The Gunk Century Tour
Skylands Cycling--August 1, 2004
I woke up at about 5 a.m. and heard a gentle rain falling. This wasn’t supposed to happen, I thought, running downstairs. I opened the door and stepped outside. Looking around, I breathed a sigh of relief. The rain was barely more than a drizzle. It was warm, and the sky was getting light. It was going to be a good day for a bike ride.
Bob Schilling agreed back in December to organize our club’s first century ride. At the time, I doubted I would go. A hundred miles is a long ride on a bike and requires some training. I wasn’t sure I was willing to put in the miles it would take to prepare. But during the month of July, I gradually jacked up my longest weekly ride: fifty miles, sixty miles, seventy miles. Good enough, I thought. I’ll go.
I’ve done plenty of one hundred milers over the years. A century is always difficult, always rewarding, one of the real brass rings of cycling. It’s a big deal. And so I found myself looking forward to The Gunk Century Tour. Gunk, of course, is shorthand for the Shawangunk Mountains, the long escarpment which is the higher and more rugged New York continuation of our Kittatinny Ridge. The trip would start in Montague, New Jersey, a stone’s throw from the New York line. The route would take us through Port Jervis and up the Neversink Valley, tracing the path of the historic Old Mine Road, on the western side of the Gunks. We’d make the gradual six-mile climb up Rt. 44 to Lake Minnewaska State Park, where we’d eat lunch before tackling the return trip along the southern shoulder of the mountains.
It would be a real adventure. That’s the way centuries are. And that’s why I listened with disbelief to the sound of rain falling on the morning of the appointed day. Not rain. Not on the day of the century. But a quick look out the door convinced me that it was nothing more than a passing summer shower. An email from ride leader Bob Schilling, sent at 5:06 a.m., confirmed my impression. The forecast was for improving weather. The rain would stop and the clouds would gradually give way to sun. The day would end up hot and sunny, as summer days are supposed to be.
I packed up my stuff and headed north up Rt. 23. The rain had already stopped and the roads were beginning to dry. I followed Bob’s black diesel pickup into the parking lot of the Montague Shop Rite. There were no bikes circling the lot, no roof racks bearing Cannondales or Treks. I pulled alongside Bob’s truck, in the opposite direction, and rolled down my window. “Looks like it’s just you and me, bud” I joked. “It’s early yet,” Bob replied. And it was, still forty-five minutes before our scheduled 8:30 a.m. start.
Sure enough, over the next twenty minutes, Ben and Mike arrived in Ben’s dark blue Volkswagen, a car that probably spends more time driving to bike rides than anyplace else, since Ben usually rides his bike to work. Next came Catherine, then Eric. Six of us altogether. Not too bad, considering the weather earlier that morning. No doubt, the threat of rain had kept some people home. We were expecting at least a dozen riders. The no-shows missed a great ride and some fine weather, having made the mistake of pulling the plug based on the weather three hours before the start. My philosophy has always been, when the weather is questionable, you’ve gotta go to the start of the ride and see what happens. You won’t catch me sitting on the couch when the sun comes out, wishing I’d gone on the ride.
We loaded our coolers into Bob’s truck, our diesel-powered sag wagon. Driven by Debbie Schilling, it would follow us and play leapfrog the whole day. My cooler was packed with two turkey sandwiches, a banana, four Clif bars, four 20 oz. Bottles of Gatorade, and four half-litre bottles of water. You can’t underestimate the importance of food and drink on these long rides. It makes a huge difference over the last couple of hours. I put a power bar, a few dollar bills and a couple a paper towels (to clean my sunglasses) into my jersey pockets and began circling the parking lot. Two 24 ounce water bottles with a 50-50 water and Gatorade mixture in my water bottle cages would probably not be enough for the first leg of the trip, but I’d get more from the truck later. In my seat bag were a couple of tubes, some CO2 cartridges and an inflator, some Allen wrenches and my digital camera. And a piece of paper with my name and address, put there by Lois 5 years ago. “Don’t worry,” I had joked. “I won’t forget my name and address.” You never know.
