At the latest Independent Bike Dealer Summit in Arizona, e-bikes were a hot topic. While many shops have already embraced the e-bike movement, many still struggle with how, or if, to add these to their sales floor.
Europe’s bike market is more progressive than the US market in this regard, and industry experts say that we are about 5-10 years behind Europe’s e-bike market. E-bikes currently account for less than 1% of the US market, while in many European countries, 1 in every 3 bikes sold is an e-bike! That could mean good things for the US market, which has been struggling to attract new riders. One of our mechanics was recently in Germany on vacation, and couldn’t believe how many e-bikes he saw everywhere he went.
E-bikes are not just an expensive bike, they are a less expensive car, or transportation alternative. The pedal assist versions of e-bikes make it possible to get motorized assistance when needed (like when climbing hills) but not use the motor at other times. Typically, there are several settings which adjust how much motor assist the rider wants (lo, medium, high, turbo). The more motor assist used, the lower the amount of distance can be ridden on one charge. Likewise, the hillier the ride, the range will decrease. Many bikes can be ridden up to 60 miles between charges and cruise up to 28 miles per hour.
So what uses do we anticipate for e-bike users? How about riding into town and buying all of your groceries by bike? E-bikes are ideal for this- just add a rack and panniers, or even a cargo trailer for big loads.
How about commuting to work by bike without arriving sweaty? Just pack a bag with work clothes. Remember to use lights for improved visibility. How about less fit, or newer mountain bikers who still want to ride challenging off road trails? E-mountain bikes are the perfect solution.
And, if you’re a city dweller, Tern bikes makes an awesome line of folding e-bikes. They take up very little space, but are adjustable enough to fit riders between 4’11” and 6’4”!
The bike industry is hoping that e-bikes will appeal to new riders between 45-65 years old, who aren’t attracted to traditional bikes. There are so many different types of e-bikes: road, mountain, hybrid, commuter and even beach cruiser, that the possibilities could be endless for attracting new riders! And, as more riders buy e-bikes, we’re hoping to see improved infrastructure to accommodate higher bike traffic, which is good news for all bike riders.
If you’re one of those people who has been resisting bike riding because of the hilly terrain in our area, e-bikes are a “hill eraser”! We have demo e-bikes to test ride, and we guarantee a big smile when you try one.
Disc Brakes in Pro Cycling? Why not?!?
Much debate has been happening around the use of disc brakes in professional road cycling. They were provisionally approved for several spring classics races this year, but they were re-banned after reports of the discs injuring riders in crashes, allegedly causing severe lacerations. Rumors persist that they’ll try them again later this year.
Meanwhile, discs have proven to be safe, effective, and preferred in mountain bike races and cyclocross races for quite a while. So why shouldn’t this technology be allowed into the pro peloton? I see no reason why it shouldn’t.
First, let’s look at some of the cases against discs that we’ve heard:
Argument #1: They’re dangerous and can cut people in crashes.
Response: Isn’t falling off your bike at high speed wearing nothing but lycra and a styrofoam hat already pretty dangerous? Does the off chance that you’ll get wound up in a spinning brake disc increase the danger significantly? I don’t think so.
Argument #2: They’re heavier than rim brakes.
Response: So what? Most pro bikes already fall well below the UCI-mandated 15 pound minimum weight and have to have weight added back onto them. I’m sure that a disc-equipped bike can land right on the minimum weight standard.
Argument #3: It will make wheel changes during the race difficult, due to various different specifications of the braking and axle systems.
Response: Again, so what? If you want to avoid these hassles, you can choose not to use them. If, however, the team decides that the improved braking is worth the trouble, then they should be allowed to use them.
In the end, the UCI should only be concerned about maintaining a level field between competitors. Disc brakes provide no competitive advantage, except perhaps in wet conditions, and in technical descents. Nevertheless, if a team or rider wants to use them (or if a team’s sponsor wants to financially entice the team to use them) then it’s up to the teams and riders to decide whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
Even if a sponsor is simply trying to sell more disc-equipped bikes by featuring them on their pro teams, it’s irrelevant. If cooperating with a sponsor’s marketing ploy helps keep a team on the road, where’s the harm?
Let disc brakes into the pro peloton, and they’ll either succeed or die on their own merits. In the meantime, having pros test the newest and latest technologies will help move technology forward at a faster speed.
In the meantime, for us “non-pros” ride what you want, and if you like disc brakes, by all means use them.
Disc Brakes in Pro Cycling? Why?!?
While it is certain that disc brake technology has become a mainstay in the worlds of mountain biking and cyclocross, does it belong in the rarified air of elite road cycling? While it’s true that disc brakes offer improved stopping power over their caliper counterparts, are they REALLY desirable in a professional road race? I say the negatives FAR outweigh the positives.
