Milford to Calais, Maine, 26 August 2018. Most of the route is on Stud Mill Road. The opening few miles are on County Road in Milford, the last few are on South Princeton Road (dirt) and Route 1 (asphalt) in Princeton and Calais. Note the small boxes, these are the locations where I photographed the bike lying on Stud Mill Road (left) and me with my sunglasses dipped on my nose (right), both images are included in this blog entry.
My route from the Belgrade Lakes Region to Milford (8/25), Maine, then (pink line across the middle of the image) across Stud Mill Road to Calais, Maine (8/26). When the route turns north, I'm almost immediately in New Brunswick, Canada (8/27), starting at the border in Saint Stephen then north to the provincial capital, Fredericton, and eventually (8/28) Stanley at my northern most ascent. I've also included my route from Fredericton to Nova Scotia via a ferry across the Bay of Fundy. As well as a part of my route from 9/22 through Quebec. I'll write about these bonus routes elsewhere, here they are provided only for perspective.
Background: In this blog entry, I pick up the story, from my previous entry, at my departure from Messalonskee Lake in the Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine where I stayed for three nights at a friends cabin. This is the third in a series of entries, the first a prologue, that will tell the story of my autumn 2018 cycling tour through the Northeastern United States, Canada's Maritime, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Quebec provinces. I hope to finish the massive writing project before I depart on my next tour, John-O-Groat's, Scotland to Istanbul, Turkey, ca. 20 August 2019.
One half of my genetic story, involving a great grandfather of French descent, the other was a Scottish immigrant that settled in Kansas, may have included the nearby town of Waterville, Maine. Henri Breton, his wife, and two children certainly immigrated from France to Canada then, within a couple of years or less, migrated to and settled somewhere in northern Maine. That much I know from letter correspondence with my grandfather, Joseph Breton, before he died. In those letters, Grandpa Breton, as I knew him, mentioned Waterville as a place where Henri ("on-ree") might have settled, but his confidence was understandably low given that he was orphaned at a very young age (two years old comes to mind). In the opening chapter of his life, he's with his sister on a train bound for a Catholic orphanage in Cambridge, Massachusetts from possibly Waterville. Grandpa Joe spent his youth in that orphanage, he was raised by, apparently, unfriendly nuns, he finally left the system and started his own life when he was 17 years old.
Having all of this in mind and nurturing a curiosity that, even during idle distraction, never seems to be in short supply, I had thoughts about stopping at one or more local government offices in Waterville to ask questions about Henri and my great grandmother. This was on my mind as I departed Tanya's cabin and the forest above Messalonskee Lake in Belgrade heading north on Route 11 towards nearby Waterville but autumn's proximity and curiosity of another form won the day and I instead skirted the largish town and was soon closing in on a bridge over the Kennebec River in Fairfield, Maine, a few miles upstream of Oakland and The Green Spot where days before I was welcomed by Tanya her sister.
On my journeys by boot, boat, motorbike, and bicycle I've always been fascinated by rivers. Not the smallish ones per say, but those that were carved-out as special by early natural history writers, such as Alexander Von Humboldt, and given a significance through their words and hand-drawn sketches that underlie our modern impressions. The mighty Amazon is certainly near the top of this list, and others easily come to mind including the Nile, Rhine, Ganges, Saint Lawrence, Hudson, and Mississippi. Not far below these giants among the worlds waterways are many more rivers, some of them also quite famous, among them the Kennebec, an Abenaki name that means "large body of still water or large bay" referring, I assume, to the large freshwater bay above Bath, Maine where the Kennebec captures the Androscoggin River. Alternatively, the Abenaki might have been referring to the saltwater bay above Popham Beach, the location of the early European settlement (1607) of the same name. Just beyond the dunes at Popham Beach, the Kennebec peacefully relinquishes it's sediment load and remaining energy into the sea, 170 miles downstream of it's headwaters at Moosehead Lake. The French navigator and cartographer Samuel de Champlain was the first European to describe the Kennebec, in writing and maps, from Popham Beach to as far north as current day Bath. Within two centuries of Champlain's visit, Bath would become known as "the city of ships" for it's prolific ship building which has continued, without disruption, up to the present. Now-a-days, Bath Shipyards builds the latest stealth warships for the US Navy.
I saw no evidence of a stealth warship as I crossed the bridge in Fairfield, a middle-sized town, a good thing given the shallowness of the river this far north of Bath. However, as I pedaled my bicycle between the banks of the Kennebec, my mind easily drifted to thoughts about centuries of trade and navigation, by countless forgotten people that lived-out their lives, many of them close by, traveling by paddle, sail, steam, combustion, and most recently, nuclear fission up and down this river. If the Kennebec could speak the sounds of every voice that passed by this juncture, long before there was a town of Fairfield, then I suspect I would be simultaneously overwhelmed by the dullness of the chatter (very little recognition of a bigger picture or conclusion) and the collective realization of so many human stories. Fathers and their children, warriors, slaves, administrators, all of them passed this way. Crossing a historic river like the Kennebec always gives me pause and immediately after many hours of inspired, contemplative, day-dreaming. I rode into farmland on the north bank of the Kennebec, rolling Appalachian hills and valleys supporting fields of mostly grass hay and corn, feed stock for what remains of a dwindling American dairy industry. Here and there, patches of forests, silos, barns, and farm houses, filled the gaps in an otherwise agricultural landscape.
From the east bank of the Kennebec and Fairfield, I briefly headed north before assuming my overall trajectory to Milford, primarily east-northeast. A few miles past interstate 95, still within sight of Fairfield and it's bridge, I overshot a right turn that according to RideWithGPS would take me towards Clinton, Maine. During moments like this one, I typically forge ahead, preferring to freelance until I arrive, by forward versus backward progress, onto my intended route for the day. Nonetheless, in this case, no need for haste in sight, I reversed direction and quickly located what turned-out to be a tractor track signed no trespassing. A quick inspection of the area using my Garmin eTrex20 GPS (zooming in and out) suggested the rough, deeply rutted, dirt two-track ahead would be a short adventure before I transitioned to a marginally more popular route, likely an asphalt surfaced road. That gave me confidence and a moment later I plunged into obscurity, between the lines of corn and sometimes into the mud that was favorable relative to the bike swallowing ruts created by years of tractor use.
A few minutes into a real but hardly noticeable trespassing anxiety a few homes came into view, shabby, run down, the sort of places that celebrate dangerous dog breeds and the absence of a leash. I crept-up on the first, then the second, then onto the anticipated asphalt, picked-up my pace and continued without incident. Along the way, a neighbor picked-up their head and we exchanged hand waves. Despite the long history of navigation and trade on the nearby Kennebec River, I suspect my presence was a rare event and some speculation may have followed, at the dinner table, and perhaps into the next morning. No doubt my skin tight, Lycra, bike kit from Primal Wear contributed to the tale.
I rode on to Clinton without any additional tractor tracks or no trespassing signs to negotiate and then continued without stopping to Burnham where I missed my chance to explore Patterson's General Store and Museum, a classic off the beaten path resource and local favorite. An easy baseball throw from Patterson's, I guided my Niner Bikes RLT 9 Steel through a right turn onto a bridge, onto Troy Road, and crossed-over the middle-sized, slow flowing, and scenic Sebasticook River, a tributary of the Kennebec.
Troy Road was a pleasure to explore for many miles, initially uphill from Burnham before leveling off, paved but always rough from tough winters, pot holes, fractures and other surface non-pleasantries constantly challenged the guy sitting on tubeless, Hutchinson Sector, 28 mm tires. A few miles out of Burnham, I hailed a stranger on his riding lawn mower and asked, kindly, for water. A few minutes later, I was telling stories to his wife and children in their driveway, they were shocked that I was planning (hoping at that time) to ride from their home all the way to Labrador. Not long before the social water stop, I'd stopped to pick a few apples from an abandoned tree, no doubt part of a much larger, now mostly gone and forgotten, orchard,. As I chatted, I did my best to politely nibble on nature's bounty. The same habit, picking stray apples, fueled (in part) many of my autumn cycling rides across Northern Germany when I was living part of the year in Hamburg.
Beyond the familiar American smell of freshly cut grass, I made my way eastward from Burnham and the Sebasticook River to Twitchel Corner, then Dodge Corner, Smarts Corner, Cooks Corner, and Troy Center. Since departing Burnham, I was following, compelled by the road below my tires, the long-axis of a much eroded Appalachian ridge. On either side of the ridge, agriculture and horticulture laid claim to u-shaped valleys, for cows, corn, and grass hay. Between the effects of the plow and grazing animals, a seemingly random patch work of partially forested hills and valleys spread to the horizon, near and far. The view beyond my anonymous ridge was as good as most, despite being in a no-man's land when it comes to the destinations of traveling Americans and visitors.
The Appalachian Mountains are an ancient feature of Planet Earth's crust, the top layer of solid rock that floats on Earth's mantle, a plastic layer, similar in consistency to hot asphalt, that exists above Earth's liquid-iron core. The range rises above the adjacent plains in Alabama and continues, unbroken, for 1500 miles all the way to the Canadian Province of Newfoundland and Labrador - technically the range continues, broken by the Atlantic Ocean, even farther, to Scotland, but that story is a bit off course for my North American bike adventure. Curiously, the French territories, not far from Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula, islands known as Saint Pierre and Miquelon are partially submerged summits of the Appalachian Mountains. The width of the range is also impressive, varying from 100 to 300 miles depending on where the cross-section is measured.
Moving from, roughly, the south to the north along the main axis of the range, well known units of the collective Appalachian Mountains include the familiar Great Smokey Mountains, Blue Ridge Mountains, Allegheny Mountains, Taconic Mountains, Berkshire Hills, the Green and White Mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire, respectively, and many isolated peaks including the impressive, from above and below, Mount Katahdin (5,267 ft, 1,605 m) in north-central Maine, a peak that I was witness to, majestically towering over Maine's North Woods, on many days on this tour. The highest peak in the Appalachians is Mount Mitchell in North Carolina (6,684 ft, 2,037 m). Not far below in elevation, Mount Washington (6,288 ft, 1,917 m), is likely the Appalachians most storied peak, the defining, in legend and profile, summit in New Hampshire's much visited and celebrated White Mountains.
The names "Apalchen or Apalachen" are the original translations of a Native American tribe that was located near present-day Tallahassee, Florida. These translations date back to the Spanish Narváez Expedition that explored the New World from 1527-1528. The word eventually evolved to "Appalachian", early enough to claim its position as "the fourth-oldest surviving European place-name in the US." Like the word to describe them, the bedrock and geologic history of the Appalachian Mountains are deeply embedded in antiquity. The initial uplift of the Appalachians, an event that occurred during the middle Ordovician Period (about 496–440 million years ago) predates all but the earliest forms of our vertebrate cousins, the fishes. During this time, Planet Earth's seas and oceans were dominated by invertebrates, especially molluscs and arthropods including brachiopods and (the now extinct) trilobites.
The orogeny or 'mountain building event' that initially uplifted the Appalachians was the result of plate tectonics, foremost the subduction of the former seafloor of the Iapetus Ocean (Iapetus plate) under North America as Africa approached from the east. As the two continents approached, the saltwater basin that was the Iapetus Ocean shrunk until it was no longer a basin at all, instead a suture between two colliding continents. Fittingly, given humankind's fascination with relations, the legend of Iapetus lives on, in a subtle way at least for those that are interested in the details: Iapetus in Greek mythology was the father of Atlas which is the namesake of the next ocean, the Atlantic, that eventually filled the same gap between North America and Africa when the supercontinent Pangaea began to fracture about 175 million years ago. The Taconic Orogeny was the first of a series of mountain building events that are responsible for our present day Appalachian Mountains, along with the ever patient, ongoing, contribution of erosion caused by, primarily, flowing water but also wind, biological, and chemical processes.
High on a crystalline ridge of the much eroded and much reduced Appalachians, on a foundation of ancient Precambrian (>541 million years ago) and Cambrian-aged (541-485 million years ago) igneous and metamorphic rocks, I approached Troy Center where my GPS silently (my preference) sent me northeast to North Dixmont. In this wee but attractive village of mostly forgotten Maine, I crossed the Moosehead Trail Highway without incident. A few miles farther on and I was pedaling north out of Rollins Mills, past Plymouth Pond and a stream without a name, past Fail Better Farm and Tykenbay Acres. A few miles south, I arrived to the relatively bustling town of Carmel, where I enjoyed a hot lunch and a bit of chit chat with the locals. Next, I passed by Stepping Stone Farm, then under interstate 95, by this point heading north on Cook Road. I could have taken Route 2 east from Carmel, but instead I rode a few miles north of town then took a right, close to Damascus, onto Fuller Road. Heading east again, I rode over Black Stream then through more podunk towns, Leathers and Snow Corners. By this point in my journey, I was convinced that everyone from the sleepy parts of inland Maine must have been born and raised on a "corner."
From Snow Corner, I zig-zagged my way around the western edge of one of Maine's largest population centers, Bangor, including the cities international airport. Part of the bliss of this route was a low(ish) traffic bridge over Kenduskeag Stream, a tributary of the Penobscot River, namesake of Penobscot Bay from which I'd come a few days before. As this implies, somewhere on my day's tour of the "corners" I'd transitioned from the watershed of the Kennebec to the Penobscot River watershed, these regionally significant rivers drain 5,869 (15,200 sq.km) and 8,610 square miles (22,300 sq. km) of the State of Maine, respectively. From the bridge, I eventually made my way northeast to Stillwater Avenue, with many locals that were also avoiding the traffic of alternative routes, and comfortably coasted into the university setting of Old Town, Maine on the west bank of the Penobscot.
After a few photos of the Penobscot and the Milford Dam, I crossed the Milford bridge to the Penobscot's east bank and a moment later I was arriving to the locally owned Milford Motel on the River, my destination for the evening. Not far away, surrounded by the river and well signed as I rode into Milford, I encountered Indian Island, the headquarters of the Penobscot Tribe. The Penobscot Indians have lived in the area for centuries, the first European to visit Indian Island may have been the Portuguese explorer (funded by Spain) Estêvão Gomes in 1524. Samuel de Champlain visited the tribe in 1605.
On my way through Old Town, I'd stopped for groceries at one of America's popular supermarkets, which one I don't recall. Back at the motel, I wasted little time getting into a much anticipated meal which included fresh veggies, sandwich meats uncontaminated with toxic preservatives, and the best bread option I could find in the store, possibly a baguette. My meals varied a lot from day-to-day but these were typically purchased in a grocery store to save money and avoid refined sugar and processed foods, the primary ingredients of the Standard American Diet (SAD). Both food additives have been shown to be, literally, deadly by the ever expanding, and enlightening, science of nutrition.
Since leaving Belgrade in the morning, I'd ridden 90 miles and climbed just under 5000 feet along the way; here's a link to the ride including maps, elevation gain, and more on Strava. Despite the much eroded and worn-down state of the previously grand Appalachian Mountains, as grand as the Rocky Mountains are today, in this part of the range there were, apparently, still a lot of hills remaining to climb!
The next morning I rolled-out at 8:04 AM, according to the record of my ride which I posted to Strava at the end of the day, by then in Calais, Maine; here's the link. At close to 5.5 miles from the Milford Motel, I rolled on to dirt. The initial handful of miles were not reassuring for a mind concerned about the quality of the road between here and Calais. The surface was loose, so-much-so that my tires often dug-in and caused the bike to swerve left and right. I recall about six miles before I arrived to a four-way intersection with Stud Mill Road itself, formerly I was on 'County Road', no other distinction given on Strava maps, that skirted the eastern border of Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. At the four-way, I turned right onto Stud Mill Road and immediately conditions improved. The road widened quit a lot, and although it remained dusty when a handful of cars and recreational trucks passed-by, the dust was much less than what I encountered on County Road where there was much more traffic, certainly not a lot, but more that showed me little mercy as each driver raced past my, occasionally, swerving bike, no doubt late for nothing.
The surface of Stud Mill, at this juncture, was hard-packed without much washer-board or ruts. Small stones were embedded in the matrix but I comfortably rode over or around these obstructions. The road trends due east and the view is generally unobstructed for many miles. From my bike saddle, I could easily see the rolling nature of the road and surrounding forested landscape (broken here and there by clear cuts), a geologic remnant of the formerly much higher and deeper Appalachian mountains and valleys. I settled into a comfortable pace, average speed around 15 mph, my preference on this tour and others. I was anticipating about 60-70 miles of dirt, so a pace of 15 mph would deliver me, baring any major preclusions to forward progress, in under five hours to Route 1 (Houlton Road) on the Calais side, a few miles shy of the Canadian Border.
Not long after a short lunch, a sandwich that I ate sitting on a massive rock perched on road right amidst a pair of curious ravens, the road unexpectedly split about 40 miles from Milford. The wide, hard-packed, road I'd been following turned to the north but my GPS track line directed me to continue straight, which I did with only a little reluctance. In hindsight, it's clear from maps that I never deviated from Stud Mill Road. Nonetheless, I suspect there was, and is, a smoother alternative to what I eventually experienced. The opening mile or two, from the split, was reasonable: some larger stones embedded in the surface and some road damage but I could easily ride around all of it and maintain close to an average 15 mph. So far there was no need to be concerned for either the bike or the rider.
Then fairly quickly, the road narrowed substantially, the deciduous trees on either side encroached over the road, and the surface quality plummeted to what looked more like a dry creek bed than a single lane dirt road. Fairly massive baby heads were everywhere, i.e., the tops of rocks, sizes ranging from baseball to basketball, were embedded, partially exposed, on the road surface. I couldn't avoid them entirely and to avoid most of them I had to cut my speed way down. Between the rocks, the matrix was sometimes loose sand, a nightmare even for my lightly loaded touring bike. And by this point, the sun had warmed the atmosphere around me to the days high. The next ca. eight miles were a real struggle, physically and mentally. So much so that when I returned to what was likely the other end of the alternative left at the split, I expelled a fair amount of anxiety from my mind and body, through many controlled breaths, as my heart rate came back down to normal.
On a surface that, in hindsight, was better suited for a mountain bike, the safety of my touring bike was a big concern over the ca. 8 miles of rough road especially this early in my ambitious tour. Concerns withstanding, days later I discover that I had actually done some damage to the bike, details in a forthcoming blog. Unaware at the time, in blissful ignorance, shortly after exiting the 'river bed trail' I picked-up my pace and enjoyed the ease of a hard-packed dirt road all the way to the junction with Route 1 including, between, a few miles on South Princeton Road, also quality dirt. In total, once I negotiated the eroded transition from dirt to asphalt, about a two foot vertical drop, 63 miles of mixed surface, dirt (aka, gravel) roads were behind me from where I had rolled onto the gravel in Milford earlier in the day. From South Princeton Road, I turned right onto Route 1 towards South Princeton, Maine and then continued, after a photo, towards Calais where I had booked an AirBnB option the night before.
On the outskirts of Calais, I found a desperate grocery store, more junk food than health food, but I made the best of it as I've had to do many times before. About 20 minutes after shopping, I arrived to a palatial, furnished, basement apartment at about 5:30 pm, plenty of time to eat, clean-up, check-in with Tanya back in Belgrade, and come down from a day that was filled with adventure. Stud Mill Road delivered on all of my expectations and more, including a chance encounter with a goshawk and two ruffed grouse. It was then and would remain a highlight of the tour. My advice is go there, pack light, consider using a mountain bike, and be sure to go straight (not left) at the split. Everything in life is better when you earn it, even the rests between feel better when you've dug deep, persevered, and overcome a difficult challenge.
In my next blog entry, I'll pick up the story from Calais: the next morning I crossed the border, less than a mile from my bed as the crow flies, into Saint Stephen, New Brunswick and then made my way, at a fairly easy pace, to the provincial capital, Fredericton and the river that embraces it, the St. John.
Tanya, my friend and host back in Belgrade, kindly offered to monitor my progress on the tour and I was grateful to have a virtual friend close-by throughout the journey. Here's an excerpt of our text messages from shortly after I resurfaced on the opposite side of Stud Mill Road, in Calais, Maine:
Andre: 90 miles [from the Milford Motel], 63 miles of dirt, rocks, sand, and mix, another adventure is in the bag. Wowza, that was a lot of hours and a tough route for all the weight on my bike. But still the very best option [for crossing this part of Maine to New Brunswick, Canada], less than five vehicles.
Andre: When I rolled back onto the black-top [over 6 hours after leaving Milford], I was relieved and smiling.
Tanya: You made it and that's what counts and no traffic. Black top is not overrated .... where are you spending the night?
Andre: In Calais, for 40$, one of the nicest Airbnbs that I've stayed in. Really nice for the cost.
Andre: [Two beds], a full bath, and an outdoor patio with a view [of forested Appalachian hills and valleys].
Andre: I've already booked into what looks like another nice Airbnb for tomorrow night, Fredericton, 36$.
Tanya: Bargains galore!
Andre: More like Europe than the majority of the US. Nice for a shoestring traveler with ambitious goals.
Tanya: Any good food around?
Andre: I stopped at a [desperate] grocery store, I'm wiped out, bought breakfast too.
Light and chance are always playing with us on a long tour. When I arrived to the Penobscot River in Old Town, Maine the light was not so good, which gave me an excuse to have some fun with Snapseed, a photo editing tool, from Google. That's the Milford Dam in the center of the image. 26 August 2018.
(left) Navigating my smart phone for a photo somewhere on Stud Mill Road, my Garmin eTrex 20 GPS and Garmin 520 are attached to my stem and handlebar, respectively; (right) The welcome sign in South Princeton, apparently the home of Moses Bonney, my first encounter with civilization after exiting Stud Mill Road.
Bremen Township, Washington, Two Havens, and the Belgrade Lakes: a social tour of the mid-Maine coast.
Mid-coast Maine, from Boothbay Harbor to Mount Desert Island, the foundation of Acadia National Park. Colored lines are GPS tracks from my autumn, 2018, tour including exploratory rides on and off the Pemaquid Peninsula, around the Belgrade Lakes, and on "two havens" (see text for details) in Penobscot Bay. Arrows provide direction of travel and dates the day that I completed each section.
Background: This blog entry is the first of several parts, currently being written, that follow a prologue to my autumn 2018 bicycle tour. In the prologue, I provide important background info for this entry and subsequent entries. Scroll down to read the prologue which I coined Going Full Tilt to Newfoundland and Labrador.
From the enviable vantage of the Nash House at the end of Keene Neck Road, I sipped coffee, absorbed sunshine on the front deck overlooking the narrows, and contemplated my commitment. It was the morning of August 20th, 2018, departure day from Bremen township on the Pemaquid Peninsula, part of the middle-coastal region of Maine. What lay ahead I could not say with certainty but my experience on previous adventures suggested that there would be much to overcome over many weeks of touring by bicycle through the United States and Canada including remote areas that, despite their distance from the Arctic Circle, were Arctic in reputation and character. That reputation was of particular significance to a guy riding a bicycle, wearing Lycra, and carrying limited wet and cold weather gear. And worse, I anticipated that I would approach, through the sub-Arctic extremes of Newfoundland, and arrive to Labrador, when the Northern Hemisphere was well into its transition from autumn into winter.
My ambition for this tour, like all of my tours that preceded it by boot, boat, motorcycle, and much later, by bicycle, would be "a search for serendipity", a string of words that I scribbled down in one of my travel journals years ago, inside a one-man Moss tent, somewhere, after dark, in North America. Not far away from my ground pad my old friend and sole travel companion in those days, a 1982, Honda, CX 500, leaned silently on her kickstand slowly cooling-off from a day of adventure. In my twenties and thirties, Ms. Culpeper and I explored all of the lower forty-eight states and provinces east of Manitoba, over 80,000 miles, before her abrupt retirement following a collision in Quebec when I was in graduate school. Years before that crash, when I was twenty-five years old (November 1996), hands frozen, body wet to the core and approaching hypothermia or beyond, that motorcycle somehow carried me safely to a motel in Culpeper, Virginia. I nicknamed the machine Ms. Culpeper sometime that evening, or the next day, to remember my good fortune and to express my gratitude to the motorcycle, by then a trusted friend, that made that outcome possible.
