You can learn a lot about your food by talking to a farmer at the Greenmarket, or by tracing its provenance on a map, but nothing helps you understand it like seeing the land that nourished it — standing on the hills that your lamb grazed, or seeing the scrappy hillside trees that dropped their apples into a pig’s enclosure. You can get some sense of a place by driving through it in a car, but for someone with a limited amount of time the best way to absorb it is from the seat of a bicycle.
The Rensselaerville Cycling Festival, held in Catskills farmland next Saturday, makes that possible, giving you the chance to steep yourself in autumnal splendor and explore the foodshed beyond the common hayride or corn maze. The festival features all the rides you’d expect from a serious cycling event, from a low-key 8-mile fun ride to a fully-supported 84-mile Gran Fondo with over 8000 feet of climbing. The courses lead cyclists past dozens of farms, and they rise and fall through a stunning part of the world: the Northern Catskills and the hills that spread out from them like an apron from Oak Hill to Albany are green valleys, rock-cluttered creeks, and wide open pastures framed to the south by the sudden eruption of mountains.
The festival is organized by Tyler Wren, a Catskills native and a veteran pro cyclist (he’s spent the past 10 years on the Jamis Hagens-Berman team). As a cyclist, he wanted to put on a ride that would excite fellow elite riders but also welcome first-timers. And as a resident of an area that is rich in agriculture but hungry for recognition, he wanted to make sure the rides were a benefit to the region’s farmers and artisans.
So he’s worked closely with a local think tank and resource center, The Carey Center for Global Good, to ensure that local agriculture is featured in every part of the day. The rides will roll past all manner of farms, from hayfields to livestock pasture — the purveyors of the inimitable Heather Ridge Farm will even be pressing apples to hand cider to cyclists as they pass. The post-ride meal on the Carey Center grounds will be a feast of local produce: from a tomato and cornbread salad to a Hilltown Stew of Scoharie County eggplant, tomatoes and potatoes. Still more farms will set up stands to showcase their wares at the post-ride festival market.
But perhaps the most interesting agricultural tie-in at the festival is beer. For the past 2 years, the Carey Center has helped lead a renaissance of small-scale farm-based beer brewing through the Helderberg Brewshed project, operating a model brewery on site and serving as a resource center and knowledge base for other aspiring farm brewers. There’ll be beer on offer from a number of these new farm-to-glass breweries, including Greenwolf Brewery, Honey Hollow Brewery, and Ninepin Cider, and there’ll be a special beer—brewing right now, in fact — handed out to every rider who makes it across the finish line.
It’s a better way to celebrate the bounty of a place than bobbing for apples.