Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In which I actually ride my bicycle
up and over Kancamagus Pass — twice!

"Instead of staying on the couch for a lifetime, and letting this precious time go by, why not be bold? Be fiercely bold and go out and chase your dreams."

—Endurance swimmer Diana Nyad, 62, on Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012, after unsuccessfully attempting to swim from Cuba to Florida during the prior weekend.

Well, unlike Ms. Nyad, I didn't get stung by any jellyfish. But on Sunday, Aug. 19, while she was in the middle of her swim, I did succeed in riding my bike the entire length of New Hampshire's mountainous Kancamagus Highway, out and back, for a total of 68.4 miles. It took me 6½ hours, gaining (and losing) about 2,200 feet of elevation each way.

I've been planning to try this for several years now, and never got a chance to make it happen. But after a few longer bike rides this season, I felt ready if the right opening came along, maybe this month.

My first shot, I thought, was Saturday, Aug. 11, but the weather stayed wet that day. Saturday, Aug. 18 looked good, but I had to stick close to home. But then on Sunday, Aug. 19, I found myself putting the bike in the car and hitting the road for the 90-minute drive north on Interstate 93 to my starting point: Elvio's Pizza in Lincoln, N.H. (Elvio's is one of the great culinary treasures of New Hampshire, as they make the best thin-crust pizza I've had anywhere, including New York City. Seriously! What better incentive could I have to make it back?)

Conditions were perfect New Hampshire summer weather—low humidity, temps in the 70s, light breezes at most, and later a thin high overcast to cut down on direct sun. There would be, could be, no better day.

So, not knowing quite what to expect, there I was, unloading my Giant Defy road bike in Elvio's parking lot. Next thing I knew, I was on Route 112, heading east through Lincoln's commercial clutter and into the heart of the White Mountains. My pack was full of water bottles and gad, the pedals felt heavy. What was I in for?

(And one note right from the beginning. I carried a camera with me, but only pulled it out a couple of times, making for a dearth of images to go with this tale. Hey, I can't do everything!)

At first I got faked out by the bike paths that run along Route 112 in Lincoln. Should a long-distance cyclist use them? I didn't know, so erred on the side of caution and took the first one. Mistake! They're narrow and twisty and have erratic surfacing, and the one short stretch I tried featured needless up-and-down grades while traffic zoomed by on the nicely paved highway below. First chance I got, it was buh-bye bike path, hello highway.

But then I was confronted with a new obstacle: a big sign shouting ROAD WORK NEXT 8.1 MILES. Road work? You've got to be kidding! But it was only last year when parts of "the Kanc" were washed out by the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene, so I guess I should have expected it.

On I pedaled. The first few miles are pretty level as the Kanc enters the White Mountain National Forest (LAND OF MANY USES!) to begin its winding journey up to Kancamagus Pass, about 12 miles ahead and 2,000 feet up, and then down into the Swift River valley and eventually to Route 16 in Conway, my turn-around point.

I thought of how often I've traveled along this road, always by car. It was only opened in the late 1950s, making it still fairly new when I first encountered it during family trips starting about a decade later. In more recent years, I've scouted its bike worthiness, and it seemed doable. And now here I was, at age 48, trying to conquer it solely by pedal power.

Keeping to a modest pace to conserve energy, I reached the Lincoln Woods trailhead sooner than I expected, but then the serious grades began. For the next six miles or so, I faced a climb that was steady, but not murderous. Surprisingly, I came upon and passed a bicyclist early on in this stage, the only time that happened all day. He was an older guy and seemed to be just out for a lark. I envied him.

To tackle the grade, I simplified, gearing down to the lowest setting and just grinding away. Breathing was key: I kept to an aggressive in/out cadence to keep the blood oxygenation going. I rode mostly in the shade, for which I was thankful, but soon the road began doing its twisty thing, in and out of the sun, and down came the sweat. Eventually, each breath would blow a healthy amount off the end of my nose, again and again, each time sparkling in the sunlight. I felt (and sounded) like a human steam engine.

I soon encountered the "road work": a multi-mile section of pavement that had been treated with an asphalt/gravel base coat in prior to the final coat, presumably coming soon. It was Sunday, so no work was in progress, but the base coat surface was much rougher than regular pavement. Well, coulda been worse.

This went on for several miles, until the Otter Rocks Rest Area, just before the highway starts its back-and-forth curving up to the pass — the Granite State's answer to Lombard Street. I wondered what it would be like coming down on this stuff. (I would find out soon enough.) It was a relief when the rough stuff ended and I was back on regular pavement.

