The Proper Way to Ride a Bike

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Vermont Challenge, 2012

I came across a cycling article in the newspaper The Guardian, which was titled “No more hippies and explorers: a lament for the changed world of cycling.”  I think it’s worth a read, because the author, one Tom Marriage, writes about how he perceives cycling to have changed.  He sees it as being taken over by Lycra-clad highly competitive sorts, who have ruined cycling for ordinary people.  Here’s how he put it:  Now it’s different. Road cycling has become the orthodoxy. Tedious, competitive, sports cycling has taken over. Cycling has become the new golf. It’s what men of a certain age, men with money and power, chat about after meetings.  He continues with a few other points, how cyclists were once considered a bit quirky and fun loving, adventuresome types, but are now causing the general population to hate cyclists because of their image in their tight clothing, and their behavior on the road.

I think this is on one hand, setting up a paper tiger, and on the other, stating what has been going on for generations.  People go through different stages with their bikes.  Often, a bike is the first mode of transportation allowing a child, too young to drive, a means of traveling far from home without help.  I will never forget my first bike experience, being helped to get started by a neighbor, amazed at how fast I could go, then finally tipping the bike over in the grass not having mastered the art of braking at that point.  I also recall my son’s first successful solo ride.  He was so thrilled, that at the age of six, he started singing out loud James Brown’s song, I Feel Good! while zooming down the street (check out the linked version, a surreal blast).

Cyclists come in all shapes, sizes and goals:

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Here’s a simplified picture of the variety of cyclists

They vary from the plainly absurd:

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Canadians?  I see a maple leaf there.

To the serious professional competitive athlete:

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Tour of Flanders, 2004 (George Hincapie in USPS kit)

In places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, bicycling is part of the culture, and they have separate traffic lanes and traffic lights for cyclists.  Men and women of all ages bike to work, often in inclement weather.  The Danes are particularly conscious of their cycling image as in the blog Cycle Chic.

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Bikes parked on a side street in Amsterdam

I’ve always been a cycling enthusiast, from that first ride and spill into the grass to today.  As a kid in the suburbs of Houston, I rode my 24 inch bike to school and to the swim club, and used it to explore my neighborhood, with interesting destinations including trails along the Brays Bayou.  In high school in San Diego, I was given my first ten-speed bike for my birthday, and enjoyed riding it to school and to wherever I wanted to go.  This was in spite of the fact I had my driver’s license and could have driven.  That bike, an Astra Tour de France, carried me through college at UCSD and beyond.  Today, that same bike is used by my son who lives in South Philly and commutes to work on it.

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Astra Tour de France, made in 1970.  The Peugot fork I put on in college because the original was causing a shimmy when I got up to speed on the downhills.

I have gotten into the road riding and road racing scene.  It started innocently enough.  My friend Dan T. and I started riding together for exercise in the mid 1990’s.  He was on his Nishiki and I on my Trek 200, a heavy steel beast with downtube shifters and a basket on the handlebars which could fit a six pack of beer.  A long ride for us at that time was 15 or 20 miles.  One day, Dan felt the need to upgrade, and bought a Cannondale 300, made of aluminum, and quite a bit faster than my Trek.  That wouldn’t do.  Soon, I bought a Trek 2300, which at that time was part carbon, part steel.  We were back in equilibrium again.  Our rides were getting longer, and faster, too.  It was not unusual to go out on a Saturday or Sunday for a 60 mile ride, sometimes in cold or wet weather.  We had adopted the look of the road cyclist, too, with appropriate shorts, jerseys with various European pro teams names on them, gloves, and of course, click in pedals.  Dan upped the mechanicals again, this time going for a very nice higher-end Colnago, a fine Italian maker of racing bikes used in the Tour de France and other major road races.  The game was on.  In 2001, I ordered a beautiful Pinarello Opera frame through a bike shop in Rome, called Romeo Cycles.  I had it fitted with Campagnolo Record components, a Deda stem and handle bars, and Mavic hand-built wheels at my local bike shop, Bicycle Therapy, in Philly.  Dan T. and I wanted a real cycling adventure, though, and so we found a company in Italy that sounded perfect.  In the summer of 2002, we traveled by way of Paris to Venice, accompanied by another friend, Dan B., and went to the Italian Cycling Center.  Run by a curmudgeonly but wise fellow, George Pohl, located in the Veneto about an hour’s drive north of Venice, we were introduced to northern Italian cycling culture.  Daily, we gathered at breakfast and found out what the ride for the day was.  We would then head out, with the faster, stronger cyclists tackling the big climbs, and the others usually heading for some interesting archeological dig or a museum.

