Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Solo-Flèche

My journey around the 11 Finger Lakes is now complete. The ride started on Saturday at 4:30am and ended 227 miles and 20,000 ft of climbing later, on Sunday at 1:30am. The distance covered, a little over 360 km, was equivalent to a Flèche. This was no coincidence, as next Friday I will participate in my first official Flèche and I thought it would be good to try the distance on hilly terrain.

There is something very appealing and rewarding in riding long distances. For one I am able to see and hear so much of what nature has to offer. Then there is the gratification of powering your own journey, even through darkness. Yesterday, riding alone for the first time over such a distance, it was also a moment to reflect.

I had carefully planned the route beforehand such that it would comprise of 360 km (225 miles) and many hills. When I finished mapping the route in DeLorme, I was astonished to see 22,000 ft of climbing. At that point I knew it would be a significant challenge. Before posting the ride on my local cycling club's mailing list I had second thoughts. There were several unknowns, including weather. I was fearful that I would not have company during the ride, even part of it. Bill Fischer answered my plead and agreed to ride 175 of 225 miles.

On Friday night I felt ready for what was to come. My bike was prepared and I had a heavy load of provisions, including spare clothes for drastic temperature changes, food, tools and a spare tire and tube. I had trouble getting in bed, but I managed to sleep a good 2-3 hours. Not much. At 3am I was up and at 4:30am I left East Hill Plaza. My journey had just begun.

It was very important to pace myself on this uncharted territory. I knew it would be a long ride, so I decided to climb conservatively, something I find hard to do. As I was halfway up West Hill on R 79 my cell phone rang. It was Bill. He said he was very sick and had been up all night. In spite of these words I still asked "So you're not riding?". It was more of a desperate plea than a question. "No," was the answer. I wished him well and continued my climb. Thoughts of returning lingered in my mind. I had been advised by a much more experience rider not to undertake such a ride on my own. However, the desire was too great.

There was little traffic and I was very much undisturbed on my way towards Watkins Glen, where I arrived at 6am. Not much was to be seen, but I heard a great lot from the birds. They seemed joyful on this cold spring morning. After a long climb on CR 23 and an equivalently lengthy descent I was in the town of Hammondsport, at 7:30am. The Deli I planned to visit was closed, so instead I ate a banana in front of the Deli. After a brief stretch I was back on the road, this time in unknown territory.

I chose Reservoir Hill as the path out of Hammondsport. It is a very nice climb, and worth the effort if your plan is to turn around and head back down. The road soon turned into dirt but was not all that bad. What I did not enjoy at all was the condition of Two Rod Rd. First of all, it was unmarked. I made the turn and about a mile in I had doubts. So I returned and scouted the road where I had been for another mile or so. No intersections. So I hoped for the best and stayed on this unknown road. After an incredibly steep descent on gravel, where I squeezed hard on both brakes, I was relieved to see a sign that matched the name on my cue sheet. I had ridden almost 4 extra miles already.

I was punished by a constant headwind as I moved north on SR 53 through Prattsburg towards Naples. Along this road I reached the highest elevation of the day, 2122 ft. The climbing, not to steep, but everlasting, was rewarded with a very long descent into Naples. Unfortunately, I could not take maximum advantage of gravity because of the wind that was blowing from the North, quite strong. I was 70 miles into the ride (66 according to cue) when I savored my first dose of beef jerky accompanied with a Starbucks "doubleshot energy + coffee" vanilla flavored drink. I also bought a gallon of water that I used to refill my Camelbak and mix with a new batch of Spiz. The remaining water was used to wash some of the dirt and worms off the bike.

I left Naples around 10:30am along CR 36. Just before I left the town, I stopped along curbside to put on my balaclava and change my gloves from the lobster sort to the regular fingered gloves. Following an enjoyable climb out of Naples the cue sheet indicated I should turn on Feather St. About halfway up the climb the road split in two. There were no signs. After a few minutes standing there, thinking of what to do, a pickup came in my direction. I smiled and waved the pickup. It slowed down, the occupants looked at me, and the pickup continued its path down the hill. Oh well, I guess I do not seem that friendly after all.

I decided to take the path that made most sense in terms of direction. After just a few hundred feet the packed dirt was replaced by loose gravel, the kind not meant for a road bike. The road got narrower and I said enough. This was not going to work. A quick study of my cue sheet indicated that after a few turns I would be on CR 36 again. So I retraced my path towards CR 36 and headed north, looking for an intersection with a certain Dutch Hollow Rd. The intersection never came and suddenly there was a lake on my right. Not the lake I had planned for. I was riding along Honeoye Lake instead of Conesus. What had gone wrong? Apparently the CR 36 I thought I was to return to actually resided in a different county. This meant it was a different road altogether. I was frustrated, but decided to continue along this road. Without a map, there was little hope of finding a way to my planned route.

