Day 1 – Chautauqua to Ellicottville
There were twenty-four of us, 22 riders and a two-man support team that would haul our gear and handle logistics and food. Frank, our 25th member, was healed enough to ride a bike and was driving up from Austin to meet us in Buffalo. Our SAG vehicle was a black Suburban nicknamed “Zip Code” towing a U-Haul trailer. Inside the U-Haul were nearly a dozen plastic bins, each carefully labeled, with food, snacks, kitchen implements, and various luxuries to make life in camp as nice as could be. It was as good, or maybe even better, than a commercial tour operation.
We woke early and started breaking down camp while the second half of our support team, David “Dirt” [Last Name Redacted], took care of getting us coffee and food. Dirt is a fantastic cook, runs his own software company, and did a fantastic job of feeding and caring for us all week long. He also never smiled that I can recall. We enjoyed some Starbucks Via instant coffee (not bad) and yogurt with granola. With our tents packed and everyone fueled up we were ready to hit the road by 9AM, a full hour and a half before some of us had thought we’d be leaving based on last year’s slow starts.
Ben had prepared a very detailed book of cues and maps to show us the route. A small group of riders who thought they’d be slow in the hills took off early while the rest of us took care of some last minute bike maintenance or did slow laps around the campground. The day was overcast and rain was in the area so I had my rain gear handy in my handlebar bag and didn’t worry too much about sunscreen. Around 9:30 we gathered up those who hadn’t already left and headed out of camp and onto the roads of western New York. The group, 15 or so of us, stretched out in a long paceline as we rode on the shoulder of the highways around Lake Chautauqua. It was glorious.
The first half of the route had us going through small towns around Lake Chautauqua before heading out into farm country. This included passing through Jamestown and a stop at the Lakeview Cemetery, the final resting place of Lucille Ball. After leaving Jamestown we passed through very picturesque farming communities and passed by at least one very smelly hog farm. Distance for the day was about 65 miles and we met our SAG team in a park about halfway through the ride. They had sandwiches and other goodies laid on for us, but in what would be a recurring theme on this trip I neither ate nor drank enough. After leaving the SAG stop we had one big climb before a long, wet descent into Ellicottville. On the descent Laurie was very fortunate not to crash when a heavy gauge wire that was on the road got sucked into her spokes and wrapped itself around her hub. Very scary.
We had lunch and a few beers at the Ellicottville Brewing Company; arriving too early for a proper dinner and with some big hills left to climb I had a grilled cheese sandwich. They had some delicious beers and a menu that seemed so goofy I asked our waiter if it was intended as a practical joke of some kind. Really, check it out yourself. Our waiter, who introduced himself as Serge at least four times, took good care of us and we had a good time at our first official beer stop. After a long break we reluctantly headed back out into the damp and finished the ride. Did I mention that they pipe music on Main street in Ellicottville? Weird.
The final stretch of road was called Bryant Hill Road, and they were not kidding. We had two very big climbs with a quick, steep descent in between. As riders made it to the second summit they would stop to cheer on those that were coming up behind and we ended up having a nice moment with everyone gathered to cheer each other up the hill. Sadly, once we went down the backside of the second hill we discovered that while it may have looked like we’d made it to the top of the world we had plenty of climbing left to do. So that’s what we did until we made it to the campsite. Once at camp we got cleaned up and setup and then proceeded to lay waste to a significant cache of beers and liquor. It was all very dignified and respectable, but with a group of this size the sheer volume that could be consumed was eye-opening.
Day 2 – Ellicottville to Buffalo
We woke up to find that a cloud had settled over the campground. A literal cloud – everything was soaked from it. We had breakfast of bacon and eggs, a whole lot of eggs, and more Via. The cloud lifted and the sun was coming out as we started to break camp and load the trailer with all of our gear. Over the week we got pretty good at breaking down and setting up camp. Once again, by around 9 we were ready to mount up and head out again. We’d keep this up, more or less, all week as well.
The route out of the campsite took us north, and in this area that meant we’d be going slightly downhill with no climbs to speak of. We made really good time for the first ten to fifteen miles, pedaling easy, and only had to deal with one navigational issue when Google tried to send us down a road that didn’t really exist. Fortunately, with the self-reliant group we had this was no problem and we managed to pick out a route without anyone resorting to fisticuffs or name-calling. Everything was going swell until we turned west onto Genesee Road.
Fucking Genesee Road.
