Monthly Archives: June 2013

Guest Post: Dirt Roads of Delaware County

Today we have a guest post from Anton, also known as Somervillain. Anton lives in Boston, but has a summer home in Delaware County, New York. After reading this post, it’s clear that I’m going to have to step up my game, both in terms of quality of writing and photography!

The Catskills have a plethora of unpaved rural roads and mountain passes with breathtaking vistas, valley farmland set against rocky hills. This is the backdrop that attracts New Yorkers, many of which own second homes in the area.  But decades of a withering local dairy economy create a poignant juxtaposition: tidy seasonal second homes interspersed among victims of rural decay, crumbling dairy farms either face inevitable decline or reinvent themselves in a fledgling agro-tourism economy.

For cyclists, there are endless opportunities for off-the-beaten-path exploration. A day on the bike and you can count the vehicles that pass you on two hands. Paved secondary roads lead to red clay dirt carriage roads shaded by overarching tree canopies. (The characteristic fine, silty red dirt gets its color from the Marcelus Shale, upon which much of the Catskills sits).

The Catskill Scenic Trail is a 19-mile hardpack gravel rail-to-trail easement that runs between Grand Gorge and Bloomville in Delaware County, on part of what used to be the Ulster and Delaware Railroad that ran between Kingston and Oneonta. It offers stunning scenery as it bisects farmland along the mostly flat shoulders of the West Branch of the Delaware River. In part due to it’s relative flatness, and in part because of its promotion by local tourism groups, it attracts recreational cyclists, skiers, joggers and equestrians.  While personally I find the flatness of the trail unsatisfying for anything beyond a few miles, it serves as an excellent launching point for cycling excursions into the surrounding hills, and it’s fun to mix portions of the trail into extended dirt road loops.

Although I live full-time in Boston, I have a vacation home in Bloomville and enjoy stitching together dirt road loops in the area whenever I’m up there, usually during vacations in the summer or on extended weekends. I just kicked off a two-week vacation by riding an easy 36 mile route which begins and ends at the Catskill Scenic Trail head in Bloomville. The ride started off with lots of unpaved roads, and over 2200 feet of climbing in the first 16 miles.  After that were seven miles of descent, and finally gentle rollers, mostly paved.

At the head of the trail is a discreet unpaved parking area.  I’ve never seen more than one or two cars parked there, a pleasant contrast to my usual experiences anywhere around Boston. It’s located just off Rt 10, a few hundred feet from the main crossroads of Bloomville. As I head out on the trail, I’m immediately received by a shady tunnel of overarching tree crowns. Soon this leafy greenway gives way to a clearing, and the realization that I’m riding–completely legally–through someone’s farm. Along the trail, tractor paths regularly intersect. Sod-covered bridges maintain continuity of the trail across meandering brooks.




The trail follows Rt 10 with limited access points. About a mile into the trail, a tractor path provides a private cut-through back to Rt. 10. Across Rt. 10 from the tractor path is Kiff Brook Rd, a dirt road with a steady 4% grade over three miles, with a few short, steep climbs. Crumbling farms and hill-top residences dot the periphery. After the long, gradual climb, Kiff Brook Rd descends rapidly to its terminus at the bottom of a dramatic 16% descent on loose gravel. From there, a short segment of flat paved county highway connects to Roberts Rd, the second climb of the route. Here the road is chip-seal on top of the original red clay dirt, but I remember a time when it was still unpaved. Farms and bucolic pastureland line the road as it climbs steadily. As I near the top I look behind me and see a tractor cresting the previous hill behind me; it never catches up despite that I’m only averaging about 10 mph on this segment.




From Roberts Rd the route takes me back to dirt, descending Turnpike Rd into West Kortright as I pass by freshly hayed fields, hayrolls awaiting collection.  Not a village per se, West Kortright denotes an area of the township around a confluence of roads at the bottom of a hill, oriented around what used to be an old clapboard church. Renovated and repurposed, it’s now a performing arts center.