I reached the northern tip of Honeoye Lake after battling the wind for over 10 miles. A new decision had to be made. Where to go? I knew that Conesus was the westernmost of the Finger Lakes, so I followed that direction, reaching the town of Hemlock after 6 miles on US 20A.

In Hemlock I stopped at a convenience store. The parking lot was filled with motorcycles and a different species of biker than I. At the store I bought beef jerky and a croissant sandwich. I asked directions to Conesus and the gentleman working there indicated that all I needed to do was turn on Big Tree Rd on the top of town and that would take me there. He said it was about a 10 minute drive. I was relieved. Outside I sat on the ground and began eating my sandwich. The bikers were leaving. A boy with a rottweiler approached me. The dog was almost as big as the boy and the leash meant little to me. I was assured the dog did not bite as it sniffed my face. At least my sandwich was safe in my stomach. Tyson was his name and we spoke for a couple of minutes. I did not understand much of what he said to be honest. He was nice and talkative.

I cruised past Livonia on my way to Lakeville on the northern end of Conesus Lake. Along the way I was impressed to see snow still lying around. When I reached my destination I was pleasantly surprised by a curious coincidence. The mileage on my cyclocomputer matched that of my cue sheet within a tenth of a mile, in spite of the utterly different path I had taken. That meant all I needed to do was follow the cue sheet from that point on and the detour would not have long lasting effects. It was time to savor a Chicken Parm Sub at Vincenzo's Pizzeria. I took my time at this stop, arriving at 12:40pm and leaving around 1:30pm. The plan was to stop again at mile 150. I was at mile 99.

It was a good feeling to have the cue sheet again. I also enjoyed the flat terrain alongside the lake as I rode its eastern shore. Conesus Lake has been stricken with viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), responsible for die-offs of many species in the contiguous Great Lakes. More on this can be found here. Every July 3 the Conesus Lake Association also sponsors an event called the "Ring of Fire," where fireworks and flares are lit along the lake's entire shoreline. It must be a beautiful sight. However, July 3 is still far away, so I left Conesus and rode towards Hemlock Lake.

Hemlock Lake was my favorite sight of the ride. I was surprised to see how preserved it was, not a single home in sight. I did notice at least one very pompous entry to a residence that appeared not be inhabited for a very long time. I almost ventured inside the driveway. Almost. Post-ride research indicates that the city of Rochester began buying property surrounding Hemlock Lake and Canadice Lake in 1872. In 1876 these lakes began to be used as a fresh water supply and by 1947 all the cottages had been purchased, consolidating 7,100 acres of protected area around these two lakes. There is a park on the northern end, where I saw a few couples on romantic getaways.

The sight of the lake was lost during the climb on Bald Hill Rd (SR 15A). I made a stop along the climb to change gear. I stowed my jacket and replaced it with a jersey. I also switched to fingerless gloves. At the top of the climb I was rewarded with the most impressive view of Reynolds Gully and Green Gully. After an exhilarating descent I was riding north on Canadice Lake Rd.

While on the shore of Canadice Lake I saw many parked cars. Signs indicated trails in the watershed. I even crossed with another cyclist pulling a trailer with her child. There were also people fishing. Canadice is the highest and the smallest of the Finger Lakes, a little gem perhaps.

I left the lake towards Honeoye on a double digit grade climb that was about a mile long, on Burch Hill Rd. On the way up I was silent enough not to be even noticed by people doing work on their homes, including some painting and also roof top work. The descent on the other side was wicked and fear of the unknown restrained me from exploiting it as much as I would have liked to.

I was once again on the shore of Honeoye. This time I rode to the northern end of the lake and then turned east, moving south on the opposite shore (East Lake Rd). Unlike its western neighbor Canadice, Honeoye has a densely populated shoreline. Here too the "Ring of Fire" is celebrated every year. At mile 136 the cue sheet indicated a left turn on Wesley Rd. As I made the turn I immediately realized I was at odds with the cue-sheet once again. Another steep climb on loose gravel. I made two unsuccessful attempts before deciding to turn around and continue on East Lake Rd. The white slopes of the Hunt Hollow Ski Club was a welcoming site. I had seen the slopes on my way out of Naples. I knew I would find a way back. Indeed, East Lake Rd took me to CR 36, the same road I had taken on my way up Honeoye many miles earlier.

