Sunday 17 September 2023

My Challenge Ride at Lake Placid, September 15, 2023

Lake Placid, located in the New York State's Adirondack Mountains region, is one of only three places that have hosted the Winter Olympics twice, the others being Innsbruck and St. Moritz. Lake Placid held its events in 1932 and 1980 and remains a destination for winter sports enthusiasts, as well as for outdoor activities of all kinds throughout the year. It offers road cyclists some outstanding opportunities for riding and one of these is the Ironman Loop.

My route along the Lake Placid Ironman loop and Whiteface Mountain

The first Ironman triathlon in Lake Placid took place in 1999 and for many years was the only Ironman venue in the United States besides the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. The cycling course, which has varied slightly from year to year, is two circuits of a 90 km (56.5 mile) course. Each of these loops has an elevation gain of 640 m (2019 ft), with most of the gain coming in the second half.

Lake Placid, which is two hours' drive south of Montreal, is keen to market itself as a cycling region and many of the roads are marked to show bicycle traffic. Shoulders are paved and wideand generally in very good condition. All along the route, even when there is no Ironman on, there are “portable restrooms” marked with very visible signs. The scenery is beautiful although this route apparently ranks as one of the toughest Ironman courses. That said, the Men's Ironman World Championships, recently held in Nice, was much harder, featuring a bike course with double the elevation gain!

Main Street, Lake Placid

The Pines Inn, my hotel

On a beautiful early Fall day I rolled out of my hotel (possibly one of the very few budget alternatives in town and probably THE place to stay in Lake Placid circa 1912) and eased downhill and onto Main Street, which runs along the shore of Mirror Lake—for some reason the village of Lake Placid is not actually on nearby Lake Placid!--and takes you past an amazing number of restaurants, outdoor equipment stores, and realtors' offices. It takes you past the hockey arena where the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” match took place and the big high school, which has the Olympic speed skating oval in front of it. A little further and you are out of town and following Route 73 southeast in the direction of Keene

Olympic ice hockey venue

There are reminders of Lake Placid's Olympic past as you will see on your right the two towers that mark the tops of the 100 m and 128 m ski jumps, the only jumps in North America that are homologated for summer as well as winter competitions. Built for the 1980 Games, they were modernized in 2021. The next bit of Olympic history is when the Ironman course takes a little detour to the Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex, which is the home of the bobsled track. The track was built in 1930 and used in the 1932 and 1980 Games. The most recent version of the track was constructed in 2000 and the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.


Although Route 73 had a fair amount of traffic on a Friday morning, the shoulders of the road make riding safe enough and for a good portion of the Ironman loop here the road goes downhill, making some sections very speedy indeed. Exhilarating, in fact.

Reaching the hamlet of Keene, you leave Route 73, turning left onto Hwy 9N, and enjoy a beautiful ride on a quiet road heading north alongside the Ausable River until reaching the hamlets of Upper Jay and Jay proper. Jay has a nice village green but is notable as having the only covered bridge in the Adirondacks. Originally built in 1857, it eventually fell into disrepair and was removed, while the current bridge, using original hand-hewn beams, was opened as a footbridge in 2007.

Another left turn takes you from Jay onto Route 86, which goes northwest and gradually climbs before the Ironman course takes another out-and-back detour along Haselton Road. Unlike most of the loop, this 22 km total section is shaded by tall trees and features lots of gentle climbs and descents as you reach the turnaround at the hamlet of Black Brook and come back. A really lovely section of road. Next stop: Wilmington.

Wilmington near the base of Whiteface Mountain and I took a break at the Visitors Bureau, which was all decorated for Fall. Speaking with the lady working there, I learned that she was the chief organizer of the bicycle race held every June that starts at the Visitor Bureau parking lot and goes to the top of Whiteface Mountain. She told me that the hardest part of the ride is the section up to the toll house, with the remaining 8 kms (5 miles) to the top being steadier. I had planned to ride up to the toll house to consider whether I should go on or just come back down and continue with the Ironman loop but, feeling encouraged, I set off on the big climb.

Passing North Pole, New York (“Home of Santa's Workshop”), a little theme park that opened in 1949, I found this section of the Whiteface Veterans' Memorial Highway to be fairly arduous. The climb has been described as the American equivalent of the Alpe d'Huez, which I have actually ridden, and both certainly start off hard. Reaching the Alpine-inspired toll house (fee for a cyclist is US$15), I needed a short break to recover before the next section.

Whiteface Mountain's east side was used as the Alpine skiing venue for the 1980 Olympics and features the highest vertical drop of any ski area in the Eastern United States. Opened in 1929 by then-Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Memorial Highway rises at an average of 8% to a parking lot at 4,610 feet above sea level, and access to the actual summit, another 280 feet, is either up a set of steps or an elevator. Those 8 kms uphill seemed to last forever. Unlike the Alpe d'Huez, the Memorial Highway does not really have any switchbacks until the last 2 kms so it is a steady grind, with no relief along the way. Stopping to take photos was tricky as getting going again at that gradient was not very easy. Views from the summit are impressive and it was a fine day but already quite cold.

View of Lake Placid

I had the foresight to bring a small backpack with extra clothing—arm and leg covers, glove liners—which turned out to be a good idea as returning downhill at speed (even for this terrible descender) felt freezing. The road surface is excellent but at the steepness speed builds up very fast and it was not so comfortable until I passed the toll house. Oddly, I found doing this final section into Wilmington much better as the curves were wider and easier for control.

Back in Wilmington, it is time to head southwest along Route 86 and the 21 kms back to Lake Placid. This section of the Ironman loop features steady climbing, including three little climbs known as the Three Bears, which would be very tiring if you were doing both loops of an Ironman race. Traffic was heavier here again and while the shoulder is paved it is rather narrow in some spots. There are little parking spots were people stop to go fishing in the Ausable River.

Soon enough one is back in Lake Placid and unlike the Ironmen/women, I did not have to run a marathon after getting off the bike, thankfully. In all, I had covered 120 kms and climbing just under 2100 m. A beautiful day out that can be recommended for any cyclist—well, maybe with more modern gearing that my 34-26!

Mirror Lake, on the shores of which is found the town of Lake Placid, oddly

As to the Ironman Lake Placid race taking place on July 21, 2024, this will be the 25th Anniversary Edition, with various special events. General registration sold out in August already for the 3,200 participants so you just have to do it on your own.  The Ironman website provides a map and turn-by-turn instructions for the course here. The Veterans Memorial Highway information is here.  And if you really want to race up Whiteface Mountain, you can check out the event information here

I had planned to enjoy some craft beers at the nearby Lake Placid Brewing Company but my legs were so exhausted that the best I could do was stagger over to the nearby McDonalds, where I recall eating pretty much the entire menu.  The next morning was not much better as I walked to a local diner and had the biggest meal, the Adirondack Breakfast, on the menu, which disappeared as soon as the waiter set it down.  Apparently my ride the day before had used up something like 5,00 Kcal!

Feeling somewhat more myself and having packed the car, I drove over to a state historical park.  This was the one-time home, and then only briefly, of famed abolitionist John Brown, who helped ignite the Civil War by leading a slave uprising to seize the arsenal at Harper's Ferry in Virginia in 1857.  Executed for treason, he is buried with some of his followers at this farm in North Elba.  It is a beautiful site and a peaceful setting considering its association with a pivotal and still-controversial figure in United States history.  More information on the John Brown Farm may be found here.