It’s 1:47 AM, and Sanctuary by Infinity Shred is playing on my phone, building to a dramatic crescendo. I’ve had maybe 3 hours of sleep, and today I’m taking a loaded 54lb singlespeed tractor ~90 miles with some 7000ft of climbing. Most would recoil in horror at the thought but I’m already so amped up that kinda math doesn’t even enter my brainspace.
As the song ends I launch out of bed and fire up the coffee and an enormous bowl of oatmeal in record time. Probably didn’t even need that coffee, but I like it so shut up. 2:16 AM and I’m fully dressed and I triple check my checklist a second and third time to make sure I don’t forget any critical items. Good to go, now all I have to do is anxiously tap my caffeinated cleats as I wait for an hour and a half to pass so I can leave and meet up with Dan.
4 AM and I’m at the gas station doing circles to keep warm as I spot Dans headlight coming down the road. We agree that neither of us had much sleep and quickly get back on the road. We keep a good 14mph pace and get to the ferry in record time (for me). Just as they call bikes to board the ferry Prentiss shows up, fashionably late as always.
Angry, cutting wind wears away at us as we motor up the greenway, slowing time like stones windblasted in the desert for millenia. I start feeling something hit my helmet, must be leaves from the trees or maybe a bird just shit on me. Suddenly it happens again, and keeps hitting me, is that rain? No, its bouncing off my helmet and everything else like little ball bearings, It’s hail, fuck. Type 2 fun just got kicked into gear a little early.
The forecast has been tetter-tottering between clear skies and rain/snow for the past week and a half and it looks like we got the shit end of the stick on this one. All I can think of is setting up camp in the rain frozen to the bone, shivering all night. Thankfully it ends in about 2 minutes and never again does it rear its ugly head, that would’ve made this interesting journey a lot more painful.
Just before we get under the cover of the West Side Highway Justin joins peloton. The mundane greenway flies by when you have buddies to ride with and chitchat even if the wind is blasting your face into frozen leather. Despite my fingers and toes going numb we’re up and over the bridge in no time as we pause for a pee break and take bike pics and admire each others bikes and compare setups. Titanium and suspension and fat tires and ultra light gear, boys and their toys.
Just before 9W starts to get really boring we make a right at the stop sign and funnel into the Long Path. Stunning cliffside views over the hudson as we amble over the gnarly rock gardens. My 29+ tractor wheels and Dan’s XC skills make short work out of most of it, but we make sure to stop periodically so Justin (fresh out of knee surgery) doesn’t die on his CX bike with 40c tires. It doesn’t hurt that about every 1/4 mile is another great excuse to pause and admire the view.
Dan and Prentiss lead the way out of this stop and I notice my front tire a bit squishy still from what I suspect was a slight burp on a jagged, rocky downhill akin to a gravity assisted meatgrinder. I spend a few mins pumping up my tire with Justin’s surprisingly effective road pump and slosh around the sealant in the tire to make sure the bead holds.
Awesome flowy section now as I catch up to Dan and he points to a front deer leg that looks like it got blown off by an explosion. Exposed bone fading to charred flesh and a fully furred hoof, #natureismetal. I smelled deer piss earlier but saw no other signs, I guess the nose knows. Another pause to regroup and another dope view.
More meatgrinder rollers cloaked in a brown shell of dead leaves, with a good sprinkling of hike a bike. We’re off to a rough start and it’s already awesome. My tire is holding a seal now and does so for the rest of the trip, tubeless tires are awesome. We cross numerous skinnies and boards over streams that drop off into trickling waterfalls. A super gnarly hidden cheesegrater descent allows me to pass Dan, only to have him pass me a minute later on the climb up the other side. Sudden stairs down to the road and a good excuse to pause for a regroup and B.S. session with some snacks.
Soon we drop down into the Alpine Ranger Station and everyone refills on liquids and uses the facilities. I’ll take that route over River Rd. any day, as scenic as the former can be. Inside is as warm as Grandma’s house on Thanksgiving Day, and it’s just what I needed for my iceblock toes and fingers.
