Four Notches and Two Tours

Saturday night, as I was falling asleep, I had a dream that woke me almost bolt upright. I was riding my bike, and suddenly I flew off the edge of a mountain. My tired subconscious had combined the two adventures from my day, apparently deciding to keep the most exciting parts.

The Kancamagus Highway in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Its name suggests sweeping panoramic views of the Presidential Range and the fiery colors of a New England autumn. Every time I’ve driven over it I’ve wanted to ride it on my bike. Two years ago when I rode around Mount Washington (details on Strava), I said I would ride “The Kanc,” as it’s locally known, next time.

Lisa and I were already going to be in the White Mountains over last weekend, and my Ironman plan suggested that I needed to bike five hours this weekend. This was just perfect for the 80-mile (130 km) route I had mapped out. The ride would take me over four “notches:” Franconia Notch, Kancamagus Pass, Bear Notch, and Crawford Notch. Each of these would involve significant climbing. Perfect!

Kanc ride

I hadn’t expected rain when I got up at 5:00AM, although I had planned for it when I packed for the trip. I spent a few minutes wondering whether I really wanted to do this ride before realizing I would be so chagrined later if I didn’t. I needed to get the ride in and to be back in time for our 1:30PM zip-line tour, so there was no time to dilly dally. I put everything that needed to stay dry in Ziploc baggies and headed out from the hotel, eating my ClifBar breakfast as I rode into the gloom.

The rain picked up as I rolled along, pushed by a strong wind from the south. Gradually I turned westward and started climbing toward Franconia Notch. The Notch has one of the few two-lane stretches of interstate highway in the US and bikes are excluded from it. There is a paved bike path, which feels like a hiking trail. It’s windy and full of short, punchy hills. Some of the grades were ridiculously steep, and because of the rain I decided to take it easy. (If you’ve been reading these dispatches, you’ll know that I don’t like to take it easy when on a training ride.) About halfway down the Notch, I realized I was riding the trail like I would on a mountain bike. The wind—now hitting me square in the face—was pretty brutal, too, and there were whitecaps on the lakes I rode past.

The bike trail part of the ride ended, and almost immediately I was going 30 mph (50 km/h) down a rainy, straight road with a nice wide shoulder. This was more like it! I zipped up my jersey and rain jacket to keep warm and rolled past water parks and tacky tourist shops into the town of Lincoln. When I stopped to refill my water bottles, the cashiers at the convenience store looked at me with a hint of pity. I caught sight of myself in a mirror in the store and felt a little badass. “I’m going to go ride my bike up a mountain in the rain. Who does that?! You do that. Now get on your bike and ride.”

As soon as I arrived in Lincoln the road turned upward. Having driven this road before, I had a vague idea of the scenery I wasn’t seeing. I caught glimpses of the Pemigewasset River and the streams feeding into, and even when I couldn’t see it, I heard it crashing down its rocky bed. I was left to imagine the tall peaks across the valley. My speed played tricks with my brain. The road was definitely going up, but how was I still climbing in the big ring? Sometimes I was going 15-20 mph (25-30 km/h) as I rolled along. Other times I was closer to 10 mph (15 km/h). I couldn’t see the horizon, but I knew I was going uphill. Eventually it dawned on me that the wind, which I couldn’t really feel, wasn’t a cross-wind at all but was helping push me up the mountain as it funneled up the valley.

I knew this climb was going to take a while, so I just kept a steady tempo, working hard but not too hard. I started the climb at mile 30 of my ride and figured I would summit somewhere around mile 43-45. I calculated it would take me about a little over an hour. As I got to the steeper part of the climb and my speed started to hover around 10 mph, I began to wonder if I was going to make it back to the start in time to get some lunch before our zip line tour. “Hmm . . . It took me two hours to go the first 30 miles, but part of that was on the slow bike trail. Now it’s a half hour later, and I’m not quite halfway done with the ride and I probably have seven more miles of climbing. I’m averaging a mile every six minutes. At this rate, I won’t be back until noon. I think I’d better be prepared to call Lisa and have her drive out and meet me somewhere. We’ll see what time it is when I get to Bartlett around mile 60.”

I was ticking off the miles and counting down the time as I worked my way to the summit. 36. 37. 38. “36 more minutes. 30. 24. . . .” About 45 minutes in I passed the hairpin turn that I knew was about 3/4 of the way up. “Frankly, I feel pretty good. I still have lower gears left if I need them. The road is probably going to pitch upward soon.” About 15 minutes later I saw the sign for the scenic overlook, and I thought I was at the top. Except the sign pointed off to the right, and I distinctly remember looking northward the last time I was on this road, which meant the overlook should have been on the left. 1,000 feet later I passed the sign for the other overlook and then a different sign informing me of a 7% downgrade for the next five miles.

For me, the best thing about climbing a mountain by bike is the sense of accomplishment at the top, but a very close second is the descent. I’m not a daredevil, but I love the rush of straight-line speed and the way the bike feels as it carries momentum into a corner. I’m actually quite conservative when it comes to cornering, and I respect the quality of the road surface, but I love to open it up when I can. The rain was a bit of an X factor, however, so I wasn’t hell-bent for speed.

