Mount Tom/Mount Holyoke/Sugarloaf


Scratch that. No Sugarloaf. In my never-ending quest to make sure that no one will ever agree to accompany me on a ride, I came up with the following route and conned Dave B. into going with me:

The plan was to hit Mount Tom first, but take an alternate route looping down via Easthampton Road, and around Whiting Reservoir. Dave probably had his first clue that I didn’t have my shit together when we turned onto Fort Road and it quickly became dirt. Not problem, however, since I was riding my cross bike with road tires (25s) and Dave had a cross bike (for gearing, primarily) and cross tires.

The first hill of the day was the west side of Reservation Road that climbs up the to the western entrance to Mount Tom Reservation. I’ve done the eastern approach before and assumed this would be similar. A few meters after turning onto the road, however, I wondered what the sign about “No through traffic” meant. Hmm…ignore it. After climbing on pavement for a little while, we came to a gate followed by what looked like a messy gravel road. Checked with Dave to see his opinion, he said he was game to give it a try. For about 1/4 mile it was fine. It became clear that there once was a paved road here, since there were many small-to-medium patches of pavement mixed in with all the gravel. Then we got to the part pictured at the top of the post with huge ruts that were not navigable on a road bike, at least not for me. Options were to turn around (and risk flats descending on the gravel) or hike the remaining portion, which I estimated to be about 1/4 mile. We chose the latter. At the top, we rode through the park to 141 and then took a left into the Whting Reservoir. More gravel, but this was nice and smooth. Lots of hikers and recreational walkers, so we took this nice and leisurely.

Then for the main attraction. Mount Tom. For the first time I went into the climb not being particularly afraid of it, but with a nagging suspicion that I should be. My previous best on Strava (though probably slower than the time I did it with a 34-29) was 12:01, and I was hoping to crack 10 minutes today. In the end I only managed to shave a minute off and got to the top at 11:01. I was hoping the Strava comparison would be more useful in seeing if I went out too hard today or anything, but my time today gained pretty gradually and consistently over the whole climb. In any case, I felt good for the first half, but had to fight the urge not to stop for a breather through the entire last section. The road surface, by the way, already bad, has deteriorated significantly since last time. Dave made it up without walking but had to stop a couple times.

No more dirt-road drama after this point, though we did take the dirt southern approach to Mount Holyoke, but that actually makes the climb slightly easier than taking the more northerly road up from Rt. 47. After that, the plan was to ride up the eastern side of the CT river to Sugarloaf, but given all the dirt (and Dave had a flat early on) we were already at over 3 hours for ride time, and I was already thinking about Korean food in Hadley, so we ditched the last part of the ride when we got back to Hadley.

quick update on Jenckes

So I added to my arsenal of gear for measuring max gradients and bought a car mount for my phone. Calibration is a bit tricky, because you obviously need to have your car on a completely level surface when you set it (you also need it turned off because the vibrations are enough to keep the inclinometer from settling on a number.) But I think I had a decently flat spot when I set it. That said, I can’t guarantee the accuracy of the following measurements to greater than a couple percentage points. I also don’t know what sort of compression happens on the shocks, etc, that might keep the car from matching the true angle of the road. I drove up Jenckes from Star. On Star I got readings in the low 20s, which is about what I expected. And I picked up somewhere around 19-20 (I didn’t write it down) on the section of Jenckes just before Pratt (I didn’t walk that far down the other day). And the section near Congdon came up with a pretty similar reading, around 19, to what I got the other day. Definitely not the most accurate way of measuring this, but a nice option to have if I want to estimate a hill while I’m out driving.

Blog Beautification

As you can see, if you’re looking at this site, I finally decided it was time to upgrade my wordpress installation (which was probably 5 years old and horribly insecure…) and decided to move it into the brentacol directory. Any old links will probably stop working, but if you go to the old address you will be redirected here.

Max Gradients

Maximum gradients are kind of silly, but they are also fun to know and talk about. The problem is that you can’t get a reliable max gradient from any kind of GPS/Map data (I mean, I looked down and saw 75% on my Garmin going up Hurricane Mountain back in June…It’s steep, but not that steep). In order to make the mapping data reliable, you need to make your sample (and minimum segment length) long enough to average out any really wacky spikes. That means that even if a hill has a small very steep section, I generally won’t trust it without having seen it for myself. And your subjective opinion from looking at a hill is not a whole lot better. I’m pretty good at judging grade by look and feel, but it’s also very context-based; 12% in the middle of Providence looks much steeper than the same gradient on Mount Washington. So my BRENTACOL maps show max gradient, but it’s only the steepest recorded segment, not the true max gradient spike. For that, the only real way to get it is to measure it by hand.