Here Justin heads back to Manhattan so he doesn’t void the warranty on his cyborg knee and the rest of us fly down Closter Dock Rd. Good thing we warmed up at the ranger station because were all frozen again. We get to the Alpine trails and Ruckman is a lot steeper, a lot longer, and a lot harder than I remember now that I’m mashing my way up on a SS.
I don’t realize we missed a turn but it doesn’t matter since were meeting up with the route again in a couple hundred feet, but I need a break. My lungs are paradoxically frozen and burning. A guy on a 29er XC bike casually rolls past us from the trail we should’ve been on like its no big deal, and were all sitting there sucking in the cold, thin air as we gulp down water. Note to self; pay better attention to the route (words I will soon forget over and over as the day goes on).
We make a left onto the Yellow trail and we’re quickly knee-deep in singletrack that is as alien to us as the rocks that are buried under the brown ice. Relentless punchy technical climbs test our legs. I choose to fight my battles with and walk up most of them, since I need to save energy for the “real” singletrack at Ringwood tonight. We pass 5 Stream crossings, a ruined Lean-To campsite and the first bunch of riders of the day. We leave a trail of slackjawed inquisitors excited to see us everywhere we go in our wake.
“Bikepackers! Yeaaaahh Awesome!”
The trails at Alpine seemed to get harder and harder up as the trail went on, looking back on RideWithGPS there were climbs so steep it claimed 39.7%. We caught some flow and the trail forks off, me and Dan veer to the right and we lose the scent on a big granite slab, so we wait for Prentiss to catch up. 5 Mins later and no sign of him, we call out but we don’t hear anything, ruh roh. I backtrack and get to the fork, and I see his trail in the leaves, he definitely went left, and he was flying down that hill. Dan calls him on his cell and thankfully we have service. He did indeed go down the hill but he’s back up in no time, double points! After we regroup Prentiss tells us he needs a long allen key to tighten his brake lever which none of us have, thankfully Piermont Bicycle is right out of the woods so we find the trail again and make our way out.
We fly through Tallman and pass 2, then 3 groups more of riders who again are left cheering with jaws agape by this group of maniacs who look equipped to survive the apocalypse rather than a Sunday ride up to the coffee shop. It seems like so many people are into the idea of bikepacking but never have the time, or never take the initiative to do it themselves. We get praise everywhere we go, and I’m happy to be an inspiration to anyone that craves their own adventure either way. It also probably doesn’t help that they’re all dressed to brave an arctic tundra and I’m still rocking short sleeves and shorts. What a weirdo.
We get to Piermont Bicycle and they have tools accessible outside 24/7 that are leashed to the building and an air hose, score! Unfortunately, the allens are on a multitool just like the 3 of us have, so it takes a trip inside to get a longer allen key. Outside while Dan and I wait more admirers roll through and offer more bulging eyes and morale-boosting comments as I shovel sporkfuls of cookie butter into my foodhole.
Prentiss emerges with a fixed brake lever and were off to the Old Erie Path. Again, this trail is harder than I remember now that I only have one speed, I feel like I’m crawling. Plenty of great views to distract me from the gradient though.
Despite the fact that we “crawled” up the trail were in Nyack in no time, and we make a stop at The Runcible Spoon. Thankfully the cold air keeps the crowd of spandex-clad caffeine addicts to a minimum and we are even able to grab a table. I order up a double espresso, bourbon pecan squares, and a banana. The bros get some sandwiches, rugelach and more espresso and hot chocolate. We fart around charging electronics and our core temperatures for longer than we probably should have, but sitting down in the warmth feels amazing.
A hair under an hour later and we work up the courage to hit the road again as we make our way towards Haverstraw. It’s pretty great to be able to feel your fingers and toes, hopefully that lasts for a while.
Dropping down the switchbacks we pass a boatload of day hikers, which Dan tells me keep giving me crazy looks. Fat tire bike with a loud freewheel piloted by a scantily-clad wackjob with a beard, I’d be looking too. Exposed now along the water and the wind is of course coming straight at us, cutting to the bone. So much for feeling my fingers and toes.
