Events: The Tour of the Catskills 2016
(2016) “A couple years ago I saw some of the professionals collapse at the finish.”
This was not what I needed to hear at the second (and final) rest stop of the Tour of the Catskills. I turned to the rider next to me and said, “This doesn’t do much for my confidence.” Another rider overheard me and offered, “Oh. Is this your first time up Devil’s Kitchen?” I thought to myself, “Seriously? How bad could it be?” I scanned my memory of every hill and Uhlerstown as well as Eichele was all that came to mind. Could it be that there was a more horrid climb than those two experiences? If so, would I even want to experience something more horrid? The event emails recommended a compact crank, but I think I know mine and my bike’s capabilities thank-you-very-much. I'll stand behind my 39x24 gearing selection.
My day started at five in the morning. The Catskill Mountains, a 700,000-acre state park preserve, are just within reach of an out-and-back romping north of New York City. I decided to load up the car and drive the three hour commute to the beautiful town of Tannersville where the Tour of the Catskills would commence. This event was the next stop on the Rip van Race 2016 road series schedule. It was raining, and a cyclist was being extra pushy toward a teenaged volunteer about having his water bottle ready when he came through the feed zone. He asked the poor kid twice if he knew his race number. “Am I out of my league?” I asked myself as I shoved the rest of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth. I thought this was a big ride, no longer a race. And all my riding buddies at home stated it looked like a nice course, but what about that climb at the end? Whatever. No bother. I’d done the big ones in Bucks, Montgomery, and Hunterdon Counties. I was prepared.
The one accessory I left at home was my Hell of Hunterdon Ass-Saver fender. It would have come in handy during the opening miles. Dieter, event manager for Great American Cycling Series, released us on freshly spritzed roads. For those riding the 80- mile event we were to remain neutral until the stoplight. Immediately I sensed nervousness. One rider stated the early climbs of previous years helped with breaking up the group. He was concerned at traveling downhill for the first dozen miles with everyone. This sounded easy enough. I had my new race plan: I would stay with them for the seventy-odd miles of downhill mountain biking until Devil’s Kitchen where I would gently roll up over the nasty incline and coast to the finish. Maybe I’d even wave to the throngs of fans, grab a can of whatever they were pushing, pull the overused wheelie, or flatland at the top to entertain those who I assumed walked there because the roads had been closed the day prior ala Tour de France style.
We rolled out of Tannersville, and the pace kicked up immediately. We also found ourselves going uphill which seemed to contradict my one trusted rider compatriot who said it was all downhill for the start. What stood out directly was the weather pattern. It rained for the first dozen minutes until we dropped altitude into East Jewett where it was sunny and bone-dry. What stood out next was my lacking ability to stay with the group. I yo-yoed with a couple riders initially. One of whom was taking his turns at the front while another chose not to pull through. I say this because he suddenly found his legs on a couple climbs and flew away from us. We kept descending mostly; we found roads that were too beautiful to comprehend.
At one point during our descent I glanced over at a beautiful red refurbished barn. Behind it lie a valley and then a sudden rise of a mountain complete with swirling clouds of white and dark grey. I thought to take a photo, but I was with a large group at the time and didn't want to give up my spot. Perhaps it's the red barn in the banner photo of the official website? I made a mental note to go back when leaving town. I never did, but the views during the Tour of the Catskills were incredible for the entirety.
We passed expansive farms and vacation homes. We passed permanent homes and dilapidated white clapboard structures that forced a second glance. How beautiful must that building have been in its prime? These are some of the traits of the Catskills. There were log cabins. There were roads that jutted off over a crest toward who knows where. There were quaint white abandoned churches standing at continued attenion as they had done for decades, maybe even centuries. It was almost too much to take in while trying to keep the wheel of the rider in front. I also tried to manage my efforts while respecting the course. Where the group splintered, we came back together in perfect fashion.
What I find peculiar about the Catskills is, while the roads can always go up, there are almost always long flat, fast sections nearby. This is where a group of about twenty hooked up and allowed the speed to take over on route 23A. It was the usual pace line of glide and pedal, glide and pedal. The rotations were hard to ascertain but mostly it was the work of small handful of riders. The back majority of the paceline never seemed to shuffle to the front. To the left was the Schoharie Creek, which was kept honest by mountains. This is where I dropped back to get a photo in hopes of capturing just how beautiful the moment was: humans pushing bikes through a beautiful mountainous region. It was all too incredible.
