Time and Distance

A Land Trust committee I’m a part of met last night. I try to ride on Wednesday nights, but this meeting was held outside, in a parking lot at the foot of a hill I used to ride regularly but which I haven’t ridden in six years.

Kismet. I rode to the meeting.

This committee first met to discuss the project (replacing a bridge on a hiking trail) back in November or December. Not long past my ACL replacement, I attended wearing a knee brace and walking with a cane. Riding to last night’s meeting was a bit of a personal triumph.

After our business finished, I started riding up the hill. In the past, I’d often had to stop partway up to catch my breath. At the least, I would usually stop at the top, lean over my bars, and wait for my heart to stop pounding.

The first bit is mellow, climbing past a disused barn. At the next house, several dogs barked me past. Just beyond, the road entered the forest it would climb through for the next half mile. It gets steep here, but not as steep as in my memory.

Okay, I thought, this isn’t bad, but the really steep part is near the top.

Pedaling on, barely breathing heavily, I passed the driveway where I used to stop. Coming to the final steep pitch, it barely looked like a challenge. At the top, where I used to stop wondering if that was the spot they’d find my body, I was upshifting, riding upright, and feeling the cool air on my chest.

What a difference a few months or a few years can make.

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Easy Peasy

I did an easy 12 miler this morning with the goal of replicating the feeling of a ride from my memory.

My parents weren’t sporting people. My dad worked, and worked around the house, and drank cheap beer at the bar down the street. My mom’s idea of a perfect vacation was sitting in the shade reading while drinking Maxwell House and smoking L&Ms or Virginia Slims. That sounds bad, but really wasn’t outside the norm for the time and place.

It would have been in 1969 that we vacationed in Point Pleasant, NJ. I was seven years old and we rented bikes one morning. It was cool and sunny, and riding down the street felt effortless. The chorus to Little GTO ran through my head.

It was one of the happiest moments of my childhood, one of those innocent times that sticks with you forever.

Of course this morning’s ride didn’t replicate the feeling of that moment. It couldn’t. More than half a century has passed. Both my parents are dead and my generation is on the front lines now. But there were a few times, gliding down the slight grades of Welton or Dorothy Diebold Lane, when I felt an existential lightness that came close.

There’s a reason my wife calls my bike Rosebud.


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Bouncy, Bouncy

There’s a section we ride often on our gravel bikes. It’s a bit of old carriage road through a preserve, just two wheel ruts wide. It rolls, with three or four sharp climbs and an equal number of descents. Ledge-rock and baby heads poke through the gravel. To one side is a steep hill, to the other a steep fall.

The first time I rode it was at night, maybe 5 years ago. I stopped watching my friends’ taillights pull away and focused on the rocks in front of me. Where I didn’t walk the bike, I made a slow, wiggling line born of terror. I missed very few of the rocks that so scared me, bouncing over them, losing speed, losing control.

That section made me question whether gravel riding was for me, whether I’d ever be able to ride sections like that with the panache of my friends. But I kept at it. I don’t know about panache, but like the guy who was turned into a newt, I got better.

Two nights ago, I hit it again. Ass off the saddle, I put everything I had into the pedals. My bike rewarded me by flying up the doubletrack. My pounding heart barely entered my consciousness because I was having so much fun. All I saw was the line between the rocks or the rock best to ride over. Past the gate, I let go of the brakes and we, my bike and I, rolled down the final, rutted, stony descent to the grass beyond.

I don’t know if my bike can experience pure joy.

I know that I can.

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Cycling as a Calvinistic Rite

Last night, Joe and I rode 31 miles and change. Some was gravel, some paved, some singletracky. We pushed each other pretty hard, and by the end of the ride my quads were aquiver.

At one point about halfway in, we approached the end of the pavement on a road in Washington just as a car was crossing over from the dirt section. The driver slowed, and through his open window said, “Careful – There’s loose gravel up there.”

