Don A’s 2004 Review

State of the Empire: 550 Miles From Niagara Falls to Albany In a  New York Week

There is a saying that if you really want to see America, then get off the highway and explore the back roads. Well, if you really want to see the back roads, get out of the car and onto your bike. I, for one, can vouch for that after spending seven days pedaling more than miles from the Falls of Niagara to the Capitol Plaza in  Albany in 2004 “FANY” Ride (500 Miles Across New York).

This adventure was a few years in the making, as I came across a brochure in 2002, but did not seriously consider it until this year. With my running on low burn and looking for something different, this seemed to be a good challenge. I had been cycling pretty regularly since spring, but as primarily a “one-day” specialist, I had never really done an event that covered several days in succession. And although this ride would be non-competitive, completing an average of 80 miles a day for a full week would be a physical test, especially since in recent years I have been so liberal in taking off-days from training. With only a single ride of more than 100 miles and a high week of 200 miles, I was certainly not over trained, but felt reasonably prepared.

After a six-hour bus ride from  Boston to Albany, followed the next day by a six-hour train trip, I rendezvoused with the group of about 125 riders at the Niagara Falls high school, where some of the group were camping out. I, along with others, had chosen the motel option, at least for the first several days of the trek.

The format was more or less “go as you please,” so I set off at about 7:00 a.m. the next morning, in cool temperatures and under cloudy skies. At 90 miles, this would be the longest stage of the week. I added an extra eight miles by doubling back to view the magnificent falls, then another three miles when I made the rookie mistake of losing my cue sheet (the directions of the route to follow) and had to double back to find it. I was lucky to find it on the side of the road. Riding along a path adjacent to Lake Ontario, we faced a pesky headwind for much of the route, and when the sun came out I was really working hard to cover the miles. At the finish after 100 miles, I felt pretty tired, like after most other century rides I’ve completed. The only difference was that I had an 80-miler coming up in a little more than half a day. After some socializing at the campground, I took refuge at the Econolodge in Brockport.

Setting off the next morning, I was surprised at how I felt: nothing major was hurting, and after a half-hour I had warmed to the task and was cranking out a steady 15 to 16 miles per hour. The scenery was good and traffic light—life was good. Until halfway through the ride anyway, when a steady drizzle began to fall, which quickly turned into a full-fledged soaking rain. My light jacket did little to keep me dry or warm, so my only recourse was to ride harder to get warmer and to the finish as quickly as possible. On route 20 in Canandaigua, with trucks and tractor trailers blowing by, I cranked up the pace, and pulled along in their wake, headed for the finish in Waterloo, appropriately enough. Although one rider had passed me just past halfway, I was surprised to arrive at the campground and find no one there! Soon enough Jenny, the co-ride leader, showed up with the truck, packed with the rider’s bags, hauled from city to city each day. Semi-hypothemeric, I set off for the room, returning later to have dinner with the campers.

No one was happy to awaken to the sound of heavy rain pelting against the window the next morning. It’s one thing to get rained on midway through a ride, another thing altogether to start out in it and be soaked less than a minute into a day-long ride. What are you going to do? The unfortunate part of these adverse conditions was the fact that on this day we would pass by the wineries that dot the Finger Lakes landscape. Few would stop today for a tour. We also passed through  Ithaca, home of Cornell University. (Given the winding, two-mile climb leading to the campus, I think they should rename it  Cornhill University.) It was there I saw Karen, the other hardworking co-ride leader. She spent much of her days posting pink signs to indicate turns, should they not be clear on the cue sheet. She told me there I would be ahead of her sign placement. No worries; I still had the cue sheet. Well, not for long, as I found the sheet had disintegrated in the rain. With no idea of where to go, I resorted asking at gas stations and restaurants where the Hampton Inn in Homer was. After looks of incredulity for my cycling in the pouring rain, everyone seemed to have a different idea where it was, probably because the Hampton Inn was in Cortland, not Homer. All of the stops added an extra hour and 10 miles to the ride, not what you want on a soaking wet day. But the shower at the hotel was great. And by nighttime the rain had stopped, hopefully for the week.

