Events: Tour of the Catskills 2018
I stared at my Garmin as the mileage turned over into the sixties. I texted Mike (yes that Mike), who successfully summited Devil’s Kitchen last year, to tell him I was on the approach. Where I was and where the finish line existed was blocked by the massive climb. Here is the gist of the conversation:
ME: At mile 60.5
Mike: Go get it
Mike: I’m sending the shark to chase you
Mike: Do not get off that f***ing bike
It is amazing that I, in my last year of official bike racing, continued to obsess over a 2.6-mile climb averaged 12 percent and kicked up to 22 percent in places. It climbs something like 1400 feet in one mile. This hill has given me the stiff arm each time I visited. Mike’s version of cheerleading was similar to what I probably would have texted him under similar circumstances.
Some two-hundred-sixty cyclists descended upon the welcoming town Tannersville, NY, for the Eleventh Annual Tour of the Catskills. There was plenty of excitement going into this year’s event. The finish line was moved onto Main Street at the Last Chance Antiques and Cafe. If you’ve read Tour of the Catskill write-ups from other years you’ll know the story will end up at that bar. Also different this year was the welcoming of Chatham Brewing as a guest brewer. Last Chance Antiques and Cafe set up a welcome room exclusively for the participants. And then there was one other fact that I missed.
For 2018 the start was rerouted. In years past the Tour of the Catskills opened with a winding warm-up into long shallow climbing. Riders would immediately get spread out. This year Dieter, event coordinator, tapped into his past Battenkill route planning and changed things up. The ride started in the parking lot behind Last Chance Antiques and Cafe, turned on Main Street and began a screaming start for the opening twenty miles into Prattsville where we would commence climbing. But first we had to get there.
For the entirety from Tannersville to Prattsville, the 72-mile riders had the luxury of being led out by a police car. In years gone by I have hitched onto the back of the front pace line down 23A. Often it was too much effort to pull through after having chased back on. This year I insisted on taking a few pulls since I was with the front. Amidst intermittent showers kicking up spray I decided to take the front a couple times and actually lead the Tour of the Catskills. I chuckled to myself, “I wasn’t supposed to be here!” like I thought once during the Trexlertown Derby. Like me, many riders stayed on and the large bunch roared into Prattsville - twenty miles in - in well under an hour. We were twenty miles closer to Devil’s Kitchen.
I managed to stay with several riders through the middle portion. Having ridden the velodrome the night before my legs felt comforted at the grinding category four climb out of Prattsville. I bounced back and forth with groups while trying to absorb the beauty of the Catskill region. We passed the small cemetery I set out to photograph. I got a photo of it. We passed the new log cabin. I did not get to photograph it, nor did I see the owner to ask him about it. The weather cleared in our favor too. For the middle twenty miles I saw next to no people in cars. This is a peaceful place to ride.
With the heavy rains over the last few weeks, the Catskill regions' big and small waterfalls have come to life. Very rarely did a moment pass without the sound of rushing water. It trickled down the center of the road. It bisected the road in waves. Water bubbled in drainage ditches. But in dramatic fashion it crossed beneath roadways or doused the road from higher elevation. Water was everywhere. The sun had come out and the humidity hung in the air. I stayed on top of hydration with the Untapped Ginger Mapleaid. I selected it because of its elevated sodium levels.
I spent the middle portions enjoying the ever- changing views. The sun was a strobe as swirling clouds moved in and out of its rays. I gained immense enjoyment over long descents where varying air currents of warm and cool pockets provided relief. At exactly mile 36 I enjoyed pure euphoria as all the conditions plus an enjoyable descent into Durham came together. This was one of the reasons I came back to the Tour of the Catskills.
My progress in the middle excited me. I passed mile forty in around two hours. I did the maths as well as a system check to make sure I wasn’t overdoing it for the climb at the end. I felt good. I took a water bottle from the volunteer at mile 40 and chugged it. That felt good. With an odd sensation I found myself firing along on Hearts Content Road, a road which occupied ten percent of the ride’s distance. I was being helped by a comfortable tailwind plus new asphalt. I felt as though I had a team delivering me to the base of Platte Clove Road where the ride would truly begin. Here the route deviated from years previous and accessed Bogart Road. Looking ahead and behind I was the only cyclists in sight for its length. I even asked a bearded gentleman with a scraggly dog if he had seen cyclists. He affirmed, but did he really exist? Was that Rip van Winkle himself?
I took advantage of the 60-mile rest stop and helped myself to a can of Coca-Cola. This was what I wanted to provide the extra boost up the hill. We were fewer than fourteen miles from the finish. I fired off that text message to Mike. He responded with enthusiasm. Again the route deviated in a more enjoyable approach. Things looked heavily in my favor. Soon it would be solely up to me to finish the job; all the circumstances had aligned in my favor to this point.
We turned onto West Saugerties Road/ Platte Clove Road and were immediately greeted by the base of the climb. Perhaps it was the best way to catch Devil’s Kitchen off guard, but the struggle quickly caught up to me. Within three pedal strokes my right groin cramped as it had done in years before. I pushed through and it worked itself out despite the pain having descended to my kneecap for a bit. The opening ramps felt easy in a strange sort of way. The climb's resistance returned by featuring a large bed of gravel across the road at the base of a steep portion. I handled that quickly and returned to the job.
