A Ride in the Woods

Thursday night I met some of my old crew at Waldo, then rode into the woods for the first time in 11 months. The last time I rode there, I crashed, burned, and tore my left ACL. The doc installed a used one (a big thanks to the donor and their family) 4 months to the day after my crash. Now, 7 months post surgery, not only was I on my new-to-me ACL , I was in Waldo, where I did the damage, on my new-to-me bike, Don and then Jeff’s Niner with the Chris King hubs (I love that the bike has a pedigree in local mtb circles – I feel like part of a continuum). 

Maybe the combination wasn’t the wisest, but it wasn’t a big deal either. It’s going to take some time to learn the Niner’s capabilities, and it gave me a reason to take it easy. As if the debts I owe my ligament donor and my wife Pat for nursing me through and not giving me undue shit weren’t enough…

The Niner’s suspension was slack – too slack. It had hung in my garage since Jeff sold it to me right after my surgery; unattended if not unloved. A novice to full-sus, I had no idea how much air should be in the shocks. I bottomed them out a couple of times, once burping the front tire crossing a stone wall. Jeff came by this morning and dialed in the suspension for me. The next ride should give a far better idea of the Niner’s capabilities.

At the start, fear took the place of the joy I normally feel. Even the little bumps I cleaned four years ago on my rigid 26er looked scary. I walked around the first rock on Red, the one I don’t always clean but should, because I didn’t want to put my left foot down if I didn’t clean it. But then I rolled over some logs and cleaned the first three rock gardens. By the time we got to the Schralpin’ Turns, I was having fun. My thoughts turned from my knee to how the bike handled and shifted. As I negotiate the Niner’s learning curve, it’s going to begin to feel natural again.

Riding Waldo was the right move. It’s my home park. It’s where Chris took me out for my first mtb ride four or five years ago. It’s where I spent weeks clearing trees after the storm in May 2018, and where I’ve kept the trails clear when I could only Jones about riding them. It’s where I shepherded in a new boardwalk with NEMBA a month before my surgery, the one I finally rode Thursday.

And my friends? Chris, Korey, and Ben? They’re mensches. They rode slow. They watched out for me and waited for me. They didn’t tempt me to do anything stupid. They told me they’d missed me, and after the ride, they gave me beer. While I missed riding, what I missed more was them, them and my other riding buddies who weren’t there.

It’s good to be back.

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Hills

Between the shitty weather and being busy after work, I didn’t ride this week until Saturday. Even then there wasn’t a lot of time. Instead of distance I opted for some climbs, going back to familiar hills both to test myself and to build my fitness.

The first climb was Flag Swamp, two miles from home. It gains 421 feet over 2.2 miles – Not the steepest climb overall, but a good, long warmup with on 17 percent section. As I pedaled up that steep, my mind went back to other times I’d been redlined and had to put a foot down.

I’ve been in worse shape, I thought.

The rest of it was just a spin, even where I cut the corner on the last pitch, steepening the grade there.

That led to the fast downhill on Mallory, with a quick left onto Garnet. At only .6 miles, it’s not a long climb, but Garnet gains 241 feet, all on dirt, in that distance. Right at the start it wallops you with a 16% grade. You get a break very quickly, but then it runs between 16% and 19% for too long. There were many times I had to put a foot down there, although not for a couple of years, and not yesterday. It was hard, but not gut-busting, and I could have ridden it harder.

There were a few others, and the fast, rattling descent down the west side of Flag Swamp. There, what mountain biking has taught me about positioning smoothed out the descent, giving me confidence and speed.

I think Stein and me are gonna be okay.

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Spring!

The weather made not riding not an option. 20200419_140009

The temperature was 60F and the skies were clear. Rode a lot of dirt and felt like I was riding, well, normally. The bike was moving at a good clip and I had power to spare. The fear I’ve felt on descents and other potentially sketchy situations is fading. My shoulders are relaxing.

