Monthly Archives: April 2014

Water? Yeah, we’ve got that

– By Somervillain

After a brutally long, cold and snowy winter, I had been itching to get back to cycling. I bike commuted the short distance to work through most of the winter, but that type of cycling is insignificant and serves little more than utility. It doesn’t count. Cycling for the sake of cycling largely ceases during winter in New England, and I was eager to get back into doing long distances, to take in scenery, to have no deadline to be someplace, to explore. I happened to be up at our Catskills home for the weekend for other reasons, and the weather was promising to be perfect for a spring ride.

I had been wanting to try a new route that I mapped last year, which would take me to the Pepacton reservoir. It would take me over a couple of mountainous dirt roads which I’ve ridden before, but other than them it would be mostly new territory. I was keen on doing this route not because I was particularly drawn to seeing the reservoir, but because the route takes in a 10-mile, continuous descent, and the thrill of the descent is, primarily, what compels me to climb hills.

I had done only one long ride this season, just last week, so I wasn’t in good enough shape to tackle a mountainous ride of too much distance, not this early, but I wanted to get in 100k. Typically my Catskills routes average 1000 ft of elevation gain per 10 miles, but 6200 ft would be too much this early in the year– that’s like D2R2, a ride I spend all summer preparing for! So I cut some of the mountains out of the route, and incorporated 10-15 flat miles on either end, leaving some pronounced hills in the middle (and that 10-mile descent!) for a more reasonable 5000 ft overall elevation gain:

I started out in Bloomville, after having an excellent breakfast at Table On Ten, just down the hill from my house:

From there I followed the Delaware River, West Branch, along the flat Back River Road for 15 miles through Delhi to Hamden. But the flatness ends abruptly with the turn onto Basin Clove Rd, which takes you over the mountain separating Hamden from Downsville, shown in this photo:

Tapped sugar maples line Back River Road:

On to Basin Clove Rd, the first major climb: cat 3 with an average grade of 9.5% for more than two miles.

I’m never good at capturing the intensity of a climb looking up a hill, it always appears more accurately steep looking down it, so this is what it looked like behind me:

Initially, I lamented the lack of flourishing tree buds and other signs of sprouting greenery that mark the progression of spring.  A little early for that in these parts. I’d have to settle for the residual shades of grays and browns from a retreating winter. But I soon realized that early spring in the Catskills is the season of water– equally beautiful in its own right, and what I missed in terms of emerging spring color was made up for by the tumbling kinetics and sounds of water, everywhere and all around me. Mountainsides turn into waterfalls, drain ditches into mini rapids. It occurred to me that it was perhaps most appropriate that I was riding this route in early spring, because the visual (and audible!) cues to just how impactful this region is to New York City’s water supply were unavoidable.  You see, NYC gets its water from a network of man-made reservoirs located in the Catskills, built between the 1940s and the 1950s. The Pepacton is the largest of these. The water from the reservoirs is channeled through a network of aquaducts and tunnels to the city more than 100 miles away. NYC prides itself in its water, routinely judged among the finest municipal waters in the nation, and the city goes to great lengths to ensure the quality of its water is maintained through extensive land conservation efforts.

And it was here, climbing up Basin Clove Rd, that I first realized how much water drains down the mountains.  This is what the drain ditches looked like:

The sound of running water created a soothing wall of white noise, which helped me settle in to that meditative zen-like state you need to get into to help you focus on getting up the mountain.  Of course, stopping every so often for a break to take photos helps, too.

Eventually I reached the top of Basin Clove Rd, and got to enjoy a similar view to what I just showed you, only this was taken without turning my head backwards: the start of the 10-mile descent down, down, down Gregory Hollow Rd to Downsville:

More water along the way.

Did I mention water?

The sound of water was so pronounced, I took a recording of it:

Eventually the descent ended in Downsville, a small village with a convenience store, convenient for filling up my water bottles and using the restroom. The Pepacton reservoir’s western tip is in Downsville, less than a mile from the Downsville covered bridge.

From the Pepacton, there’s no way to get back to Bloomville without going over another mountain with at least one cat 3 climb. For the return I took Huntley Hollow Rd to Fall Clove Rd to Maggie Hoag Rd– each of these roads is a milder climb than Basin Clove Rd, but the first two still qualify separately as cat 3 climbs and collectively the three roads accounted for 2/3 of the total climbing, in just 1/3 the total distance of the route.

Fall Clove Rd is a beauty. Long and winding, with lots of moderate ups and downs, none too intense, and lots of pleasant pastureland views.

Maggie Hoag Rd, the last dirt segment and last climb of the route, was hard. Not according to the elevation profile, but because by now I had exhausted my reserves. Here it is (head turned backwards again):

Back in Bloomville, I realized that in just a few more weeks the dreary remains of winter will have finally vanished, having yielded to spring’s new growth, and by the time I get another ride in, everything will look different. And just as slowly as spring marches on toward summer, the sound of water will diminish.  And I’ll miss it.

