Sunday, July 8, 2012

Sunday, July 8: 88 miles on a bike!

Click the image to enlarge, and yes, that's us, about to enter the covered bridge between Greenfield and Hancock, N.H.

Well, that was something! Something like 88.6 miles of something, at least according to Google Maps. That's the most I've done on a bike in a long time, and maybe the most ever. I'll have to ransack my addled brain on that, and see if anything else measures up.

But the nice thing about this long haul, which took 10 hours altogether, was that it not the result of any big crusade or detailed planning. It started because I wanted to do some lake swimming in advance of my first-ever triathalon on Saturday, July 14.

And the best place to do lake swimming I knew was Harrisville Pond, on the shores of which my family spent our summers when I was a boy, not the big kid I am now. The town beach is a fine spot to wade in an actual lake and thrash about, which is about as technical as I can get with swimming.

Toward the end of last week, Sunday was looking to be one of those great summer days we sometimes get in New England — sunny and warm but not HOT, and dry rather than humid. Maybe a breeze! They don't happen too often, but they're ideal for doing anything outside. (Except yardwork and household chores, that is.)

So instead of just driving out to Harrisville (about 40 miles one way) for a swim, why not take the bike? After hours of pedaling, nothing beats jumping in a lake. And my wife could pick me up for the drive home. Sure!

But as the weather forecast morphed into certainty, I couldn't see riding to Harrisville one-way. No! The weather would be too good. Conditions would be too perfect. The Granite State landscape was in full summertime glory along my chosen route: rolling hills, verdant bogs, quaint village centers with white steeples, local stores amply stocked with Gatorade.

I had to do the whole round-trip. Plus, coming back from Harrisville would be mostly downhill, and afternoon winds would likely be coming in from the west, promising a fun return leg.

On Friday, I outlined my plan to two friends, Dan Szczesny (pronounced "sez-knee") & Meena Gyawali. (Pronounced, er, just the way it looks...) They surprised me by saying they might want to join in! No problem — an ambitious ride such as this should not be savored alone, I thought. Plus, if I disappeared, they might have at least an idea of where I went missing. Another bonus turned out to be that Dan brought his camera, and I didn't, so we at least got a few pictures. I've included them as part of this post with his kind permission.

So on Sunday at 7:15 a.m., I bade my wife goodbye and pedaled down my driveway, bound for Harrisville Pond, some seven towns and 40 miles distant, and probably 1,000 feet higher in elevation. (Actually, I just checked, and Harrisville's official elevation is 1,335 feet. Bedford, N.H., where I live, is 309 feet. So the gain is more than a thousand feet!)

The first leg: North on Route 114, from Bedford into Goffstown, where I met Meena at the junction of Mast Road. (Dan was driving out to Francestown, the half-way point, and would meet us there.) Meena and I set off first across Goffstown, then peeled off on Route 13 to follow the Piscataquog River to New Boston. With the roads mostly flat, these first 12 miles are a piece of cake.

It's after New Boston (elevation 469 feet) that the hills begin in earnest. Following Route 136 out of the village, the road immediately begins climbing through a classic up-country New England landscape: meadows and marginal farms (some actually still in business!), horse properties, weed-choked bogs, and stone walls just all over the place. Through it all the road climbed and fell, gradually rising until just before Francestown's town center (elevation 831 feet), which it attains via a final murderously steep climb.

Meena and I savor some time off the bicycle seats in Francestown.

Dan was waiting here, as planned, and he joined us on a mild stretch of 136 to Greenfield (elevation 840 feet), where we had a unicycle sighting, then along back roads and mild downgrades to a covered bridge that spans the Contoocook River. This stretch brought the trip's one mechanical mishap: I overenthusiastically shifted into high gear, causing my chain to come off. A few moments of fiddling fixed it, leaving my fingers (and, soon, my bike shorts, and later, my face) smudged with black gear grease.

Over the river and through the bridge...yes, I know that's not how it goes.

After taking photos at the bridge, we began a steady climb to Hancock's village center, at 876 feet the highest point so far. We stopped there in front of the John Hancock Inn (serving guests continuously since 1790 — presumably not the same ones) to reconnoiter prior to the final push to Harrisville, whose town center is located a whopping 500 feet higher than where we were pausing.

Unfortunately, the assault on Harrisville (via Route 137 south, initially), begins with a ridiculously steep downgrade, a dangerous curving slope seemingly straight down that loses perhaps 100 feet before finally bottoming out as it crosses a small bog. Great!

And only then commences the great uphill battle, which is fought not at a steady pace, but in short intense bursts due to the way Route 137 was engineered. The plan seems to have been to follow the path of least resistance, with no effort being made to smooth out any grades. So, on a bike, you'll go for a short level stretch, then encounter a terrificly steep pitch, often on a curve, with the road working its way up and out of the valley one jump at a time. This happens again and again, and never lets up until you cross the border into Harrisville and Route 137 finally passes through a level boggy area. Finally, there's one more rise before we turn onto "Hancock Road."

Meena schleps along a rare level stretch of road somewhere between Hancock and Harrisville.

As I neared this rural junction, I was alarmed to see ROAD CLOSED signs set up at the intersection. After all this way? A closer look brought relief: road WOULD BE closed for bridge replacement starting Monday, July 9. Tomorrow! What luck — we'd chosen to take out journey on the last day possible before a crucial bridge would be removed.