On this tour, as in the past, I would allow each day to unfold with as little input from me, the controller, as possible. With few exceptions, I'd avoid the highlights, those paths and destinations most trodden. Under these circumstances, some might argue, and have, that my path would take me mostly to nowhere, But experience has shown me, including evenings spent alone in many National Forests (after riding Ms. Culpeper as if she was a dirt bike, off trail, bushwhacking, standing on the pegs to get well off the road), that the path less trodden takes a curious adventurer to everywhere worth going in a short lifetime.
Perhaps, in my defense and to my credit, I'm going to where the quantum beckons, with a sound that we cannot hear but our unconscious mind can feel, generated by the symphony orchestra of the Cosmos. I'm going to places and people that in their own way share my values and have something to add to my short story here on Planet Earth. An insight, large or small, a lesson to process even if I didn't understand or even notice right away. The how or why questions, like the highlights and the road most trodden, don't matter. What matters is being in harmony with yourself, our neighbors, large or small, respecting and nurturing the resonance of our probable home, the only one we'll ever have, Planet Earth.
I want to descend back down now, from a view high above the Milky Way Galaxy, to its proximate, to you and I, Orion-Cygnus Arm, to an average star with it's eight or nine Planets, to a porch, a bike, and a bike rider. Momentarily, I would depart friends, Sue and Paula, in the company of my Niner Bikes RLT 9 Steel, By this point in its life, a bike ridden, mostly on long bike tours and without complaint, for close to 7000 miles. Thanks to Sue, known primarily as "Schubel" among her friends, it appeared that I'd be departing, much to my surprise, with a ukulele strapped to my Blackburn Outpost Rear Rack. Or so she wished anyway, no doubt in cahoots, an alliance or partnership, with her local community, farther out on the Pemaquid Peninsula in Bristol, Maine, of forest pixies. Out of respect for her, the pixies and their good intentions, I cooperated whilst packing my bike, barefoot, under partly clear skies, by hanging the instrument from my handlebar until the moment of departure when I deviously slipped the merry maker safely into the Nash House.
In the days before my departure, I'd explored, by bicycle, primarily the Pemaquid Peninsula, west of Muscongus Bay, on which the town of Bremen was incorporated in 1828, the same year President J. Quincy Adams defeated Andrew Jackson for the second time in four years. Most of the colored GPS tracks shown on the map, above, west of Hog Island (look for a bold red rectangle) record this prologue.
Viewed from a hot air balloon, the Maine coastline appears jagged, toothy, due to many, parallel, peninsulas, including the Pemaquid Peninsula on which Bremen rests. Appropriately, translated from the original Abenaki language, Pemaquid means "situated far out". All of Maine's peninsulas jut southward many miles into the Gulf of Maine thanks to the glaciers, now vanished, that shaped them. On either side of each peninsula, deep bays, such as Muscongus Bay, offer their own, unique, mini-universe of islands, some of which are forested, others are blanketed by flowering asters and other perennials, some islands are bare stone, no soil or vegetation cover whatsoever because they are washed-over each winter by storms. The bays and islands between Maine's much visited peninsulas have become a haven for curious travelers, a place to get away from the pace of a democracy, including paddlers following the Maine Island Trail.
Despite their absence today, glaciers were recently in Maine, all of Maine in fact, and they played a pivotal role in the formation of Maine's jagged coastline. The ice that was present on what is today Maine's coastline was in the form of finger-like extensions, connected upstream, part of the leading edge of a gargantuan continental glacier that originated and flowed ca. south from Canada. So massive that the ice measured over a mile deep, a mile thick, in some places in New England including the Maine coast. That's a lot of weight, water being lighter than lead of course but certainly heavy, in the strict sense of the word, as anyone can recall that's tried to carry any quantity even a short distance.
All that water, in it's icy state, actually depressed the Maine coastline, a part of the Earth's crust, hundreds of feet down into the mantle from which it has, ever since the ice retreated about 10,000 years ago, been rebounding. As this implies, the Maine coast rises a tiny fraction each year, imperceptible to all but the most sensitive of mankind's instruments. These factors, recent ice and rebound, have kept the Maine coastline in a rocky, you might say "young", state. There hasn't been time to wear down the granite and metamorphic, primarily, bedrock into softer impressions, such as the sandy coastline of North Carolina. The effect of Maine's rugged, rocky, coastline on the eyes is remarkable, memorable, and the source, no doubt, of many inspired relations from one human to the next following a trip to Maine's bays, peninsulas, and islands.
Maine's bedrock, underlying, e.g., it's ca. 5000 islands, is ancient. Not as old as the Canadian Shield, aka the Laurentian Plateau, portions of which date back to 4.2 billion years before the present, but still ancient by any reasonable assessment, the oldest dating to roughly 647 million years: a pegmatite (type of granite) near the island of Islesboro in Penobscot Bay that, interestingly for the geologically inclined, cuts through an older (rock) formation that has not been dated. To appreciate these dates, it's helpful to recall the current scientific consensus for the age of the Earth, roughly 4.5 billion or 4,500 million years. So Maine's coastline dates back about one-sixth into Earth's history. And the Canadian Shield, from which the Laurentide Ice Sheet (continental glacier) originated and eventually flowed, it's fingers and mass, into Maine then retreated about 10,000 years ago, includes granite formations that solidified when Planet Earth was in its infancy. At the top of my tour, on the road-less coastline (accessible only by boat or bush plane) of the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, if I arrived, I would have the chance to view some of the Canadian Shield from the rails of a cargo ship and up close, by foot, especially when we were in port at Harrington Harbour.
Before returning to my story, I would be deeply saddened, from guilt as thick and sticky as wet soils containing the mineral betonite, if I didn't say something about suspect or exotic terranes, the description given by geologists to rock formations that, despite their connection to a continent today, such as North America, originated elsewhere such as a nearshore island or volcanic arc caught, quite smashed actually, between two colliding landmasses. Recall the concept of plate tectonics originally proposed by Alfred Wegener. This was the case, the presence of probably both types of arcs, with implications for Maine's bedrock foundation, when North America and Africa formed a union, part of the coming together of the supercontinent Pangaea about 335 million years ago, not long after "the fishes" had their naughty heyday. One of those formations, now known as Avalonia, a former island arc, smashed and simultaneously intruded by molten rock from the Earth's mantle, then sutured to North America, would become part of Maine's present day coastline.
In the midst of Avalonia, I made my way to one more view of the narrows from the dock overlooking Hog Island for a photo opp then turned back, past the Nash House, and on to the junction of Keene Neck Road with Maine's Route 32 (Waldoboro Road). I made a right turn, pedaled for about fifteen minutes, then wisely took a left onto a much more civilized, country lane, Nobleboro Road, free of yahoos and their high-speed experiments. I was on my way under favorable skies and grinning with all the anticipation of a curious traveler, the same grin that initially surfaced when I was in my twenties, exploring from the backside of Ms. Culpeper, a motorcycle that, thanks to my mother, I acquired for just 250$. Over my left shoulder, between the trees, I occasionally caught a glimpse of Pemaquid Lake. I had been a camper on the shores of that lake in my youth. The cunning and playful universe must have taken great pleasure in bringing me so close to a place that in my adult life would come to mean so much.
Beyond the lake, I maneuvered a chicane and then crossed Maine's most trodden highway, Route 1. Soon I was in the company of Damariscotta Lake which I rode along for a few miles into the town of Jefferson, established in 1807 during its namesake's presidency, before turning north towards the Washington General Store. I was ahead of schedule for lunch at the store, and so I took the scenic, indirect, route, past Jones Corner, Sandhill Corner, through Hibbert's Corner, over the top of Washington Pond, and then south to Washington and its General Store which was recently transformed from a degrading 1930s-era lumber barn by the owner, a friend that I shared an internship whilst both in our youth on Matinicus Rock.
Maine is the most forested state in the union, and all of that despite its long history with logging going back to kings that desired the states once prolific, massive, tall, and straight, white pine for their ship's masts. Thanks to that long history and the subsequent ecological shift in tree species prominence in Maine, the former dominance of the white pine never, so far anyway, recovered. Above the shorelines of Pemaquid and Damariscotta Lakes the forests, beautiful in color, energized by bird song, peppered with rounded stone, some arranged in walls built by settlers, from a glacial past, including massive glacial erratics, drew my gaze and filled my eyes with nature's wonderful geometry. Among the easily recognizable trees, at bike speed, were the hardwoods, maple and birch, and a softwood that is much more dominant on Maine's forested islands and adjacent coastline, the red spruce. Soft, in appearance and reality, mats formed by mosses, their glowing green vitality a product of a pigment, chlorophyll, and reflected light, formed inviting beds above the moist soils below the trees. Here and there, a variety of delicate lichens, in shades of green, pink, and gold, held tight to bark and stone. Eyes closed, to focus for a moment, on the soundscape above the lakes, I could easily identify amidst the symphony of bird song the striking red-eyed vireo, the patient eastern phoebe, and the (sounds like) "teacher, teacher, teacher" of the ground-sleuthing ovenbird. Larger forms also made themselves noticed, here and there, including a group of wild turkeys and numerous white-tailed deer, sadly, to no fault of their own, the harbingers of a tick and the dreaded Lyme's disease.
To arrive to Matinicus Rock, under any circumstance, is a rare event no matter what the comparison. But just as certain as the statement 'life exists elsewhere in the universe' given the numbers, a minimum of 200 billion observable galaxies each with ca. 100 billion stars and many of those, as we now know, orbited by planets, it is also certain that a few fortunate hominids would arrive to this outpost at the edge of Penobscot Bay. Two among them, Sean Donaghy and I, arrived as Project Puffin interns in the spring of 1995, naive and full of wanderlust, to this isolated island oasis composed of mostly granite with some prominent, grey in color, basaltic intrusions (dykes) surrounded by water contaminated by salt, other minerals, millions of life forms, and sadly a lot of mankind's trash. Trash aside, the oasis, its setting and historical significance as a light station, inspires even the most introverted minds, which described neither Sean, owner of the Washington General Store, nor the author of this circuitous blog entry.
By the time I reached the intersection of Razorville and Old Union Roads in Washington, Maine, an area first settled by Euro-immigrants, the Nelson's, in 1797, I was well into the full expression of a smile born from reflection of many shared and cherished, youthful, memories. Sean isn't a short fella by any means, somewhere between above average and basketball. He's always kept a beard or a minimum of scruff, at least from the images and impression that I've otherwise collected over the years. Picture a lumberjack, fitting given his history with competitive axe throwing, a carpenter, father, and friend to strangers, vagrants, vagabonds, etc. When he gives you a hug, ask him to "bring it in" and he'll oblige I assure you, it'll reach under your rib cage. When he speaks, or sings, his voice has a deep resonance. That too will touch your soul. He seems to prefer bright colors, plaid patterns. And plaid aside or withstanding, no doubt Carhartt is a theme, on his hooks and in his dresser, preferably bought used or otherwise in Maine's eclectic shops, from the famous LL Bean Store in Freeport to the 2nd To None Thrift Shop in Ellsworth.
Sean was busy enough the day I arrived, and most days no doubt, nurturing with his family the store that they invented a few years ago, that I was able to settle-in to my second favorite thing, after cycling, eating (!) before we had a chance to embrace in bear-like fashion. Lunch was served-up by his kitchen staff, pizza then a sandwich then perhaps a bit more, can't recall for sure. And I eventually departed with more yummy snacks, bought from his shop, in my Blackburn rear panniers. We found harmony over coffee, enough to satisfy someone traveling by boot or vehicle vs. a cyclist, the latter being famous for their predilection for the dark brew. It was as if we had never departed, years ago, from a shared experience on Matinicus Rock. It's always this way with friends, as it should be with strangers too, color, beliefs, and other superficial etceteras withstanding. For my part in this brief adventure we often refer to as "life", I try to do my best to live as if strangers were friends in waiting, at a country store or otherwise, for a reunion that will give back more than any purchased object ever will.
Favorable skies, blue with spectacular, an odd one here and there, puffy clouds, concerned me not one iota as I said my goodbyes to Sean and his family, including their youngsters between bites of a childhood favorite among Americans, no exception noted, pizza. I backtracked a few yards, meters, fathoms, whichever you prefer, to Old Union Road and turned right towards the Maine State Ferry Service that would carry me to my destination on the first day of the tour, the home of Mr. Goodhue. I did my best to remain on the road-less-traveled, which took me past Union and its namesake fair, past Round, Seven Tree, and Crawford Ponds, past Quiggle Creek, and around the south side of Spruce Mountain before dropping due south a few miles to a backdoor entrance, a fun, fast decent into the picturesque and historic coastal town of Rockland, Maine. I'd been here many times before, the coastal going and coming location for all of my trips to Seal Island and Matinicus Rock as a supervisor and intern for Project Puffin. In fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that the place was, to me, familiar as home, which made my approach from the northwest on Talbot Avenue even better. I had never been through the Talbot gate, the impression of the new in advance of an impression of the familiar was as delicious as locally baked strawberry-rhubarb pie after a lobster roll made the same way.
The Rockland ferry provides daily service to Vinalhaven and (fewer trips) North Haven, two island communities celebrated by tourists and locals. The islands are about centrally located in Penobscot Bay and are favorite destinations among pleasure boaters. Both islands have been havens for fisherman for some time, to nearly the beginning of Euro time in the New World. Today's fleet focuses mainly on lobster fishing during months when the lobsters are near shore and the weather is favorable (summer); exceptions are a few hardy souls that follow lobster far out to sea, beyond Seal Island and Matinicus Rock, to their deep-water winter residence. Between the port in Rockland and the ferry terminal on either island is a wide open expanse of salt water. A no-man's-land where birds, including a variety of gulls, shags, and alcids, go about their daily priorities with few distractions. Critters, large and small, below the surface do the same including crowd pleasing harbor porpoise, minke whale, grey and harbor seals, all resident (non-migratory) species in the Gulf of Maine. A lucky passer-by might also get a glimpse of a right or humpback whale when these species visit the area.
Encounters with Planet Earth's biodiversity aside, I first became aware of the peaceful, relaxing, pleasure provided by ferry crossings, even the short pulls, by chain, across river channels when I was touring North America on Ms. Culpeper. For example, I still have fond memories, crisp, of crossing the Mississippi (east to west) on a small car ferry from Moduc, Illinois to Sainte Genevieve, Missouri. Not long after exiting the ramp on the Missouri side, I rolled into the small community of Sainte Genevieve, and not long after that into the Ozark's, a thickly forested, mountainous wonderland that I was excited to visit for the first time. Contrast this with a trip that might begin with an ascent of a massive steel and concrete bridge over the Mississippi, past the famous arch in St. Louis where I've been told local gangs enjoy spraying bullets from their uzis into the river, followed by a lengthy drive through an urban jungle, before exiting into that more desirable space, the Ozark Mountains. Although there would be no sweet gum blossoms and singing Kentucky and cerulean warblers above sheltered creek beds, the satisfaction of traveling by boat to Vinalhaven, a moment to reflect, to be grateful, delivered all of the satisfaction of my previous ferry crossings. Once the ferry departed Rockland, I found a place where I could observe the World through my, quite dated and beat-up, Bausch and Lomb Elite binoculars and settled-in to a rest from pedaling.
The island of Vinalhaven is an unusual space, quite connected, often open among its residence to a degree not typically found elsewhere in the United States where deception of fear is too often a primary motivator. Years ago, when I was a supervisor on Seal Island on a return trip to the mainland, I began driving away in a car that I thought was my friends only to discover, picture a man running up alongside me, that I had absconded with the wrong vehicle. Such is the risk islanders take when they leave their keys in or close to the ignition, such as the ash tray, as they often do on the island. By the way, he was not offended at all, he just wondered who I was. After a moment, we had the whole thing clarified and I was on my way, in the correct car the second time around, to shuttle gear from a boat operated by John Drury, a legend equivalent to the great naturalists of previous centuries, to the soon-to-depart ferry to Rockland.
Mr. Goodhue, aka, Terry Goodhue, my host for the next two days, met me at the dock, a kind gesture. And then, equally kind, patiently waited for the cycling addict to ride to his place, about five miles away, as he followed me in his "island" car. Terry is a master of all mediums, an extra-ordinary artist, he is a humanitarian and an educator, a lover of all warm hearts and living phloem, he is all things that humanity celebrates: his friends and any curious stranger that reaches out to him among them. And because of his exceptional ability to nourish any one, or thing, in his care, including a juvenile kestrel that he taught to catch mice in his bathtub, his home, the second that he's now built using hand tools and post and beam construction off of Poor Farm Road, when viewed from the plastic duck pool, adjacent to the driveway, is partially occluded by gardens that spill-over a rough, leaning this way and that way, pieced-together fence built to keep-out the deer. His peach trees, equally vivacious, which he planted a few years before construction of his second home, foresight withstanding, produce more fruit than a man can eat, a fact that I suspect his neighbors have never complained about. Just outside the fence, when I arrived, a coterie of quacking ducks, fattened on grain, food scraps, and local bugs, patrolled the spaces between the garden, Terry's modest home, and the area reserved for coming and going, where his aged automobile rests most of the time.
The following morning, fattened on peaches and Terry's exceptional cooking, I took some time, many hours, to explore beyond Poor Farm Road by bicycle. Places that, despite my long tenure in the area, were outside of my experiential universe. A right onto dirt-surfaced Poor Farm Road led me to asphalt, first Round Island Road, a right turn, then right again onto North Haven Road, a cul-de-sac that leads to a dock where, for a few dollars, foot and bicycle traffic can hail a water taxi to North Haven which is by now in full view just across the Fox Island Thoroughfare. At this juncture, charm is everywhere, it is pure Maine, a beautiful menagerie of fishing boats floating peacefully below structures elevated above the water on pilings, sheathed by natural wood or typically stained red, and homes, often white washed and fenced in Victorian-style, rising above the waterfront, built one above the other and in rows following the natural contours of the island. Per Terry's instructions, I hailed the water taxi using the juxtaposed phone that is attached to a pole not far from the aforementioned dock. Soon thereafter I was wiping tears as the wind from the boat speed, casual but enough to get my eyes watering nonetheless, found its way into my eyes but only for a minute or two, the time to cross the thoroughfare. On the opposite shore I thanked my captain and then eagerly departed onto the hard and dry bits of a "life island" as my friend Schubel would call it, an island that up until this moment I had not visited.
Navigation is not a significant challenge on a relatively small island surrounded by the sea. I passed through a quaint village, the village of North Haven, then turned north before making a left onto Crabtree Point Road. Eventually the road turned to dirt, after about eight or ten lovely miles up and down gentle hills, past hay fields and vacation homes, all the while the activities of coastal living in view beyond the terrestrial. Crabtree requires an about-face, another cul-de-sac, I obliged and following a brief chat with a young woman that warmed my heart, I was on my way, with confidence, towards Pulpit Harbor. I visited the latter, a charming village, briefly before continuing my bicycle tour on North Haven. I approached Salt Point on North Shore Road with intentions to visit that part of the island but a near flat changed my itinerary. Instead, I stayed on North Shore then South Shore, well above the waterline, all the way back to Main Street and the water taxi service that would, for a few dollars, take me back to Vinalhaven.
My exploration of North Haven was a great success, no matter how insignificant among conversations of popular tourist destinations, stunning weather heaped on fond memories that to fully appreciate you must explore by bike, foot, or paddle. The natural sounds, smells, and other feelings that our minds translate for our consciousness are at their very best, mature you might say, when taken in their raw form - that is, fully in the face, minus a windshield and the dreadful noises and pollutants produced by our fossil fuel-propelled machinery. These machines have their place in life, hopefully a lot less moving forward, but that place lay far away from experiences that will nourish our souls.
Two evenings with Mr. Goodhue, a friend that I met whilst in the company of a migrant bobolink on Matinicus Rock (May 1995), was nowhere near enough to satisfy my craving to spend time with one of my beloved mentors. We talked into the night, but not much past ten post-meridian I suspect, both of us being quite susceptible to a pumpkin transformation after about nine if our minds are not already producing the spindles of deep sleep. Terry managed to convince me to rest my legs and ride with him the following morning back to the ferry terminal. By late morning, I was climbing Talbot Avenue, at a pace much slower than my exhilarating descent into Rockland a few days before. But the pace suited me on this particular morning, I reflected and smiled to the top of the hill overlooking Rockland Harbor, a glorious view any time of year, as I thought about the last two days and looked forward to the next visit on my itinerary, two nights that transformed into three, unexpectedly, in the company of a good friend, adjacent to Messalonskee Lake, in the Belgrade Lakes Region of central Maine.
Gravel roads are encouraged on my bicycling tours, they are always scenic, secluded, obviously an inspiration for the traveler in search of serendipity. In the vertically-oriented image below, you'll find a digitally-captured (Android MotoX4) moment from a gravel rendezvous that I navigated not long after departing the Rockland ferry. Rain was heavy at times as I made my way to Belgrade via the Washington General Store, one more opportunity to sip coffee with Sean, and the Green Spot in Oakland, Maine, where the Athanus sisters were generously anticipating my arrival. My route from the General Store sampled three counties, Knox, Lincoln, and Kennebec. Some of the roads that nourished me today, in part because of the near absence of mankind's fascination with extreme noise, included Young's Hill, Patrick Town, and Windsor Neck. Along these routes, I passed by Three-mile Pond, China Lake, and Tabor Hill before crossing the mighty Kennebec River into Waterville, Maine. Not far, a few miles from the bridge and fewer from the Interstate 95 underpass on State Route 11 (Kennedy Memorial Drive), the yellow and green signature of the Green Spot came into view.
The Green Spot is a haven first and foremost for the celebration of flavors, genuine French cooking and always fresh, from baguettes to a variety of warm salads to famous lobster rolls to the highest quality produce available from local, green farms; and a close second, a social opportunity that is reminiscent of the passionate and unforgiving debate of the Enlightenment, an exceptional period in our species social evolution, including ideas about government and governing, popularized by the words and reputations of famous characters, Hobbes, Lock, and Montesquieu among them. The Green Spot is a gathering ground for prophets and gypsies, an oasis for both the introvert and the extrovert, an unanticipated melting pot that's been collecting and sharing ideas and experience for over forty years, going back to a naive decision made by two college-aged sisters, Tanya and Brenda Athanus, in 1976.
I first met the sisters though a mutual friend, Mr Goodhue, when Terry and I stopped for lunch during a motorcycle tour of Maine, years ago, that included Acadia National Park and the auto-road to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, a modest 1,530 foot (466 meters) summit overlooking Penobscot Bay that nonetheless claims victory to 'the highest point along the North Atlantic seaboard'. I suspect that I was initially shy in the midst of three minds to which I eventually recognized a kinship even though I wasn't ready to move much beyond observation, absorption, and reflection, the primary activities of an apprentice. But childhood shyness withstanding, I eventually developed a strong bond with Tanya, as well as a friendship that I value with Brenda. Their kindness, love, and ability to challenge my thoughts, add to them, etc, ensures my palate will be enhanced with many more visits to their store, and homes, not far away, in the town of Belgrade above Messalonskee Lake.
Despite consumption of a meal, a second lunch, that was far too significant for a cyclist with about ten additional miles to pedal between the Green Spot and Tanya's guest cabin, I still managed to make my way, without gastrointestinal incident, to my next home-away-from-home. When I arrived, I literally plunged in to Messalonskee Lake, head first, to encourage the cooling effect of autumn water on the skin and to wash the salt from, in part, the pizza I annihilated earlier in the day at the Washington General Store. The forest and bird song above Messalonskee Lake, and Tanya's company, would prove easy to settle-into and subsequently, difficult to depart from; its comforts, explorations, and other privileges, its known-knowns versus the many unknown-unknowns of the road ahead.