1) Disc brakes require significant modifications, not only to the wheels but also to the forks and frames of the bikes themselves. They exert their force over a much smaller circumference (the area near the hub) than caliper brakes (the rim of the wheel). This requires heavier and bulkier reinforced spokes and forks along with elaborate attachment points for the braking mechanisms. All this translates into more weight and (probably) a loss of aerodynamic advantage. Is the improved stopping power worth this?? I doubt it…pro riders want to GO faster, not STOP faster!
2) As an addendum to item (1)…the modifications necessary for disc brakes eliminate the possibility for “neutral support” during road races. (you know, those guys at the side of the road offering spare wheels when needed) Every neutral support provider would have to have 2 different types of wheels…one with and one without discs. And even with this, would the disc–equipped wheel fit every bike?? I doubt it! Neutral support would become a thing of the past and might lead to sacrifices in time and speed.
3) Disc brakes are notoriously temperamental…just ask a mountain bike rider who has a minor tumble and dings his disc brake. Even a minor perturbation to the disc’s braking surface will lead to rubbing and increased friction…a death blow to a pro road rider’s average speed! Forget getting a little grease on the brake when changing a flat…oh the whining!! Not worth the extra headaches in a road ride where speed is critical.
4) Safety!! The UCI had agreed to allow disc brake usage in certain road rides this season. They went back on their commitment after some incidents at Paris-Roubaix earlier this year. Just ask Francisco Ventoso who allegedly suffered a deep gash in his leg from a disc brake in a crash during P-R. In addition, having disc brakes AND caliper brakes in the same peleton could have unforeseen consequences. Say a dude using discs is riding at the front of the pack when he brakes hard to avoid an obstacle. The guy behind him riding a caliper-equipped rig won’t be able to stop as fast…result? Consistency must rule in the peleton…for safety’s sake!
The UCI is now debating whether to again allow disc brakes to be trialed in pro road racing. I am certain that, in their infinite desire to market “enhanced” technology to the masses, bicycle manufacturers and sponsors will get their way and we shall see disc brakes back in the elite pro ranks soon. While this technology might indeed be beneficial to us mere mortals out on our weekend road ride, I am dubious about their use in the major tours yet to come. I only hope there is not a major crash or incident that proves me right.
(Disclaimer…the author recently rode a mountain bike rig equipped with disc brakes and found them VERY cool!)
PRO: Bring it on!
I’ve never understood why anybody would be against progress. Ok, I sort of get it…some people long for a simpler time, when things may not have been so complicated. Then again, if the “complications” are defined as things like indoor plumbing and refrigeration, I’ll take “complicated” any day.
Cycling has also seen great leaps in technological innovation since the days of riding single-speed steel bikes with flip hubs.
Seriously, I’ll take 11 cogs that I can shift from my handle bars (perhaps electronically) any day over having to remove the rear wheel to go to my only “other” gear.
Lightweight carbon bikes may not be rapidly advancing the average speed of the Tour de France, but they do offer designers the ability to execute designs that are impossible when limited to bending and welding metal tubes. The resulting increases in
comfort, aerodynamics, stiffness and/or compliance have certainly improved the rider’s experience…and some of these new frames simply look really cool too.
I also get it if you don’t want to quantify every ride by looking at your wattage, heart rate, total elevation, and average cadence. Nobody is twisting your arm. Then again, when I hear that the guy who won Paris-Roubaix averaged 375 watts, and I see that Strava estimated my average watts for today’s ride approximately 200 watts lower than that, it’s nice to be able to put that kind of abstract data into perspective.
When my friends ask me why I go out for hours on my bike, rather than trying to explain the inexplicable to them, isn’t it much more straightforward to send them to YouTube to watch some ride footage that I shot with my GoPro, so they can see how much fun it is to carve turns in a fast descent, or hear the banter that goes on in a group ride?
Finally, while I may not be training like an elite athlete, some of the training data that’s now available comes in handy. Tracking fitness can be hard to do. As Greg LeMond once said, “It never gets easier, you just get faster.” If you go out on a challenging ride early in the season, you’ll probably be tired afterward. If, however, you do the SAME ride several months earlier, you’ll likely be just as tired as the previous time. If, however, you can note that you put out higher wattage, went faster, and did so at a lower heartrate, you can confirm that you’ve actually improved. That rewarding knowledge might inspire you to keep working hard.
Technology is progress. Progress is good.
(The opinions of the author do not reflect those of Bicycle World…why, they do, however, reflect the opinion of a guy who is a self-admitted gadget addict who has been known to spend 2 hours going over data from a 1 hour ride.)
CON: Does it REALLY Improve OUR Performance?