With that in mind, I was starting to research getting myself a cheap inclinometer, but when I started googling “inclinometer” the first suggested search was something like “inclinometer android app,” so I realized I probably had everything I needed to do this already. The first one I tried was Inclinometer Free, which seemed to work well, but had a few drawbacks, one being that it only gave angle of incline (not the biggest deal since you can just calculate gradient from angle by taking the tangent of the angle). The bigger issue is that it only gives whole-number angles, which translates to showing only about every 2%. So I settled on purchasing the 99-cent Clinometer app, which took care of both problems. I’d like to mount the tablet to a board or something, to take a slightly longer sample size than just the tablet, but for now I can just put the tablet right on the ground to get a measurement.

With that, I took the tablet out to Jenckes and Bowen, and here’s what I found:

1. Jenckes – I only tried a couple spots, but the steepest I found was 18.2%, about what I expected. (This is from just below Congdon.)


2. Bowen. The highest I found on the sidewalk section at the top was 32.2%, and on the pavement past Pratt, it went up to 32.9%. You’ll also notice that on gradients that high it becomes necessary to stop the tablet from sliding back down the hill.


Fun with Strava Names

Speaking of Strava. For a long time I had the KOM on River Ave., a short little hill less than a mile from my house. I blogged about it way back when. I was pleasantly amused when it first showed up in my KOMs that someone had entered it as “Mont Fleuve.” And I was even more pleasantly surprised that the other two people listed in the standings were none other than Keith Kelly and Adam St. Germain, and both can still beat me on any hill they care to challenge me on. (Adam doesn’t seem to be on there any more, but I’d swear he used to be…who knows.) And my time (somewhere around 40 seconds) was good, but not as good as I knew I was capable of. So I went back sometime this year and tried to best my own time. I did, by like 1 second. But the funny thing about strava is that when you do that, it sends the “You lost your KOM” notification to whoever is second place. So I think that must have pissed off Keith enough to bring him out of hiding to get it back, which he did. But then last week, now that I’m finally hitting my stride, I managed to get it back again. No doubt Keith will punish me for my insolence. But still. It’s fun while it lasts.

When I got it back, I posted something to facebook and mentioned how much I appreciated whoever had put the segment in as “Mont Fleuve.” I actually kind of suspected Keith. Turns out it was my new friend and new teammate Dave. So when I decided to add Mount Pleasant (up Atwells) to Strava, I decided to have a little fun and put it in as “Aangenaamberg” – literally “Pleasant Mountain” or “Pleasant Hill.” Dave hoped this might become “a thing” so I changed the names on a few more that I had already created:

  • Aangenaamberg
  • Liefdegildemuur – literally “Love-guild-wall,” which was as close as I could get to “Lovecraft Wall” for the combination of Star and Jenckes in Providence. For the record, there are already WAY too many Jenckes segments, but none starting at South Main, and frankly I don’t care how fast you climb the second part if you don’t start with Star. I’ve started doing the top section from Benefit occasionally because the whole thing wasn’t on Strava (and somehow managed to KOM on a version someone made that goes well past the crest of the climb), but really if you don’t go all the way from Main, it’s not the real thing.
  • Eikelberg – In Phippsburg, ME, a nasty little dirt/gravel climb called Acorn Hill Road.
  • Kalksteenstraat – Chalkstone in PVD.
  • via Astuta – Smart St. in PVD. (recently reclaimed the KOM)
  • via Cristoforo – Christopher St. in PVD. (also recently reclaimed)
  • and my favorite: Helling van de Varkensduivel – Dark Entry Road, the road up to the haunted (by pig demons?) abandoned town of Dudleytown.