After what seemed like a long time, everyone was ready and we rolled out of the parking lot onto Rt. 23 at about 8:40 a.m. We crossed quickly into New York State and took a left on Rt. 6, Main Street, Port Jervis. The morning traffic was light as we rolled past the big old turn-of-the-century frame houses that line the streets of “Port,” as the locals sometimes call it. When Rt. 6 took a left to cross the Delaware River towards Matamoras, PA, we went straight and a few block later, turned right onto Rt 209 north. We would follow 209, Bob told us, for 38 miles.
Rt. 209 is a state highway, two lanes except for one or two short stretches, that runs from Port Jervis to Kingston, New York. It is not heavily traveled and it has good shoulders. The road sticks to the valley floor and therefore has very few hills. So the six of us cruised the smooth and level shoulders of Highway 209, wind at our backs, headed north by northeast. To our right, the Shawangunk Mountains rose through the mist left over from the morning’s rain. To our left were more steeply wooded slopes.
We passed through towns that were really little more than map dots: Huguenot, Goddefroy, Cuddebackville, Wurtsboro, keeping a steady but easy and conversational pace. We rode in a line, safely within the shoulder, taking turns at the front. First Mike, who looked like he was born on a bike, comfortable and natural. Then Ben, high cadence spinner, and Bob Schilling, with the diesel engine, like his truck. Eric hunched low over his aero bars. I tried to avoid the front. There was no hammering here, although once in a while someone would briefly dash ahead. Bob made it clear at the start of the ride that we would stay together. I agreed. No dropping anyone. The way I look at it, if you wanted to ride a hundred miles by yourself, why would you need Skylands Cycling.
“I can’t believe I’m averaging over 17 mile an hour,” Catherine exclaimed. “I’ve never averaged over 14 before.” I looked at my computer: 17.8mph. “That’s the benefit of the draft,” I said. Plus, we had a tailwind. But the biggest factor, in my mind, was that special synergy you get on group rides. You’ll always go faster, farther, with less effort, than when you ride by yourself. “Do you think you can keep it up,” I asked. “We’ll see,” she replied with a big smile. She was having fun.
Catherine had been on the Amish Country Tour a few weeks ago and had ridden like a champ, but this ride was a lot longer. “Are you ready for this,” I asked her in the parking lot before we left. “Oh, yes,” she said confidently. I asked what her longest ride of the year was, and she told me--96 miles. More than mine, I thought. “When was that?” I asked. “Two days ago,” she said.
Directly south of the town of Ellenville, there is a stretch of Rt. 209 that goes gradually downhill for about 5 miles. It starts where the valley begins to tilt toward the Hudson River, rather than the Delaware, and the streams that drain the Shawangunks start to flow north, instead of south. Eric passed me just after the start of that downgrade, and I jumped on his wheel. He accelerated and pretty soon we were motoring along at 27 or 28 miles per hour. Eric is twenty-something, a skilled carpenter and rock climber, and 300 miles into his first road bike. I rode with Eric a couple of times two summers ago, him on his mountain bike, me on my road bike. This kid can motor. He zoomed along Rt. 209 for over ten minutes, with me shamelessly sucking his wheel. After a while, he moved to the left and I pulled through, immediately slowing down. “We don’t want to get too far ahead of the others,” I said. Eric agreed, and we noodled along for about 10 seconds before, to my surprise, the other four caught up to us. Any racer will tell you that you are not going to get too far ahead of anyone on a downhill with a tailwind. I ate a power bar and drank half a bottle of water.
Finally, we made the right turn in the little town of Kerhonkson, onto Rt. 44, where the six-mile climb up to Lake Minnewaska State Park begins. After we turned, and as the road began to turn gently uphill, I heard Bob giving Catherine directions to the park entrance. “I guess it’s every man for himself,” I said. “I guess so,” she laughed.
