Day 1 | White Mountains Bike Tour
We started the morning off by rolling out of our hammocks we slept in the night before, headed back down the trail to the Franconia Notch Trailhead Parking lot where we would get our bikes ready for the tour. I made Eddie and I both a couple of bland breakfast burritos to eat. We stuffed all our belongings into the saddle bags and strapped everything to our bikes. I made sure to put all my candy and granola bars in my frame bag for easy access on the ride. It wasn’t raining yet, which was a great sign, but the dark grey clouds above looked like they could open up at any moment. Finally, around 8AM, we put our tires onto the road. All the planning, all the packing, and the endless hours training on the bike were all about to pay off.
The adventure began from the Franconia Notch trailhead parking lot and headed downhill towards Lincoln. We then took a left onto Kancamagus Highway for the first steep climb of the trip. To my surprise, and utter stupidity for not knowing beforehand, I accidentally planned this bike tour exactly during Peak Foliage. I know, what a terrible New Englander for not knowing this “holiday”. The trees were lit up in all stunning shades of golden-yellows, burnt oranges, and deep reds. I was mesmerized by all the colors. My focus quickly returned to the pedals as we started moving uphill, passing Loon Ski Resort on the right, we climbed for 15 miles to the top of Kancamagus Pass. Until that point, I had never climbed a hill for that long or with that much vert, and the fear of tipping over on the bike was constantly circling my head. My loaded “touring” bike was purchased from amazon three weeks before the trip and weighed around 80lbs. Nearly 50lbs more than my normal road bike. This made climbing any hills a feat of its own, let alone one up the pass.
Nearing the top of the climb, we hopped off our bikes for the first hike of the trip at mile 17. Since this was mainly planned to be a bike tour, I chose for us to summit a few of the easier, non-challenging 4K footers, as to not slow our bike down too much. This lead to us hiking Mount Osceola. A 7 mile out and back that wasn’t supposed to be an issue or a time killer, but we were wrong. I guess I didn’t pay attention to the topo map before choosing this one, which clearly showed half was flat since it followed a river up, meaning that all the vertical gain happened over 1 very steep mile. Not ideal. Even though it was early in the day, we still were in a race against the clock, the weather, and daylight. And this steep hike was not helping us win any of those races. On the way up to Mount Osceola, we’d have to cross the summit of East Peak. Which, to our luck, was technically a 4K footer of its own. On our way past East Peak, we realized we still had to hike another mile until we reached the true summit of Mount Osceola. And while on the ridgeline, we could see the clouds growing darker and darker, and the sound of the wind began to pick up as the whipped through the pine needles on the trees. We looked at each other and decided to pivot our plan. Instead of Mount Osceola, we would count East Peak towards the goal. Feeling accomplished, we headed back down the mountain towards our bikes that were locked to a tree near the trailhead.
Not long after we hopped back onto the bikes, and got settled in for the rest of the day’s ride, the clouds opened up and it began to pour. We quickly pulled over into a parking lot, put rain covers on all our gear, dawned on our water-resistant booties to cover the shoes, and headed back onto the road. There was no time to dwell on the current situation, and we just needed to keep pedaling up the road until we reached the top. We’d been riding for nearly an hour and a half, just on this climb alone, and I’d contemplated stopping for a break so many times. Having never ridden it before, I didn’t know if we were close to the top or still had a ways to go. Maybe if I had known at some points how far we still had left, I would’ve taken more breaks. But I never did, we just kept pushing on the whole way, and that rain didn’t make things any easier.
There was something epic about coming up on the top of the Kancamagus Pass in the pouring rain after all the climbing we’d done to get there (both on and off the bike). We crossed the road, hopped off our bikes, took some selfies in front of the sign, and then strapped in for an exhilarating 20 miles of pure downhill riding. Because what goes up, must come down. Even though normally I love the downhill, a sort of reward after a strenuous climb, I did not on this day. If you remember, I mentioned it was peak foliage. The normal traffic-less New Hampshire scenic roads were now filled with cars packed full of leaf-peepers. This made the already treacherous 20 mile descent in the pouring rain ten times more dangerous. All we needed was a single driver to be staring out the window at some pretty leaves, swerve just a little bit into the shoulder, and poof. We’d be goners. Plus, trying to control speed during the decent proved to be more difficult than we ever thought. At 40+mph, our heavy bikes overcame any controlled braking power we could apply, or else it’d result our tires skidding all over the place. Adapting to my hellish reality, I knew we just needed to tuck our heads down, and descend as fast as possible until we could get back to a grade that would allow us to ride at our own pace again.