Continuing on Turnpike Rd past West Kortright, I’m brought to the final and steepest climb of the route, a short loop up Davis Rd, a gorgeous wood fence-lined dirt road dominated by a vary large dairy farm. On one side, cows take shelter from the sun under a cluster of shade trees in an otherwise vast pasture.  On the other side, hilltops occupy the distant horizon. This road challenges the traction limits of my 650B Hetres, with a 20% peak grade on large, loose gravel. No chance of pedaling out of the saddle without loosing traction, and I don’t even think about stopping for photos, figuring I won’t regain traction. When I arrive at the top, the views are breathtaking; good time for a break.



After Davis Rd the route loops back around, following some more dirt and ending up on Monroe Rd, the last dirt road of the route (with the exception of some more trail at the end of the route). Checkerboard fields fill the view, divided by grids of tree-lined roads like a patchwork quilt on a lumpy bed. A continuous two mile descent follows. I hadn’t ridden this particular road before and I experience a near panic moment when I realize it comes to an abrupt stop just as the descent reaches its steepest, at 15% grade. It T-intersects Elk Creek road, where I am greeted by grazing sheep against the backdrop of a steep forested hill. My house is just over the other side of that hill, a mile away as the crow flies, but the shortest rideable route to it is another eight miles. I don’t go this route, instead opting to take an even longer way back.




From here the second half of the route switches gears (literally and figuratively) and takes on an entirely different character, becoming less physically demanding. Elk Creek Rd winds along a valley nestled between two steep hills, with gentle rollers and an overall slightly negative grade, a relief from the hard climbing that marked much of the first half of the ride. It brings me Rt 10, a state highway with a 55mph limit. Rt 10 is a major north-south conduit through Delaware County that follows the West Branch of the Delaware river, so there is usually a steady flow of traffic. Fortunately I’m only on it for less than a mile (I count four cars but no trucks), when I cross over to the other side of the river on Fitch’s Bridge, one of a few covered wood bridges in the county.

Speaking of the river, I was informed that the region had gotten hammered with rain over the prior weeks, with reports of flooding. Two years ago a few of the towns in the eastern and southern ends of the Catskills were devastated by Hurricane Irene. Although the rain hasn’t been nearly as severe this season, I was concerned that some of the dirt road surfaces would be washed out, washboarded, or badly potholed by all the rainfall. I was pleasantly surprised to find the dirt well graded, properly drained and smooth– unusual in these parts, even without extended rain. But an unexpected bonus from all the recent rain was the burbling sound of running water, and it was literally everywhere. It could be heard but not seen: despite being 85 degrees and sunny, I heard water draining from the mountains, funneling into hidden streams and drain ditches everywhere I rode. It was the perfect soundscape to accompany the landscape.




Crossing over Fitch’s Bridge to what is colloquially referred to as Back River Rd, this gently rolling road hugs the river back to Bloomville. Both Rt 10 and Back River Rd follow the river on opposite sides, but what Rt 10 is to traffic, Back River Rd is to farming: known as the West Branch Farm Trail, there is a higher density of roadside farm stands along this stretch than anywhere else in the county. There’s a farm stand on Back River Rd with raw milk gouda that I decided I wanted but it’s a few miles past Bloomville, so I continue past Bloomville on Back River Rd. After I slip the $6 in crumpled one dollar bills from my jersey pocket into the Folgers can and take my wedge from the fridge that appeared to be at least half a century old, I continue another mile or so and catch another tractor path shortcut to the Catskill trail and follow it for the remaining five miles back to Bloomville.





Back in Bloomville with a thoroughly dusty drivetrain, I stop in at the small cafe at the crossroads of Bloomville for an espresso and a bite to eat. I reflect back on the mental accounting I did of the number of vehicles that passed me along the route. Alas, the two hand rule was broken: 14 vehicles in total had passed me, but then four of those were on one mile of Rt 10. I don’t count the tractor that never caught up to me.

Full route, with unpaved segments drawn in red, can be found here.



Should I?

You’re probably wondering where I am. I’m not neglecting the blog because I’m tired of it; instead, I’ve been traveling. First California, then Anguilla for the wedding, and now I’m back in California and waiting for my 7 pm meeting. I’m only out for a few days this time, although I’m not getting back until 3 am on Sunday morning.

