|Evening sky, July 27, with 15 miles remaining.|
"Route 6 runs uncertainly from nowhere to nowhere, scarcely to be followed from one end to the other, except by some devoted eccentric".
-George R. Stewart, author, “Route 40: Cross-Section of America”, on why he did NOT write about Route 6.
On Being Our Own Lighthouse
By RICHARD FRIES
We rate perfect vision as “20-20”. The serendipity of this year being “2020” became appropriate for me when I lost my dream job. Those who know me understand how this past year has been one of adjusting every lens in my life.
Until late June I served as director of cycling experience for the Best Buddies Challenge charity rides. Given the organization’s need to cancel all of its events due to COVID 19 I understood and even endorsed the move. I’ll stay with this fantastic organization as a consultant, but I found myself with some time to reflect on all things in my life. My 60th birthday loomed ahead. Coronavirus has wiped out all events, including those I announce, organize or attend.
|Ashuelot River RT|
This malaise intersected with my certification as a coach and evolution as an endurance athlete. Through my work with charity riders I’ve witnessed and nurtured the transformation of several middle aged folks wrestling with anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity, heart disease and assorted maladies the “fitness industrial complex” fails to remedy.
But those folks are also smart and successful. I challenge them to question everything I teach. Employing this Socratic method I in turn am forced to learn.
Working with power, heart rate, cadence and a gifted coach, Aidan Charles, I sharpened up my knowledge base. I wanted to continue racing road, gravel and cyclo-cross. But I also heard the siren of such semi-competitive adventure races as the Silk Road Mountain Race, Cape Epic, Paris-Brest-Paris and other exotic challenges.
With all events cancelled we all lost our bearing. All these charity riders bobbed about the harbor without a compass or clue on what to do.
So I chose to be the lighthouse.
I wanted to do something big and bold that would garner the attention of those charity riders, raise some awareness and funds for Best Buddies, and explore the outer limits of my knowledge and experience as a cyclist. And I had to do this within public health guidelines.
Of note is that I did not come up with some form of an “exercise” regimen that fit around my “real” life tasks. Whereas I would typically devote about 20-30 dates to assorted weekend cycling events and adventures I needed to be creative, stay in the Northeast, and ride with just a few closely screened riders in my “bubble” of exposure. I chose to cluster a summer’s worth of cycling - seven long rides - into a intensive two-week span.
There would be just two pieces of connective tissue between these adventures: the bicycle, and Route 6. Planners initially created this as a New England route between the tip of Cape Cod and the New York state line. After 1925 it would be extended nationwide until ultimately reaching Long Beach, California, making it the longest highway in America at the time.
While I would discover tremendous byways and pathways and gravel roads, I would inadvertently braid these rides along the Route 6 corridor.
Nobody writes songs or books about this road. Not Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan nor Bobby Troup would tell of getting their “kicks” along Route 6. Like this writer, Route 6 is a celebration of all things minor league and aged. Providence, Hartford, Scranton….Denver is its lone major league destination. While the chamois sniffers who flock to such locations as Mallorca or Tuscany would never replicate this ride, true cyclists can draw cultural nourishment from just about anywhere...If folks can get teary eyed about gritty Belgian locales, these rides offered just as fragrant bouquets.
Below is a curious description of one fast and furious triumph in a single day followed a slow and futile odyssey over five days. I loved both.
|Provincetown, post ride|
Inspiration: Wyatt Ketchell
We devoted our ride to two-year old Wyatt Ketchell, the toughest two-year old I know, and his parents. Both Robby and Marya worked in the support role of pro cycling for Teams Garmin and Ineos. And this ride was all about the support team!