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Passo San Baldo, a long hard climb in the mountains.

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Preparing to climb Passo S. Baldo.  The Italian gentleman on the right in front on the red bike, was 72 years old, and kept with me the whole way up.

That was in 2002.  Since then, I have had many other adventures on my bike.  Since my trip to Italy, I have gone cycling with Ride Noho, a camp modeled after the Italian Cycling Center, located in Northampton Massachusetts, and run by a very congenial (the opposite of a curmudgeon) fellow, Aldo, and his wife Elaine.  The concept is to stay in one place and go out on a different route each day.  I have managed to talk a number of my friends into joining me on these annual trips.  I would say our favorite climb is up Mount Greylock, the highest point in Massachusetts.

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Preparing for the Mount Greylock adventure

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At the Greylock Summit

As you can see, Elaine, in the center of the photo, is the only woman in a group of men cyclists.  Why is that?  Do women just generally not enjoy cycling?  Elaine is light, strong, and very tough, and can hold her own in a group of men.  Is that what it takes, or are there other factors involved?  Back to The Guardian again, and an article written by Terry Slavin last year, “If there aren’t as many women cycling as men…you need better infrastructure.”  In it, she points out that cycling, particularly in cities without the infrastructure to protect cyclists from trucks, buses and cars, is dangerous.  As she puts it:  If we have a street environment that’s hostile, that has no facilities, that has fast traffic with heavy lorries thundering past, we will get low numbers of courageous people, mainly men, on racing bikes and pretty well no one else. The article is very well written and researched and I recommend it to anyone interested in the role of cycling in cities.

I’m a cycling commuter.  When conditions allow, I can usually ride my bike three days a week to work from mid March through mid October.  I kind of stand out in this regard, an older guy (one of our “seniors”, as President Bush would say), Surgeon, with a need to get to work sometimes by 6:30.  It takes a real desire to want to do this before any of the other considerations like clothing management, flat tire potential, and traffic.  Our roads are decidedly not bike friendly.  I live in a town in New Jersey with the history of being the first town in New Jersey to ban bicycles (since overruled) a century and a half ago.  Today, one gets ignored, cursed, mocked, and threatened on the road.  Our local bicycle advocacy organization, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, has been at work for years pushing local, regional and federal government to support cycling for all the great advantages it has for the citizens.  Their work has not been in vain.  An accounting of their victories shows that much can be done to encourage cycling.  This is a very political issue.  Money spent on cycling interests is seen as money taken away from other interests.  If the need for more road capacity, or more buses is decreased due to more cyclists on the road, it means fewer jobs in those sectors.  But, if it leads to a more vibrant city in which people enjoy living, the health of the city and the economy grow.

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Preparing to ride to work on a chilly morning in April, 2016.

