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Hills and Hollows of Massachusetts and Connecticut

by Pamela Blalock


I looked out in front of me to see all these levers I wasn't used to having to deal with, and tried to bring up memories of riding a single bike again. After logging many thousands of miles on the back of a tandem it seemed unusual to find myself on a single bike again. But there I was with my trusty (and lonely) vitus pointed towards the first of many hills waiting to start. The first time I stood the bike lept sideways underneath me, but soon enough the old familiarity was back and I was riding along gracefully through the hills and hollows of Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Hills and Hollows covers 291 miles (and about 13000 feet of climbing according to my new Avocet 50) of beautiful, although sometimes bumpy, New England countryside over the Labor Day weekend. The Charles River Wheelman, a LAW affiliated club in the Boston area has many 2 and 3 day rides in New England throughout the spring, summer and fall. These rides are run by volunteers and are usually quite reasonably priced. Most rides will have overnight accommodations at an inexpensive motel with meals extra. This particular three day trip was $65 per person, and included maps and cues with some tricky sections arrowed.

Steve and I both found our ankles a little worse for wear after Boston-Montreal-Boston and had each been taking it easy for the past two weeks. Steve (the smarter one) decided he needed a little more time off the bike, but I was stubborn and wanted to ride. Of course this meant taking the vitus down from its place of honor under all the cobwebs and such, and preparing it for the ride, since I've been either riding my mountain bike or the tandem for the past year with the vitus making it out only once for a double century in July.

The first order of business was to put it back together, since I had borrowed the rear derailleur for the tandem. I also had this small pile of parts that had been accumulating as replacements for worn parts and new gadgets to try, like the Avocet 50. By the time I was finished, it appeared the frame and brakes were the same, but everything else was different since I put on new rear derailleur, chainrings, chain, freewheel, wheels, handlebars, aerobars, seatbag, and computer. (Remember boys and girls, never change anything major before a big ride!)

There is no way to get a rack on the vitus and I can't use a handlebar bag on the front with the aero-bars. For a 3-day tour, I need to carry more stuff than I could in a wedge bag, so I have a large handlebar bag mounted on a handlebar stub in a stoker stem off my seatpost. Since the vitus has a 25.0 mm seatpost and I have yet to find a stoker stem smaller than 26.0 mm I have to shim it a little to get it to work. I also have to rig up something to keep the handlebar mount from rotating on the handlebar stub, so I tie a leather shoe lace around the seatpost and through the loops on the bag. This was supposed to be a temporary solution on the road a few years ago, but I have yet to come up with something better. Some company used to make a plastic gadget for this application, but they are long gone. One negative of this setup is that the weight is higher than ideal, but as long as I don't carry too much, it works great.

Anyway back to Saturday morning. Steve had decided not to ride, but would be meeting us the second night. Tom Lynch, the ride organizer had come down with bronchitis and would also be foregoing the ride as well. He had offered to carry bags to the first and second days destination, but we'd have to carry them home on day three. Riders were elated to hear that Steve would bring bags home on the third day.

The group was fairly small with only eight riders, plus one who was just joining us for the first 20-30 miles. I looked around and realized that I'd probably be riding alone the first part of the ride, since the group was composed of all fast riders. My ankle was still flaring up occasionally and I didn't want to push it, so when Dave and Ken picked up the pace I quietly slipped off the back and settled into my own comfortable riding rhythm. Unfortunately, the ankle started acting up right away, so I found myself stopping at the first open drug store for mineral ice and ibuprofen and admonishing myself for not taking more care to warm up. I would have to remind myself several times throughout the weekend that I'd have to avoid pushing things for a while, or really take more time off the bike.

Just after I stopped I was joined by Osman who had taken a long breakfast break in Townsend. I first looked to see if he had a freewheel, since he has a reputation for doing long rides on a fixed gear. I was relieved to see a geared bike, which meant that we could ride together and talk for a while. I would also be able to finally enjoy a draft. Osman has tried to take pulls with Steve and me on the tandem, but he's so blasted skinny, that Steve tells me it does no good. It was great to have company on the climb through the state park on 119; so great that I hardly even noticed the climb. I think I may be getting stronger too.

Unfortunately I hadn't quite gotten my stoker stem and shim perfect and it slipped just after turning onto the second part of the climb. While fixing it on the side of the road, we were caught by Jamie and Lindy, who had started late. After a quick repair the four of us were rolling along again. The route then turns left onto Rt 101 for a few miles before the first killer climb on Rt 12. We rolled along enjoying the scenery and talking for a while about new vans, new schools and new jobs, until we met up with Wayne at the halfway point.