Hill Repeats are a lot like riding rollers

Kind of boring for starters. But still, I went up to Blue Hill this morning to do repeats. That usually doesn’t go so well for me, and I think it’s similar to why I don’t have the discipline to ride rollers. The first time I did Blue Hill, I did it twice before packing it in. The next time, since I had done a short loop prior to the hill, I decided I didn’t really need to do the “repeat” part of the ride, even though I had that was the point of the ride. So here’s the thing, and why it’s like riding rollers. A hill repeat (at least one roughly the length of Blue Hill) is like a 15-minute increment on the rollers. If you do one and stop, you’ll feel like a complete schmuck, just like if you only ride 15 minutes on the rollers, it wasn’t worth the effort it took to get dressed, take a shower, etc. Once you do the second, you start making excuses for yourself: I don’t really need a big ride today. // This is my first ride in x, so I’ll just take it easy today. Any of those work equally well for hill repeats and for rollers. On the rollers, you tend to be trying to get your season started, so it’s easy to justify as building up to something, taking it easy early in the season.

But a 30-minute roller ride, or 2 hills is pretty lame. Once you do your third hill, you’ve moved into the respectable range. Not very respectable, but a little bit. But like a 45-minute roller ride, you’re also seductively close to an actually respectable ride. (And I know there are some people who regularly ride for multiple hours on rollers, I’m not one of them.) But once you get to the 4-hill/1-hour roller mark, every additional hill or 15 minute increment makes you feel more and more badass. Which is why it actually gets progressively easier to ride each repeat (not physically easier, mind, just mentally). Because if you’ve done 6 Blue Hills, doing one more will be seven, which is “hard core” or something like that.

And before you get too excited, I just did 4 today. But given my past record of doing hill repeats I think that’s pretty good. My time for the first climb was 5:28, 4 seconds slower than my previous best. That’s close enough, however, that I’m feeling pretty decent about my form for the Mount Washington race on Saturday.

The big one.

The title refers to both the hill in question and the post itself, since there’s a lot to cover. It’s been a while and a lot’s happened since the last time I poked my head in here, but the big news is I finally rode Mount Washington, after being obsessed with it for about the last 10 years.

So rewind to somewhere around April, when we enrolled Henry in daycare. For a month or so I didn’t really feel, shall we say, entitled to spend my new-found time riding my bike, since I didn’t have a job or any legitimate job prospects. Then I got an interview at Wesleyan – not a job, but just getting past the first round felt good. So I started devoting a few hours a week to riding and some running thrown in. And then Henry moved up to three days a week and I got some movement on an adjunct position at Providence College, so I started devoting some of my free time to riding. (Since with no job/prospects I didn’t really feel justified riding much, because I probably should have been out applying for jobs at Whole Foods or something.) And then, in a moment of impulsiveness, I went ahead and signed up for Newton’s Revenge, better known as the budget Mount Washington Race, where you have fewer competitors to humiliate you, and they give you a $50 discount on your $350 race entry fee. So that meant I needed to start getting in shape, and I’ve actually been riding quite a bit in the last month.

And so, I’m on the fast track to getting back in shape, but things (as you will see) are not great. My time on the climbing circuit was 58 minutes something about a month back, which is a time that indicates I’m out of shape. Since then I’ve also gone up to Pack Monadnock – much easier with the cross bike and 1:1 gearing – and done some long rides, and have been doing the Smack Downs again, but I still feel pretty far from setting best times on any of my Strava segments, or winning hills at a Smack Down.

So now, let’s jump ahead to 2 weeks out from the practice ride, which was just on Sunday. Monday of that week, Carrie’s car was in being fixed, so I had to ride my bike down to her work, pick up the kids, pick up Carrie, have dinner and head home. You can probably see where this is headed. After all the various errands, I forgot the bike was on the car and drove into the garage, totaling the cross frame.


So it looked like the cross bike was out, and I was going to have to turn the road bike into a Frankenbike again. Next day there was some good news, that Providence College offered me a class for the fall and another for the spring (my fingers will still be somewhat crossed until I sign papers, etc). Then I headed out on Wednesday for a 60-mile ride to Plain Meetinghouse Road. Three miles in, going up the little hill at Sunset Ave, I felt a little knock in the rear end. Looked down at the wheel, but decided it was nothing. It wasn’t. Got out of the saddle to sprint the last part of the hill, and next thing I knew my face hit the pavement. The rear wheel had apparently seized up (pulled out, then seized up?) and I went over the bars. Not sure what happened, but I had changed tires that morning, and have a vague recollection that I put the wheel in quickly, thinking I’d double check it before I went out for the ride. The wheel flew off and landed about 10 feet away in someone’s yard. A nice fellow with a pickup truck drove me home and I walked to the hospital where I was given 9 stitches in my chin. I also had sizable chunks of road rash out of my right knee and both hands. Fate seemed to be telling me not to do Washington. I chose not to listen.