After the nearly twelve-mile flat section, the group made a strong right-hand turn to go uphill. Here I looked around to see who was with me. I knew everyone would go his or her own way soon. We climbed into Prattsville where we experienced a true switchback. I decided to take the steep inside line while the group shifted to the outside line to soften the blow. Occam’s Razor: The simplest approach makes the most sense until disproved. This is where, for the next fourteen miles, the route bounced up and down. It’s also where the humidity ratcheted up as the sun came out. The roads remained wet, but the sun was shining. The road glare intensified. I suddenly could not get enough water in me.
We hit the first of two aid stations at mile-marker 36. It was a welcome sight. I can’t tell you the last time I ate orange wedges, but today they hit the spot. For some reason I passed on the Fig Newtons. What was wrong with me? The trampled grass smelled like peppercorn and the air was peaceful. Who knows where the nearest interstate was, better yet, who cared? Little conversation was exchanged. Knowing how I begin to relax at aid stations, I made my visit short and carried on toward Route 20/ Durham Road.
I want to highlight this fourteen-mile stretch of road. It was beautiful. The mountains were in their full glory. The farms were gussied up with exquisite backdrops. For five miles we were treated to a dramatic plunge that was euphoric. I paused my descent and snapped a panoramic photo. I should reword that: I snapped a moment of euphoria by pulling over. At one point I was passed by a pickup truck that lit up his brake lights with half-a-mile to go on the steepest portion of the descent. I was confused at his braking but had to focus on my sudden extreme acceleration as I rolled down a severe gradient. But the remarkable part was the volunteer on Dugway Road. She snapped her flag emphatically toward the truck and myself, the truck to get it to slow down and yield, and me to know I needed to turn right. She was in the zone. She was not to be trifled with. She was a hero to me for her deliberate attempts to keep me on the course.
Over the next 23 miles or so it was a grind fest back into the developed world. I took a pull at the front of a group of three. I felt great but when I swung off the power went out. The heat and headwind had ground me down. I watched the three ride away toward the final rest stop. I had started eyeing up motels along the route knowing they usually had soda machines. The heat and humidity was giving me a splitting headache. A cold Coke would work perfectly with the shot of caffeine. I would never actually find one, or at least I would never actually convince myself to pull off and explore.
Which leads us back to the final feed zone for the 80-mile riders. Few riders had words of encouragement. I felt like the new guy when they said with concern, “This is your first time?” Circumstances to follow usually don’t go well with that type of concern.
At this point my mind started acting downright weird. I couldn’t decide whether to come or go. I walked back and forth to my bike at least twice without any idea why. A rider was seated under the pop-up tent fixing a flat. I thought how comfortable that looked. I stunk. The heat was making me a vile lead out rider. Luckily I was getting dropped often, or rather, that's why I was getting dropped often. I refilled my fifth and sixth bottles of the day and then promptly walked away from them, almost leaving them at the feed zone. One of the support motorcycles pulled up to inform us all the leading riders had crossed the finish line already. Did professionals really collapse on this climb? Surely it can’t be that bad? I was given the layout of the remaining fifteen miles by one of the veterans: not bad five miles, awful five miles up Devil's Kitchen, and an easy 'cool down' for the last five miles.
We leaned right to stay on West Saugerties. This would eventually become Platte Clove Road. It was our official reentry into the Catskills Preserve, marked by a swing gate. The mood had certainly changed. Nobody talked. Nobody looked at anything other than himself or herself. The pace dropped to just above trackstand pace. We cleared the West Saugerties Woodstock Road, which in hindsight was the official moment the suffering would start, and a monolith loomed ahead of us. I cannot describe this climb of Devil’s Kitchen. Dramatic church organs played in my mind when I saw the climb.
There are a small conglomerate of hills around Bucks County that have tried to convince me to step off the bike. Uhlerstown Road comes to mind. Shire’s length also comes to mind in Hunterdon County. Eichele Hill especially in Montgomery County further comes to mind when thinking of roads that want to win. (Professionals in the old Univest Gran Prix cited running up Eichele Hill took less time than trying to climb it.) Devil’s Kitchen is unlike any of these climbs. Imagine all of the climbs from the Fleche Buffoon compiled into one. That may encapsulate the Devil’s Kitchen climb. I knew I was in trouble when I saw the signs allocating this was a seasonal road. These never go well. I knew I was in trouble even more when I asked the same guy who gave me the layout at the rest stop, "Is that the top?" To which he responded, "Oh. No. The top is much farther. You can't even see it from here." It also didn’t help I could hear hikers enjoying themselves in the many secret hollow swimming holes along the road.
