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Day 31: Niskayuna, NY to Hadley, MA

Today has been one of the most amazing days of my life. It may sound like hyperbole, but I mean it.

When I went to bed last night, thunderstorms were in the forecast starting at 11am. So my plan was to hit the road at 6 (sunrise was at 5:53). I was confident I could get to Pittsfield before 11, and then it would be a matter of carefully tracking the forecast and the radar and seeing how far I could get.

Before going any further, let’s preview all the climbs on the route. Niskayuna is about 400′ above sea level. The Hudson River is effectively at sea level, so there’s a 400′ drop followed by an immediate 400′ climb. After some rolling hills, there’s a nearly 900′ climb to get over the Taconic Ridge. Then, following a drop into the Housatonic Valley, there’s another climb of over 1000′ to the crest of the Berkshires at 2065 feet above sea level. Then there’s a big drop to the Westfield River, followed by a final 700′ climb in just over 2 miles. The total gain for the day comes to 6525 feet, which as far as I know is the most climbing I’ve done in a single day for the entire ride. (The second-most was actually on Day 1, leaving Seattle and going over the Cascades.)

Back to the actual ride. Believe it or not, I managed to hold to my intended schedule and was out the door at 6am sharp! The weather was decidedly humid but not too warm. Because it was so early, I was also able to take a direct route down Routes 7 and 2. Later in the morning they would have been jammed with rush hour traffic and it would have been a very unsafe ride, but at that hour the traffic was pretty light.

About 10 miles in, I went down a huge hill and crossed the Hudson River.

Actually, the sign on the bridge called it the Hudson Estuary. Even all the way up at Albany, it’s still effectively at sea level, so as I mentioned before, I had to descend to sea level before climbing right back up. And boy was climbing out of the Hudson River Valley in Troy steep! But that was still a puny climb compared to the three major climbs left to come.

The rest of the ride through New York was pretty uneventful though. I stopped for breakfast at a convenience store in Averill Park, about 22 miles in, and other than that I just kept on riding. At 41 miles in, I started the climb up the Taconic Ridge. Most people just lump the Taconics and the Berkshires together, but they’re actually two separate ridges, with cities like Pittsfield and North Adams sitting in the valley between them.

So there I was struggling up the 900-foot ascent, until after about two miles I saw this:

And suddenly nothing from the last 6 weeks mattered, and all that mattered was I was about to be back in my home state for the first time in that long.

After a couple of minutes at the border where I basically let loose all the emotions that had built up over the past 6 weeks, I continued on with a huge adrenaline boost. All the feelings of homesickness that I’d had were gone, and I felt incredibly empowered, like I was going to conquer every hill that came my way today and nothing was going to stop me.

With that sort of energy burst, it wasn’t too long before I got to the center of Pittsfield, a little over 50 miles into my ride.

No, I didn’t know Pittsfield had hosted the nation’s first agricultural fair either.

At this point, it was still a bit before 11, and when I checked the weather forecast it showed that thunderstorms were now not expected before 1:45. So I figured I could definitely get quite a ways beyond Pittsfield, even if not necessarily all the way to Hadley.

Since I had gotten up so early, and since Pittsfield is the biggest city I’ll hit until Worcester, I decided it would be a good idea to get lunch there. A quick Google search came up with a place called Teo’s Hot Dogs. Surprisingly, I’ve had very few hot dogs on this trip, so I headed over there. They’re not as good as Coney Island in Worcester, but that’s a lofty bar to aspire to. Like Coney Island, the “standard” toppings are chili, mustard, and onion, so at least that topping combination made me feel at home.

Now mind you, I was still having a huge adrenaline rush and a sense of euphoria from being back in Massachusetts, so at the restaurant I was bubbling over with how great it was to be back in the state. When the time came for me to settle up, the waitress said that my whole bill was on the house, given the extraordinary circumstances! Obviously I left a large tip, but that was still unbelievably nice for them to do.

After Pittsfield came Dalton, home of Crane Paper Company.

The Crane Paper Company is best known for making the paper on which US currency is printed. While there have been some mergers and splits in the past few years, so I’m not sure where they make the paper now, at least until a few years ago it was all made in Dalton. So any US bills in your pocket likely came through Dalton before they were sent to DC to be printed.

Also in Dalton is Shire Breu-Hous, while has a really good key lime gose that I’ve mentioned previously. Alas, Shire is only open for lunch on weekends, and on weekdays it doesn’t open until 5. Since it was only noon and I was still racing against potential thunderstorms, I sure wasn’t going to kill half the afternoon waiting for them to open.