“Thanks,” I said. It was nice that a driver cared enough to warn us.

But gravel, loose or packed, was what we were looking for. Likely that driver had no idea that there are cyclists who seek out the more challenging roads. I mean, isn’t riding a bike hard and dangerous enough on paved roads?

Once you get past the beach cruisers and rail-trail riders, cyclists are a breed apart. Getting even halfway good at this sport calls for embracing the pain that comes from pushing hard and tolerating the pain that comes from injury. It is part of the identity, a source of perverse pride. Get a group of cyclists together and eventually the talk will turn, often gleefully, to pain.

The disdain that runs through the cycling community for e-bikes and e-bikers springs from the cyclists’ relationship with pain. E-bikes seem like cheating. They take the work out of the ride. They take the pain out of the ride. They provide un-earned fun.

E-bikers are always going to have bring their own beer.


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A Glimpse

(Edited 8/3/20)

I had a professional bike fitting done on Friday. Andrea made some tweaks that definitely improved my position on the bike. One in particular smoothed my pedal stroke considerably. Early Saturday morning, I re-rode the 26 miler I’d done Wednesday with friends. Riding back roads alone is a simple joy. How fast or slow I go isn’t influenced by the presence of another cyclist. It’s entirely up to me. We rode one .7 mile Strava segment in Washington that I hold the 5th fastest time on, 2:09. I’m proud of this. I don’t have a lot of high standings on Strava. I’ve ridden with the other 4 guys who have faster times here and I know just how much better than me they are. The ride when I turned myself inside out to get that time stands clear in my memory. Yesterday, I did that segment in 2:12, my second best and still a top 10 Strava time. I’m starting to wonder how much work, how much weight loss, it would take for me to get the KOM on it. The segment suits me. It’s not all climbing – I’m too big to ever be a great climber. It rolls, calling for relatively short bursts of power, the kind of watts a carpenter’s quads can deliver. I would have to go 25% faster. Not all of that translates to power. Some of it translates to the day being right; to mastering the road, shifting right, getting out of the saddle right, and most importantly, gutting out the last 100 yards of climbing.

I write that because it occupied my mind yesterday. And that made me realize I haven’t been riding as much as I want to. If I put in the work, I could be as strong as cyclist as the guys who beat me on that segment. I think I’d like to be. But my job has been on my mind. Work around the house has been on my mind. I was grouchy. I resented all the things in life I say yes to. Small projects for clients or friends. Sitting on town boards. Even organizing rides.

These are all things I like to do. I’m lucky to have the chance to do them. But sometimes I do too many things. Sometimes I resent being an adult. Sometimes I wish I were the kind of person who could just say, “Fuck it. Sun’s over the yardarm somewhere.”

But I’m not. And maybe I’ll never be that cyclist of my fantasies. And that’s okay, because the rest of my life is pretty damn good.

Sunday morning, I sat on the porch for half an hour nursing a cup of coffee. At the end of the yard a woodpecker was having its way with a rotten birch. I could tell from the thuds of its beak in the soft wood that chips were flying from its felling ax of a beak. I imagined the bird’s occasional glance around for the redtail that frequents our woods, and, when the thudding quieted, Woody’s triumphant breakfast of some fat and wiggling grub. A shower passed through, followed by a hummingbird buzzing the hanging baskets. It glanced at me, decided I could be ignored, and went on needling for nectar.

I thought about why yesterday had disturbed me so much. Most of what I’m doing is exactly what I want to be doing.

It could be the politics of the moment. I fear for the country. I fear the looming fascism our mindless president is fostering. More so, I fear the mindful toadies that encourage that orange-haired motherfucker. I despair for my friends who don’t see the situation as I do. I wonder about the protests. I see the truth being lost between the two extremes. I wonder why people can’t just be. And I think that I need to take a break from social media so I can focus on these things that are important to me.