Going east to west meant we’d have to navigate all the hills and valleys that the ancient glaciers which had shaped this area left behind. For 10 miles we went up, and down, and up, and down hills that were a little too big to be described as “rollers” but were also smaller, mostly, than the climbs we’d done the previous day. You could see the big climbs in the distance, and one hill stood out more than the others. For two miles you could see it, and as I looked at my cue sheets I figured that we’d have to climb it before we got to the SAG rest stop. Mercifully, right at the base of the big climb, I saw the SAG trailer and the turn away from the hill and back to the north.
After a nice break at crossing of Genesee and Springville Roads we headed back north towards Buffalo. The second half of the ride started with a fun little descent before leveling off to the more slight downhill that would take us all the way to Buffalo. I was having some equipment problems, so Bill Merrill and I were the last to leave. Bill is a software developer and wonderful human who lives in Seattle and who I really enjoyed getting to know on RAGBRAI. He’s also a really big dude, taller and wider than me, with calves as big around as my thighs. He punches a huge hole in the wind and tucking in behind Bill was my happy place for this trip. I spent a lot of time staring at his backside over the week.
We stopped for ice cream after a few miles of riding and then, almost before we knew it, we were in the outskirts of Buffalo. The transition to riding in the city was kind of jarring, but we made it downtown without incident and then stopped at the Pearl Street Brewery for beers and a late lunch. The brewery had reserved their patio for us, which gave us a stunning view of a highway onramp, but also had a sign welcoming BBTXL. Frank was there, having made the drive up from Austin, and so was our SAG team. After a few beers and some food a small group of us decided to ride up to Niagara Falls. Our plan was to find a route directly from the brewery to the falls, but after a few miles of trying to navigate Buffalo we decided that it was going to be dark before we’d be able to make it back so we elected to head to our campsite on Grand Isle, just north of town.
Getting to Grand Isle included a somewhat harrowing ride over the I-190 bridge. The bridge had a narrow bike path and only one side, which had us riding against traffic, was open. Since we’d left the rest of the group early and skipped a few stops they were making, we were the first to arrive at the house where we’d be spending the night. We were greeted by two barking, growling dogs who were fortunately stopped from greeting us more enthusiastically by an invisible fence. The owner eventually rescued us and after some time getting to know everyone we piled into Frank’s car and drove, in our bike clothes, up to the falls. We agreed on the way that if anyone asked we would all claim that we’d ridden to the falls – so imagine our surprise when we got there and found that six of our number had decided to ride there after we’d given up. We took pictures, marveled at the majesty, and observed with some trepidation how very close you could get to the rushing waters.
Back at camp we had a delicious dinner of grilled chicken and a bonfire, lit with several gallons of gasoline in a huge fireball. More beer and liquor disappeared and a good time was had by all.
Day 3 – Buffalo to Rochester
This day was going to be long, over 90 miles, but essentially flat as we spent most of our day on the tow path of the Erie Canal. We got up, broke down camp, said goodbye to the dogs, and then hit the road. We went back over the I-190 bridge and then picked up a trail to take us out of Buffalo to Tonawanda. In Tonawanda we started to see pink spray-painted markers on the ground which showed the way for the canal path. Following these we were able to easily make our way to Lockport where the gravel part of the trail began.
A few miles outside of Lockport we had our only real rain shower of the trip, which lasted all the way until we made it into town. It was 66 degrees and we were all soaked, but when we saw an ice cream shop across from the historical center we couldn’t resist. We ate ice cream, backed up with hot coffee, and got a group photo in front of the five locks that bring the water level down. Then we hit the gravel portion of the trail that we’d be on for a very long time.
The trail was perfectly flat, very nicely groomed, and ran along the north side of the canal. Had the sun been out it would have been tough, but as it was overcast and cool the weather couldn’t be better. For the first ten or fifteen miles it was great. But then it got a little bit old. It was kind of like being on a trainer – you couldn’t coast, the gravel sucked away some watts so you had to work hard to keep your speed up, and the terrain and view didn’t change very much. I put my head down and just pedaled and pedaled at the head of a small group. “I am a machine that eats miles.” was my mantra. I pulled the group until I started running out of gas.
Fortunately, just before the bonk monster came out of the canal to eat me, we stopped at a bike shop that also sold ice cream. The owner was really nice and took a picture of us on the porch of his shop. Back on the trail we raced boats and argued about distances to various places on the route. Eventually we made it to the end of the trail outside of Rochester and got a tour of some of its rougher neighborhoods as we made our way downtown to the Genesee Brewery. The brewery is located right on the Genesee river which runs through town and overlooks a really cool waterfall. We enjoyed some delicious seasonal beers and then had a short ride back to Ben’s childhood home.
At Ben’s house I took care of some laundry and enjoyed some pulled pork and home-cooked pies. We spent time with Ben’s family and friends and then spend the night in tents on their yards. Apparently we were the talk of the neighborhood for a few days afterwards.