Back to the start, about the changed world of cycling.  There have been some major changes, but many are not the kind mentioned in the article.  Pro cycling has had its reputation dashed on the rocks because of all the drug enhancement and doping by all the big names in the sport, the most famous of whom is Lance Armstrong.  Bicycles have gotten better over the last several decades, with handle bar index shifting, lighter materials, and many other technological advances.  Helmets have improved.  More bike lanes and more dedicated bike paths have been built.  A huge impact has been bikes for rent, in big cities like Paris, New York and now, Philadelphia.  In fact, Philadelphia was the 74th community in the USA to start a program, and it has been a big success.  Still, from my personal perspective, the prevailing attitude among my fellow Americans is one of dislike, strong dislike, or downright hatred of cyclists on the road.  The reasons are many, but I feel if there is more accommodation to cyclists, and more separation of cyclists from busy roadways, both cyclists and motorists benefit.  It would go far in tempering the legitimate antipathy motorists can have about cyclists and their habits on the road.  Many of my non-cyclist friends get very aggravated by cyclists not stopping at traffic lights, or blocking the flow of traffic.  This, to me, is not a new problem.  I have seen that often, over the decades I have been riding, that cyclists can be arrogant and unwilling to follow the rules of the highway.  As a cyclist, it is not always a simple matter of waiting for the light.  When the drivers hit the gas, it is better not to be clustering in front of them. In several European cities, cyclists are allowed to go through red lights on roads where the speed limit is 30 km/hr, so to keep traffic flowing more smoothly.  The rationale is that injuries to cyclists would decrease, and drivers would be less impeded. As to the Lycra and close-fitting clothing, it is what works for cyclists.  I don’t feel a need to explain wearing the appropriate gear.  For city commuting, though, most any clothes can be, and are worn, and work perfectly well.  Working with cyclists to provide a safe place to keep one’s bike while at work and providing a facility to make quick repairs, or pump up a tire, are ways companies can encourage bike commuting.  And about that quirky, offbeat style of cycling:

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Craziest bike I’ve seen yet.

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Heading up to Northampton, to Ride Noho

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Men and their bikes.

Skyline Trail Ride, with Ride Noho

The brilliance of Aldo, is that he knows just how much to challenge his cycling guests without pushing them over the precipice.  He forewarned us that this ride was hard, but that we would have no trouble completing it.  Of course, this is all relative.  If you ride every day, and have a good climbing physique, well, it’s no hill for a climber, as they say.

We started the day as every day starts at this cycling camp, with breakfast at Sylvester’s in Northampton.  Keith, Dan and I walked down from our motel, the Quality Inn on the outskirts of Noho, and joined Aldo, Elaine and Jan at the restaurant.  Aldo and Elaine run Ride Noho.  Jan was a guest, who is a regular and one of the few who have ridden with Aldo every year since he started his cycling camp.  Jan is an automobile design engineer and a superb cyclist who races cyclocross, among other events.  Keith, my friend from college, is a primary care physician in the Boston area who cycles regularly and had recently completed the Pan-Mass challenge.  Dan, who flew in from San Francisco, is a researcher at the world’s most famous search engine, and besides riding regularly also races.  In fact, he has competed in the Green Mountain Stage Race.  These were the boys I was to join on this long, arduous ride through the Berkshires.  We engaged in our usual breakfast banter, talking about the ride, but also just chatting about the news of the day.  I had a single pancake for breakfast, loaded with blueberries, although the pancake was plate filling size.  After breakfast it was back to the motel to don our cycling clothes and meet up for the ride.

We met in the parking lot of the Hotel Northampton, also an option for camp riders.  Joining us was Bob Johnson, the ex-marine I mentioned in my previous blog.  He is a combination ride leader and tour guide, with detailed knowledge of the area in which we would be riding.  It’s basically his backyard, where he rides regularly.  Bob always shows great compassion for those of us who can’t ride like he can, which is everyone else.  This ride was to be a supported ride.  Either Aldo or Elaine would be driving the van while the other rode, to provide water and food as needed.  There were few options otherwise for us along the way.   It was also going to be a hot and steamy day, with temperatures into the high eighties and high humidity.  It’s not like running, though.  For one thing, it’s no problem to take a water bottle or two on the bike.  Also, after every climb, with the sun bearing down and sweat dripping into one’s eyes, there’s the marvelous relief of the fast downhill, with a cooling breeze in the face.

The route, from Northampton to Skyline Trail and back.

The route, from Northampton to Skyline Trail and back.

We checked tires and equipment, then hopped upon the bikes and headed out.  First thing I noticed was that my backside was still terribly sore, as it had not yet gotten used to the saddle.  This would be a problem the whole ride, but one I was willing to endure.  As we left Northampton, we traveled a familiar route for the first few miles, then started in to the mountains.  There really was no flat riding for most of the ride.  We were either climbing or descending.  Mostly we were climbing the first half, and some of the climbs were fairly challenging, getting over 10% grade in spots.  The descents proved to be fast and fun, with good pavement and no sharp turns.  Elaine rode the first half with Aldo driving the van.  They switched at midway along the route.

