By Alan Wechsler
At 8 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018, nearly a dozen bicycle riders set out on the longest, most challenging and least-known bicycle race in the Adirondacks.
Departing from Waterfront Park in Northville, on the southern edge of the Adirondacks, they began what would be a meandering, 550-mile loop around the park. There would be hours after hours spent cruising down roads, bouncing over trails, dragging loaded bikes over rocks and fallen logs. Only half the riders would finish.
This is The Adirondack Trail Ride, now in its fifth year. Inspired by similar rides held out West, the TATR attracts a certain kind of cyclist, says race founder Mikey Intrabartola.
“You need to be willing to suffer,” he said. “A lot of it is not only how fast you can ride, but how disciplined you can be about not spending too much time off your bike. And also a little bit of sleep deprivation.”
Intrabartola, 39, is a carpenter by trade. A Long Island native, he currently lives in Elizabethtown and is an avid cyclist. In 2012 he rode the Tour Divide, a race from Banff, Alberta to the U.S.-Mexico border along the 2,745-mile-long Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. He finished in 22 days, six days behind the leader.
The Tour Divide is one of an increasing number of multi-day mountain bike races cropping up around the world. They can be found in states as diverse as Colorado, Vermont, Georgia and Florida—anyplace where large lengths of dirt roads and trails can be connected together.
Such races tend to be homegrown and low-budget—no entry fee, no judges, no route signs along the way. Also no spectators, and no support if things go wrong. However, in this day of interconnected technology, many friends and family watch their loved ones’ progress online, via GPS tracking systems.
At race’s end, there is often no one to greet the finishers. They log their time, then get in their cars and drive home.
After Intrabartola’s Tour Divide experience, he returned and wondered: Why doesn’t the Adirondacks have one of these? So he decided to develop his own.
He spent the next several years poring over maps and cycling hundreds of miles of trails, contriving a route through the wilderness. Today, the race is made up of about 100 miles of single-track, 200 miles of dirt road and 250 miles of pavement. The total vertical ascent is a thigh-withering 50,000 feet, the equivalent of cycling to the top of both Everest and Denali from sea level.
The first race was held in 2015. Six people competed, including Intrabartola. Only one finished—Michelle DuLieu, a 48-year-old engineer and athlete from Rochester. It took her 13 days.
“It was so freaking hard,” recalled DuLieu, an avid rider who has raced around the world. “I was pretty sure I was never going to do this race again.”
But in the end, she went back a year later.
“I just love these kinds of races,” she said. “They’re very technical, they’re so challenging. You go past whatever limit you think you have.”
Fast-forward to September, 2018. The competitors, all 11 of them, gathered the night before at a local restaurant. There, in a private room in the back, they sized up the competition, compared bikes and listening to a pre-race presentation. The next morning, at 8 a.m., they left en masse, heading down the road and into the woods.
The race course touches many corners of the Adirondacks. From Northville, it weaves through wild forest areas, fording the Sacandaga River, to the hamlet of Indian Lake. From there, it heads west through the Moose River Plains to Inlet, and then north to remote Star Lake. Pushing through some of the most empty sections of the park, it touches the northern border before coming down through Paul Smiths and Wilmington, then heads east to the Lake Champlain towns of Westport and Essex. Then it winds back west, skirting the southern High Peaks on Blue Ridge Road before heading back into the woods—and another river ford over the Boreas—as it travels south back to the start at Northville.
The course record is three days, 12 hours and 53 minutes, set by Adirondack resident Shane Kramer on his single-speed Trek Superfly 29er in in 2017. To achieve a finish like that, competitors must ride from before dawn to well after sunset each day, getting only a few hours of sleep each night. They must also manage not to get lost on the many unmarked back roads and trails (a GPS with the co-ordinates pre-loaded does help, but the technology is not foolproof). They must also not have any breakdowns—the bike, or themselves.
“Definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” recalled Jody Dixon, 62, a retired state worker from Northville, who was on her third race in 2018. “You’re just out there. You’ve got to dig deep every single day, physical and mentally.”
Dixon has the dubious honor of holding one course record—slowest finish. In 2016, her first year, it took her 16 days. The worst part was getting lost somewhere near the Oswegatchie River, and getting mired up to her waist in a swamp.
She tried again the next year and halved her time, setting a TATR women’s record.
Her experience in 2018 might qualify for the term “epic.” First she crashed at mile 67, flipping the bike on a downhill when she pulled her front brake too hard. She picked herself up, got back on and kept riding, but she was injured more seriously than she realized. Three hundred miles later, she finally gave up. It was raining, windy and dark. Her legs were cramping, her chest hurt and her left arm was numb. Turns out she had been riding for days with nerve damage to her neck, as well as two broken ribs. “Yeah, I’m stubborn,” she said.
Like many other participants, Dixon trains for months. Not her husband, Mike Feldman, who also competed. “I stopped drinking beer seven days before the race. That was my training strategy,” he said.
Feldman, 62, had completed the race twice before, both in seven days. This year he quit after a day. The cause: saddle sores. He blames worn-out bike shorts.
