The Three Notch Century Ride is an annual charity event that helps support Northeast Passage, an organization dedicated to helping athletes with disabilities. A healthy mix of handcyclists and bicyclists covered the scenic 100-mile route in either one, two or three days. Organizers are quick to point out that this is a ride, not a race.
As a runner, I’ve been to many road races. But, this was my first time participating in a bike ride. I set the bar high and chose the single day 100-mile option. My training rides never exceeded 65 miles, but sometimes you have to do things that scare you a bit.
4am – Alarm Clock
We were up at 4am and on the road by 4:30am. The two-hour drive was dark and foggy, but we arrived in North Conway, NH at around 6:30. I met up with event manager Keely Ames, and picked up my registration packet outside the North Conway Grand Hotel.
Registration was easy. In my packet I found a cue sheet, a race t-shirt, and a temporary tattoo of the race logo. I quickly found a place to change inside the hotel locker room. The race goodies went into my travel bag and the cue sheet went into the back pocket of my bike jersey.
I came back out to grab my 2010 Felt z100 off the rack just as the other riders started to make their way towards the starting area. There were a few announcements about rider safety and some new pavement along the Kancamangus that we’d run into, and then it began. It was a gentle mass start exiting the parking lot area and following the driveway towards the main road.
The Three Notch Century Ride Begins
We left the parking lot and headed out full of nervous anticipation of the miles to come, or at least I did. I wore cotton gloves under my cycling gloves and long sleeves to keep the cold out. The temperatures were in the 40s at the start, but would rise into the upper 70s by the time I made it across the finish line.
In my mind, I had imagined it would be something like Breaking Away with dramatic surges and gutsy riders dueling it out under the scorching sun. Thankfully, it was nothing like that. It was a friendly group of riders that would cheerfully bellow “Carrrup!” to let other know a car was approaching, and point to the ground to let others know of potential rough patches in the road.
The course was very well-marked with signs at all the turns and intersections. There were also signs just to inform you that you were still on the course. A very helpful and much-appreciated service to riders that find themselves stranded between groups and very much alone.
The first aid station, or SAG (support and gear) station as cyclists call it, was at the 21-mile mark. Or maybe not, I forgot to start my watch until the 4-mile mark. (Which, unfortunately means I don’t get credit for the full century distance on Strava. Aggh!) It was delightfully stocked with peanut butter sandwiches, maple syrup shots, sports drinks, and other goodies to help us climb thousands of feet to reach the Kancamangus Pass at mile 26.
Climbing the Kanc
The climb wasn’t really all that bad. As a runner, I’m not used to coasting, so picking a low gear and gutting it out up the hill was a pretty natural feeling. The key is turnover and momentum. If you lose either, you’re done.
The next ten miles flew by at almost 40mph as I took full advantage of gravity heading into the town of Lincoln, NH. The next SAG stop was at mile 38. The volunteers at every stop were outstanding. Smiles and encouragement, and plenty of food.
The next stretch was through some remote highway for several miles before picking up the Franconia Recreation Trail. The trail is paved and runs for almost nine miles through the forest. It was like the ride in the original Jurassic Park movie, minus the dinosaurs. There were a few walkers and some other bikers, but for the most part is was peaceful and gave me a chance to appreciate the experience.
I learned two things during my first century ride. The first, is the importance of using your gears to maintain cadence and momentum. The second, is to find a rider bigger than you and draft behind them. At 6′ 4″ it’s hard to find shelter from the wind.
However, I was lucky enough to find a few riders to follow after leaving the third SAG stop at the 54-mile point. I tucked in behind them and it made things easier for me than they’d been for the last 50 miles. I understand so much more about the Tour de France now.
I followed them for as long as I dared, and then passed by to offer them the same courtesy. For the next few miles I powered along at nearly 20mph and burned several matches that I wouldn’t get back. Not to mention, the climb into Crawford Notch had begun.
Reaching the Crawford Notch Depot at mile 72 was a relief. I saw my family for the first time since mile 26, and I could get off the bike and stretch out my legs, back, and neck for a few minutes. I chided myself for not drinking enough water, and downed two bottles before getting back on the bike.
The next few miles zipped by as I flew down the hills. But, the last 25 were a slow and determined grind towards the finish. I had lost my wind breakers, and I was on my own. Endurance athletes know what it means to push beyond the comfort zone into that third person state of mind. I was there, having pretty much emptied my matchbook on the last segment.