There’s a stretch of Judd’s Bridge Road where its packed dirt takes up all the space between the Shepaug River and the steep slope to its east. The slope is part of a hill leavened by a granite batholith that intruded below the overlying schist when North America divorced Europe, leaving their children to raise themselves above the Atlantic. There’s a visible uncomformity where the two kinds of rock meet a little further on. The west side of the river is a field where beef cattle graze. Above that is a ridge where granite has been quarried for two centuries. West of that ridge is a valley where limestone quarries give rise to the place name of Marbledale. Pangea meets the Appalachians here. The forest along the road consists of hemlocks. The river is well shaded, and it’s been dry enough lately that you could walk across the Shepaug and keep your feet dry. I’ve seen loose cattle wading the river on a hot day here. I’ve seen the river over its western bank here. I’ve seen ice floes and blazing maples. Lately, I’ve seen kids riding bikes here. They asked me for recommendations about where to ride more.

I want to spend more time in places like this.

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I rode on Wednesday with a couple of old friends, guys I’ve ridden dirt with since I started riding dirt. Feeling strong, I hit some of the hills pretty hard, but we also just sat and talked sometimes. The ride was an excellent blend of camaraderie and of hard effort.

On some of the hills I felt particularly good. Toward the end of the ride, I climbed Apple Lane one gear higher than usual and went right up. Having a little power to spare feels great. Thinking on it, my early season climbs remind me of the first time I drove through the Rockies back in 1982. Going uphill, I’d have my battered, 1973 Plymouth Duster floored, the 225 C.I. slant six giving its all. Running through my head would be words like, “Come on you piece of shit, make it up the hill.”

Things haven’t changed much. I just ride a bike now.  

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Flat Out Riding

Since getting back on the MTB post-surgery, my mind hasn’t quite been in the game. It’s been hard to relax, and I’m too cautious, with the caution kicking in involuntarily at bad moments. Consequently, I’ve fallen a few times at very low speeds when I couldn’t unclip. Mostly it’s not a big deal, but a couple of weeks ago I landed on the end of my bars. 20200710_185301

It looks worse than it was, and in fact looked worse than the photo before fading like a sunset. Still, that fall made me realize that if I’d been riding flats, I wouldn’t have gone down because I would  have been able to put down a foot.

A couple of days after that ride, I dropped some money with John the pedal peddler. Now I’m riding on a new ACL, a new-to-me bike that I’ve had out maybe ten times, and new pedals. It’s like learning to ride all over again.

This morning marked my third ride on flats. I’m starting to understand them and like them on their own merits. Riding clipped in lets you get away with a lot of sloppiness. Flats don’t. If you want to stay on the pedals, you have to keep them weighted.

Descending, I’m off the saddle, heels down, knees bent. If my legs are too tense, I get bounced off the pedals, so I relax more. Riding like this, the bike is far more nimble, the ride far smoother. Riding through rocks will bounce me off the pedals if I don’t weight them correctly. Weighting them correctly lowers my center of gravity and makes me more stable. Climbing, my roadie spin-instincts always want to kick in and I’m often one gear too low. If I pedal hard in too low a gear, my feet spin out and come off the pedals. If I’m in the right gear, especially for short bumps, I swear a little and go right up.

In short, riding flats requires me to be more conscious of the basics. It engages my head in a way that riding clipless didn’t. And not having to unclip has given me back some lost confidence. There’s still work to do, but riding flats is going to make me a better mtber.


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Tennessee Williams Humidity

Wearing wife-beaters and bellowing “Stella!” at the bottom of each hill, we rode the Preserves last night. Eye-burning freshets of sweat gushed from below our helmets. Hordes of deer flies chased us through the woods. Our tires spun freely on rocks slick with condensation. We pushed through the climbs, hearts pumping overheated blood to our hammering quads; stopping at the tops so as not to vomit.

Parking lot beer never tasted so good.

This morning came the payback, a feeling I haven’t had in two years, a feeling I want every day; one I never had in my fat and indolent youth. I woke up feeling lean and fit. Nothing hurt except for a few souvenir bruises. The scale showed the lowest number in three years, and 20 lbs. less than six months ago.

Fuck yeah!




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Anniversary Musings

One year ago today I rode a log skinny faster than I should have, came off the side, and panicked at the rapid approach of a tree. Putting my left foot down at speed, the lower leg stopped while the upper leg continued forward. It felt very wrong. I went down. It didn’t hurt, but as I lay on the forest floor, it was clear some damage had been done.

Ben’s voice came back from ahead. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know.”

With Ben’s help, I got untangled from the bike. Using it as a crutch, I walked out of the woods.

Then we sat in camp chairs in the parking lot and drank a beer. It was a mountain bike ride after all.

About a week later, the orthopedist drained, oh, I don’t know, about a gallon of blood from the knee and diagnosed a torn ACL. An MRI confirmed that as well as identifying some minor tears to the meniscus. Apart from those things though, the doc said the knee looked pretty good for a guy of my years.

Following that came several weeks when I enjoyed the summer weather, as well as our new pup, Owen, sitting on my porch with my knee elevated. I read. I started physical therapy. I went back to work doing estimating instead of carpentry, and began work on a model for a demonstration my boss wanted to give. Within a month I was limping around on the jobsite again, carpentering as well as a cripple could.

Four months after my crash, the doc installed a used ACL. That was followed up by more physical therapy. There are not enough good words to say about PTs and the work they do. I miss Drew, Erin, and Mighty Mouse from PT for Life in Southbury. We talked about beer. And movies. And food. We busted balls. PT was something I looked forward to, and it was key to my recovery.

Within a month of surgery I was on my bike on a trainer. At first, the knee wouldn’t bend enough to complete a pedal stroke. Then it could. Soon, I was beating the shit out of myself on Zwift. By January, I was road riding. Slowly, but riding. Pat worried, but that’s her job. Not long after that, Drew kicked me out of PT, saying he’d done all he could and the rest was up to me.

I paid the bills with freelance writing gigs, many of which have continued now that I’m back to work as a carpenter. I quit my previous carpentry job in February due to a lack of work there. Now I’m partnered up with an old friend and that feels like one of the better moves I’ve ever made.

I kept riding gravel roads, even managing some good Strava times. I started mtbing again about 6 weeks ago. It’s scary, but getting less so, and getting to be fun again.

They say it takes a full year to completely recover from an ACL replacement. I suppose a lot of folks would be angry at themselves for losing an entire year. I feel a bit of that. But more, I feel gratitude. My family and friends came through for me. I could afford the surgery and the PT. Someone who died donated an ACL that’s now in me. My career situation improved, in part due to having to scare up a way to keep the cash flowing. There, I credit my former colleagues from The Taunton Press and beyond for still wanting to work with me.

The knee is mending well, and the anger I do feel with myself has made me more introspective about riding. I understand my limits better, and I’m patient about pushing them. Trail obstacles scare me much like when I started, and when I clean something new, that same joy comes back.

I won’t say I’m glad I tore my ACL. But I don’t regret it either.

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An Effect of Covid

Not that I have it. I don’t think. Who knows though? Anyway, I’m talking about a demographic effect. On this morning’s 18 miler, I saw a gaggle of people. I’m talking more people than miles. Thinking back, I passed 26 pedestrians, runners, or cyclists. A year ago on this route I might have seen 3 or 4 folks.

It’s Covid. About a third of the homes in Roxbury are owned by New Yorkers who come up for weekends and holidays, and, evidently, pandemics and protests. There’s a no vacancy sign at the border now. Every house is occupied. Houses here are selling in days; even in hours. Folks can’t flee the city fast enough.

Personally, I don’t blame them, but I’ve always been a country mouse, raised knowing how to make my own fun. Compared to Manhattan though, there’s not a lot to do in Roxbury, and so people get out and about. It’s pretty cool, actually, although I do wish they’d drive a little slower.

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