Ride 1 would be a fully supported six-rider 255-mile blast over the Berkshires and down across the Bay State, cutting through Rhode Island, and on to the tip of Cape Cod.I rode my custom titanium Firefly road bike, which weighs in around 17 pounds., with 28 mm Vittoria tires set at 70 psi for comfort. Despite hot weather we had a gentle tailwind. The riders included: Caitlyn Braun, Bart Lipinski, Massimilano Accupato, Chris Brits, Michael Serpa and myself. Others joined in for patches, including Paul Curley, Chris DeHahn, Pat McIntyre, David Fitzgibbons and Jaymz Lipinski. The supporters worked just as hard: Eric Carlson, Leah Carlson, Pam Miller, Chris Miller, Alissa Weigand, Shaun Weigand, John Mosher, Michelle Mosher, Bill Braun and Mary Ellen McIntyre all pitched in to provide vital support. We averaged an amazing 19 mph thanks to those supporters and finished in under 13.5 hours. My lone challenge would be three bouts of cramps in my right leg during the final 60 miles.
|NY-MA State Line, 4 a.m.|
I’m kind of pleased to report that my coach noted my “file” - which is bike talk for the collection of data from a ride - for this ride matched anything he’s seen from pro athletes he’s worked with over the past decade. Data geeks should see the grid below. (Did I mention I’m almost 60?)
RIDE 2: NH2PA
After a surprisingly rapid recovery, I lined up a week later for an entirely different ride.In my desire to try out bike packing, I plotted a route to meet my brother, Gary Fries in north central Pennsylvania. My sister, Beth Fries, would meet us there for some gravel rail trail riding. The prior weekend I had posted the longest one-day ride of my life, so I planned to do 400+ miles in three days. I did the math, three days of 133 miles.
“How hard could THAT be?, “ I asked anybody who would listen. “I have all day to do these rides.”
Enter the Devil... And those pesky details.
I switched to a friend’s Specialized Diverge gravel bike for comfort and stability. I would then strap on an Ortlieb handlebar bag, a Specialized Burra top tube bag, and then a Rapha saddle bag. With camping gear and provisions the bike weighed in at 40+ pounds and climbed like a walrus. I would be self reliant for days 1-3 for navigation, power supply, mechanical service, hydration, food and camping.
Whereas my prior weekend featured a downhill course with a tailwind this would be an uphill battle with a steady 10 mph headwind. And yes, the temperatures would be in the mid 90s.
|Single track serenity, Litchfield County, CT|
RIDE 2, DAY 1
Inspiration: Ian Pfeffer
This day's ride would be dedicated to Ian Pfeffer, my Best Buddy, who randomly called ME on Dec. 23, 2019, during perhaps my loneliest of moments. He's wonderful.
I simply threw my leg over the bike and pedaled. I started alone in pre-dawn beauty along the Ashuelot Rail Trail.This gravel path would bring me to the Massachusetts line. The saddle bag swayed unusually but I pressed on, only to discover the loss of both Adidas sandals along the way. I moved ahead of schedule but had to stop in Northampton, where Chris Zigmont had arranged to have THE Jeremy Powers (6x national champion now serving as a presenter for GCN) provide me a 40-tooth chain ring for the Sram 1x system (that means single front gear). And Sean Condon, an ace mechanic who founded Speed and Sprocket, a mobile bike repair service, swapped out the ring. As we waited for that service, I soaked up all sorts of info from Jeremy and Sean's wife, Lizz Budd, a certified nutritionist. That Jeremy brought cookies enhanced the stop; the guy is a class act.
|Ashuelot River RT|
Thereafter Sean and I set off; his super pull took an hour off my day's ride. He would provide fighter escort deep into Connecticut.
After my blinky light swung off the saddle bag and under the tires of a car my anxiety rose as I expected to start and finish the next day in the dark. That’s also when Sean noticed I had failed to thread the left saddlebag strap over the seat rail. (Duh!). Knowing guys like him is important.
Sean turned back home. I would face a westward grind along the strip malls of Route 6 in Waterbury alone. From there I ground up and up and up, watching the computer click off beyond the 120 miles I expected.
Dusty and dehydrated I whistled down a gravel road to find the southern shore of Lake Waramaug in the evening. I had been on the bike since 5 a.m. Although triumphant to know my campground was on the north shore and I had staved off cramping for what would be 140 miles.I pedaled with trepidation knowing I had no rear light, a clicking noise in my drive train, a campsite to set up, and 166 miles and 12K+ climbing the following day (provided THAT mapping proved correct).