I saw more riders on Devil’s Kitchen than any year prior. Each one was making deals with him/herself to reach the summit. I was no exception. I tried reusing the theory that the climb featured flat spots. I counted each steep ramp having counted thirteen in total last year. I couldn’t remember if that included the ramps after I stepped off. I played head games with myself. I passed one rider clutching his left hamstring who watched as I rolled by. He was one of the early pacers in the opening hour. I was jealous of his walking. Was he jealous of me?
I had climbed smartly to this point. I struggled with Mike’s encouragement because it entertained the idea of stepping off (just don’t do it). I settled into a rhythm at the half-mile point because of a large flattening out. More riders were scattered across the road that I would have to watch out for. Cars were coming and going in both directions. For a brief moment I couldn’t believe I had a tailwind. Sure enough the leaves were metallic swaying away from me. Maybe I slipped into Devil’s Kitchen without notice.
And then I saw all the obstacles come together. I saw the steep, steep ramp that bucked me off the last two attempts. It leads into a right-hander. I saw two stopped riders taking in the scene. There were ascenders still working. But the cars that had passed us were stopped. I began cursing out loud at the fact that a full-size Winnebago (with a car in tow) was descending this climb. Not only was it descending but it was also holding up traffic in both directions. (This road is not wide.) I made several gestures to let the driver know of my disapproval at such a stupid attempt and his putting every person on the hill in harm’s way. I thought this was it. Here was my perfect excuse to dismount. I had an out, a scapegoat, a reason to be mad for eternity. I would never be in the club of Devil’s Kitchen climbers.
But as I got to the jam the RV continued down the hill, the cars on our side commenced ascending, and the cars behind the Winnebago plodded on down in frustration. I still climbed. Things looked bleak. Hikers at the summit of the steep ramp encouraged riders. One dismounted rider said to a hiker, “That’s pretty easy for you to say considering you have a beer in your hand” in response to his cheers. Everyone was in damage control. I was still on my bike, but for a brief moment in time I hung motionless on the lip of the spot that had gotten me twice before. The bike continued forward.
I knew it only got harder from here on out. I was rejoicing at having made it farther than ever before. I had trained for this moment since last September! Progress! Every inch was a new victory. The next hill was ruddy in its resistance. I moved forward. And then things got dark. On the next steepest portion I felt lightning bolts of cold shocking my body. I felt very close to vomiting. I continued upward while taking stock at how this could actually be very serious. I started shivering. I stood to add more beef to my climbing. Just don’t throw up. Just don’t throw up. Just don’t throw up. The rider in front of me called it quits and pulled over. I had to focus on myself.
It was over I thought. I weaved twice. More bolts of lightning shivered through my body. I turned toward the edge of the road, away from the rocky cliffside and thought, “Here I will set my foot down and end this stupidity.” But then Mike’s text message shot through my mind. How would I tell him that I made it farther, almost to the top but lacked the ferocity to finish it off? Do not get off the f***ing bike! I made a deal to do two more pedal strokes. That put me over the top of the steep part. I barely rolled forward in the reprieve. Another steep ramp, yet this one wasn’t as bad. I thought I had only two ramps after the left turn! I reached the moment I had prepared for: Days ago I decided once I wanted to quit I would stand and ride harder. I did exactly that. Do not get off the f***ing bike! That ramp was done. This was possible! This looked familiar. Another steep ramp but not as big. I made slow work. Do not throw up!
The speed crept up. The pitches mellowed out. The steep walls were not as steep and were not as long. And then. And then! There was the last little bump. A minivan had parked in the summit parking lot to provide me with a reference. It had been one of the cheering sections for a rider behind me. That was the top! My legs were dead. My heart rate was the highest I ever measured it. Yet there I rolled over the summit where a year ago I had walked my bike. I did not get off the f***ing bike! Did I just sneak up Devil’s Kitchen? I think I did.
My final miles were pathetic in pace. I was physically spent. I was emotionally distraught. I tried to stand to expedite the final six miles but the groin cramped worse than before. I pedaled with one leg. I felt stopping now was the same as getting off the bike. I refused to do that. Since I had no power, I rode at a slow pace. This was how my Tour of the Catskills would finish. I limped home trying to muster happiness that I had just conquered a climb two years in the making.
I heard the finish line with less than a mile to go. Everything hurt. I successfully navigated the signs allocated for the new finish arrangement on Main Street. I saw the green FINISH banner. I rolled through, was handed off a medal, and texted the Missus saying I was off the course safely. I did not text Mike to tell him what had happened. I wanted suspense. I gathered my thoughts, got back on my bike, and headed to the car parked appropriately at Lake Rip van Winkle. My plan was to change and return to Last Chance Antiques and Cafe and do my usual celebratory UBU. I did exactly that. I decided to go against my usual visit and ordered cheese fries to go. Whenever I have gone hard in rides, I struggle with stomaching anything for a long time.
Going into this ride I was worried about elements that could have interfered with my fourth attempt at Devil’s Kitchen. Looking back I am satisfied knowing the amount of obstacles I cleared to summit the Platte Clove Road. This was two years in the making; I have already questioned whether I would return for the twelfth edition of the Tour of the Catskills. I know I’m stubborn, but I can’t imagine how frustrated I would be if I attempted Devil’s Kitchen again only to put a foot down. I’m certain the whole dreadful process would restart. Perhaps the fifty-miler next year? Or better yet, how about the twenty-five miler and I’ll enjoy Chatham Brewing beer and Last Chance Antiques and Cafe food - far from the kitchen - while waiting for the 72-milers to finish? That sounds like a good plan to me.