Up, down, and all around
By Susan Bibeau
The forecast today is for upper eighties with high humidity, but at the moment it’s cool and breezy. I’m sitting on the front steps of the Explorer in Saranac Lake, waiting for my cycling partner, Tom Boothe. He has agreed to join me for a forty-eight-mile bike trip around Whiteface Mountain.
I’ve done this route several times, but I’m a little nervous. Tom and I have never ridden together before. In fact, we hardly know each other. I do know that Tom is a serious rider: he just returned home from a 103-mile weekend ride in Virginia. I also know that he is a retired Navy captain, and as the daughter of a career military man, I have a feeling he is probably as gung-ho in his recreational pursuits as my dad. A sense of unease comes over me. I just hope that he won’t leave me in the dust today.
He arrives at 0900 on the dot wearing a colorful cycling jersey emblazoned with the U.S. Navy logo and riding an Orbea Orca. I’ve ogled this bike in magazines for years, and I can’t believe I’m looking at a real live one. It is an all-carbon, top-of-the-line beauty that ordinary folks like me can only dream of owning.
“Wow, nice bike!” I blurt.
What I’m thinking, however, is, You are in big trouble, Bibeau.
“OK, before we get going, so we’re both on the same page, let’s go over the ground rules.” Tom says.
Yep, big trouble, I think.
“RINAR,” he says.
“What?” I ask as a sinking feeling comes over me. My dad is fond of acronyms too. It must be a military thing.
This can’t be good, I think
“RINAR––relax, it’s not a race. Let’s take it easy; the objective is to have a good time.”
Oh, thank God!
“Yes, yes, of course!” I reply.
With that, I lead the way down Church Street to Route 3, where we hang a right and head out towards the town of Bloomingdale six miles away.
This first stretch of the ride is flat and easygoing, although due to the traffic (the speed limit is fifty-five in one section) and the fairly narrow shoulder, it’s important to pay attention. Easier said than done. The Saranac River meanders along the east side of the road with great views of McKenzie and Moose mountains beyond. We ride past several scenic farmsteads.
“Llamas to the left of me, cattle to the right” I sing to myself.
In what seems like a blink we roll into the four corners of Bloomingdale. We turn right, still following Route 3, soon cross the bridge over Sumner Stream, then make a quick right onto River Road.
Once on this back road, we enter another world. This is one of my favorite places to ride. There is hardly any traffic, and it’s beautiful. We are still following the Saranac River as it makes its way towards Franklin Falls Pond, but instead of farmland we are surrounded by forest. The road rolls and curves gently, and the canopy of the trees gives us cool shade. There is a bit of a breeze from the south that is pushing us along.
Tom rides up next to me, and we continue side by side, chatting and enjoying the scenery.
“We are averaging eighteen to twenty miles per hour,” Tom says. “Not too shabby, but we’re going to pay for this later.”
Neither of us seems too worried. As we cruise along. Tom points out a section of the river that offers some great whitewater paddling. He promises to take me along for another Explorer outing.
“As long as I’m just a passenger; you guide.” I tell him.
In another mile we come to the southwest end of Franklin Falls Pond. This 2.7-mile lake was created in 1852 when Adirondack hotelier Paul Smith built a hydroelectric dam at the north end, flooding 270 acres. We roll to a stop near the outlet to take a few photos and quench our thirst.
We have traveled a little over fourteen miles, about a third of the way. So far, it’s been a piece of cake, but the hardest bit is just around the corner as our route climbs over the shoulder of Whiteface. We gaze upwards at the big mountain and hop back on our bikes.
What was River Road (or County 18) on the map has become County Highway 48. We follow it to a fork, where Plank Road jogs off to the left. We bear right, past a cemetery and onto Guilespy Road (County 18A). Over the next mile, we ascend gradually and pass a beautiful vista of fields with Catamount Mountain to the north and Whiteface directly ahead of us to the east. We can see the observation tower on the summit.
“That’s one hell of a hill,” Tom remarks.
It’s not a long climb, but it’s steep and unrelenting.
“This might get ugly,” I laugh.
“Don’t attack, just take it slow and steady. That’s my plan.” Tom says.
“Yeah, and no puking!” I say, only half kidding.
Tom’s bike has a triple crank-set, while mine only has a double. This gives him an extra set of lower gears that come in handy on steep climbs. Some macho types refer to these derisively as “granny-gears.” Not me, I’m jealous as heck!
“These are allowed when you get to be sixty,” he tells me.
As the grade increases, Tom continues pumping his legs without much effort. Mine on the other hand are starting to slow to a standstill. I grab the handlebars with determination, put my head down, and crank hard on the pedals. My progress is measured in inches. With the sun beating down, I feel like a bug under a magnifying glass. All I can hear is my own breathing, and my lungs feel like they’re going to explode. My nose starts running, but I can’t let go of the handlebars to wipe it. Gross!
