Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Vive le Grand Tour! the best annual group ride that almost didn't happen 2016

Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting. - Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Grand Tour is an annual tradition in the little cycling community I call home. It has happened every Sunday after Mother's Day for decades. When the weather is fair I've seen 70 or more cyclists on the route. The riders come on a wide range of bikes & travel at equally divergent pace. In the best years we enjoy a group of a couple dozen sharing the work on the flat stretches. But this was not a fair weather year. Since Mother's Day was early this year, Sunday May 15th was the regular date. But with a forecast of 45F & 15 mph winds, the ride was postponed until May 22nd. Several of the regulars on the Wednesday night road ride were eager for the new date. Other cyclists who come up just for the ride called the shop to confirm the date in the week ahead. But the forecast for that Sunday got more dismal as the week dragged on. As all great traditions go, it can only be maintained by someone keeping it up.

I wasn't going to ride the Grand Tour this year. I planned to race the Eastern Grind on May 15th instead. But when the date was changed I thought, maybe I can do the short route of 80-90 miles. The Grand Tour is hard to resist when a good group makes for a fun day in the saddle. Then when the weather forecast shifted to rain in the afternoon I thought, perhaps I'll ride from home and stop at North Woodstock for 105 miles. That was the plan at least, ride hard for 5+ hours and finish by lunch time. That was the plan

I got up early Sunday morning and spotted a sheen of over night rain on the road. The forecast had improved a bit, but the sky was still overcast. I packed a rain jacket, booties, & extra chamois cream in the large saddle bag before heading out. I was 3 miles from home when I realized I forgot my phone & money. CRAP! I was beginning the day with a chase to catch the group that left from the bike shop with a 10 minute lead. Most years the group pace from the shop up to the North Woodstock parking lot is leisurely. But as the miles ticked by up Route 3 I was concerned that I saw no other cyclists. I upped my tempo, anxious I would miss the group entirely.

Thom took the first town line of the day
I rolled into the parking lot in North Woodstock just past 8:15. I was thrilled to see my team mates Jordan & Ryanne at their car. But no other cars with bike racks were in the lot and only 2 other cyclists near by. This was it? Where were the dozens of other riders who usually show up? From the lack of cars I could tell no one had likely started early either. The other 2 were Andy Havey & Thom Mitchel who had come up from Plymouth 10 minutes ahead of me. They too were surprised to be the only cyclists at the bike shop that morning. But the Grand Tour must go on, so we committed to stay together as a tight knit group.
Ryanne still all smiles after the first climb

We started through Lincoln to the Kancamagus Highway at a casual pace. At some point near the hair pin curve, 3 miles before the top, Thom & I separated from the others. We each started climbing a little harder to test our legs. With about a mile to go Thom upped the pace to one I could not match if I was going to ride another 90+ miles. He took the first town line of the day at the crest of the Kanc. We stopped at the look out to zip up our vests & wait for Andy, Jordan & Ryanne. The clouds began to break allowing some sky to peak through. It was gorgeous as always.
the view from the top of the Kanc

Like most years we ripped the descent down the east side of the Kanc, going over 40 mph in the straight stretches. After grouping up at the bottom of Bear Notch we began an equally casual pace up this climb as out of Lincoln. After I took the town line 1.5 miles up, Andy & Thom pulled away to climb at their quick rate. Down the back side of Bear Notch Andy spotted a black bear crossing the road, imagine the serendipity.

Following the well established pattern, we stopped to refuel at Bart's Deli in Bartlett. The giant pickle jar & breakfast sandwiches are institutions for New Hampshire cyclists. As we filled our bottles & sat in the parking lot an older gentleman asked how far we were riding. He was driving a car with Ontario plates & 2 little old ladies in the back seat. When we told him our route he replied in a thick English accent "well, that sounds brilliant, but you're quite mad. Yes absolutley mad." I took that as a high compliment.
Still feeling good at our first food stop in Bartlett