One of the remarkable aspects to Western Massachusetts is the number of small farms throughout the area.  One often hears how small farms are dying, that the cost of running the farm exceeds the returns, that big supermarkets and clubs like Costco have ruined things for the small farmer.  Running contrary to those trends, the small farmers of Western Massachusetts have strong support among people living in this area, who enjoy the benefits of locally grown, seasonal farm produce.  This is according to articles on the U Mass website and agriculture associations in the area.  One issue raised by a number of articles, that of the average age of farmers, and whether young people are willing to go into farming, seems to rely on the profitability of the farms.  For the last twenty years, the profits have been good, and young, sometimes inexperienced, farmers are willing to take over.  This is aided by government support, in terms of tax benefits if land is committed long-term to farming.  During our ride in this decidedly rural part of the state, we passed dozens of farms which, by appearance, seemed quite productive.  We also passed a unique instillation along Skyline Trail in Chester, a solar farm.  Doing a little research, it seems this very large instillation of solar panels covering many acres and capable of several megawatts of electricity production, is a project of Solectria Corporation, a subsidiary of Yaskawa America.  It is a subsidiary of Yaskawa Electric Company of Japan, a giant company started one hundred years ago as a motor manufacturer, and expanded globally into many businesses.  Apparently, they think it is a good idea to own solar electric production in rural areas.

Back to the ride, though.  As we tooled along Skyline Trail, the riding was very enjoyable, with rolling hills and a temperature definitely cooler at around 1800 feet elevation, than back in Northampton.

Beautiful view along the Skyline Trail in Western Massachusetts.

Beautiful view along the Skyline Trail in Western Massachusetts.

We got to the end of Skyline Trail and plummeted back down to Hinsdale, where we stopped for a bite and some water.  We then set out, at around mile 45, for the big climb of the day.  Starting in Hinsdale we rode up to Peru, a tiny postage stamp of a place along the road.  The climb was 4.8 miles long, started fairly steep, in the 12-14 % range the first half, then eased a bit to around 5% the rest of the way.  Since my climbing skills had suffered being off the bike for so long (since last year at this time), I was being given encouraging words, such as “you want a ride up in the van?”, and “shall I push you as we hit the steepest part?”.  Needless to say, this kind of encouragement, while said in earnest, can only be taken as reverse psychology.  No, I didn’t want to get in the van or have a hand on my back, but thanks anyway, I can handle it.  So, off we went.  The faster riders ascended quickly and I have no idea if they suffered a bit or a lot.  Any climb can be a killer if one races up.  I took my time and made it up very nicely, and was pleased to have done so.  I did stand a good part of the way, due to those old ischial tuberosities making themselves known.  We still had another 3o miles to go before getting back to Noho, including a few lesser climbs, but the hardest part was over.  In total, we went 79 miles and climbed around 6800 feet.

After our return, we all congratulated ourselves for a ride well done, and very enjoyable.  The van support was critical given the heat and humidity, although on a cooler, dryer day in the fall this would be doable without the van.  In fact, it would be quite stunning as the leaves turned colors.  Aldo, Elaine and Bob did a great job leading us.

Our group headed back to our respective hotel rooms for some rest and a shower.   That night we celebrated, not just this ride, but having the opportunity to enjoy escaping from work for four days and go cycling with good friends.  We went to the Sierra Grille in Northampton, had a fine meal, and after dinner and desert, even went to Herrel’s Ice Cream Parlor, ranked as the #1 restaurant in Northampton on TripAdvisor.com.  They don’t serve dinner, but they do desert very well.

Sit Bones

Ischial tuberosities.  Yes, that’s what they’re called.  Mine have had an awakening the last two days.  In past years, cycling had been my major sport and recreation.  Almost daily, from early spring to late fall, I would gather all the accoutrements needed to mount up and ride, getting in anywhere from a weekday twenty miler to a long 60 to 100 mile ride on the weekend.  Lately, since I grew in my devotion to running, cycling has shifted from prime sport to an event reserved for one week during the summer.  That is when I make my way up to Northampton,Massachusetts, and join my friends for four days of intense cycling with Ride Noho.  Ride Noho is a cycling camp run by Aldo Tiboni and his wife, Elaine.  They find beautiful routes around the back roads of western Massachusetts, and lead their guests on rides suitable to their abilities.  Accompanying them, and providing a cycling engine of enormous power, is Bob, ex-marine, and now a super-fit, white-haired, pony-tailed, vegan who is a ride co-leader.