Luckily we made it down to the bottom of the pass with no thanks to the apparent city-dwelling leaf-peepers that had never shared a road with cyclists before. My cynical judgement was only reaffirmed when we stopped at the Rocky Gorge Scenic Area (mile 33). Thats where we witnessed droves of people who also pulled off the road to use the composting toilets, only to be utterly disgusted by the lack of plumbing and the accompanying smells. It’s like they’d never been to a place without plumbing before. So back on the bikes we went, riding through the forest on the Kancamagus Highway with the rain still dripping off our helmets. At this point I had known Eddie’s stomach was hurting for a while, which lead to a little more discomfort when trying to choose a place to eat dinner as we rolled into the small town of Conway at mile 43. Stupid me, thought North Conway and Conway were the same town when I was planning the route. See, North Conway is a popular tourist town that has tons of restaurants and places to eat. Conway, on the other hand, is a dying town with 2 restaurants in it on an empty main street. The complete opposite of North Conway. And I remember trying to explain to Eddie that we needed to be in the mood for whatever food the only restaurants had to offer, not the other way around. Begrudgingly, we settled on the Pizza shop in the beginning of the town that we had already ridden past. And finally, after miles of riding in the rain, it had finally stopped. We laid all our soaking wet layers onto the bike frames and handlebars while we went inside to crush a large pizza, mozzarella sticks, and fries for dinner. Nothing like a day on the bike to build up an insatiable appetite.
Leaving Conway in our dust, we crossed the Maine state line and headed north. For some reason, I thought we only had ~60miles to ride the first day, leaving us with 10 miles left to ride that day. Which mean the dwindling evening’s light would definitely be sufficient to get us to the campground before dark. You can imagine how surprised I was when I looked at my GPS and it told me we had 18 more miles to go at mile 55. And just about at that time, the sky had gone dark as if someone flicked off the light switch. I remember feeling a nervous lump in my throat as we clicked on our headlamps and bike lights. We would be riding the next two hours in the pitch black darkness through the New Hampshire woods. To make matters worse, during the planning of the route, I mainly used google maps and figured if a car could go on the road, so could we. I was proven wrong when our beams of light in front of us illuminated a rocky, dirt road. “Shit,” I thought to myself. We were already drastically behind schedule, and all we would need was a punctured tire in the middle of nowhere outside of North Fryeburg. So instead of taking the shortest route I planned, we elected to take a long way around through Stow, New Hampshire. Mind you, its still pitch black outside and it’s starting to get creepy.
We pedaled and pedaled through the night, well beyond our point of exhaustion, with no other option but to keep going. We were alone and had no cell service. Sporadically, cars would pass by us out of the darkness, but quickly we would return to the only light our headlamps would provide. Hill climbs would pop out of the night in front of us, stopping any momentum we had left. My slow pace was bringing morale further and further down. We were tired, exhausted, soaking wet, and so far beyond the point of fun. But then, ahead of us, our lights reflected off a familiar shape and writing. The lights illuminated a brown and white sign that read “Cold River Campground – White Mountain National Forest”. Hooray! After 13 hours and 73+ miles of non-stop moving, we had finally made it. And to make matters better, the rain stopped again, allowing us to set up camp, relatively dry!
We unloaded every piece of gear we brought to assess its wetness and recapped the day’s absurdity. We’d come all this way from our car in the morning, hiked a 4,000 foot mountain, and rode the last few hours in the complete darkness. All to arrive at a campground in the middle of nowhere. We both hit a point of exhaustion at different miles that day, but both well before mile 73. My body began to give up on me when we hit the wrong turn onto the dirt road. I just wanted to curl up in my sleeping bag on the side of that road and resume in the morning. But I knew we were close. After a little bit of relaxing and chatting around camp, Eddie retired to his hammock and me to my tent for a well-earned night of rest. But we still had plenty more miles to cover, and the rest of the White Mountains were calling our names.