Keeping It In the Family

The knee surgeon tells patients not to return to athletic activity for a year post-surgery. I don’t figure he means road cycling, but I’m pretty sure he does mean mountain biking. Part of reconciling myself to this news was giving up saving for the new full-squish mountain bike I’d been planning.

Last week, Jeff texted me, “Need an incentive to heal?”


Jeff's bike

And so he sold me his old Niner, refurbished to like-new condition, the bike I’d ridden last winter that convinced me I needed full squish and 150mm of front fork travel. I won’t say what I paid, but I will reveal that I’m grateful and that the price included a tray of Pat’s baklava.

And I’m also grateful to have a wife who’ll bake a tray of baklava to support me in a sport that causes her a fair amount of inconvenience and worry.

Having my Friday beer at the bike shop, I mentioned I’d bought Jeff’s Niner.

Kevin said, “Is that Don’s old bike?”

John said, “I’m sure it is.”

I’d known that and forgotten it. And in truth, the bike is probably like George Washington’s ax, the one whose handle has been replaced three times and the head once. I doubt anything but the frame is original, but still, Don’s another friend of mine. We’ve ridden together. His kids went to school with my kids, and they were friends.

And all of that, the community within the community, the fact that the bike shop crew knew the provenance of my bike better than I did, well, that matters at least as much to my healing as does the vision of riding that Niner.

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Flats Suck

“I want to phrase this so I’m sure you’ll understand it,” Pat said as I put on my cycling shoes this morning. “Don’t be stupid.”

Fair enough.

Last time I rode, I was pretty stupid. But only for the split second it took me to think, “Hitting that log-skinny fast would be a good idea.”

Which led, among other things, to six weeks of physical therapy for a torn ACL. But today, I got back on the bike. I rode flat pedals because I didn’t want to subject my knee to a twisting motion to unclip. Within seconds I remembered why we ride pedals that attach our feet to the bike, but it still felt like the best option for a first ride.

I wanted to ride Tuesday night, but my SPD pedals had been in the cranks for four or five years of year-round, all-weather riding. I couldn’t get the left one off. Eventually, I took the bike to the shop.

“John,” I said while dropping the bike off on Wednesday, “I stopped before I fucked anything up. I’d rather you did that.”

When I walked into the shop last night for my Friday night beer and to get my bike, John was busy with a customer. But not so busy so as to keep him from giving me the stink eye.

I slunk to the back of the shop and hung out with Micah, John’s dog.

When he finished with the customer, John said he didn’t know if he’d be able to get the pedal off. We went upstairs to the workshop, where my crank was clamped in a vise.

That didn’t look good.

“I don’t care about the pedal, John.”

We tried a couple of things, with Kevin in the background chanting, “Sell him new cranks and pedals.”

John torqued hard on the long 8mm hex wrench.


“I really don’t care about the pedal.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

He clamped the pedal in the vise in such a way that he could push the wrench while I lifted the crank. I lifted so hard my back hurt afterwards.

The hex wrench let loose, spinning in the pedal and hopelessly ginking the six-sided pocket. I literally saw a spark when that happened.

“I tell you,” Kevin said, “new pedals and cranks.”

“I can try one more thing,” John said.

He got out his angle grinder, and ground two flats on the pedal shaft. He clamped the vise around those flats, put his BF adjustable wrench on the end of the crank, and pushed. The bench creaked, but the pedal finally let loose.

Did I mention John is one of my favorite people?

To truncate a long story, I got the bike home, threw some flats on it, and rode ten miles this morning. I was slow, and didn’t hit any killer hills. The knee felt stiff, but improved with the ride, and the hills I did do felt okay. Riding felt wonderful, with cool air in my face and late-summer flowers blooming along the road. I met two of my neighbors for the first time; one with whom I’d exchanged waves many times, and another who’d lived across the road from me for 20 years without crossing paths.

It was a good ride.

But I’m going to have to make Kevin happy and buy new SPDs – Flats suck sweaty balls.



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When my front wheel came off the side of the log-skinny the bike’s trajectory was right at a tree. Panicky, I was unclipped and putting a foot down before the tires touched the ground.

My left foot hit hard and the knee move in a way that felt like I had exceeded its design parameters. It didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t right. I was on the ground assessing when I heard Ben ask, “You okay?”

Normally after a crash I’m bouncing back up, brushing the dirt and leaves out of my trail rash, and shouting, “I’m good.”

This time I considered a moment before answering, “I don’t know.”

Ben was at my side in seconds.

He untangled my legs from the bike, pulled it away, and I dragged myself over to sit on the log. The knee felt weird, weak and unstable.

“Can you ride?”


“What do you want to do?”

“Walk out.”

“Do you need to lean on me?”