I make this trek annually because I still have a love of cycling, even though I’ve essentially given it up for running, I may want to get more into triathlon, and it makes for a great get-away when I can spend four days with friends, pretending I have no way to check work e-mails.  One little downside of not cycling regularly, though, is one must break in the ischial tuberosities, among other bones and muscle groups peculiar to the cycling experience.

 

Jan, Bob, and Dan in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

Jan, Bob, and Dan in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

The seat on a road bike is designed the way it is to provide unfettered motion of the legs and thighs as they turn the pedals, and at the same time, support one’s backside.  The points at which this support is provided are the ischial tuberosities, or the “sit bones”, as they are called in some reference journals, like Bicycling Magazine.  Our first day on the road, Monday, we did a 57 mile ride including 4,000 feet of climbing.  Since it was the first day, the old ischial tuberosities were in a naive state, hence did not announce their presence very loudly.  Yesterday, we did a more modest 46 mile ride with only 2000 feet of climbing, the idea being to go easy before our herculean effort of today, a planned 70+ mile ride (closer to 80 I hear), with over 7000 feet of climbing.  Well, yesterday, those tuberosities made it clear they were not going to take this kind of punishment sitting down.  Yes, they announced to me in a very clear message that they were sore and swollen, and what right did I have to punish them in that manner?  Right from the start of yesterday’s ride I received this feedback as I gingerly set my butt upon the saddle as we were heading out, but it was not until the last ten miles of the ride, as Bob pulled us along at a steady clip in a pace line, requiring concentration and steady pedaling, that the message really came through, my ischial tuberosities were in revolt.

Rewards of the ride include a great lunch at Elizabeth and Paul's in Noho, including their modest version of blueberry pie.

Rewards of the ride include a great lunch at Elizabeth and Paul’s in Noho, including their modest version of blueberry pie.

Perhaps today the bones will have backed off on their message of pain.  I hope so.  This ride we have planned today is a huge challenge.  Maybe all my other parts will complain loudly enough to drown out the whimper from where the chamois meets the leather.

Three Times the Fun

NFL news today is not about the game, but about lawsuits, contracts and other off-season minutia. Baseball is now mid-season, and in the hot days of summer, it really is a pastime. NHL hockey is done for the year, after the LA Kings won the Stanley Cup. Los Angeles is a real natural for a top hockey team, with its long tradition of ice sports. The NBA finished its season last month with the San Antonio Spurs taking the top spot, another city known as a hot spot for development of its winning team’s future players.

If like me, you are not a big fan of these big sports, this may be your weekend. We have the quarter finals of World Cup Soccer (or football), the finals of Wimbledon, and the start of the Tour de France. For me, its an opportunity to spend some serious couch potato time glued to the set, ignoring the lawn, and watching my favorite professional athletes battle it out.

World Cup play began Thursday, June 12, when Brazil took on Croatia, beating them 3-1 in a game that showed the Brazilian team’s typical style of play, non-linear, dance-like and taking advantage of their ability to confuse the other team.  The World Cup has exceeded all expectations so far.  The threats of protests melted as play got under way, and the matches got under the locals’ skin.  The venues, while some had Amazonian jungle conditions, were all in good shape and seemingly prepared for the crowds.  The fans have come from around the globe to cheer on their teams, and it appears that Brazil has played excellent host to the visitors.  My USA team rose to the challenges facing them and managed to win one, tie one and lose one in the first round, making out to the knockout round.  There, they got knocked out by an organized and efficient Belgian squad, but they performed admirably, gave us some thrilling moments, and showed that the USA team can play soccer in the world’s stadium.  Other matches of the first round have been equally exciting, with strong showings by such teams as Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria, and Greece.  I love the fact that World Cup Football brings together such widely placed teams from around the globe, along with their cheering fans, in the same stadium.  No other sport does this, and its a great boost for mankind.

