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We roll over the old bridge at the end of town where the road descends gently into a mix of open meadows, farmland and copses of deciduous trees. The sun is low but climbing and our pace-line is buffeted by a light but exceptionally pleasant crosswind. It’s the beginning of the day and our ride and the team and summer. The Gunks, or Shawangunks, the northern end of a long ridge of the Appalachian Mountains beginning in Virginia, rises rocky and vertical from the countryside to our right. I can’t hear him but I see Jeremy pointing and smiling cruelly in that direction. My heart sinks as first I check in with my legs: manageable pain. Then my face: covered in sweat. Then my lungs: actively working. And finally everyone else: smiling, talking and optimistically spinning forward. The East Coast Riders are fast., talking and optimistically spinning forward. The East Coast Riders are fast.
The three and-a-half mile climb out of the valley and over the Gunks is gorgeous, marked by large, tan rocks atop piles of smaller ones, the occasional flowering tree and beautiful views of the countryside below. Cool, fresh water rushes in the streams and falls hidden behind the guardrail edging our path. The road, with a clean surface and wide shoulder, takes a curious approach to the hillside mixing slow, wide turns, ambitious switchbacks and steep straight pitches. Jeremy and the rest of the Boston contingent chase Sam to the top. The rest of the New Yorkers, followed by me, follow behind.
The other side of the Gunks is densely wooded and laced with yet more streams and falls. The descent takes us through Lake Minnewaska State Park and the town of Granite. At the bottom, we take a left and head further west until Richard gets a flat. The road here is busier and wider, lined with thickets of weeds and second rate trees, defunct businesses and busted mailboxes. With time now to notice, we all clock the many American flags flapping in the light but constant breeze. And the many rusted-out snowmobiles, high centered in the dirt in front yards. The ride resumes in the form of quick but cautious pace-line.
Twenty miles in, on the far side of Wawarsing, we pick-up HWY 55 and roll up over Honk Hill, on our way to Rondout Reservoir. The approach is pretty, moving through trees, lakes and rivers and the occasional open plain, with large farm buildings and summer camps. The side of the Rondout rises constantly up and down for a little over seven miles. Those who know, those of us who actually did the recce or reviewed the ride profile, know Sugarloaf, the crux and worst climb of the ride, and its absurdly steep sides are now only moments away.
When you see the large, near vertical rock ledge in front of you, you realize pretty quickly what’s going to happen. Then you hit the first big euro switchback significantly steeper on the inside than outside. Then you climb, and climb.
The road from town launches us into flat, open fields that remind me of Northern Europe. The warm breeze whips-up a yellow dust and blows it across the road. We talk nervously trying to anticipate the rest of the day while the first climb looms ever larger to our right.
My legs are not where they could be, or should be. So I drift back a bit and notice that the road is bordered on either side by sheer rock walls – they look handmade, a product of intent. The stones look like they were carefully laid one by one on top of each other.