During every “friendly” Sunday ride, the conversation inevitably turns to the latest gadgets and gizmos that can befoul our 2-wheeled friend, the bicycle. A friend who gives us hours of pleasure and fitness benefits out the wazoo (yes, I said “wazoo”), and asks for little in return. Carbon fiber frames, electronic shifters, feather-light components, disc brakes, cyclo-computers, power-taps, etc… Where will it end?? Do these technologies REALLY improve our performance, or do they just give us something to talk about? A techno-philic miasma of one-upsmanship!
I say, NAY!! Make it stop! Let us return to a simpler time when frames (and men) were made of steel and we actually had to FEEL how hard we were working in the pedals…not glean it from a device that measures our heart rate, wattage AND elevation gain. Dammit, I KNOW when I’m climbing a big hill! I don’t need to know how steep it is or how high it is…it’s motivation
enough not to keel over and embarrass myself in front of my friends! And likewise, has the undeniable improvement and, importantly, weight-reduction, in today’s frames and
components REALLY led to improvements in the pro peloton? “Yes” you would undoubtedly say…but is it so? Compare the average speeds of the Tour de France, cycling’s ultimate crucible, from 1971 and 2015…38kph to 39.6kph. A scientific study would call that a statistically insignificant difference!! And that is for the PROS who are benefitting from the most advanced training (and doping) that science has to offer. As a doctor, I’m embarrassed to say that our improved doping technology hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference, either. Nor has our improved understanding of exercise physiology and aerobic training.
But what about us common folk? I would dare say the benefits of enhanced cycling technology are un-measurable. If a few grams of weight doesn’t matter to a pro from 1971 vs. 2015, what will it mean to us? NADA! One thing IS certain, however (other than death and taxes), and that is that there is no substitute for hard work and putting in the mileage on your trusty steed. Get out there and ride! Don’t obsess over the weight of your bike or the readout on your Garmin or the next Strava segment coming up around the bend…look up and enjoy the scenery, enjoy the camaraderie. Relax and let the technology help you enjoy the ride!
(The opinions of the author do not reflect those of Bicycle World…why, they don’t even reflect his TRUE opinions as he shamefully admits to owning a carbon fiber bike, a Garmin 500 and a Strava app.)
And Now For Something Completely Different…
As the year draws to a close, it’s common for friends to come together to toast the holidays, and look forward to the new year. With this in mind, and while thinking about putting together an end-of-year get together, Eric came up with a novel idea that turned into one of the best “group rides” of the year.
In most holiday get-togethers among riding buddies, the conversation will eventually drift to future riding plans. Lubricated and emboldened by liquid refreshments, the plans that are presented are often overly-ambitious and highly improbable. Eric’s idea was to include a ride into our annual outing, so that we’d at least accomplish SOME riding as part of our get together. There were, however, a few rules.
First, we were going to behave and dress like gentlemen. Lycra and performance fabrics were to be replaced with wool sport coats, scarves, and proper evening attire. Second, we were to abstain from using carbon fiber and instead ride kinder, gentler bikes from days gone by. Steel was the preferred material, and proper flat bars were preferable to new-fangled drop bars. Full coverage fenders might bring bonus points. Third, the ride would be taking place at night, requiring that everyone bring and use lights. With this, the “get lit” ride was born, a course was laid out, and a group assembled. Along for the ride were Eric, Ben, Benny, Mike, Jason, and myself.
We met at the train station in Port Chester, New York. Its beer garden was to be our final stop of our two-wheeled pub crawl. We assembled in the parking lot, looking more like a 1930’s era book club gathering than a group of cyclists, and set off for our first destination, the Rye Roadhouse. The 6 mile jaunt to Rye took us through the neighborhoods of Port Chester, through the mansions surrounding Westchester Country Club, and back down into Rye. The route had been planned to avoid traffic, and whenever possible provide as much visibility as possible. The weather was brisk (45 degrees) but dry and clear.
We arrived at the Roadhouse and immediately got weird looks from most of the people in the bar because we a.) were somewhat overdressed, and b.) arrived on bikes. Nevertheless, we finally got a table, and sat down to dinner and liquid refreshments. As happens often, I’m sure, our 70 year old waitress took a shine to Jason. Bourbon and spicy food eliminated any remaining chill in our bones.
After dinner, the next stop was to be another 6 miles away in Greenwich, Connecticut. After a hearty meal, and “hydration”, a 6 mile ride to Greenwich seemed like an absolutely stupid idea. We began to debate calling cabs to return us home, when Jason suddenly suggested an alternate plan: Kelly’s, a local Rye dive bar less than a mile away. This stroke of genius was all we needed to remount our trusty machines and continue on our quest. A five minute mostly downhill coast got us to our next destination where we were again welcomed as only a group of inappropriately-attired and vehicled could be: with a mix of shock, awe, and confusion.
As we “hydrated” again, the conversations that we’d had in previous years about plans for next season had transformed into a more immediate “where should we go next?” We were onto something with this whole dressing funny, riding old bikes, and visiting bars thing. Rather than making bold claims about future endeavors, we were actually riding, albeit in tiny increments.