In this Dali-esque mind melt I passed an obese guy wearing a bathing suit, flip flops and tank top riding aboard a moped groaning under his heft. I passed him. With that image fresh in my head I spotted a big red van parked on the white line, forcing me to go out into the travel lane. My initial irritation turned when I read V-E-L-O-F-I-X on the back. I immediately knew this would be Mike Conlan, ace mechanic, industry veteran and top notch USA Cycling official! With his daughter, Delaney, in the front seat, I received an escort right into the campground. Packed with families, this campground featured ornately provisioned family sites, kids on bikes and skateboards, and a few hundred folks in bathing suits. Into this Brady Bunch scene I rolled with Mike in support.
|Chicken parm, please|
“Nothing beats a clean bike, eh?,” said Mike, directing me to sit down at my site’s picnic table. “You need to eat.” He set down bottles of water and Powerade, gave me towels, stripped the bags off the bike and pulled the bike into the van. With ultrasound cleaners and solvents and who knows what else he gave the bike a full workup all while I hit a shower and set up my bivy sack and mattress and tended to all the battery management required for such an endeavor. While I considered “wild camping” on this trip I opted for the inexpensive sites for three offerings: toilets, power, and showers. All would prove vital.
|Mike Conlan, savior|
I looked at the Garmin bike computer. I had just done the second longest ride of the year, one of the 10 longest of my life. And I knew the following day would be longer, hotter and harder.
I felt like Buddy the Elf….only not as cheerful.
RIDE 2; DAY 2
Inspiration: Angelo Bryant Santiago
This day's ride would start in Connecticut, home of the effervescent and wonderful Angelo Bryant Santiago. So I dedicated the ride to him. I had just started to get to know this 100 watts of humanity when COVID 19 hit. I look forward to seeing him soon!
I awoke to see the time: 2:21 a.m. Ugghhh...Frank Sinatra’s wee small hours of the morning….I rolled back over and managed to doze a bit….Alas we learn in A.A. that it is always 3 a.m. in the heart of an alcoholic. My anxiety simmered like a kettle.
This would be the “Queen Stage” of the entire 13-day odyssey. The route - as mapped - would be more than 20 miles longer than the longest stage of the most recent Tour de France. Physiologically this would be akin to competing in an Ironman the day after completing an Ironman and nine-days after completing an additional Ironman. But there would be no tattoo, no high-five, no Eric Gilsenen calling out “You ARE an IRONMAN.” This would be alone on an unmarked and unfamiliar course. There would be no support car. I would start and likely finish in the dark. One mistake, one logistical mis-step, a navigational error, a mechanical mishap, a crash, a robbery, and I could wind up in deep trouble.
But I only think of that now in hindsight as I write. I did not not think those thoughts. One cannot think like that; otherwise paralysis would set in.
I had to draw on the courage of a Buddy. I had to go through my day like so many Best Buddies participants who bravely get up alone and hopefully get to a job alone or a school alone, eat lunch alone, and then get home to be largely left … alone. Only to do it the next day and the next day and the next day hoping nothing goes too wrong.
Decades of cycling set me into a mindful mode of prep: plug in EVERYTHING, break down the camp, lay everything out on the table, check it again, go poop (extremely important), eat 400 mg of ibuprofen with three Sportlegs tablets, clean up everything (especially the undercarriage) and get dressed. And then pack the bike. At the last possible second, unplug the Garmin and phone, bring up the course, shoot a quick video, and check the time. It’s 4:45 a.m. I roll….after 2 km I realize I forgot to turn on Strava and Relive. (Duh). I threw my leg over the bike and pedaled.
I noted a sharp pain in my right Achilles tendon.
You may note I did NOT eat. I simply had no food to eat save for some Clif Shot Bloks which I hold for emergencies. No coffee to drink. I planned to forage from roadside stores. As I’m in the Northeast Corridor I expected to find something along the course within 30 minutes.
Right out of the gate I hit a series of 18 percent grades. I went up each as would a grim soldier, knowing only more cannons awaited. As Meriweather Lewis falsely believed, I expected to crest a climb and see the water visible below down to which I would speed. I figured I could reach the Hudson within 90 minutes.
|Garmin file, 9:15 pm|
That would not be.
Amid pre-dawn mist I descended and climbed through a network of Litchfield County’s gravel roads. After 90 minutes of riding I noted the stream along which I rode flowed not with but against me, revealing I still had to climb out of the Housatonic watershed. After two hours I crossed Route 22. No sign celebrated my entry into New York State. I had yet to see a store or gas station or human being. I had seen far more deer than cars.