Between social mornings and evenings spent chatting with Tanya, I took advantage of being centrally located in the scenic Belgrade Lakes Region of Maine to explore, by bicycle of course. The map at the top of this blog entry includes GPS tracks that weave between the lakes from this bit of local inquiry. Other than Route 225, known locally as Rome Road (namesake nearby Rome, Maine) which was a nightmare on a bicycle, no shoulder, high speed wackos, the very worst-case scenario, I would encourage readers to plan a similar tour of the area where there is no doubt, much more to witness from the (ad)vantage of a thinly cushioned saddle than my brief sojourn provided. Brevity, by the way, had no effect on my satisfaction. Two days without panniers or other preclusions added significantly to my cycling efficiency and enjoyment.
The Belgrade Lakes are connected one to the next, like a string of pearls, the last in line and the second deepest is Messalonskee Lake which gives life and water to Messalonskee Stream, a tributary of the Kennebec River. Like many of the streams and rivers in New England, Messalonskee Stream once provided water power for its small part of industrial America, specifically a woolen mill and several factories that produced axe heads, so many that nearby Oakland was once known as the "axe head capital of the world." The bed of Messalonskee Lake was excavated during the last glacial advance in North America, by the Laurentide Ice Sheet. The lake's surface was subsequently raised by the town of Oakland in 1905 with the construction of a dam above Messalonskee Stream. Above the shoreline of nearby Great Pond, I found some dirt tracks that led to stands of impressive, tall, white pines. The forest floor below was thick with needles and the smell of pitch. Elsewhere, between the lakes, the hardwoods maple and birch and their bird fauna dominated, as elsewhere on my short tour to date.
I hadn't anticipated that I would feel a pause in my momentum only a few days after departing Bremen, but as I settled into a cabin that recalled my minds vision of the scene above Walden Pond, a cabin and setting that inspired unfiltered reflection, I nonetheless slipped into a comfortable, natural space for my modus operandi, a place that my mind wasn't immediately willing to give up. Underlying my minds pause was primarily one of the most unknown among the unknowns on my tour, crossing Stud Mill Road. A minimum of 60 miles, through Maine's North Woods, all on gravel roads and no doubt of varying quality. Fortunately, necessarily in my view, I'd be attempting the route on a Sunday, the only day that logging trucks are not active on the road this time of year. Otherwise, the logging roads of the North Woods are no place for a bicycle, as I learned years ago when I looked south down a dirt stretch from a remote border crossing, Canada-US, whilst traveling by motorcycle through Quebec with Mr. Goodhue. What I saw coming my way remains, even in memory, frightening to this day: one massive, high speeding, fully loaded, logging truck and several behind that were completely encased in flying dirt and dust. The road literally vanished amidst this onslaught of earth and turbulence. How the drivers behind a lead truck manage to stay on the road, at close to US highway speeds, I have no idea. Cyclists of any variety beware, these gravel roads are owned by the logging companies and they make the rules.
During the second morning of my visit with Tanya, in an attempt to soften concern for my arrival to Stud Mill Road, I opened Google and started searching for anyone associated with bicycles or recreation close to the communities of Old Town and Milford, Maine, the latter on the east side of the Penobscot River where I'd enter the North Woods. That search was successful and bore lots of comforting fruit. I spoke with a fellow that lived in the area and had spent considerable time exploring Stud Mill on a gravel bike. In fact, a group of his buddies were intending to ride half the road, half-way to the Canadian border, the same day that I would be on the route. Without making a note of his name and I've since forgotten the name of the shop as well, sadly because I'd love to share their website, I hung-up the phone and immediately felt better. In the meantime, I had extended my stay, above Messalonskee Lake, from two to three nights. Departure day for the locally owned 'Milford Motel On the River' was set for 25 August. The next morning, 26 August, the trip would get very real as I ventured forth onto Stud Mill Road.
In my next blog entry, I'll recall my bicycle explorations from the Belgrade Lakes to Milford, Maine, across Stud Mill Road to Calais, a remote town in Maine that is adjacent, on the opposite bank of the St. Croix River, to Saint Stephen, New Brunswick.
(left) Enjoying the preferred fuel of a touring cyclist, coffee, on the deck of Tanya's cabin above Messalonskee Lake, Belgrade, Maine (23 August 2018). (right) Anticipating my first bite of a lobster roll from the Green Spot, Oakland, Maine (24 August 2018).
After my longest and most successful season of training and racing to date, I made my way from Denver International Airport, on August 10th, 2018, to a faraway island, many miles from the mainland, to Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge in Penobscot Bay, Maine, where I spent a few days with old and new friends, including many Atlantic Puffins. My idea for this autumn adventure was to reunite with old friends from my days working as an education intern (1993-1994), a seabird conservation biologist (1995-2001), and graduate student (2000-2005) in the Gulf of Maine and also to add a bit of my latest passion to the trip: some sort of bicycle tour, length and exactly where I would go to be negotiated and perhaps finalized as I sipped coffee, socialized, scanned the land and sea for birds, and otherwise decelerated on Seal Island for a delicious week of living at a casual pace. I want to thank my friend Christina Maranto for encouraging me, inviting me actually, to join her on Seal Island for a week with her 5-yr old son, Chase. Part of the season's research crew, to our surprise, stayed on the island and overlapped with us, it was a pleasure to meet both of them and to exist for a week on far flung Seal Island in their company.
During the summer of 1992, I was not only attending, I graduated in 1994 with a Bachelors degree in Biology, but also working for North Adams State College (now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts) as a laborer, cutting grass, spreading paint, and otherwise getting first-hand knowledge of how some (not all of course) state workers maximized their pay and benefits without doing much as far as work. My co-workers literally had places that they knew they could hide from view and sleep away hours on the clock. And when it came to the real sweaty work, the work that had to be done because it was in full-view of the higher-ups, such as cutting grass all day under a hot sun, my supervisors were quick to allocate those tasks to me. Eventually I would develop a strong disapproval of the fairness and honesty of the environment that I was working in. But in hindsight, I can easily see that my lowered emotional state actually provided a critical motivation that would inspire me to raise my voice and in doing so launch my adult life, a life apart from the loving, supervision of one or both of my parents, a life that continues to unfold today.
During the same summer, I signed-up for a one-credit course, Hiking in the Berkshires. As a child, I was very fond of the outdoors, curious, adventurous, often wandering wide-eyed into swamps and marshes by foot or a combination of foot and bicycle. Behind the department of public works in my hometown of Franklin, Massachusetts, I can easily recall a friend, Charlie Bean, and I innocently swiping nearby scaffolding planks and dropping these, long axis, one board at a time farther and farther out into the cattails of what was, in our universe, a massive marsh. At one point during the construction of our bridge into Wonderland, I slipped off the plank where I was standing and immediately plunged completely underwater.
I was not a large kid, actually the smallest in my class until my sophomore year in High School when I graduated to second smallest. Fortunately, Charlie was robust relative to most kids, for this reason he was able to pull me out of the water with one hand and place me back onto our, clearly, unreliable foundation. Another time, in a "swamp", our term in those days for any wetland, across from Charlie's childhood home on the corner of McCarthy and Fisher Streets, I stepped onto a grassy hummock that, turned-out, had a hollow middle that was full of yellow jackets. The hive was not impressed, but I was, once it was all over, because I nearly skimmed the surface of the water as I bolted with childhood energy away from the swarming hornets. Adventures abounded in those days, some, like the last one, left a bit of a sting which was no doubt the source of the flash point that allowed me to never forget.
Return to the summer of 1992, I was somewhere on a class hike in the Berkshire Hills, where exactly, minus any hornets, I have no flash point to help me recall. However, because of nervous energy, a feeling that I might describe now as a symptom of going outside of ones comfort zone, I vividly recall a conversation, my response to it, and the outcome many months later. Walking along, single file, surrounded by forest and bird song, between peaks that were formerly, at their maximum thrust, possibly as impressive as the Himalayan's, I recall one of my instructors relaying her experience at the National Audubon Ecology Camp on Hog Island, Maine.
My classmate, a senior, was clearly uninterested and no intervention she attempted, within interludes of a vocalizing hermit thrush, seemed to make any difference. This built to a crescendo in my mind, my guess is he was thinking about what he would do later that day, far from the dull recollections of an aged contemporary. During a moment of silence and no doubt depleted of oxygen because I'd stopped breathing in anticipation of creating a different sort of bridge, I spoke. What I said was simple, "I'm interested in knowing more about this place that you visited". Paraphrased here, of course. I'd always been exceptionally shy, and that didn't change when I reached second tallest my sophomore year in high school. Shyness would continue to be a limiting factor in my life, affecting interactions, education, and more, for many more years with a few notable exceptions, this moment whilst hiking in the Berkshire Hills among them.
Because of her exceptional kindness, patience, and generosity, not because of my ultimate success, it makes me sad that I cannot recall the instructors name to whom I stated "I'm interested ... " on that exceptional day from my brief sojourn here on Planet Earth. In the meantime, I'll focus on what transpired next. She immediately and without prejudice or doubt took me on as her project, her apprentice, and to my credit I made no objection to full acceptance of her as my mentor. Our task, guided by this lovely person, was to convince the director of the National Audubon Society's outdoor education facility on Hog Island to give me a chance.
I was, after all, a middle class kid attending the lowest ranked state college in Massachusetts. Consistent with this reality, my undergraduate SAT scores were abysmal, and no surprise my writing and communication skills were also well below average. Add exceptional shyness to the mix and you see the challenges my mentor was willing, excited in fact, to take on. We began with a letter to Dr. Don Burgess, camp director, followed by an official application and then a phone interview. Again, likely because when we are super nervous we remember, I vividly recall one part of that interview, the moment when I stated, likely with far too much enthusiasm, that "I happily would dig holes in his back yard for an entire summer for a chance to work for the National Audubon Society." I remain embarrassed to this day for that well intended, lengthy bit, of naivety. Evolution of the mind and related acquisition of experience is replete with sub-optimal decisions.
My naivete, poor writing and communication skills withstanding, I was nonetheless successful; or perhaps it's more accurate to say my mentor and instructor did an exceptional job of convincing the director to give an ambitious kid, without much more to offer, a chance. Fast forwarding, I would later learn that my three kitchen equivalents, each of us pot scrubbers, dishwashers, food servers, etc, were attending schools of exceptional quality and reputation relative to North Adams State College. And worse, they were advanced, in leaps and bounds, relative to my experience and education. To my credit, I settled into the space with inspired motivation, my curiosity reached a new pinnacle, above my swamp exploration days, amidst a multitude of outdoor educators, from geologists to ecologists to ornithologists, that taught at the "camp", where people actually slept in beds and ate in a dining hall (still do) despite the popular name for the facility then and now, the Audubon Ecology Camp on Hog Island.
My world expanded and with it the first hints of a personal library. When I wasn't exploring the ecology of Maine's coastline and islands, I was often devouring books on related topics such as Glaciers and Granite, Islands of the Mid-Maine Coast, and Silent Spring. The latter was significant for an inspired kitchen boy on Hog Island for more than one reason. Of particular spatial relevance, it turns-out that the famous author, Rachel Carson, visited the island in 1960. Rachel was friends with Millicent Todd Bingham, daughter of Mabel Loomis (Emily Dickinson's first editor) and David Peck Todd (Amherst College Astronomer) whom gifted the island to the Audubon Society to be preserved in perpetuity as the Todd Wildlife Sanctuary. In fact, the camp was a gathering ground for many famous natural historians, writers, etc, including Roger Tory Petersen, illustrator, ornithologist, and educator extraordinaire.
I want to take a small step back now, in time, to the moment when I arrived to initiate my first summer, of two, as a kitchen boy (aka, an education intern) on Hog Island. Sometime in the opening two weeks of May, 1993, I turned right off of Waldoboro Road (Route 32) on to Keene Neck Road with my father. We'd driven together that morning from my childhood home in Massachusetts, a 3.5 hour journey, in his red, 1984, ford, F-150 pick-up truck. Keene Neck Road ends at a dock overlooking some of the islands found within Muscongus Bay, including the "Hog Island", of which there are many on the Maine coast, that's hosted the Audubon camp since 1936. Close the end of the road is the former residence, including a barn and two houses, one never winterized, of Charlie Nash. Below the homes is a field of less than four acres dissected by a dirt track that leads to a boat house and a dock. Part way down the hill, on the left side, is a small pond, a universe only for Yurtle and other turtles that live modest lives (humans should take note). The field is cut once annually, otherwise it's part of the wildlife sanctuary that includes Hog Island itself. Song sparrows and their kin can, within or along the shrubby edges of the field, safely raise their young amidst the golden rod and other native perennials. Each evening, in the summer, fire flies turn the few meters of ether above the field into a biochemical extravaganza of on and off again points of light.
Everyone's first arrival, my father and I not being exceptions, to the view just beyond the Nash House is special beyond words, a moment forever burned into their memory with such meticulous care and clarity that even Gustave Courbet, one of the founders of the art movement known as Realism, would be impressed. There are many views on the Maine coast, named for it's association with the "main" land versus the 5000 or so islands peppered along Maine's coastline, and so it makes no sense that this one in particular would have such an impact relative to so many others, equally scenic. For this reason and without compelling scientific evidence, I can only speculate that there is something more here, more than an intertwined land- and sea-scape, more than the boreal forest that wraps the island and the field on the adjacent mainland, across the narrows, more than the old Nash house and barn, cedar shingles stained red for decades, there must be more to this picturesque scene at the end of Keene Neck.
My guess is that there is something deeply emotional about the experience, something about how the lines intersect and the mind interprets. I was not a pilgrim when I arrived that day with my father, concluding a pilgrimage to an anticipated Holy site such as the Camino de Santiago across Spain to Santiago de Compostela. However, the emotional conclusion of my arrival must have been similar, and ever since I've been looking forward to my next opportunity to come back to the view above the narrows, a part of Muscongus Bay, to pay homage to my deity, whomever or whatever that deity is.
Getting back to my experience on Hog Island, for the next two summers, as a kitchen boy then a maintenance assistant, I evolved. That evolution wasn't always smooth, or pleasant, but change I did. To my credit via intensive, dedicated, inspired study, I learned in leaps and bounds, I began to understand and embed into the adult, awake, dreamscape, including responsibility, career, planning, relationships and much more. At the conclusion of those two summers, with another year of university, my third, between them, I transitioned my professional obligations from the island to the mainland, back across the narrows from which I'd come, back up the hill to the Nash compound, where I started the second chapter of my life on Keene Neck, seven (mostly) summers with National Audubon's Seabird Restoration Program, aka, Project Puffin.
The idea of the Project was visualized in the earliest years of the 1970s by Steve Kress whilst an instructor at the Audubon Ecology Camp. His visualization of a project followed his realization that seabirds were missing from former nesting islands in the Gulf of Maine, esp. former colonies of a noteworthy component of Planet Earth's charismatic mini-fauna, the Atlantic Puffin. These seabirds, including puffins, had literally been "eaten off" their former nesting islands, both adults and eggs were collected to feed growing coastal and some (larger) island communities such as the community on nearby Vinalhaven. Steve launched the project in 1973 with a goal to return puffins to former nesting islands in Maine, including Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay. It was a modest beginning, involving puffin eggs collected on Great Island, Witless Bay, Newfoundland that were incubated on Hog Island and attacked by raccoons along the way; a few hatched and were released when they were a few weeks old on Eastern Egg Rock and never heard from again. Eventually, eggs were replaced by young chicks, less than two weeks old, also collected and flown to Maine from Newfoundland. Hundreds of chicks were raised and released on Eastern Egg Rock, and later on Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. Eventually, after a decade of patient waiting, both translocation projects were successful and there are now hundreds of puffins nesting on both islands. Eventually the Project expanded to other species and became known as the Seabird Restoration Program which has had great success aiding seabirds in both hemispheres working with many collaborators.
My time commitment as a field biologist with Project Puffin encapsulates seven summers (primarily) as an intern, 1995, then an island supervisor, 1996-2001, intertwined with graduate school, which I entered in 2000 when I was 28 years old, a late start that has been and remains my normal. As with other challenges in my professional development, I entered the University of New Brunswick with considerable naivete. By now, I'd lived and learned in the adult dreamscape for many years but those lessons would only provide a preliminary, superficial, preparedness for graduate school. Yet, through primarily an inexhaustible curiosity and an unwillingness to quit, skills I began to recognize and refine as an education intern on Hog Island, I persisted. A master's degree began in 2000 transformed within two years into a PhD in Biology, with a focus on ecology and statistics. I successfully defended my these in the summer of 2005, with my parents and a favorite aunt in attendance, each of them within hearing distance when my supervisor, Antony Diamond, reached out to shake my hand and said "congratulations Dr Breton". A fabulous memory that my mother recently described as the best memory from her life, a generous observation but that's not unusual for my mother, her heart is available to everyone, openly, to a fault, but no more so than to her three sons.
Those celebrations and bonds aside, throughout my graduate school education I commuted south to north and back again, north to south, across the long axis of the State of Maine many times to reach my graduate school location in Fredericton, New Brunswick, or commitments in Maine, Massachusetts, and nearby New England states such as New Hampshire. During this time, my friends and experiences in Maine expanded not quite exponentially but quite a lot, Concurrently, I established and expanded on a new network of friendships and experiences in the Canadian Maritimes, Quebec, Newfoundland, and elsewhere in Canada.
So when I was invited by my friend, Chirstina Maranto, to return to Maine, to the coast, to Keene Neck and the islands, for reasons now revealed, above, to any reader, my heart warmed with desire to go there: to see my friends, to touch places from beloved, youthful, memories; to relive that beautiful part of my personal dream. Shortly after Christina made her offer, I saw the opportunity in my schedule to say "yes" and began making plans.
I arrived to the Portland, Maine, Jetport on 10 August 2018. Christina very generously sent a car service to pick-me-up. Within two hours, I was turning right, with my chauffeur, on to Keene Neck Road where so many fond memories, my friends, and my Niner Bikes RLT 9 Steel bicycle, shipped using Bike Flights, were awaiting my arrival. The next morning, there would be more time to visit on the mainland a few days later, I was on a boat at a dock in Rockland, Maine. A few hours later, I was on a much smaller boat, pulled by an oarsman, powered by Norwegian steam if your ancestry allows the metaphor. A moment later, I was within the sanctuary, land and mind, of Seal Island, which lay about 28 miles east of Rockland at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, namesake stemming from Atlas, son of Iapetus in Greek mythology. To get a sense of just how far flung Seal Island is relative to most places people live, due east of my location, weeks later, a sailor would make landfall somewhere in Portugal with no land between to replenish their stores.
Following introductions to two Project Puffin interns that would be staying with us, we unpacked our grocery bags, each one a perfect, dry bag envelope for a banana box, the preferred method for moving food and other gear to the islands (the Project oversees seabird management on about seven islands in the Gulf of Maine). The following morning, whilst sipping coffee amidst those boxes which we'd not yet burned, feet comfortably enclosed in Jonesport sneakers (despite the local name, mine were purchased in Fairbanks, Alaska), I captured a moment, on digital media, of my transition back to normal speed. I can easily visualize that moment now, where I was sitting on the deck of the 12 ft x 12 ft research cabin built in 1983, amidst the ancient granite bedrock, sounds of a tern colony nearby, a few human voices, the sea gently washing the greased bowling balls (slippery stones covered in algae) where I'd come ashore the day before.
For the next few days, four in total, I relived my Seal Island experience (four summers, 1998-2001) with patience and gratitude, before returning by boat(s) then car back to the project's base camp, aka, the Nash compound. More fellowship followed, meals, walks, etc, my friends from long-ago that live or have returned to this part of Maine came out of their little part of the forest that sustains them to celebrate my return. It was a fabulous four days or so. During which time, despite the quality and quantity of coffee sipped and, in other ways, worshiped on Seal Island the days before, I was still trying to conclude on the details of my next, a forthcoming, imminent, autumn bicycle tour, to somewhere.
My motivation to ride-on, to somewhere, was inspired by the success of my previous bicycle tours, in 2016 and 2017, in Europe and North America. Many details, including images, are available on my blog page - scroll down the page or use the Archives option on the right to jump around. Each of these tours ranged from ca. 1100 to 1400 miles. For example, in the autumn of 2017, I rode from Hamburg, Germany to Edinburgh, Scotland in thirteen days, a distance of 1300 miles; and then hopped a train to the Isle of Skye where I continued the tour from there and south to Glasgow International Airport, for another week. From Glasgow, I flew to Boston, Massachusetts, where I rode-on for two more weeks, a distance of about 1300 miles through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Hampshire visiting friends and family along the way. Although these relationships have always been my primary inspiration to crisscross New England, the region's beautiful, historic, and surprisingly remote country roads, such as the network of gravel roads found throughout Southern New Hampshire, offer an exceptional environment to explore by bicycle.
As I prepared my gear and bicycle at Project Puffin's Base Camp and continued to visit a multitude of friends along the mid-Maine coast, I was contemplating all of the following possibilities for my autumn 2018 tour: (1) a shortish tour in the State of Maine; (2) a tour through Maine heading north and east, eventually over the border into New Brunswick to Fredericton, then back to Portland, Maine; (3) the same but add Nova Scotia, including Halifax and perhaps a dip (up, north) into Cape Breton then back to Portland; (4) all of that, but then roll on to an overnight ferry in North Sydney, Cape Breton to Argentia, Newfoundland, a journey that would cross the Cabot Straits, then back to Portland of course to catch a flight / return to Colorado; (5) once in Argentia, the province of Labrador would be in reach though still many hundreds of miles away across a remote, seemingly Arctic, wilderness (despite being below the Arctic Circle); nonetheless I contemplated this as a possibility; (6) if I could make it to Labrador, then why not, clearly no response from my "swamp" inspired mind, make the journey a loop instead of an out-n-back (options 1-5)?
Among other challenges, logistic and otherwise, for the ambitious idea #6, I'd have to book onto a cargo ship that would carry me from a remote point on the Quebec / Labrador border to Rimouski, Quebec, an over-water journey of four days with occasional stops in isolated villages, accessible only by boat or bush plane. From Rimouski, I could add to ambitious #6 by making a loop through New England. Then again, alternatively, I could ride south from the port in Rimouski, back into Maine, and eventually to Portland. Six options, each one a bigger commitment, miles and time. The last, a massive loop, would more than double the physical challenges, distance and climbing, of any of my bicycle tours to date.
Among it's numerous influences, the universe can be recognized as a clever adversary, always, it seems, negotiating with you with it's infinite repertoire of options to keep you guessing, as if your fate is intertwined with something like an Oz operating his buttons and levers, manufactured by Willy Wonka, behind a golden curtain. And sometimes the message, it's influence, is so subtle that it only caresses the surface, a gentle touch that takes your conscious mind (about 5% of the whole by the way) some time to notice that a decision, an outcome, a transition, has been manipulated, directed by the whim of the absurd, by the mysterious and quirky realm of quantum physics. This was the case when the answer to my, by now, pressing questions - how far, how long, and where to go - began to take form, during a moment that seemed insignificant at the time, other than how will I transfer this kind gift back to Colorado when my friend Sue Schubel handed me a book: Full Tilt, Ireland to India with a Bicycle, by Dervla Murphy.
Susan is a wild character, perhaps a portal into an adjacent universe; she would be thrilled to discover, and maybe it's true, that a worm hole resides in her gaze. Despite her preference for quantum and other unanticipated conclusions, she is patient with most observers, extraordinarily, famously perhaps, and full of knowledge. Her kin are all around her, in this world and others. She is cared for, I believe, by a community of forest pixies where she lives with her beloved pug, Pipsi Ruby Rhubarb, and her husband, Anthony Liss, equally clever, creative, and colorful - more on Anthony elsewhere in this story, a forthcoming blog. On the same property, above Poorhouse Cove on Maine's Pemaquid Peninsula, she built her first home with sticks, a one room (not so) palatial palace with a wood stove. The woods around her are wet, a haven for mosses, liverworts, and lichens, a canopy of spruce, fur, and birch provide ample perches for birds to sing without much competition from the otherwise status quo, these days, man's obsessions with some form of extreme noise most notable. How Susan came across Full Tilt, first published in 1965, is just part of her inevitable, but nonetheless complicated, story. She is a tinkerer, a curiosity among the same, you'll find her almost anywhere, you'll smile when your eyes meet for the first time and on each subsequent reunion.
