Words: Guest Author | Date:
It’s 4:45 in the morning and I’m four stories above a well-stocked bodega in Park Slope, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. From my horizontal vantage on a couch in Richard Bravo’s living room, I see that every surface from floor to ceiling is covered in cyclist or cyclist thing. It’s like only the finest objects in a high-end cycling boutique have been collected, shaken and poured over a mid-thirties bachelor pad. It’s all coming back to me, I’m in a Rapha Continental nest with seven full-grown men. Jeremy Dunn, East Coast team leader, and riders; Pierre Von Borre, Pete Rubijono and Dan Langlois. Craig Roth, our driver and mechanic and friend. And Dan Sharp, who flew in from Portland a few days earlier with me. We are here because Richard, East Coast rider and member of the New York contingent, was gracious enough to offer his place as headquarters for ride number one: New Paltz. Named for the small town 2-hours outside New York City where the ride starts and finishes.
In 20 minutes we have completed ablutions, collected our kit and started the descent to the street below.
Outside, I find a large white passenger van double parked and still running. Craig is appearing and disappearing, in a time-lapse blur, into it’s many open doors with various wheels, bags, tools and coolers in hand. A loading-and-unloading zone forms as every three minutes one of us, having just survived the high-stakes downhill cyclocross course that is Richard’s five sets of painfully steep stairs, stumbles into the morning to deposit bike and bag.
It’s cool and damp and foggy and there’s nobody on the street, except for the presumably homeless man pushing a shopping cart overloaded with large inexpensive metallic objects of an unknown origin or use. He’s slowly squeaking and rolling his way up the wrong side of the street. Under the bright colors from myriad neon signs and traffic lights, reflecting and refracting in the mist, I make my way two blocks to purchase sundries from an open market. Five minutes later and back at the van things are looking good with both ride and rider fastened and ready to break camp. We head for Manhattan and Sam, Piers and Kansas.
Inside the van things are mostly quiet except for someone’s music oddly, or expertly, synced to our surroundings and mood. At one point, Pete, clever and quick and hysterical, launches into an imagined conversation between De Niro and a gay Colonel Klink, from Hogan’s Heroes. Something about “real” Italian food. Rolling over the bridge is cinematic, the music, the silence broken by random comments and the shrouded cityscape are indelible.
Pretty soon we’re docked to another New York curb with cyclists and their things loading slowly but surely into the van. This time in a notably nicer neighborhood evidenced by taller buildings and prettier dog-walkers. While Sam unsuccessfully cautions Piers, Craig and Kansas about the sketchy coffee shop adjacent to our van. Ten minutes later and we’re on a turn-pike.
We wanted our first East Coast Continental ride to be accessible from New York City, and if possible by train. Jeremy, with Sam’s help, led the search for the a ride rich with rural roads, mountains, climbs, vistas, distance and Americana. Something epic, even in early spring. They concluded, independently, a romp through Catskills State Park would graciously deliver but to be sure they got Pete and Pierre together and preformed a recce of the area, vetting a route which was a synthesis of several different opinions and local knowledge.
The two-hour drive to New Paltz is uneventful except for inadvertently timing our arrival with a surprisingly well-attended little league soft-ball parade. Which shuffles short and clumsy down main street like it has nowhere to go.
Jeremy directs Craig through town to our official start, the Muddy Cup. Inside it’s massive with tall ceilings and an eclectic collection of estate sale furniture; crushed velvets, golds and purples, tassels, ornately framed mirrors, dubious oil paintings and gilding. The place feels like a jazz club by night and a community center by day with an espresso machine. We are all reminded that Woodstock, the Woodstock, is only 10-miles up the road. In the back corner, next to the bathroom, 20 middle-aged artsy types are intently discussing the concept of ‘ego’. With their chairs arranged in a circle and facing each other, for the next 30-minutes their workshop is periodically interrupted by the sound of the bathroom door swinging open and banging shut. One after another, in go nine guys in normal enough street clothing and, several minutes later, out come Rapha Riders, like spandexed bike riding super heroes from a phone booth in a toilet.
