Saturday, September 17, 2005

Three Notches summary

I got back from my little White Mountain adventure on Wednesday evening. I would say it was a big success, both in terms of being a fun and challenging experience and raising some money to benefit Northeast Passage. Thanks to all of you who donated, I raised $125 more than my goal.

For the first leg of the ride, on Monday, we rode west from the base of Loon Mountain ski area, north through the town of Lincoln, and up some hills into Franconia Notch before stopping for lunch at the base of Cannon Mountain ski area. Then we rode through north through the town of Twin Mountain and east to the Appalachian Mountain Club's new lodge, the Highland Center — 38 miles in all. There's a pretty extensive network of paved bike paths running through the national forest in Franconia Notch, but riding them was unexpectedly much more tiring than riding on the road; since they're not graded for car traffic, they constantly dip up and down. You end up using short bursts of anaerobic energy rather than getting a long-term, controlled aerobic workout... although come to think of it, that's actually pretty optimal training for alpine ski racing.

The lodge at the Highland Center is a neat place. Unlike most of the AMC's network of mountain huts, it's just off a major road (Route 302), it's capable of housing hundreds of people, and it has such modern amenities as trash cans, flush toilets, numerous hot showers, comfy leather couches, and even an (i.e., one) Internet connection. And the bunk rooms are small, holding 2 to 6 people each rather than 20 or 30. But it's still a nice alternative to a hotel for people who want to experience the mountains in a somewhat traditional way: no TV, a strong emphasis on conservation, and good food served family-style at big, long tables. The building itself is beautifully designed, with a really high, barn-style beamed ceiling in the dining room. (Click here for a panoramic view if you have the Java plug-in.) And since it's so new (I think it was completed in 2004), it's fully ADA-compliant, which was nice for a group that included six wheelchair users. The other big group at the Center that night was the reunion of a dozen or so hikers in their 60s and 70s who come there from around the Eastern U.S. every year, having first met on a trip through the Presidentials 20 years ago. That's pretty damn cool.

I had met almost everyone on the trip for the first time on Monday morning. Seeing people out of their cycling clothes that evening, new sides of them seemed to emerge, and it was possible to see style differences within a group that had looked pretty uniform all decked out in Lycra. The only people I already knew were Craig, a retired wheelchair athlete in his 40s or early 50s who introduced me to handcycling years ago, and Jeff, a monoskier, downhill off-road wheelchair racer and ski instructor whom I vaguely new from past ski events. Jeff's roommate in Lincoln, N.H. happens to be Andy Parr, a visually impaired ski racer originally from Maine who has been on the U.S. Disabled Ski Team, on and off, for the past four or five years. Although he's only in his late twenties, is in very good athletic shape, and has some real ski racing talent, he just recently announced he was retiring from the team for good because he can't afford it. Expenses for visually impaired ski racers in the United States are essentially doubled because they have to pay for all their guides' expenses as well as their own. Andy showed up on his bike to join us for most of the ride on both Monday and Wednesday. He's a really strong rider and a hilarious, profane guy with short, bright-orange hair, which he sometimes wears in a black skull-and-crossbones 'do-rag. He bears a passing resemblance to a shorter, more compact Josh Homme with a Downeast Maine accent.

On the second day, we had an easy ride: about 25 miles east, and most of it downhill. We began with a gorgeous, breakneck descent through Crawford Notch and through towns like Bartlett before stopping for lunch at Story Land, which every New Hampshire resident knows for its cloying radio spots. The park was closed, so we couldn't get on any of the kiddie rides, but hey, they did give us free ice cream. From there it was a short ride into North Conway, where we checked into a bland new hotel adjoining a mega-complex of outlet stores.

After testing out the pool and Jacuzzi, a bunch of us congregated in the hotel's back yard, which features two horseshoe pits. Someone bought a bunch of light beer in plastic bottles and smuggled it past the glaring hotel staff, and we contented ourselves with playing horseshoes for a while. Dinner was pasta with the world's heaviest Alfredo sauce, served in a hotel conference room while the Northeast Passage staff and the event's sponsors thanked us for participating. It wasn't so bad.

The third day was certainly the most grueling ride. First we rode south a few miles, over back roads and two covered bridges, to the Kancamagus Highway. If you've lived in northern New England, you probably know the Kanc. (You probably don't know it's technically N.H. Rte. 112.) Beginning in Conway, near the Maine border, it runs west through one of the more rugged and remote sections of the White Mountains, climbs over the Kancamagus Pass, and passes by the base of Loon (where we began) before ending in Lincoln at Interstate 93. It's one of the only east-west routes through that part of New Hampshire, and driving it in winter can sometimes be quite sketchy. I'm happy to report that in mid-September, it's absolutely beautiful. After 10 or 15 rolling miles (one or two of them torn-up for repaving), we stopped for lunch. Shortly thereafter, the road started up a constant incline of about 7 or 8% grade — not ridiculously steep, but consistently challenging. The thing is, it seemed like it would never end. Most long hill climbs have dips and rises, but not the Kanc. Around the next curve is, inevitably, more of the same. It continues uphill like this for maybe 8 miles, and the last three were some of the toughest riding I've ever done. Even at a slow, consistent pace (try 3 m.p.h.), it was exhausting. I was determined to make it up without stopping to rest, so I had to resort to mental tricks like counting my revolutions, counting down from ten over and over again. After more than two hours, I made it to the top (second to arrive out of the four handcyclists), and I drank a lot of water and smiled a lot and took a lot of pictures of people. It sure was worth it — beautiful view up there, and a killer ride down the back side to Loon.

Pictures will be up on my Flickr page shortly.

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