Back in June, when I first heard my clubmate Sean describe the Mt. Greylock Century, I knew I was in trouble. In terms of single-day efforts, it was far beyond anything I’d ever done on a bike. Having spent most of my life in the relatively flat parts of the midwest, I’d never even climbed anything that could reasonably be described as a mountain before this year. I’d only started riding with any intensity in May, after a long winter and spring doing fairly short indoor rides on the trainer. I considered my mileage base barely adequate to even consider doing anything like Greylock, but I was hooked. I had to find out if I could handle the three major climbs and nearly 10,000 feet total climbing that MGC offered.
Once I made that decision, I started preparing. In June I began extending my Saturday rides as far as I could without shattering whatever illusion of domestic tranquility I had. After riding the 60-mile Climb to the Clouds over Mt. Wachusett in July, I concluded that I’d like to have a bailout gear for Greylock. I finished my “Swamp Thing” project bike. Though a bit heavier than my usual ride it featured wider tires, a more upright position and 26×26 low gear – probably lower than I’d need, but comforting nonetheless. By early August I had resolved some nagging chamois and saddle issues and felt ready to challenge the mountain.
All along I had assumed that I would have a few clubmates along with me. As the day of the ride approached and I started asking around, that number dwindled to just one: Scott, whom I’d ridden with quite a lot on the Saturday group rides. He agreed to pick me up early on Saturday morning. The morning of the ride, I woke a few minutes ahead of my alarm and went downstairs to cram the last few items in my bag. I had the Weather Channel on in the background. Tropical Storm Bonnie had already hit and spun some inclement weather into New England, and Hurricane Charley was inbound, so I wasn’t entirely confident that the weather would hold. Scott showed a few minutes early and in short order he’d strapped my bike to his trunklid. We set off for Pittsfield, some two and a half hours away.
As we flew down the Pike we watched the weather alternate from misty to clear and back again. By the time we reached the start it had evened out into a dull but not particularly threatening overcast. After we signed in I suited up and orbited the shopping center parking lot a couple of times. I saw the usual array of equipment, from high-end European and American racing bikes to classic lugged steel to flat-bar hybrids. Scott found his friend Mark, mounted on a hot pink Serotta, and the three of us rode out of town on Route 8.
The first few miles slid by comfortably and for a time we were joined by a woman from Vermont who complimented Scott on his club jersey. She especially liked the “Velo Inferno” flames, and remarked that maybe they’d keep her warm during a fall century back home. However, she was on the 50-mile route and turned off as we continued through Cheshire and Lanesboro. After she turned off we went up a rise that would rate mountain points in our club racing series, but didn’t even get a mention on the century cue sheet. At mile 13 we turned onto North Main Street in Lanesboro and began the climb up to the Greylock visitors center. Though only a mile or so long the 10% grade got us out of the saddles and warmed up for the big mountain ahead. We stopped briefly at the visitors center to regroup and then pressed on up the mountain.
Above the visitors center, the mowed lawn of the lower slopes gave way to dense forest. We rode past rock formations furry with moss and trickling runoff from the recent rains. Painted markings on the road counted down the miles to the summit, passing all too slowly as I dropped to my small chainring to keep my cadence high and heart rate moderate. At the Jones Nose trailhead halfway up, the road flattened for a mile or so and we caught our breath. At about the same time we rode into dense fog that shrouded the trees and plugged the overlooks, preventing us from seeing anything but the ever-ascending road ahead of us. I put my head down and concentrated on winching myself to the next mile marker.
After twenty minutes or so in the fog, I saw the sign for the summit. The road flattened out for the last mile and I stood up to stretch as I rode into the summit area. My jersey was soaked from both the effort and the misty air. We lingered for a few minutes to fuel up, but the view didn’t give us any reason to stay. The top of the observation tower disappeared into a bank of fast-moving clouds and we could barely see beyond the trees immediately around the small parking area. With 24 miles covered we knew we were in for a long day, so we pulled on some warmer clothes and started the descent.
The ride organizer had warned us several times about the broken pavement on the mountain, and I found that he didn’t exaggerate. Every few dozen yards the road was interrupted by a pothole or frost heave. Most were well marked with Day-Glo orange paint but we still took our time coming down the twisty descent, which was still slick from rain and fog. About two thirds of the way down we saw a rider off his bike, motioning us to slow down. Around the next switchback we came across an ambulance tending to a rider who had crashed; we later heard that he fractured his femur.
The weather began to clear as we exited the park, so we paused to peel off our arm warmers just before we turned onto Route 2 to pass through North Adams. As the sun warmed us, the road once again pitched skyward and we settled into a climbing rhythm. This time we had some traffic to contend with so we single-filed on the shoulder. After another two miles of climbing we had cleared town and reached a corner that I feebly hoped marked the end of the hill, but I knew better – who puts a switchback at the top of a mountain? Another two miles on we found the sag wagon and paused again to fill our bottles. According to the cue sheet we had covered just over 40 miles and 4600 feet of cumulative vertical gain. Though I was feeling pretty good, the local riders tending the rest stop warned us that the upcoming climb was the toughest of the ride. As one put it, “Doesn’t much matter which way you go, Hawley’s on top of a biiiig hill.”