At the same time, Wimbledon started play Monday, June 23, and we are now in the last two days.  While the women’s singles play is finished as I write this, the men’s singles will be tomorrow, and should be a real classic battle.  Roger Federer, who has been struggling lately, and did not make it out of the second round at Wimbledon last year, will take on Novak Djokovic.  Federer first played Wimbledon 15 years ago, and has taken the top prize seven times.  He has mastered every aspect of singles tennis, can prevail on any surface, and has a style of play that is efficient and surprising, when he whips out a passing shot that does something that seems physically impossible.  His opponent in the finals tomorrow, Djokavic, is also an all-around player, currently rated number one in the world.  He is younger (32 vs 27) and possibly fitter than Federer, and he has proven himself able to beat Federer.  The record favors Federer, though, with Federer leading 18-16 in head-to-head matches with Djokavic.  The match starts at 9:00 AM EDT, and should be very exciting to watch.

The third of the three big sports this weekend is cycling, and the opening stage of the Tour de France.  While one might expect this race to take place in France, and mostly it does, it starts this year in Leeds, England with the riders doing a 45 minute slow paced tour through the town before heading out to the countryside as they race to Harrogate.  Usually, the tour starts the first day with a short time trial, but this year the race starts with a 190.5 km stage made for the sprinters.  As I write, the finish is unfolding with the teams of the sprinters driving the race at unreal speeds, with the pace line of the teams straining to carry their sprinter to the line first.  Heart in throat I watch, seeing if the riders can hold their lines, go through turns fearlessly, not touch the brakes or the wheel of the rider in front.   As it happened, Mark Cavendish was not able to hold things together and wound up hitting the pavement in a high speed crash, denying him the thrill of winning this stage in his hometown in front of the royal family.  Instead, the honor went to German Marcel Kittel of team Giant-Shimano.  In the odd world of cycling teams, this team is a Dutch team sponsored by Giant bicycles, a Chinese company which does have a manufacturing facility in the Netherlands, and Shimano, a Japanese maker of bicycle components.  The race will continue two more days in England before moving across the English Channel to the French mainland.  Watching the tour can be rewarding even if you are not a cycling fan, since the coverage from the helicopters and motorcycles shows the amazing and beautiful scenery of the route.

So, it’s time for me to go watch Argentina take on Belgium.  Maybe Messi will show us some of his brilliant moves and score a goal.  Happy watching, sports fans.

Wheeling around Western Mass.

Picturesque New England farm in western Massachusetts

Picturesque New England farm in western Massachusetts

I’ve discovered that running is not bad training for cycling, but cycling does not really cross train one for running. Nevertheless, it is a decent break in the marathon training schedule to take a few days off from running. What better way to maintain some cardiovascular fitness than to spend four days cycling in the hills of Western Massachusetts?
I have been heading up to Northampton, “Noho”, every summer for the last ten years to spend time road cycling with an outfit called Ride Noho. My discovery of this cycling camp experience started with a trip to Italy in 2002, to spend a week cycling at the Italian Cycling Center. This is a cycling camp created by the curmudgeonly George Pohl, who, it was said, knows a whole lot about cycling, but won’t tell you all you need to know. The idea of the camp was to have a home base in one place and take rides in different directions each day. It is based in the tiny town called Borso del Grappa, or “pocket” of (Mount) Grappa, which is at the edge of the Veneto, and at the foothills of the Dolomites. I spent a challenging week there with two of my friends, going on rides up switchback roads into alpine highlands above Valdobbiadene, through narrow paved streets of towns like Asiago, and plummeting back down the mountains to neighboring Basano. Our fellow riders were accomplished road cyclists, most of whom spent some time in amateur racing. George kept the challenge going in the evening during prosecco hour, when we had gathered at the outdoor patio to enjoy a glass of the area’s signature sparkling wine.  George read the menu choices only once, and stared disapprovingly, and silently, at anyone who dared ask him to repeat an option.
Looking for a similar experience of challenging cycling without the expense of traveling to Italy, I discovered Ride Noho. It turns out the creator of this outfit, Aldo Tiboni, had also been to the Italian Cycling Center. Instead of looking for a similar experience, he created one, although, as he points out, without the grumpy attitude. Aldo wanted the same approach, i.e., have a home base and take off on different rides each day.  For a very reasonable daily fee, one is provided overnight stay in a hotel or motel in Northampton, a delicious breakfast at Sylvester’s restaurant, a ride fitted to the abilities of the cyclists, and lunch at another Northampton restaurant.  Dinner is not provided, but Northampton and the surrounding areas, including Amherst, have an overabundance of excellent choices for dinner.