Down we went, the rough and narrow surface (just about one car wide) leading us into a network of back roads that would take us to Harrisville's town center. I never remembered it being very steep, but the upgrades kept coming, though at a milder rate. (Funny how important these things become when you've been on a bike for nearly four hours.) But shade was plentiful, the air was cool, cars hadn't been invented yet, and the pace was slow enough so that all the forest sounds came through as if I was walking quietly without any kind of bike at all.

While stopped at a junction to wait for Meena and Dan to catch up, I checked the time. 11:20 a.m. So we just might get to Harrisville Pond at the time I expected: between 11:30 a.m. and noon. Nice! Soon the grades stopped, and we were riding along the rambling road that follows the north shore of Lake Skatutakee (fire up the spell-checker!), which is lined with ramshackle cottages and get-away cabins from another era that have somehow endured into the 21st century, many unchanged since I was a boy.

Meena rounds a bend on the shores of Lake Skatutakee, among humble cabins unfit for the glitterati.

No one-percenters buying up lakefront properties here! And that's a good thing, I think, for what amount to entirely personal and quite selfish reasons. For I take solace in passing through this landscape, which I knew as a boy and which hasn't changed much since. I'm glad it still looks (and smells and sounds) the same, even as the whole world around it has changed, including me. Everyone should have a Harrisville to go to once in awhile, I think.

Meena tackles the last of many, many hills leading to Harrisville. That grade is a lot steeper than it looks, folks!

And then the final this-is-really-the-last-one hill, and there we were: The Harrisville General Store, where we stopped to catch our breath before a short ride over to the town beach. I forget what Meena's mileage counter said at that point, but Google maps had my mileage then as 42.5. Not bad in four hours, considering the rise in elevation, and all our stops for water, photos, and chain rehanging.

Meena and I (far right) on the Harrisville General Store porch.

After noshing on fare that included a blintz for Dan (at the Harrisville General Store? Where they once had a grimy pot-bellied stove and rat cheese? I guess some things have changed...) we checked out the picturesque red brick town center, inadvertently riding through what turned out to be a memorial ceremony (oops!) being held on the small bridge near the library (I thought it was a wedding reception, with future brides straining to catch the bouquet, but it was a family placing flowers into the water.)

An image of the ceremony on the bridge in Harrisville's center, taken at a respectful distance.

We then made our way to the town's public beach, where we parked our bikes — no locks, of course. I then waded in and discovered that yes, I remembered how to swim, and also that there's nothing as pleasurable as wading into a lake on a summer day.

Harrisville Pond as seen from the town beach, with yours truly in the water not drowning, but attempting to wave.

We stayed just long enough to realize that if we stayed any longer, we'd never leave. So, hopping on the bikes, we made a quick exit from Harrisville, but then commenced climbing (more!) on the worst road of the day (lots of pavement cuts filled with gravel) to the next town to our south: Dublin, elevation 1,453 feet.

Believe it or not, Dublin supposedly has the highest town center in New England. I'm not quite sure I do believe that, but still it was good to know it would be all (well, mostly) downhill from here. And it was! Taking Route 101 to Peterborough, with a westerly wind behind us, was a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride of steep downgrades and flying through dangerous intersections and columns of passing trucks and all manner of obstacles, including a bridge under construction and a rotary that's located very inconveniently at the bottom of a long steep downgrade into Peterborough, elevation 718 feet and Mile 52.7 of the day for me.

Meena and I posing for pictures in Peterborough. I'm the one who's not the small dark-skinned woman.

We stopped at the Peterborough Diner for a snack (a club sandwich for Dan & Meena, a piece of blueberry pie for me), and then steered north on Route 202 to find Route 136, which would take us back to Greenfield. I didn't know this road, but we were all pleasantly surprised to find it devoid of any intense hills. And before we knew it, we were back in Greenfield and headed toward Francestown. (Mile 65.2.)

Once there, Dan decided he and his rebuilt Schwinn would continue, and so would Meena, and they'd pick up the car later. So back we went to New Boston, propelled by a brisk west wind and zipping down slope after slope. It almost seemed effortless, which either meant I had gotten strong enough to handle a ride of this length or that I had lost all feeling in my body.

Before I had time to ponder that, I was in a controlled descent on the long grade down into New Boston, where Dan and Meena and I bade goodbye. On my own, I then cruised back though Goffstown and Bedford, arriving home at 5:15 p.m. Total mileage: 88.6. And other than a little saddle soreness, I felt pretty good! (And a day later, I still do.)

Dan and Meena continued into Manchesterat their own pace, with Meena adding extra detours along the way so the miles would pile up. Finally, by going up and down their street on Manchester's West Side, her odometer flipped over to triple digits. In one day, 100 miles for Meena! Very impressive.

And the best part of it all: the lack of careful planning, which added a nice sense of serendipity to the day's activities. Did we really do that? Yes, we did!

As Mr. Kurt Vonnegut wrote in his novel Cat's Cradle: "Peculiar traveling suggestions are dancing lessons from God." Today's version of that would be: "Peculiar biking suggestions are dancing lessons from God."

1 comment:

  1. Like the Vonnegut quote. Here's another: "There are some wicked downhills but unfortunately, we’ll be going the other way!"
    Gotta go back to the General Store for some donuts. Maybe we'll take a bus next time :)
    Not too sore the day after. Great day!