I thought of the inconvenience of Ben getting two bikes out of the woods. He’s a mensch and wouldn’t have minded, but I said, “Let me try it leaning on the bike.”

I stood. The knee held my weight, but wanted to move too far backward, rubbery as a toddler’s leg. Leaning on the bike for stability, I took a couple of steps.

“This will work.”

Slowly we got back to the parking lot and Ben racked my bike on my truck. Then, because this was still technically a mountain bike ride, we sat and had a couple of beers.

A young Hispanic boy was walking around the parking lot with what I took to be his grandmother.

“Hola,” I said, exhausting a fair portion of my Spanish. He smiled shyly, and his grandmother encouraged him to walk up to us. Ben’s far closer to multi-lingual than I am, and after we all fist-bumped, the two of them chatted briefly.

That idyll drew to its natural end, almost as if it had been a normal ride.

I drove home, thinking about all the trouble I’d just caused, worried about Pat giving me a justifiable ration of shit (she did not), worried about work (so far we’re finding ways to keep me useful), worried about being off the bike (that’s come to pass), and worried about what the hell I just did to myself.

Maybe it was inevitable. Put a middle-aged, congenitally un-athletic guy on a bike and bad things can happen. I’m usually aware of my limitations. But that day, my head wasn’t in it. I should have stopped and focused my mind, thought about my strategy for the ride. Or I shouldn’t have ridden.

But I’d launched an effort to find ride time, wanting to regain lost fitness. I’d been thinking of my changing identity as a cyclist, realizing that what I loved most was mountain biking. Gravel grinding was no longer my main squeeze. It had become largely a way to build fitness for riding the trails, and I wasn’t enjoying it like I once had. The day before, I had done a hard gravel ride and I felt pushed to follow up with a fun mtb ride.

Pushed to have fun. Yeah, my head isn’t always right.

That was two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve had my first MRI. I’ve had a huge fucking needle pushed deep into my knee. Dr. Gupta was excellent – there was no pain at all as he filled three vacuum vials with 80 ml of blood.

He enjoyed that part.

“Look at this! Wow! That’s a lot of blood!,” he gushed in a gleeful Indian accent.

The verdict is a torn ACL, the ligament that stabilizes the back of the knee. Lots of people tear the ACL and do fine with just PT. In fact, I’m not at all certain I have an ACL in my right knee due to a bit of stupidity in high school. That injury felt far worse than what I just did, with a “pop” followed by immediate pain and swelling. Forty years ago, we didn’t have MRIs and diagnosis weren’t as sophisticated. No one mentioned PT or surgery. I drove crutches around for a month, hobbled for another month, and called it good. I’ve never had a problem with that knee since.

But the doc recommends surgery to replace the ACL. The new ligament would come from my patellar ligament, or my hamstring, or a dead guy. We haven’t discussed that yet, and won’t for another two weeks while I undergo PT to improve range of motion. The knee is much improved on its own though. The day after, I was on crutches. Now, except for going down stairs, it’s not a big deal.

I am pretty sure this won’t keep me from returning to the trails, that is, after a couple of months of medical misery and a bunch of road riding to regain strength and confidence. But I do think it will change how I approach mountain biking. I don’t need to ride the skinnies and log-overs. I never found them to be much fun anyway, only riding them because they scared me, and facing fear is good discipline for growing in any endeavor. What I love about mtbing are the climbs, the challenges of rock gardens, and the rewards of long, flowey paths through the trees. These are all close to the ground; hard enough to satisfy, and less risky to an aging body. 

A man’s gotta know his limitations.

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Take the Ride

For a couple of days, I’d been planning to ride last night, the only night of the week I wasn’t busy and that had a decent forecast. But the day was warm and humid and I worked outside in it and I didn’t have enough water with me and the water in the house was shut off so I was a bit dehydrated and tired and grouchy and not wanting to ride a bike when I got home. Looking for an excuse, I checked the weather – Rain was forecast, but there was a window.

It’s been a hard spring for riding. Between my new job and incessant rain, I rarely got out twice a week. I didn’t even try to ride with Jeff and the fast guys because I sucked so much. Then Battenkill happened and showed me just how much I sucked and I started riding with Joe again and he also showed me how much I sucked because there was a time I was faster than him and now it’s not even close. Joe’s worked hard, and I haven’t.

The only consistent factor in all your dysfunctional relationships is you.

You, Engel.

The last couple of times I rode with Joe, I worked to hold his wheel. I didn’t always succeed, but the effort was there. My mind is coming around. I’ve been getting out early on Saturdays and riding hard stuff hard. Monday night, I rode the Pond with its 200 ft. per mile of climbing, alone and pushing.