Back outside, it’s now 9:30am, partly sunny and almost 75 degrees. And we are making what is hopefully our last curbside camp of the day. In the street behind the van, a work stand is up and occupied. Sunscreen is being generously applied, sunglasses prepped and piles of pumps, food bars and arm warmers are pocketed quickly. And then suddenly we’re all on our bikes and somehow facing the right direction. We collectively slow-roll thirty feet to the red light and our impromptu start line.
We roll over the old bridge at the end of town where the road descends gently into a mix of open meadows, farmland and copses of deciduous trees. The sun is low but climbing and our pace-line is buffeted by a light but exceptionally pleasant crosswind. It’s the beginning of the day and our ride and the team and summer. The Gunks, or Shawangunks, the northern end of a long ridge of the Appalachian Mountains beginning in Virginia, rises rocky and vertical from the countryside to our right. I can’t hear him but I see Jeremy pointing and smiling cruelly in that direction. My heart sinks as first I check in with my legs: manageable pain. Then my face: covered in sweat. Then my lungs: actively working. And finally everyone else: smiling, talking and optimistically spinning forward. The East Coast Riders are fast., talking and optimistically spinning forward. The East Coast Riders are fast.
The three and-a-half mile climb out of the valley and over the Gunks is gorgeous, marked by large, tan rocks atop piles of smaller ones, the occasional flowering tree and beautiful views of the countryside below. Cool, fresh water rushes in the streams and falls hidden behind the guardrail edging our path. The road, with a clean surface and wide shoulder, takes a curious approach to the hillside mixing slow, wide turns, ambitious switchbacks and steep straight pitches. Jeremy and the rest of the Boston contingent chase Sam to the top. The rest of the New Yorkers, followed by me, follow behind.
The other side of the Gunks is densely wooded and laced with yet more streams and falls. The descent takes us through Lake Minnewaska State Park and the town of Granite. At the bottom, we take a left and head further west until Richard gets a flat. The road here is busier and wider, lined with thickets of weeds and second rate trees, defunct businesses and busted mailboxes. With time now to notice, we all clock the many American flags flapping in the light but constant breeze. And the many rusted-out snowmobiles, high centered in the dirt in front yards. The ride resumes in the form of quick but cautious pace-line.
Twenty miles in, on the far side of Wawarsing, we pick-up HWY 55 and roll up over Honk Hill, on our way to Rondout Reservoir. The approach is pretty, moving through trees, lakes and rivers and the occasional open plain, with large farm buildings and summer camps. The side of the Rondout rises constantly up and down for a little over seven miles. Those who know, those of us who actually did the recce or reviewed the ride profile, know Sugarloaf, the crux and worst climb of the ride, and its absurdly steep sides are now only moments away.
The foothills of Sugarloaf are easy going, belying the seriousness of the four miles and 3,800 feet of climbing to the summit. The road snakes over the occasional rise, through woods that grow increasingly thinner and browner the higher we get. Again, those in the know sit and settle while the rest of us pony-up to the front and attack the easy inclines until we hit the first wall of the real climb. Ouch. Everyone under 165 pounds moves to the their rightful place in the front where they quickly disappear into the distance behind the occasional house or dry-docked snowmobile. The rest of us tack or “deliver the mail” – ride from the left to the right edge of the road like rural postmen in their jeeps zigzagging across the road from mailbox to mailbox.
The climb is long and so steep it hurts my legs on a cellular level. At one point I confuse a road spurring off to the left with the top and it’s then I realize I’ve lost track of the number of false flats. It’s hot. And we’re well into mid-day so it’s only getting hotter, a fact the audibly gurgling fresh water running down the hills side drove home again and again. The trees are thin and we pass maybe three or four houses, rural backwoods homes in various states of disrepair at the end of driveways lined with cars on blocks and retired appliances.
At the top everyone is exchanging high-fives and manic conversation. On the side of the road bikes lean on trees and the ground. Dry, bar-filled, mouths pant and choke while bottles are greedily filled and even more greedily emptied. Sweaty hats and helmets are rung-out in the dirt. Brand new stories are told and compared. We are finished with our first major climb and fast becoming friends, and a team.
Red Hill Road is a gravel road. And it’s fast and dusty and riddled with ruts and holes and covered in rocks. Through the dust I see snow hiding under a washed-out bank in the shade on the side of the road. Sugarloaf is perfect.