After the accident, I managed to get out for a couple more rides, including the next tuesday’s smack down. Then it was time to take apart the bike. I went with essentially the same setup I used for Ascutney and Equinox, a single 26 in the front. My options for the back were 11-28, which I thought should be low enough, or – with the added hassle of putting the XX rear derailleur, now conveniently sitting in a pile of scrap parts from the cross bike – 12-36, which seemed like it would be too low. But this was just the practice ride, and I wanted to give myself the option of not killing myself, so I went with the 12-36, giving me  a ridiculously low gear of 26-36, which I hoped never to use. I did. Probably for at least half the climb. So my time up Washington was not good, at 1:38. I was hoping to crack 1:20, but would have been satisfied with anything under 1:30. The time predicted on Doug Jansen’s page based on my Ascutney race was 1:17, and while I’m obviously not in the shape I was then, I don’t really know what accounts for the full 20 minute difference. I’d like to blame the gearing according to the principle that “you’re only as fast as your lowest gear,” but I’m not sure. I was cooked at the top in any case, so I have a hard time thinking I  could have done much different if I hadn’t been able to use the 36. Still, for race day I may adjust the screws on the derailleur to lock out the 36.


The day after Washington, when I could have just taken it easy, I went for a 5k run – this is my first time running a full 5k since I did the CVS race back in September. I built up a little too fast that time, and had to take several months off because of ankle pain. Monday’s time for the 5k was only a couple seconds slower than my race time at 24:13. So that’s good.

The next day (yesterday), when I should have also probably taken it easy, the grandparents in Manchester, CT offered to take the kids for a couple days if I drove them out. And since I was in CT, I figured I might as well go somewhere fun to ride. Options were Dudleytown, Mount Tom/Mount Holyoke, West Peak…but then I decided it was as good a time as any to finally do Greylock. My original plan was to park at the southern entrance to the park, ride over the southern (easier) approach (that I’ve done twice a long time ago in 1997 and again in 2001, I think), then ride up Hoosac and back down, then do the northern, harder approach. However, adding Hoosac would have taken more time than I had, so I opted to do just a simple out-and-back. But looking at the map, I wasn’t sure which of a couple roads I had taken to go up Greylock from the south the last time I did it, but the main road on Rockwell didn’t seem right. (It was.) So instead I rode a few miles north to Greylock Road, which looked a little more challenging anyway. When I got there I realized it was hard packed gravel, but not wanting to ride all the way back, I decided to give it a go. There is some very steep and difficult riding on that road, especially with the uneven surface. I was frequently wishing I had something easier than 34-28. I had to dismount twice to go under a barricade, but eventually popped out onto Rockwell Drive and rode the rest of the way to the top.


I had also always wondered about why people thought the northern approach was so much harder since they had seemed pretty similar to me from riding down that side. But I had taken the main route into North Adams, not the short cut on Reservoir Road down to Route 8. Two signs on that road warn trucks of gradients of 17 and 14 respectively. It’s really steep, and definitely the hardest part of the ascent. Maybe not harder than Greylock Road, but tough in any case.

I don’t feel like taking the time to embed pictures, but here are some brentacol links to the hills in question:

Full Bowen Failure

I had a little time to take the cross bike over to Bowen to try out the new section. As the title indicates, it didn’t go so well. I need to fix my mountain shoes, so I tried it today with road shoes, which might have exacerbated some of the problems I had…

First attempt. Rode up the bottom part from Main to Benefit taking it quite easy, and started in the 26 to avoid any messy shifts from the big to little chainring. On the cobbles, I decided to try going on the cobbles all the way to the top. The ground was definitely more firm than last time I tried it, but I was also already thinking about the final section to come, so I didn’t want to go too hard in the really steep section, and as a result I lost momentum, spun out, and had to unclip.