As we climb up into the trees the wind subsides and its superfuntime on the whoop-dee-doos. I love this section of trail and I cant wait till the plants are all alive again so it becomes a totally new experience. Prentiss even comments that this is his favorite section so far, and I’m certainly not putting up a fight.
It’s at this point that the shit starts rolling down hill. We corkscrew up the entrance ramp after the Tilcon quarry and keep climbing up S Mountain Road. Locals might know this part as “The Orchards/High Tor ride”. Road climbs go up and up steeper and steeper, around a blind corner that lasts forever. I never spent much time scoping out this area on Google Street View as I did with other parts, so I’m not entirely sure what kind of vertical to expect here, but I hope we can get back on the trails in High Tor soon and get off the road.
We pass what I did see on the Googlemachine as “the trailhead” and it looks like some Grade 1 bushwhacking as a hiker so I don’t bother calling back to the group which was now dropping me like a bad habit. I drew the route up a side country road that could have easily been confused with someones driveway, so we head up cautiously and turns out it is, according to a sign.
PRIVATE PROPERTY – KEEP OUT
OK, so lets not get shot, no trails for now. The issue of time starts to creep into our thought processes. “We’ll take the road there”, since it should be faster, and easier than some unknown trails. Yeah right. Everything was going along as it should be, nice downhill to a slight climb as we pass the “official” High Tor climb, then BOOM-15% climb. The guys surge ahead as I grit my teeth and muscle up the climb. The road levels out and I catch back up, and as quickly as I get on Dan’s wheel the road points up again, steeper and longer than last time, 18%. I pull off for a cross dismount and walk, defeated. I’ve never walked a road climb in my life! When the grade eases up I get back on my tractor and try my best to make up ground. Just enough time to recover as another attack from gravity at 15%, “FUCK” – another cross dismount.
I walked for what felt like miles, there was no shoulder, my companions were the empty cups from litterbugs on the side of the road. I convince myself that walking would save energy for the rest of this day, since I’m expecting the climbing to only get worse. Finally the hills concede their attack and let me pedal past the apple orchards to meet up with the guys. God knows how long they’ve been sitting there waiting for me.
Prentiss offers up some Swedish Fish and I roll em up in a tortilla “Fish taco!”. We laugh at my stupidity but then its time to get serious, it’s getting dark and we have to make a decision to make. Do we continue on the unknown of Harriman trails, or do we take the easy way down the highway to Sloatsburg? Harriman trails could be atrocious, there could be a section of Grade 4 bushwhacking or stream crossing, and I’m not interested in getting my only shoes soaked. Highway it is, and I’m already daydreaming about dinner.
We haul ass down the stale, lifeless 202 which rivals the monotony of 9W. We get to Sloatsburg and see the farmer’s market across the highway that I was looking forward to on the map. One problem though, between us and that farmer’s market is a concrete divider, and this isn’t exactly Route 66 if you catch my drift. We decide to go up the road to a strip mall I remember from planning that has pizza and booze and a deli. We go in and load up on water and snacks, and I get a vanilla coke for camp cocktails. Another nice warm indoor environment to soothe my bones.
Outside its getting colder as the sun is losing altitude, so I finally decide to put on my rain jacket. Loaded up, we head back down the road and instead of backtracking the whole way we take a shortcut under an overpass to get to Sterling Mine Rd. A 2 mile climb that thankfully isn’t too steep, but without us knowing we pass the road I had originally routed us down. Just as I realize it and ask Dan which fire road it is, we’re rocketing down a descent and Prentiss drops us all. Thankfully he stops at the bottom and when we regroup, we all kindof acknowledge the fact that were going the wrong way. That descent was cool though.
After a few mins checking maps we figure out what we missed. We click on our lights as the sun starts to really dip behind the hills and climb back up that hill, double points! From this point on we check the maps every 5 minutes like were on an Orienteering race.
Heading into the void as the last slivers of sunlight eek their way through the trees and we start to hear gunshots, and the fire road leads towards them. Goddamnit, I was already thinking about bears, last thing we need is some drunk hunters bucking off shots in our direction. Thankfully as we get to Shephard’s Pond I see a sign for trap shooting to the right, and we’re going left.