Full route, with dirt sections in red.



The Tour of the Battenkill is a spectacle. Easily the biggest 1-day race on the continent, the race brings 3000 racers to the tiny town of Cambridge, New York. For one weekend, bike racers significantly outnumber local humans, and even local cows.

Schenectady Daily Gazette

Battenkill is styled after the Spring Classics of Northern Europe, and the course is a real treat. The exact route changes every year, but it is always about 65 miles, with around 5000 feet of climbing. (The cat 2s do the course 1.25 times, and the pros and cat 1s do 1.5 for an even 100 miles.)

About 1/3 of the course, and most of the climbing, is on narrow dirt roads. The terrain is an effective stand-in for the various Classicbergs of Flanders, with many steep 5-minute power climbs on pitted dirt.  Although the route does change from year to year, there are a few signature features that are always in the race. Juniper Swamp (yes, really) is a very steep 2-minute dirt climb that almost always separates the field early. In the middle of the race, Meetinghouse Road is a ruler-straight series of corrugated steep dirt risers that are highly photogenic, but deeply painful. And finally, Stage Road is a make-or-break 6-minute dirt climb 5 miles from the finish.

Although there is a lot of climbing, it’s not a climber’s race. The hills aren’t long enough, and the other challenges of the course overwhelm the overall elevation change. The course rewards power, positioning, and bike handling.

Local phenom Alec Hoover on his way to a podium in the cat 3 race (Alec was a cat 5 last year):

John Bulmer

A note on the photographs in this post:  Battenkill is a highly photogenic race, and many talented photographers invest their time and effort to produce high-quality images of the event. I’ve used watermarked images in this post, but please follow the photographer’s link to see all of their fine work. 

This year’s course was the toughest I can remember, with a new section of brutal and relentless dirt climbs around mile 50. Even in perfect conditions, times on this course would have been 10-15 minutes slower than last year.

As in happened, conditions were far from perfect. The endless zombie winter that wouldn’t die left the ground frozen and drainage clogged well into the early spring. Ten days before the race, I rode the course with some friends, and some dirt sections were still covered with big patches of ice. One of our pre-ride group crashed on the ice, even.

During the ten days between the ice ride and the actual race, there was enough warmish weather to melt the ice. But the combination of continuing snowmelt, deep frost line, and heavy rains the day before the race meant that we knew we could expect sloppy conditions.

I was all kinds of nervous about the race. I’d been thinking about it, and training specifically for it, since last November. As the day approached, I fretted like Oskar Schindler about all the things I should have done but didn’t. More 8-minute intervals! More 3-hour threshold efforts!

I rode up to the race with my riding buddy Jim. Jim races for the Bicycle Depot, and he’s something of a local legend. He’s 50, a former Olympic rower, and had some vague stint in the armed forces that may or may not have been some sort of super-soldier experiment. What we know for sure is that Jim doesn’t feel pain the way normal people do.

As we drove up, we shared the usual nonsense pre-race plans: good places to try to attack, weighing the competition, that sort of thing. These plans never amount to anything, because as Mike Tyson said, everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth. My actual plan is usually just to conserve energy whenever possible and follow strong wheels. Jim’s pre-race plan is always to try to “race smarter”, but when the race actually starts, he usually goes off the front right away and time trials the entire race. Often enough, it works and he wins, partly because he’s a monster time trialist, and partly because, as mentioned earlier, he seems unable to feel pain. Knowing Jim and his habits, my secret plan for Battenkill was even simpler than my usual plan: I would glue myself to Jim’s wheel and hold on like grim death until my legs gave out.

We got to the race, hemmed and hawed about how much to wear in the cold drizzle, wisely chose to underdress, pinned on numbers (fancy fabric numbers this year), warmed up a tiny bit, and said hi to a bunch of racers we hadn’t seen since last fall. Spring races are always fun that way.

Race time. We lined up with 100 other guys in our cat 4B field, one of five cat 4 fields at this enormous race. Jim and I pointed out a couple of strong guys to each other, and I could see some other racers pointing out Jim to their friends. (Jim soloed off the front at Battenkill last year and won his field solo by nine minutes.) Shivery from cold and jittery from adrenaline, we waited for the countdown, clipped in, and followed our pace car through town for the neutral start. Jim worked his way right up to the front, as always, and I tagged along.

Once out of town, the moto ref shouted “racing!” and pulled away. Jim got in the drops and started chugging away at the front. I sat inches off his wheel and settled in, trying to keep things smooth and steady. The chit-chat stopped and the field lined out behind us. I could practically hear everybody thinking “already?!”