After a fast descent down Route 2 we jogged across Route 8A and onto East Hawley Road. As we approached the hill I could hear Scott chatting with another rider behind me. “Last year I had to walk up this hill,” the nameless other guy said. “This year I’ve got a new bike that’s a couple of pounds lighter and two more teeth on my big cog. The hill’s not going to get me this time.” He slowly moved passed me as we hit the first steep section. I found a gear that I could spin at about 70 rpm and set my mind on the summit that was still far out of my vision.
About halfway up I ran into trouble. I tried to select a lower gear and the chain skipped, causing me to freewheel. I was moving about 6 mph at the time and could not get back into gear before I ran out of momentum. I got my left foot out of the pedal, but swinging my leg out probably just accelerated my fall to the right. I hit the ground on my knee and palm and immediately both of my calves cramped. I managed to flip over on my butt and prop myself up on my hands with my legs straight out in front, my toes involuntarily and immovably pointed down the hill. Scott slowed as he passed and I waved him on, embarrassed by yet another mechanical that was probably my own doing.
A few minutes later Mark came up the hill looking like he needed a break. He stopped and helped me get on my feet. My calves had loosened somewhat but my knee still throbbed from the impact. I started checking out the Swamp Thing – nothing had been hurt in the crash but the cassette would not freewheel when I backpedaled the crank. After a few minutes of puzzling over the situation, Mark and I finally figured out that the cassette lockring had worked its way loose. It was more than finger-tight but not snug against the first cog, so all of the cogs had some lateral play. While I was spinning the wheel in the dropouts my heart sank another notch as I heard a periodic hissing. Let’s see: cramps, crash, flat…I guess bad things really do come in threes.
Naturally, a fairly steady stream of riders was passing us while we were bent over my inverted bike. Once I figured out the cassette was loose, I started answering their queries with “I’m OK, but I’d be a lot better with a cassette tool.” Most riders just shook their heads, but a fellow on an old Univega countered with “No cassette tool, but would you happen to have a new front axle and a couple of bearing cones?” We’d passed each other a couple of times previously, so we were starting to develop a relationship.
As I struggled with getting the punctured tire off the rim, Mark and I chatted a bit. Turns out he was doing the ride mostly on good genetics and intestinal fortitude – he had only resumed riding a couple of months ago, and his longest training week amounted to about sixty miles. I’d put his age at 50 or so. He could have done with some lower gears but he was definitely hanging tough. My genetic base is nowhere near that high – if I had tried to tackle the ride with a 53×23 low gear and just a couple hundred miles of training, I wouldn’t have made it past the first climb.
After more than half an hour of delay, I finally had the bike and my legs in shape to proceed. I push-started myself back up the hill to ride the two miles into the lunch stop. When I arrived there I was pleasantly surprised to find Scott was still waiting for us. I wolfed down some macaroni and peas, chased that with a cookie, and refilled my bottles. We remounted and enjoyed a couple of miles of descent while lunch settled, then we got back to work on route 112 with more rollers and a mile of 10% grade. On Route 143 we rode past corn fields and a pasture where a small herd of horses galloped after us as we passed. More sheep and a few cattle also greeted us at points, as well as one loose dog that to my great relief turned out not to be of the sprint-inducing variety. I caught up to the guy who had asked me for a new front axle back on East Hawley Road, and indeed his front wheel sounded like an out-of-balance washing machine.
With the next sag wagon at the 80-mile mark, I focused on keeping my fluids up to try to prevent more cramping. After we turned onto route 143, I stopped once to take a picture and gave my twiching quads a brief rest. I’d been struggling to keep up my eating all day – I had started the day feeling somewhat bloated, and after lunch I had trouble forcing myself to keep nibbling at the Clif bar stashed in my pocket. I was getting some calories from Cytomax but it probably wasn’t enough, and I was starting to suffer a bit as the sun shone more brightly and we lost tree cover. I nearly rode right past the sag wagon since it was actually off the route by a few yards and my eyes were fixed on the crest of that last hill, but somehow I noticed the crowd of brightly dressed cyclists off to my left and turned in for one more power-up.
We had been told that the route was essentially downhill after mile 91, leaving just one climb between the last rest stop and the end of the route. That turned out to be true, and soon after we joined Route 9 in Windsor I was back in the big ring and zipping downhill. Scott had inched away from me on the last climb and I put my nose on the stem to make up ground as we descended. As we rolled into Dalton I felt a little energy seep back into my legs, and the last few miles in Pittsfield were actually pleasant despite the traffic. With little ceremony we rolled back into the Allendale Plaza parking lot, dismounted and changed out of our sweat-stained clothes. We had finished in about 8:40, over my self-imposed “par time” of 8 hours but acceptable considering the Hawley mishap.
Overall I’m quite pleased with the experience – there aren’t many tougher centuries around. My equipment worked reasonably well, and I’m especially pleased that I had no saddle, back or hand problems during the ride. Strictly speaking I didn’t “need” the triple, but I was glad to have it. I think going up those long climbs at 70 RPM in the saddle instead of 40 RPM standing made for a more comfortable ride and less stress on my legs. I’m still searching for a solution to the cramping, though – my calves have given me problems before. Nonetheless I’m looking forward to going back next year and riding faster and stronger than my first attempt. If I’m really lucky we’ll have a good view from the summit and we can take a nice picture of the dozens of BHCCers who come along for the ride in 2005.
I have a few pictures from the ride, mostly from the summit. Once the sun came out the scenery was nice but I was focused on getting home.