Fortunately, the same updraft that pushed me higher was also acting as a brake on the downhill. The descent was completely nontechnical, with just a few gentle turns. The road surface was pretty good, too. The rain had mostly ended by now, and visibility was good. It was still wet, though, so whenever my speed edged up toward 40 mph (65 km/h) I lightly tapped the brakes. I’m sure it was just a placebo effect, but it made me feel a little safer. Traffic was exceedingly light, so I took advantage of the whole lane. If there was anyone behind me, they could wait a few minutes to pass. (Two cars did, in fact, pass me during the 10 minutes of the steep part of my descent. Neither seemed too impatient.)

The wind that had been pushing me up the mountain and keeping my speed in check on the steep part of the downhill now turned into a bit of an unwelcome guest. I had been able to pedal the whole descent up to this point, but now I actually had to work. I was pushing a big gear—and I was averaging over 20 mph (32 km/h)—but I wondered how fast I could go on a calm day. The good news is that I had made up a bunch of time. In just under 10 minutes, I had gotten myself back on track to arrive around 11AM.

After another 15 minutes of descending I was on the third climb of the day to Bear Notch. This little road connects the Kancamagus Highway with US-302, is very lightly traveled, entirely skips the incredibly busy town of Conway and its outlet malls, and is super pretty. At only 4 miles long, it’s also quite a bit shorter than the climb I had just done.

Just after turning onto the road, I met my first cyclists of the day. First a couple of women, then a man and a woman, and then another couple of women. We exchanged pleasantries. As I approached the top of the notch, my jacket and jersey unzipped, I saw a man wearing a tie-dyed shirt and a big camera taking pictures of me. “Clearly an event photographer,” I thought as I zipped up my jacket. (If there are going to be pictures of me out there somewhere, they’re at least going to be beautiful ones.) Then I remembered that two years ago I saw a bunch of riders doing the Mount Washington Century. I passed a bunch of them over the next 25 miles.

The Bear Notch descent was fantastic! Still wet and winding, but completely safe. I don’t think I touched my brakes at all, sweeping through corners and touching speeds in excess of 45 mph (75 km/h). Those ten minutes were even more enjoyable than the descent from the ride’s high point at Kancamagus Pass.

I was now at the ride’s lowest point (elevation-wise). It would be almost all uphill from here until I passed over Crawford Notch four miles from the hotel. With only 20 miles and 1,300 feet of climbing left to go, I no longer had to worry about calling Lisa to pick me, especially since my route had turned to give me a tailwind boost again.

That help turned out to be most welcome when I got to the hardest part of the climb: the ascent of Crawford Notch. I remember reaching 50 mph (80 km/h) going down it in 2013. And it had a climbing lane, which I had not yet seen on my ride today. The skies cleared, and I saw my first blue sky of the day as I entered the valley that contained the actual pass. I had been riding steadily uphill for about 12 miles (20 km) before I got to the steep part, and then it was like I hit a wall. The climbing lane started, and I was out of gears. 5% grade. 10% grade! 15% GRADE! 20% GRADE!! I was pushing hard and breathing harder, and I felt like I was barely moving. I was, in fact, barely moving. I looked down at my GPS and saw 4 mph (6 km/h) and decided to stop looking. I was slowly passing people on the climb, and as I passed one on the steepest part, I said, “Oh, holy shit!” After a long moment, she looked over at me with hollow eyes and silently went back to eating her stem.

At the top of the pass, someone had spray painted “Payback Time!” It definitely wasn’t as steep or as fast (or as wet) as the previous descents of the day, and it was effectively straight as an arrow. And it had a wide, smooth shoulder. So I attacked it. It’s always nice to end a ride on a downhill, and I cruised to the Mount Washington Hotel in bright sun but still a bit damp at 10:30AM, five hours and 80 miles after I rolled out.

After a shower and a bit of lunch, Lisa and I headed over to the “Adventure Center” for the second adventure of the day: a zip-line canopy tour. I’ll confess to being slightly afraid of heights, but I love things like roller coasters and being way up high (as long as I know it’s safe). I don’t remember exactly why I decided to put “Go zip-lining” on my latest list of 101 things to do, but it probably had something to do with watching “The Amazing Race” on TV.

It was so much fun! Our canopy tour was about two hours long and included nine zips, a half-dozen rappels, and a couple of sky bridges. Our guides started us on short, easy segments before moving us down the mountain in longer and faster runs. A few of my coworkers were along on the tour, and part of the fun was talking nonsense while we waited to get hooked into the pulley system to take our turns. One person saw a hawk on our second-to-last zip. On the same one, I ended up getting turned around 180°. Oops! Like any good geeky speed demon would do, I wore my Garmin GPS on the tour. At one point, I was going 32 miles/hour (52 km/h). So awesome!

I was definitely in my element when we rappelled. I wish those had been longer. On the other hand, I was quite pleased that the sky bridges—basically suspended planking—weren’t any narrower. This was actually the part that I was most nervous about. I’d love to do it all again!

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