I had been looking forward to this climb. I like climbing on a bike. I like the effort, the reward, the descents, the fitness it brings, the places it takes you, the whole package. As the climb began for real, at about a seven per cent grade, I went to the front of the group to set the pace. I wanted to ride at my own rhythm, not someone elses. About ten miles per hour seemed good. You don’t want to go too hard too soon on a six-mile climb, especially when you have more than 50 miles to go.
I climbed steadily for about a mile before Eric passed me. He seemed to be going a lot faster than I was. I accelerated to get on his wheel, in his draft. There was a time when riders would say that there was not much benefit to drafting on a climb, because the pace was too slow. I think today, we all know that’s not true. Lance Armstrong drafts extensively behind his U.S. Postal teammates on the major climbs of the Tour de France. I got behind Eric. He was going about 12 miles per hours. I thought at first I might not be able to stay with him. But six inches from his wheel, in the shelter of his draft, I was expending about the same effort as I had been before. Sweet.
I looked over my shoulder. To my left, riding easily with no sign of effort, was Mike. There were no other riders in sight. After a while, Mike gradually and smoothly accelerated past Eric and me and took the lead. The pace stayed the same. The grade was mostly six to seven percent, with a few stretches of five and eight percent, and a few plateaus. The good thing about this climb is that, after each section of eight percent, there seemed to be a section of five percent. In other words, after every hard part, there was an easy part. And the views were fantastic. The road was carved into the side of the Shawangunks and opened up every now and then to broad vistas of the Hudson Valley and the high Catskills to the north. We had started on the western side of the Gunks and had somehow curved around so that we were now on the other side. The weather had cleared, the sky was blue and the sun was shining.
Mike, Eric and I took turns at the front, climbing steadily, working together. I tried to keep good climbing form: hands on the tops of the handlebars, loose grip, relaxed arms, upright position with back slightly arched and chest slightly pushed forward, seated back on the saddle with a smooth pedal stroke. As we neared the top, in the last mile before the park entrance, the road steepened. Mike continued to motor, almost effortlessly, although he later said his heart rate was about 180 on the climb. He has the body of a climber, great climbing technique, and a pair of carbon fiber Zipp 303 tubulars, just like Tyler Hamilton climbing LeMongie. No wonder that some gaps opened up. Mike pulled away from Eric, and Eric pulled away from me. On the last turn of the climb, just before the park entrance, Mike disappeared from sight.
We pulled into the lower parking lot and swatted away a few annoying gnats. The weather, although good, was humid, and sweat poured from my head. Debbie was waiting with ice water and Gatorade in big jugs. After a few minutes, Ben and Catherine arrived. Ben, surely one of the best climbers in the group, had gone back to accompany Catherine. I ate my two turkey sandwiches, washed down with a couple of 20 ounce Gatorades and a bottle of water. For dessert, I ate two peanut butter Clif bars. One thing I have learned about these long hot rides: you have a lot more fun if you really pack away the food and drink. I put the last two Clif bars in my jersey pockets, divided a bottle of Gatorade between my two water bottles, topped them off with water, cleaned my sunglasses and I was ready to go.
The afternoon segment began with a sweet descent that seemed to last forever. We swooped along through the deep woods and around hairpin turns beneath the tall rock cliffs that have made the Gunks legendary among rock climbers. At one switchback, Ben and Mike had stopped and were taking pictures. I stopped too, and we photographed each other rounding the switchback. To our left, and below us, was the wide Hudson Valley. If you looked across and to the north, you could see the mountains of Vermont. The rock faces of the Shawangunks rose more than 200 feet above us. It was hard to believe that we were only fifty miles from New Jersey.