Aldo Tiboni, of Ride Noho

Aldo Tiboni, of Ride Noho

Aldo, the creator of Ride Noho, is a remarkably nice person.  He’s also one mean cyclist.  He seems to live for the ride, at least in summer, when he goes out almost daily with groups of varying skill, taking them on rides through the undulating countryside of the northern and western parts of Massachusetts.  Accompanying him, and providing inspiration for anyone who feels sex or small size is an inhibiting factor, is Elaine, his beautiful and athletically gifted wife.  Elaine is a dynamo disguised in the sweetest demeanor.  She can hang with all but the fastest cyclists, climb as if she’s dancing on the pedals, and keeps a mother hen’s eye on everyone to keep them safe.

Eileen, being the center of attention, deservedly so.

Elaine, being the center of attention, deservedly so. (photo from 2011 trip)

Over the last ten years I’ve had many great rides with Aldo and Elaine.  We’ve done the Cosby ride, the backwards Cosby, the ride out to Shelburne Falls, out past Amherst, and taken a few climbs up the short but steep climb to Sugarloaf Mountain, in Deerfield.  We have done a one hundred mile ride into Vermont and back.  The most memorable rides, though, have been our climbs to the peak of Mount Greylock.

Mount Greylock in the distance

View from afar of Mount Greylock

Mount Greylock, the origin of the name is a bit obscure, sits in the upper western part of Massachusetts, in Adams, near Williamstown.  It is the highest mountain in Massachusetts, and has an impressive view from the top extending more than 100 miles.  While it is possible to make a long cycling trip starting in Northampton and finishing at Mount Greylock, or even doing a 100-plus mile round trip, our usual approach is to drive to the ranger station on the southern route up the mountain and start our ride from there.  This past August we did just that.  My friend from college, Keith, who lives near Boston, and I were the only two guests of Aldo and Elaine this week.  We started out early from Northampton with our bikes secure in the rack atop Aldo’s van.  We stopped along the way at the marvelously named “BreadEuphoria” bakery in Haydenville for some coffee and a pastry.  About an hour later we arrived at the ranger station.  Meeting us there was Bob, friend of Aldo and Elaine, and co-leader on many of their rides.  Bob is in his 60’s, eats vegan, and lives an idyllic life in the hills of western Massachusetts, doing what he likes, which is cycling.  On the off chance Aldo has attracted some hammer heads who can really move or climb, Bob is there to work them until they are exhausted, and have gotten their money’s worth.  To Bob, it seems like a walk in the park.

Bob and Aldo

Bob and Aldo, getting their bikes ready for Mount Greylock.

Since neither Keith nor I are in the category of “hammer head”, Bob also serves another function, which is to be absolutely entertaining with his knowledge of the history of the area, his wry sense of humor, and general good nature.

The ride starts from the parking lot of the ranger station with a fast descent down Rockwell Road.  We then do a long route around the base of Mount Greylock, taking on a few hill climbs to get the legs ready, and stopping for a quick restroom break at Williams College in Williamstown.  Each time I have done this ride I have been reminded by my companions what a great art museum Williams College has.  One of these days, I will need to go check it out.  Williamstown is also the staging town for the start of the Long Trail in Vermont, which starts a few miles northeast at the end of Pine Cobble Road.  That’s another of my desires, to someday hike the Long Trail in Vermont.  Leaving Williamstown, we continue on to Notch Road, and the start of the ascent.  From this, the northern approach the elevation starts at about 1200 feet.  The route to the top is about 8 miles, and the summit is at 3491 feet.  The climbing starts quickly and sections of the climb reach the upper teens in percent grade.  One does get a little break from time to time where the road almost levels, but then the climbing starts again.  At around 3200 feet there is a mile of flattish rolling road which is a nice respite before the final climb to the summit.  While not the longest or most difficult climb I’ve done, this ranks up there in the top ten, and has certain characteristics which make it stand out.  It is a particularly scenic climb through natural forest.  The road surface, while pretty good most of the time, does have ruts, ice heaves and warning bumps where hiking trails cross.  Car traffic is light, thankfully.  And the view from the top is very impressive.