The 2018 frontrunners consisted of four men, three of whom had never before competed in a multi-day, self-supported event. Fastest was Kris Dennan, 45, of Vermont, a professional bicycling tour guide, riding a rigid, steel-framed bike with road-style drop bars. He was closely followed by his friend Daniel Jordan, 31, of New Hampshire; a young man named Ian Wuscher (riding a skinny-tired “gravel-grinder” bike); and an IT technician from Long Island named Peri Garite, 65.
They mostly cycled alone, but camped together at night. Three reached the finish line within a few hours of each other. Wuscher, who trashed his derailleur on the second day, left the course soon after.
Day one set the tone for these pedaling masochists. They covered more than 100 miles that day, and rode well into the night, lighting the way by headlamp, hoping to make it to the Stewart’s Shop at Indian Lake before the convenience store closed at midnight.
Dennan was the first to emerge from a long, gritty woods section that required miles of hiking. He still faced 35 road-miles to make it to Indian Lake, and it was well after dark. He booked it (“I’m a very fast rider,” he said) and made it to the store a minute after closing. After Dennan introduced himself and explained where he was coming from, the manager allowed the sweaty cyclist to shop.
When Jordan and Garite reached the store 45 minutes later, they were in for a surprise. Dennan, Garite recalled, “was standing there with a big smile on his face and his arms outstretched and full of food.”
The three slept right under the Stewart’s awning, bought breakfast when it opened at 5 a.m. the next morning, and headed off. They rode hard the next day, stuffing themselves at a bakery in Inlet and sharing a motel room in Cranberry Lake. Although the gang was ostensibly racing each other, the fellowship was appreciated.
“Something of this scale, when you spend this much time out there, it’s so much more valuable to have some sort of companionship along the way,” said Jordan. “We were all trying to put in big miles, trying to do 100-mile days. That helped us keep pace with each other.”
Behind that pack was Marc Fortier, 46, a financier and bike commuter from eastern Massachusetts, and his friend, Mark Flanagan. Fortier says he had ridden about 4,000 miles before the race and felt ready.
“I was prepared for some tough days,” he said. “But I really underestimated it.”
Fortier had brought a carbon-fiber 29er mountain bike with racing-style drop handlebars and an aero bar, the kind triathletes use. It was a “rigid” bike—without suspension. This configuration is a popular one for its weight savings, plus the fact that it has fewer parts to break down. On the downside, it offered no cushioning over the rough terrain, a compromise that Fortier later came to regret. A month after the race, his fingers were still numb.
As the race went on, Fortier came to rethink a lot of his racing kit. Tires wider than his 2.2-inch ones, with a more aggressive tread, would have offered a softer ride and more grip on the rough terrain. His bikepacker-style packs, which fasten to frame, fork and seat bags, worked out well. But using an electronic SteriPen—which purifies water with ultraviolet light—would have saved weight, effort and time over the filtration pump he brought. He also carried a seven-day supply of food, plus a backpacker stove, when other racers just saved weight and counted on resupplying in various towns.
Not that Fortier was a stranger to extreme races. He had recently completed the XVT, a 350-mile mountain bike race along the spine of Vermont, from Massachusetts to Canada. That race had had plenty of hills, but not so much forced walking.
Fortier and Flanagan faced unexpected delays on their Adirondack ride. On day two, Flanagan broke the axle of his real wheel. Luckily, they were only 25 miles away from Inlet—home to the only bike store on the route. They limped into town, but the store was already closed.
It was a case of “fortunately/unfortunately.” The delay cost them half a day. But it also made for one of the race’s more uplifting stories.
It seems that Fortier had lost his wallet on the first day, and never expected to get it back. But the wallet was found on the trail by another rider, who passed it along to yet another rider, who passed it to the aforementioned Mike Feldman around the time he decided to abandon the race.
Fast-forward to Inlet. Fortier was at Pedals & Petals bike shop, waiting for his partner’s new wheel. That’s where Feldman—now in his car—tracked him down using Fortier’s GPS signal.
“He walked into the bike shop with my wallet. It was amazing,” Fortier recalled.
The duo continued. At times it took them four hours to cover 10 miles of rough terrain. Hopping on and off the bikes became so tiresome they gave up and just pushed. They loved the remoteness of the northern part of the trail, but it was grueling.
“Mount, dismount; mount, dismount. My hips were screaming,” Fortier said.
On night five in the North Hudson area, they made a wrong turn at 11 p.m. Family members, monitoring their progress from home, sent urgent texts. But there was no cell service, and their warnings went unread. The pair for 10 miles before figuring it out, then turned back to retrace their route. “That was soul-crushing,” Fortier said. “We had a good pace going until then.”
In all, six of the 11 competitors completed the race. Dennan won, at four days, 11 hours, 52 minutes. Jordan followed 1 hour, 19 minutes later, with Garite about 90 minutes behind that. Flanagan’s time was six days, 18 hours, 43 minutes; Fortier trailing nearly 30 minutes behind.
The slowest, Michael Roe, finished in 10 days, 14 hours and 36 minutes. He had failed to finish on his first attempt, in 2017. Five other riders did not finish.
Intrabartola says word of TATR is starting to spread. There will be another race in 2019, and he’s hoping the race will continue to grow and attract more famous competitors—as well as many returning masochists.
“If you’re up to the task of even doing this once, it gets its hooks into you. In the subsequent years, you keep telling yourself you can do a little better,” he said. “For most people, it’s just about finishing.”
This year’s ride departs Sept. 13. ■