Saturday, November 25, 2006

Smugglers' Notch is closed for the winter!

It was as good as it gets in November in Vermont. The temp was in the upper 40s and not a cloud in the sky. I decided to try one more run at VT 108 over Smugglers' Notch before the snow flies, which is usually well before now. This is a 60-mile loop for me; I call it "riding around the block," as all I need to do is take a right turn onto every road that is paved all the way through. I pumped up the sewups on my '82 Richard Sachs, hung a spare tubular under the saddle and headed out just after lunch.

It was a beautiful ride. The route travels aptly-named Pleasant Valley Road, which is one of the best cycling roads anywhere, in my opinion. I noted the sign in Jeffersonville announcing that the Notch is closed for the winter, but hoped that the recent warm weather had left the road passable. I went around the barrier on clear, dry road but a half-mile from the summit the ice started to appear. It's cold up there and where the cliffs shade the road on the north side, there is nothing to melt the ice. The road crew doesn't plow or salt the road once you get pass the barrier at the ski area. At first it was little patches of ice that made the rear wheel break loose with a "VVVT-VVVT" sound. Then it was the precarious slide of the front wheel until it caught pavement again. When there weren't many dry patches left, I decided I should get my cleat out of the pedal. Just in time! the bike shot out from underneath me just as I had my foot free.

I didn't want to turn back, expecting that the south side would be clearer than the north and knowing I wasn't far from the top. It was amazingly slippery in my road shoes; I had to aim for the crunchy spots and the bike didn't want to stay upright at all, even without a rider. As I neared the top, I actually passed another roadie walking his bike the other way! We agreed that the Notch should be considered closed for the winter.

The descent was even trickier than usual. The ice disappeared quickly, but the switchbacks on the south side are covered with clods of dirt that has washed across the road. The annual closing of the road makes it a pedestrian haven. People walking in groups are likely to cross the road right in front of you, not expecting cyclists to come whizzing up from behind. Even more hazardous are the unleashed dogs, who bound up from the brush to rejoin their masters, coming up out of nowhere right in front of you. I had to brake hard three times to avoid these dogs. And then there is the occaisional jerk, always a male, who just has to prove that his 4-wheel drive can still make the road. I so want these dopes to slide into the ditch! How gripping a steering wheel and pushing a gas pedal is supposed to prove to the world that these guys are tough is absolutely beyond me. Read the sign, dope!

It's a minor goal of mine to be one of the last roadies over the Notch as winter sets in and to be one of the first over it in the spring. It's a great ride, and the northern approach should be within the ability of almost any fit cyclist. We even rode our tandem over it this past summer. Give it a try, sometime!

Terrible Mountain on a Track Bike

It was a Friday in early November and I was heading south on I89 on a beautiful day, heading for a full-day meeting in Boston. Hoping that I would have an hour or so of daylight after the meeting, I had tossed my trusty old Raleigh track bike into the back of the car. This bike has tons of stories of its own, but we won't go into them here. Suffice it to say that I have owned this bike since new and rode it enough to actually wear out a frame! Riding this bike taught me the value of a fixed gear bike for city riding; a realization that preceded the current fixation on fixies by decades. Since I would be in fairly flat Boston, I thought that the track bike was the perfect ride to bring along.

I had just crossed the Vermont- New Hampshire border when my cell phone rang. It was the organizer of the event telling me that it had been cancelled, due to a problem with the facility. Since I had already made arrangements for coverage for my classes and there was not time enough to get to school before half of them would be over, I decided to visit a couple of the schools that we support that are located on the east side of the state, instead.

I visited the instructors at Hartford Area Career & Technical Center in White River Junction and the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield, spending a couple of hours at each location. I wrapped up the visits around 1:00 and decided that there was time to get in a hilly loop, even if I didn't have the right bike for it. I drove to Chester and found a pull-off where I could park and change. I sped off on the track bike, hoping to get in about 50 miles before dark.

A track bike is not designed for road use, having a single, fixed gear (no coasting), short wheelbase and no brakes. I had long ago added a front brake and road tires. I also had installed wooden rims to help absorb some of the road shock and vibration that telegraphs through such a tight frame. The frame geometry of this bike is not extreme by today's standards but in the early 1970s, such a tight, 18 lb bike was considered a real screamer. The short wheelbase helps make up for the relatively high single gear ratio (48 x 16, in this case), but it can still be quite a grunt muscling up the really steep stuff.

With the declining daylight, I decided to cut off part of the ride by taking a "shortcut" through Andover. This is always risky when it's a road that you have not traveled before. Andover proved to be at the top of a significant climb, several miles long and steep enough to require an impressive switchback. The pavement was new and the road follows a classic Vermont mountain stream. Everything was fine until just after the switchback when I twisted my foot slightly and heard a SNAP and noticed one cleat was now sloppy in the pedal. I decided that it would be extremely difficult to get started again if I stopped, so I continued to the top of the climb where I stopped to discover that I had broken one of my cleats. Now, that's not such a surprise on a pair of 25-year old shoes with lots of miles, but it still can be a serious problem on a track bike, where good purchase on the pedals is critical. Going down descents means that you have to pedal at a very rapid pace, since you cannot coast or shift to a higher gear. Still, I didn't want to turn back, so I decided to take my chances and continue on the loop.

The descent down to Weston is quite steep, so I worked very hard, resisting the desire of the bike to rocket down the hill by pushing hard backwards on the pedals. You don't back pedal on a track bike like you would on a coaster brake. Instead, you apply backward pressure on the pedals in the same way that you apply forward pressure on a climb. The difference is that it's not as efficient, due to the position of the leg on the power stroke and you use a completely different set of muscles.

Half way down the slope I passed the only other rider I saw that day, who was riding a triple-zoot Trek up the hill. He sure gave me a funny look as I worked so hard pedaling down the hill! Once the slope eased up, I let the speed increase and concentrated on keeping up a high spin without letting the broken cleat slip out of the pedal.

I turned onto VT 100 at Weston and was happily spinning away the miles when I came to the intersection where 100 splits off from VT 155. It suddenly came to me where I was and that I would now have to go over Terrible Mountain before reaching Ludlow. I have strong memories of this climb, having done it many times from the other direction during the classic 100/200 double-century ride. Luckily, the climb from the south approach is shallower than from the north, though many times longer. As the second major climb of the ride, it took a lot of effort to muscle the fixed gear to the eventual summit; then it was another stand on the pedals and work the old Weinmann sidepull brake to control the speed on that nasty descent.

Once in Ludlow I clicked on my flasher, as the light was starting to fade and the traffic had picked up quite a bit. I spun up the pace as I passed VT 131, feeling very sorry that I would run out of light if I turned off on that incredibly beautiful road. If you ever get a chance, ride VT 131 from Ludlow through Cavendish. It is a gorgeous, gradual downhill that follows an incredible trout stream. It's pure joy on two wheels.

I had enough left in the tank to keep the RPMs up as I went over Proctorsville Gulf and down the other side. Once the road leveled off, it was only a few more miles to the pulloff where I had parked the car and I ended the ride just before the daylight started to fade.

The next day, I was stiff, but the second and third days I could hardly walk at all! As I said, the fixed gear uses a whole different set of muscles when going down hills and I had sure abused them. Moderation and training may be the key but still, I am glad to be able to say I've been over Terrible Mountain on a track bike!