The next 5 miles felt like they took 5 hours. Pitch black, constant navigation, technical trails, and staying vigilant to stick together and not lose anyone in the jungle. It went something like this:
- Ride a couple hundred feet
- check maps
- rinse, repeat.
All we want now is to find the campsite, find a spot to break camp and maybe use a water spigot in the morning, if it isn’t frozen. Next cue is “follow this blue trail till we get to that paved road”. That trail, that goddamn blue trail, was such a physically and mentally exhausting slog over streams and fields of boulders the size of jeep tires. Sporadically we would get little bits of trail that were rideable that were just enough to keep the stoke going. After a while the 3 of us were all strung out far enough apart that we could barely see each others lights through the trees, and at some point we completely lost Dan on a climb.
Suddenly the trail points down, way down, and I still can’t see any lights, “fuck it.” I head down the descent and it quickly gets too gnarly to just feather my brakes. I grab more and more brake until both wheels lock, I ease off the front brake to get some steering and surf the brown ice the whole way down. Finally at the bottom I see a light, good thing that was the right way because I’m in no mood to backtrack anymore or H.A.B. back up that fiasco.
After what seems like a lifetime, we find the road and as we climb up we start to see power wires and junction boxes nailed to trees, good sign. Suddenly a cabin appears ahead, and there are lights on, bad sign, No big deal they could just be on all the time, even if campers aren’t using it. But wait is that a TV on? Shit it is, and there’s a diesel generator running-oh, great, now their dog has spotted us and is barking. This is someones house.
“We gotta get the fuck out of here.”
We re-route to circumvent the cabin to hopefully again get to the campsite we’re all looking forward to right now. We all just want to stop and rest and this is a definite wrench in the works. We decide to take the gas pipeline, which, on a map is a nice laser-straight line, unfortunately that map is not a topographic map. Quickly we realize that straight ≠ easy, and there are sections so steep you have to use your bike as a grappling hook, locking the brakes and pulling yourself up the hill while you hope your tires and feet don’t lose traction. Numerous hills over 20%, I don’t know how you could get a tank up these hills, let alone a car. We hit our max elevation on these dumb pipeline trails at 1037ft.
I go to check the gradient as we crawl up the pipeline trail, and it’s dead, oh well. The anticipation of the campsite has taken over all of us, the thought of an actual lean-to possibly being available, with a huge roaring campfire and all will be right in the world. We find the trail that breaks off of the pipeline trail and leads to the camp, as were ambling along the trail that none of us have the energy to deal with on our bikes, my eyes start to wander for flat ground. Seconds later, as if we shared the same thought, Dan’s light lands on the same spot I was looking at.
“That looks like a pretty flat spot, we could work with that”
And we could. This spot will be our home for the night and just knowing we found a spot to stop lifts a huge weight off of our shoulders. We scan the area for spots with no rocks to sleep (anyone familiar with camping on the East Coast can attest to the challenge of this task) and settle on 3 good spots. We comb the area for a decent amount of firewood and Dan builds a fire pit and gets the fire going, with my tent half setup I take off my cleats and put my feet next to the fire, dear god this is the greatest thing ever.
With my toes and fingers warmed up now I finish pitching my tent and dump my entire seatbag out and put everything on. Warm clothes are amazing, fire is amazing, bourbon is amazing. Now that were all settled in we gorge ourselves. Food is inhaled, booze is drunk, and my eyelids start to get heavy. Prentiss caves first and goes off to sleep, I last about an hour just loving the shit out of this fire. Before I succumb to the sleep monster Dan and I spend about 20 minutes trying to throw the bear line up into the tree to hang our food. 2 trees later and countless tosses and were good, I sit around the fire some more sipping on bourbon, listening to Prentiss sawing wood over in his tent and I’m done. I crawl into my tent, cinch down the cords on my bag and sleep is slept.