From last Friday to yesterday, however, I managed to get in almost 150 miles of riding on the new English 650B. I took a few glamor shots of the bike. At least I thought they’d be glamor shots, but I took them with my iPhone and they ended up a little blurry. Here’s one photo, I’ll post the good ones when I return.


I got in a few rides with significant gravel segments. Nothing more than 40 miles, but it was a lot of fun on 650B. I’m taking it easy on my knee right now.




Speaking of my knee, it still hurts a little. I’m on my way to a second formal bike fitting on Wednesday to see if there’s anything I can do about it. There’s nothing that will change about my reach, which has been optimized through a fitting and long experience, but I’m hoping we can do a little work on optimizing my saddle height and, most importantly, cleat position. I clearly have a leg length discrepancy, because when I ride with a Brooks, only one side of the saddle collapses. The knee issues have only cropped up over the last month because of dramatic overuse–the week that my knee really started to fall apart I had ridden 300 miles with almost 30,000 feet of climbing. That’s a lot when you come from the flatlands of NYC.

I know you want to hear about the English. I can’t write a comparative review because I was off the bike for a week due to the knee injury, and then an additional 10 days because of the wedding. So a direct back-to-back comparison with the 700C English is impossible. I will say this, however: I am definitely much faster on descents on the 650B. My usual route into town has about 650 feet of descending on rough, potholed backroads and gravel. I’ve done it dozens of times, and it always takes me 21-23 minutes. I rode into town twice now with the 650B, and the trip took me 18 minutes the first time, and 19 minutes the second time.

This is entirely to be expected. Because the road is really rough, on the 700C bike with 25 mm tires, there’s lots of jumping, dodging, and panic braking. On the 650B, I just roll right over obstacles that would terminate my Clavicula fork or cause a pinch flat. The good part? The handling on this bike is not different from my 700C bike. Other than providing a lot of extra cushion, it really does not feel or act different, even when pushed relatively hard.

Going uphill isn’t faster (or slower, for that matter). But it is more pleasant because of the dramatically lower gearing on the 650B. I’m going to figure out a way to gear down the 700C bike, because grinding up 15% and even 20%+ grades in 34/25, while feasible, is certainly partly responsible for blowing out my knee.

The paint. Holy shit sparkles! It’s amazing. On one of my rides I stopped to eat, and I parked it by the window and stared at the sparkles instead of reading the paper as I had intended. It’s a lovely bike, at least if you’re not a traditionalist who thinks anything with a less than level top tube is ugly. My only regret is not going with something really bright. Oh well…next bike, if there ever is one, will be fluorescent pink with gold sparkles and a My Little Pony sticker on the headtube. Liberace on wheels.

A note about the Spyre brakes. I originally had weight weenies rotors on the bike. After only a few trips over the mountains, they were pulsing horribly. I replaced them with Shimano Ice Tech rotors, which seem more suitable for the type of riding I do.

What about the Spyres themselves? I regret to report that they have poor modulation at best. I thought it was a matter of getting used to them, but really they kind of suck. I’m going to try a few different models of brakes, starting with the HY/RD hydraulics, then I’ll try Shimano, and if all else fails, go back to BB7s. At least the latter work well, even though I hate them because they require a lot of messing around to keep them from squealing.

Regarding the title of this post: I’ve been seriously contemplating a 4-person team RAAM either next year or the following. If my knee is okay, I’ve decided it’s a go. We’ve got two team members so far (including me).

New and improved routes coming fast and furious starting at the end of next week…and, of course, don’t forget you can Win a Garmin! Now, off to do some stretching. I’m making a concerted effort to improve my flexibility.


I Have Returned

I’m back from Anguilla and the wedding. Anguilla was great, but the bikes the hotel promised us would arrive by 9:00 am never showed up despite repeated requests. Taken together with the 10 days I didn’t ride before the vacation because of my knee, I’ve now been off the bike for almost 18 days. That’s the longest I’ve gone without riding since at least 2008!