With the sun up I found myself on NY 53 and tumbling towards the Hudson. At 8 a.m. I finally found a store and ate. My Achilles pain had melted away. I felt serene. Another hour would pass before I crossed the Newburgh Bridge.
Those who attend my cycling classes learn that upon crossing water one should expect a climb. To my delight, after a modest manageable grind I rode atop the New York plateau, following NY Bike Route 17 (thank those advocates!) and rolling steadily west. The enemy, however, became the heat and the headwind. I rode towards a hair dryer set at low.
I finally poured down to Port Jervis, crossed the Delaware into Pennsylvania, and watered up in a supermarket cafe, soaking in the air conditioning, WiFi and electricity. I knew from my mapping the ride would get hard thereafter. I threw my leg over the bike and pedaled.
Out of Milford I turned upward. My mapping braced me for this: an eight-mile grind at nearly 10 percent. I nailed it to reach US Route 6 and turn West. The climbs would continue but on such a road - featuring a wide shoulder - the climbs would be long but only at about 6 percent max grade.
Bottles lasted about 30 minutes. After an ice cream stop I worked around the northern tip of Lake Wallenpaupack and picked up the Oswego Turnpike. In mapping, a straight line typically means a relatively flat route. This would NOT be the case with the Oswego Turnpike, which rolled up and down like a mad bull determined to shed this rider. I survived and whistled down into a small city and spotted a group of boys.
“Where AM I?,” I shouted as I passed, a favorite practice of mine during such rides.
“Waymart!,” they replied.
“Waymart? What aisle?,” I smiled. They didn't.
Then I turned into Carbondale where the smile left my face. I studied about a dozen windmills on a far Western ridge convinced I would veer to the north and around. Then I hit a steep seven-kilometer climb. How steep? Sections required me to weave like a paper boy with my laden bike. The only weight reduction would be my empty bottles. I regretted not filling those bottles in Waymart as I realized sweat ceased to flow from my pores….That’s not a good thing. With each turn the climb continued to turn towards the west and those windmills. I hit the steepest pitches completely dry. I considered jumping into a pond...then I wondered about drawing water from a family’s lawn sprinkler.
Grinding upwards I passed a home with a guy in his driveway. He had a white pony tail, tank top, cutoff jeans and tattoos.
“Could I beg some water off you?,” I asked, content to get a garden hose but half expecting rejection. This was Trump country, mind you, and I looked like some French artist. But I looked like a desperate French artist. When separated by panes of glass we all tend to brusquely judge one another; but in his driveway we stood face-to-face.
He lit up a smile.
“I have some right here,” he bounded two steps towards his garage, delighted to open a mini fridge laden with frosty bottles. I took two, promised to pay it forward, and looked up the climb.
The sun had dropped over the ridge on top of which those windmills churned like a scythe to my soul. He gathered a sense of my dread.
“There’s a store at the top,” he comforted me. I threw my leg over the bike and pedaled.
I pressed steadily to where I could almost touch those windmills when my course turned north and away. I reached that store; drained and filled and drained and filled bottles. From there I returned to US 6 ripped downhill, taking an offshoot I dropped down into a village.
Then came Greenfield Road and with another 17 percent grade up to a plateau where I took in two skies. Towards the left I could see the glowing embers of a sunset over the horizon. Towards the right I could see clouds emptying rain. Whatever turn lay ahead would decide my fate.
Then came hell. Snyder Road, a gravel washboard descent, pouring me downhill at 45 mph to smack into a short but loose gravel 20 percent pitch - easily the steepest of the day - and I realized I would not be able to pedal. In my attempt to dismount I caught my right foot on the saddle bag. While I stuck the landing I had to dump the bike. I simply could not get the walrus started on such a grade.
I had to walk.
Then rain began.
My Garmin showed nine miles remained; I had been going for 15 hours and had put 151 miles behind me that day.
Full stop. Collection. Reflection. Breathe.
I threw on a reflective vest. Bolted on the front light. Flicked on the rear blinky Mike had provided. I threw my leg over the bike and pedaled.