From Dalton I took a somewhat unorthodox route. Google really, really wanted me to take Route 9, which tends to be busy. This is my state and I know the routes though, so I instead took Route 8 down to Hinsdale and then picked up Route 143. The latter road took me into Peru.

Who knew I could visit Peru without having to fly to South America? Maybe the town was named for the Andes though, because this was where I did the thousand-foot climb to the crest of the Berkshires at 2065 feet. It occurred to me that the last time I’d been this high up was about 20 miles west of Bismarck, which is really crazy to think about!

The descent from Peru brought me into Worthington, where at 1:30pm and 73 miles in I stopped at the general store and downed 22oz of coconut water. (Fun fact: Worthington is third-to-last alphabetically among Massachusetts towns, before Wrentham and Yarmouth.) Now, I’d lost cell reception in Hinsdale, but I got someone in the store to check the weather report. He showed me how some thunderstorms were moving up from the area of Blandford and Russell and were almost certainly going to hit us soon. So I figured I’d try for Chesterfield and see how close I could get.

The road from Worthington to the western part of Chesterfield was almost completely downhill, so I made good progress. However in West Chesterfield it crossed the Westfield River and then made a very steep ascent. And by “very steep” I mean I was in 1-3 for quite a distance on the way up. Fortunately that was the last big climb of the day. Unfortunately, just as I was finishing the steepest section of the climb I felt a few drops. And then I smelled methane in the air. So at around 2:10 and 78 miles I pulled into the nearest driveway I could find, where I saw a guy doing some work outside and asked him if I could take shelter in his garage during the storm. Luckily for me, he agreed. Doubly lucky, since about 10 minutes later the storm came on in full force.

Since it was getting pretty wet, the guy gave up on doing his outdoor work and came into the garage to chat with me. His name was Rick, and he was curious about where I was going and everything. I’m not sure if I mentioned my ride at this point; I might have just said I was shooting for Hadley tonight if the weather allowed it.

While Rick and I were talking, his wife June came home. She and I started talking, and she asked me where I was from. I told her Cambridge. She said, “You didn’t bike all the way from Cambridge, did you?” I said, “No, I biked from Seattle.” She definitely set herself up for that, even if it was unknowingly.

Anyway, when it was clear the storm wasn’t going to pass in 10 or 15 minutes, Rick and June invited me inside so I could sit down. They were really very nice about everything. They mentioned they had actually sheltered an equestrian who had gotten caught in a storm last November, so on some level they were used to this. While we were chatting, I also asked them about the road ahead. They said the climb continued for another mile and a half, but I was past the steepest part. They also said that over the years they’ve gotten to watch many, many cyclists struggle up the hill from their deck. I guess I’m not the only one who found it hard!

Around 3pm the rain finally stopped and the sun came out. I asked June to check the weather, since I still didn’t have reception, and she said I should be good until 7 or 8. With Hadley being only 20 miles away and mostly downhill, I figured I was safe.

And with that, I hit the road again. Of course, the road was now wet (though the sun was drying it rapidly), so I had to brake a lot on all the downhills that I was now encountering after Chesterfield Center. Oh well.

Several miles farther along, I entered Williamsburg and Route 143 dumped me into Route 9, which brought me to The Brewmaster’s Tavern, my first open brewery of the day.

Brewmaster has a kind of unusual setup. The actual brewery is next door, and they brew under a number of labels, mostly under contract. However, the tavern does serve about half a dozen beers brewed next door, as well as a wide selection of other beers. I wound up getting a 6-beer flight including four of their own beers and two beers from Fort Hill in Easthampton, which I like a lot but which would have been too much of a detour today.

My favorite of the brewery’s own beers was the Swing Oil Knee Knocker Stout, which was just a very tasty espresso milk stout. The other really interesting one was the Principea Quad. I first detected an off flavor in it, but then I realized the flavor was ginger. I asked the staff about it, but they were perplexed since ginger isn’t listed in the tasting notes. Still, I got a strong taste and smell of ginger in the beer.

By the time I left Brewmaster, it was nearly 5pm, which was good because Brew Practitioners, five miles down the road in the Florence neighborhood of Northampton, doesn’t open until 5 on Wednesdays. Originally I had planned to skip it, but since the thunderstorm had delayed me by nearly an hour, I was now going to pass it when it was open, and therefore I could actually visit it.

But as I started heading down Route 9 from Williamsburg to Florence, I realized that I was now biking on roads I’d biked before. And in fact, everything from there to home was going to be roads I’d biked before, so on some level I’d just completed the ride and all the rest of the riding necessary to get me home was just ceremonial. And likewise, I was heading for a brewery that I’d been to several times before on day trips from home, so from here on out reviewing breweries is more a matter of going to breweries I like and getting my favorite beers than of trying new places. So all those realizations hit me at once and I got really emotional and it took me several minutes to regain my composure.