Even so, the Kanc does not feature a generous shoulder, and the road surface is often broken up on the edges. This makes it necessary to concentrate all the time to avoid any unexpected holes, which doesn't exactly make for a relaxing ride.

This wouldn't be too bad except the Kanc is also a busy road, and never more so than on a nice summer Sunday. Though it was never wall-to-wall cars, traffic was constant and motorcycles were especially present — really loud ones in particular. Anyway, it's hard for us all to share the road when there's not really enough of it to go around. And the result is that biking the Kanc is not only a physical challenge, but a mental challege, as you really can never stop concentrating.

A solitary bike through one of the largest wilderness areas in New England? Forget it! Not what I found.

Still, all the traffic has a way of keeping you going (kind of like spectators at a road race), and I soon reached my first big milestone, the hairpin turn and the Hancock Trailhead. Time: 11 a.m., so only an hour! Time for my first stop. After draining a water bottle (I don't like trying to drink while pedaling) and chatting with a friendly police officer who may have been gauging my sanity, I resumed the climb, which now entered its steepest section: the final three miles to the pass, which boast an average grade of 9 percent.

So up I went, the excitement of attaining the pass spurring me on around the bends and up over the patchy pavement. Because the shoulder remains narrow and traffic is constant, there aren't many chances to admire the scenery, which is highlighted by some dramatic rock ledges and an expansive view down the valley back toward Lincoln. I was more interested in not getting killed, and I'd seen the views before, so I kept my eyes on the road.

I did notice the roadside trees were definitely getting shorter, which added to the drama of the climb. That, coupled with the distant vistas, makes it feel like you've entered a place where you're bigger and more imposing than usual. For someone who stands a hair over 5-foot-8, that's a plus!

On one of the last stretches, two guys on bikes came whizzing downgrade, heading the other way at somewhere well above 30 mph, I'd guess, and riding well into the traffic lane. A taste of what was to come? It didn't exactly comfort me.

But I did feel strong, even as the sun was beating down and a steady flow of sweat was now running down my nose. I had plenty of water in my backpack — about two gallons. The Kanc offers no services for its 30-odd miles, meaning my usual strategy of traveling light and visiting wayside stores wouldn't work.

Even so, it was a little surprising how soon I reached the top of the pass, which divides the watersheds of the Merrimack and Saco rivers. In no mood to lallygaggle, I just kept going, and soon found myself careening down a grade that quickly became alarming.

Really. I had expected to enjoy the long coast down into the Swift River valley, but it didn't turn out that way at all. Unsure of my bike's stability or handling at high speeds, I started riding the brakes almost immediately to cut down my speed, and continued to do so almost all the way down.

Perhaps it was just too much of a contrast after 90 minutes of low-speed uphill climbing. I don't know. But I was on my own and wasn't about to push things, so I rode the brakes.

The result was that my hands and arms quickly became fatigued, much more so than I expected, but I had no choice but to hold on and keep a sharp lookout for potholes and pavement problems that could easily send me flying. Some joy ride! At one point, a fellow biker also heading downhill whizzed right past me kamakazi-like, at a ridiculous clip, quickly disappearing around a bend. What was that all about?

This whole section was mildly frightening, like being on an amusement park ride that you're not sure is really safe, but the thing has started and you can't do anything about it but hang on. That, coupled with the need to concentrate on the pavement and traffic, turned what I thought would be a prolonged lark into a nerve-racking experience.

Signs gave me some hope. At the top: 7 percent grade, next 4 miles. Then, sometime later, next 2.5 miles. Then, finally just next 1 mile. Phew! Almost over!

I was ever so glad when the grade finally bottomed out, and the Kanc then progressed in its march across about 10 miles of flat terrain. I got as far as the junction with Bear Notch Road and stopped for another break: 12 noon on the dot! I like this part of the Kanc because you're in this kind of hidden valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides and nothing else.

At the junction of Bear Notch Road, looking eastward. One of the few places on the Kanc with a generous shoulder.

It feels almost prehistoric — that is, until a gaggle of Harleys comes roaring past you. I swear some of them rev their engines as they pass just to frighten the bicyclist. So I pedaled eastward on long straight stretches, noticing occasional light breezes from the east, a rare direction. Well, that would be some help on the way back, I thought. Piece of cake!