I awake in the middle of the night, I roll to my side and water hits my face. “What the shit is this?!” Apparently my tent and cinched down bivvy do such a good job of keeping air in that my hot breath inside my bag formed condensation. I check my phone to see the time, its 3:20AM, and my toes are frozen. Suddenly I realize neither of those things are what woke me up, I can hear a coyote, or something, in the distance, making a curious vibrato-whining sound. The only thing I can compare it to is the way a blow-off valve sounds when a car goes past and the driver takes their foot off the gas to shift. It gets closer and closer, then suddenly stops. I check to make sure my knife is still unclipped next to my head, I don’t remember falling back asleep.
7:14 am and my toes are still frozen, but the rest of me is warm. I hear a rifle far off in the distance, hopefully they bagged a good one. Maybe it was that coyote or whatever the fuck it was. I check the weather from the night and it got down to 28°, I’d say that’s pretty damn good for a 46° bag + SOL Escape Bivvy + 3 Season tent, I’m impressed. However, I wouldn’t want to take that combo any colder without some extra protection for my feet. I stir around for a few mins and hear someone get up, so I put my cleats on and emerge from my little humidor.
We all survived the night, Dan is next to me under his tarp shelter looking very alive and not eaten by woodland creatures, Prentiss is off in the woods somewhere taking care of business. I immediately check the fire and its still warm, jackpot. I prepare some kindling and stoke the coals, breathe some life into it and we again have a fire so hot it hurts. I sit in front of the fire for a while to revive my toes, and survey our surroundings now that I can actually see more than a foot in front of me. Rocks. Rocks everywhere. The entire East Coast is a veritable glacial garbage dump, and it makes for some seriously gnarly terrain.
I made Cubano style espresso with instant coffee (its the best instant coffee you’ve ever had, ask me how to make it) and Dan needed something to filter his coffee grounds with. I’ve gotten a lot of shit from coworkers and friends from carrying a bandana who all say I’m just trying to look like a greaser. Let me tell you that thing has so many uses, and today another one would be added to the list, a pour-over coffee filter. It worked fantastically, hobo-hipster coffee in full effect.
For the next 5 hours we do nothing but sit around and cook and eat food. I ate everything I brought in about 5 minutes, and Dan kept pulling food out of his bag like Felix the cat and it was most appreciated by all of us. I think our bodies were telling us we needed more and more calories to replenish our stores from yesterday, and with Dan’s bottomless sack of wonders we certainly weren’t gonna argue.
At around noon we all decide its time to hit the road, and instead of another singletrack deathmarch we decide to just hit one of the bailout roads and get our asses home. Thankfully only a short H.A.B. back to the pipeline trail, it actually is all downhill back to 202. Down the 20% dirt hill to the road, which is a nice paved road with fun turns and stomach turning drops, -800ft in 2 miles.
Back in civilization we dump garbage at a gas station and re-up on water and food. Only 30 miles back to civilization, but its all on pavement, womp womp. We get the hell out of dodge but not quickly, as we have to climb up the appropriately named “Long Hill Road”.
We weave our way through quiet suburban roads with leaves piled 3 feet high on every curb. Cars actually wave us through at intersections (unheard of for these 3 city slickers) and aside from a bus (typical) everyone gives us ample room on the road. Finally we get a nice prolonged descent and catch the light perfectly, I spin up to 120rpm and tuck it, 3 rocketships blasting through an intersection and even my 54lb tonka toy catches air off the train tracks. I would’ve loved to see the faces on the people in cars waiting at the light as we shot by.
The quiet, country suburbia slowly fades away as we enter the posh, bustling town of Ridgewood, and the route starts to get complicated. Lots of lefts and rights and whatchacallits has us doing circles around what seems to be a town made entirely of restaurants. At this point the 3 of us have one thing on our mind: PIZZA, and it doesn’t help that we’ve passed about 6 of them in the last 10 minutes.
Finally we get out of that awful, wretched place and we make it to the Saddle River Trail, for some solace from the cars. We crack jokes about people’s weird run styles as I try to keep my hands warm tucked under my armpits. The air next to the river is super cold, and were going a good speed now so the wind isn’t helping. We wind up getting lost for a second when we go over a bridge and under an overpass, everything looks the same and I had to look at the map to slap me in the face, despite my eyes saying “we just came from there!”.