By the age of ten, Dervla Murphy was gifted, by her family, a bicycle and an atlas. Naturally, for her anyway, she assembled both into a dream, which she, because of family obligations, nurtured in her heart for twenty years. The whole, fascinating story is recalled by Dervla in her autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels: The Making of a Traveler. On the eave of her departure, twenty years later, the worst winter to visit Europe in many decades was beginning to make itself known in the form of cold, wet, and snowy conditions, especially in Europe's mountainous regions. Undeterred and riding alone, Dervla nonetheless set-off from her childhood home, by this point both of her parents had passed, in Linsmore, County Waterford, Ireland with her goal, her dream, to ride to Delhi, India on her Armstrong Cadet, single speed, bicycle which she nicknamed "Roz." Before she reached Turkey, she had already fired her gun, a pistol always carried in her right pocket, in self-defense, three times! Twice for fools, otherwise known as men, and once for what was either an attacking pack of wolves or stray dogs. And the weather was a constant terror, her recollection of, eg, crossing many mountain passes found within the Balkan peninsula is nothing less than frightening. Yet, somehow, others are not so fortunate, she survived and what an adventure she collected as a prize for her courage to dream and then set that dream in motion.
A few nights passed before I opened the cover of Full Tilt, I read through each opening page, publisher, etc, with care, my habit ever since I met Jason Demers in the dorms at North Adams State College (1990), and then began to read into the main body of the text. By the thirteenth page, my heart, mind, and body were filled with the sort of emotion that follows the realization of a great accomplishment. The same emotion that brings us together, in anticipation, to watch NASA astronauts land on the moon; to witness, if we could, Shackleton and his men board their life boats and days later arrive to the modest security of Elephant Island; to be with Sir Edmund Hillary when he stepped, just ahead of Tenzing Norgay, onto the summit of Mount Everest in 1953. At page thirteen, I carefully closed the book, picked up my head and immediately thought to myself, I'm going to Labrador.
At the same time, I committed, mentally to boarding a cargo ship to Rimouski, Quebec. All that remained to decide was whether, from Rimouski, I'd ride into Vermont, etc, or turn south to Portland, Maine. With Rimouski so far away and so many possibilities in between, I easily set this last decision aside, favoring instead. and sensibly. checking-in with my body and desire when I approached the dock in Rimouski many weeks later.
By this circuitous route, involving chance - imagine, e.g., the journey of that copy of Full Tilt, published in 1965, how it came to land in my library - and many people, my adventures by bicycle to and from Labrador began on August 20th. In the final analysis, I think it's fair to say, given the northward extent of the trip and the proximity of winter (fitting given Dervla's experiences in the Balkans) that on this trip I'd be going full tilt to Newfoundland and Labrador!
In my next blog entry, I'll pick-up the story of my journey as it unfolded. Part 1 will cover the section of the trip in Maine. Followed by Part 2, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; Part 3, Newfoundland and Labrador; Part 4, Quebec including a 4-day journey via cargo ship to Rimouski; Part 5, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and back to Maine where I closed the most ambitious tour, a loop, of my cycling history to date.
From the third floor of a circa 1890s Victorian-style home on the corner of Elm and North Streets in Saco, Maine, on the morning of 12 October 2018, I can easily visualize the finish line of my ca. two month autumn cycling tour. To complete the cycled portion of my great circle route (see map image below), I dedicated 34 days of the tour, out of 53, to bicycling. On the remaining 19 days I mostly explored locally by bike, spent quality time with friends and family, worked, or enjoyed the perspective from the passenger seat of an 18-wheeler or a cargo ship. Average distance cycled over the 34 dedicated cycling days was about 82 miles with 4200 feet of climbing per day. Total miles cycled will likely be close to 3100, my most ambitious tour to date, when I reach Bremen later today and the dock where the tour began on August 20th. With those cycling miles came hills of most sizes totaling more than 160,000 vertical feet of climbing, equivalent to five and half times up Mount Everest from sea level. Tomorrow I arrive and soon I rest, but not for long. There is far too much to see and even more to dream during our short lives on Planet Earth.
Please check back in to my blog over the next few days for a full account of my 53 day cycling tour through greater New England, USA, and Canada's Maritimes, Newfoundland, Labrador, and Quebec.
A Structured, Multifaceted, Intensive Winter Training Program (2017-2018) to Increase Threshold Power and VO2 max.
Summary: Inspired by advice from a friend and pro racer, David Krimstock, and the book Training and Racing with a Power Meter, I set-out in early December 2017 to elevate my Functional Threshold Power (FTP) from where I was at the conclusion of racing in 2017, 270-280 watts, to 300 watts. I trained three components of my cardiovascular and physiological systems, endurance, sweet spot, and VO2 max, alongside an aggressive gym program involving weights, core, balance, and flexibility exercises. After nine weeks of structured, multifaceted, and intensive training I achieved or came very close to my ambitious goal, an FTP in the range of 295-300 watts. Since leaving Deutschland and entering the amatuer racing circuit in Colorado, I've had three top-of-the-podium finishes in my very competitive 40-49 age category, a first place finish overall at the Salida 720 racing as part of a pro-expert duo team, a solo fifth overall at the Bailey Hundo, and most recently a solo 7th place overall at the Breck 100. These performances were the result of planning and hard work over the winter and the kindness of others that were willing to share their experiences and knowledge of the sport of cycling.
Part 1: Background, Schedule, and Dose.
Despite common sense, intuition, and logic, hard work does not guarantee improvement in sport especially as an athlete accumulates years of experience. As that experience approaches about 7-10 years, a hard working / training / recovering athlete transitions to marginal gains for the same effort that delivered much larger gains in the past. Sadly, these marginal gains may not even keep pace with losses, due to aging, illness, poor nutrition, etc, during the same period. Six years into my cycling and racing history (2013-present), at 47 y.o., aging is a significant factor nipping away, each year, at my physiological capacities. Aware of this process and how it might affect my long-term competitive goals, in December I initiated my most ambitious interval training program to date in December 2017 in prep for racing in 2018.
My decision to plan and execute an ambitious winter training program in-prep for the 2018 race season began with serendipity when I shared a meal with Shimano-Pivot Cycles sponsored, professional mountain bike racer, David Krimstock, following the 2017 edition of the Fat Tire 40, part of Crested Butte Bike Week. Although I'd considered many times before, especially since I started self-coaching in 2017, integrating a more robust interval training program into my usual endurance training so far I'd failed to make that happen. For some reason, my encounter with David, a super-fast, super-friendly, and studied athlete, finally pushed-me over-the-top of whatever obstruction was holding me back from implementing a full-on, pain cave, interval program.
After the Fat Tire 40, I rode-on, eventually finished my 2017 racing season with a 1st place, age 40-49 finish at the Breck 100 on 29 July and then flew to Europe where I pedaled from Hamburg to Scotland on my Niner Bikes RLT 9 Steel. From Scotland, I flew back to the United States to accommodate a month-long cycling tour of New England and adjacent states (USA) to visit friends and family. By the middle of October I was back in Europe and settled-into my winter home (at that time) in Hamburg, Germany for some much needed rest and recovery. I spent the remainder of October casually pursuing, on the nice days, my 10,000 mile year goal which I completed on October 26th. Otherwise, I spent October and November refining ideas about how I might use the winter to interval train, improve my daily nutrition, and add strength to my cycling muscles through weight lifting.
By the middle of November, static, Darwinian, armchair, reflection transitioned to physical testing on the bike and in the gym where I further refined my ideas and also measured my base fitness level including Functional Threshold Power (FTP). By the end of November my confidence was high, I knew when, how much (schedule and intensity), how long, and what I hoped to gain. My structured, multifaceted, and intensive winter training program would begin on 4 December 2017, almost a month earlier than any other season to date.
By the end of March 2018, I was hoping to push my FTP to 300 watts, my primary objective, through a combination of interval training on the bike, weight lifting (squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses), core, balance and flexibility training, and improvements in daily nutrition including weight loss. As December approached, I performed one 20-minute FTP test in late November, the result was 248 watts. I performed the test on the road, invariably on varying terrain, on a day I felt I wasn't rested and following a few weeks of otherwise light activity on the bike. My guess was then and remains that with fresh legs rolling on an ideal surface, no dips in the road, stop signs, etc, I could have output closer to 260 watts which is the number I used as my FTP, rather than 248, when I started training on 4 December.
Before I get into the details of what transpired on and off the bike, it might be helpful to just cover the daily schedule, repeated each week, of my training program. Below, as an example, I've inserted my first week of training for the 2018 season, 4-10 December 2017, from my Training Peaks calendar. Assuming I felt rested enough on Friday to perform 2 x 60 minute endurance intervals, then my schedule would be M-W-F, all other days would be allocated to active recovery or days off. If I wasn't rested on Friday then I rested and instead trained hard on Saturday.
On Mondays, typically mid-morning after putting-out any fires as far as clients / work, I'd climb onto the trainer in my office between 9 and 11 am. I warmed-up for 15 minutes then rode for 5 minutes at my functional threshold power, 260 watts, before initiating 6 x 3 minute VO2 max intervals at 105% to 120% of my FTP. If you know your FTP, then your VO2 max adaptation window is approximately 1.05 x FTP to 1.20 x FTP. For me, on 4 December, that window was 299-312 watts. By training in this adaptation window I was training and hopefully increasing the power associated with the VO2 max component of my physiological spectrum. For more details about human physiological systems and adaptation, I highly recommend Training and Racing with a Power Meter from Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan. Outside of suggestions from David Krimstock, this book was my primary resource for planning the cycling-component of my winter training blocks.
At the conclusion of the intervals, I'd climb off the bike, eat a recovery snack, towel off, change clothes, and head to the gym. The first 60-90 minutes were allocated to weight lifting, followed by core and balance exercises, then flexibility. I often concluded each trip to the gym with a 15-minute session in the sauna, or a double-dose separated by 5-10 minutes waist deep in cold water, followed by a short period of relaxation before showering and heading straight for food! It wasn't unusual for me to cash food in my locker which I visited as needed throughout the gym session.
Weight lifting consisted of the squat, deadlift, and overhead press. Core and balance comprised six exercises (not always the same) done twice each, 15-50 reps. For example, I performed two push-up sets of 10-25 reps each while balanced on two yoga balls, palms-down hands on one, toes on the other. Sometimes I was tired and managed only 2 sets x 10 reps. Sometime I was more rested and crushed 2 sets x 25 reps. Flexibility involved my cycling muscles, mostly, but not exclusively. Stretching the hams, quads, glutes, and hip flexors were a priority to avoid low-back pain while walking or standing, possibly due to adaptive shortening.
Although the sauna and relaxation are simple in concept I believe they are powerful in practice. Of course, there is no need to describe how to sit in the sauna and chill afterwards, but don't let the absence of details disway you. I believe heat and relaxation were important components of my winter training.
Wednesday and Friday (or Saturday) were the same as Monday except for the cycling part. Wednesdays were allocated to sweet spot intervals, intervals performed at 85-95% of my FTP. The 'sweet spot' is the the part of the physiological spectrum that marathon-style mountain bike racers settle-into after their fast start and before they pick-up the pace for the last push to the finish. The sweet spot includes the well known / often discussed physiological zones known as tempo and about half of the sub-threshold zone between tempo and FTP. If you know your FTP, then your sweet spot is 0.85 x FTP to 0.95 x FTP. At the beginning of December, 2017, my sweet spot range was 221-247 watts based on an FTP of 260.
My training plan allocated VO2 max to my most rested day, Monday, the day following an easy weekend. Next in difficulty and slightly less rested, I integrated sweet spot intervals on Wednesday. Lastly, on Friday or Saturday, exclusively in a fatigued state by this time, sometimes wasted, I did my best to perform two sets of 60 minute endurance intervals. The endurance zone is roughly 69-75% of FTP. At the beginning of December, I estimated my endurance zone as 180-195 watts. However, based on a lot of endurance days on the bike, and testing in November, I decided to increase this range to 200-210 watts to start. On my first endurance interval session on 8 December my goal was to maintain 205-210 watts and I was successful, some evidence, certainly not conclusive, that my intuition was correct.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays I worked as many hours as possible before an easy active recovery ride on the trainer and then a shortened flexibility session followed by sauna / relaxation. I varied my active recovery rides, sometimes I maintained a cadence of 90-95 for 1-1.5 hrs. Sometimes I started and finished with 10 minutes at 90-95 rpm with 40 minutes of 105-110 rpm between. Although I don't go into the value of cadence anywhere in this blog entry, it's definitely a topic any cyclist will want to read about. I believe that training cadence is one of the primary ingredients in the recipe of any successful cyclist. The minority of successful grinders withstanding, including former pro-roadie Jan Ullrich.
Saturday and Sunday, ideally, I completed an active recovery ride followed by flexibility and relaxation in the gym. Given my busy M-W-F schedule, I sometimes had to work as well, which I tried to do in the mornings.
In early December, I was still planning two trips to Spain to add climbing / elevation adaptation blocks to my winter training program. I traveled to Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, from 16 Jan to 1 Feb; and later, to Mallorca from 20 Feb to 12 March. When in Spain my priority was climb, climb, climb, no gym, occasionally stretching, always eating. I took days off to work and recover. I did perform some interval sessions, including VO2 max, and FTP testing in Mallorca but those were exceptions. The rule was 'get on your bike and climb until you hate yourself'. That might sound awful but both trips provided many memorable adventures, each full of surprises with many reasons to smile and reflect.
Before I flew to Gran Canaria, I completed seven VO2 max interval sessions. Because I flew on a Tuesday I completed one less sweet spot and endurance session before the first winter climbing block. Between Gran Canaria and Mallorca, back in Germany, I completed two more weeks of training on the bike and in the gym. After Mallorca, sadly by this point experiencing relationship stress that would conclude my German experiment, I added two final weeks of intensive interval training / gym sessions before flying back to Colorado on 28 March. All told, twelve VO2 max training sessions and eleven sweet spot and endurance interval sets. Weight lifting sessions were three-times per week when I was in Hamburg, so about 30 sessions involving a barbell, same number applies to core and balance. When I returned to Colorado I replaced gym and core work with many forms of hot yoga (Midline Yoga) and indoor soccer (Arena Sports) as I increased my cycling hours and waited for my body to adapt to elevation in prep for racing.
All cycling was performed on my 2015 Giant TCR Advanced road bike attached to my Omnium Trainer from Feedback Sports, an exceptional, travel-friendly, unit. Thanks to a friend, I have a Quarq power meter attached to my road bike. Weight-lifting, core, and flexibility exercises were completed in the Kaifu Lodge, a short walk from my office and winter home (at that time) in Hamburg, Germany.
What I just wrote covers schedule, structure, and logistics, now I'll describe the dose that I chose for cycling and weights and my overall goal / objective for my winter training program. On the bike my plan was to increase intensity by five watts each session (dose) relative to the one before. So if my VO2 max goal was 300-305 during a given week then the goal a week later, assuming I was successful, for VO2 max would be 305-310. I applied a similar strategy to my weight lifting schedule / plan, add five pounds each day (dose) to all of my sets and reps. So if I performed 3 sets of squats by 5 reps at 220 lbs on Monday, and was successful, then on Wednesday I repeated 3 sets by 5 reps (3 x 5) with 225 lbs.
My hope was that by increasing power and weight incrementally over many weeks I could gradually and successfully increase my FTP to 300 watts, this was my overall goal. My decision to simultaneously (same week) train three components of my physiological system was motivated by two conclusions: 1) I'd spend less time on the trainer versus training long endurance hours for weeks, then sweet spot, then VO2 max; and 2) adaptation within each system (more power) might, sensibly I thought, cause a shift overall in my power through simultaneous adaptation. I would, I hoped, pull myself up into a stronger, faster, higher performing self by executing a winter training program that simultaneously integrated four structured training components, each imposing adaptations on different part of my body, three motivated by the bike and one by a barbell. To these physical challenges I added plenty of healthy food, active recovery, heat adaptation in the sauna, and relaxation to help motivate adaptation on the off days. This final component, a multifaceted recovery strategy, was motivated by the following reality: adaptation occurs during recovery not training.
Part 2: Details Training on the Bike
Day one, 4 December 2017, 6 sets x 3 minute VO2 max intervals (3-minute recovery between), followed by weights and core exercise in the gym, then stretching, then thirty minutes for sauna and relaxation. My average normalized power (NP) goal for this first set of VO2 max intervals was 300 watts, slightly above the middle of the target range suggested by David and the book by Allen and Coggan: 260 x 1.05 to 260 x 1.20 = 273-312 watts. Apparently I was showing myself no mercy on day one of my winter training program and I wasn't disappointed, I was able to maintain, despite the high-level of mental and physical suffering I experienced during all of my VO2 max intervals, an average of 303 watts (avg NP) over the six intervals: 296; 303; 306; 307; 304; 303. I went a little under my goal on the first interval, the next five were a smidge above 300 watts.
Here's what I wrote in the comments section of this workout shortly after climbing off the trainer: "I'm very close to being able to sustain 310-315 for these 6x3 min intervals, closer to 300-305 at the moment but that's a big leap relative to power when I climbed onto the omnium [trainer] about two weeks ago. My body is adapting quickly, road and trainer power are equalizing though not yet equal. I'm very satisfied with today's result and looking forward to the next 6x3 session so that I can assess how much closer I am to road power." Regarding "equalizing", recall I was testing ideas in November. During this time I was also spending time on the trainer so that my road and trainer FTP would be more, rather than less, aligned, simplifying the arithmetic especially when I flew to the Canary Islands in a few weeks, then later Mallorca, where I would train almost exclusively outdoors and at intensities dictated by my functional threshold power. It's not unusual for a riders trainer FTP to be 10-30 watts lower than their road FTP but the difference tends to get smaller, or even go away, following many hours of adaptation on the trainer.
Here's the complete set of average normalized power numbers for each interval from the month of December,
Weeks 1-4: December 4-25, 2018
(1) 296; 303; 306; 307; 304; 303; avg 303.
(2) 317; 319; 315; 310; 308; 300; avg 311.5.
(3) 316; 320; 321; 320; 315; 315; avg 317.8.
(4) 326; 328; 326; 327; 323; 320; avg 325.
Recall that each week I increased my average NP wattage goal by 5 watts. Week one my goal was 300-305. I actually added 10 watts, not 5, to this range the second week to arrive at 310-315 based on what I felt I could do and the less-than-ideal conditions of my last FTP test. Weeks three and four I increased my wattage goals to 315-320 and 320-325, respectively.
A fine detail but one worth stating here, for my trainer profile on my Garmin 520 I integrated lap normalized power as a prominent part of the display. I used this as a "carrot" as suggested by Allen and Coggan, to push myself to maintain, reach for, the planned / targeted wattage range on each interval. I can't understate the value of using this "carrot" trick to reach your goals on the trainer, especially those that involve a lot of physical and mental stress. The same trick is useful on the road and trail. Each week in December I successfully achieved my VO2 max goals, increasing by five watts per week.
After a New Year celebration and before I flew to the Canary Islands for my first winter block of climbing I performed three more VO2 max interval sessions in January,
Weeks 5-7: January 1-15, 2018
(5) 332; 331; 333; 330; 327; 325; 329.7 avg.
(6) 337; 337; 337; 336; 335; 330; avg 335.3.
(7) 340; 341; 337; DNF.
As you can see, the VO2 max trainer session during week seven concluded with my first DNF, I was unable to finish interval four within the estimated adaptation range, 105-120%. After the session I wrote, "Wasn't rested, should have listened to my inner voice and not started."
Maybe I wasn't rested, recall everything else, physical, I was performing each week including difficult sweet spot intervals (85-95% of FTP) each Wednesday. Of course, it's always important to listen to your inner voice, that's the 80-90% of your brain that sends brief messages to your conscious 10-20% but otherwise silently works on crunching numbers, reflecting, and much more. However, what I failed to realize on 15 January, when I blew-up during interval four, was that I hadn't failed. Instead, I'd ridden myself, incrementally, week after week, into a direct collision with my trained-state FTP, likely something very close to where I was before I stopped training in 2017.
Looking back to week six, I was successful, I finished all of my intervals in the prescribed zone. If I take the average of the six intervals from that week, 335, then a rough estimate of my FTP during that session is 1.2/335 = 279 watts. Based on my 2017 power data (all files), my FTP was likely about 270-280 watts at the end of racing in 2017. The FTP estimate from session six, 279, is in that range. It seems logical that during week six I'd trained myself back to my trained-state FTP at the conclusion of 2017 racing.
Any cyclist that is interested in FTP and other thresholds has not doubt complained that FTP "is just a number", or something similar, a useful reference but not "real" in the strict sense of a threshold. Before this winter I would have quickly agreed, but now I totally disagree. There is definitely something very real about the physiological threshold known as FTP. Whether yours or mine is 290 or 291 or 289 certainly isn't important. But the "line" is a real boundary, that moves around depending on our level of fitness and fatigue. Weeks later when I realized what truly happened during week seven of my VO2 max interval training it was a moment of clarity that I doubt I'll ever forget. The realization, the moment I figured it out, will always be special and it's definitely added significantly to my experience as an athlete. By incrementing by five watts per week I incrementally approached a critical component of the human physiological system and all of the processes and chemistry that this system is composed of, our Functional Threshold Power.
From January 16th to February 3rd, I moved my base-camp to Gran Canaria, the largest of the Canary Islands. This was a nice break from chilly, grey, wet Hamburg. When I returned to Hamburg, I resumed my interval and gym sessions for two more weeks,
Weeks 8-9: February 5-12, 2018
(8) 345; 345; 346; 342; 334; DNF. (Goal 345)
(9) 345; 345; 345; 341; 328; 319; avg 337. (Goal 345)
By week seven, in January, my goal was 340-345 watts per interval. Recall that I did not finish (DNFed) the fourth interval of that training session because I couldn't maintain wattage in the adaptation window for training the VO2 max part of my physiological spectrum. Subsequently, the next day in fact, I flew to Gran Canaria where I climbed a total of 58,963 feet over 459 miles on the road bike. I was sick, unable to ride, on three days, airport gunk. I took a few additional days off to rest. Total days on the bike were eight.
Surviving so much climbing in such a short time gave me confidence, once back in Hamburg, to up my VO2 max wattage goal for week eight to 345-350 despite the DNF at 340-345 a few weeks before. As you can see from the numbers (above), I had some success, holding 345 watts on the first three intervals, both weeks, and completing the set of six during week nine. I was getting stronger, the ninth week compared to weeks 1-8 were proof of that accomplishment.
For what remained of my structured interval training, a few sessions in Mallorca and about two weeks in March before returning to Colorado, I was never able to repeat the numbers, on the trainer, that I put out during session nine. Part of the reason was so much travel during which time my body became less adapted to the trainer. Another part was relationship stress. Nonetheless, as you'll see at the conclusion of this blog and in the next paragraph, all of the VO2 max work that I'd done up to / including my success during week nine was making me stronger.
By early March I was riding outdoors under Mallorca sunshine with no excuses to postpone my first FTP test of 2018. I performed a 60 minute individual time trial on a climb that was a few minutes shy of ideal, a big dip downhill before climbing again with smaller dips before and after. Despite the terrain, I averaged 289 watts NP. At minute forty, I was holding 301 watts, right before the biggest downhill section. I don't know because I didn't do any serious testing last summer but I suspect 289 was a personal record. On March 6th, just two days after the first test, I repeated the test on the same section of road, same dips, etc, but this time held an average 292 watts even carrying the fatigue of the test from two days before.