But not a very tasty cake. I got my first hint of further trouble when the Kanc began following the Swift River as it twists and turns its way to meeting the Saco River in Conway. This involves a long steady downgrade, which was enjoyable to cycle (finally!), but kept leading to thoughts along the lines of "What's it going to be like to go up this?" I wasn't as familiar with this side of the Kanc, and the size and length of this downgrade was a little surprising, even as I sailed down it. Uh-oh.

One consequence of approaching the eastern end is that you run across more places for people to visit by car. On such a fine weekend day, swimming holes along the Swift River were mobbed, meaning vehicles were parked everywhere, and there was constant turning in and out, adding stress to this part of the journey. Still, I felt strong as I crossed the National Forest boundary and pedaled the few remaining miles to Route 16.

And there it was! A conveniently timed traffic light allowed me to cycle right up to it and make a U-turn around a traffic island, and I'd done it. Yay me! I stopped and found that once again I'd gone for one hour: it was now exactly 1 p.m.

It felt really good to have made it this far: 34 miles out. But now it was time to head back, and I began to seriously wonder what I'd gotten myself into. It was warmer at this lower elevation, and the sun seemed hotter. What was I in for?

I had planned to be back at Elvio's at about 4 p.m. for pizza with Dan Szczesny and his entourage. Just to be safe (and while I had a phone signal), I texted him to make it 4:30 p.m., giving myself a half-hour.

I then started back, and almost immediately I felt something less than spritely. Who added the lead to my feet? Then I realized the breeze was now coming from the west, and I was heading into it. How did that happen? It wasn't constant, but was enough to make things seem more difficult than they needed to be, even on a level grade.

Soon I began climbing the curves back up along the Swift River, not really with any abundance of energy but keeping to a steady pace. At one point a little girl down with her friends on the rocks called up to me "Hello Mr. Bicycle Man!" but otherwise I must have gone into a defensive trance, as I hardly remember anything from this section of the ride, other than it seemed to go on and on.

And then one last really tough incline, and I achieved level ground. Yes! I pushed on for another 10 minutes and found myself at good old Bear Notch Road, so stopped for water. Time was 2 p.m. Somehow, my internal clock still seemed geared for me to take a break every hour.

Looking west at the Bear Notch Road junction. Steep grade ahead.

I spent maybe 15 minutes resting this time, knowing that the worst was coming up: the long climb back up to Kancamagus Pass. And yes, my legs and butt were already saying "Ouch!" So I hopped (gingerly) back on and hoped that it just wouldn't be too bad.

And it wasn't, until I hit the Pine Bend Trailhead. At that point, the road starts up a good stiff grade, and it just doesn't let up for four, maybe five miles. I geared down immediately and settled into a very slow pace, just enough to keep my balance, climbing steadily and breathing hard. Thought of 'The Little Engine That Could' came and went.

This is where the adventure devolved into pure sadism. It wasn't any fun, but I had no choice to keep going, and so I did. Another curve, another curve, always a grade, and sometimes a Peter Pan bus to nearly run you off the road as you try your best to stay level and straight at a ridiculously slow speed and push on and up.

Thankfully, a high overcast was moving in, which cut down on the direct sun. And the higher I climbed, the cooler it got. But still, it was no fun. How to get through it?

I found myself thinking of those "7 percent grade" signs I saw coming down. On the way up, they would now be markers of my remaining agony. I had been pedaling uphill seemingly forever, so I must have missed the "Next 1 Mile" sign, which would have been facing in the other direction. Okay, but I ought to be seeing the "Next 2.5 Miles" sign soon, which would mean I was at least half-way up the slope.

And there it was! A sign with its back turned to me, yes, but ready to give me a burst of encouragement that would come with reaching the halfway point in my climb to the pass. As I approached it, I found enough energy to push into a faster cadence to celebrate the milestone.

And then I passed the sign so I could actually see it, and was shocked that it read "Next 1 Mile." What?! I had only gone one mile up the slope? I still had all that to go?

This was seriously disappointing because I wasn't enjoying the ride at all and 1.5 miles had just been added to it. I kept going, though, afraid that if I did actually stop, I would never be able to get moving again.

Without a clear sense of how long it actually took, I eventually passed the "Next 2.5 Miles" grade sign, meaning I finally was at least half-way up. Still, I kept going, until finally I reached an unpaved clearing on my side of the road, and almost as if by instinct, pulled in and stopped. I just had to.

