The relentless very cold weather has been strangling any chance of a long ride for the past couple of weeks. (According to the always entertaining Hudson Valley Weather blog, we are currently experiencing the longest sustained below-freezing period in many years, perhaps ever.) But yesterday the forecast was for a balmy 30F! Sure, the wind chill was about 5F, but it’s all relative.
My specific goal was to do 100 miles on the single speed. I originally planned to do the Frost Valley loop through the Catskills, but the forecast there was for a couple inches of snow. Instead I plotted a route following the Shawangunk Ridge south into Sullivan and Orange counties, an area I haven’t ridden in much.
A note on dressing for weather: always dress for the wind chill and the expected level of effort. The harder you plan to work, the more you need to underdress, to the point where a hard-working ride requires you to be downright cold when you’re starting out. Yesterday, with a wind chill of 5F and a leisurely pace, was one notch above “wear everything.” Insulated bib tights, a thin wool baselayer, soft shell jacket, balaclava, glove liners and lobster gloves, wool socks, winter cycling boots, and chemical toe warmers (which are magically wonderful). As it turned out, I was slightly overdressed, but not to the point of sweating through the clothes, which is an experience really worth avoiding in the cold.
The first 30 miles were an easy, familiar cruise along the base of the Gunks. As I rode south, the road conditions improved; my road is still covered in packed snow, but it looked like less snow had fallen in Sullivan County. Unfortunately, I was riding into a full headwind, so it was slow going.
Around mile 30, the road turned upwards to cross the ridge. I picked the least challenging route up and over, but there were still a few sections of 8%-type grades, which are challenging on a single speed, especially because steep grades tend to be both iciest and most heavily sanded. Nothing too crazy, though, and soon enough I was at the top of the ridge at High View.
60 years ago, this area was home to dozens of Borscht Belt resorts, ranging from small family operations to relatively grand hotels like the Shawanga Lodge. Now, they are all decrepit ruins, sad reminders of a heyday that has long since faded away. There has been some recent investment in the area, partly fueled by (and fueling) the 2013 New York proposition permitting some casino gambling, and partly hoping to cater to the wealthy eco-spa set. We’ll see what will come of these plans.
In any case, a fast descent off the other side of the ridge led into Wurtsboro, a biker town as in Harley (not as in Surly). It’s marginally scenic in seasons other than the dead of winter, but honestly somewhat grim in January. This was the outer boundary of my previous cycling experience, and I was delighted to find that as soon as I turned off of Main Street, the route became spectacular. I followed a small road along the shoulders of the ridge, slowly picking up altitude as a wide tract of wilderness opened up beneath me. It started to snow, just enough to be scenic, not enough to be a bummer.
The road (marked on Google Maps as Haven or South Road, but road signs in situ said Indian Orchard) became increasingly scenic as it became clear this was some sort of preserve. I stopped at a lovely frozen stream, which rose almost vertically yet somehow was not a frozen waterfall.
Finally, I passed a sign identifying this area as the Basha Kill wetlands, much to my surprise. I’ve canoed at the Basha Kill several times in the summer, but it was completely unrecognizable in winter (also, I was on the other side of the wetland from the main approach). It would have made a fine ride destination if I’d thought of it. As it happened, it was just a happy coincidence. I’ll be returning to ride this area again, for sure.
At the end of the road, I climbed back up to the top of the ridge, now in Orange County, to the town of Otisville. I was struck by how much more upscale this area seemed than the other side of the ridge — not that it was fancy, more that it wasn’t visibly depressed. Then I noticed a sign for a Metro-North station. It’s only one stop from the end of the line, but a conduit for commuters and NYC salaries makes a big difference to a town’s median income.
The next 30 miles or so were a spectacular, gradual descent through rolling farmland, with a steady tailwind. Really, there’s nothing like a gradual descent and a strong tailwind for a fantastic bike ride. The farms were pretty and well-kept, this is quite a nice area to ride. The only downside yesterday was that in many places, a sort of crosswind tunnel effect would blow a significant amount of snow across the road, which had to be forded while bracing against the sudden crosswind.
Back in Ulster County, I passed the Shawangunk Grasslands wildlife refuge, a former army airfield that is now a 600 acre preserve. This seemingly unremarkable giant meadow is actually an important wintering and migration habitat for the entire roster of endangered and threatened grassland birds. If you’re into birds, it’s a great destination, especially in spring when birds are nesting.
The skies finally started to clear as I re-entered the super-familiar radius of about 30 miles from home. As the skies cleared, the wind and temperature both dropped, but that was fine. Cold and sunny is better than slightly less cold, cloudy and gusty.
Some leisurely calculation revealed that if I headed more or less directly home, I’d end up with about 95 miles. Sure, it’s arbitrary and contrived, but I jinked a few miles east to ride home past the Black Creek swamp and ensure three digits of mileage.
Once home, I proceeded to eat everything in the house, and was treated to a spectacular sunset out the back window. This is an undoctored photograph, honest.
This was a great ride. 100 miles in January is hard on the equipment, though. I doubt this chain has many more January centuries in it. The freewheel is starting to go as well, probably full of sand.
— John S, aka globecanvas