Back in Hamburg, on 27 March, I performed one more test, a 20-minute time trial. After subtracting 5%, that test suggested my FTP was 294 watts. Not bad, especially given that I had to negotiate one stop sign during the test. This test suggests that when I departed Northern Germany for Colorado I was confidently, given stop signs, etc, capable of 295 watts for 60 minutes, and perhaps even 300 under ideal conditions. Although issues of adaptation had kept me from pushing higher VO2 max wattages on the trainer I'd nonetheless achieved, or nearly so, my FTP goal at least at elevations I encountered in Hamburg and Mallorca through intensive interval training over roughly four months (Dec-Mar).
Success and failure as just described for my VO2 max sessions over nine weeks was essentially replicated, for the same reasons described above, during my sweet spot, 3x20 minute intervals at 85-95% of FTP performed on Wednesdays. Here's the numbers from the first six weeks of my sweet spot training,
Weeks 1-6: Dec 6 2017 to Jan 10 2018
(1) 252; 246; 245; avg 247.7.
(2) 258; 252; 250; avg 253.4.
(3) 261; 252; DNF; avg 255.5.
(4) 260; 259; 256; avg 258.3.
(5) 264; 264; 261; avg 263.
(6) 270; 269; 267 (15 min); avg 268.6.
Week one, 6 December 2018, I set my first goal at 250-255 watts. Recall I increased this by five watts each week, thus my goal for week two was 255-260 watts. By week six, I was hoping to stay within 270-275 watts for each 20-minute interval. Notice on week six I faltered (blew-up) 15 minutes into interval three. As I had with VO2 max intervals, I was running into my very real FTP six weeks into my sweet spot interval training. Here's the two weeks between the Canary Islands and Mallorca (back in Hamburg),
Weeks 7-9: February 7-14, 2018
(7) 270; 269; 270; avg 270.
(8) 275; 270 (17 min; DNF); DNS.
My success during week seven was perhaps my very best on the trainer for the sweet spot up to that time. That day I had reverted to the week six goal, 270-275 watts, giving myself a slight advantage to succeed given I'd been off the trainer for weeks riding outdoors on Gran Canaria. The next week I reached for 275-280 watts and blew-up after 17 minutes during the second interval. I never started the third. It's very likely that I was above 120% of my FTP at 275 watts at least on the trainer at that time.
My experience performing the much less intensive, relative to VO2 max and sweet spot intervals, 2x60 minute endurance intervals also hit a wall, I began to blow up, during week eight. Here's the first eight weeks, all on the trainer, before my endurance interval training was set-aside during my trip Mallorca,
Weeks 1-7: Dec 8 2017 to 12 Jan 2018
(1) 207; 208; avg 207.5.
(2) 219; 221; avg 220.
(3) 226; 226; avg 226.
(4) 231; 232; avg 231.5.
(5) 235; 237; avg 236.
(6) 241; 240 (40 min); avg 240.5.
[Off the Trainer: 16 Jan to 1 Feb, Gran Canaria]
(7) 240; 240; avg 240.
(8) DNF; DNS.
My goal during week one, 8 December 2017, was 200-205 watts for each 60 minute endurance interval. By week six (no trips to Spain just yet) my goal was up to 240-245 watts and I was able to meet that goal, 240.5 watts average over the two intervals. When I returned to Hamburg from Gran Canaria I again, as with my post-Gran Canaria goals for VO2 max and sweet spot, gave myself a slight break by maintaining the goal from week six and was successful, 240 watt average over the two intervals. In contrast to week seven, week eight was a near complete loss. And this was in part because by this time I was single but still living with my former girlfriend in Germany. Relationship stress was very high. Another factor was loss of trainer adaptation. After Mallorca, I never regained the trainer fitness I had during week seven.
Part 3: Details Weight Training in the Gym
For the readers convenience, I'll start this section by repeating some of what I wrote in the introduction including the basic structure of the weight lifting component of my gym exercises, the squat, deadlift, and overhead press. These were entirely new to my athletic sphere when I started planning in November 2017. I've been performing core, balance, and flexibility exercises since April 2011 and many of these exercises as prescribed by my physical therapist, Dr. John Kummrow (Integrative Physiotherapy), instructors teaching at Midline Yoga (previously at Elan Yoga & Fitness), and massage therapists including Katie Hines. As part of my 2017-2018 winter training, I continued to do these though in different reps and sets to accommodate my goals involving weight lifting. For the remainder of this section I'll write almost exclusively about weight lifting. For questions about any part of this blog entry, including core, balance, and flexibility training, I'd be thrilled to hear from you via a comment or email.
The simplest way to replicate my weight lifting schedule and dose for the squat, deadlift and overhead press is to buy the book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training by Mark Rippetoe. In it he advises a five pound weight increase for beginners per session, 2-3 sessions a week, in the gym. I played-around with weights, reps, and sets, and worked on form, throughout November in prep for December. Mark Rippetoe is also featured in many videos that are available on YouTube, such as this one. They're all excellent, informative and entertaining.
Throughout, planning and implementation, I was also coached by my older brother, an accomplished weight lifter and stone mason extraordinaire. I sent him videos and he coached me on form as best he could from a distance. He answered dozens of questions. He was also my inspiration and source of courage to get under the barbell for the first time since I was a teenager. What I discovered, once I went under and over the bar, was I really enjoyed these exercises. Especially the squat.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, overlapping with the trainer component of my winter training program, I went to the gym and performed first weights, then core and balance, then flexibility exercises. After these workouts, which I always performed after cycling, I often collapsed in the sauna to relax and wind down. It wasn't unusual for me to spend four hours in the gym. On days I had to be quick I could shorten to 2.5-3 hours by cutting-out some of the peripheral activities and being all business. I focused on work in the early mornings and on rest days: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday-Sunday.
I was late getting Rip's book shipped to Germany so didn't actually integrate his structure, sets and reps, until 20 December. On that day my heavy set for squat was 65 kilograms plus the 20 kg barbell, 187 pounds. I performed many warm-up sets, as prescribed (exactly) by Rip, then performed 3 sets of 5 reps at 187 pounds. Based on Rip's suggestions, two days later I added five pounds to my heavy sets, 192 pounds.
The hardest barbell exercise I performed was by far the overhead press, I started at a modest 77 lbs, my heavy sets were 3 x 5 reps just like the squat.
I enjoyed the deadlift almost as much as the squat. On 20 December I started my deadlifts with a heavy set of 5 reps at 176 lbs, weights + bar. My heavy set for deadlifts, as prescribed by Rip for beginners, was 1 set of 5 reps.
Rip predicted that my deadlift heavy weight would eventually overtake my squat heavy weight. He was right, and that occured on the 5th of February, 2018, when I successfully squatted 220 lbs (3 sets x 5 reps each) and then subsequently deadlifted 232 lbs (1 set x 5 reps). I lost and gained on all of these barbell exercises as I traveled between Germany and Spain (no gym, only cycling). On my last trip to the Kaifu Lodge, where I performed all of my gym training, I was up to the following weights on my heavy sets: squat 221 lbs, press 94 lbs, deadlift 254 lbs. I ran into marginal gains, no longer five pounds per session, about eight weeks in with both the squat and press. I continued to gain with few exceptions with the deadlift.
My first three month excursion into the weight room in about 30 yrs delivered significant strength gains. For example, my deadlift increased from 176 pounds, a set of 5 reps, to 254 pounds, a difference of 78 very real pounds. I'm already looking forward to getting back into the gym in about December 2018, based in part on how much I enjoyed my time under and over the barbell last winter but also because I know that the weight training contributed significantly to my accomplishments (so far) racing a mountain bike in 2018.
Part 4: Conclusion
Armed with great advice from a friend and pro racer, David Krimstock, and the book Training and Racing with a Power Meter, I set-out in early December 2017 to elevate my FTP from where I was at the conclusion of racing in 2017, 270-280 watts, to 300 watts. I simultaneously trained three components of my cardiovascular and physiological systems, endurance, sweet spot, and VO2 max, alongside an aggressive gym program involving weights, core, balance, and flexibility exercises. After nine weeks of intensive interval training interspersed with two climbing blocks in Spain and the work in the gym, I achieved or came very close to my ambitious goal, at least at sea level, an FTP in the range of 295-300 watts.
Given my limited experience with the sport of cycling, I suspect that what I did on the bike and in the gym was not the very best way to increase my FTP. I'll be thinking about how to make improvements and then implementing those changes in the winter of 2018-2019. But those forecasted improvements aside, it turns out my 2017-2018 plan was effective without requiring excessive hours on the trainer and I learned much more than I anticipated along the way, a nice bonus. Since leaving Deutschland and entering the amatuer racing circuit in Colorado I've had three top-of-the-podium finishes in my very competitive 40-49 age category, a first place finish overall at the Salida 720 racing as part of a pro-expert duo team, a solo fifth overall at the Bailey Hundo, and most recently a solo 7th place overall at the Breck 100. A few weeks ago when I climbed off the bike in Bailey, Colorado I knew I'd accomplished something very special for my modest, endurance-distance, racing palmeres, a breakthrough performance that was made possible by planning and hard work over the winter and the kindness of others that were willing to share their experiences and knowledge of the sport of cycling.
Please check back in to Andre Breton Racing Dot Com for future blogs dedicated to my winter base camps in Gran Canaria and Mallorca among other topics from my 2018 training and racing experiences.
A bicycle tour through eleven historic New Hampshire villages from the Sky Bridge Café in Wilton and back again.
Summary: This blog entry is the first of three intended to capture my impressions, and more, from a cycling tour of New England and New York that I completed from 9/5 to 10/8/2017 amidst lots of days off the bike to spend quality time with friends and family. My primary goal for this three-part impressions series is to inspire others to explore the regions rural routes, quaint villages, and scenic landscapes by bicycle. In this entry, I recall impressions from a day of cycling through eleven historic villages in southern New Hampshire's picturesque hill country starting and ending at the Sky Bridge Cafe in downtown Wilton. The entry is written as if you, the reader, are following my route on a bicycle and I'm a voice in your head providing directions along the way including suggestions for satisfying your inevitable food and caffeine cravings. I've also inserted a touch of history as it relates to the land and the villages on the route. From Wilton and the Sky Bridge, my eleven-village tour proceeds west, clockwise (see map below), first to Temple then Peterborough, Harrisville, Nelson, Hancock, Bennington, Greenfield, Mont Vernon, Amherst, Milford, and ultimately back to Wilton and the Sky Bridge. With the exception of Peterborough and Milford, both "towns" by any measure legal or otherwise, the word "village" provides an appropriate visual cue for the other nine. Within the villages and the much larger town centers of Peterborough and Milford are some wonderful opportunities for the curious food and caffeine motivated traveler. Among them the Sky Bridge Cafe of course, but also the English-inspired Birchwood Inn and London Tavern in Temple, the Harrisville General Store, the Local Share by Plowshare Farm in Wilton, and the Union Coffee Company in Milford. Between the villages you'll find a bit of Alice's Wonderland, a patchwork landscape of hills, forests, and farmlands. I hope my blog entry will inspire you to explore, by bicycle, this relatively undiscovered region in New Hampshire. If you can't make the trip on a bicycle then carpool with a group of lucky friends and family!
Before delving into the ride, my impressions, and more, let me start-out with some details that will be helpful for anyone wanting to repeat this ride as I completed it, all eleven villages in a day including stops for photos, snacks, drip coffee (Harrisville General Store) and a latte (Union Coffee Company, Milford). In this opening section, I'll include details about road surfaces you'll find on the route and some tips to keep in mind including tire pressure and bike choice for maximizing the fun factor on dirt with minimal loss of efficiency on pavement. The route, including out-n-backs for coffee and town-center visits, is 78 miles (126 km). Along the way, you can expect to climb, according to Strava, about 5850 feet (1783 meters). My time on the saddle, moving time, was five hours two minutes. Elapsed time, including two stops for food and coffee, was six hours thirty-four minutes. Here's a link to the route on Strava where I go by the alias Lava Monkey.
I used Ride With GPS to assemble and save my route in a format (GPX file) that could be read by my Garmin eTrex20 GPS device. Turns along the way were informed by previous rides I've done in the area. I favored roads-less-traveled and avoided, whenever possible, state-maintained "highways" such as the 101 and 31. As their designation implies, these routes are the primary corridor for high-speed traffic including freight. I'd advise staying off of them especially the noisy, busy 101, an alternative route connecting Milford, Wilton, and Peterborough. Among the roads-less-traveled, I favored paved routes mostly, but not exclusively, for this tour because I knew I would be advertising and recommending the ride to a wide-readership on my blog. On other rides I've done through southern New Hampshire's hill country (see links at the end of the blog), I favored a higher percentage of mixed-surfaces including dirt roads and rail trails (bike paths built on former rail beds). My eleven village tour is close to 90% paved vs. non-paved, so I'd advise tire pressures that favor paved roads with only modest softening for the few dirt roads that you'll encounter.
With the proper bike, "dirt" roads, sometimes referred to as "gravel" roads, a highly varied road surface, can add immensely to a cycle tour. With modern "hybrid", alternatively "gravel", bikes and the features they offer, such as tubeless tires and steel frames, these surfaces can be ridden safely and comfortably at much higher speeds than a road bike with 90-120 psi tire pressures front and rear. When preparing my Niner RLT 9 Steel gravel bike (50-36 rings, 32-11 cassette), the bike I used on this ride, for non-paved surface such as gravel roads, cobble stone, and non-technical single track, I inflate my tubeless Hutchinson Sector 28 mm tires to 85 psi rear / 75-80 psi front. Over a calendar year, my body weight varies from about 150 (race fit) to 160 (off-season) pounds (68-72 kg). You'll want to factor in your own body weight when softening your tires. Too low and you could easily damage your rim or pinch a tube if you're not rolling tubeless. There is also the trade-off to keep in mind between decreasing efficiency on the paved roads with gains, as you drop tire pressure, in efficiency and safety on the mixed-surfaces.
Unless you know a garage code in Wilton or another town nearby, where you can bunk for the night as I did, then you'll likely drive into Wilton center with your bike on a rack. You'll find ample parking in the town center. Given that you'll be gone most of the day I advise parking off the main street. The Sky Bridge Cafe is close to the west edge of downtown, a short spin from any parking option. Depending on which day and time you decide to set-out on this tour of eleven villages, or any other ride that starts in Wilton (see suggestions below for more routes), you may find that the Sky Bridge is either closed or not yet open the morning that you arrive. An excellent alternative is the Local Share by Plowshare Farm, quality drip coffee and espresso, organic baked goods, locally made art, and even local produce when in season. To find the Local Share cross the street from Sky Bridge and take a left, a few doors down, across from the historically significant and locally celebrated Wilton Town Hall Theater, you'll find the Local Share.
If you drove in then you likely arrived off the 101 from Milford. On your way, you may have noticed that the roads were essentially flat as you made your way from interstates to the 101 eventually to Milford and then Wilton. You were driving across a former, mostly flat, outwash plain comprised of sands and gravels left behind by receding glaciers, ca. 11,000 years ago (from the most recent cold period of the ongoing Quaternary Glaciation) Alternatively, if you came from the west on the 101 then you came through hills associated with the extensive and geologically ancient Appalachian Mountains, a landscape feature easily seen from space whose origins date back ca. 480 million years to the so-called Age of the Fishes, well before the evolution of reptiles and mammals. From Peterborough heading east towards Wilton, the 101 climbs up-and-over a section of Temple Mountain (2,045 ft (623 m)). Like all of the hills in the region, the bedrock of Temple Mountain is mostly metamorphosed schist and shale, rock layers that record the former existence of a sea of an antiquity even older than the Appalachians.
As this overview of the geography of southern New Hampshire implies, from Wilton heading north, towards Greenfield, west back towards Peterborough and Keene, or south towards the village of Temple you can expect to encounter a region dominated by hills and valleys and the watersheds that divide them including those drained by the Souhegan and Contoocook Rivers, each a tributary of the much larger Merrimack River. Some of the hills are significant such as Mount Monadnock (3,165 ft (965 m)), which is part of the divide between the Connecticut and Merrimack River watersheds, and the already mentioned Temple Mountain. However, don't underestimate the smaller, lesser known hills. My eleven-village tour samples not exclusively, but nearly so, this region of hills and valleys found south of the more widely known White Mountains of central New Hampshire.
From Sky Bridge or the Local Share, with plenty of caffeinated cycling fuel in your body, saddle-up and point your whip west. Just after the Sky Bridge Cafe, take a left. At this point, you're very close to the confluence of the Souhegan River, a tributary of the regionally significant Merrimack River and the locally valued Stony Brook. Cross the bridge over the Souhegan and take the first right. Here you'll begin your ascent into southern New Hampshire's hill country. A few hours later, as you approach Amherst, you'll roll-out of the same hills onto the former, glacial, outwash plain on which sits Amherst, Milford, and the eastern edge of Wilton among other towns and villages in the area.
As you begin to ascend from the banks of the Souhegan River, grades will initially approach 15% but the majority of the climb, over about 3.5 miles including false flats and short descents, is far less steep. At a casual pace I climbed to the top in about 18 minutes. You'll gain a modest ca. 550 feet on this climb. Despite your proximity to the busy 101, just to the south, you'll already be getting hints of what lay ahead in southern New Hampshire's hill country. From the summit, you'll drop-down to the 101, turn left at the intersection, coast a few tenths of a mile, then make a right onto a country road. Over the next ca. 1.5 miles you'll gain another 400 feet in two back-to-back climbs. The second is impressive, for its steepness from the vantage of a bike saddle, especially with the initial climb already in your legs. From the top, you'll descend comfortably, possibly on a section of dirt road but I can't recall for sure, to the village of Temple, the second village on the tour. Temple was first settled in 1758.
This early in your tour it wouldn't be advisable to drop-into the Birchwood Inn and London Tavern for a pint. But I would advise that you take a few photos and make plans to return to the village when you can stay longer. Scroll through the photos of the rooms available at the Birchwood Inn, they are impressive, cozy, welcoming, and a short walk to a "proper" British Imperial pint in the adjoining London Tavern. Temple is perhaps best known for the New England Glassworks Company (more commonly referred to as "Temple Glassworks"). The furnace and associated infrastructure from the factory were operational from just 1780 to 1783. Glassworks forged in Temple during this time are highly sought-after collectibles.
From the village of Temple you'll pick-up state highway route 45 and head north. Not to worry, this short section of highway, less than six miles, does not attract high speed wackos like the 101. However, you will have to climb out of town, up-and-over the western slopes of nearby Mount Howard. Settle-in, this is hill country after all, they'll be much more climbing ahead. As you approach the 101, at the top of a steep descent where you can see the highway below, take a left onto a gem of a dirt road, smooth, wide, lightly traveled. It's a false flat most of the way to the next junction with the 101. When you get there, cross the highway (with care) and make a left into the cycle lane.
This is the most dangerous part of the ride because you'll be sharing a busy road with high-speed motor-vehicle traffic. Stay as far right as possible as you ascend this part of Temple Mountain. The climb is less than a mile, about 5-6 % grade on average. The exit point, a right turn, off this cycling-unfriendly road is less than a half mile from the summit. When you reach the right turn off the 101, remember to return to normal breathing. I assure you, this short tour of the 101 is worth the risk for the opportunity to tour the villages and hill country west and north of Wilton.
From the right turn off the 101, you'll enjoy a fast, flowy, paved road for a handful of miles before turning left onto a dirt track. Unlike the previous dirt section, the day I rode this section I encountered moderately deep ruts from water erosion as well as small patches of loose sand and gravel. Be prepared to ride your road or gravel whip like a mountain bike at times. If you're like me then you'll enjoy the challenge of riding this section at a sensible speed, but not too sensible. Note, part way down the initial descent off the paved road you'll come to a sharp left, take care not to overshoot the corner. To recap so far, from Wilton center to Temple you'll ride ca. seven miles with 1000 feet of climbing; then another ca. nine miles with 775 feet of climbing from Temple to Peterborough center.
Peterborough is a popular destination for visitors and locals and the downtown area, primarily for tourists, is the center of that activity. Busyness aside, Peterborough offers a variety of shops set in an attractive New-England-style setting of bygone days. You won't be able to settle-in to every village on this tour, including the popular town centers of Peterborough and Milford, but you should at least do a roll through of the main tourist loop for future trip planning. If you're following my route and intend to complete the full eleven-village tour then it'll will be too early for lunch when you arrive to Peterborough. Regardless of your priorities, at some point you should stop-into Twelve Pine for a multitude of delicious sandwiches, salads, and other options. You might also enjoy Little Duck Organics, a grocer, or Aesop's Table, a wonderful combo bookshop and cafe. Be sure to save some time for my first recommended coffee stop at the Harrisville General Store.
From Peterborough, you'll ascend the west bank of the Contoocook River onto a modest climb as you make your way out of the downtown area. Not far from the top of the climb, you'll make a right off the main road back into the forest. You're now on your way to Harrisville and the coffee-stop that I mentioned. As you make your way, you'll ride along narrow, lightly traveled, paved routes through rural, picturesque, hills and farmlands. Amidst the landscape scenes will be plenty of old stone walls to send your mind wandering back into New England's recent past when European settler's and their harness animals laboriously transformed continuous forests into patchwork farms.
Although they'll be much more to see ahead, the section between Peterborough and Harrisville is certainly as scenic and peaceful as any other on the tour. Take your time, allow the natural smells and sounds to settle-in. Along the way, you'll encounter no hill climbs of any significance and no dirt sections (on my route). Shortly before climbing into the village of Harrisville, you'll ride for a few miles along the shoreline of Skatutakee Lake, the source of Nabanusit Brook. The Nabanusit converges with the Contoocook River not far from downtown Peterborough. We'll revisit the Contoocook one more time in the village of Bennington.
At the end of Hancock Road, which parallels the north shore of the Skatukakee Lake, you'll turn right (north) onto Main Street in Harrisville. With less than a half-mile to cover before my first, suggested, coffee and food stop, I encourage you to unleash the athlete inside you and pedal hard up the 100 foot climb into town! You'll see the short climb into the village shortly after making the right turn off Hancock Road. The Harrisville General Store is on the left at the top of the climb. Many of the old mills from the town's earliest European settlement are on the right side of the road as you come into the village. Between the centers of Peterborough and Harrisville you'll pedal about 12 miles and climb a modest 1000 feet. In Harrisville, you'll be 27 miles into the route with 2700 feet of climbing already behind you.
Stash your bike somewhere in front, next to, or perhaps even behind the General Store, there is no need to lock it in this part of the World. Once you're inside, allow your eyes to adjust to the bountiful food and drink options that surround you. Stare wide-eyed into the glass cases at both hardy and sweet options. Breath in the smell of quality drip coffee and imagine the satisfaction of a bottomless cup for a few dollars. Once you've performed a thorough-ish inventory of your options head to the counter and start ordering. If you're lucky you'll encounter a man with a strange ascent, that's the owner. I was told his dialectic roots sprouted in Zimbabwe. However, don't be dismayed if a lady or a non-funny speaking man greets you, I found only genuine smiles in this little shop perched above and beside "a unique, well preserved, 19th-century mill town" (more at Wikipedia).
In fairness to those that performed the preservation, "a unique, well preserved, 19th-century mill town" really doesn't do the extent of the towns preservation justice. Coffee-in-hand from the porch of the General Store, so much has been preserved that a spandex-clad (or otherwise) visitor can easily hearken back to an era when "work", referring to the term as it applies to Physics, was produced exclusively in this and other mill towns by the "force", more physics, of gravity pushing water downhill. You'll absolutely want to come back for a foot tour of this town, including a visit to the original Harrisville train depot and the Cheshire Mills. In the meantime, check-out this Virtual Tour of Harrisville Village.
Next-up on my clockwise tour of eleven villages in southern New Hampshire's hill country is the exceptionally sleepy village of Nelson, New Hampshire. It's so sleepy in fact that unless there is a contradance underway in the village town hall, a tradition dating back 200 years according to the locals, you could easily roll past without realizing you'd been there. As you make your way to Nelson you'll be reabsorbed by the land- and sound-scapes of southern New Hampshire's hills and valleys. The ride to Nelson from Harrisville won't take you long, it's only about five miles with 550 feet of climbing. Along the way you'll roll past Tolman Pond where, apparently, one of New England's first ski hills was established in the 1920s.