It was about 5:45pm when I visited Naples for the second time. I was tired and still had over 70 miles of riding. I ate a PB&J sandwich I brought with me and I also had a plum. That was topped off by an additional dose of Starbucks vanilla flavored doubleshot. Another gallon of water was used to mix more Accelerade and Spiz. It was getting colder outside, so I changed gear once again. I put on my Louis Garneau Massimo jacket and on top of it my Showers Pass Double Century jacket. That would keep me warm. I also made a phone call to my wife. I told her I was slowing down and it would take me a while to get back home. I left Naples after 6:30pm.

The route took me north on SR 245. I missed a turn on Parrish Hill Rd, distracted by the beauty of the sunlight illuminating the slopes of the hill on my right. After a mile of extra riding I began the climb on Parrish Hill followed by Lower Rd. It was a climb on dirt for the most part. Lower Rd was not very well maintained, but still manageable. While on Lower Rd I was offered the most incredible view of Canandaigua Lake. The sun was setting west as I descended on Sliter Hill Rd into the shade of Italy Valley.

I do not remember seeing a single vehicle while I was on Italy Valley Rd (CR 18). I did see deer and other animals. It was quickly getting dark and as soon as I joined SR 364 I made a short stop to put on my reflective sash and turn on my rear blinky lights. Ahead of me my SON20R generator hub provided the juice for my E3 head light. The day faded and by the time I had crossed Amish country into Penn Yann it was night, well past 8pm.

In Pen Yann I stopped for more Starbucks doubleshot. You may notice that when I like something I have no shame in having plenty of it. I still had over 55 miles to go. I made another call to my wife, reassuring her I was fine and would make it home, eventually.

I left Pen Yann on S 14A, which would take me all the way to CR 28 into Watkins Glen. During this 25 mile stretch I was in company only of the stars. The sky was clear and I wish I had studied astronomy. Nonetheless, I did enjoy looking up once in a while, amazed by the beauty of the night. I also made a phone call to a friend, telling him about this epic ride that was still in the making. Before arriving in Watkins I stopped at a gas station for directions. About a mile earlier I had a disagreement with the cue sheet. It had me turning on a road with a "No Outlet" sign. I ventured on the road for a hundred feet or so until it became gravel. No way! I was not going on this route. A customer at the gas station indicated the easiest way to Watkins and that is the one I took.

In Watkins I made a last stop for a vanilla cappuccino and an oatmeal raisin cookie at the APlus convenience store. The cappuccino was delicious and provided just the right amount of warmth. I called my wife for an update. It was 11:30pm when I left Watkins. An impressive moon could be seen on the horizon.

The route I took back to Ithaca went through Montour Falls and then visited Odessa before taking me to Ithaca. The darkness of the night was interrupted by my head light as I cruised along CR 6 and then Enfield Center Rd. I had a bit of a mishap just as I turned on Enfield Center Rd. I was checking my cue-sheet when I rode into a ditch. I hopped out and continued as if nothing had happened. Another interesting incident occurred when a skunk was not very happy to see me moving towards it. I was able to avoid any gland secretions. That would have been a terrible ending to my ride.

The highlight of my ride was the moment I crested on Enfield Center Rd and saw the Ithaca lights in the distance. I knew I had made it home. Sure, I still had to climb East Hill, but I was home. Actually, I also had to climb out of Enfield once I descended. That unforeseen climb was very annoying after 216 miles into the ride. Once I finished the descent on Elm St I made a call to my wife. It was 1:13am of Sunday. The town was buzzing with people leaving bars, probably not the best time to ride your bike around. I took the last climb as slow as they come and I was home at precisely 1:30am, about 21h after I departed the day before.

My wife had filled the bathtub and added Epsom salt. I enjoyed every minute I soaked in there and told her about the wonderful ride I had just completed. We then looked at the pictures I took along the route, not many, but precious to me. I went to bed at around 3am and fell asleep within a minute or so, says my wife.


Kevin T said...

Awesome ride!

Juan PLC Salazar said...

Hi Kevin,

Thanks! You must have wonderful cycling in Alaska. I hope to visit one day. Also, congratulations on the Alaska Randonneurs website. It looks awesome!

Unknown said...

Thanks for all of your lovely ride reports from NYS. I have visited the Finger Lakes since I was a child and ridden a lot of the roads you write about with my adult cycling obsesison.
It is with a heavy heart now that my relative on Keuka Lake recently passed so out times there will be less numerous and pleaseant.
Thanks for reminding me of the beauty of the region!

Melinda Lyon

Juan PLC Salazar said...

Hi Melinda,

Thanks! I'm happy you enjoy the ride reports. It is very rewarding to know that somehow I am able to revive the memories that you have of the region. It was the bike that allowed me to discover all the beauty around here, and it has become an obsession for me as well.