Eventually, the road leveled out and we made a right turn back towards the ridge. A southwesterly wind greeted us and we faced the prospect of completing our century into a headwind. Bob had chosen some excellent roads, shaded, lightly traveled, with excellent views of the mountains to our right. We road steadily, not hard, but the six of us began to spread out along the road. Gone was the close, tight line of that morning. The temperature had continued to rise throughout the day, and it was now in the mid eighties and humid. It is said that the last third of a century tests everything. This century was no exception--our training, our nutrition and hydration, and our resolve were being put to the test on the lower slopes of the Shawangunks.
We passed through the little towns of Walker Valley, Burlingham and Bloomingburg. We rode for a while on a road that was actually called the Oregon Trail. Several of the houses we passed had signs that said “Save the Ridge,” and a web address, www.savetheridge.com. Turns out there’s some pretty hefty development being proposed for this area and the locals, naturally, oppose it. It’s hard to envision McMansions in this beautiful, unspoiled country.
We came to an intersection with a gas station on Burlingham Road. Debbie was pulled over in the sag-diesel across from the gas station/store. Bob suggested we stop for something to drink. Good idea. I retrieved the last Gatorade and a bottle of water from my cooler and chugged ‘em down. Another couple of paper cups of Gatorade from the big cooler in the truck tasted pretty good. I ate a Clif bar and filled my bottles with an ice cold Gatorade-water mix. That should do it, I thought.
If you watch “Law and Order” on TV, you may have heard of Otisville, a small town in the southern Gunks, about 10 miles north of the Jersey line. This little micro-burg has the distinction of being home to two prisons, one state, one federal. As we approached Otisville, Eric took off again, and again I jumped on his wheel. We rode hard for a couple of miles, and just as we were passing one of the prisons Ben and Mike passed us. Eric and I chased. It was good to know that after eighty five miles or so, we still had enough starch left for a little fun. On the other side of Otisville, on Mountain Road, there is a low-grade climb, about a mile long. The four of us rolled along, hardly slowing for the grade. I was at the front, with Mike on my left shoulder. About halfway up, I shifted to the big chainring, got out of the saddle, and hammered as hard as I could for about 200 meters. When I sat down, Mike passed me like I was standing still, with Ben on his wheel. Say good-bye Bob.
Eric and I chased some more. Eric is a big strong guy, fast and powerful, and we eventually caught Ben and Mike once the road leveled out. Right after the catch, we took a right on Guymard Turnpike. I had heard of this road--it is within ordinary riding distance of Sussex—but had never been on it. Guymard Turnpike is reputed to be a short, steep climb, and it was. We climbed easily, the four of us, until I had the bright idea of being the first one to the top. On the steepest part of the hill, I accelerated, out of the saddle, pumping my 39x25 as fast as I could. Bad idea.
It works like this: we are climbing up Guymard Pike. Ben and Mike are riding at about a fifty percent effort. I am riding at about a ninety five percent effort. I attack. Ben and Mike increase their effort to about fifty two percent. I crash and burn, and never see either Ben or Mike again until the Shop Rite Parking lot. The good thing about Guymard is that there is a beautiful winding descent down to Goddefroy on Rt. 209, north of Port Jervis. From there, it’s about 4 miles back to our starting point.
I’m a pretty cautious descender, and I had no chance of catching Ben and Mike on the descent. They were ripping it up, no doubt. As for me, it was white knuckles all the way. On one of the last few turns, Eric caught me. We rode the rest of the way back together, half heartedly chasing Ben and Mike, mostly just cooling down and trying to nail the last few miles of this most awesome century.
We pulled into the Shop Rite parking lot, and it had to be ninety degrees. There was no wind, the sun was bright, and it was very humid. We finished this ride just in time, I thought. I looked at my computer, which showed six hours and ten minutes of riding time. Ben and Mike had a little less, Bob Schilling a little more . Catherine was well under six and one half hours. Not too shabby, I would say. Time for some cold drinks, some food, whatever. We’ve earned it.
August 5, 2004