At the junction of Nelson and Old Stoddard Road take a left into the village-center of Nelson for nostalgia and photos. When you're finished, return (back-track) to the junction and proceed east on Old Stoddard. My memory suggests that this is initially a smooth, no ruts and other inconveniences for tires and schedules, dirt road. After a short climb out of Nelson, you'll descend about four miles to state-highway 123 where you'll turn right towards Hancock, the next village on the tour. You'll follow the 123 for about six miles, nearly all descending, at which point you'll encounter a large white church and a post office on the left, both signs that you've entered one of New Hampshire's historic villages. Total climbing on this section is just ca. 580 feet, most of it on the initial climb out of Nelson that I mentioned.
As any American might guess, the namesake of Hancock is the man that signed the Declaration of Independence with fifty-five other delegates to the Continental Congress. And namesakes withstanding, this short quote from Wikipedia paints a picture that should motivate you to visit and perhaps return again to the quaint village of Hancock, "Almost every building on Main Street in downtown ... is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Hancock Village Historic District. Hancock's Meetinghouse is home to Paul Revere's #236 bell, which chimes on the hour, day and night. The town does not have paved sidewalks, [instead] gravel paths [lead] from home to home." Hancock was first settled, by European invaders, in 1764.
When you're ready to ride-on from Hancock, follow state-highway 137 out of town. Neither route 123 nor 137 present any concerns as far as traffic and proximity to fast moving vehicles. Neither road is heavily used and those that do use the road don't seem be late for their dinner reservation, which too often seems to be much more important than safety concerns for a nearby cyclist. Follow the 137 for ca. one mile then turn left onto Antrim Road. From this junction you're only 3.5 miles, with about 330 feet of climbing, from Bennington, the next historic village on my clockwise tour from Wilton and back again.
If you've been scribbling down numbers and arithmetic then you may have noticed that "feet of climbing" per mile cycled has been declining in the last few miles of my description. That's because as you make your way east from Nelson you'll be riding out of southern New Hampshire's hills and into the region of the former outwash plain that I mentioned earlier in this blog entry. You'll descend off the last hill onto sands and gravels distributed by flowing glacial melt water, ca. 11,000 years ago, and later covered-up by invading plants, such as White Pine (Pinus strobus), as you approach Amherst. On Antrim Road (named for a village to the north) you'll find yourself in a space that should be familiar to you by now, the smells and sounds of southern New Hampshire's hill country. Ride on and enjoy the solitude.
The village of Bennington is located at The Great Falls of the Contoocook River, the same river we encountered to the south in Peterborough. The Great Falls drop 70 feet in 1.2 miles (more details at Wikipedia). Attracted by the Great Falls, industrialists and their mills were already established in this town by 1782 not long after the conclusion of the American Civil War (1861-1865). Because I wanted to visit Bennington, a village north of both Hancock and Greenfield, I wasn't able to include a wonderful feature of the region known as the Hancock-Greenfield Bridge. On your future visits to the area, many I hope once you discover or perhaps rediscover, as I did, what you've been missing, I suggest making the bridge a part of one of your itineraries. The bridge lies about half-way, on a roughly east-west line, between the two villages in its namesake. All of the details that you'll need, are available at the Hancock-Greenfield Bridge Wikipedia page.
From Bennington, my route heads south and then east to the village of Greenfield, about six miles with 400 feet of climbing on paved country roads. Amidst it's list of current and historical factoids, one fact, an accomplishment in this case, about Greenfield truly stands-out in my humble opinion. From Wikipedia, "Greenfield is home to the Yankee Siege, considered the most powerful ... trebuchet in the world. [The Yankee Siege] has participated in the annual World Championship Punkin' Chunkin' Contest in Sussex County, Delaware since 2004." Also from Wikipedia, "A trebuchet is a type of siege engine which uses a swinging arm to throw a projectile at the enemy." No doubt there is much more to see, eat, and drink in Greenfield, a town established in 1753 in part because of the distance to the nearest church and school and the "Monadnock hills" along the way, but don't let that stop you if your preference is to seek-out the "most powerful" pumpkin thrower, aka, the Yankee Siege!
Once you're satisfied with your visit to Greenfield, roll east out of town on the main street. You'll spend only a minute or two on state-highway 31 before making a left turn onto a friendly cycling alternative. Enjoy the next six miles as you continue east towards the oddly named road "2nd New Hampshire Turnpike S". At the turnpike, a mellow road despite its name, turn right. The turnpike will take you directly into Mont Vernon, village number nine on my tour of eleven.
Mont Vernon really is spelled without the "u" as in "Mount". But spelling aside, which they got wrong relative to its namesake, the town founders were apparently fond of George Washington and so they chose the name of his country residence, a plantation in Virginia, for the name of their town shortly after 1803 following a dispute with residents of nearby Amherst. There was a time when Mont Vernon was a favorite for travelers coming-up from the south, especially members of privileged societies from Boston. Hotels from that time, including the Grand Hotel, must have been a sight to behold, each of them sparing no detail for their elite guests. But sadly, none of them survived to the present (more details at Wikipedia). However, you can still view images of these old hotels on display in a museum on the second floor of the Town Hall, courtesy of the Mont Vernon Historical Society. If you need a snack before continuing on to Amherst, consider a quick stop at the Mont Vernon General Store, you'll roll past it, on the right, as you leave the village.
Less than a mile south of town turn left on Amherst Road and follow this just three miles to the village center of the same name. Amherst, for white settlers, began as a land grant to soldiers that participated in King Phillip's War (1675-78), a war brought to Metacom (aka, "King Phillip"), then the leader of the Wampanoag Confederacy, by selfish puritans among others. An accurate telling of history aside, it's nonetheless fascinating to think that this part of New Hampshire was settled by soldiers from so far back in American history. At that time, New England remained a dangerous frontier for both natives and settlers. For an excellent, historically accurate, and unbiased account of the settlement of New England, including wars and other skirmishes, I strongly recommend Mayflower: the story of courage, community, and war, a book by Nathaniel Philbrick.
Amherst has a wonderful central park, with a ring road around it, that is perfect for a short break, especially to take advantage of shade trees if you happen to ride on a warm day. The same park also provides an excellent vantage for capturing images of the park itself with historic buildings in the background. If you're feeling peckish, then I recommend a visit to Moulton's Cafe, on Main Street, they are apparently New Hampshire's original "soup bar" (see their webpage for more details). You'll find plenty more to eat at this location including a handsome menu of fresh sandwiches, baked goods, and groceries. When you're satisfied with your Amherst visit then pick the route back up and continue, just three miles on flat roads, to the last village on the tour.
Hopefully, you'll have some time, before riding the six miles back to downtown Wilton, to drop-into the Union Coffee Company for your favorite espresso-based wake-me-up. They serve an excellent latte in a proper cup, visualize a soup bowl with a handle. Like Peterborough, Milford has a lot to offer the curious traveler. No doubt, if you need something you'll find it somewhere around the central oval (a ring road) found in this busy yet attractive, old New England-styled town. Milford's namesake was a mill, perhaps one of the mills still standing, built close to a ford over the Souhegan River, the same river we encountered not far from the Sky Bridge Cafe, in Wilton. Despite it's size relative to sleepy Amherst, Milford actually separated from Amherst, not vice versa, in 1794. I encourage everyone to visit Milford's Wikipedia page for a more thorough read of this communities rich history. For example, prior to the emancipation proclamation (1863) and the conclusion of the American Civil War (1861-1865), "Milford was a stop on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves".
With whatever gas you have left in the tank, supplemented by a caffeinated beverage from the Union Coffee House, from Milford head north from the ring road across the same bridge you came in on, over the Souhegan River, and turn left, to the west. From here you'll follow the Souhegan on a gently rolling, lightly trafficked, paved road. At the junction of North River and Purgatory Road take note of Fitch's Corner Farm Stand, you may want to return for fresh veggies on your way home. Take a left onto Purgatory Road then take your second right back onto North River Road and enjoy the last few miles back to where you started earlier in the day, downtown Wilton.
If you were able to postpone your inevitable rendezvous with a hearty meal then you really should sample some of Jorge's, the owner of the Sky Bridge Cafe, locally famous paella. And although his espresso machine is modest by industry standards, Jorge's talent for preparing an espresso will nonetheless impress you and your taste buds. Depending on when you arrive to the Sky Bridge you may be able to sit in the shade, outdoors, with your feet up. Regardless of where you land when you step off your bike, be sure to let all that you've accomplished settle-in before you return to your busy life. Once you're back home and drifting-off into a well earned sleep, I anticipate that you'll dream about the hill country of southern New Hampshire; and when you wake, you'll consider plans for your next trip to Wilton for a day or part of a day of exploring the hills, valleys, and villages nearby.
Strava links to other rides in the area from the Lava Monkey,
Native American name translations and other details from Wikipedia,
Souhegan River: Algonquin, "waiting and watching place." Prior to European settlement, salmon, alewives, sturgeon, and eels all migrated to and from the river. The name for this river reflects a time when Native American's sat and waited, with nets across the river, to capture fish. Today, these fisheries are either gone (e.g., Salmon) or greatly diminished (e.g., American Eel),
Merrimack River: Algonquin, "the place of strong current."
Contoocook River: Abenaki, Pennacook Tribe, "place of the river near pines."
Skatutakee Lake: No translation available.
Nabanusit Brook: No translation available.
Wampanoag: "People of the Dawn."
For questions about this tour and any other inquiries please send me an email from my webpage. I'd enjoy corresponding with you.
Summary: Three weeks after finishing first overall at the Salida Big Friggin Loop (10 June), I finished first overall at another Colorado Endurance Series event, the 2017 edition of the Durango Dirty Century (15 July). Both of these first place finishes represented significant additions to my growing list of accomplishments as an amateur, endurance- and ultra-endurance, mountain bike athlete. However, before I had much time to process these victories, luck and my 2015 Niner Bikes Jet 9 RDO with a pimped rear shock from Push Industries delivered one more surprise, a top-10 overall and 1st-place amateur (all ages) finish at the Breck 100 (29 July). Below I recall highlights of my preparation and experiences racing the Durango Dirty Century (DDC) and Breck 100 ultra-endurance events. Heavy rains the night before and during both events resulted in wet, muddy, trail conditions. In previous blog entries (scroll down) you'll find many details about the Salida Big Friggin Loop and other races I participated in during the second half of May and all of June. Looking ahead, by mid-October I'll return to Hamburg, Germany, my winter home, and ride-on until I reach my 10,000 mile year goal, then I'll transition to three months of winter training primarily off the bike. Thank you for following my cycling adventures here and on my Facebook page.
Durango Dirty Century: 15 July 2017
Part of the Colorado Endurance Series, the Durango Dirty Century (DDC) returned to it's classic (full) route in 2017 (15 July) after being snowed-in and rerouted for two consecutive years. The classic DDC route is as difficult as it is majestic. Along the way, the course delivers what may be an optimal dose of everything an ultra-endurance mountain bike junkie might wish for such as a whopping sixty-five miles of single-track including a hike-a-bike ascent of Indian Trail Ridge up to 12,260 feet. Indian Trail Ridge is close to the conclusion of about seven miles of continuous exposure at or above tree-line on the Colorado Trail.
This summer "monsoon rains" have been common place, in reality and discussion, in the mountain towns of Colorado including Aspen, Breckenridge, and Durango. Nonetheless, I was still surprised, as I made my way from Fort Collins, on the Front Range, to Salida, in the Arkansas Valley, two days before the Durango Dirty Century to drive into a wall of water, the so-called "monsoons", at close to 10,000 feet (3048 meters) in Fairplay. Fairplay is the largest township in the famous inter-mountain landscape known as South Park, a high-elevation, palatial, prairie complex between impressive Rocky Mountain vistas including a handful of 14ers, summits above 14,000 feet (4267 meters). Rain is not unusual in Fairplay or elsewhere in the Rockies in high summer but rain that persists including traffic-slowing deluges, from Fairplay all the way to Salida is very unusual. This extensive, atypical, atmospheric disturbance was the first "clue" that the 14th edition of the DDC was going to be exceptionally wet and muddy with all of the consequences you might anticipate including greasy tree roots and gushing streams.
Despite the unusual monsoon rains along US Route 285, once I reached Salida I quickly refocused and settled-in, rains not nearly forgotten but certainly in the background. I took a short ride in the Arkansas Hills adjacent to town, followed by nutrition, a carb dominated dinner, and Tour de France replays brought to me and my friend Andrew by NBC Sports Gold. The next morning I rolled-over to Subculture Cyclery early enough to help reassemble, out-of-doors, the for-sale and for-rental bike fleet, a process made much more efficient by many cooperative hands. At the same time, I was able to convince another friend, also labeled "Andrew" by his parents, to have a look at my whip. Andrew went to work, as he always does, not only fixing the issues I'd detected but also weeding-out a few others that easily could have been my undoing in a long, ultra-endurance, bike race, such as front brake pads worn nearly to the metal. You'd think I'd notice pads that were that worn or at least anticipate, because of accumulated use, their demise, but I'll confess this has happened before so apparently a racer, at least me, is capable of these sorts of egregious oversights.
After the bike fleet was reassembled for all to behold, Andrew unselfishly initiated disassembly and inspection of on my 2015 Jet 9 RDO as he had the day before the Salida Big Friggin' Loop three weeks prior. A few hours later, I rolled-back into the shop after a short, fast, hot lap advised by Andrew to break-in my new bottom bracket. I want to thank Andrew for another exceptional service, and also Jason and Will, co-owners of Subculture Cyclery, and Raphael, mechanic and cycle adventurer extraordinaire, for their patient assistance over the years. It really does take some considerable patience to manage a bike racer, especially one that came into the sport so late in life. My ignorance aside, trips to the valley wouldn't be nearly as fun, social, and efficient without their expert service and friendship. If you're in the valley don't miss the chance to introduce yourself to whomever might be wrenching or just hanging out at Subculture Cyclery. They'll have what you need including advice on where to ride, how fast to ride it, and where to quench your thirst when you're ready to talk about bikes and bike trails rather than ride them.
By about three or four postmeridian (PM), I was, "finally" you might say, on my way to Durango to make final preparations for an early, six antemeridian (AM), race start. Seemingly on cue, as if waiting for my departure, as I was descending into the San Luis Valley only a handful of miles from the Arkansas Valley monsoons returned. They were heavy at times, including electrical storms as I was exiting the valley westward, back into the Rocky Mountains, towards Pagosa Springs, Chimney Rock, and ultimately, Durango, on US Route 160. With two days of heavy rains to add to the mix, my thoughts settled into the implications of a monsoon summer for a course I'd never ridden, the DDC, including 65 miles of remote, rugged, high-elevation, single-track. The rain persisted, with few breaks, all the way to Durango, and the rains continued into the night and the next morning.
As I rolled into a wet Durango, the universe took liberty to advise, as it often does, on my lodging and without much warning I was departing an AirBnB that I'd already paid for in search of an inevitably more expensive, alternative, option. AirBnB has been an excellent way to save money yet still satisfy the conveniences of a warm bed, bathroom, and kitchen the night before a bike race. My luck ran-out in Durango when I walked into more filth than a human being is advised to tolerate, for their good health, especially when it's someone else's filth and that filth has reached the peak of it's crescendo. Perhaps if you lived through the opening stanzas of a filth symphony then a gradual, deceptive, tolerance would be enough to sufficiently soften the grand finale. But in my case, as noted, I arrived when filth had reached filthy and my senses were overwhelmed. I'll leave the details out of this blog other than to say that the state of the toilet bowl was the last (dirty) note that caused me to seek shelter elsewhere. When we're done changing, we're done, and along the way chance rules as much as anything else in our lives, which sums-up how I arrived from a trailer park a few miles outside of Durango to the family owned and operated Siesta Motel on US Route 550 in Durango. I'll say more about the Siesta Motel at the end of this, fairly long it seems, blog entry.
The next day, from the comforts of my ground-level suite, I exited into a wet, partially lit, morning and pedaled a handful of miles to the starting line at Carver Brewing. a brewery and restaurant in downtown Durango. About thirty-five participants made the same journey (maximum allowed for this unsanctioned event is 70 participants). Another 15-20, maybe more, were likely planning to attend but didn't, no doubt dissuaded by so much wet weather. Those that did make their way to Carver's seemed anxious to get moving, perhaps because of the cool morning temperature or anticipation that the next presentation of the 2017 monsoons was soon to make an audible debut. Those assembled signed-in to the system used to log the race start and results, a clip board, pen, and paper. A few minutes after our 6 am start time, still assembled, organizer of the DDC Danny Powers advised the group. Foremost, we'd be finishing at the end of the Colorado Trail (CT) rather than at Carver's Brew House. That would shorten the race by about 6 miles (from 100 to 94), and more importantly, avoid racing through traffic lights. The group rolled-out in neutral fashion at about 6:17 and we were chatty all the way to, about 10 miles away, the ascent of Hermosa Creek, initially paved, then dirt road, then single track.
I felt good on the roll-out, kept my head in the wind, and contributed to the chat. I wasn't sure where the neutral roll-out ended but was feeling restless when we arrived at the turn-off to Hermosa Creek. Two riders followed as I increased my pace, and Danny was just behind them. I maintained my pace to the Hermosa Creek Trailhead where I descended into what seemed like a rain forest including water-laden plants overhanging the trail. By this point, I wasn't able to see anyone behind me and hadn't been for many minutes. The group had no doubt settled into their own discomfort zones. From this point, I wouldn't see another competitor until the short and long loops recombined. Between that intersection and the finish, I overtook a few riders that had chosen the shorter route, which really isn't short by any measure.
I made my first technical mistake on Hermosa Creek as I looked down to confirm a left fork, versus a right, on my GPS without scrubbing much speed. It was a controlled crash, no (new) damage to the bike or body, but enough to slam my right ring finger into the Earth. I'd dislocated that finger a few weeks before at the Fat Tire 40 in Crested Butte so the impact was unfortunate and unpleasant. To my now aching finger, the Hermosa Creek Trail (ascended in the DDC) offered plenty of rocks, all wet, roots, wet too, and many stream crossings. But discomforts aside and my naivete, I'd never ridden this trail, I nonetheless enjoyed the eighteen miles of single track. It was fast, flowy, and scenic despite the climbing as I ascended the Hermosa Creek drainage.
At the top of the trail, the upper trailhead, I was greeted by a group of three friendly lads on mountain bikes. They offered me water and anything else they had. I obliged the water and they kindly accepted my empty gel wrappers. From the upper trailhead the route continued on a fine, graded, dirt road for a few miles before transitioning to rough jeep road and a steep ascent, including switchbacks, to the Colorado Trail. Though for the most part insignificant, the jeep road was nonetheless significant for me because I had, wrongly, assumed that the road up to the CT would represent a break, an easing up, after the Hermosa Creek Trail. The jeep trail section would take it's share of my endurance for the day before I arrived to the CT. Fortunately, for my ambitions for the day, as I climbed this section I had excellent views behind me and did not see another bike and rider. Part way up, I stopped a vehicle to ask for a cable tie, I'd broken the mount for my Garmin Edge 520 when I crashed on the Hermosa Creek Trail. A few minutes later I had what I needed and rode on.
The initial section of the Colorado Trail and the few miles that follow give little indication of the challenges that await on this section of the course. In total, the Colorado Trail section of the DDC is a whopping 50 miles of single track. However, even if you were familiar with what was ahead, no doubt as a mountain biker you'd be celebrating being off the steep jeep trail where the sounds of ATVs and other motorized vehicles are not uncommon. With no experience with what lay ahead, I rode on under the trees, occasionally climbing, often descending. I felt good and so far the weather had been brilliant. The ride from downtown Durango to the CT had taken me about four hours. What remained, in hindsight, was over seven hours of mountain biking to the finish.
Eventually the CT ascends to tree-line and then maintains this elevation, or higher, for many miles. There really isn't any shelter and there are few exit points, such as a jeep trail to quickly descend. As I made my way along the ridges between forest patches the skies transformed and soon rain fell in showers, but never deluged, I was lucky in contrast to others that raced with me in the 2017 edition of the DDC. I was also lucky because I avoided close proximity to lightening strikes, something else some of my competitors experienced. The worst scenario for me unfolded as I ascended Indian Trail Ridge. The thunder shook the bedrock under my cleats. I made as much haste as possible as I hiked my bike, often pushing it seemingly above my head because of the steepness of the trail. This was the last of about four high points along the most exposed sections of the Colorado Trail.
On any other day other than a race day, the CT portion of the race would be an inspiration to absorb as much of the landscape as possible. The views, even amidst a developing afternoon monsoon and a racing priority, were among the very best that I've had the privilege to stock pile from 46 years of living. The trail is at times technical, especially the descent down to Kennebec Pass, but for the most part rideable and at a good pace other than short, steep, final ascents of the high points that I mentioned. For those summit approaches everyone will have to use their shoes. And regarding the descent off of Indian Trail Ridge to Kennebec Pass, I'd advise caution here, for most of us there is a section that will always be unrideable even on our most confident days.
After that sketchy descent, made even more so by fresh rains, I remounted my bike and sped down to the lake level. Given what I'd already ridden that day, this section of the course should have presented no serious threats. But perhaps that's when we, as bike riders, are at our most vulnerable, when we allow ourselves a moment to relax, to take a breath. That's what I was doing when I allowed my front wheel to roll onto what seemed like just another muddy patch in the trail. However, this muddy patch had depth and soon I was crashing into the back-side of a trench and flying at race speed over my handlebars towards the ground. The impact shattered the otherwise calm space that my right ring finger had descended into, and sent a shock through my body that took many miles to subside. But worst of all, two rocks pealed open my left knee with the efficiency, and effect, of a cheese grader on a block of soft cheese. I was left with two significant chunks of meat hanging off my knee. I tried to remove them in my pain haze, but they proved to be rubbery, not something you could easily tear off. I quickly gave up, remounted, and swore my way to a happier place. However, I was soon at the second aid station, aid stations are unusual for self-supported events like the DDC but welcomed. My head was still spinning from the crash as I made contact with the generous soul offering water and food, I chose to ride-on without stopping, made a wrong turn, quickly recovered, before swearing to the open spaces (not anyone or anything in particular) my way past the same person. My guess is they weren't impressed, I'm not either in hindsight. For me, it was an unfortunate coincidence to have contact so soon after a hard fall. A few miles down the trail, after I'd eaten an Organic Honey Stinger Waffle, I was feeling better, well enough to resume my focus on the trail and the race.
What remained of the CT was extensive, I had to go very deep to maintain even a moderate pace, not really a race pace by this point, all the way to what seemed like a descent that would never come. Between were countless more wet stones and roots, dozens of stream crossings, steep off camber scree fields high-up on massive summits, tight trees to navigate, and climbs that led to more climbs and those to still more climbs. It was a tour-de-force of a challenge, the body was deep in the pain cave for miles that stretched to nearly twelve hours. In previous editions of the DDC the course has been ridden (annihilated) in just under 10 hours, the record pace set a few years ago. However, in the conditions leading-up to and that prevailed during the race, ten hours seems an unlikely, perhaps unreachable, conclusion even for the fastest, freakish, ultra-endurance racers.
My hope was to finish in under 11 hours, instead I had to settle for 11 hrs and 43 minutes. And keep in mind this does not include the ride into town, another ca. 10-15 minutes. Add those additional minutes and I'm a 12-hour finisher, well behind the top-times from previous DDCs. However, if I re-consider the weather before and during and compare the finish times of my nearest competitors, including a few with many years of experience riding in Durango, my time was perhaps very good given course conditions and other variables. Among the 'other variables', the 2017 DDC was my first experience ridding any of the course. But analyses aside, I'm thrilled with my time and my place. Even more so, I'm thrilled that I took the advice of Ben Parman, teammate and friend, to sign-up for the Durango Dirty Century. It delivered so much in such a short window of time. My reflection will continue and will never completely subside, I'm guessing, until I return to the Planet Earth that made me.