Before you go anywhere, I must implore you to understand this hill. I walked it. I've walked one hill in my entire cycling career. One. On this ride, I dismounted 1/3 of the way up the hill and asked myself why I didn’t dismount sooner. I walked the steep slippery humid walls in cycling shoes. Riders around me were removing theirs to make walking easier. What kind of climb does that? I saw at least five walkers in front of me and five behind me with the occasional rider rolling agonizingly slow past me. The two guys who talked to me about Devil's Kitchen at the rest stop were walking by now. Riders didn’t talk to the walkers. Walkers didn’t talk to anybody. While I walked, I got passed by a couple of walkers. Even in walking I couldn’t dictate a pace. I thought of pausing my Strava, but I felt my bike pace would match my walking speed. This is not a hill, it’s a cliff called a road.
Several cars came down the hill with a hint of burning brakes musk. Few cars went up. One man driving up sufferingly stated, "There's a few more steep parts ahead." I think he enjoyed that. I vowed to grab the next car’s door handle and hitch a ride. Naturally it would be a silent Tesla SUV with recessed door handles.
Halfway to the top a hiker said to me, “Great job!” I rudely responded with, “Yeah I always walk my bike.” I immediately felt bad for saying it but I was embarrassed for walking. The cars that passed me could be seen on the other side of the gorge a hundred feet up. When will this climb end? I was literally standing behind my gear selection now. How does one appropriately walk a bike up a hill? I had a plethora of minutes of test each way of walking a bike. Do I hold my stem? Do I use two hands? Do I try to just push the bike by its saddle?
Eventually it did end. I had remounted my bike before someone stated, “This is it, once over the hump the climb is over!” I celebrated internally. I vacated that immediately when roller after roller presented itself. I was annoyed at having been told I was at the top when I clearly wasn’t. I also found myself riding independently of any group or rider. I started wondering if I had missed a turn. I looked forward to the final five miles after remembering someone's comment at the previous feed zone it was an ‘easy warm down.’ If warm downs involved surprise walls, sure. I started seeing old kilometer paint labels on the road. This was my motivation. They slowly counted down, and I was excited.
I rolled into Tannersville, past a large porch party complete with a maze of parked cars. I was surprised at how quickly the town materialized. Just a few meters back I was convinced the town was nowhere to be found. As I approached the final turn, the last course volunteer, who was baking on a rock and probably tired of his day’s work snapped his flag to guide me to the finish. He perked up suddenly when he saw my team kit, “Sunnybrook! Sunnybrook what?! What are you doing here?” I couldn’t decide whether to roll back and talk to him or finish. I weekly responded with, “Will you be at the beer place?” (Whatever that meant.) He said he would and I moved on toward the finish line. I was handed a medal when I crossed. I felt like I didn’t deserve it since I didn’t truly ride the whole course.
I peeled my cycling stuff off, tried to get the salt crust off my face to look presentable in public, and awkwardly descended the staircase linking the parking lot to the Last Chance Cafe. I took a seat at the bar and wasn’t served immediately. I am fully convinced my thousand-yard stare had everything to do with it. No one sat around me. I probably stunk despite having changed. I was in a dreamland mentally trying to come to terms with Devil’s Kitchen and physically with the restaurant’s offerings. They had Gouda for cheese, normally something I would pounce on. They had Ubu, my beer of choice forever. They had coffee. This was my paradise, and yet I couldn’t muster up an appetite for any of it. I asked for the tallest glass of cola they had. Even that didn’t cure me. I never did meet up with the volunteer that shouted at me.
I plopped into my car and headed home. I recounted the wonderful feelings of the Catskills Mountains. I specifically replayed the descent of Route 20/ Durham Road because of how long we rode uninterrupted. It’s such a wonderful experience to never encounter a stoplight for so many miles. I also recounted how many households turned out parties on the front lawn. Not a major fact considering, but every single gathering was cheering me on as I went by. Even the residents were lovely and embracing toward the Tour of the Catskills. Dieter had made a point to say how welcoming the town of Tannersville was for the Tour of the Catskills. The mayor even loved what was going on. Clearly the Catskills embrace the event. On the way out of the park I dodged overflowing parking lot after overflowing parking lot of New York residents cooling off in the Catskill swimming holes. This event is beautiful and perfectly created a snapshot of the Park. It was all so beautiful. Well, except for a two-mile road that has zero cares about my ego and my stubborn gear selection.