The cue sheet indicated that the last food stores for 20 miles were coming up, and since I was now in tour mode, I decided to stop at the McDonald's Cafe for a grilled chicken sandwich - no more Ultra Energy until next year - Yea! Wayne decided to join me as he filled up on cheeseburgers and pizza. A few miles later, Wayne said he was going to slow down a lot and suggested I continue on. I knew there were some significant climbs coming up soon, and since I don't consider myself a strong climber, I decided to forge ahead.

I had heard tales of a tricky descent by Tulley Lake and found that these roads could now replace the roads around Barre, Massachusetts as the roughest in the state. It appeared that someone just poured tar over some small boulders to make the road. In places, giant rocks poked out of the pavement. The sun had finally started to seep through the overcast skies to the great relief of the picnic-bound people on Lake Tulley. Although the level of water on the lower side of the dam indicated the recent lack of rain, but it's making up for it today, while I type.

The climb over Grace on Rt 63 was long and gradual and the last major climb for the day. I began to feel a little twitch of pain from the ankle here and there, but tried to back off each time I did. A long curvy descent dropped out into town, where I found a small group of riders, including Gerry, Doug, Osman, Dave, Lindy and Jamie. I took a short break with them and joined them for the final twenty miles to Greenfield.

We arrived to find Kenny and Dave who had raced all the way out. After a quick shower, we all met by the pool, where Jamie was the only one brave enough to swim in the icy cold waters. We have had a very cool summer and water temps have stayed a little to chilly for me. I used the cool water to ice down my ankle.

Before dinner we decided to play a round of mini-golf. We found a great restaurant across the street where we refueled for the next day. We all decided to meet at Friendly's at 7:30 AM for breakfast.

After a great night's sleep, I headed over to Friendly's right at 7:30 only to find that most of the group had arrived much earlier and had almost finished breakfast. I inhaled some pancakes and juice and hopped on the bike to join the group heading out early. As we reached the first hills, Lindy, Dave, Osman and Kenny started to push the pace, and I decided that there were too many hills ahead to kill myself that early on. Jamie and Gerry and I rode along for a few more miles enjoying the historic town of Deerfield MA and then began the 30 mile climb to Goshen. I started out in tights and a light jacket, but a few miles in the climb, I decided the jacket was getting warm. When I stopped to take off the jacket, I watched as Jamie rounded the next turn ahead of me for my last view of a cyclist all day until I reached the motel 30 seconds after he and Gerry did.

I continued my long solitary climb to Goshen watching the numbers on the altimeter rising with every few pedal strokes. Once all other riders were out of sight, I settled into a comfortable rhythm that would hopefully keep the ankle from hurting and would allow me to ride again the next day and the next week. I finally reached Goshen and prepared for my reward of a fast smooth descent down Route 9. Just before 112 turns south off 9 at the bottom of this hill, there is a great deli/bakery/gourmet grocery store. It has a plastic cow on the roof, but is quite nice inside, with a few tables and chairs in a glassed in porch section and a wood stove stoked up to keep customers warm while they enjoy breakfast or lunch or just a snack.

When I first entered, I felt a blast of heat, but cooled down quickly. I decided to get a couple of bagels and some Orangina to prepare me for the short steep climbs that waited for me in the 10 miles ahead. I took a fairly long break, but never saw any of the 4 riders that I knew were behind me, so I decided to forge ahead. I started out with my jacket back on, but the 15% grade on the other side of the store quickly eliminated it's usefulness. I did keep the tights on for a few more hours.

The next few miles were sort of familiar, since Steve and I had ridden them over Easter weekend, although they looked completely different without the snow-cover. A few nasty hollows would make quick shifting a necessity as the rear wheel was still going down while the front wheel was headed up. Lindy had told a story of falling over last year in one of these particularly steep ones, when she could not shift fast enough. The pavement was rough enough on many of the downhills that I could not fully enjoy the rewards they should have offered for all the climbing. As I climbed one fairly long hill, I saw the wall off to the right ahead and remembered the road from the spring. I had seen it rising above Steve's helmet and was so relieved to see the sign pointing around to the left. So you can imagine my surprise to find a detour sign sending us directly up this monster climb.