With a knee that looked like a botched surgery, I eventually found my way back to the Siesta Motel where Larry and Marlene, second generation owners and operators, were smiling as they greeted their far-flung visitor. The night before, Larry had generously given me the last room for a discount, after tax, just 88 dollars - a fantastic price for busy, overbooked, Durango. And that price included three beds, a full kitchen, and palatial living- and bath-rooms. Upon rolling back into their company, I discovered that their units were completely booked and I'd failed to realize how much I'd need a room on this night. It's a long story, briefly I had friends visiting Colorado from Florida and they were staying in nearby, up the million dollar highway, Ouray. The thought of camping on a floor in their tight cabin was enough for me to inquire about staying another night with Larry and Marlene. As my leg continued to bleed, I was greeted by one of Larry's guests, briefly again because this story has already trickled on and on, she offered to let me stay with her and her traveling companion in room #6, the same room I had the night before. And so, after some assessment, and meeting her roommate, I accepted. An hour later, following recovery food, a shower, and bandaging, I was on my way to the post-race social at Carver's Brew House.
I want to thank all of the strangers, including my competitors but especially my hosts on this second night, for their kindness. They contributed to a story that was as unexpected and eventful as a day spent in Alice's wonderland.
Breck 100: 29 July 2017
Despite how much time has passed it's still my intention to capture my experience from the race in a short blog entry. In the meantime, here's what Josh Tostado, the legend, had to say about his twelfth experience racing the Breck 100, "Usually I am crushed by this race but this year the race teamed-up with mother nature for the ultimate double-team. Every person that crossed the finish line on that day was a hard ass in my book, and this edition of the race will go down as the hardest so far". For more details about the 2017 Breck 100 check-out Josh's blog page at www.joshtostado.com.
Summary: In this three-part blog-entry I recall my pre- and post-racing experiences at the 2017 editions of the Original Growler (Gunnison, Colorado), Salida Big Friggin Loop (Salida and Buena Vista, Colorado), and the Fat Tire 40 (Crested Butte, Colorado). I also share my motivations for entering the Fat Tire 40, a chance to race amidst an exceptional outdoor community with an exceptional mountain biking history and also very close to a community with the same priorities just down the hill in Gunnison, Colorado. Highlights include a first place finish overall in the ultra-endurance Salida Big Friggin Loop!
ORIGINAL GROWLER: 28 May 2017, Gunnison, Colorado
For the 2017 edition of the Original Growler, half (32 mile) and full (64 mile) routes, Gunnison Trails introduced a new course with even more single track than years before at the expense of (mostly dirt) road sections. Single-track has never been in short supply in this race. The addition of even more, including the technical, rocky, Graceland Trails, ensured that the experience would leave a long-lasting, positive, impression even among the most experienced participants.
I had a productive week leading-up to the event, as far as race prep on and off my Niner Bikes Jet 9 RDO. As in the past, this year I was registered for the Full Growler, about 64 miles of racing at Hartman Rock's Recreation Area, scheduled for 28 May. Prep encompassed three days in Gunnison including a visit with a friend, KAO Dave, at the clean, green, and friendly, Gunnison KOA. On the first full day, I rode the entire course (two laps) at (mostly) endurance pace starting from the main parking area at Hartman Rocks. The following day I used my 2002 Toyota Tacoma to access convenient entry-points to session the three most difficult sections of the course along Skull Pass, Josie's, and Rattlesnake Trails. No doubt, training and living at elevation for three days in Gunnison (7700 feet, 2350 meters) was beneficial. And rather than return to Fort Collins after my pre-ride / session work, I instead accommodated additional high-elevation acclimatization by staying in Salida (7100 feet, 2165 meters) for five days prior to the race.
Saturday, about mid-day, I returned via Monarch Pass to Gunnison from Salida. I want to thank two friends for their support, Andrew Mackie (Executive Director, Central Colorado Conservancy) for allowing me to camp-out in his living room from Monday-Friday and runner extraordinaire Ellen Silva for crewing for me on short notice including a quick visit on Saturday to transfer bottles, food, and strategy. Ellen was in town to crew for her freakishly fast (aka, "pro") boyfriend that was also competing in the Full Growler. She was very generous to wait close to 30 minutes for me to finish after her primary responsibility crossed the line, he finished 5th overall by the way, legit.
A neutral start from town got underway, following a Leadville 100-style shotgun blast, at 7 AM, Sunday morning. Just before the gun went off the pros, among others, were shedding arm warmers and vests. It's noteworthy, based on my experience, that some of these very experienced racers were visibly shaking because of the morning temperature, reportedly 30 F (-1 C) or possibly even cooler, at least one report suggested 28 F. A few degrees aside, it was certainly a cold start even for late May in Gunnison, Colorado. Unlike my neighbors on the starting line, I retained my arm warmers and vest, ultimately I was able to hand-up my vest to a volunteer as I exited Skull Pass on lap one. I held onto the arm warmers to the finish, so often I forget to ditch them when I have the chance, such as when I stopped briefly to resupply water from Ellen before starting lap two.
I felt good on the roll-out and stayed close to the police escort, just one bike between me and the bumper, close enough to the elite racers that I was able to listen-in on their conversation, a privilege that I wasn't able to retain for long. When the group reached the right turn onto the dirt at Hartman Rocks I was quickly dropped by the top fifteen or so riders as they raced towards the base of Kill Hill. With an average and max grade of 8% and 22%, respectively, Kill Hill is an effective obstruction for spreading-out the pack. At the top of Kill Hill, the race continued for about 1.5 miles on deeply rutted jeep road before descending onto the first section of single-track, Josho's Trail.
My ascent up Kill Hill was slower than my race performances in both 2015 and 2016, 4:34 min:sec versus 4:16 and 4:12, respectively. I didn't feel bad, it's possible I wasn't as warmed-up as years past, perhaps because I've become more efficient at staying out of the wind in a peloton. Despite my slower time up Kill Hill, on the fire road I passed far more than passed me. This set me up, at the intersection with Josho's, to descend onto the single-track with a comfortable space ahead and behind. However, I quickly rolled-up on a group of about five riders as we started the first single-track ascent. No doubt I lost some time getting around these initial riders, perhaps enough to decide my race fate, the 1 minute 24 seconds that I would eventually concede when I rolled over the finish line in 2nd place among 40-49 amateur males (geared).
Traffic aside, as I descended and then ascended Josho's, I settled-into an uncomfortable, endurance-tempo pace that I knew I could sustain for many hours with sufficient food and water. Whether or not that pace was faster or slower than previous years is difficult to say, perhaps impossible. My gut suggests I was slightly behind my pace from 2016 and possibly 2015, consistent with my times and overall placement (14th, 17th, 21st overall in 2015, 2016, 2017). Considering I lived for six months over the winter at sea-level, my performance even at the end of May was probably still being affected by an incomplete acclimatization to high elevation (ca. above 7000 feet). But living preferences and acclimatization aside, for the most part I felt strong throughout the race and for that I'm grateful. I'm also grateful that I pedaled away from a high-speed crash that I experienced on the descent of Skull Pass (lap two).
On lap two, following a fast descent (only 9 seconds off my PR) of the Graceland Trails, I rolled-up on the wheel of a racer, Andrew Feeney, that would ultimately finish three places ahead of me overall (inside of the top 20). More significantly, before reaching the finish line he'd pass two racers from my age class, one pro, and one amateur, the amateur would finish #1 in the male 40-49 class, which was my goal for the day consistent with my first place, age 40-49 (amateur, geared), finishes in 2015 and 2016. It's always easy, in hindsight, to question what you "should have" and "could have" done, in a race or any other situation that comes to mind. But as all of us eventually learn, as we age, perhaps supplemented by the fabulous book Stumbling on Happiness (2006) by Daniel Gilbert, "should have" and "could have" thinking is replete with pitfalls and misconceptions.
Respecting these caveats, I nonetheless cannot help concluding that I wish I'd dug deeper. Over the roughly four miles that remained in the 64 mile endurance challenge, I wonder, looking back, if I had the resources to take back what remained of the four minutes that Wesley Sandoval, #1 finisher in my age class, had taken from me on lap one, and then a bit more. Instead, I watched as Andrew rode away from my wheel shortly after we connected to a short piece of jeep road. As I topped the next hill, by this point on my own, I watched Andrew approach two racers as all three approached the single-track known as Top of the World. Based on finish times, Andrew likely passed them on that section or as he climbed The Ridge. In 2015, unknowingly, I passed my last age 40-49 competitor during lap two on The Ridge, and subsequently crossed the finish line 36 seconds ahead of that individual. My fate was different in 2017, 1 min 24 seconds off the back of Wesley, but that's racing, and #2, despite being the "first loser" as my former coach Alex Hagman once joked, is certainly something to celebrate!
SALIDA BIG FRIGGIN LOOP: 10 June 2017, Salida, Colorado
There's a lot that's tough about the self-supported (no aid stations, no course markings, etc) Salida Big Friggin Loop (SBFL). An event, like many others (perhaps all) from the Colorado Endurance Series, that's been described as ultra-endurance. As this implies, the SBFL is considered a step above, i.e., harder than, events that fall under the endurance category including the popular Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. But rumors and opinions aside, whether or not the SBFL is "ultra-" versus within the "normal" range of endurance-style brutal is probably best decided by a participant that's competed in both events. That's what I signed-up for in 2016 (both events), in 2017 I returned to the SBFL (but not the Leadville 100) for a second time with a goal to win the event overall. This would be my first, premeditated attempt, at actually winning a bike race, part of an amazing, personal and athletic journey from 2013-14, "just finish without being run-over"; to 2015-2016, "see if you can win your age class"; to 2017, "lets see if you can win the whole thing!"
In my first rendezvous with the Salida Big Friggin Loop. despite gong off-course for about 21 minutes, I finished 2nd overall just a few seconds ahead of the third place finisher. Ahead of me, by a convincing ca. 45 minute margin, was my good friend and mentor, Ben Parman (aka, "the Parmanator"). In 2017, I wanted to return to the event with the knowledge of the course that I had stock-piled in 2016. I also wanted to deploy a more aggressive, and hopefully effective, water and food strategy. Going into the 2017 race, I felt that if I could keep the air in my tires, stay on course, maintain an uncomfortable endurance-tempo pace throughout, and eat and drink sufficiently, then I had a chance to cross the line first overall.
As far as nutrition, plan and implementation, I consumed an original GU gel (not Roctane, too expensive) or Organic Honey Stinger Waffle every ca. 45 minutes. If my stomach was feeling a little too sweet then I went with the waffle, if it was feeling content, neutral, then I went with the gel. Importantly, I started eating right-away including a gel a few minutes before the neutral roll-out from town. At the 2017 SBFL, I raced for 10 hours and 2 minutes, so that's roughly thirteen feeds, combined gels and waffles. As far as calories consumed, my guess is I ate about nine gels and four waffles (total 13 feeds). GU gels are about 100 calories each, waffles about 140 calories, 9x100 + 4x140 = ca. 1460 calories consumed during the race. As of 2016, I've been using only water, no dissolvable mix of any kind, in my Subculture Cyclery (Salida, CO) bottles.
For hydration, I started with two 26-oz water bottles which were, in hindsight, not enough for the first 50 miles of the race, Salida to Buena Vista, via the Colorado Trail below Mounts Shavano, Antero, and Princeton. The summits of all three of these peaks exceed 14,000 feet, part of a stunning alpine backdrop that rises majestically from the floor of the Arkansas Valley (Collegiate Peaks Wilderness). If, in the future, I line-up at this event for a third time, I'll certainly stash a water bottle somewhere between Mount Shavano and the base of the Mount Princeton climb. I feel that the only mistake I made, as far as hydration, was not stashing a bottle in this section. The two bottles that I carried from Salida were essentially finished by the time I was part-way up the difficult Mount Princeton climb, a paved and dirt road climb that reconnects racers to the Colorado Trail.
Not dehydrated but definitely parched, I was finally able to resupply water at the local tennis courts east of downtown Buena Vista (BV). In roughly two minutes, I drank 20 ounces or more and then refilled my two 26-oz bottles. From here, I ascended to Trout Creek Pass, about mile 68 on the course, before descending to my first, 24-oz, water stash roughly two miles away. The day before the race, as I'd done in 2016, I spent some time stashing water on the back-40 miles of the race course. After a longer descent and some climbing, roughly twelve miles from Trout Creek Pass, I arrived to my main stash, two bottles + six original GU gels stuffed into a water bottle. Much later, at about mile 98 out of 108, I picked up my last 26-oz bottle before the final, significant, dirt road climb. Because of that last 26-oz stash, I had access to water during the hottest part of the day as I navigated (up and down) about 10 miles of single-track through the Arkansas Hills, eventually to the same location in downtown Salida where the race started at 6:30 in the morning, Cafe Dawn.
The neutral roll-out (not enforced but generally followed) ends when the pavement turns to dirt whilst ascending from Salida to about 10,000 feet on the slopes of Mount Shavano. Unlike 2016, I decided to keep this section of the race reasonable, not going too deep, but at the same time trying to keep the fastest riders within sight all the way to Blank's Cabin, the start of the Colorado Trail section. I met my goal and felt good on the climb. When I reached Blank's I entered the woods among the top four or five. Subsequently, I was quickly caught and passed before a significant hike-a-bike on a rocky, loose, and steep ascent. But at the top, I quickly regained that difference and rode on to the next wheel. I was probably a little too hot on the throttle after that ascent, but in hindsight I must not have gone too deep either because of how well I was able to maintain my pace late in the race. I caught the lead rider well before the descent into the Mount Princeton Valley, Part-way up the asphalt section of the Mt. Princeton climb the same rider came into view below, but I'd see him for the last time as I approached the Colorado Trail on the upper slopes of Mount Princeton.
Throughout the day, even as I was approaching the finish line at Cafe Dawn, I was looking over my shoulder. Many miles before the finish, a look over my shoulder at Chubb Park, not far from the famous South Park, gave me a lot of encouragement towards the conclusion that I might be far ahead, perhaps enough to hold onto the win. Nonetheless, I remained vigilant and on the pedals throughout the day.
Because of careful planning, food and hydration, and perhaps backing-off on the opening climb, I suffered much less along Aspen Ridge, ca. miles 94-98, than in 2016 when I was barely able to rotate my pedals on what seemed like endless climbs and far-too-short descents between. For sure, I was hurting in 2017 through Aspen Ridge but it was a hurt that I could withstand without descending into mental anguish and a desperately slow, grinding, cadence. Knowing where I was, how much climbing was ahead, etc, was also a huge advantage relative to my previous experience.
At the top of Aspen Ridge, it seemed, based on what I hadn't seen behind me at Chubb Park or elsewhere, that the race was mine to win or lose, all I had to do to achieve the former was maintain a reasonable pace to the finish, enough to stay out front without seriously risking a crash. I wouldn't say I dropped Cottonwood Trail with extreme caution, but I certainly backed-off my fastest pace, especially when approaching rocks that could have easily been my tires undoing. Following that descent, a section that I enjoyed despite how many miles I'd raced that day, I rolled-out of the Arkansas Hills to the palatial view of the Arkansas Valley, Arkansas River, and Salida, below. Soon thereafter, I crossed the train tracks adjacent to town, navigated a fence opening, crossed the F-Street bridge, made a right, and finally, dodged traffic at the last street crossing before rolling to the finish.
When I began bike racing back in April 2013, three years after I'd purchased an entry-level mountain bike, my first bicycle since I was about 16 years old, I did not anticipate that I'd eventually find my way to bike racing, doing well as a bike racer, and certainly not winning an ultra-endurance mountain bike event. I'm grateful that chance navigated my journey to cycling and all that the sport has taught me along the way. No doubt, no matter what comes or goes in my life, a small part of that journey, winning the SBFL overall, will remain a fond and often replayed memory.
Note, I also won (overall) the FoCo 102 earlier this year, so technically the SBFL was my second overall victory as an amateur, endurance, mountain bike racer. Unlike the SBFL, the focus of the FoCo 102 for the majority of competitors is mainly social, hence my decision to focus, as my first win, more on the SBFL than the near-equal in difficulty FoCo 102. All that said, perhaps I should focus more on the 102 as my first victory? Preferences aside, there is no doubt that my overall win at the 2017 edition of the FoCo 102 will remain, like the SBFL, a highlight of my racing accomplishments and as such, a fond memory. I want to thank Road 34 for developing, organizing, and hosting the FoCo 102,
Lastly, I want to encourage any of my readers that might be living in or close to Fort Collins, Colorado, to add the FoCo 102 to their bucket list AND to sign-up for events, such as 40 in the Fort, that will be part of the upcoming, July 21-23, Tooth or Consequences Mountain Bike Festival. Local races are easy to attend, easy on our budget, and most important, they are easy on Planet Earth: far less fuel and other non-renewables are consumed to support our cycling passion when we race locally. Also, if we don't support our local events then those will eventually go away, a sad conclusion. Go online and sign-up today, and tell your friends to do the same. I'll see you out there.
FAT TIRE 40: 24 June, Crested Butte, Colorado
Crested Butte, Colorado, widely known for epic, high-alpine scenery, is equally well known for it's mountain biking community, including a very accomplished cohort of pro and elite-amateur racers. And not too far away, a few miles down hill on the only paved road that joins the two celebrated mountain towns, Gunnison is home to an equally respected community of mountain bikers that fill the spectrum from social to high-octane rockets.
Early in my mountain biking adventures, well before I initiated training and racing, a friend, Phil Street, generously invited me to visit him in Crested Butte. That was my first visit to the extraordinary backdrops surrounding the town, often referred to as simply "CB". Pretty quick, I was hooked on the views and what I sensed were the priorities of the town, which seemed to favor proximity to nature and outdoor recreation as a good life's highest priorities. Of course, if you favor both then you will likely be very good, given hours of practice, at whatever sport(s) you favor. When mountain biking came into being, in ca. the 1970's, Crested Butte and nearby Gunnison, where people share the same priorities, quickly developed and expanded the sport (Crested Butte may even be the origin of the sport itself, more details). Eventually, both towns would become famous for their feats on mountain bikes, both professional and amateur.
Before I departed CB on that initial trip, Phil led me on two rides from town. Despite my pace, well off his wheel most of the time, Phil encouraged me throughout. From CB we traveled down to Gunnison, spent a day riding at Hartman Rocks, where I would years later win my age class for the first time as an amateur, and then drove out to Fruita and Loma for more mountain biking adventures. The whole trip was a breathtaking eye-opener to the scenic splendor of Colorado and areas regarded as some of the very best in the United States for mountain biking. I took it all in, cherished it, and dreamed about the future including returning to Crested Butte.
Years later, as I improved as a racer and interacted more with the mountain biking community, I found myself thinking about what it would mean to me to race amidst the communities of cyclists that I'd come to respect, starting from those initial trips with Phillip, in the highest regard. Early-on, I satisfied that curiosity, in part, by competing in the Original Growler in Gunnison, Colorado, for the first time in 2014; and then returning to the Growler in 2015 and 2016, both years I finished first among age 40-49, amateur, competitors (geared). As these details reveal, I accomplished my wish to compete in Gunnison early in my racing career. Along the way, each time I returned to Gunnison, I remembered my similar bucket-list dream to race among the elite up the hill, in nearby Crested Butte.
One week before the event was scheduled to start, a teammate mentioned that she was planning to attend the Fat Tire 40 in Crested Butte, part of Crested Butte Bike Week, and she thought that I should come along and throw-down amidst the local and visiting, elite-amateur, mountain bikers. I don't usually race events as short as 40 miles, more typically I favor (and my finish placements do as well) much longer events (65-100 miles). But this was CB and I was eager, as I outlined above, to take part in an event in that valley. My schedule also was open on this weekend (June 24th), that too contributed to what happened next, a hasty decision, all in a day, to sign-up!
A comfortable 8 am start and neutral roll-out opened the 2017 edition of the Fat Tire 40. So comfortable that I was even able to weigh-in on a conversation with the fastest guys in the race, including number two finisher of the day Bryan Dillon, USA Pro Team Topeak-Ergon. As I'd done earlier in the year at the Growler, I stayed within the top few racers directly behind the neutral pace vehicle, that is until the car pulled-away and the pro and nearly-a-pro group increased their pace. Following that surge, I dropped, very quickly, to about mid-pack. Along the way, I tried not to think too much about it. Instead, I tried to focus on smooth, efficient, pedaling. Before the race transitioned from pavement to single-track, by now within Mount Crested Butte above CB, I'd made up some ground including a last minute 3-person pass just before my tires made contact with the dirt.
By the way, for this event I used the same tires (by now the rear showed significant wear) as the SBFL, Vittoria Saguaro 2.20 front and rear. Overall, I was impressed by their performance in both events, the non-aggressive tread pattern provided noticeably more grip than the tire I traditionally use for training and racing on dirt, Specialized Fast Trak Control 2.1-2.2. However, I'm not convinced that either tire is what I'll commit to moving forward. For the 15 July 2017 edition of the Durango Dirty Century, I'll be rolling with a Maxxis 2.2 Ikon EXO (rear) and 2.2 Ardent Race EXO (front).
When racing in a valley with the reputation of CB, no one should be surprised when the trail gets technical. Right away, the opening single-track (Upper Loop to Upper Upper) became festooned with rocks and roots, occasionally broken by short, anaerobic climbs, and longer sections of flow where the aspen trees closed-in and threatened to catch your handlebars. At times like these, when the trail gets technical, I'm fortunate to be from Fort Collins where the trails are often the same. The opening trail allowed me to pass many more competitors. By the time I reached the first section of dirt, I was warmed-up and feeling confident.
From Upper Upper the course transitioned to dirt road for a few miles before connecting to the Strand Hill (dirt) road climb. I settled-in as I monitored riders that were coming from behind, when I needed to I picked-up my pace to maintain the gap. The back-side of Strand Hill is a fast descent on mostly, non-technical, single-track. However, just before the exit above the same road, and nearly the same point, where the Strand Hill climb began, is a narrow, steep, washed-out gully in place of where a trail once descended. When I came face-to-face with this unanticipated gulch I was carrying a lot of speed. I tried to shave some of that whilst redirecting the bikes trajectory towards a deeply entrenched trail between two walls of stone. I'm not sure where I failed, but the next moment I was on my feet, the bike was laying between the walls, and I was focused on my right ring-finger. Somehow I'd dislocated the primary knuckle. Later, a teammate with medical expertise, advised that I might have also broken the finger and damaged a tendon. Back to the trail, I felt that I could ride on. I straightened my handlebars, not quite enough in hindsight, and remounted. For about 10 minutes my finger caused me a lot of pain. But as I approached the ascent that would lead to Deer Creek most of the pain subsided and I was able to refocus on the usual endurance-tempo discomforts.
Most of 20 minutes went by as I climbed the dirt road up to the Deer Creek Trailhead. From that point, another hour passed as I climbed and then descended Deer Creek through what must be one of Colorado's most spectacular, scenic, landscapes. On either side of the trail, wildflowers, dominated by mule's ear and lupine, inspired vast meadows with their colors as they held fast to steep slopes above and below the trail. Above this wildflower extravaganza, in the alpine zone, I could see deep pockets of late season snow interlaced with extensive talus slope and exposed bedrock cliffs. Below a green forest filled the valleys down to pastures and homesteads. In the same view, Crested Butte's namesake rose from the valley floor in majestic fashion. Despite all of this scenery, I managed to stay inside my endurance-tempo pain cave. And the descent down the back-side of Deer Creek was fast and fun (other than when I reached out to catch a slip and smacked my sore finger).
At the bottom of Deer Creek the course returned to gravel, busy Gothic Road. From here, I descended, whenever possible, in the super tuck on my top tube. Along the way I passed at least one more competitor, maybe two. And also, crossed paths briefly with my NCGR teammate, Bill Bottom. He was kindly hauling water bottles up for friends and teammates. Unfortunately, I passed him (opposite directions) with such haste that I missed the chance to get a bottle.