It’s all good, though. My knee feels perfect again, and now I’m on the English 650B with a much lower low end–34/36 vs 34/25 on the 700C English. Hopefully spinning up mountains, as opposed to grinding up in the 34/25, will prevent the knee pain from coming back. I also made a deal with the devil, and I have some Speedplays coming. These pedals always struck me as a little dumb because the mechanical bits are part of the cleats rather than the pedal, but if they reduce the risk for knee pain, so be it.

After a quick trip to California next week, I’ll be back for the rest of the summer, so expect lots of new routes in July. They will be of the shorter variety, say 50 to 80 miles, for a while. I don’t want to push out a 200-mile ride until I’m sure about my knee. I need to get back into fightin’ shape, because I have a 400-mile ride planned for August, starting in Albany and circumnavigating the Adirondacks. Note that this isn’t a bicycle tour, we’ll be doing it rando-style, meaning that I have a hotel reserved at about 250 miles so we can pass out for 3-4 hours before completing the ride.

And of course, don’t forget to enter the Win a Garmin contest!


Out for a Few Weeks

I’m off to a meeting in California, and then Anguilla…to get married. I asked my bride what time the ceremony will be on Saturday and she said “why, do you want to go for a ride first?”

Do I have a problem?

Anyway, it works out well because I’m still working on rehabilitating my vastus medialis obliquus (VMO) to make my knee track a little better. I’ve only ridden about 80 miles in the last two weeks, as compared with about 250 miles weekly before the knee pain. But when I get back, I’ll have the English waiting for me with low, low gearing to get me up those hills without destroying my knees again, and my knee should be all better.

So check back in 10 days, and consider entering the Win a Garmin competition. The best thing that could happen is you’ll win a Garmin or a set of the best tires ever made…worst that could happen is you have a great day on the best roads in three states.


Contest: Win a Garmin 800!

As you know if you’ve been reading along, I’m on a mission: To get as many people as possible riding up here in the Catskills.

And as you will also know if you’ve been reading along, my Garmin 800 was destroyed after riding in the rain. Why Garmin can’t make a device that stands up to the rain, I don’t know. I’m giving it to a friend who is going to have it fixed.

In the meantime, however, I bought a Garmin 810…and just before it arrived, I received another Garmin 800 as a gift. It sounds complicated, I know, but the upshot is that I have an extra Garmin 800 now that’s unreturnable. I thought about regifting it, but then I had an idea.

Here’s your chance to win a Garmin 800 (first place) or a set of your choice of Grand Bois tires (second place) (Stand by for an update, though, there may be more prizes coming). The Garmin is the base model, so you’ll need to get a card with the maps, or just buy an SD card and download Open Maps.

Here’s the contest:

  • Design a route in Ride With GPS* of 50 to 200 miles in Ulster, Greene, or Delaware Counties (or use one of mine). One-day rides only. Camping trips are nice, but not what I’m looking for.
  • Ride that route
  • Send me at least 500 well-written words, at least 5 pictures, a map generated on Ride WIth GPS, and a link to the route, all of which will be posted as a guest post on my blog under your name or a pseudonym of your choice
  • Profit

You do not have to tell me why you want or deserve the Garmin. I don’t care, I just want to get people riding up here.

The contest is open to anyone who does not live in Ulster, Greene, or Delaware counties (yeah, I’m aware there could be cheating, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t, though).

Here’s how you will be judged, in order of importance:

  1. Good story, well written. I reserve the right to edit.
  2. Great pictures
  3. Great route
  4. Distance On second thought, let’s call this category “adventure.” Your ride can be anywhere between 50 and 200 miles, but back roads, mountains, and gravel are a big plus. Sorry for changing the rules–on reflection, I don’t want people riding 200 miles who aren’t ready for it!
  5. Public transport (use the train if you can)

A few edits: I don’t care how fast you go. Just enjoy yourself! Also, no organized events, please.

The contest runs from right now until September 30. I’m betting I get less than 10 entries, so you’ve got a great chance of winning. Enter as many times as you like!

Entries will be judged by me alone, on purely subjective criteria. And I hate to say this, but keep in mind that I am not liable for any injury that results from entering this contest.

*Just FYI, Ride With GPS also generates cue sheets, so you don’t need a GPS to use it.