Saturday, August 14, 2010

Getting Away to the Alps--in the Catskills (c)

Part One of the Three-Part Catskill Ride Series: 
August 14, 2010 
All photos (c) Benepe 
If you missed out on that French or German Alp vacation this year, don't fret. You can more than make up for it in the Catskills.

Pic: Floyd Landis on Aug 2 at the Tour of the Catskills coming up Platte Clove Road: Beware 22 percent grade. (c)

Just a two hour drive from New York City, the mountainous region that includes such off-bike attractions as the town of Woodstock, NY, major hiking, music festivals and sylvan swimming holes, you can find some of the best cycling in the world.

Lately the site of Tour of the Catskills which drew Floyd Landis and other pro cyclists, the area is host to a number of bike races during the summer, including the Tour of the Battenkill race (a little farther north) and coming up in late August, the last event of the mountain bike world cup series.

More than 1,000 mountain bike racers from over 40 countries will be coming to Windham, N.Y. to compete in the final race of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup series of races, Race Windham, from August 26 to 29 – for the ninth and final race of the series and the only one being held in North America, according to its sponsor.

Two teens contemplate the water hole in Haines Falls, NY (c)

Add to the area's natural attraction for racing, the Catskills have some of the best roads for practicing your climbing and becoming a better cyclist. It also has a series of very kitsch motels that date back to the era in the 1940's through 1960's when the Catskills were the place for people to go.

The film "Dirty Dancing" took place in a typical Catskills hotel where families went to stay for weeks, eating together in mess halls, going down to the swimming hole, and of course, sneaking off for romance.

Though many hotels and cabins of that time now lie fallow on the roadside, some of the old motels still operate, many of them still owned by the original German families with names like Brauhaus, Bavarian, Hartmann and Riedlbauer. Hotels like the Crystal Brook Resort and Mountain Brauhaus still serve traditional dishes like Wiener Schnitzel and German beer, and have nightly um pah dancing to live German bands.

And although they don't cater to cyclists, pretty soon they could: they are surrounded by the best climbing and back road cycling routes in the region.

The area is so cycling-ready that some New Yorkers like Steve Leibowitz have moved from New York City and invested their money in creating bike-oriented businesses. Leibowitz's shop, Revolution Bicycles in Saugerties, NY features bike rentals, Surly, Masi, Schwinn, GT, Haro, and a selection of vintage bicycles, and is the perfect setting off point for a number of 18 to 60-mile rides along back roads.

Steve Leibowitz, owner of Revolution Bicycles in Saugerties, NY, with recumbent rider Dan Gelfand 

Originally from Brooklyn, Leibowitz thinks the area will be the next Portland, Oregon, and boasts that Kingston, NY, where he lives, is geographically and culturally poised to overtake the popular West Coast town as the center of US cycling.

He could be right. Even though I have been cycling in the area for  years, the upstart newcomer to the area who cycles everyday the 20 miles back and forth from Kingston to Saugerties,  showed me how to zigzag my way along back roads to get to points north, west, and south, converting a trip I normally took along heavily traveled motorist straightaways, to mostly pleasant back roads.

Pic: A vintage German bike at Revolution Bicycles in Saugerties, NY 

Leibowitz's example emboldened me to take some of my favorite destinations and convert them into gentler versions featuring fewer cars, more scenery, more peace and certainly less close calls with 18-wheeler trucks, and redneck sadists driving loud 60's cars who seem to enjoy buzzing cyclists.

You can stay in the ever popular and more expensive town of Woodstock, NY, in Ulster County or you can venture to points north, east and west where the staying is greener and fewer greenbacks are needed.

Girl in Woodstock, NY at Tinker St. (c)

North of Woodstock about 15 miles in Cairo, NY at the Crystal Brook Mountain Brauhaus you'll pay $73 dollars a night or less (with more people in one room or more nights), a price that includes three square German meals a day served by slim young women in lacy cotton-shirted and slim-vested fraulein outfits.  A black Labrador ironically named "Schnitzel" sleeps at the front door and likes to have the back of his ears scratched or else you get "the paw."

The "resort" has been run by Margaret Hasenkopf-Dukarm since the 1960's (she is now in her 80's) and includes tennis courts and a swimming pool. They will even pick you up from the bus stop in Cairo, NY. Adirondacks Trailways comes to Cairo twice a day, about a 2.5 hour trip from the city, (though if you are bringing a bike, the company makes you box it before boarding the bus, a horrible anachronistic touch.)

Hasenkopf-Dukarm (who still uses her first husband's name as well as that of her second) was standing in the back room doing laundry for her guests when I came in: a fly had made it into my eye on a fast downhill along Polly's Rock Road, and I needed help getting it out.

She was warm and inviting and pointed a flashlight into my eye to find the bugger, while telling me stories about her late departed husband Mr. Hasenkopf who refused to go to the hospital until it was too late, leaving her with 6 children and a hotel to run by herself.

You can ride your butt off all day using the Crystal Brook as your central starting point, and even repeat the routes that were raced in the August 1-2 road race, stage one and stage two, through Greene County. I rode portions of these routes with Richard Benfield of Piermont, NY, and learned that the stretch along Route 20 north of Route 23 (an East-West highway) is extremely bikable, with a number of winding climbs, gorgeous scenery and a consistent view of the Catskill mountains.