The next day would take us to Rome, not to be confused with the one in Italy. The dry and mild weather had everyone in a better mood. On this day, the challenge would be the steep uphills that populated the second half of the route. Like most riders, I had settled into a routine of breakfast, getting dressed, getting the bike ready for the day’s ride, followed by about 30 minutes of packing gear into two overstuffed travel bags. With more than 250 miles logged, I was surprised my legs had as much energy as they did. I has also been able to keep the dreaded crotch chafing at bay. Of all things, it was my arms that were giving me fits. My biceps and shoulders were aching and sore from all of the hours gripping the handlebars. With no aero bars on the mountain-style bike I was riding, there was no way to rest my arms to ameliorate the soreness. I knew some unexpected physical issue such as this would pop up, having extended so far beyond my normal mileage. But I managed to complete the 75 miles, including an extra five by stopping by the campground before settling at the hotel in beautiful (not) downtown Rome.

Day five proved to be, along with Monday, my best on the bike. We faced more climbing as we headed for the scenic town of Speculator in the Adirondack Mountains. My arms felt a little better, and by the time I reached the hills I was really rolling, fortified by a grilled cheese sandwich from a shot-and-a-beer bar on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. For an urban-area dweller like myself, I was stunned to ride for miles on a huge open road with virtually no vehicular traffic. It was great. I even added an extra 15 miles by doing an out-and-back tour of scenic Lake Piseco. With no motels to speak of in the area, I spent that night with the campers, joining dozens of others sleeping in the local high school gym. My plans for sleeping outside were scrapped after dinner when we spied a bear lumbering across the field in back of the school.

Our climbing the previous day was rewarded with long, slight downhill grade for the first 20 miles of Friday’s ride. It was enjoyable, until the temperature warmed into the 80s and we turned into a gusty southwest breeze. Talk about a slowdown! I went from 16 miles per hour to about half that in what seemed like no time at all. The cue sheet said “next 10 miles hilly” and that was an understatement. As Tour de France announcer Phil Liggett would say, “I think he’s been put into difficulty.” The headwind did not let up until we reached the finish at the Schuylerville school parking lot. We passed though the tourist stop of Saratoga, but it was tough to derive much enjoyment from the town with the riding so tough. With a few extra miles to view the Old Saratoga Revolutionary War Monument, I had accumulated just about 500 miles during the past six days. It was amazing to consider. We all had fun that night at a local café, realizing the journey would come to an end the next day. On a mild but breezy night—and no animal sightings—I slept in my sleeping bag outside in the football field. It was much more enjoyable than a stuffy gym.

The weather gods would not make the final day of this trip easy—heading due south into Albany, the wind had picked up overnight and was buffeting us at a steady 30 to 35 miles per hour, with little letup. While it would have been nice to enjoy a 50-mile spin to the finish, it was not to be. The harder I rode, the harder the wind tried to push me back. But the miles to the finish slowly melted away, and I have to say that it was an emotional moment to finally see the Albany skyline in the distance. Not normally much to look at, it was quite a sight after having covered the length of the state in less than a week’s time. As fate would have it, I caught up with a rider named Mike from Rochester as we reached downtown  Albany , with only a mile or so remaining to the finish. We were the first riders to reach this point, and the question arose in my mind—and surely his too—as to whether to launch into a sprint on the half-mile long hill up State Street in order to be the first touch the firefighter’s statue at the Empire Plaza. I decided (amazingly to anyone who knows my competitive instincts) to pull back and let Mike lead the way. At just before 10:00 a.m., some 147 hours (40 of them on the bike) after setting out from Niagara Falls, the ride was complete. All that was left was greeting the other riders in celebration as they arrived and then to later head for the bus station and the trip back to Boston Almost as soon as the bus got rolling, I fell asleep and found it difficult to stay awake for much of the next two days. 

So, another adventure was complete. I learned there are many other cross-state or partial cross-state rides in the  U.S. I would certainly try another, although they take up quite a bit of time, especially for a publisher with relentless deadlines. Then again, there are a lot of interesting back roads out there to see.