A Cold Day in Massachusetts.   Leave a comment

Mount Greylock MA peak ride with Bicyle WorldAs 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.

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Posted November 23, 2013 by bicycleworldny in Cycling in Winter, Winter bike riding

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