a new set of legs. I felt a bit like Floyd Landis on the 2006 Tour. After topping the climb there is some lovely high meadow riding until a right turn introduces serious downward motion in the trek towards Shelburne Falls where there awaits a most amazing control filled gourmet sandwiches of all shapes and sizes, which serves as a powerful magnet indeed. I was rejoined in this section by Chris, Jim and John who became fast friends and enjoyable riding partners for the remainder of the day.

The final push from the Shelburne Falls control to Westfield is beset by some of the most terrible road surfaces I have ever had the displeasure of riding. Did the highway supervisor abscond with the funds? Are the locals numb from the waist down? I can’t understand the source of such utter civil neglect. Needless to say, this makes the course harder than it needs to be, but it was a joy to know that the end of the route was less than a hour away. After a final beating on these roads into Westfield, the four of us arrived at the New Horizon's Bike shop at 4:10, just over 36 hours after we left. 

Lessons learned (or remembered):
  • Riding with others is generally more fun than riding alone.
  • My digestive system seems to prefer real food to synthetic nutritional aids.
  • Sleep deprivation takes a toll. Go into a long ride with a full tank.
  • Plan to sleep after a long ride before driving home.
  • Battery-powered lights are a serious distraction. Swap wheels when I swap bikes to always undertake night rides with the dynamo hub or buy fresh Lithium batteries as a last resort.
  • Bring ear plugs to any overnight brevet. “Nuf said.

Next Up: Lap of the Lake 1000K in two weeks.


Friday, June 13, 2014

The Englewood 400K is One Badass Ride

Don't let this bucolic farm picture fool you; the Englewood 400K is no stroll in the park. It follows one badass route, filled with hills (both choppy and long) that can feel relentless at times, but for me, it was perhaps the timing of this particular event with a late 7:00AM start that threw me for a loop. Starting in Englewood, NJ on the western edge of New York City, the route follows the Hudson River north to Rhinebeck before heading back south through some hilly and beautiful countryside. There is plenty of lovely scenery to go around, but you have to work to earn it on this ride, which should leave you feeling a high degree of accomplishment once you reach the end. It contains about as much variation and adventure as I've seen on a 400K route.

The Englewood 400K is put on by NJ Randonneurs, who again applied a high level of care and support along the way. Each of the controls was staffed with cheerful randonneurs happy to share some cold water and local advice.

The Shawongunk Ridge is a local treasure to those of us fortunate enough to live in the Hudson Valley. Home to the Mohonk Mountain House and Minnewaska State Park, the ridge is technically not a part of the Catskill Range, but provides wonderful climbing complete with stellar vistas like the one above. On this event, riders come up and over the ridge from Ellenville rather than New Paltz (where I typically ride). At 4.5 miles, this hill deserves respect, but also provides some relief in the form of varying pitches and remarkable views, which is especially true in the late afternoon.

One of my favorite parts of the ride was the opportunity I had to ride with Bill R. and his remarkable velomobile. While I've seen photos and read ride reports, this is the first time that Bill and I have had a chance to ride together since he traded in his diamond frame bike for the White Arrow. Let me tell you, this is one cool vehicle. I was amazed by Bill's facility and persistence powering this machine up hills of all types. Luckily, since the speed differential between Bill's up and Bill's down is so significant, that he was able to hopscotch the lead group for much of the day and we had a chance to catch up with one another.

As far as my own personal odyssey, this really is a tale of two rides. I rode comfortably up front with David, Tim and Chris (and Bill) for the first have of the day, but after the halfway point, I began to suffer from a sour stomach (likely the result of too much heat and Perpetuum) that forced me to fall off my pace and climb like I had rocks in my socks. As a result, I rode the second half of the event solo, which made for a somewhat majestic and somewhat spooky crossing of Harriman State Park in the wee hours of Sunday morning. At about 2:00AM, I was so tired that I decided that a nap on the side of the road was preferable to dozing off and falling into a ditch so I pulled over (at the suggestion of volunteer Bob T.) at a firehouse where I dozed for a bit on the benches of two picnic tables pushed together. Upon starting up again at 4:00AM, I was in much better shape and able to attack the last 30 miles with determination. 

You can read a fine account of the event over at Iron Rider.

Up next: The Catskill 600K out of Westfield, MA. One of my favorites.