With a goal of eventually completing the loop and returning to the Port Chester train station, we headed to Sam’s bar in Port Chester, a daunting 2 miles away. Nevertheless, we rode into Port Chester with the purpose and swagger of men on a mission; true outlaws of the open roads. Sam’s featured a shuffleboard table, and we cheered on as mighty shuffleboard athletes competed in epic battles of sliding little steel pucks across a table. It was also at this point that we figured out that Benny had his tie on backwards, which was immediately rectified.
We decided that one more stop was in order, so we pedaled a brisk 0.8 miles (partially uphill!) to Davy Byrnes, a neighborhood joint in Port Chester sporting an Irish theme, where you’re just as likely to run into a group of youngsters with questionable IDs as you would a 80 year old grandmother who’s dancing to Run DMC playing on the jukebox. Eric and Mike found the dartboard, and again we were making an impression as people around us didn’t seem to know what to make of us.
It was getting late, and we decided that it was time to finish the loop, so we formed a paceline to finish up the final 0.75 mile segment to get us back to the train station and Heartland Black + Gold for a final toast. As we arrived, they were closing, which was probably a good thing for all parties involved.
Total Distance: 10.5 miles.
Time: 5 hours.
Average speed: 2.1 mph.
Total liquid volume consumed: Just enough.
As I pedaled the one mile “cool down” back home, looking somewhere between “ridiculous” and “dapper,” I was reminded that riding a bike, even in a ridiculous manner, could be a lot of fun, and that I need to find other impractical and silly reasons to ride. The ancient Roman lyric poet Horace summed it up nicely when he said the following:
“Mix a little foolishness with your serious plans. It is lovely to be silly at the right moment.”
UCI World Championships
In my attempt to write a trip report about a guys’ road trip to this year’s UCI World Cycling Championships in Richmond, Virginia, I was well into the 6th page before I realized that severe editing was in order (and that’s leaving out the “what happens in Richmond stays in Richmond” parts).
Rather than providing a highly detailed, blow-by-blow account of the trip complete with the “what really happened in McDonalds?” “what does Lord Baltimore have to say about that?” and “does Rick want to bring the bikes?” episodes, I instead am proud to present you with “Ten Tips for Attending the UCI World Cycling Championships in Richmond.” These might come in handy 30 years from now when the Worlds return to US soil, or if you have a time machine. My ghost co-authors for this piece are my traveling and cycling comrades-in-arms, Eric, Mike, Rick, and Tom.
Tip #1: When in doubt, take a road trip with the guys, especially if it involves a world championship cycling event. Or bikes in general. Or really any road trip.
Tip #2: If possible, have the good fortune of booking yourself into the same hotel as the German national team (as we did) or any other country’s team. Not only can you scope out their “bike storage room” where you’ll see several lifetimes’ supply of carbon fiber, but you’ll also be able to bump into famous riders like Andre Greipel and John Degenkolb in the hallway on the way to breakfast. You can watch team mechanics working on bikes after the races in the hotel parking lot, score a race-used water bottle filled with top secret Teutonic wonder juice, drink this magic elixir, and immediately have enough energy to pump out 1000 pushups.
Tip #3: Bring your bike and schedule a day for a ride. Mike has family in the area, and knows all about being detained by military personnel for breaching CIA training facility perimeters (true story), so having a local guide is key. Our ride around the Williamsburg area, included a nice lunch stop, occasional tailwinds, views of the James and York rivers, dodging horse droppings in Colonial Williamsburg and almost no hills. It was also precisely planned and timed to return us to our “team car” just before the rain hit. Good job Mike!
Tip #4: Check out as many races as possible. We caught the tail end of the men’s U23 race, the men’s junior race, women’s elite, and men’s elite races. ALL were exciting.
Tip #5: Move around the course. The Richmond road circuit was 10 miles long, allowing the riders to pass by every 25 minutes or so. This allows the crowd to spread out very nicely, and allows for you to change locations between laps. In most instances, you could get right up to the edge of the road, often coming within inches of the riders as they passed. Try getting that close in Giant’s Stadium. Our race days started on Libby Hill, a ridiculously steep, heavily cobbled group of switchbacks. It was a natural “stadium” environment with fans scattered all over the hill and in the conveniently placed beer garden. Next was 23rd street, a one-lane, cobbled, 20% incline that’s reminiscent of the famous Koppenberg climb from the Tour of Flanders, with fans packed 20-deep up the embankments on either side, it was a tunnel of noise and energy. On Sunday, an entrepreneurial homeowner opened up a makeshift bar in their backyard (Tip #5a: try the bloody Mary!). After 23rd street, we’d view alongside a blistering descent down Broad Street. With no barriers along the side of the road, riders were whipping past at highway speeds, generating a small windstorm. This spilled out into the hard left turn where eventual champion, Peter Sagan, used his exceptional bike handling skills to establish the gap he needed to win. From there we continued onward until we found ourselves along the finishing straightaway, complete with jumbotron TV and beer garden.
