Thursday, September 24, 2009

14 The Highlander Cycle Tour

Distance : 105 miles (170km)
Total Vertical Climbing : 10,000 feet+ (3050 m)
Weather : 54 Deg F, Foggy With Rain (13 deg C)
Ride Time : 8 Hours

In between these days thinking about bicycle dynamics and other personal affairs, I managed to pull myself together and ride the one and only Highlander Century on September 12.

The organizers of the Tour call it the King of the East, desiring to put it close to strenuous rides in the U.S such as the Triple Bypass in Colorado (120 miles, 11,140 ft climbing) and California's Death Ride (129 miles, 15000 ft climbing).

Held in the stunning region of the Finger Lakes (NY's answer to the Napa Valley in CA), the riders who participate in this marquee event of the weekend visit 5 beautiful lakes and climb all the hills separating them. Featuring more than 10,000 feet of total climbing in 18 separate climbs, 40% of these climbs are 1-2 miles long with grades ranging between 9-23%. Fabled climbs such as "Le Grand Egypt", "Mont. Ste. Millers", the now legendary steeps (23% grade) of Le Alpe de Bopple and the Col de Gannett, are all Highlander staples.

The following is a 15 min Google Earth video essay of the 2009 Highlander route that I prepared for you, with relevant details of aid stations, climbs and regions visited. The music captures the drama and difficulty of this ride, yet it does look much easier from the sky. Note that you can view the same on Youtube, broken in two parts, and in slightly higher quality. See : Part 1 and Part 2.

The Highlander Century : A Google Earth Essay from Ron George on Vimeo.

The route for this year had lots of character in both paved and graveled roads. The weather imposed a necessity of fine bike handling skills while using the gravel paths. The cold was constant and the foggy, rain mist was periodic and made for reduced sight. Sweat saturated the helmet lining and emulsified with rain making it slightly more harder on sight. Multiple flats had us stopping many times to change tubes in wet weather. I mean, there really is no way to keep these variables at bay.

6 aid stations keep you loaded with well-needed food and liquid supplies. Its also a time for conversations about routes and cramps and hills gone and hills to come. The psychological factor can grab your head like a scorpion if you're a newcomer here. Sometimes, its better to stop listening to people's conversations.

The ride was a great test of fitness and challenge to me. Instead of talking about myself, I would like to say a few things to those who are willing to face challenging rides such as these :

1) Carry extra food that you are familiar with. You don't get too many electrolytes at the aid stations so have something of that nature with you. I gave up on crappy race gels long ago. For relentless periodic climbing, I take glucose tablets.

2) Find a friendly group beforehand to ride your tour with. Maintain a sense of humor through challenges. This is hard as it is already. And always lend a helping hand to someone stuck out on the road in the middle of nowhere with equipment issues.

3) Come prepared to ride by having lots of miles in the legs. If you don't have time to train, the least you can do is practice plenty of hill repeats. I rode 4 centuries in the summer for fun and did rake some serious mileage and climbing in the Green Mountains of Vermont earlier this year.

4) Pay close attention to your core strength and conditioning before attempting a ride such as this. In a ride that features 10,000+ feet of climbing, you'll quickly come to realize why you climb only partly with the legs. Most of your power comes from the torso, especially the lower back. Weak muscles in this region can seize up pretty quickly and your experience climbing relentless hills will be extremely painful. If something of this nature does pop up, get off the bike and stretch.

5) Never, ever attack hills if you don't know what you're doing. Give them the respect they desire, or they'll topple you upside down. Its like dealing with a black mamba. Breathe from the belly and stay relaxed on the bike. This isn't a race.

6) On steep roads of more than 20% grade such as Bopple, its more energy efficient, but slower to cut across the hill in a zigzag path. If you can't do that either, its better to walk but do that knowing its hard to gain momentum to climb back on the bike again.

Here are some few pictures I captured from aboard my Colnago C40. I hope you like them, although they don't do much justice to the understanding of this ride. Enjoy and do ask questions if you have any!

Come ride this beast and be a Highlander! Are you game?

