I got the call during the week. “I am thinking of riding out to Bear for my birthday Sunday.” That was all I needed to know.
And it’s been on my calendar ever since.
We called people more often back then. That was 2006. Keith was always up for riding long. The longer, the harder, the more he was interested. I was the same. We joke that we live the sentiment of riding six hours because a five-hour ride just won’t do, though for Keith it might be closer to seven. It’s good when addicts find one another, I suppose. Keith’s birthday was a great extra excuse to ride longer and harder than usual in the winter.
Bear, for the uninitiated, is short for Bear Mountain, about 50 miles north of Manhattan Island on the west bank of the Hudson River, and a nice halfway point for a solid century bike ride. Gran Fondo New York, GFNY, makes it the centerpiece of their event. For Keith it would mean 120 miles or so. Keith’s birthday is in the first week of February, so it coincides with The Super Bowl. The timing is the only tie, but perhaps it means fewer people on the road, and participants can inhale junk food at a Super Bowl party if they can stay awake for it.
We rolled out from the George Washington Bridge—our way across the Hudson–with our Kissena gang. After an hour or so, the group was turning to head back (for Brooklynites, the hour north in Jersey usually means a four-hour ride in total), but two others joined us for a glorious day of sun and riding, hitting plenty of hills and quiet roads on the way out. We found out that the gate to the summit of Bear, Perkins Memorial Drive, is closed in the winter; it’s hard to blame a state park for closing a road to nowhere in the winter so they don’t have to worry about plowing. But we climbed over the gate, and pedaled to the top, a 6% two-mile hill, as the road was clear. On the way back, we made a single stop, at the Cove Deli in Tompkins Cove, riding 9W, the major north-south thoroughfare for cyclists in the area, much of the way home.
The next year, we decided to celebrate the same way again. But our will was tested by the 15 degrees Fahrenheit weather the four of us faced upon rollout. It probably warmed into the low 20s, but when we got to the gate, snow blanketed the road. No time for contemplation when stopping means freezing. We immediately turned around to start the slog home. It was so hard, Keith headed for the subway once we were back in the city. And I bonked a few blocks thereafter.
In 2008, we wanted to get back to the summit. Nice weather for the ride, but less than a mile in, ice covered Perkins. We had to turn back. One guy on the ride came from Bay Ridge, and pedaled the whole thing; nearly 150 miles, what seems to be the record for this ride.
With Perkins an iffier proposition than clear roads on the first Sunday in February, we had our tradition and our white whale.
We did make the summit again in 2009, but I didn’t get to the top again until 2014, and four times since.
The route has changed over the past 15 years, with no two years quite the same. Ice, snow, road conditions, weather, wrong turns, group preferences, and more dictating adjustments. The weather cancelled the ride on at least two occasions and shortened it one other. Another year, it started snowing 30 miles in; if it was still snowing when we got to Bear, we’d cross the Hudson and take the train home (at least that’s what I told myself). I skipped two because of injuries, two because of sickness. Keith was away for at least one edition, and injured for possibly two others, and one year, he told us to leave him 25 miles from the GWB. He was done; his plan was to get a sandwich before noodling home.
The group has varied in size over the years, possibly as big as 15 participants. Pros have come along, first-time century riders. Everyone knows it’s a no-drop ride but doesn’t want to be the one holding the group back, so most bring their best and most cooperative behavior. It’s not a flat ride, with as much as 8,300’ of climbing. Varied fitness among participants and bonking are always factors. No crashes yet.
This year, with 3-5” of snow forecast for the big ride, I went a day early. And, with the pandemic still an issue, I rode solo. It’s the first time since the ride’s inception that I did the entirety without any company.
Any time I have an excuse to ride all day, I’m bound to enjoy the experience. And with much of my time homebound, and kept in recently by snow, experiencing the ride alone was hardly a burden.
The early miles ticked by quickly. I was giddy as a kid on a snow day, knowing I had pretty much the remaining daylight hours to ride. Saw vultures picking at carcasses about an hour in. I added what I expected to be a few miles early on in case Perkins was snow-covered; this seemed like the first year for it in many. The sun warmed up more than expected; I was warm enough to take off my gloves and unzip for every ascent and keep the gloves off for every descent. When spinning solo and the goal is not over-heating, the big hills, like through the orchard and Gate Hill into Harriman aren’t so big; set a pace that is moving without over-exerting and stick with it.
The frozen lakes in Harriman State Park and the ice fishers and snow shoers I saw suggested that Perkins would indeed be snowbound. When I arrived at the gate, it was locked, but the road was clear. So I clambered over and went. A bit over a mile in, snow covered the road. But it wasn’t too packed. And probably not too long. And I was by myself. So I went. Climbing on snow is often easy. And it wasn’t too long. less than a kilometer. And the summit was clear—hikers were out enjoying the view. But descending on snow, never a good idea, came on the way down. Survived, but realized my folly.
Down to the Cove Deli. And thanks to being solo, the .44-mile Strava segment by the Deli took me only 9:32, a personal best.
No Polar Bear Plunge taking place in the Hudson on the edge of Haverstraw; that’s for tomorrow.
Closing in on Rockland Lake, I picked up a solo rider. Who sat on until he attacked me going over the next big hill. Don’t know if I had it in me to chase and I didn’t want to draft him (pandemic!), so I let him go.
Dropped into Nyack, which still felt pandemic-afflicted. As did Piermont.
Saw a friend riding north as I was riding south on the final stretch of 9W. We waved. I had seen him on my way out in the morning.
Finally crossed back over the GWB a bit before sunset. A great day.
The ride is about riding. It is the alpha and the omega. At the same time, it’s about much more. Tradition. Celebrating a birthday. Hanging with friends all day. Seeing people push themselves like they never have before. Having a shared experience. And building community. I guess there’s training, too, but it feels more like an excuse.
Can’t wait for next year.