From a cycling standpoint though, the ride was really easy. It’s literally all downhill from Williamsburg to Florence, and the roads had dried out while I was at Brewmaster, so I got to Brew Practitioners in very short order with little effort.

As you can see from the photo, Brew Practitioners names most of their beers after colors. I immediately went for a pint of my favorite, the Pink, which is a pink lemonade blonde ale. In other words, it’s a shandy. (At 5% ABV, it’s too alcoholic to be a radler.) They’ve been making it for at least three summers now, and it’s been my favorite beer of theirs that whole time as a perfectly refreshing summer beer.

They also had a food truck out back, so I got a nice panini to go with my beer. And while I was sitting in the brewery, drinking my beer and eating my panini, an old coworker of mine walked in. Definitely another sign that I was back in Massachusetts: You can’t go anywhere in this state without running into people you know!

At around 6:15, as I was getting ready to leave and bike the last 6 miles to my motel in Hadley, I noticed it had gotten really dark outside, so I made haste to hit the road. The Northampton area has a great network of paved bike paths, so the entire 6 miles from the brewery to the motel, except for a couple of blocks on either end, was on bike path. In fact, if you go back to my “T minus one week” post, I was using the Northampton Bikeway and Norwottock Rail Trail just as I had on my final training ride, only in the opposite direction.

About a mile from Florence the ground got very wet. Clearly Northampton and Hadley had just gotten a big storm that had bypassed Florence and Williamsburg. Even so, it was still downhill and I wanted to get to the motel before another storm hit, so I was pedaling hard despite the wetness.

When I got to the Connecticut River, I realized I had to take a picture of the bridge, since it matched one of the very first photos I posted to this blog, only taken from the opposite direction.

Another mile or two along, the Norwottock crosses the Hadley Town Common, which has always fascinated me, being by far the largest city or town common anywhere in the state. I think it’s about a mile long, north to south.

3 miles past the bridge brought me to my motel, and during that time it was clearly starting to rain again. Fortunately I got indoors before the storm hit in full force.

But my day doesn’t end there! In more of a sign that this ride was now coming full circle, my friend Dan from Pedal 2 Pints (see the final photo in the “T minus one week” post) messaged me and asked if I wanted to hit a brewery. As luck would have it, he was in Amherst at the time, so my suggestion of Amherst Brewing Company worked out perfectly. And given that it was now storming pretty hard, he was nice enough to pick me up. Eventually we were joined by his wife Rachel and another P2P rider named Ryan for a mini P2P rider reunion. Again, it’s a totally different feeling to be hanging out with friends from my own state whom I’d normally see in the course of a day where I slept in my own bed, rather than friends in other parts of the country whom I’d normally be flying to visit.

As for Amherst Brewing itself, I should mention their unusual self-serve system, pictured here.

When you arrive, you hand the host both a credit card and a photo ID (so they really know you’re not going anywhere), and they give you a card. The card goes into a slot on any one of the monitors between the pairs of taps, allowing you to pour your own beer from the tap on either side. Each beer is priced by the ounce (around 34¢/oz for regular beers, which comes out to $5.44 for an American pint), and you’re charged for each pour right down to the tenth of an ounce. Once you’ve poured 32oz total, the monitors tell you you’ve reached your “responsibility limit”, and you have to go back to the front desk where the host will add the value of the card to your tab and assess whether you’ve had enough to drink before giving you another card. (We were at the brewery for 3 hours before hitting our card limit, so they would have happily given us another card, but it was 11pm and definitely time to leave.)

Tonight the system was also malfunctioning a bit. Several handles had “out of order” signs on them, and one monitor with working handles couldn’t seem to read my card quite right, so I could only pour about an ounce at a time from those taps. Regardless, I really enjoyed the Two Sisters Stout, which is just a nice American stout. It weighs in at 7%, which puts it comfortably between an Irish stout and a Russian or imperial stout. I also liked the honey pilsner, though I didn’t get to have much of it because it was on one of the ounce-at-a-time taps.

At around 11, Dan drove me back to my motel and I collapsed pretty quickly. As I said, I expect my final day of the ride to be more ceremonial than anything. The hills around Quabbin Reservoir are not to be trifled with, so the ride won’t be a metaphorical walk in the park, but I’ll also have nothing compared to the hills I conquered today.

Total distance: 97.2 miles
Average speed: 13.6 miles

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