Day 4 – Rochester to Keuka Lake
Leaving Rochester was one of the trickier bits of navigation and riding we had to do. We were all together in a big group, riding in traffic, and having to depend mostly on Ben to lead us out of town. We had two riders come together in a crash that sent one of them over her handlebars. Fortunately she was able to catch herself and no lasting damage was done. The thing with the roads in New York was that they were generally in poor shape, and if the road had a shoulder it probably also had drainage grates along it every couple of hundred yards. Riding in a group, calling out obstacles, was tense and tiring. You got tired of calling out “grate, grate, grate, hole, bump, grate, grate, hole”.
Eventually we made it out of town and caught smooth roads and a tailwind. At one point I was following Bill at twenty miles an hour – uphill! We stopped for ice cream after 20 miles or so and the smart ones also got some lunch. This was going to be a deceptively tough day on the bike with an overall elevation gain of a couple hundred feet. After ice cream we rode to the north end of Canandaigua Lake and met SAG at Naked Dove Brewing. This was a small brewery which offered only a tasting flight of their beers and no food. I enjoyed the tasting and then a PB&J with SAG before hitting the road again with Bill and one of several David’s on the ride, this one a Helder who works for Twitter. The three of us climbed our way south along the lake and then east out into the Mennonite farms of the area. We had a lot of miles to cover before we made it to the next brewery, which was staying open late just for us.
Riding through the farms was very pretty but also pretty tiring. I wish I had taken more pictures of the scenery. We rode hard, down gravel road descents and up steep pitches, got chased by a dog briefly, and then Helder broke the cable for his rear derailleur at the bottom of a long descent and we had to stop. We spent some time trying to figure out if we could fix it, making contact with SAG, and talking with the owner of the house we stopped in front of. The owner was named Ron and he’d retired as the shop foreman at a factory that probably no longer exists. He was nice, despite his knuckle tattoos, and we talked about the area and our trip until we figured out where we’d meet the SAG team to pickup Helder. With only his toughest gear to ride in, Helder, that sandbagging bastard, soon put some serious distance on Bill and me.
We made it to the next brewery, Abandoned Brewing Co., and were rewarded with a beautiful view of Lake Keuka and some delicious beer. I was also rewarded with urine the color of a porter, so I drank more water than beer to try to undo some of the dehydration damage I’d done. We hung out and drank until the lone bartender decided she’d had as much fun with us as she could stand. A quick ride to the next campsite, this time at a lovely state park, and we were ready for another night of “relaxing”. SAG went into town and brought back buffalo wings and pizzas so we had food to eat while we worked on our hydration.
Day 5 – Keuka Lake to Taughanock State Park
This day was a mixed bag of riding, starting out with a very lovely and easy ride around Keuka Lake. This included a stop in Penn Yan to see the world’s largest pancake griddle, which was a 20-foot wide monstrosity bolted to the side of a building. After a circuit of the lake we turned east and had to do some climbing through more farm country. It was lovely and the weather was beautiful with plenty of sun and mild temps in the 70’s. We stopped at a roadside produce stand and then a little bit later at a general store that seemed to have one of everything and a very sweet, elderly gent as its proprietor. After leaving the shop we had a series of long climbs as we worked our way to Watkins Glen.
After completing the climbs we were rewarded with an amazing descent into Watkins Glen. The road was straight and the grade mild, but it just went on and on and on. I’ve never done anything like it. We descended through something like 1200 feet over the course of a couple of miles. You could go as fast as you dared, but the condition of the road encouraged caution. After coasting for what felt like forever, I rolled into Watkins Glen and eventually found the SAG group in a park at the bottom of Seneca Lake.
The park was lovely and a smart group of riders set out after lunch to visit the famous falls and grotto of Watkins Glen. The rest of us attacked the steep climb up from the lake to hit a distillery, a brewery, and a winery all within a few miles. I went to the distillery and sampled some delicious gins, then rode up to the brewery for a pint. There was a headwind coming off the lake so we formed up into small pacelines and worked our way north to Lodi (not the same town as the CCR song – that one is in CA) then east to Cayuga Lake. Alongside the lake we stopped for ice cream again, and I filled my water bottles with water from the bathroom which may or may not have been actually potable – it was a distinct grey color and very cloudy.
After the ice cream, most of our party went to another winery that made some hard ciders that were supposed to be delicious. Laurie and I decided we’d just go straight to camp, so we skipped the winery and instead went to camp and then walked to the base of Taughanock Falls. I’d been told we could swim at the falls, but signs made it clear this was forbidden and I was too much of a chicken to disobey the signs. We met the rest of our group back at camp and had a really fun night, highlighted by foil-pouch hobo campfire dinners made by Eric and Dirt, until a female park ranger interrupted us. She marched into camp and made the following speech:
I am the park ranger.