Which brings me to last night again. I did ride. I decided on a short loop, maybe 12 miles, but with dirt climbs. The first was Grassy Hill, and it felt pretty good. Not a real standout time, but not a grind. I could have ridden it slower, which, when you think about it, indicates you don’t completely suck. Near the top of the main pitch, I pushed enough to want to puke. Halfway the short, upper pitch, I pushed again until I wanted to puke, and then rode through that as the grade eased. At the airport, I rode down the grass runway rather than through the hayfield because my God, there are ticks everywhere this year.

Welton was a hoot. It always is, with its long, shallow descent and the two out of the saddle pops at the end. I love that road.

At the start of Booth, I told myself I wasn’t going for a time on the segment. That segment depends a lot on the condition of the descent before the climb. If it’s loose and dangerous, you don’t do well on the segment. I rode the initial couple of hundred feet slowly. Realizing the road was in great shape, I hit the descent as much like a Valkyrie as I’m able, carrying speed into the climb. Cutting the corner to the steepest part of the switchback, my mind flashed back to times a few years ago I didn’t make it up this section at all. Now I was hammering it. That helped. Gutting out the last quarter mile’s up, I stopped at Painter Hill and let the nausea recede.

And then the same on Dorothy Diebold, cranking through the time when my brain said, “Enough,” keeping it going until the end. I rocked the down and up at the end of Old Roxbury, out of the saddle, in the middle of my back ring, slipping in the dirt just a little as I over-torqued the wheel. And then finally, on what I call Afterburner Hill, passing the catch basin at the top at 14.3 mph, when usually that’s been more like 11 and change.

I was spent at the end. And that was good. Because I feel it coming back.

You should always take the ride.

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Old Roads

old road

The house I worked on last week was on a driveway that initially seemed like a continuation of the dead-end dirt road I took to get there. But that driveway ended at the house, and it would have continued on if the driveway itself had followed the old road. The next time I drove there, I looked around and found this track off into the woods near where the paved driveway began.

New England is full of abandoned roads like this one. They intrigue me and make me want to follow them. Often, they’re just not maintained, but still public rights of way. They can range from being overgrown and muddy paths that lead to someone’s back yard to forgotten ways that join two dead-end roads and which leave me with a sense of discovery.


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Ferry Bridge Road

Three years ago, I started mountain biking to improve my gravel grinding skills. The guys I was riding with often took our gravel rides down what were once roads, but which now consisted of a hilly single track through the woods. All I saw on those sections were the baby heads that often comprised the riding surface. I would hit them all. Or I’d spin out the back wheel climbing because my weight was too far forward trying to keep the front wheel down. On these sections, I walked the bike more than rode it.

Ferry Bridge Road is a great example. The first time a ride went up it, my thought was something like, “No fucking way.” And of course there was no fucking way.

Wednesday night, Joe and I rode Ferry Bridge. I put it on the route. It had been a year or so since I rode it, and I rode it pretty well then. Wednesday, it was even better. Sure, the climb was a bit of a lung burner, but I didn’t torque out the back wheel because of the climbing advice Jeff gave me, which is to lower my chest to the bars rather than lean out over the wheel. The rocks were still there, but I saw lines between them and not the rocks. The only section I didn’t clean was an easy bit just past the penultimate techie section (excluding the final 15 feet, which has become nothing more than a stupidly steep and rocky drainage off a cul de sac which only magicians like Jeff and Jay can ride) 

When that penultimate techie section hove into view, my brain flashed back to its no-fucking-way mode. But I overcame that, hitting the short, rocky climb fast and with confidence, and I went right up it. But I’d so focused on that little bump up that I gave no thought to what to do afterwards. As soon as both wheels were on the easier ground beyond it, I stopped pedaling.


Still, although Joe thoroughly kicked my ass on the rest of the ride, Ferry Bridge left me feeling very good.


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Mullet in Farrington

When I’m driving to work Monday morning and moments from Sunday’s ride replay in my head, I know it was a good time.

We hit Farrington late Sunday afternoon. It was only my third or fourth time there, Ben’s second, and Michelle’s first. It was my first time as the leader, so of course I got lost and couldn’t figure out how to get to the upper trails. We still got in nearly 5 miles, and looking at old Strava tracks, I think I know where I went wrong.

One change I made was to replace Moby’s worn-out Specialized 27.5 in. mid-fat rear tire with a standard 2.5 in. Maxxis 27.5. That dropped the diameter of the rear wheel considerably, effectively mulletizing the bike (Where you run a 29 in. wheel up front and 27.5 in the back). The new geometry changed how the bike handled, putting my center of gravity a little lower and a little further back. Tech stuff was easier, descents were easier, and the smaller diameter helped me take turns way faster. In fact, I might actually say I was carving some of the turns.

The only downside was climbing, where the change in center of gravity seemed to make it harder to keep the front wheel down. Given the increased whee-factor everywhere else, that felt like a fair trade.

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