Pic: Benfield along a stretch of Route 20 when we followed the Catskill race, stage 1 

If you're more the bed and breakfast type, there are several in the area that have good reputations for good food, charming rooms, and stunning surroundings, and are all situated along the routes I recommend, including La Duchesse Anne in Mount Tremper ($80 to $230 a night depending on the room);  the George Ellen Bed and Breakfast in Round Top ($150 a night which includes breakfast), and the Villa in Saugerties which is currently being remodeled by its new owners (contact them for rates and availability).

What follows are some amazing rides in the area, including one which I recently discovered which covers 99 percent back roads, and others which will certainly put your legs back in your legs. Here is the first ride, with more to follow in the next two installments of this series, "Getting Away to the Alps in the Catskills."

Saugerties to Catskills and Back (click here for Map My Ride Map)
This first 40.83-mile ride will take you from the center of Saugerties, NY to Catskill, NY and back.

If it is a Saturday, first visit the Saugerties Farmer's Market at 119 Main St., started by my stepmother, Judith Spektor, and my dad Barry Benepe (also co-founder of New York City's Greenmarkets).  You'll find a huge selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, local wines, fresh coffee, and scones and muffins. Then amble over to visit Leibowitz at his Revolution Bicycles one block away to check out his vintage bikes and shoot the breeze about cycling and Brooklyn.

The ride leads straight out of Saugerties past HITS, the overnight horse show and competition sensation that came to Saugerties a few years ago and is a huge draw for teen aged girls.

Much of the route is on back roads, but I didn't take notes when Leibowitz rattled off the turns. So half of the route is on back roads, and the other half is on roads like Old Kings Highway which has moderate to low traffic and limited shoulders.

Coming back from Catskill, I took a secret back route that the 'rents showed me that winds along from the back edges of Catskill to Route 9W which has moderate traffic and mostly no shoulders.

Pic: The wetlands near Saugerties where baby turtles are known to cross the road.

But there are some lovely segments including a little wetlands area that bears the sign, "Caution, Baby Turtles Crossing," and that secret back road leaving from the town of Catskill that features a couple of slumbering farms, and dead end roads leading off the Hudson River (hint, one leads to a Saugerties Farmer's market mushroom farm.)

Sadly, along Old Kings Highway are a number of old farms that have since gone out of business and been converted or sold for residential use.

It's one more sign of the waning of the small farmer in the U.S., and in this area, despite efforts by people (like my father and stepmother) who have tried to help local farmers stay in business by setting up local markets so they can sell full price and direct to the public.

When Old Kings Highway reaches Route 23, you bear a right for a very short distance (less than a mile) and then a left to take a gorgeously sinuous back entry to the town of Catskill.  You'll have to do some climbing up the back roads to get into town, a road that drops you off behind the parking lot of supermarket chain, Price Chopper.

After turning left on Route 9W, you'll edge off onto the right, and cross the creek at the bottom of a fast hill into the more historic section of Catskill. Take a left on Main St. to get to the best place to stop and eat. Co-owners and previous New York City residents Eddie and Jeff serve such delicacies as the Rachel Who? sandwich and the Brenda, Rachel's Bitter Cousin at Cafe 355 at 355 Main St.

Pic: The Atlantic at Cafe 355. "Cycling begets eating begets cycling," an old Jen Benepe proverb.

Eddie said Brenda is bitter because so many more people order Rachel, made of turkey and swiss, and so "Brenda is jealous. She tries but she can never quite be as good as Rachel," said Eddie, as he prepared sandwiches behind the counter. I had an Atlantic, made of salmon and capers, ideally light for my continued ride.

Before you head out of town, make sure you visit some of the historic sites, including the Thomas Cole House at 218 Spring St. 

You'll need an appointment to get in, but it is well worth it, featuring the home of the 19th Century painter whose most frequent subject matter was the mountains of the Catskills. You can also tour the outside of Beattie Power's home which faces the Hudson with gorgeous views of the land on the other side of the river.

Pic: View from Beattie Powers' house (c)

If you look closely you can see Olana  (open Tuesdays through Sundays) which you can also visit if you want to add miles and cross the river.  Olana is the old estate of Hudson River School artist Fredric Edwin Church and was built in an elaborate brick Persian style.

But if you just want to tour around the town of Catskill you'll see some lovely old homes, one of which was a church recently purchased and converted to a private residence.

Pic: A church in Catskill that was converted to a private residence (c)

Next door another turn of the 19th Century home has been renovated. Others Victorian beauties situated closer to the Beattie Powers home on top of the hill are for sale with a real estate outfit called Gary DiMauro. (A subsequent tour of his website revealed gorgeous historic homes in impeccable condition for sale around the area. Better not look if you don't want to be seduced.)

As you return along Route 9W keep an eye out for the old-fashioned one-way stops for road narrowing, and the abandoned buildings of the cement factories that are now old and forgotten, as well as the town that was built around the old cement industry, Cementon.

Next: Woodstock to Round Top, and Back.

All content copyrighted by Benepe's Bike Blog, all rights reserved.  

1 comment:

Catskills Cycling said...

Love the blog. Keep it up! Contact me when you're up again. We'll ride.