The Jefferson Notch climb in Jefferson, NH has, over the years, come to be one of our favorite climbs in New England. Cathy and I started doing a ride out of Gorham, NH, not far from our place in Bethel, ME, that included the unpaved notch road. We first came to discover the roadway from of all things, snowmobiling. In the winter, the road is unmaintained and gated and used as a major snowmobile trail. The road is actually the highest maintained state road in NH at just over 3000 feet. The summit of the climb also affords great views of the back side of Mount Washington and in the winter as you can imagine, is a pretty extreme and inhospitable place depending on the weather.
Last week Cathy and I were on vacation. This vacation started well, with a good day at the Monson cyclocross race, but quickly took a downturn with the arrival of hurricane Irene. Though she was much kinder to us than some only snapping the heads off of a couple of large trees in our back yard, she did lay down a good coat of rain and play havoc with the power in our neighborhood. At noon on Sunday we lost power. Not having a whole lot to do in the rain with no power, I did bike work in the basement by head lamp until the storm broke in the late afternoon and we could venture outside for a short ride to access damage. We went to bed Sunday evening still in silent darkness and woke early to same.
With a refrigerator and freezer stocked for the impending disaster, the reality weighed heavily on my mind, contributing to my early awakening. We were going to lose the contents if we didn't do something soon. With that we were out for a quick road ride on roads that looked like a war zone of small natural debris but was entirely passable. Virtually no flooding was to be found either and despite some tree damage, most looked none the worse for wear. Back home, we quickly packed the sizable contents of the freezer, which was a healthy stock of meat, into coolers. We stuffed Opie (who wanted no part of it) and Ellie in their carrier, loaded the van and made haste for our place in Maine, which we had confirmed still had power. Upon arrival, we filled the freezer with the transplanted contents and all was well. Bethel didn't lose power but did flood. In fact, our road as well as RT26 was blocked by the rising water from Androscoggin's 18' rise. We were, however, unscathed.
The plan for the next morning was to shoot to Gorham, NH early and ride cross bikes towards Jefferson and see what we got. A short stretch of paved road through town on RT2 and then we diverted offroad onto the snowmobile trail. This skirted the miserable grind up RT2 headed west from Gorham and got us in the woods on old railroad bed. As usual, this proved to be more taxing than expected with bumpy and often semi loose terrain. It is also all sloped slightly uphill and yes, it was into a headwind. After what seemed like an eternity and was in fact almost an hour, we found ourselves at the base of the Jefferson Notch road. The gate was closed, which was good as it meant we would encounter no traffic, but bad in that there was likely a reason for the closure, probably having to do with the recent storm.
The climb up was actually better than I'd ever seen as the gravel road surface was smooth and packed solid. Typically when we do this ride it is early in the season, just before the road opens and often just after it has been graded meaning it is loose gravel. The climb itself is fairly short, less than 6 miles from the base at Valley Road to the summit, but has some really steep sustained grunts that can hurt like crazy. This time wasn't too bad and we made it over in fine shape. There was evidence of the storm on the way up but it wasn't terribly pronounced. The descent however was a different story. We soon discovered why the road was closed as there were major sections of the roadway scooped out or just plain missing. Multiple culverts had been literally extricated and deposited in the woods downstream. I'm guessing that it may be some time before the road can reopen. Hopefully the popular winter snowmobile trail will be able to open this season. I guess we'll see.
After the chilly descent we punched back out into civilization on RT302. A quick route check saw Cathy confirm that no, we were not going to head south on RT302 toward Conway. We would instead turn right toward Twin Mountain. Of course, this was into a headwind. This is a miserable stretch of road regardless which way you are going. There always seems to be a headwind and with the wide open nature it is compounded. From RT302 we turned right onto RT3 and started to ascend slightly. Another right onto RT115 and a long, steady but gentle climb to the height of the land. You are then treated to spectacular views and a nice descent into another rise and descent. This route is a fairly major roadway but has nice wide shoulders making it a wholly reasonable and in fact, enjoyable cycling route.
Basically at the low point of the roadway we hit the continuation of the snowmobile trail that we had ridden earlier in the day followed shortly buy Valley Road, a dirt road that cuts off a big chunk of misery on a busy and narrow section of RT2 east. What we didn't realize was that Valley Road had taken a major beating from Irene and was being worked on by the town crew. This work involved grading the dirt road to level it after filling in sections that had been washed away by flood waters of Irene. If you have never ridden on freshly graded gravel, it is loose, really loose. Think of it like riding a few miles of sand as it's not all that far removed. I had to let some air out of the tires just to gain purchase, but eventually we may our way through the sections and back onto RT2.
A long stretch of pretty flat road that is RT2 next led to the last challenge of the day. This stretch through Jefferson does however afford one of the best view of Mount Washington. The final challenge is a miserable little 8% climb that is about 1k long and you can see looming in your future literally a mile ahead of you. Once on the grunt, you are also rewarded with a truck lane that chews up most of the shoulder and autos whizzing by at 60 miles an hour. You just have to have faith that if they hit you from behind, you will never know it. At the top there are some more nice views and a long, 2 mile 6% wide open descent bringing you back into Gorham, NH.
We arrived back at the van, cleaned off and changed and then hit one of our favorite local (to Gorham) spots for some excellent late lunch. This consisted of excellent crispy fries, club sandwiches and a great big PBR draft. After that, a run to Walmart in Berlin to stock up on ammo and beer and it was back home to Bethel, for a nap.