But there’s still baggage to unpack. One consequence of coming back from an injury is that my brain wants to use it as an excuse. As I was climbing Shinar Mountain Road today, there were two occasions where the thought that I wasn’t fully back in shape and that it would be okay to put a foot down sprang into my head. I didn’t put a foot down though, and made it up the hill just fine. My time sucked, but there was a headwind, and I did slow considerably near the top to allow two horses to pass, but my feet stayed on the pedals.

And Steep Rock! Good grief! I don’t know what I was thinking riding through there. I should have climbed West Church instead. Everyone was there. Everyone. And they were oblivious.

Okay, I do know what I was thinking riding there. There’s a section of single track there that connects the old rail bed and the abandoned section of Tunnel Road. It’s rooty and gnarly and uphill and learning to ride it on my gravel bike was one reason I took up mtbing. I’ve been cleaning it for a couple of years now, but since my surgery, I’ve walked it the couple of times my wheels rolled that route.

Today, I decided beforehand that there was no reason I couldn’t ride it. It was one of the goals of the ride.

By spinning the pedals and looking where I wanted to go, I cleaned it with ease. That felt good. Really good. 

And I PRed Old Roxbury on the return trip, my first PR in a year.

The end is in sight, it seems.

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Getting Out

Now that I’m done with physical therapy and we’re finally back on DST, I need to commit to getting out a couple of nights a week. That’s a little harder working a physical job again – A lot of nights I’m just tired.

But when I do get out, it’s cool to find I’m not in terrible shape. Sunday, Chris and I did 34 miles. My first climb was Grassy Hill. Overall, it’s around a mile, but 3/4 of the way up there’s a turn off. Climbing the whole thing takes you to a sort of a dead end. The road used to go through, but now it stops at the town line with Woodbury. That town abandoned their section of the road. It’s a public right of way still, but it’s overgrown and always flowing with water. To get to the next road, you have to ride 100 yards across a hayfield or down the grass strip of a little-used airport. Either route is a bog in the spring, so I’d been taking the turn off. 

The turn off also skips the steep bit. Most of Grassy Hill is a 9% grind. Not a big deal. But that last pitch before the airport is a 23% wall that’s just long enough to hurt. There were times in the past I couldn’t get up that without putting down a foot and resting. Sunday, I didn’t set any records, but it wasn’t even a big deal.

By the end of 34 miles, my quads were singing the blues, but I’m okay with that considering that 4 months ago I couldn’t walk without crutches.

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Saddle Broken

A week ago, I set out to ride a Dirty Thirty, the first since June. With the thermometer at 55F and the sun in the sky, I had to ride. February is literally the month of fever after all. The route I took was pretty conservative, without a lot of climbing. The dirt roads were like the month had been – firm here, muddy there, icy over there.

Feeling good, I turned off Romford Road and onto the old Shepaug rail bed. A year ago, Joe, Mark, and I had had to ride through hundreds of feet of standing water. This year, it was mostly dry. A little muddy in the usual spots, and surprisingly icy still. That shouldn’t have surprised me though as that section runs on the north side of a steep hill and probably doesn’t see direct sun in June.

I got to the baby heads about halfway down, the ones I’d first ridden through at night, blind and fast following Jeff. My cheeks still clench remembering those 10 seconds of terror as I bounced through what felt like a boulder field, my headlight jiggling like the camera light in Blair Witch. Another part of my mind asks, “But did you die?”

Today was far tamer than that, but I did bounce over a couple of rocks and as I did, a “Snap!” sound came from my saddle and my ass dropped a little. Figuring it had loosened, I stopped, dug out the tools, and tightened the clamp. The bolt didn’t move much. I rode on until there was a second “Snap!” and my ass dropped a lot.

Well. That was different. Dismounting, I looked more closely at the seat. Both saddle rails had broken behind the post.

Alright.

