By Alan Wechsler
The plan for Cycle Adirondacks was to spend two nights camping under the stars in Keene Valley. But Mother Nature, it seemed, had other ideas.
That’s why in the afternoon of Tuesday, August 22, 2017, about a hundred camping tents were dismantled and about a hundred inflatable mattresses dragged into Keene Central School. A storm was coming—on weather radar, it appeared as angry oranges and yellows—that promised sixty-mile-per-hour winds, lightning, and possibly even tornados.
Instead of enjoying a restful night on one of the lushest lawns in Keene Valley, most of the 170 participants of Cycle Adirondacks (now known as the Ultimate Cycling Vacation) would spend it taking shelter in hallways, classrooms, and the auditorium.
That night, Cycle Adirondacks co-director Doug Haney stood up in the school auditorium and apologized for the weather. But no one complained. A few minutes later, a cyclist suggested that participants open their wallets and donate money to the school. A bear-resistant food canister was passed around, and the room ponied up $360.
Welcome to organized bicycle touring in the Adirondacks, where even a looming storm can’t dampen the good vibe. The event, which started in 2015, brings several hundred cyclists to the Adirondacks to revel in some of the best road biking in the state. Gear is transported from site to site, allowing cyclists to enjoy the day’s ride unencumbered by baggage. Food is provided—tasty, healthy, locally harvested. And the evening is capped with a beer garden and entertainment ranging from live music to a story slam.
It’s another sign of how much the cycling scene has matured in the Adirondacks. Two-wheeled adventures here have always taken a back seat to more popular activities such as hiking, climbing, paddling, and skiing. The occasional cycling events were rare and offbeat—the Black Fly Challenge across the Moose River Plains, for instance, or a competitive hill climb up Whiteface Mountain’s Veterans Memorial Highway.
No more. In Wilmington, a group called Barkeater Trails Alliance helped develop dozens of miles of world-class mountain-bike single-track trails, with the blessing of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and is the base of the endurance-fest known as the Wilmington/Whiteface 100K mountain-bike race. In Brant Lake, a restaurant called The Hub opened several years ago, catering to cyclists and working with another group, the (awkwardly named) Warren County Safe & Quality Bicycling Organization. Two other rides are Bike the Barns, which promotes cycling and farming in the Lake Champlain Valley, and the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Ididaride.
Cycle Adirondacks was created as a fund-raiser for the Wildlife Conservation Society. Zoe Smith, director of the group’s Adirondack program, needed cycling experts to run the ride, so Smith recruited Haney, a Michigan native and former spokesman for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association now living in Saranac Lake, and Matt VanSlyke, a Utica-area resident who has a background in urban planning and in putting on cycling events (a third organizer, Jim Moore, is no longer involved).
Haney and VanSlyke, looking to expand into other cycling events, eventually assumed control of the Cycle Adirondack name.
“I was confident the market was there,” VanSlyke said. “We knew that bicycle tours are popular, and we knew that we have great roads to ride. The unknown quantity in our area is, until recently, there’s been not much promotion of bicycle touring.”
The concept of the weeklong tour is new to the Adirondacks but not to the cycling world. The Iowa rolling bicycle party known as RAGBRAI (it stands for the [Des Moines] Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) is more than thirty years old and attracts 8,500 people each July. Events like Cycle Oregon and Ride the Rockies are only a little younger and attract two thousand people each, challenging serious cyclists with thousands of feet of climbing and up to seventy miles of riding each day.
Today, there are weeklong tours in dozens of states, ranging from Maine to Florida, Virginia to California. New York has its own tours, including Cycle the Erie Canal and The Bon Ton Roulet in the Finger Lakes. But until Cycle Adirondacks, New York’s premier outdoor venue was largely off the radar of the bicycle touring world.
In its first two years, Cycle Adirondacks offered loops in the western Adirondack region, from Saranac Lake to Old Forge, or circling around the High Peaks.
The 2017 trip was different. Participants in prior years had complained that, while the cycling was beautiful, by the time they reached camp they didn’t have time to see the communities they were staying in. So for the third tour, organizers made some changes. Participants would spend two nights each in Schroon Lake, Keene Valley, and Saranac Lake and get to choose between riding, resting, or seeing the sights on non-travel days.
I arrived in Keene Valley on Monday afternoon, day two of the ride. It was hot and humid, with the aforementioned storm not due for another twenty-four hours. The group was camped in the grassy field behind Keene Central School. One area had sixty large tents, arrayed in neat rows like a military encampment. These were the Comfy Camper tents, where participants could pay a premium to have tents and mattresses waiting for them upon arrival.
Dinner was served under a circus-size tent and drew raves from participants. After announcements about the next day’s ride, we adjourned to the beer garden at the nearby Keene Valley Country Club (no alcohol on school property), where we were entertained by the band Lost Dog. Most cyclists were asleep in their tents before the music stopped at 9 p.m.