We resumed a steady pace out of Bartlett heading up to Crawford Notch. This stretch always feels longer than the 14 miles it measures. A little tailwind helped ease the strain of the constant upward tilt of the road. My problem was that my legs were flat. This was my last day of a hard 3 week training block. I did not have much power left at all. But I thought that once we got a little further up the road I might recover. Jordan kindly held back & pulled me to last roller before the start of Crawford Notch proper. Andy & Thom lit up the steep final pitch to the top of the Notch. I crawled my way up, it was one of my weakest rides up Crawford. We grouped up again past the AMC Highland center for the fast downhill stretch to Bretton Woods.
cycling to the top of Crawford Notch: photo by Nick Czerula
Andy after taking the sprint on Crawford Notch
The real attraction of the Grand Tour is the route. The views from the top of the Kanc are great & the site of Cannon & Mt Lafayette are beautiful. My favorite stretch though is coming up through Crawford notch. On a clear day traveling the at bicycle pace I have a chance to enjoy all the vistas along this 12 mile stretch: Arethusa Falls, Willey's Slide, the Cog railway meandering below Mt. Field, Elephant Head Rock, and all the peaks of the southern Presidentials. A bicycle is a much better way to take in these sights than from behind a windshield at 50 mph. I was a little jealous of the loaded touring cyclists we passed going half our pace up this beautiful road. Our small group meant we could see more of the views rather than concentrating on the pace line. Despite the weather forecast, this was turning out to be a good day.

Foster's Store our second food stop
Rolling out for the final 50 miles
Another advantage of a small group is that we could pick our stops instead of following the bunch to every store. We jetted by Fabian's Station, waving a greeting to the bikers parked at the Mount Washington hotel look out. We continued on to Twin Mountain. Thom pounded out 30 mph pulls that I felt compelled to match. Ryanne may or may not have expressed her discomfort at the pace with a finger gesture. We were all ready for another refuel stop at Foster's Corner. For a moment I worried that it had closed for business like so many of my favorite north country stores. But instead new owners are renovating the funky old spot, the debris of the construction was merely piled outside. While we sat at one end of the porch sharing a large bag of Cape Cod chips, a local elder gentleman was sitting in the rocking chair at the other end. He quizzed Jordan about our route & club kit. He had the thickest Yankee accent I've heard in years. He seemed much more accepting of our cycling exploits than the Canadian tourist at our first food stop.
Franconia Bike Path, narrow & slick with leaves

We resumed a steady pace up Route 3 to Franconia Notch. I had planned to head down to Easton Road and go over Kinsman Notch but the sky to the west looked stormy. We decided to follow the traditional route and ride down the Franconia Bike Path. I dislike the Franconia Bike Path. It is narrow, lumpy, frequently slick with wet leaves, & on many weekends littered with gawking tourists, who often serve as human pylons. Speeding down this treacherous strip of pavement is risky at best. But with rain in Kinsman Notch it was clear that this was the better choice. Despite the risks, we had a great time on the bike path. In a small group we could control our speed and until we reached the Basin passed only a few walkers. I admit, I had fun speeding down Franconia Notch for the first time in several years.

We might have broken the Bike Path speed limit (oops)
Thom & Jordan exit the Bike Path and enter the rain
The only poor weather we faced all day was 5 minutes of rain from the end of the bike path until we reached the North Woodstock town line. In truth that little burst of rain was refreshing. We were all wearied by the miles at that point. Once we reached the Cascade CafĂ© each of us ordered a coffee & some pastry. We sat enjoying this stop longer than I expected, longer than any of us thought we would. Jordan & Ryanne had finished their ride so wished us farewell.

Coffee break in North Woodstock, we are much less perky than in Bartlett
Thom, Andy, & I slowly got back up to speed for the final stretch down Route 3. Andy reminded us of the Grand Master's refrain for this stretch of the Grand Tour: only 7 hills back to Plymouth. This was a welcome thought since we were all suffering from fatigue. Our pulls each got shorter. Thom no longer hit the front so hard. We had a tail wind to help us along, but somehow it did not seem as much help as the one at Bartlett 60 miles earlier. But each mile brought us closer to home. So we pedaled as hard as we could sustain. We rotated a steady pace line & pushed each other up the last couple of hills. After taking the final town line (old habits die hard) Andy & Thom returned to the bike shop while I turned down Fairgrounds Road. Only 5 easy miles remained in my ride, but into a headwind. It was a slow spin home.

This ended up one of my favorite Grand Tours. The small group was very good company. The weather was far better than the forecast. The mountain views were as beautiful as ever. I'm certain this event will continue as long as people ride road bikes in central New Hampshire. The Grand Tour lives on, Vive le Grand Tour!

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