At the base of Mount Crested Butte the course returned to single track, and soon the final ascent before the final drop back to Crested Butte and a short road section into town. More than anywhere else on the course, I suffered on the Lower and Upper Meander climbs. I had gone into this race carrying a margin of fatigue more than I would have wanted, ideally, and I think that margin began to take affect on this climb. Nonetheless, I eventually climbed over the top, under idle ski lifts, and began the descent. Right away, my next competitor was directly ahead of me, but as I opened my suspension my rear tire suddenly deflated.
As we often do in a race, I tried to ignore my fate, and rolled on for about a minute before stopping to assess the damage. I wasn't carrying CO2 cartridges, only an exceptional hand pump from Lezyne Engineered Design. After searching for a side-wall tear, I didn't find one, I went to work partially re-inflating the tire. Unfortunately, that initial re-inflate didn't last long and I was off the bike a second time, swearing a bit, and trying once more to re-inflate without installing a tube. This one held, not completely but enough to get me to the finish line. At this point in the race, the final miles, it's a pity that I had to stop twice and, in between, shave so much speed to avoid damaging my rear hoop, I think I could have passed, certainly one, and maybe even a couple more competitors on that descent and ride to town. I was feeling good and my descending instincts were firing efficiently after the opening 35 miles of racing in technical terrain.
Of course, it could have been much worse, not only the tire incident but also my high-speed crash. So for these reasons, I'm grateful that I even finished, let alone in first place overall among amateurs aged 40-49. Even better perhaps, I finished second among all amateurs and just six minutes off the wheel of the first place amateur finisher. Adding to my accomplishments, I was 19th overall out of 122 including the freakishly fast pros. Getting back to my early experiences and bucket lists, racing in the Fat Tire 40 delivered what I'd anticipated all along, a very special day of racing, a fond memory, and plenty of inspiration for the future; a mangled finger, deflated tire, and other mishaps withstanding, it's all part of the process and part of racing.
In this blog entry, I open with a recap of the social journey from Fort Collins to Cortez, Colorado, on a plush bus, operated by Lea Angell, with about fourteen teammates that were also competing in 12-hrs of Mesa Verde. The paragraphs that follow delve into, what I believe now, was an inevitable part of becoming a stronger, smarter, athlete. I've done my best to describe, in words, what I believe happened before and after my psychological melt-down during lap six, about nine hours into the 12-hr race. In my next blog entry, I'll return to the positive side of racing and training as I share my post-12-hr experiences including many podium finishes added to my amateur palmarès.
Northern Colorado Grassroots Riders (NCGR) has developed a tradition, in recent years, of opening our social and racing season with attendance at 12-hrs of Mesa Verde, a popular and well organized event held annually at Phil's World just outside of Cortez, Colorado, in early May. And for the last two years running, we've upped-the-ante by renting a plush, retro, touring bus from driver, owner, and adventurer extraordinaire Lea Angell. If you're part of a group that is traveling en mass from a location somewhere in the vicinity of Fort Collins to point(s) somewhere on the periphery of our Front Range Universe then consider getting in touch with Lea about the cost of riding in style, in one of his buses. For mountain bike groups, you can literally pack dozens of bikes on and in this bus and still sit comfortably, with space to spare, in the passenger areas. And in general, rolling with Lea will add measurably to the fun factor ... all you'll need to do is sit back, relax, and enjoy the view such as the stunning, three-hundred-and-sixty degree, Rocky Mountain vistas awaiting lucky travelers that ascend and descend Wolf Creek Pass on the continental divide.
By the time NCGR reached Wolf Creek Pass on day two of our journey from Fort Collins (first night in Alamosa, Colorado), the group, about 15 in total, had already boisterously battled their way through many card games whilst enjoying a few full strength PBRs among other adult beverages. Unlike the previous two years, the weather then and ahead looked fabulous for a 12-hr mountain bike race in the desert adjacent to Mesa Verde National Park. Anticipation and no doubt a few nerves were managed as we made our way to Durango from Wolf Creek Pass and eventually to registration at Kokopelli Bike & Board, in downtown Cortez. If you're in this area and need a part, or a fix, for your whip don't hesitate to drop into Kokopelli, it's an excellent, well stocked and professional, bike shop. After a grocery resupply we backtracked a few miles to the local fairgrounds, ejected every imaginable item from a bus with deep pockets, assembled a small city, went for a short pre-ride, and, as if trained by veteran carnies, were settling-into a freshly cooked taco feast well before dark.
This would be my first year, out of four, entering 12-hrs as a solo rider. In the previous three years, 2014-2016, I was part of a 3-person, male, geared, team. My logic in 2017 was that racing the full 12 hours, as much as possible given cut-offs for the last lap, would be an excellent training opportunity for priority, long-distance, endurance races later in the season including the Gunnison Growler on May 28th. Also, an added cardio bonus, with no teammates to draw straws, riding solo ensured that I would be part of the le mans start at seven am. As in previous years, when I drew the shortest straw, the quarter-mile run from the starting line to my bike, awaiting in a nearby rodeo corral a short distance from a significant pinch point (corral exit), was a very uncomfortable way to start the day but perhaps an excellent way to jump start my engine. This year I was slower than previous efforts, based on numbers of riders that squeezed through the pinch point alongside of me, some on their bikes, some still pushing. But my pace during the run was sufficient to get me through the first important pinch point and out onto the course with the leaders.
Before going through the underpass from the fairgrounds to Phil's World, I passed my friend and teammate, Ben Parman. (aka, "the Parmanator") Nonetheless, Ben and RJ Morris (aka, "R-Jangutan"), another teammate, easily passed me back before or just after, respectively, we reached the single track. As history has often demonstrated, even amidst my best performances, I'm slow to warm-up and as a result slow to start and the 2017 edition of 12-hrs was no exception. Looking ahead, I think this weakness can be explained by an analysis of the structure and intensity of the training I've done over the years, good news given that I can and plan to try a different training recipe in the winter and spring of 2017-18. Perhaps I won't be able to overcome my historically slow start, but based on my own analysis I don't think that I've ever tested that hypothesis with an appropriate, high intensity, training block, or series of graded, low- to mid- to high- intensity blocks. I'm looking forward to seeing what's possible in the next twelve months and perhaps I'll put whatever I've done, by then as far as revised training, to the test as a solo rider at 12-hrs in May 2018. Stay tuned.
Back out on the course, shortly after I lost sight of RJ (the Parmanator was already far ahead of both of us), I settled-into a comfortable race pace for my mind and skills at Phil's World and rode-on through the first lap (ca. 17 miles) on my Niner Bikes Air 9 RDO (race design optimized). I had decided to race my 2014 edition of the Air 9 RDO following the discovery, at the venue, of a crack in the rear carbon hoop laced to my Niner Bikes Jet 9 RDO. As this implies, I'd traveled from FoCo, on the bus, with two bikes rather than one, so clearly I was already thinking "I might", depending on the course, favor racing my nimble hard-tail over my full-squish, somewhat heavier, Jet. I could have risked serious rim and tire failure and rode the Jet, the bike that I would have preferred after my short pre-ride on Friday night, but instead I chose the path of least, mindful, concern and prepared my Air 9 for it's first adventure since the 2016 Leadville Trail 100.
Laps 1-3, about 1 hr 20 min per lap, came and went, for the most part, without any issues. I made mistakes along the way, e.g., slammed by crank arm two or three times which was closer to the Earth than my Jet, the bike I'd ridden most this year on the dirt; but otherwise the Air, my body, the landscape and atmosphere were getting along just fine over these initial ca. 60 miles. Similarly, lap four left few impressions other than by this time I was eating but my stomach seemed to have other priorities. I can't recall for certain what I ate on laps 1-4, but my guess is two gels.
Elsewhere, in my previous blog entry, I described how and why I had been neglecting to eat for the first, roughly, three hours during high intensity training workouts and the only other race I'd competed in prior to 12-hrs in 2017, the FoCo 102. I made the same poor decision, neglected to eat for about three hours, at 12-hrs of Mesa Verde. In particular, see details elsewhere, I was trying to take advantage of a happy stomach over those first few hours because I knew when I started to feed I was going to feel a little ill. However, what I didn't realize, was that by neglecting to eat I was causing my stomach to shrink, imagine a fist, metaphor for my stomach, closing a little more each lap. As this implies, when I finally initiated eating, my stomach was not only off-line but also a pinch-point with serious, inevitable (that's been my experience), implications.
By lap four I was experiencing an unhappy stomach as I tried to force nutrition into my working, endurance and tempo (mostly), efforts. And the same was true on lap five, when I increased intensity in an attempt to catch two of my teammates, the "Parmanator" and Mick McDill, aka "Vanilla Gorilla" on Strava. My first clue that I was closing the gap was provided by the event announcer. As I concluded each lap, he announced my position and roughly how far ahead the next male 40-49 rider was relative to me. From the end of lap four to the end of lap five, his announcements made it clear that I was catching both Mick and Ben, an accomplishment that motivated me then and still impresses me now despite what was yet to come in my experience at 12-hrs.
As I was entering the last handful of miles of lap five, consistent with what I'd learned from the announcer, I started to get glimpses of my teammates. And as I rolled the last 100 meters of the lap, to the barn, I finally caught them. No surprise, if you know either of them, Ben and Mick shouted encouragement even as I closed-in on their enviable ca. top five, male-solo-geared (all ages), places at that point in the race. Both of these gentleman, as the word implies, are worthy of admiration for the talent and sportsmanship that they bring to the sport of mountain biking.
Unfortunately for my athletic ambitions, the high that I felt by catching two of my mountain bike mentors, Ben and Mick, was very short lived. The three of us rolled-out of the staging area more or less as a group, I was the lead bike with Ben behind and soon Mick following. As Mick approached, I shouted-out that I would move over if they wanted to pass, Mick quickly obliged and just as quickly disappeared down the trail ahead. Ben sat-in a few minutes longer, but then he too rolled past and away as if my Specialized Fast-trak Control Series tires had suddenly deflated. This began my descent into a psychological obliteration that three days later I crawled out of and, ca., seven days later recovered from enough to begin sifting through the ashes.
Since initiating my training and racing adventures, in April 2013, this would be, in hindsight, my farthest fall into the depths of internally motivated, psychological, sport-associated, annihilation. Unfortunately, for the first 72 hours, despite for the most part keeping a strong disapproval of myself and my performance just barely under the surface, I stated on my webpage and on Strava that I had, in my words, "quit" on lap six, even "DNFed" which was not true. Further, I clarified that my decision to quit came-about because of a mind that descended into a state of "failure" after I was dropped by my two, highly respected, teammates. I deeply regret making those pronouncements on social media, because my analysis at that time was as flawed as my response; and because Mick and Ben, as friends and teammates, deserved much better. They deserved the respect, e.g., that they unselfishly offered to me as I caught-up to them at the end of lap five.
Mindful, as I am, about the significance of "annihilation" and "obliteration", among other adjectives and phrases that I used, above, to describe my state-of-mind, I want to clarify, as best I can, how this could be so to the extent that I'm proposing. I've been thinking a lot over the last few weeks about what happened and based on that analysis I believe that the conclusion for "what" happened is actually (obviously, by now) quite simple: I had failed to supply, leading up-to and during the race, proper nutrition to my mind and body with deleterious consequences, especially the consequences of a made-up reality stubbornly and persistently held onto by a despondent mind. That's what happened, nutritionally, only slightly more complex is "what happened" in regard to my much longer, and much more significant, psychological melt-down.
With the aide of concepts from a book from Steve Peters, The Chimp Paradox, it's now clear to me that my nutritional errors and, importantly, lack of psychological training focused on athletic performance and especially non-performance, allowed my inner chimp to rule, authoritarian-style, for three days. Not surprisingly, my chimp-self abandoned logic (realm of my human-self) and replaced that mode-of-operating with emotional, reality TV sort of drama, mostly internal for which I'm grateful. Without getting into the weeds, this is the truth of what really happened, nutritionally and psychologically, including a brief look at the Science of the mind to help explain how I got to "there" and where I was when I arrived, psychologically.
Beyond these valuable facts is something even more insightful, from my perspective as an athlete with a modest, sport-related, education, that I want to share before I conclude this entry. That something is an insight that I gained through the process of falling, at 12-hrs, into the deep, dark, recesses of my mind and then navigating back to the surface many days later, to my normal state. For the most part, I don't think people endeavoring, at the outset, to compete at a high level, or people such as husbands and spouses looking outside in, consider the extent of the implications of drawing down your bodies nutritional resources, to the extent that training athletes do routinely, that are otherwise critical for normal human function, psychological and physiological.
By "resources" I'm referring to those substances, such as iron for oxygen transport to the suite of electrolytes including magnesium for maintaining water balance (etc), that contribute to metabolic function whether a person is idle or experiencing extreme physical exercise as in a long (time span), endurance, mountain bike race. As humans that normally exist in just this way, in a "normal" physiological space, our experience with extreme lows of critical metabolic resources is zero until, if we ever do, either find ourselves in a starvation situation or else delve into a habit of extreme sport activity. Importantly, how we will respond to these lows, especially lows that affect normal brain function, is anyone's guess given normal variation in humans including relationships, recognized or not, with their inner-chimp. This insight, among other implications, demonstrates that my experience was inevitable, a part of the normal process that is embedded in the extreme sport, athletic, sphere (a multi-dimensional space) from which athletes draw their day-to-day state-of-mind and -performance. What I experienced at 12-hrs was an unpleasant, yet, inevitable part of the process of becoming a mature athlete. Eventually, if you go to extremes, you'll arrive there too, no doubt with regrets, but also with a valuable education for banking and perspective.
Twelve-hours of Mesa Verde, 2017, will always be with me, something that significant never completely dissolves from our vast and complicated network of neurons. However, after a lot of personal reflection and analysis, I'm ready to put the hard lessons, the regrets, behind me in favor of making wiser decisions moving forward. No doubt, like everything else that's been a part of my cycling journey since I impulsed purchase a GT Avalanche in 2010, they'll be surprises including more regrets, but hopefully my evolution as a cyclist will continue to move towards something worthy of friends and mentors like Ben and Mick and many others from the cycling and non-cycling community that have unselfishly helped me in so many ways. The many successes that I've experienced as part of that journey are a reflection of their kindness, patience, and generosity.
Despite a serious crash, resulting in a dislocated and possibly a broken ring finger, and two tire deflation's in the last five miles of the Fat Tire 40 (24 June 2017) in Crested Butte, Colorado, I managed to hold-onto a 1st place age 40-49 and 2nd place overall finish among amateurs. More about this race and others in my next blog entry.
In this entry I talk about how I pimped-up my primary race bike, the 2015 edition of Niner Bikes Jet 9 RDO (race design optimized). The pimping was accomplished with assistance from Brave New Wheel and Push Industries. And the design changes were inspired by features of Niner Bikes latest cross-country racer, the Rocket 9 RDO. After discussing those improvements, I delve into nutritional mistakes that I was making at the onset of racing in the first half of May. I conclude the article with details about the FoCo 102, my successes and near derailment, and a few words about 12-hrs of Mesa Verde. I'll pick-up with the details including the conclusion in my next blog entry.
My Northern Colorado Grassroots teammates have been stocking-up, it seems, on what by now might be accurately described as a platoon of Niner Rocket 9 RDOs since the RKT made its debut in 2016. Along the way, without the ambition to work more hours but instead to spend most of my time riding the bikes that I already owned, I've nonetheless developed a Rocket (RKT) envy. It's not that I don't love my 2015, 5-star build, Jet 9 RDO. I love that bike and all that it does for me whilst climbing and descending. Nonetheless, I feel an inexplicable attraction to the latest cross-country bike from Niner, If you're old enough to recall the original Star Wars films, picture the Millennium Falcon being drawn into the Death Star by a tractor beam (invisible force), that's what's happening each time I get close to the Rocket ... it draws me in ... a little closer. Maybe over the winter I'll find the discipline to work the necessary hours to add the Rocket to my quiver in time for the 2018 racing season.
In the meantime, as this season's racing was approaching, I studied the Rocket and then set-out to implement two of it's design features onto my aged but still crushing Jet 9 RDO. The first was inspired by the envy I felt when I gazed upon and daydreamed about the Sram Eagle 1x12 drivetrain with it's 10-50t cassette, But that envy was, unfortunately, quickly moderated by the (seemingly) unbelievable cost of the Eagle, equivalent to about 1/3rd the price (1350$) of a complete, low high-end, mountain bike. This in effect caused me to hesitate on making the purchase, and I'm glad I did, because thanks to a close friend, Ben Parman (aka, "the Parmanator"), I eventually learned about an alternative that cost just one-third of the price of an Eagle: the e*thirteen 9-46t cassette.
Retailing for about 340$, this cassette integrates seamlessly onto a Sram 1x drivetrain, the model on my Jet pre-dated the Eagle of course. And I suspect the same cassette would bolt seamlessly onto comparable models from Shimano. As I often do these days, I dropped my Jet off at Brave New Wheel in Fort Collins, Colorado; a few hours later Mike Woodard, an expert mechanic with a lengthy and diverse resume, sent me a message that the whip and the new cassette were ready for testing. At this point, I could go on-and-on about my experience before and after, but I'll just keep it simple with these few words: this cassette is a deal changer ... flexible ratios ... top and bottom end ... it'll change any 1x drivetrain into a tour-de-force of racing efficiency. If you have the money to purchase an Eagle then the 10-50t is attractive, but don't underestimate the wee 9-tooth cog at the base of the e-thirteen ... and if you don't, you'll have enough money left-over to cover 1000 dollars worth of race fees, new tires, and 3-2 PBRs from your favorite grocery store. As this implies, quite literally, the e*thirteen puts money in your pocket for the same performance as the much more expensive Eagle.
Second on my short-list of enviable features found on the Rocket was the full-lockout climbing mode integrated into the rear shock. Conveniently, by the time I was contemplating what that would be like, a fully locked-out rear shock, my Fox shock was in need of another rebuild to the extent that all of its modes were getting sloppy. With that in mind, and armed with a few details about what Push Industries might be able to do for me (thanks to insights provided by Mike Woodard at Brave New Wheel), I called up Push in Loveland, Colorado, a town just south of Fort Collins.
Those few details withstanding, I did not anticipate the education hand-up from Push, for pro bono, but that's what I received, starting from that first call, as well as a rebuilt shock comparable to the performance of the full-lockout Rocket feature. Push shaved about 10-20% of the squish off my trail and descending modes, and along the way accomplished my primary request, to make my rear Fox shock essentially lock-out in climbing mode. Like the e*thirteen cassette, this modification to my Jet 9 RDO was also a game changer. In the Salida Big Friggin Loop (SBFL, 10 June) for example, I frequently stood in the pedals on dirt road climbs and powered over the top without any (that I felt) bobbing. Instead, I felt an efficient transfer of power from my body into the bike. This together with being able to click into a 32-9t (front-rear) gear combination on flats / rolling sections could have been the reason why I was able to out-pace the competition and win the SBFL overall.
Armed with a pimped-up Niner Bikes Jet 9 RDO (race design optimized), I entered the 2017 racing season a few weeks before the SBFL, on 6 May 2017, when I socially departed the event hosts location, Road 34 on Elizabeth Street in Fort Collins, Colorado, and sauntered towards the trail-head at Maxwell Natural Area with RJ Morris and Teresa Maria. As this implies, the FoCo 102, also known as "Taint for the Feint" and the "Kick in the Dick", is not a typical "race" as we often think when we enter an event. Instead, it's an event that requires everyone to ride responsibly, at any pace they prefer and can accommodate (responsibly), over the 102 mile course, on trails that are open to general use. This explains why it was a "social" roll-out. At the base of Maxwell, my teammate RJ and I put pressure to the pedals and soon we were pulling away from the groups behind as the sun rose over our left shoulder from the vantage of riding south through Pineridge Natural Area.
The FoCo 102 is broken down into five sections. The first four sections conclude at the same, centrally located, aid station, the fifth and final section concludes back at Road 34 on Elizabeth Street. Here's my race file for all of the details of the course including over 12,000 feet (3660 meters) of vertical elevation gain. Like the Colorado Endurance Series, entries for this event are capped to meet guidelines for unsanctioned events posted by the organizations that manage the trail system in Fort Collins, such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife (Lory State Park). If you want to participate next year then send a request to join the FoCo 102: Taint for the Faint closed group on Facebook where you'll find all of the important announcements.
Other than pimping-up my Jet, foremost on my mind in the opening months of racing in 2017, May and June, has been nutrition, nutrition, and nutrition. You'd think that by now, going into my fifth season of training and racing, I would have nutrition worked-out on and off the bike. If that's your thinking then I hear you, but in fairness I'd argue that nutrition is a moving target at least in the first few years and also, decisions we make in the off season could impact our decisions when we return to 'on', which is certainly true in my case.
In each of the last two years, I've resided 4-6 months in northern Germany, scroll down my blog page for more details of my life in Germany including cycling adventures on my Niner Bikes RLT 9 Steel. On those adventures, I developed a habit of eating whole food, stuff you buy in supermarkets, small shops, bakeries, etc. After literally thousands of off-season miles, this whole or "real" food habit began to creep into my mind and stomachs 'normal' with the effect that when I tried to switch back to high-octane race gels and bars in 2017 (didn't seem to be an issue, the switch back, in 2016), I immediately started to have problems. Initially, I thought okay, I'll just go all whole food. That didn't work either. So then I tried a mixture, that's where I was in the evolution when I rolled-out for the FoCo 102.
However, I also, at that time, May, in anticipation of an unhappy stomach was typically delaying my initial food intake for as much as three hours. I'd ride hard for three hours on the fuel I had on board and then start to eat, as I did at the FoCo 102, and then I'd bear with my unhappy stomach to the finish, occasionally adding food to what seemed was a blocked digestive system. And "blocked" may not be far from the truth. I've since had discussions with a pro-female racer, a friend, from Crested Butte, I gave her the details and she immediately responded with a closed fist ... her metaphor for my stomach after three hours of not eating during a race or a hard workout. Apparently, it shuts-down and even shrinks if you don't occasionally add food as you race. That explains why I felt as if I was stuffing food and water down a blocked pipe with serious consequences, especially at 12-hrs of Mesa Verde, more on that in my next blog entry.
Concluding on the FoCo 102, I felt excellent for the first 5-6 hrs, and not bad up to about 8 hours. That's when a lack of sufficient nutrition began to catch-up with me. By hour 9 (total race time was 10 hrs 24 minutes), I was really starting to lose power and slip into the unhappy mental space that signals the onset of dangerously low metabolic and other nutritional resources your body needs to keep going. About 9.5 hours into the event I was nearly bonking as I rode the technical Foothills Trail. Subsequently, I climbed Shoreline on my last gasp before I fortunately topped-out over Maxwell and rode (essentially) downhill all the way to the finish line at Road 34. I had survived my poor decisions, though just barely, but unfortunately I did not wake-up to the fact that I would inevitably experience at the considerably longer 12-hrs of Mesa Verde as a solo, male, geared competitor.
In my next blog entry, I'll pick-up with what turned-out to be my most significant athletic "mind" failure to date, measured by the depth that I fell. In the meantime, on a positive note, the FoCo 102 was an exciting and historical finish to add to my modest palmarès, wining overall in a bike race for the first time. And my finish at the Growler on 28 May, following Mesa Verde, was also a significant success. In between, as I've come to understand and respect, I faced part of the unavoidable process that occasionally derails athletic (mind and body) progress and temporarily replaces sensible analysis and conclusions with nonsensical emotions championed by our inner chimp. My inner chimp reigned for a week after Mesa, but especially, with regrettable consequences, the first 72 hours following my decision to end my race after lap six. Check-back in the next few days for my next blog entry ... I seem to be on a Jet-Niner roll ... and since it's nearly July, one might say ... it's about time!