Time was 3:15 p.m. I found a patch of grass and took the next 15 minutes to cool off and stretch out as traffic screamed by on the pavement nearby. God, I thought — it's so much easier to traverse this highway, and these hills, with just a foot on an accelerator. I guzzled water, surprised that I still had two full bottles of it in my bag — bottles that I'd already hauled all the way up this hill once today, and was now doing it again!

Then, even more gingerly than before, I once again assumed the position and began pedaling, just slow enough to maintain forward motion. Up, up, up: a curve, a straightaway, and then finally a distant glimpse of the shelter that's part of a rest area near the crest of the road.

With the shelter now in intermittent view, I began to recognize the contours of the road, as recalled from the first terrifying minutes of the morning's descent. Here a curve, there a straight section with a guardrail and a view, and then what I thought had to be the finalcurve before the top — and it was.

My pace picked up as the adrenaline began flowing again. Never was a so glad to see a scenic view rest stop! But I pedaled right past it, intent on making it to the actual top, still a short distance away and up.

And finally, the road began to level out, and there was the sign marking the top of the pass: ELEVATION 2,855 FEET. Having no companion, I contented myself with photos of the bike leaning against the sign.

It was now exactly 3:45 p.m. Let's see: 45 minutes to cover the 12 miles to Lincoln? Okay, I thought, bracing myself for another out-of-control toboggan ride.

Proof that I made it, or at least my bike did. Notice the complete lack of a paved shoulder on this part of the road.

But I pushed off down the slope, and it wasn't that bad. Maybe I was just used to it, or completely desensitized, or something. But the miles sped by at a good clip, and at first I found I barely had to pedal and rarely had to brake. Nice!

However, even as I tried to sneak a few glances at the vistas I'd worked so hard to witness, I did encounter one last obstacle that at the time seemed very alarming. Once I stopped pedaling and began coasting downhill, both my thighs began to throb with a kind of deep and intense pain that I'd never felt before. And it was growing, like something was seriously wrong. I tried holding my legs out in different positions (while still maintaining balance), but that didn't help. I tried stretching them when I could, but that instantly made things worse!

The pain was continuing to build and it was beginning to affect my ability to concentrate, and just as I was hitting that stretch of road with the half-completed paving job. I seriously thought about stopping and calling Dan for a ride back, because at this point I wasn't sure I could stay in control of the bike on the downgrades.

And then I tried something that seemed to help. I started pedaling again! I didn't need to as gravity was now my friend, but it seemed to dull the pain, so I kept doing it. Although the pain never truly went away (until later), I was able to keep going.

I think what happened was that during the long hill climb, a good amount of lactic acid had accumulated in the muscle tissue of my thighs (a natural way of causing one to feel fatigue), and as soon as the muscles stopped moving, I began to receive signals that all was not well in that area. In short, I had essentially poisoned my tissue with excess lactic acid. Resuming the pedaling movement somehow short-circuited the pain signals, even while the lactic acid was dissipating because I wasn't actually working the muscles.

Anyway, that's the best explanation I have. Other theories are welcome. All I know is that it was another unexpected scary thing to encounter, especially when screaming down long grades at maybe 30 miles per hour. Soon the grade bottomed out at Lincoln Woods, and I found the adrenaline carried me the few miles left to Lincoln and the parking lot at Elvio's, where I arrived at 4:17 p.m.

Wow! It took me maybe 75 minutes to climb to the pass from Lincoln, but only 32 minutes to return down. On the last stretch, that's an average speed of...22.5 miles an hour, which seems about right. For the whole ride (68.4 miles), the average speed was a little over 10 miles per hour, which also seems about right.

Parting thoughts: While the Kanc is supposed to be a remote wilderness road, I was surprised by how little actual wildlife I encountered. The grand total: a flock of three turkeys crossing the highway, and one overly plump chipmunk that I surprised because I was so quiet. Also, mid-August must be butterfly mating season, as I encountered colorful (and large) Monarch or Viceroy butterflies throughout the ride.

Speaking of quiet: Yes, I traversed a few stretches where it was just me and the bike and the road. But for the most part, I found biking the Kanc was a joint exercise with (and against) my fellow man as much as anything.

That's a good thing to know about biking the Kanc. Yes, it's doable and worthwhile and I'm glad I did it and will probably do it again, perhaps one-way as part of a longer loop around the White Mountains. But one needs to understand that it's not the exercise in solitude one might have expected.

Still, it was worth it — and at least I didn't get stung by any jellyfish.

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