Quite hours began at 10PM.
You must turn off your generator and keep your voices lowered.
Day 6 – Taughanock State Park to Auburn
The main point of this day was for Ben and some of his buddies from undergrad, who were with us on the ride, to relive their glory days at Cornell by visiting some sights around the college in Ithaca. We escaped from Taughanock state park and were in Ithaca relatively quickly and stopped at a coffee shop. Then we went a little bit out of town and visited Buttermilk Falls where, once again, we were not allowed to swim. From there we climbed the ridge on the west side of town and went up to the college.
At the top of the ridge we had a great view of the lake and the school, then we settled in for lunch at a bagel shop. After lunch I joined Bill, Laurie, and another rider for the trip out of town, skipping a visit to the Cornell dairy for ice cream. Bill and Laurie were not feeling that well so we took it kind of easy as we worked our way north just east of Cayuga lake. The road was relatively easy and we passed the time fairly quietly until we made it to the SAG stop at a park along the lake. It was so nice to just plop down on the grass and stare up at the sky that I could have stayed there all day.
That wasn’t really an option though, so after a while we picked ourselves up and got ready to head out again. Where we were going was a little bit of a mystery due to a fluke of naming. It turns out that there are two lakeside campsites in New York called Twin Oaks. One is on Cayuga Lake. The other is just outside of Albany – a very long way from the Finger Lakes. Guess which one we had made advance reservations at? Fortunately, our SAG team pulled a minor BBTXL miracle and were able to get us a great site (poison ivy excepted) at the proper campground.
Climbing back away from the lake, Bill decided he wanted to do some work and I quietly agreed that was a good idea. We put our noses into a growing headwind and took turns pulling each other toward the campsite just as hard as we could go. I’d ride in his slipstream until I was ready to pull, then I’d pull ahead and to my best to punch a hole in the wind for him to follow. Together we left everyone behind and powered our way to Aurora, home of Wells College, where we were stopped by both fatigue and a flat tire on Bill’s bike. Fortunately there was both a grocery store and a bar nearby, so when Bill fixed his bike and everyone else finally made it to town we all went into the bar and hoisted some pints to another great day on the road.
After that it was just a few miles to the campsite, and it was a great one right on the lake. We setup camp and then put on swimsuits for a dip as the sun went down. The water was refreshing and it was the perfect end to the day and the second to last day on the tour. Unfortunately, I’d made the mistake of leaning my bike against a tree covered in poison ivy, so I had to wash it off and then worry for the next day if I was going to be itching all over. Mercifully, I escaped unscathed. I stayed up really late talking with some folks and awoke in the morning to find that one of my tent poles had been broken in the night. Must have been a big bird or something…
Day 7 – Auburn to Fairhaven
It was the last day, and that was a bummer. It was also our shortest day at just under 50 miles. We broke camp, broke the campground’s septic system, and took a lakeside group photo. Then we headed north towards Lake Ontario and the city of Fair Haven. Since I’d stayed up late the night before I was mostly just tired and focused on getting to the last campsite. We rode alongside busy highways before getting away onto some very pretty country lanes through farm country. SAG found a nice little field to stop in for a break, and then we finished the ride with several miles of double-track through the woods on a converted railway trail.
We made it to Fair Haven state park, right on the shores of Lake Ontario and once we were all at camp we went down for a swim. It was chilly, but a treat nonetheless. After leaving the lake and cleaning up we went downtown for a group dinner. The restaurant was ill-equipped to deal with 25 hungry folks showing up all at once, but we had a good time despite the long wait for much-needed food. We road back in the dark and I stayed up as late as I could manage, soaking it all in. We also got another visit from a Park Ranger telling us to be quiet, but this one wasn’t as funny.
I had such a wonderful time I hated to leave. After dinner Pat rode with Ben’s parents back to Rochester to bring the van back to camp, which meant we were able to pack up and hit the road pretty early. We had an uneventful drive back to Nashville, with Pat taking me to his favorite sushi spot when we rolled into town. I woke up early the next morning and snuck out to hit the road before anyone else woke up. I spent a good bit of time driving back on the phone to help relieve the boredom and also help keep me awake. I was thrilled to get back to Austin and into the arms of my family.
BBTXL:BWNY was a great vacation and a fantastic experience. I would drop everything and do it again in a heartbeat. It was a fantastic group of people, a beautiful part of the country, and a challenging bike ride of right at 490 miles. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it was like in this little narrative, particularly how wonderful it was meeting new friends and sharing in the magic of BBTXL together. I hope we do it again soon.