Tip #6: Be amazed. On a descent down Main Street, the road narrows from 5 lanes down to 2 lanes within approximately 150 meters, and then bangs a hard right in to a narrow road. Looking at this piece of road, it was impossible to comprehend how 150 tightly packed riders would fit into this funnel while descending at 40mph, slow down, and manage the turn at the bottom. Somehow they defied all laws of physics and made it through.
Tip #7: Never pass a beer garden without stopping in. Hydration is important, and it helps the local economy.
Tip #8: Don’t believe the course profile. On paper, the Worlds’ loop looked pretty tame. In reality, the last 3 miles of the course had 3 back-to-back climbs (Libby Hill, 23rd Street, Main Street) that put a very real sting in the final part of the course. Even the finishing straightaway was uphill, a 680 meter false flat. With 162 total miles of racing, the course was everything a fan could hope for, and a grueling test for the riders. Kudos to the organizers for putting together a great course.
Tip #9: City Diner on Broad Street for breakfast. Delicious way to fuel up for a day of race-watching. Conversely, don’t believe the positive reviews for Extra Billy’s BBQ.
Tip #10: On the long drive back to New York, fun can be had by repeatedly turning on the driver’s heated seat when he’s not looking, and waiting until it’s noticed. It was worth getting punched. In the end, there’s really no way to describe how much fun can be had by 5 grown men behaving like children while on a road trip to attend a bike race. Getting to see, interact with, and finish partially filled water bottles from the same pro riders you see racing around the world is nothing like most stadium- controlled pro sporting events most of us attend in the US. Rick snapped about 10,000 photos, so enjoy!
Cycling Antietam National Battlefield, Sharpsburg, MD:
Cycling is a pastime that frequently takes us to new and interesting places. Those that know me well know that I am a self-professed history “nerd” of the highest order. The fact that I am NOT a cyclist of the highest order is also well-known! In spite of this, I recently had the chance to combine my “nerdy” passion for history with my devotion to our two-wheeled friend.
An upcoming trip to Washington, DC had me dreading the awful parking lot that is the I-95 corridor between New York and Maryland. Surely there must be a better way to get there, I thought. A review of Google Maps indeed showed a more westerly route that added several miles but that might be devoid of traffic and the all-too-familiar monotony of the New Jersey Turnpike. The fact that a more westerly route also passed many famous Civil War battlefields was an added draw. Having already visited Gettysburg, I set my sights on the Antietam National Battlefield in central Maryland.
A quick visit to the park’s web-site yielded a wealth of information on the history of the battle and “things to do” when visiting. The following advice was given; “The best way to view the battlefield is to take the self-guided driving tour. The tour road is 8½ miles long with 11 stops. Most visitors drive the route, but walking and biking are encouraged.” Interesting! I was planning on bringing my trusty steed to DC, anyway…could I tour the battlefield by bike? A plan began to take shape and I left for Maryland on a Friday morning in early September.
Interestingly, the battle took place on a mid-September day (the 17th to be exact). Global warming aside, I would be riding the battlefield’s roads in similar seasonal weather conditions. All the better to somewhat appreciate the heat and humidity that the thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers experienced on that terrible day in 1862. The present day did not disappoint…on opening the car door when I arrived, I was slapped rudely by the 90 degree heat and 90% humidity of a late-summer day in rural Maryland. I quickly changed into my cycling gear in the park’s visitor center and took a brief look around to get my bearings. I also procured the park’s brochure and map (entry fee; $4…gladly paid to support our National Park Service). I brought a small backpack to carry my camera, spare shoes and a bike lock (in case I had to leave my expensive “friend” somewhere to take an exploratory hike). My one mistake was only bringing one water bottle…this wasn’t going to be a long ride, right??
Always believing that “the best defense is a good offense”, Confederate General Robert E. Lee launched his first “invasion of the north” in the late summer of 1862. Thinking that a major victory on Union soil would make the Union think twice about pursuing the war, Lee’s army invaded Maryland in early September. It was also hoped that such a victory would bring foreign recognition (and aid) to the fledgling Confederate States of America. Union General George McClellan, and his grand Army of the Potomac, were sent to confront Lee. The two great armies met on the shores of Antietam Creek near the village of Sharpsburg.
The bloodiest single day in American military history (23,000 combined casualties) began early on that September morning with a massive Union attack on the Confederate left flank. The tour begins at the old Dunker Church in the northwestern corner of the park and follows the battle chronologically from morning to midday to afternoon. A modest white building, the church seems very serene today…a far cry from the carnage that raged around it, for it was the Union army’s objective that morning. The church was riddled with bullets and artillery fire but was still standing by day’s end. It has since been restored and now serves as a symbol of peace on this former killing ground.
I began my ride in earnest now, cycling a long loop around the battlefield’s northern reaches. The rolling Maryland farmland was perfect for cycling and the park road well-maintained. Great effort has been expended by the NPS to try and keep the battlefield as it was back in the 1860s. I truly appreciated my tax dollars at work!
The Union attack on the Confederate left flank traversed a large cornfield which ultimately attained infamy for the indescribable horrors that occurred there. Most students of history will instantly recognize the name “the bloody cornfield” as symbolic of the many tragedies of Antietam. Union soldiers emerged from the cornfield that morning straight into massed Confederate rifle and artillery fire. They were slaughtered and retreated. Union artillery then showered the cornfield with canister fire…the equivalent of gigantic shotgun blasts…which cut entire Confederate regiments to ribbons. The cornfield then descended into a hellish cauldron of hand to hand combat, changing hands 15 times in the space of an hour. Union forces eventually reached the Dunker Church but were decimated in the process and unable to hold their “prize” for long. Confederate counter-attacks drove them back and left the cornfield a bloody stalemate.
Today, the field is peaceful with rows of corn waving gently in the late summer breeze. It’s bucolic rural beauty belying the horrors that occurred there.
In spite of the heat, I was beginning to realize something…that riding the battlefield’s roads was an excellent way to appreciate the intricacies of the terrain and what the soldiers on both sides had to deal with that day. A cyclist is uniquely attuned to topography…something about powering your way up a hill (and the effort that it entails) gives you a better perspective on the lay of the land! The battlefield itself, surrounding the small hamlet of Sharpsburg, Maryland, is hilly indeed. The Confederates held the high ground and the Union attacks all went uphill for the most part.
By midday, the battle had shifted to the Confederate center with Union attacks converging on a sunken road through the farmland. Confederate troops had fortified the road into an almost impregnable fortress which, due to the undulating nature of the terrain, was invisible to attacking Union soldiers until it was too late. Waves of Union attacks broke upon the sunken road with horrific casualties on both sides. The road eventually fell to a Union flanking attack and by the afternoon, heaped mounds of bodies littered the road in all directions. This sunken road would eventually bear the name, “bloody lane”…another synonym for the horror of Antietam. Photographs of the Bloody Lane after the battle were among the first photographic images of war ever published in America and they brought the horrors of the war home to newspaper readers in the North. Today the sunken road is well-preserved and it is easy to see how it was such a major obstacle to Union forces.
A large tower marks the mid-point of the tour and it was here that my bike lock came in handy…not that there are many bicycle thieves among history nerds, but you never know! I locked my friend to a sign and climbed the tower. A welcome breeze and beautiful vista greeted me at the top with endless miles of farmland stretching out in all directions. Numerous monuments to various Union and Confederate regiments dotted the battlefield below. Descending the tower, I was happy to find my trusty friend still waiting for me. We joined forces again and continued our ride.
The road now became seriously fun…if one can have fun in such a somber setting. A long, winding downhill led to the southern end of the park and the battle’s final chapters. The famous Burnside Bridge straddles the Antietam Creek which gives the battlefield its name. The southern-most of three creek crossings on the battlefield, the bridge became the focal point of the Union’s final thrust against the Confederate right flank late in the day. A small group of Georgia riflemen held the high ground overlooking the bridge and beat back numerous Union attempts to cross the bridge before finally running out of ammunition and retreating. Union troops eventually poured across the bridge after suffering heavy losses. Today, as with other battlefield landmarks, the bridge is peaceful with the burbling creek coursing beneath. It is easy to appreciate the heights where the Confederates rained fire down upon the Union soldiers attempting their crossing.
All cyclists know that what comes down must go up. The rangers in the visitor’s center had warned me about the long hill that had to be climbed on the return trip. Running low on water at this point (should’ve brought TWO bottles!), the hill was indeed challenging in the afternoon heat. Union troops attacked the Confederate right flank up this same hill and came close to breaking their line. Only a desperate counter-attack by late-arriving Confederate reinforcements saved the rebels from total defeat. Climbing the hill on a bike again revealed the difficult nature of the battlefield’s terrain. A perspective one could not appreciate in a car with the assistance of an internal combustion engine! Union troops, near the point of exhaustion, climbed this hill directly into Confederate rifle fire. Many of these Union soldiers now lie buried in the Antietam National Cemetery in the town of Sharpsburg itself, near the end of the tour.
A mile-long, gentle climb was all that remained of the ride and I spun easily up the road on my return to the visitor center and my car. A thunderstorm gathered to the west and I reflected on a most interesting and sobering ride. Although my Garmin barely registered 10 miles for the entire park loop, I felt as if I’d traveled much farther…a journey not measured by mere distance but by the passage of time. With stops and photo-ops, my ride had lasted only an hour and a half, yet it seemed so much longer. The beauty of the landscape, the rolling terrain and the grim knowledge of the slaughter that occurred here, all came together to affect me as few rides ever have. Although a stalemate, the battle constituted a strategic Union victory as Lee’s battered and outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia had to retreat the next day. Lee’s first “invasion of the north” was a failure. Lincoln used the “victory” as a springboard to issue the Emancipation Proclamation…yet the war continued on.
A great ride under my belt, I too, continued on to Washington, DC, about an hour away. Although the area around Sharpsburg promises more great cycling, I was pressed for time and (reluctantly) had to return to the present. Cycling again had given me an unexpected gift…a unique perspective on a great, though tragic moment in our nation’s history. I hope my two-wheeled friend and I will have more such historical diversions in the future.
– Rick Stafford, Katonah, NY (9/9/14)
As most cyclists know, cycling gives us the opportunity to accomplish things that we might have thought we weren’t capable of doing, while at the same time opening up the risk of absolute and utter failure. There are times when you’ll knock down a challenge with plenty of room to spare, and there are other times when you bonk 15 miles from the finish, and struggle to make it home. As the old saying goes, “sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.”
There’s a correlation here: the greater the challenge and risk of failure, the greater feeling of accomplishment when you do succeed.
It was with this thought in mind that I decided to take on a late-season adventure of sorts. With some time off before starting a new day job, I decided to take a day to scratch a particular ride off of my bucket list. I decided to head up to Massachusetts and ride up Mount Greylock, the tallest peak in Massachusetts. The road to the summit is closed for the winter between November 1st and late May, so the October 28th ride would be close to the deadline.
Mount Greylock’s peak measures 3,491 feet, with the base elevation at approximately 1000 feet. The route from the south climbs approximately 2500 feet in 10 miles (by way of local comparison, Bear Mountain is roughly 1000 feet of climbing in 5 miles). The planned descent down the north side of the mountain is 2 miles shorter, but has an extra 300 feet of climbing available, so it’s significantly steeper. The entire road was repaved a couple years ago, so the surface is in great shape, with the exception of the occasional rumble strips warning motorists of hiking trail crossings.
Having committed to the ride, I threw the opportunity out to a group of friends who I thought might want to join me on the trip. I was rewarded with commitments from 3 other cyclists. To protect their identities by using only their first names:
- Mike: A natural climber. Weighs less than a decent-sized sandwich.
- Rick: The hard man. Impervious to pain. Our own Jens Voigt.
- Eric: Huge motor. Willing to ride a road bike anywhere, anytime, for as long as it takes.
- Me: The guy with the bad ideas. Ballast.
We loaded up the bikes and headed north. The initial weather called for partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the 50s.
It’s a 2 ½ hour drive to Lanesboro, MA where we planned to start our ride, and the ride featured all of the typical low-brow, frat house banter that you’d expect between 4 guys stuck in a car for that long. As we got closer, however, I began to take notice that the “hills” (not even “mountains” at this point) were significant. We also began to notice that trees, flags, and anything not tied down was listing heavily toward the east as a seemingly constant 25mph wind blew past. This was going to be serious. The laughter started to take on a nervous quality.
We finally arrived at the foot of the Ashuwillticook River Trail (I shan’t attempt to spell that again) in Lanesborough, where we’d be concluding our ride. The route we planned would be a clockwise loop, heading north and up and over Mount Greylock, down to North Adams, and then south back to Lanesborough through a combination of Route 8 and the Ash-etc. Trail. As we headed out, we were greeted by a full-on headwind, AND a solid mile of climbing before turning north toward the mountain. On the ½ mile descent down to Route 7, my wind speed was approximately 60mph, but my ground speed barely cleared 25mph.
After a brief flat cruise up Route 7, we turned onto the access road to Greylock, and the road immediately turned upward. It’s 1 ½ miles until you officially reach the entrance to the park road, and within that short time, we had already climbed 500 feet.
At this point, I’ll stop using the pronoun “we” for a little while as our foursome immediately shattered into 4 individuals, each figuring out their own way to grind up the mountain. The first 3 miles of the climb offers another 800 feet up to an elevation of 2400’. It’s especially disheartening as the grade fluctuates between an “easy” 8%, up to sections that routinely hit 12-14%. While these grades can routinely be found around some of the steeper hills in Westchester County, the knowledge that I had 8 miles until the summit…yes, 8 miles….made me question my own judgment for suggesting this adventure.
Nevertheless, I continued to move forward and upward and was rewarded with a unique feature of the southern approach to the summit: a descent! After a total of almost 5 miles of climbing, the road levels out for a couple miles, giving me new lease on life, and temporarily extinguishing the fires burning in my lungs and legs as I rolled along the ridge.