Once we get off the Saddle River Trail the roads I mapped out turn out to be all crap from there to the GWB. Rolling hills on a busy 4 lane street with no semblance of a shoulder, so we just take the sidewalk for miles. Finally, a break from the sidewalk riding has us in an industrial area and we notice traffic start to back up. As we get closer to the front we realize its a train crossing the road, and its creeping along at a mind-numbingly slow pace. With the end of the train nowhere in sight I decide to put on some more layers and my homeade booties. The sun is dropping again already and its getting cold. As I pick up my glasses from the feedbag one of the arms just plain falls off, with no previous trauma. Fucking great. Breaking rule #37 I tuck them under my helmet straps and it keeps them from falling off my face till I get home to tape them together like a proper geek.
Finally the train changes tracks and gets out of our way, we cut across 4 more tracks and climb up just to descend back down, thankfully not too fast to miss a turn. Were out onto an intersection on Essex St. and the road points down what looks like a 5 lane onramp to a highway. If we revisit this route when the days are longer I definitely need to revise this section.
As we sit there debating whether or not to go for it, waiting for traffic to go by, we notice a cloud of birds convalescing overhead. Two large blobs, then three, then one massive blob swirling and undulating into incredible organic shapes, culminating in a fantastic double-helix before they all break apart. The three of us sit there stunned, oohing and aahing like a bunch of toddlers at the Macys fireworks spectacular.
We snap back into reality and go for it, thankfully it’s not a highway, and it leads us up into the final climb from Leonia to Fort Lee. Chugging along and darkness settles in as we head back to the sidewalk,. The streetlights here are pathetic, and its a narrow 2 lane street with no shoulder. I get half a mile up as the gradient tops out at 9.5% and get to a false flat, thank god thats over. I look up the road, nope, looks twice as steep, and it is. I dismount and the guys pass me before it tops off at 16%, I’m cooked. I reach the top and we regroup at the top to refuel, after I catch my breath we head down the other side of the hill and were suddenly at 9W across the street from the entrance to River Rd. At last, familiar ground.
As we cross over the bridge I realize I’ve never crossed the GWB in the dark, and when another rider is coming at you with a bright like we all have on, it sucks, you cant even see the guardrail. We get down the ramp and we all whoop and holler, we fucking did it!
The city is so much warmer and its refreshing. It’s nice to turn off the garmin route and just know where you’re going. It’s nice to know we’re “home” and pizza and a shower and our own beds are right down the road, kindof.
“18 minutes to get to the boat, think we can make it?”
Unfortunately, about 2 minutes after that I nestle into my comfort zone and get dropped by the guys. I lose their tail lights way down the road and surrender to the fact that I’ll just catch back up to them at the ferry. A guy passes me on a bike with double aerospokes and a moped engine strapped to it blasting down the bikepath. A flock of idiots on those infuriating, light-up “swagway” contraptions, and grown up joggers with blinky toddler shoes. I hate this place, but you’ll never see this kinda shit anywhere else, there is no better place on earth for people-watching.
I check the time on my garmin and see that there’s only 6 minutes to get to the ferry from Chelsea, looks like we’re not getting the next boat. As I pull up to the terminal my garmin says there’s 2 minutes till the boat leaves, and secretly I hope we really did miss it so I can scarf down some pizza first, but people are running into the terminal so there’s still time. No sign of the guys, but I go inside and see them waiting. Just as I lean my bike up against the wall they call for the bikes, perfect timing. Except for pizza.
Back on the island Prentiss breaks off so me and Dan hammer home in silence, cooked, dreaming of pizza and warm beds. We get to where we split off and we hang out for a good 15 minutes bullshitting about the ride, bikes, life, plotting and scheming about the next one, then we head home, because pizza.
I get in the door and it’s a furnace, awesome. I blend up a protein shake without taking off my helmet and chug it down like its the first drink after crossing the Sahara on foot. I rummage around the fridge and inhale a huge bowl of leftover mac and cheese without heating it up. I don’t have the energy to stay up waiting for pizza. I get into the shower and set the water on nuclear and stand in there for over an hour. Bronners peppermint soap is awesome. Boiling hot water is awesome. My bed is awesome. Sleep.
Highlight reel from Prentiss: