Tuesday, August 6, 2013

A notch above: The North Country 600K and the Kancamagus affair.

I ride long stretches - 20 miles, 30 miles, 50 miles - on remote roads. I pedal past mountain lakes, through wildlife refuges in Northern New Hampshire, the North Woods and over the White Mountains of Maine. In this unfamiliar vastness, at times as distant as the blue peaks on the horizon, at times as close as the thicket of trees edged along the shoulder, I am uncertain but eager. A child of adventure taking his first steps, wavering but willing. Without the barriers of a car or the silencing noise of a motor, an unbound consciousness tentatively reaches out for the edges of the world, stretches toward the distant mountains, rises toward the cumulus clouds, teeters at the edge of the wilderness, learning to find its way.

I leave invisible traces as I travel through this place. Molecules of my DNA infuse the North Woods. My breath joins the cool air. My sweat seeps into the asphalt. But this place also leaves its traces in me. My legs and my lungs intimately know the measure of Dixville Notch and Kancamagus Pass in ways beyond mere miles and meters. Hours spent climbing mountain passes are not soon forgotten. Between the conversations, the arguments, the dances, disappointments and triumphs, we practically had a relationship.

Along the way, thoughts bubble up and burst into ideas and emotions - at times elated, at times melancholy, at times at peace. Rain falls sporadically from a turbulent sky. Flowers bloom in colors that overflow from the fullness of the summer rains. The road rises, falls, twists and turns and still I ride. Always moving forward until movement becomes its own stillness.
Must every ride report start at the beginning? For this report, I think I will start in the middle, or almost the middle, at the point when I woke up at the sleep stop, the cross- country ski Chalet in Bethel Maine.

Chris N. (from PA) woke me by tugging on my toe. We drove up for the brevet on Friday and spent most of Saturday riding mostly together, but, at the end the day, he arrived at the sleep stop before me.
The night before, I was the last of the nine riders on the brevet to arrive at the sleep stop. However, I had watched the sun set at the Height of Land.

When I arrived, the chalet glowed surreally from the darkness with warm yellow incandescent light shining from multiple windows. For a minute, I wondered if it was a greenhouse and how anyone could be asleep in a building that was so bright.

Joe M., who was volunteering at the controle to support the ride, greeted me outside and made sure I did not miss it. Inside, the place was a cozy mountain house with multiple rooms and levels. Sara and Gary, two volunteers from NER, had a wonderful selection of food from baked ziti, some with meat and some vegetarian (I had both) to baked goods and all sorts of juices. They were cheerful and helpful despite the erratic comings and goings that happen at a sleep control on a brevet. It was 23:30. Someone was leaving at 2:00. Chris planned to wake at 2:45. My plan before the ride was to get at least 3 hours of sleep and depart by 4:00.

Early in the ride, Chris and I had discussed possible departure times for the sleep stop. He preferred to err on the side of having more time to complete the ride. I preferred to err on the side of having more sleep. We never quite agreed to do what the other wanted, so when I found out that Chris planned to get started less than three hours after I would be going to sleep, I decided to go with my plan instead. I had arrived early enough to make that happen if I ate showered and went straight to bed, so that is what I did.
As a result, when Chis woke me, he was dressed and ready to go. That was cool with me. I was not, but I figured I’d see him on the route. Jim and Christine, riding companions from Maine, were also up and prepping to leave. They were local, knew the roads and ride a brisk pace. We had crossed paths the day before but I did not expect to see them again. They left minutes before me.
I gathered the gear that I set out just a few hours ago. I decided to skip a sit down meal since I also ate just three hours ago. By 4:00, I am out the door. Clean, fed and rested. 16 hours to ride 152 miles. No problem!

I was not the last to leave. Jon and Chris, two randonneurs from Boston who had arrived at the sleep stop before sunset, had a 4 am wake up call. They needed their sleep. After completing this ride, they planned to ride the Endless Mountains 1240 in Pennsylvania - it starts just 3 days later. What audaxity!

What a difference 24 hours make. The early morning sky shows a crescent moon and sharp stars. No rain falls. An hour and a half later, the sun rises.