This temporary break was rewarded with the final summit push, a 3 mile section that averages 7%. It was during this last section where the view really starts to pay off. Despite the grey skies, the view into the surrounding valleys was spectacular. The knowledge that I had only very recently been “way down there” was inspiring. Take THAT, stupid mountain!
Arriving at last (and last) at the summit, and after a brief but mandatory group photo, we faced a new challenge in addition to the twisty descent: the weather. It was 10 degrees colder on the summit, and there was no protection from the wind. By now, the skies had also taken on a darker grey; with clouds that looked like they were itching to start a bar fight. We briefly debated heading back the way we came, but instead decided to continue down the northward descent. The cold temperatures, clothing damp from the exertion of the climb, 25mph winds, plus the additional wind speed on the bike created a wind chill scientifically calculated to roughly 1000 degrees below zero.
The first two miles of the 10 mile descent into North Adams are fairly mellow, with mostly gentle curves, and moderate slopes. Then it gets interesting. The mountain road is well paved, but it’s steep, with multiple sections at 15% or higher. It’s also pretty twisty, with a number of steep turns and switchbacks. So while we could easily cruise up past 45mph on some of the open sections, it was necessary to cut that speed in half to get around many of the curves. That, in and of itself, is no great feat, but dropping that much speed, while the road is still pointing STRAIGHT DOWN in order to make it through a leaf-strewn switchback is where the laws of physics take on a new urgency. Throw in the aforementioned rumble strips at trail crossings, and suddenly it’s a video game, played in a freezer, and you’re on your last life with no more quarters in your pocket.
About halfway down, the typical smells of fallen leaves that you’d associate with fall in New England were augmented with a hint of burning rubber, as I began to smell Eric and Mike’s brake pads getting scorched from friction heading into turns ahead of me. I also noticed that the clearance between my brake levers and handlebar was shrinking as my own pads slowly sacrificed themselves to the mountain at every switchback.
As we regrouped at a crossroads just outside the state park entrance, we were overcome with feelings of exhilaration and giddiness that can only occur after a continuous, adrenaline-fueled brush with disaster. Of course, the actual banter couldn’t reflect these emotions: “Wow, were those your brakes I smelled?” “That was awesome.” “I almost died. Four times!” “Whoa.” “That was awesome.” “Wow!” “I’m cold.” “Holy —-!” “I know, exactly!”
Finally, we reached town….or more accurately, we reached a place I’ll call “directly above town”. Horizontally, town was merely feet away, yet we were still hundreds of vertical feet above the main drag. We had about 2 city blocks to descend the height of a 30 story building. After the previous 9 miles of descending, the plummet into town was icing on the cake. As we buzzed past consecutive signs warning of a 19% grade followed by 17%, I pondered how it could be possible to pave streets that steep without all of the wet concrete flowing down to the bottom before it could solidify.
After surviving the harrowing final descent, we collected our wits and contemplated the 15 mile flat ride back to the car. Rick, at this point, had turned a rather interesting shade of light blue as his body temperature hovered near the single digits. We decided that we should seek heated shelter and possible nourishment before carrying on.
There was a small pub right at the foot of the descent. Walking in, the waitress noticed that we were suffering from mild hypothermia, and mentioned that perhaps we would like to sit by the fireplace. Clearly the bike gods were smiling on us at that point. As we warmed up, we were entertained by the physical signs of a bodies returning to normal temperatures. Rick’s attempt at opening up a packet of oyster crackers for his chowder was accompanied with an especially strong shiver, causing him to launch the crackers skyward as if celebrating the return of sensation to his extremities. We enjoyed watching Mike try to sip his beer while simultaneously risking shattering his teeth due to uncontrollable convulsions blasting through his arms as he warmed up. In an act of charity, I offered him a straw, and simultaneously considered the dubious choice I had made of ordering a cold beer in an attempt to warm up.
Eventually, with the help of food, drink, and fire, we set out for the final leg of our ride. As we passed along the eastern flanks of Mount Greylock, we could see the dark and foreboding summit looming almost directly overhead. The final 15 miles were almost completely flat, with the first half riding southward on Route 8, and picking up the very scenic and uncrowded bike trail in Adams for the remainder of the ride. In due course, the mountain faded away behind us, and we arrived back at the car, ready to put on warm clothes, crank up the heater, and head home.
We came, we saw, we rode, we froze, we thawed, we conquered.
I’ll be the first to admit that this edition of the blog was written selfishly. After a somewhat “epic” day, I wanted to try and capture the adventure while it was still fresh in my mind. Thank you for allowing me this self-indulgence.
In the end, this is one of the best parts of being a cyclist. Through my bike, I’ve made new friends with whom I now have shared adventures, great memories, and fantastic life experiences. The best part is that I know that the next time I have a harebrained idea for a far-flung adventure involving bikes, I have a pool of compatriots who will jump at the chance to come along and keep me company.
Go out and have an adventure on your bike.