Through the iconic Eagleville covered bridge and onto the first dirt section. Surprise! Conditions were not just sloppy, they were full on cyclocross sticky rutted mud. Jim continued to hammer away at the front, and I stuck with him. Conditions didn’t allow for looking back, but given Jim’s relentless pace, and the mud, we were clearly shedding a lot of the field.

Peter Amorosa

At mile 12, after a moderate paved climb, we hit Juniper Swamp, which was utter carnage. It looked like about half of the previous field was littered across the steep, muddy hill, trying to get back on their bikes, running up the hill, or just sitting on the side of the road sobbing. It was the bike race version of Antietam, or Gettysburg. Jim’s reptile-brain strategy of “pedal hard always” was suddenly brilliant, because it was critical to be at the front of the pack. About a dozen of us managed to ride the hill, while the remains of our field detonated against the exploded ordinance of the previous field.

Me in the black/orange; Jim in the Depot kit. Jim may or may not be aware that he is currently in the middle of a bike race.

Barry Koblenz

Our lead group got over the hill and Jim finally relented to let us rotate through. After a few miles of pacelining, the moto ref told us we already had a minute and a half on the field. Many days were ruined at mile 12 of Battenkill this year.

We hit the next significant hill, Joe Bean Road, and Jim reasserted his need to set the pace. For the next 20 miles Jim hammered away Cancellara-style, as our lead group slowly attrited away. Eventually Jim got a bit of a gap off the front, which slowly and inexorably widened, second by second.

Around mile 45, with Jim about 10 seconds ahead and our chase group whittled down to 3 racers, we hit the new section of the course, which started with a very steep dirt wall of a climb. The front of the previous field (who had a 10-minute head start on us) was crawling up this hill like a group of ants. As we passed the previous field’s pace car, my two fellow chasers picked up the pace and I couldn’t respond. I watched them pull away, and descended into a dark, lonely place.

John Bulmer

At this point I was 4th on the road, with 20 miles to go. I tried to settle into a strong TT pace and keep it smooth and steady, but riding alone at Battenkill, it’s hard to keep that deadly off-the-back defeatism out of your spirit. I’d realize I was slowing to sunday-ride pace, pick it back up, only to slowly lose focus and slow down again.

I had essentially cracked. Luckily, over the first 45 miles of the race, we had built up such a significant gap, and the field had shattered so completely, that I only lost three places over the last 20 miles. (Our field was so utterly fragmented that out of 100 racers, the largest group to cross the line at the same time was five guys, 15 minutes back.)

Meaghan Carney

I crossed the line in 7th place, with no other racers visible ahead or behind.

Jim was waiting at the line. The two chasers who dropped me had caught him, and he finished second.  This photo was taken just after the catch.  This amount of suffering, by the way, is what it takes to podium at Battenkill.

John Bulmer

This year’s Battenkill was not only the toughest Battenkill out of the three I’ve done, it was the toughest race I’ve done, full stop. Between the harder course and the muddy conditions, the race surpassed its reputation. It was, in a word, epic.

After Jim’s podium ceremony and chugging a quart of chocolate milk, we stood around in our sweaty kits for a while, trading shivering war stories with racers we knew. Eventually it started to snow, and we decided to get back to my van before our physical condition got medically dangerous.

Our trip home was an absolute comedy of errors. We got a half hour out of town, realized we’d forgotten our pit wheels, drove all the way back, picked up the wheels exactly where we’d dropped them off — apparently our wheel car never showed up for the race. Headed home again, planning to stop at the Falls Diner for a burger, realized we were going the wrong way, drove a half hour back to the diner, finally got our damn burgers (so good!), and eventually got home having accomplished the 2 hour return trip in something like 5 hours.

Another Battenkill in the books! A great race and a decent result.  Now the spring races are done. It’s time to take a couple of weeks off of training, relax and reset for the summer.

John Bulmer

Here’s the race:


PS. I couldn’t resist generating a little animated silliness using some of the many sequential images.  I’ve linked the images rather than embedding because they are incredibly distracting. Apologies to the very talented and prolific John Bulmer and Meaghan Carney.

Meetinghouse Road.
Stage Road.

– John S, aka globecanvas

The Big Move

Hi all–John F here!

It’s finally time. I’m moving on April 16th to my new place outside of New Paltz, New York. It’s only 25 miles from where I currently live.

The good news is that it gives me a whole new area to explore. Although I’ve ridden over the ridge many times, I haven’t spent nearly as much time over there as I have in the Catskills proper. In general, it’s flatter (unless you ride over the Shawangunk ridge, of course) and maybe a bit more populated. Nevertheless, this is good news for all you NYC area riders, because it’s much more accessible from the train than where I’m at now. Even though the hills are fewer and much less severe, it’s still gorgeous.

Van Alst

Now that the house hunt is done, I’ll be getting back to my regular twice weekly posting schedule shortly after the move. New routes and pictures!