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.

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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