To my surprise, on the way to the controle, I see Jim and Chris (from ME). They stopped at Rosie's for a breakfast sandwich. (Jim is a breakfast sandwich afficianado. Chris thinks he should do a blog called bikes and breakfast sandwiches. I agree).

They soon catch up and we share the Sunday morning ride. The scenery is simply stunning. The White Mountains curve around the edge of the horizon, enclosing the green fields around us. 

Here, they have the home field advantage. Jim and Christine ride regular weekend centuries in this area. They know the route. Fortunately, they share that knowledge with me.

We have to cross those distant mountains. Kancamagus pass is a road that climbs to 2855 feet over 23 miles. A second climb of 1900 feet follows shortly thereafter. I ask Jim if that is the end of the climbing. He reluctantly says no. The last 42 miles are a series of climbs back to the finish. 

Suddenly 16 hours does not seem like a lot of time.

We meet Chris (from PA) on the way. The four of ride together toward the next controle, passing time in good company.

Jon and Chris (from Boston) meet us on the way. We converge at the control, rest room at the State Park office and then I ride to meet The "Kanc."
Clint Eastwood famously said, "A man's got to know his limitations." I know mine even if I somtimes ignore them. I am not a natural climber on a bike. I climb by strength and will. Nevertheless, once a climb reaches a certain grade I have to go to the granny gear. It's not sexy, but it works for me.

The Kanc invites you in, gently climbing for miles but slowly turning up the steep. If you lift your head from the task at hand, the world unfolds before you. Hard and implacable. Beautiful but unforgiving. This is God's Country.

Before the Kanc, I have all the time I need. Riding the Kanc takes that from me. Hours pass. Morning passes. It is close to noon and still I climb. The range changes the weather. Rain clouds gather. It is far too soon to tell you I summited. Doing so would deprive you of the experience. Come back later, when you are exhausted, and then climb some more with me. With over 250 miles of riding in my legs before starting, I live and die on the Kanc.

The descent is the resurrection.

The Kanc is followed by a 1900 foot climb over another pass. Luckily, it is only two miles. I remember that I can climb Blue Mountain and I force my legs to pedal. Noon turns to afternoon and time becomes my opponent.

I arrive at the next control and, to my surprise, I see Jim and Chris (from ME). Jim had a mechanical and spent time in bike shop to get a cable repaired.

I need a cup of coffee. Surely the mountains are behind me. I sit on the sidewalk outside of the Cumberland convenience store and drink coffee. Eyes closed. Breathing.

Route 302 in Vermont goes from Wells River to Montpelier VT. Groton is a picturesque, new agey/hippie cool farm town on the east side of 302. To leave Groton going east requires crossing two more passes. More climbing. 

If a man should know his limitations, he should also know his strengths. Strength is my strength. Strength of mind and strength of body. I may never be a light climber, but I am strong and I can ride. I do not doubt that I will finish but I doubt if I will have enough time. 

A riddle - What does a Randonneur do when it rains?         
Answer - Rides a bike.

Another riddle - What does a Randonneur do when it's dark? 
Answer -Rides a bike.

One more riddle -
What does a Randonneur do when in doubt?


Epilogue: For a detailed course description go here.

For lots of pictures go here:


  1. So, did you make it in time?

    1. That is an unanswered question isn't it?

  2. Nigel, been hearing a lot about you at the kitchen table in Bethel, Maine.
    A thoughtful write-up. Jim hopes to see you again.

    1. Jim made a wonderful ambassador for your State. It would my pleaseure to ride with him again.

  3. The other woman is a mountain. BEAUTIFUL post Nigel!
    May the wind be at your back.

    1. LOL. It's either the other woman or a sign of my mid-life crisis. Either way it makes for interesting weekends. Thanks for reading and the kind comments Karen.

  4. Nice post.The White mountains are a special place. I grew up, came of age, climbing those mountains. Although states away now, I look forward to cycling there someday.

  5. Excellent report Nigel. The terrain you describe sounds enchanting. I'll have to consider this ride in the future.


  6. As much a joy to read as it was to ride. And my sentiments exactly upon seeing the lights at Carter's, made perhaps more jarring by the long approach on a very dark road.

    1. Thanks Jim and yes the long dark approach certainly made the building that more dramatic.