At the halfway point, the grade eases, lulling us into a false hope that the end of the climb is near. Alas, the road curves to the left and then really begins to climb. Every time I do this ride, I start to have regrets right about here.
This sucks! What was I thinking? Why would I want to endure this again? Didn’t I almost vomit last time? I’ll never, ever do this again!
Just as the negative ranting in my head reaches a fever pitch, the crest of the hill appears.
“I think we made it!” I hear Tom say behind me.
Later, when I plot our route on the nifty MapMyRide website, I learn that the road climbs 808 feet over 4.7 miles. No wonder I almost cried.
After a short break at the top, we continue on our way and soon reach a stop sign where Guilespy Road becomes the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway. Before beginning the hair-raising descent, we visit the highway’s gatehouse. Whiteface has the distinction of being the only one of the forty-six High Peaks that you can drive up. Opened in 1936, the toll road is open to cars from Memorial Day until the first weekend in October. Last summer, it became open to bicycles as well. For $6, you can cycle to the summit and take in a spectacular panorama.
Well, that’s an adventure for another day. We now have a descent of almost four miles to the hamlet of Wilmington.
“I like to go fast!” Tom declares emphatically.
“Not me. I’ll meet you down there. Be careful!” I yell after him. But he’s too far ahead to hear. He gets into an aerodynamic tuck and rockets around a curve and out of sight.
Maybe when I was young I would have enjoyed the speed more, but now it just scares the pants off me. As I fly past Santa’s Workshop, I see a 35-mph sign and feel certain that I’m breaking the law. Then Tom comes into view again. He’s waiting at the bottom of the hill. I squeal to a blessed stop next to him.
“Been waiting long?” I ask, already knowing the answer.
“Oh, about five minutes.”
From the intersection, Route 86 leads west to Lake Placid. However, we take the highway in the opposite direction a short distance and turn right onto Springfield Road. This little detour will enable us to avoid a substantial stretch of the busy highway.
We have now come twenty-four miles—not a huge distance, but the terrain looks so different we might be in another state. In fact, this side of Whiteface reminds me of Vermont. The balsam fir and white pine we saw earlier have been replaced by oak and other hardwoods. We’re not far from the Champlain Valley, where the climate is milder than in Lake Placid.
When we reach Fox Farm Road, we turn right and head back to Route 86, where we can see the ski slopes on Whiteface. Earlier this month, heavy rains caused a landslide on the mountain’s east face, enlarging an existing swath of bedrock that skiers sometimes descend.
Heading toward Lake Placid, we parallel the West Branch of the Ausable River, legendary among fly fishermen for its trout. We see half a dozen anglers in hip waders, casting into the water. This stretch of road through Wilmington Notch, passing along the river, with cliffs rising on both sides, is especially scenic, but it’s not for the timid: the shoulder is narrow and, in one section, bordered by a faux stonewall.
At mile 33, we reach an intersection with River Road. We stay on Route 86, crossing the Ausable and leaving it behind. (If you ever have the opportunity, River Road is great for biking.) Beyond the bridge the highway begins to climb, but it’s nothing compared with what we endured on Whiteface. We elect to follow the highway into downtown Lake Placid, but if you want to avoid the village traffic, you should turn right onto Northwood Road, take it to its end, and then turn right and bike around Mirror Lake Drive back to 86 on the other side of downtown.
Heading into Lake Placid, we enjoy marvelous views (somewhat obscured by haze) of the High Peaks over the Lake Placid Resort golf course. At the Stewart’s Shop, we buy bottled water, Gatorade, and bananas. After thirty-six miles, the heat is starting to feel oppressive. I am looking forward to getting out of the sun.
Instead of riding through downtown, we turn right onto Lake Placid Club Drive and bike around Mirror Lake. When we reach Route 86 again, we turn right for Saranac Lake. We have only eight miles to go, but this is the part we’ve both been dreading. Route 86 between the two villages is infamous among cyclists. The shoulders on both sides are full of potholes, cracks, and loose gravel. Since it is the only road connecting the communities, cyclists are forced to put up with the hazards. The state needs to fix the road before someone gets hurt!
Tom leads the rest of the way. I give him plenty of room, since we’re both dodging obstacles. At one point I narrowly miss a deep hole that must be four feet long. I would have ended up in China if I fell into that. After an eternity or two, we are safely back at the Explorer office. Before Tom rides home, we check his cyclometer: we had covered 47.6 miles in just under four hours.
We agree we had fun and vow to ride together again soon. Then Tom disappears down Church Street.
RINAR … I’ll have to tell my dad about that one.