Across land once tamed and cultivated by the great Iroquois Confederacy, a wild and woolly event now courses each September – the Highlander. Part bike race, part cycling tour, part tourism initiative, the fifth edition of the Highlander Cycle Tour is still finding its way, much like the 500-strong cyclists who take to the country lanes and scenic byways each year. Some come for the region’s wine, some savor the annual offering of grape pies, and many see it as one of the greatest challenges of their lives, but all have one thing in common: they are viewed as deranged masochists by the rest of middle America.
The weekend, considered a “celebration of bicycling” by founder and organizer David Bischoff, starts Friday evening, September 10, with a lung-popping individual time trial up Gannett Hill, near the Bristol Mountain Ski Resort where all rides start and finish. Coined “Le Alpe de Gannett” after the famous L’Alpe d’Huez climb in the Tour de France, the ride covers 4.9 miles in length but gains 1,100 feet of elevation in that paltry distance. What you may have seen on television in the Tour, you can now witness in person: all of the sweat, eyes rolled back, and pistoning legs determined to make it to the top before all others.
Saturday, September 11, kicks into full gear with a full selection of noncompetitive rides, something to suit every pedaler. Whether you ride 100 miles on the Highlander or the Lowlander, or spin easy through 30 miles of the Wanderer, or can’t make up your mind and so choose the Midlander as a 100-kilometer compromise, you’ll still have the same theme of hills laid out before you. This region of the Finger Lakes echoes with the remnants of the last Ice Age – soaring hills interspersed with deep valleys, and Canandaigua Lake running through it all.
The organizers are not interested in a kinder and gentler event. Finish the Highlander, the 100 miles of mayhem and namesake of the event, and you will have propelled yourself over no less than 18 total climbs and 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Ask cyclists to name the most difficult bike rides in the country and sawtooth states like Colorado, with the Triple Bypass in July, and North Carolina, offering the Mountains of Misery in May, will roll off the tongue. But New York? For goodness sakes, this event isn’t even in the Adirondacks or Catskills, the well-known mountains of the Empire State.
What we have is one of the ultimate challenges of cycling in our back yard. Participants in years past have mainly come from New York, with some New Englanders dabbling in a getaway weekend, but Bischoff would like to see the Highlander grow in stature and become a “destination event” like the Death Ride in California, which boasts thousands of riders, 700 volunteers, and four mountain passes completely closed to traffic.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity here. Bristol and the surrounding towns and countryside are perfect vacation spots for folks traveling to the area from out of town,” Bischoff contends. “With world-class wineries, scenic beauty with the lakes and forests, and miles of bikeable roads, the tourism aspect is maybe just as important as the charity part.”
The “charity part” is not neglected. This year a donation will be made to area parks and recreation in addition to established charities of the past, the South Bristol Historical Society and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which supports cancer research and treatment.
“We’re hoping to someday get Lance himself to ride in the Highlander, just as he participates in the annual Ride for the Roses in Texas,” Bischoff says. Wooing someone with the stature of Armstrong would ignite both initiatives – charity and tourism – like nothing else could.
According to Bischoff, the biggest challenge hindering growth is a lack of sponsors fronting cash to cover the event’s expenses. The Highlander provides “SAG” stops to refuel and recuperate weary riders, stocking energy gels and bars, water, electrolyte beverages, and a variety of other food and drink alongside the road. These stops cost money, and the Highlander, for instance, has nine of these stops along the 100 miles.
So who are the folks willing to fork over around $50 for the chance to punish themselves over hill and dale on an otherwise pleasant Saturday in September? Perhaps not surprisingly, men make up a majority of the participants. Beyond that, though, generalizations are hard to fashion; cyclists ride touring bikes, road bikes, and mountain bikes. Some ride for speed, most to finish. Families take on the challenge together, and many riders end up in spontaneous groups formed over the morale-busting climbs. You’ll see more smiles at the finish than at the start, a testament to the exhausted cyclists’ sense of accomplishment.
The personal pride is forged over the seemingly ceaseless undulations of terrain that make South Bristol a major ski destination for western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The seven major climbs of the Highlander include Miller’s Hill, a slogging one mile in length with an average grade of 6 percent, and Bopple Hill, a road constructed in 1935 which pitches upward at 22 percent along one section. Not surprisingly, this stretch sees the bike being pushed more often than pedaled. Conquer Bopple, though, and a traditional Scottish bagpiper awaits you at the summit, lifting lilting melodies into the late summer sky.
Not content to remain the festival sideshow of its inaugural year, when it debuted as part of the South Bristol Daze Festival, The Highlander strives to imitate the cyclists’ paths each year by pressing onward and upward with its slate of rides and activities. This year, for instance, “The Mountaineer” has been added to allow off-road mileage junkies to pedal 6,000 feet closer to heaven over a meager 40 kilometers of horizontal. Whether the Highlander can take its place among cycling classics of the United States, however, depends largely on appealing to a larger base than the sparsely populated local area.
by Jeff Henderson
Jeff Henderson lives in Geneva with his wife, Melissa, and spends his time programming computers and freelance writing. In his spare time he immerses himself in the sport of triathlon: race directing, competing, reporting, and officiating… when he’s not out on his bike.