We all started together although Bob quickly went off the front, presumably to make sure no earthquakes had taken out sections of the road.  Aldo was behind him, but not by far.  Keith, Elaine and I started together, but I stopped along the way to snap a photo of an odd looking building.

Odd structure along Notch Road, up Mount Greylock.

Odd structure along Notch Road, up Mount Greylock.

Keith and Elaine kept going, while I tooled along, keeping a steady climbing pattern going.  In the saddle at my lowest gear, out of the saddle a couple of sprockets up, then back to sitting kept my climbing going.  Close to the top, I caught up with Keith and Elaine.  While Elaine was just being her protective self, she could very easily have shot up the mountain faster, Keith and I were dragging a bit as we crested the summit.

Near the summit of Mount Greylock.

Near the summit of Mount Greylock.

By reaching the summit, one joins a list of accomplished adventurers and naturists who have climbed the peak before.  This list includes Timothy Dwight IV, president of Yale University in 1799, the writers Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau, and the physician and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.  In 1929, a segment of the Appalachian Trail was cut to crest the mountain, and since then a multitude of backpackers have visited the peak.  Intrepid skiers of the 1930’s cut a ski run on the mountain called the Thunderbolt Ski Run.  It almost faded to overgrown obscurity until the late 1990’s when it was cleared of trees and brush.  Now, it is a challenging, steep run taken by skiers and borders who hike up, then descend the ungroomed, unlit, and unpatrolled fast and steep run.

Bob, Frank, Elaine, Aldo and Keith at the summit of Greylock, with the Veterans War Memorial in the background.

Bob, Frank, Elaine, Aldo and Keith at the summit of Greylock, with the Veterans War Memorial in the background.

College friends Keith and Frank at the Greylock summit.

College friends Keith and Frank at the Greylock summit.

View looking east from the summit of Mount Greylock (2010 photo).

View looking east from the summit of Mount Greylock (2010 photo).

The weather at the summit can change quickly.  As we arrived, it was nice and sunny, with a great view.  Moments later we were enshrouded in a fine, chilly mist.  That was our signal to head back down.  The descent is not as screamingly fast as one would like, taking the southern route.  In fact, there’s a bit of a climb half way down, but eventually we made it back to the ranger station.  We cleaned up in the restroom, got the bikes back in the racks on top of the van, said adieu to Bob, and drove back to Northampton.

The last two days of our stay this year in Northampton we had two other rides through the bucolic surrounding countryside, including one through Amherst and past the home of Emily Dickinson, famous poet and recluse.  Her house is now a museum dedicated to her life and her works. Again, this is a worthwhile destination for exploring, like the art museum at Williams College, but one for another trip.  Not having read much of her poetry, but being familiar with it, I searched online for a collection of her works.  What I found astounded me, a 3000 plus page collection, only to find that almost all of it was published after her death.

Emily Dickenson House

Emily Dickinson House, Amherst, Massachusetts

The last night in town Keith and I ate at Northampton’s Argentine steakhouse, Caminito, reminiscing about old college days, rides we’d taken, and keeping each other up to date on what career paths our kids, now in their twenties, are taking.

Aldo and Elaine provide an excellent cycling experience with Ride Noho, for all levels of riders.  But my trip to Noho is just as much about getting together with an old friend (or several, when we have a larger group), and unhitching from the stress of daily work.  As for my upcoming marathon, well, we’ll just have to see how it goes.  I’m feeling pretty decent with my training, and I don’t think taking off the four days from the running schedule will seriously impact my performance.

Frank K.

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