Finally I crossed under Interstate 81 and - as planned - found a Subway sandwich shop. Like some 21st Century Hopper painting I entered the glow inside. The attendant and I stared at one another in curiosity. I struggled to speak. Finally I ordered two large Italian subs - one reserved for breakfast - and loaded up a drawstring bag with water and lemonade for my back and rolled.
I followed the cone of my headlamp into the Lackawanna State Park, allowing my Garmin to direct me in the dark to campsite 90….perched atop a cruel climb. I crept towards some happy campers - my neighbors to be - with my headlamp sweeping like a searchlight. My creepy presence sucked the joy out of their experience. I cracked the awkward silence to ask for help in finding my site, not letting on to my degree of desperation. I arrived alone. Sat. Ate. Discovered I had cell service. I told my family and followers I had arrived. Processed the day. Processed the tasks at hand. Processed the next day. Processed the how. Processed the why.
I had made it.
Charge batteries. Set up camp. Hot shower. Hang clothes under the table. Secure food. Zip tie bike to table. Sleep….Hard.
|Lackawanna Dam, Pennsylvania|
RIDE 2; DAY 3
Inspiration: Marlowe Roge and Family
For my inspiration on this ride, after which I would see my sister, came Marlowe Roge and her family. Regardless of their challenges, Marlowe and Company keep plugging away at life with smiles.
To my delight, my eyes opened to daylight. I had slept eight hours with my legs slightly elevated on a slope. The time was 6:20...I did the math….eight glorious hours of math.
|Sleeping in to 6:20 a.m.|
I credited my reduction in anxiety with this third day’s task: a mere 90 miles atop the Appalachian Plateau. As my sister had booked a room in Mansfield, PA, I would adjust my route accordingly. Lying in my tent sleeve I studied the map: I could simply stick to US 6 for much of the day; a bit less beauty traded for lighter grades and access to provisions. On first blush, this road followed the Susquehanna River valley and promised a relatively flat day.
I felt triumphantly good … until … I slithered out of my bivy sack and attempted to walk.
My right Achilles tendon had crystallized. I hobbled to the camp bathrooms only to discover I had just three tabs of ibuprofen left. Expecting the pain to subside as it had the day prior, slowly prepped while eating my Italian sub and sucking down water.
I rolled, nursing my right ankle. The day started with some bushwhacking over a dam and glorious wooded single track to exit the park followed by soft pedaling along a rural road. I saw a “No Outlet” sign and continued. I saw a “Construction Ahead” sign and continued. I saw a “Private Road” sign and continued. It’s a bicycling thing. Not only can we typically get through we often find navigational delights.
I found a 100-foot chasm from where a bridge washed away. My ankle throbbed. I re-plotted a course that required backtracking around something called Lily Lake and then dropped into a crossroads called Dalton, which promised provisions. I had squandered 45 minutes and ridden 10 miles to end up pretty close to where I had started. Amid morning fog, Dalton proved to be a lifeless assemblage of buildings akin to a set from Stephen King’s The Mist. I spotted a gentleman dropping off a letter at the post office to seek provisions. He directed me to Route 6 and a diner a few miles to the west. Enchanted by the prospect of corned beef hash I rolled up an on ramp to discover the stage for this day’s play: a four-lane highway with a gritty eight-foot wide shoulder separated by a rumble strip. Given the low volume of traffic, I found it sublime and shifted 80 percent of the workload to my left leg. I pressed until I saw a small college campus with a bookstore cafe. The Keystone College cafe proved perfect: outdoor seating, Starbucks coffee, a Clif Bar, power outlets, cell service, and Advil. I put up my legs, took some professional calls and let the Advil permeate my bloodstream. A light farmer’s rain felt splendid.
|Starbucks and Advil|
Awaiting the arrival of students, the bookstore staff came out to address their curiosity with this road pirate on their sidewalk. In passing I mentioned my destination of Mansfied.
“Oh yeah, that’s about 90 minutes away,” the young man noted. Americans measure distance via driving time, which is wildly incongruous with actual units of distance. But I did the math: 90 minutes at 60 mph is 90 miles. I had ridden about 15 already. By 10 a.m. I had squandered five hours of daylight, the heat and headwinds promised only to build. The prospect of finishing again in the dark returned. A shot of cortisol bloomed in my brain; stress returned.
