Events: The Tour of the Catskills 2017
(2017) I’ve never been great at anything. Throughout my sporting career I’ve been mediocre at best. I would say my skills fall between better than newcomers but below remarkable athletes. I had one breakout season of hockey and even that was barely above .500. It was also on the junior varsity team. What I lacked in skill I attempted to make up for in brute strength. If I couldn’t beat a competitor with intellect, I tried to succeed with plowing through something. In the highlight of my sporting career I refused to believe anyone worked harder than I did. Yet there I still existed. In the middle.
If I magically procured a professional cycling career I would have been in the middle too. I certainly would not be a race contender. I wouldn’t be a sprinter or a climbing specialist. I don’t think I would even domestique well. Is there such a thing as a domestique for a domestique? Winning would not serve nearly as much satisfaction as someone saying to me, “Man you worked your ass off.” Imagine a comment like that meaning more than winning.
It’s that stubbornness that brought back to the tenth annual 2017 edition of the Tour of the Catskills. I had stubbornness written all over me. I would again make the six-hour round trip to Tannersville, NY. I would again try my luck at a measly 2.6-mile climb aptly called Devil’s Kitchen. I wouldn’t be first to finish but, as I’ve been known for, I wouldn’t be last.
Under the chorus of the Jewish congregation near the start of the Tour of the Catskills, the 80-mile riders lined up. The skies swirled an immense drama as cold front and a humid storm fronts performed battle overhead. These intense cloud formations are part of the reason I returned for this year’s ride. It looked like rain would hold off but glances at nearby mountaintops indicated the possibility was never far off.
We were released under ideal conditions and attacked the uphill miles with fresh legs. I maintained a sight on the leaders for much of the rising opening portion. One thing became immediately apparent: many riders were not adept to standard group ride conditions. I immediately started taking stock of who was around me. The opening miles were a collection of nervousness and conservation.
A lost opportunity passed as a large group plied down the comfortably fast Route 23C toward Prattsville. Here the ride was especially dicey as the large group had few volunteers to lead. If this bunch were part of a crit race, many of them would have been yelled at to hold their line or pull through. One rider in particular, in digi-camoflauge, was especially unpredictable. I routinely tried to force the pace to get him struck from the group. I had given up reluctance in an effort to get away from that rider. Luckily a hard turn to start the climbing out of Prattsville did the trick; he rode ahead. I had not enjoyed the opening third of the ride on account of the heavy movements.
Yet the middle portion was my game. We climbed. I am not a climber. Having perused my email inbox the night before I came across an old Rapha email regarding climbing. In it it stated to let my legs dictate the climb, not other riders. I checked my ego and let multiple riders slip away up the climb. Perhaps I would catch them. Mostly I would not. I was saving myself for the brutal climb at the end of the route, so I had no problem letting riders go ahead. That climb was the main reason I was here.
The middle portion was rolling and picturesque. It was remote and peaceful. It is the part of the Catskills I imagine is the most overlooked. It’s not the low-income areas nor is it vacation homes and tourist towns. It’s the middle ground of working family homes and farms. At one point a man mowing his lawn confused me. I figured everyone had a cow in the backyard or a copse of trees. What need does one have for a lawn mower when little grass grew under trees? Another man sat in his rocker on the porch of his log cabin, the scene suggesting he would have loved it if one or two riders asked him about his house. ("Oh this ol’ thing? It's freshly built. Come on in and let's talk BTUs of a log cabin.")
The middle third contained the most beautiful and enjoyable downhill known to cycling. The cold air levels made the descent refreshing primed by a sweaty ascent. A support group cheering for a cyclist close to me clapped as I buzzed by on the descent. I had to put on a show for the kids so I kept my speed. It was this portion that saw me riding alone or with a few stragglers. This is the most honest portion of the course. I talked with a few riders who stated my blinking rear light was their focal point of chasing me down.
The middle portion leveled out and the roads became remarkably wet. A heavy storm must have passed through moments prior but the sun was out. I had just missed it. I also was passed by a small paceline. I tried to jump on but the wheel spray was not enjoyable, so I let them ride off. I was riding alone but enjoying this middle portion of the route. It was peaceful and remote, something I don’t regularly experience on the bike. I rode through the unexpected second rest stop wondering if I would later regret the decision. I would not.
The final third of the Tour of the Catskills is notorious. It involves the infamous Devil’s Kitchen climb on Platte Cove Road, an ascent over two miles averaging around 18%. It is what brought me back to this event. I approached it alone, yet I was optimistic. I reminded myself to climb within my ability. Should anyone pass me it would behoove me to stay focused on my plan. Regardless of my pace, I would continue to move forward and upward. One rider earlier noted the attributes of flatter portions of the climb. He postulated it could have been for horses in olden times. I thought he had never played Oregon Trail. Anyone trying to descend Devil’s Kitchen would lose his or her twenty pounds of bacon, the extra wagon wheel, an ox, and Sarah would come down with dysentery. I counted each ramp along with each easement. My goal was to never step off.
I rolled into Tannersville with little fanfare. Many of the riders had finished by then. Last year a volunteer shouted out my team’s kit asking what I was doing there. This year I saw him prior to the start. His name was John. There was closure with that. I crossed the finish line and thought how grateful I was to have finished. Another Tour of the Catskills in the books. Did I make it up Devil’s Kitchen without walking? Sadly, no. I made it up the first two-thirds of the climb. I rode past the middle portion of the hill only to have the steep right-hand turn arrest my forward progress. Immediately I was glad to have been bucked off.
I grabbed a seat at the Last Chance Antiques and Café and ordered up a Lake Placid Brewing Company Ubu Ale. Last year I couldn’t stomach a finisher meal. This year I ordered a bacon cheddar burger and listened to each finisher’s story. Riders who had finished early were closing out their tabs. I sat alone listening to cycling tales. Finishers kept filtering in with observations stating Last Chance was the only restaurant in town open between lunch and dinner. I was glad they were, especially when I ordered a coffee for the road.
I finished in the middle of the pack, as I would suspect. The sobering moment came when I stepped off the bike on Devil’s Kitchen. I felt I had made it to the Devil’s dinner table this year. I stepped off at the top of the middle of the climb, the right hander everyone uses as a compass. I have made plans to return with fellow cycling compatriots at some point, particularly in the fall when the leaves are exploding with color. Until then I’ll reminisce about maintaining my status as a middle of the packer. A grand fondo ride does just the thing for someone like me.