I was about a mile from the parking lot, so walking out wasn’t a big deal. It would have been nice to call then and there so my ride would be waiting for me when I got out, but that same hill that keeps the sun out also keeps out cell phone radiation. There are zero bars there. In fact, I had to walk out and then down the road a quarter of a mile before I got reception.

Happily, I had a spare saddle at home (Thanks, Joe!), and I got my thirty in the next day with Ben.

 

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Good Day to Ride

2-16-20Coming back from an injury is an interesting process. You’re at zero, but the tabula isn’t rasa. You know what you used to do. You know what it took to be able to do that. And you know what you have to do to get back to where you were before you did the dumb thing.

I had ACL replacement surgery on October 29 last year. My first ride after that was 10 minutes on a stationary bike 20 days later. Bending the knee to stroke the pedals was the accomplishment. Climbing onto the bike was scary. Not long after, I got out on the road, riding the Niner for its low gearing. Next, I took out the gravel bike and added some climbs on pavement. 

It’s all been very tentative. “I think I can ride that hill. If I can’t, there’s no shame in walking it,” while in the back of my head the voice was sounding, “You are not walking this. Just no.” Somehow, I’ve struck a balance between pushing myself to go beyond where I’d been, but not so much that I’ve set myself back. Last week I added some hard dirt climbs. Yesterday, I extended that to Booth Road, whose short and brutal climb I walked for years.

A mile before, I convinced myself not to turn onto Booth. Then I decided to stick with the plan. Turning from the pavement onto Booth’s dirt immediately put me in a section where the town had filled a mud hole with big gravel. This wasn’t auspicious, but I pedaled on. The dirt wasn’t bad, soft in spots, wet in others, and perfect in between.

Not knowing was the hard part. Climbing Booth takes watts. I thought I had the watts. Hell, they had me doing one-legged squats in PT. But those watts needed to travel from the quads through the knee to the pedals, and six months of dealing with an injured knee makes you consider the potential for pain with every new step. I think it’s a kind of PTSD, where one bad experience takes many positive ones to erase.

But with the first few pedal strokes, I knew it was going to be okay, that I was going to make it up with no more than the usual amount of suffering. Looking at my Strava later on, it wasn’t even close to being my slowest time, but I also knew I hadn’t put everything I had into it. The climbs on Moosehorn and Judd’s Bridge still lay ahead. I’m not so sure of myself yet that I don’t think about leaving some gas in the tank, but next time, I’ll leave a little less.

.

 

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Name Dropping

It’s been a mild winter. I rode yesterday because it was 50F, taking a variation of the bad-knee route I’ve been using since The Incident. It’s a good basic ride with lots of possible variations. The first climb is an easy 350 feet up to the spine of a typical Connecticut NESW trending ridge. Once you’re up there, it’s fairly flat for a long way through a mix of glacially blessed fields and hardwood forests. There’s even an airport.

Or, you can take one of many roads down the side. The east side is steeper than the west, and that’s what I did yesterday. The hill below the old Widmark place had some residual snowy patches on its steeper dirt parts that made me tense up thinking about my knee. But I consciously relaxed my shoulders, shifted my ass back a little, and took my weight on the pedals. It got fun again. Dropping down past the old Miller place I stopped at the intersection by McCourt’s place. There, the gloves came off, as did the head band, and I opened up every zipper on my jacket and jerseys before turning back up the ridge. A little beyond Calder’s the climb hits 23%. A week ago, I took a break partway up. Yesterday, I didn’t. 

Taking a different ridge home, I rode some dirt. Soft from the warm day, mud splattered my black tights and made me work harder. At Bacon Road, I decided not to turn for home yet, but to see what it felt like to grind out Grassy Hill.

 

It was hard, but it’s always hard, especially on warm winter days when your tires leave serpentine tracks that reflect your struggle up a dirt hill. Other times, I’ve felt much worse at the top.

It felt normal. I like normal. 

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