I threw my leg over the bike and pedaled.
|A KT Tape day |
While US Route 6 provided navigational comfort, the traverse to the Susquehanna valley proved challenging. As that river weaves about with assorted oxbow turns, my route cut straight west with ribbons of climbs and descents, climbs and descents. In Tunkhannock I spotted a CVS and dressed my right Achilles in KT Tape. To give it additional support (and to advertise my bad-ass state of affairs) I also did the knee. The stuff works.
I threw my leg over the bike and pedaled.
Finally I crossed the Susquehanna in Towanda, and girded myself for the climb west out of the watershed. The heat and road seemed to both rise. The West Branch of Sugar Creek had sawed out an upward path onto the plateau that separated the Susquehanna from its West Branch. I clicked off the towns like train stops: Burlington, Troy, Sylvania...Sixteen miles from Mansfield I refilled the bottles and bought a cold Pepsi for the final push. The edge had come off the heat. The winds had died. The terrain flattened. My Achilles did not hurt.
|The final run in to Mansfield|
I threw my leg over the bike and pedaled.
The late afternoon sun splashed against the barns and tractors and wheels of hay. Cars rarely came along and traveled at museum pace. I drained towards the Tioga River, doing math on how far I had pedaled and realized just how good I felt...or perhaps how badly I did NOT feel having logged 400 miles in three days.The road dropped into Mansfield, I crossed the driver, and turned up towards a Quality Inn my sister had booked. I giggled when I hit the entrance road, a steep final climb, to an ordinary roadside hotel that to me, seemed like the Taj Mahal.
RIDE 2; DAY 4
Inspiration: Matt Kisiel
For inspiration on this day I drew on the wonderful energy of Matt Kisiel with his sister, Kim. Matt and Kim (not the pop duo you may like) offered up wonderful support to us during the P2P4BB. Like Matt, I totally needed my sister on this day!
My sister and I drove to Cedar Run, PA, population 36, and met our brother. I threw on some touring shorts to face a bag-free, hill-free ride along the Pine Creek Rail Trail.
Everything hurt. Within minutes I realized the seam of the shorts intersected poorly with the saddle line and the seam line of the prior three day’s wardrobe.No amount of analgesics could knock down this pain. But my brother, whom I adore, had planned this trip for months.
I threw my leg over the bike and pedaled.I endured pedaling almost entirely with my left leg. I would later discover a lesion three-inches long and a half-inch wide on my right buttock.
We rode to Jersey Shore (not in New Jersey; not near the shore) and back, the southern half of the Pine Creek Rail Trail, my brother being the consummate one-speed monster. Upon completion we showered and sat on the porch of the Cedar Run Inn, mesmerized by the fluttering about of hummingbirds and Mennonite children dressed in logo-free clothing, barefoot, helmet-less, and carrying fishing poles as they pedaled about this river valley.
|Cedar Run, PA|
As children we once resembled this Norman Rockwell painting: slender and sunburned and happy. I had spent three days along the loud-piped “don’t-touch-my-truck” corridor of our "country" only to drop into virtuous edition of that idyllic America.
|Horse drawn tour bus, Pine Creek Rail Trail|
RIDE 2; DAY 5
Inspiration: Chris Harrington and Family
This final day's ride, with my family, would be dedicated to Chris Harrington and his family. The Harrington's have to work a little harder but they always figure out how to keep it fun. And anybody who plays or dances or trains with Chris learns how it's done.
Same song, different verse. With rest and healing the pain went down substantially. We rode the northern half, a touch quieter and the views more profound as we passed through the deepest sections of the gorge. Our halfway farm stand in Wellsboro featured ice cream. There were horse drawn tour buses. Clusters of families. Couples galore. We encountered countless folks on e bikes and a squadron of four bike packers from New Jersey at the Tiadaghton riverside campground. While admiring a rider’s Firefly, we heard the call of an eagle. The region is known for hosting pairs of bald eagles commonly seen. Alas, a massive bird swept down along the river and landed on a tree just across the creek. This turned out to be a golden eagle. The weight of the bird proved too much for the branch, which snapped. Clumsily the bird’s powerful wings reached out, swept away the air beneath, and pushed on to that day’s mission without concern.
The eagle simply flew on to the next branch.
For those data geeks out there, I've tacked on a lot of stuff below.
Thanks for reading.