Shortly after the detour, we finally received the reward for the 30 mile climb that began the day, with about 20 miles of downhill and flat by a river. Early in the afternoon, I reached Westfield and finally removed my tights and enjoyed a few brief minutes of sunshine, but really missed the fat tires and Softride beam on the tandem immensely as the route headed down a road made of gravel and cement, where the gravel jutted out of the cement in a very attractive, but very rough pattern. I stood throughout this section. The remaining part of the the ride into Connecticut was pleasant and went by quickly. I thought of stopping again for food, but decided to wait, and hoped that maybe Steve was already at the hotel. I reached the hotel just a minute or so behind Jamie and Gerry. The four speed demons had been in for a while and were waiting by the pool. We joined them for a while, but the lack of sun, the cool temperature, and the rumblings in our bellies convinced us to find other activities.

Steve had not arrived yet, so I showered and munched on Cheetos, and then went off in search of a Laundromat to wash my cycling clothes. (One disadvantage to a cheap motel is no guest laundry facilities.) As I was walking toward the shopping center, I saw Steve driving down the road and flagged him down. I had left a note in the room, and figured he was coming to find me, but in reality, he was lost and was looking for the hotel. I pointed toward the hotel, but then told him of my destination and pointed to an ice cream place where we could have banana splits while the wash was going. My metabolism is still running pretty high from BMB, so I've been eating a lot of ice cream lately. I have to be careful though - the Softride is weight-rated!

After the ice cream appetizer, we grabbed the clean dry clothes and met the rest of the group for a Chinese food dinner. The other 4 riders had not started until 9:30 but had arrived hungry. At dinner a few riders discussed leaving at 6AM, since they wanted to be back early in the afternoon. I thought 8 was a little early myself, but planned to leave then. One of my post BMB goals was to sleep in on weekends, and compared to starting at 4AM, 6 may be sleeping in for some, but not enough for me.

Steve had talked about riding some, but his tendons were still quite tender and decided it would be best to give them a little more rest. As we were headed over to breakfast, Dave, one of the riders, came out of his room and asked about the possibility of a ride back. He wasn't feeling well and didn't think he was up to riding that day. I had joked the night before that if it rained that my ankle would immediately start hurting and would take a lift home, but now Dave had the only other seat in the van. Fortunately, it stayed dry and I stayed pain-free.

I rode across the street and discovered when I tried to unclip that I had lost a couple of cleat bolts. I did manage to stop without falling. That can be so embarrassing :) I normally carry a few spares, but since this was the first trip on the vitus in ages, I didn't have my full set of tools. Fortunately Steve let me borrow some from his shoes. After the quick repair, a bagel and a cup of coffee, I headed out into the cool Connecticut air to climb back up to Massachusetts. Steve used this opportunity to get some shots of me on a single bike. He claims at times that he doesn't know what I look like, since he never sees me on the tandem, so I joked that he could put one of these photos on the front of the bike to remind him! He took a couple of shots and then headed back to Boston to drop off his passenger and sag bags and then enjoyed some TV while I was out working hard!

The third day was the hardest with over 5000 feet of climbing in 103 miles. (The first two days had about 4000 each). But it was deceptive, since it was lots and lots of ups and downs instead of long climbs. The trip through Bigelow Hollow State Park was pleasant with a few white-knuckle hair-raising descents, and several of those grind-it-out-in-my-lowest-gear climbs, but I loved it. I did start to really become familiar with both the brake levers and the shift levers once again. I also was in familiar territory again, until the turn toward Nichols College, which is located on top of a long hill in Webster, Ma. But it was then that I saw a rider. I was very surprised to catch Wayne, since I thought everyone had left early. He said 4 riders left at 7:30. He figured Gerry was 1/2 hour ahead, and Doug and Kenny were maybe as much as an hour. We stayed together for a while, although our hill climbing didn't mesh, so we jockeyed back and forth, and I flew by on the downhills and he passed me as I was spinning up. I had plenty of powerbars in my pockets and had not planned on taking any breaks, since I really wanted to spend a little more time with Steve that afternoon. So I'm sure it was the lack of stopping that allowed me to catch the other three riders eventually, before I reached the start/finish in Lexington. Of course, if I had taken more time, I could have ridden in sunshine, since the skies went from threatening to beautiful and clear as soon as I loaded the bike back into the van. Well that's New England weather for you, especially if you are on a bike.

The weekend proved to me that I do remember how to ride a single, and that riding the tandem has made me stronger on my single, but that I really miss the camaraderie of riding with Steve and the attention that the big bike draws. So hopefully, we will both be fully recovered again and back either on our singles or our tandem together soon!