On Tuesday, we woke to a blue sky. Today was a no-travel day—we’d be camping here a second night. Cyclists could choose a thirty-five-mile or fifty-five-mile “lollipop” ride or just take a hike. I chose the longer ride and was dazzled by vista after vista of goldenrod-filled fields with the High Peaks in the background. Volunteers staffed rest stops, giving out bananas and peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches. They also provided bottles of sunblock.
During my ride I ran into Jenny Emery of North Grandy, Connecticut, who proclaimed herself a member of the “Bad-Ass Grandmas” team. Two years ago, she was visiting her son in Saranac Lake and saw the tour wheel by. “I said, ‘That looks like fun,’” she told me.
2017 was her second year as a rider, and she enjoys the side benefit of hanging out with her grandchildren in the evenings. “It’s a good challenge—worth the trip,” she said.
Soon after I returned to Keene Valley, the storm took a dramatic turn, prompting the evacuation order. We gathered in the school to listen to a talk by wildlife experts who arrived with a live fisher and a gray fox on a leash. Then it was time for the main event, a Story Slam: contestants had five minutes to tell a story, without notes, on a topic announced that night.
The topic was “fear.” Stories ranged from living in New York City during the late 1970s, as told a by a former punk rocker, to a wildlife biologist terrified by snakes. The winner was twenty-six-year-old Zeke Spector of Brooklyn, who regaled us with an energetic tale of chasing down a bus in Buenos Aries after discovering, moments after it pulled away from his stop, that he had left his wallet on the seat.
And the storm? It passed safely to the south, dropping just a little rain in Keene Valley. By 10 p.m., the skies were clear. Inside the school cyclists were snoring and stretched out head to toe. I grabbed my duffel bag and re-erected my tent on the wet grass.
The next day, we cycled from Keene Valley to Saranac Lake, toiling up over a shoulder of Whiteface Mountain and then cruising down to Franklin Falls. Though only a few miles from some of the largest communities in the Adirondacks, it felt like the middle of nowhere. The highlight was a downhill with a series of fun S-curves that went on forever. With temperatures cool—a relief from the humidity of the first few days—it was hard to imagine more perfect cycling conditions.
Cycle Adirondacks is about more than the bike. It’s a way to connect to local communities. During the day, local residents come out to volunteer. In the evening, town officials welcome the visitors. And the ride raises about $1,500 for each community. In Schroon Lake, money built a chicken coop for the school. In Keene Valley, donations funded a Beaver Deceiver, a device that allows people to control the water level on beaver ponds (the school’s mascot is a beaver, and there’s a beaver pond adjacent to the fields). In Saranac Lake, funds went to the Saranac Lake Youth Center to start a grant program to help buy bicycles for local kids.
In 2018, the Ultimate Cycling Vacation will take place August 18-24. The tour will go from Speculator to Inlet to North Creek before returning to Speculator, with a record 225 riders.
Organizers have also introduced shorter events for those without the time or endurance for a six-day tour. For instance, there’s now the Weekender, a late June ride based at Paul Smith’s College. The three-day, family-oriented event has participants staying in college dorms and doing both cycling activities and non-saddle events such as paddling and hiking.
Meanwhile, in the fall there’s the Harvester on Sept. 29-30, a two-day ride based in Fulton County that highlights the area’s rich agricultural assets. Cycle Adirondacks also manages another one-day ride slated for July 15, Ride the River, a fund-raiser created by the Ausable River Association.
In 2018, Adirondack Mountain Club replaced WCS as Cycle Adirondacks’ primary sponsor.
“ADK has thirty thousand members across the country who are actively coming to the Adirondacks all the time,” Haney said, noting that club members get ride discounts. “It helps us reach a market we weren’t able to reach and it helps ADK get its message out.”
In its short existence, the Ultimate Cycling Vacation has managed to collect a following. Like Stephen Hunter, age sixty-eight, a retired state official from the Utica area who has volunteered for the past three years. Hunter is a touring veteran, having volunteered for the Erie Canal and Bon Ton tours, plus at events in other states.
“I like bikes, and I like the camaraderie volunteers develop doing their jobs,” he said. “We sometimes call it ‘summer camp for adults.’ We come back year after year and we step into what we’re expected to do.”
Some riders had taken part in cycling events around the country. Matt Friol of Buffalo likes touring so much he built himself a custom carbon-fiber-and-Kevlar bicycle that separates into two pieces for easy transport by airplane. “I never want to go home when I do this,” he added. “You don’t want to go home because it’s so much fun.”
Ryan O’Donnell, at thirty-five, was one of the younger participants. He was new to bicycling but took to it quickly, losing the forty-five pounds he gained while working behind a desk. During Cycle Adirondacks, he pedaled every mile that was available to riders, including to the top of Whiteface. “I wanted a big event to keep me focused on riding all summer,” he said. “And I wanted to see part of the Adirondacks I hadn’t seen before.”
Our two nights in Saranac Lake passed quickly. In the evening, we were joined by local residents at a concert in a downtown park—Alex Torres and his Latin Orchestra—and another night we moved to the Waterhole, where a reggae band kept the patio filled with dancers.
The next morning was the last day of the tour. It was time to clip back into the bike, take the long ride back to the start, and say good-bye to new friends. At least until next year. ■