Second attempt. Rather than try the top section again after stopping, I just looped back down to Main to do the whole thing, this time transitioning to the sidewalk at the normal spot, before the 30% insanity. Everything was fine up to Pratt. It was then that I noticed that the transition from sidewalk to road on Pratt is anything but easy. There’s about a 3-foot hole, making it impossible to ride straight across Pratt, so instead, I turned left on the sidewalk and hopped onto the road a few feet north of Bowen, and then turned back to go up the steep road section from Pratt headed up towards Congdon. This section is incredibly steep. It probably isn’t quite as bad as the final section before you hit Pratt, but it’s not much better either, except you’re on good pavement. It’s short enough that you could easily sprint through it and hardly notice it, but sprinting is unlikely after finishing the bottom part, plus you need something for the dirt section, so I opted to put it in a low gear and spin it as much as possible. (I was probably riding the 26-26 at this point.) The transition to the dirt is a little scary…total bottleneck, and at 25% gradient, you need good control to make sure your line is good going down from a standard sized road to a 3-foot (or so) path. The path stays at 20% for the fist 10 meters or so, and is pretty rocky – rockier than I remember it from walking it – I managed to get through most of that, but eventually lost my line and unclipped. I tried several times to re-clip in and get going, but without much success. I was able to get back on the bike just before the low-hanging branch and verified that a rider of my size (gewilli would probably have problems) can duck under it, but if I were out of the saddle I probably would have clocked myself. From there I rode to the top, popped out on Congdon and continued the gradual climb on Bowen up to Prospect.

Third and fourth attempts. Figuring what I really needed to do was practice getting a good line and mastering the terrain, I then rode down Jenckes to Pratt, so that I could just try the last section again. This time I made it slightly farther before unclipping but still not far enough. Walked it to the top, and looped back for another try. This time I barely got going on the path before I lost my line, so I just turned around and rode home.

Verdicts. So, I think it should be possible, but it’s going to require a lot of practice. (It certainly requires strength, but I think the real issue is technique, mostly handling the rocky section.) I won’t say it’s not possible on a road bike, but I don’t think I could do it. And as for how it compares to the Koppenberg? It doesn’t. Bowen to Congdon is in another league. In terms of elevation gain and distance the profiles, as I noted yesterday, are quite similar. But the Koppenberg has nothing approaching 30%, and a capable rider should be able to clear the Koppenberg in one try without special gears and skinny tires. Bowen not so much. (For one thing, no one would ever think to make a race go up Bowen, it would be a complete clusterf**k on the dirt section.) Anyway, I look forward to mastering this f-er.


Just when I think I know every hill in the city of Providence, I’m thrown a little surprise. And given that Bowen was the hill that inspired this blog, I think this qualifies as a major surprise. I just happened to be driving down Prospect today and turned onto Bowen headed down to Congdon where it deadends into Prospect Park. I noticed something I hadn’t before, namely a series of cement posts and what looked like a small path going into a thicket of trees separating Prospect Park from the neighboring house.


So I drove around to Pratt to see what it looked like from the bottom, and remembered that there was, in fact a small section of paved road (still called “Bowen”) that continues from Pratt, where I customarily stop. But what I noticed this time was what looked like a small path to the right of the bit of chain link fence.


I went home, grabbed my camera and got the Strava app ready on my new tablet toy and headed back. Not time to try biking it today, but I figured it was worth a stop and walk-up, which would tell me most of what I needed to know about whether it was suitable for biking anyway. There is indeed a path, and it is fairly bikeable, I think. The surface is probably a little rocky for a road bike, but if you were willing to risk a flat, you might even be able to do it with skinny tires. Cross would be better. The biggest problem, in fact, is a branch that runs across the path, but at worst, I think it might call for a quick dismount, or you might be able to just duck under it.


Once you hit Congdon at the top, you can continue on Bowen for one more block of easy climbing. The addition of these two sections increases both the overall length (obviously) and the section from Pratt to Congdon is the steepest part of the whole hill, continuing at almost the same grade as the final 30% section of the cobbled part below Pratt. The whole thing also compares quite favorably with the Koppenberg in terms of average gradient and steepness. The dirt section is probably difficult enough to make me give it the nod as the harder of the two hills, but I’ll reserve final judgement until I get over there with my cross bike.

Also of interest, the top of the cobbled section is now covered with a nice (but not too tall) layer of crabgrass that makes the ground much more firm than it was when I tried to ride the cobbles all the way to the top (I tried this just after I got the cross bike, but couldn’t maintain enough momentum to not have to dismount in the 30% section), so I think I may now be able to ride the cobbles all the way to Pratt (or just before it).