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.



  1. I was looking forward to your post, nicely written. That was my first 600k and first complete series. I am now focused on the LOL ride. See you there.

  2. Thanks, David. It was fun to reflect on this great ride. The route, the support, the companions and the weather were all in alignment. Great riding with you and I look forward to seeing you on LOL.

  3. Great report George! It brought back fond memories of the beauty, challenge, camaraderie, pain, and sense of accomplishment woven into the fabric Don's epic ride where we first met. Too bad about the bear.

  4. Thanks, Don! I was thinking about our inaugural ride quite a few times on this event. Hope you're well and out getting some good miles in. Any chance you might ride the Westfield 300K or GRR this year?

  5. You inspired me to take my first ride in two months today and my feet felt fine over 25 miles, so I'm thinking the GRR is a realistic goal. Have a blast on the LOL & Petersberg 300k.