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August 2011

Ride of the Century

A classic tour around Lake George

ja2011_pp30_webA “century” is, for cyclists, the ultimate challenge—a 100-mile day, the two-wheeled equivalent of running a marathon. And what better way to ride a century than around the Adirondack Park’s greatest lake?

My cycling partner Steve and I arrive at Lake George village at 7:30 a.m. on an early summer Saturday to find a nearly empty town. In about two hours it’ll be mobbed here, but by then we’ll be long gone. We recruit one of the lake’s early-morning visitors to shoot a “before” photo of us, facing east, to catch the sun. Then we click into our pedals and ride off.

We head up the west side first—Route 9N. The shoulder is not generous, so it’s good to get this stretch done early, before the traffic starts.

From Lake George to Ticonderoga is about 45 miles. The road is shady and cool now, and filled with interesting sights, from century-old mansions built by New York City tycoons to cheesy motels advertising “NO VACANCY.”

Cyclists who aren’t ready for this challenge will find out soon enough. At first Route 9N is what locals might call “Adi­rondack flat.” It’s got a lot of ups and downs, but no hills of any particular difficulty. Nevertheless, the grades are cum­ulative. If you’re tired after an hour, you might want to scale back your endeavor.

Steve and I arrive in Bolton Landing about an hour after our departure, and the village has clearly awakened. We make for the local Stewart’s for a bathroom break and to fill up on water. North of Bolton Landing the road stretches flat and scenic along the shore of Northwest Bay. Homes and businesses thin out, until it’s just trees, water and the occasional car.

Then, suddenly, the road rises. We’re now on the biggest hill of the trip.

The good thing about what I call the Lake George Classic is you get the big hill out of the way early. But it’s still a tough one. The climb is on the shoulder of the Tongue Mountain Range, and the road as­cends more than a thousand feet in several miles. The grade is reasonable, so best to downshift, relax and enjoy. At the top, take a drink, wipe the sweat off your brow and prepare for one of the sickest road descents in the Adirondacks.

It’s easy to let it rip at first, but try to resist the temptation. As your speed picks up, the turns become both tighter and steeper. I forget to mention this fact to Steve, who has never biked this route before. Since he’s an avid motorcycle rid­er, I figure he won’t have any problem. When I get to the bottom, though, he’s still trying to pry his fingers from the handlebars.

“Dude,” he says. “I hit more than 50 going down that. I was going so fast I was afraid to hit my brakes.”

For the record, you might want to control your speed more assiduously. Cyclist, know thy limit.

Assuming you make it down the hill safely, the view from the bottom is worth a stop. You’re now on the northern part of Lake George, where life is slower and the impact of tourism isn’t quite so in­grained. This next section is one of the highlights of the ride, where the road is flat and lake views are constant. Take a short side trip around charming Sabbath Day Point, which has a history going back more than 270 years. Or stop at the general store in Hague for a snack and something cold to drink. Then say good-bye to the lake itself. You won’t see it again until you finish the ride.

Soon you’ll be rolling past the Ticonderoga Country Club, which is near the spot where Rogers’ Rangers were massacred by the French and Indians many bloody winters ago. And then you’ve reached what’s essentially the halfway point of the ride, in what must be the park’s most historic community.

Ticonderoga is a logical place to stop for lunch. That is, if you can find the village. Somehow, we miss it—there’s no actual sign to downtown. In fact, we accidentally ride around it in­stead. Take a right at the self-service tourist information booth onto Montcalm Street, and you’ll roll right through.

You’ll want to rest here if you’re not in a hurry. The next 25 miles, from Ticonderoga south to Whitehall, are the least interesting segment of the ride. A necessary evil, unfortunately.

You’re following Route 22 now, that great, lumbering two-lane road that stretches from upper Westchester to Can­ada. This particular leg is just a long straight­away, devoid of shade, with only a few quick glimpses of Lake Champlain to break the monotony.

The sun is in its full summer force by now, and the headwinds are likely blowing (when you’re a cyclist, headwinds are always blowing no matter what direction you’re headed). Sunblock is your friend on this stretch (I miss a small spot near the cuff of my cycling jersey, and I still carry the scar, nine months later). There’s only one thing worth stopping for—a photo-op at a street sign with a name cyclists will appreciate: Crusher Hill Road.

But the highway is smooth and the hills are gentle. In no time, you’ll cross the southern tip of Lake Champlain and enter Whitehall.

Three-fourths of our way through the ride, Steve and I can feel the miles. We retreat to the welcoming air-conditioning of yet another Stewart’s, gulping liquids and enjoying the sensation of inertia. Here we refer to a county map from the rack and contemplate a decision—take the busy state roads back west or choose the road less traveled.

Robert Frost would have approved. We contrive a longer but more scenic route, linking up a number of back roads. De­spite our tired legs, it turns out to be the right decision.

We start on Upper Turnpike Road, which takes us south from Whitehall, past the hidden Mettawee River (“Hey, I kayaked this river,” Steve says at one point). We hang a right, climb a hill through Washington County farm country, and wind up on a dirt road. Eventually we pop out of the sparsely populated woods and into Fort Ann.

From here we jump on the busy Route 149 east, but only briefly. The first left takes us three miles on a farm road to a T-intersection. There we head west, traversing, respectively, County Roads 36, 35 and 39. The added miles and extra hills are tough this late in the day, but the quietude and lush smells are still preferred to the thick Saturday afternoon traffic only a few miles away. One more stop at the last country store on this route brings another welcome Gatorade—enough to power us on to the end.

Soon we reach Queensbury. We make a right and take the bike path that goes from downtown Glens Falls north to Lake George. What better way to finish this glorious and difficult ride than in the shade of a car-free trail? Best of all, it’s en­tirely downhill.

By the time we reach the lake, it’s close to 6 p.m., about 10 hours after our start. The village is a completely different place, with tourists everywhere. The lake, once smooth, is choppy and filled with boats, paragliders, Jet Skiers and swimmers. Across the road from our car dozens of people are wading in the clear, cool water.

We pose for one last picture, facing west this time to catch the evening sun. Then we pull off our dirty jerseys and dive into the lake, washing away 100 miles worth of sweat.

ENJOY THE RIDE

Preparation: You’ll want to have several months of riding experience under your belt. Start with short rides and work your way up to 75 miles. Be sure to pack some hills into your routine.

Equipment: A road bike is essential, with the appropriate cycling clothes. Make sure the bike’s tuned up, lubed and ready. Carry a spare tube, patch kit, pump and tools. Be sure also to bring sunblock (reapply often), eat regularly and, most important, drink, drink, drink.

Strategy: No need to rush. Stop for photo-ops. Bring money and try some of the local goodies (but avoid filling up—that’ll bog you down). Divide the route into sections. Don’t worry about how far away the end is. You’ll get there eventually.

The route: Park in Lake George village. Take Route 9N north to Ticonderoga. In Ti, head through town (good place for a lunch stop) to Route 22. Take this south to Whitehall. From here, the faster but much busier option is to take Routes 22 and 4 down to Fort Ann, Route 149 west to Queensbury, and then the bike path back to Lake George. If you want scenery and no traffic, use a county map to plot your way on secondary roads (too many to list here) that parallel the aforementioned state roads.

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