Once down, we move steadily uphill through an Alpine wonderland, a stunning and pristine valley filled with lakes, rivers, forests, bridges and meadows. The road is shaded, clean and empty of cars. Every corner opens to postcard worthy landscapes and scenery on our way up the valley. The pass is barely perceptible as we roll over and into the first major descent of the day. Down which big sweeping turns and a clean road surface encourages high speeds and optimism. Mid way, the hillside tightens and gravel and sand make a uneasy appearance. The bottom is long and rolls large as if unwilling to let go of the rush. We regroup quickly once the road is actually flat.
By this point my food and water are finished and I’m starting to fade fast. I’m not alone; after conferring, I learn we have a group-wide epidemic on our hands. Jeremy, our leader, encourages us to push on to the town of Big Indian and Route 28 where he’s certain we’ll find something. He’s right. On a corner is a family run deli-market, built into the bottom of a tall, old farmhouse. Inside, the grill is off and the owner is ready to lock up. As we duck walk, one by one, to the register with our fig newtons, chips, sodas and bars, she’s friendly but unwilling to budge on the issue of a hot grilled cheese sandwich. Outside, we make camp on two rickety, barely standing picnic tables leaning on the ground next to an oversized cooler. The pace is visibly showing on our faces and in Rorschach-shaped salt patterns on our jerseys. Conversation is good and steady but less animated than it has been. Pete happily and efficiently makes the field made-to-order sandwiches of cream cheese, bagels, jelly and peanut butter.
We spend the next fifteen miles on a major road. On which we’re passed frequently by speeding trucks and SUV’s driven by aggressive locals who think exercise is queer. The surface is riddled with holes and cracks and uneven pavement. It’s not challenging or fun just dangerous and ridiculous. In spite of this we’re organized nicely and drilling it downhill with a tail-wind. We’re averaging 28 mph through a mine field; shouting, pointing, hopping and just barely missing snowmobile-sized holes with sharp angular edges.
We turn right onto Route 213 and settle into the quiet rollers and tree lined lanes we’ve come to think of as home. Four miles later, on a slight rise with clear visibility, Piers is pulling – he’s been pulling almost all day – when he routinely cautions us to a small hole in the road. Bars locks, bodies shift and lean awkwardly, and Sam goes down. Pierre, unable to avoid him, t-bones Sam and forward flips over the whole scene. Pierre is OK but Sam is shaken, scrapped and bleeding and stays seated and dazed for several minutes. After cleaning-up and walking around, Sam decides to finish the ride in the van with Craig and Dan Sharp.
The rest of us continue down the tree-flanked road, encountering several easy climbs and a few sections of rollers as we skirt Ashokan Reservoir. A few miles later and we emerge from the woods into hilly farm country. Chickens and dogs follow our progress with a mixture of mild curiosity and light disinterest. The end is near but it takes a section of gravel, Sundale Road, to raise everyone’s flagging sprits and energy levels. Piers, Jeremy and Pierre dive into the unever dirt surface with obvious relish and some quality handling skills. Their enthusiasm acts as a carrot and I begin gaining on them until Pete rushes by, faster and floatier than I thought possible. He’s effortless and I’m no longer inclined to fake it.
On Queens Highway we pass the world’s largest garden gnome. Not long after I call Kansas’s attention to the large, toaster-shaped hillside between where we are and New Paltz. The one with no obvious way around it. The approach is typical of the foothills in this area, pretty, wooded and teaming with freshwater streams.
The climb back up over the Gunks begins with single largest most elegant switchback ever engineered. The green, healthy and grassy field between the bottom and top section of road is the size of several city parks and far more alluring. Kansas and I slowly, so slowly, make our way through the apex and up onto the meat of the climb. Visibility, because of several sharp turns and unfathomably steep pitches, is depressingly limited. The road just climbs aggressively up and up in spite of your feelings about it. I see Kansas, several hundred yards in front of me, shaking his head like a child confronted with some great injustice. Eventually he dismounts and begins to walk, head hung low. I pass him, barely, and we climb together, me on my bike, him on his feet, for what feels like days. Finally I round a corner steep like a ski slope and see the top. Above the road, fifteen feet, is a foot bridge and on it Dan, Sam, Piers and Pierre are stamping and shouting and encouraging me to crest. Which I do, just.
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