I crossed over a series of railroad tracks that were flagged and enthusiastically pointed out by ride volunteers. Crossing angled railroad tracks is very dangerous when you’re on .5″ wheels. I was thankful once again for the race organizers efforts at keeping us safe.
I entered the parking lot of the North Conway Grand Hotel about 6:45:00 after the start of the ride. The riders were so spread out that not too many people seemed to notice. But, it was a check in the box of a bucket list item for me.
After placing my bike in the rack, I headed into the locker room for a hot shower. I grabbed a complimentary sandwich and a drink on my way by the hotel restaurant. Egg salad never tasted so good.
There was a live band rocking out in the courtyard, a full-service bar, and several picnic tables and tents. As much as I would have liked to stay and enjoy the after-party, I hustled back to the car so that we could make it to my son’s soccer game later that afternoon.
The Three Notch Century Ride is an exceptionally well-organized event with jaw-dropping scenery, friendly volunteers, and a great community of riders. If you can find time on your calendar next year, consider penciling in this century ride. You’ll thank me later.
An Interview with Keely Ames, Three Notch Century Ride Event Manager
As race director, what is the most difficult aspect of managing a 100-mile bike ride?
KA: There are a few different elements that make this event complicated and logistically difficult. Since we offer four different options for participation, I’m essentially organizing four different events. The route being 100-miles also makes things challenging. If we make one wrong packing move, those supplies could be a 2-hour drive away. My brain is constantly moving to make sure I have all the logistics and support covered for each option. Things like wheelchair accessibility and support for our riders with disabilities is second nature for Northeast Passage, but I’m always making sure every single rider will feel welcomed, comfortable and well taken care of. Any single rider’s experience is the most important for me.
What is the most inspiring story from this year’s race?
KA: We always have several… For us, we love seeing our riders progress from year-to-year. We had one handcyclist complete the full 100-miles in one day. He started out a few years ago on our three-day event and has progressed in his strength and endurance to complete it in one day.We had another century rider, a Veteran, rent a bicycle from us this summer. It was the first time he’s been on a bicycle. In a very short time, he has since acquired his own bike through Team Semper Fi and he’s completed a few centuries this summer. Watching all of our riders gain confidence, skills and strength is what makes this event uniquely Northeast Passage. We offer the different options so that there truly is something for everyone and riders can progress and challenge themselves to the level where they feel comfortable.
Have you ever participated in the 3 Notch Century ride?
KA: No! I’m better at organizing than cycling and there’s always so much to be done.
How many riders started the race this year? How many finished?
KA: We had 216 riders across all four options. We had a number of mechanical issues this year, but our awesome mechanics put 4 out of 5 back on the road. Besides a few anomalies (like cramping), everyone finished.
How many riders were visiting from outside NH?
KA: We had 102 riders that came from out-of-state – as far away as Wisconsin, Texas and Quebec.
Tell us a bit about the Northeast Passage and why the 3 Notch Century ride is so important.
KA: Northeast Passage is a program of the University of New Hampshire. We provide opportunities around New England for individuals with disabilities to define, pursue and achieve their goals. Our director said at dinner on Saturday night that we help people find happiness. We provide adaptive sports and therapeutic recreation opportunities so that people can get back to doing what they love, try something new or find ways to recreate with their friends and family. This event is the embodiment of our mission. We provide challenge, support and the same opportunity for all riders. Regardless of whether you choose to do it in one, two or three days, all riders have completed 100 miles at the end.
How many jars of peanut butter were finished by the riders? Bottles of water?
KA: We went through over 1,000 bottles of water. Peanut Butter numbers aren’t that impressive – we went through 200+ bananas, 4 Costco size bags of dried dates and 11 jars of pickles.
Where do you find such enthusiastic and friendly volunteers?
KA: Almost all of our volunteers are connected to our organization in some-way – several are family members of our staff or other regular volunteers. Checkpoint #4 is always staffed by our director’s parents and their friends. My co-workers wife, kids and aunt and uncle worked checkpoint #3. I always try to recruit students and staff from UNH. I think the secret is that our volunteers truly care as much about Northeast Passage as we do. I may be biased, but they really are the best. Considering how complicated this event is, we run on a fairly thin volunteer crew. I am so lucky they continue to come back year-after-year. It makes our job so much easier!
Have you set a date for next year’s race?
KA: Yes, we’re always the weekend after Labor Day. Next year’s Century will be Saturday, September 10, 2016.
Mark your calendars!