Rollout from start at 8am

Gannett Hill

Gravelled road

Aid station 1

Aid station 2


Gullick to Mosher Hill

Egypt Valley


Lake Canandaigua

Final climb up Bopple Hill

Jubilous Highlanders at the finish after dinner (me in the center in white)


Highlander Cycle Tour Official Website

Tour of The Highlands (more on Bopple & Mosher Hills)
Democrat&Chronicle : Highland Cycle Tour has been drawing cyclists to Ontario County hills for 10 years (Sept 10,2009)
Visit Finger Lakes NY

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  1. Amazing video and report. *woot* Really gave me the creeps. I probably won't do anything like this in my lifetime! Btw, is that a skull & crossbones on your cycling socks?

  2. Good work, looks like a brutal one. The accident I posted about was my last training century for the "Horribly Hilly Hundreds" 200k. I've met folks who say it puts the triple bypass to shame. All these challenge rides are good stuff!

  3. Ron, thank you for the press and congratulations for completing the Highlander. I did in 2008 and this brings back memories, although they drastically changed the route this year. But I couldn't ride it this year because I was vacationing with family in Georgia. What I get a kick out of is reading some of the quotes on the Highlander page such as "I've done one thing tougher so far in life and that was taking lead down range in Iraq." - Sgt Chris Edgerton, USAF" and "Calling this ride a tour is like calling a canoe trip over Niagara Falls doing some whitewater." - John Swart, St. Catherines, Ontario, CA". Surely we know how to put together a tough ride here in the finger lakes. Will you try it out again next year?

  4. Hi xcountry. Yeah that is a socks with crossbones. I hardly realized it.

    Energetic : Where is Horribly Hundreds held?

    Pat : Maybe next year. Its still a long way down the road, isn't it?

  5. Anonymous2:01 PM

    Where do you get glucose tablets. Is there a brand name?

    Thanks, Eric

  6. Anon : You can get glucose in three forms :

    1) Powder to mix with liquid
    2) Chewable glucose tablets (some are flavored)
    3) Glucose solution (some are flavored)

    Chewable tablets can be had from most pharmacies. I got mine from Walmart and its called "ReliOn". The company makes products that can up blood sugar really quickly. I suggest you talk to someone before taking them, but glucose is the body's fundamental source of energy and is quickly metabolized. I have had zero side effects. Just sayin...

  7. The HHH is in Southwestern Wisconsin, they call it the "driftless area" meaning that it was essentially never glaciated. The roads were all put in to service dairy farms, so there is lots and lots of nice blacktop that gets very little traffic and the roads pretty much go straight up the sides of the hills. Pretty much steep "rollers" till your legs fall off.

  8. energetic : Thanks. Thats very interesting. Its not a whole lot different size wise and consists of, like you said, rollers with a steep climb at the end. In terms of difficulty, one could argue in favor of either of these rides. One could say, the HHH with a lot of rollers will be more difficult as there isn't long, steep and fast downhills to cool your body. One could argue that the Highlander is more difficult as it comes in 18 climbs, with a majority of them steep 6-9%. What I like is the variety of rides such as this. Each one is a different beast. I sort of glanced over your past comment where you mentioned an accident. Did I miss that? What happened?

  9. Anonymous6:51 PM

    do check out the triple bypass! the route is pretty simple to envisage. 3 big mofo climbs. did it this year loved it! will do it again! :)

  10. Yeah, I posted about it in bike dynamics 3... My write up is here.

    I've done a LOT of training in those hills and they are all 6-9% with 10+% kicks at the top. This year it was 90+ degrees and humid... oy! I have a lot harder time with the up and down rythm of the HHH style than 5+ mile constant slog climbs. I think it comes from a tendancy to kick out beyond LT on short climbs where you just can't on long climbs.

  11. Holy cow. Just read it. That was a scary accident. Are the local authorities doing anything about that road?

  12. Actually, they didn't do anything till I contacted the police 2+ months later. It turns out that if an accident doesn't involve a motor vehicle, the police officer doesn't do any kind of formal report beyond the "officer report form" which they fill out for anything and is just files. I'm not sure if that's the case in other states, but I would assume so. Theoretically, the police officer should have made sure it got taken care of... but he didn't in this case. I really keep my eyes open at speed now and hit the brakes a little more frequently when going over 25.

  13. Loved the Google Earth Essay. Great work. Wish I knew how to do this. :-)

    Well done on your epic ride. There are some decent gradients amongst those hills.


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