The Adirondack Trail Ride covers 585 brutal—and beautiful—miles
Photograph by the author
It was a funny place to watch a mountain-bike race, perched on the stones lining the bank of the Sacandaga River just outside Northville. Soon enough, shadows flashed through the woods, and the three leading riders picked up their bikes and forded the river, battling the current and slippery stones and the creeping knowledge that this was just the beginning. The Adirondack Trail Ride (TATR), a 585-mile unsupported bikepacking race circumnavigating the Adirondack Park, is not a typical mountain-bike race.
TATR is part of a new breed of ultra-endurance bike races—no vans, no teams, no marked or groomed circuits. Racers carry all of their camping gear on their bikes and cross hundreds of miles of logging roads, nearly unrideable decommissioned hiking trails, gravel roads, snowmobile trails, paved roads and even rivers. Top riders often put in 150- to 200-mile days with very little sleep. Navigation files are provided beforehand, and participants are encouraged to carry a GPS and tracking device. There are stories of getting lost in “primordial forest” or falling asleep on the bike.
For their efforts they can expect nothing more than bragging rights if they are one of the few who actually finish the race. Even in bikepacking circles, where masochism is a point of pride, TATR is a uniquely challenging and rewarding route.
The race is the passion project of Mike Intrabartola, an Elizabethtown carpenter who got hooked after riding the Tour Divide in 2012. The Divide route—from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, New Mexico—is the most famous bikepacking race in the world, and has been the topic of numerous documentaries, including Ride the Divide in 2010.
“[Tour Divide] was a life-changing event for me, and when I got home I was convinced that the Adirondacks were a place where a route like this could exist,” said Intrabartola. “I was more familiar with certain areas and trails in the park, and so I started with those. From there it was paper maps, digital maps and lots of groundwork to link sections that existed and map new ones.… I went for the whole thing, trying to touch all corners of the Adirondack Park.”
What he came up with was a technically demanding course—beginning and ending in Northville—that challenges riders, but also rewards them with an intimate look at the Adirondacks. “The route is relentless and beautiful,” Intrabartola said. “It takes you through areas that were recently logged and shows you the scarred landscape.… It is a reminder that many folks still make their living working the land in this way and how logging is tied to many communities in the park. It also takes in easement areas that have regenerated after being logged and gives you a sense of how the Earth repairs and heals.”
Last year’s TATR—the fourth official race—started on the kind of dewy and gleaming fall morning that visitors to the park pine for. There was a sharpness to the morning chill, but a soft sun was already settling in, promising to burn off the fog.
There is a charm to following a bikepacking competition. Much like a road rally or high-school cross-country race, spectators update each other on the best places to watch. Northville offers a pleasant start, with its idyllic mountain town vibe. The first section of trails is relatively mellow, but the Sacandaga River crossing is one of the prime spots to catch the action, and that’s where the difficulty ratchets up. Fording techniques last year ranged from “efficient but challenging” to “Oh, my God, should we get in and help—does that violate the race rules?”
After that, things thin out a bit. Once the spectators depart—and even spouses and friends have to leave the chase at some point—the race is followed through a combination of text messages and trackleaders.com, a bare-bones website that reports back from the tracking units. A blocky graphic with each of the 12 competitors’ initials follows a simplified map, and a leaderboard reports mileage accruals.
A check of the leaderboard at two a.m. found the three leaders still riding, having not yet slept, well past 150 miles. (At one point on the second day, Intrabartola appeared to stop moving, and it was soon confirmed that he had broken a pedal spindle.) But with no cameras and no commentators, followers are left to picture the ruts in the logging roads and primordial swamp forests.
“The TATR story I’ve told most often is from the first night,” said 2017 winner Shane Kramer, of Lake Placid. “I came up behind a massive bull moose strolling down the center of a dirt road at one a.m. I quickly realized he was not about to get out of my way. It seemed like a good place to get a few hours of sleep anyway.”
Despite its ruggedness, TATR attracts people of all ages and backgrounds—carpenters, teachers, cops, store owners. And while it may seem intimidating, TATR draws a number of riders with little to no experience in bikepacking races. Jimmy Lee, a 45-year-old cyclist from New Jersey, finished TATR 2019 having never, according to him, “done anything like this before.”
Three women competed in 2019, including former professional mountain-biker Inge Aiken, of East Greenbush. Aiken, who is 58, finished with her husband, setting a new women’s record at seven days, 11 hours, 27 minutes.
Advances in equipment in the past decade—along with clever DIY customizations—have revolutionized clunky, old-fashioned rack-and-pannier setups. TATR bikes sported a variety of hydration solutions and the usual array of frame bags, handlebar bags, “bartender” bags and top-tube bags—one setup even included a pair of Yaktrax for the slippery bridge crossings.
All that gear seemed to pay off, as eight of the starters finished, up from the usual 50-percent attrition rate. The race was won by Zach Verhey, of Wallkill, in record time: three days, 12 hours, 43 minutes. Intrabartola, who scratched after the pedal mishap, has yet to win. But the race he developed holds a special place among bikepacking devotees.
“The Adirondacks are a magical place in September,” said Shane Kramer, remembering his first trip to the park, as a freshman at Paul Smith’s College. “Twenty-four years have passed, but I can still remember the crispness of the air, the colors as the leaves started to change, how blue it made the sky look as I drove up the Northway…. The TATR lets you experience all of those things unfiltered and up close.”
The Adirondack Trail Ride happens the second Friday of September—this year, on September 11. Participants should register in advance; for more information about the race or the route, visit www.theadirondacktrailride.com.