A lot of my gravel rides lead over one particular section of singletrack. It’s not even singletrack really. It’s just a short hiking trail that runs between an old railbed and an abandoned road. Not more than 100 ft. long, it’s a rocky little climb through the woods.
The hardest part is right at the beginning. A hard left turn off the railbed that goes immediately up. The trail there is paved with roots. When I first began gravel riding I just got off the bike and walked. Then I began gravel-riding with mountain bikers. Those guys simply railed right up that rooty little section.
“Shit,” thought I, “That’s rideable?”
Not long after, I ran into Chris at the transfer station one Saturday afternoon.
“Hey,” I asked, “Do you still mountain bike? I want to get better riding off road.”
He did still mountain bike and he took me out and wow! That was fun.
It wasn’t long before that rooty section hardly seemed like an obstacle.
Then I tore my ACL, lost a year of mountain biking, and watched all my friends get a year better while I regressed.
It’s been nearly a year since getting back on the bike. Last Thursday night, I rode that rooty section again on my gravel bike. The line was obvious. All I did was keep my eyes on it and pedal. Joy built inside me as the tires bounced over the roots and the bike went where my eyes led it. One bounce pointed me off the trail, but I had the momentum to pause, think, “Oh no you don’t!”, realign my gaze, and pedal on. When I cleared the trail and hit the old road I nearly whooped.
We call this ride “the Pond”, but the town’s disused pond has nothing to do with the ride. It’s just the reason for the parking lot. The pond itself is an old sand pit that sits at the edge of a big chunk of wooded land trust property which is woven with trails. A few of the trails were built by mountain bikers, but not many. The others range from hiking trails to an abandoned rail bed to carriage roads climbing the side of a mountain that have suffered from 200 years of erosion.
The guys I ride with who’ve been riding since Gary Fisher first built mountain bikes tell me this is old-school New England mountain biking. Not many people ride here. There isn’t much “Weee!” It’s not flowy. There are no berms, no tables, no jumps. There are roots though. And rocks. Hills and valleys. Tight spots between trees. Stream crossings with bottoms that manage to be both rocky and muddy. It’s icy in the winter. In the summer, it’s so humid that the rocks are often slick even if it hasn’t rained. Stopping to wipe away sweat brings clouds of gnats that would inspire Steven King.
It’s also beautiful. The Shepaug River threads through its middle. Hardwood and hemlock forests dominate. There are laurel thickets that coat the trails with flower petals in the spring and hay fields that smell just like summer. There are eagles and owls and bear and bobcats. If you know where to look, you can find charcoal mounds from when colliers burned cordwood to make charcoal for the iron furnaces a century and a half ago
On weekends, it’s one of the most popular hiking spots in a town known for its hiking. But apart from the easy bits near the trail heads, most people don’t penetrate to the remote areas our bikes take us to. You see more tire tracks than boot prints, and I doubt more than two dozen people ride here regularly.
You ride a dirt road for a quarter mile from the parking lot to the trail. The entrance is swoopy with a fun little descent. At the bottom, you turn ninety degrees left into a rock garden that’s only not muddy in dead summer. Another descent takes you to the bottom of one of the folds in the land where you bump over rocks and hemlock roots before the first lung-burning climb. There is a reward – a fast downhill that doesn’t provide quite enough time to catch your breath before the next lung-burner.
I never ride the Pond expecting to clean everything. All I hope for is to do a little better than before, to get up one or two of the stupidly steep hills, make it up the bank on the far side of the deep stream crossing, or maybe, finally, pop both my wheels over the big rock on the climb through the laurels.
I know I’ll do something dumb almost every time. Yesterday, after cleaning the rocks on a gnarly little hill, a pedal strike on the easy section at the top directed my bike’s front tire into a tree and stopped me dead.
You have to laugh at this stuff.
There’s always just a tinge of dread in my soul when I start a ride at the Pond. I know the next hour and a half will sear my lungs and make my heart beat so hard I’ll feel like puking. I know my legs will hurt and there will be scrapes and bruises.
At the end though, as we ride the dirt road back to the parking lot, it feels like we did something worthwhile. We’ll put our bikes on our vehicles, maybe change into dry or warm clothes, and set up camp chairs. We’ll crack a beer or two and talk about the ride, the land, other riders’ feats on these trails. We’ll talk about John closing the shop and all the New Yorkers that Covid has brought to our hills.
Sometimes we’ll even talk about our lives, a topic whose significance isn’t lost on those of us who are old enough to realize we’re closer to the ends of those lives than to their beginnings. And that, maybe, is a key to the Pond. Like Norman MacClean makes clear in the ending paragraphs of A River Runs Through It, ease is not life affirming. The perfect ride is not achievable. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the effort, something the Pond demands.
The biggest thing in the industry right now, e-bikes piss off almost every cyclist I know. Except John. John owns the bike shop and he sells a lot of e-bikes.
I don’t blame him.
For utilitarian purposes, an e-cargo bike would rule an urban environment. They could have a big effect on cycle commuting, too. Imagine riding to work and entering the building not covered in sweat.
Accessibility comes into play, too. In my charitable moments, I like to think of e-bikes as gateway bikes for those who are too out of shape to envision themselves cycling in any traditional way. And I am not judging the 80 year old out for a battery-assisted spin.
Aye, there’s the rub
It’s fair to ask why this bothers me and others, though. The point of cycling is to have fun. Elon Musk and his ilk have made the fun of cycling available to people who would never otherwise experience it. I’ve ridden e-bikes twice, and frankly, they are fun.
Joy without much effort.
Cocaine on wheels.
Yesterday, tired after working 8 hours as a carpenter, I came home and went for my first gravel ride of the spring. I was just getting over a cold, but it was a 65F March day in New England. Riding was required.
The dirt roads alternated between silk-stocking smooth and pudding-pie goo. The hills burned my quads and my lungs. While climbing Booth Road to Upper County, I thought of the years before when I’d always walk the bike there. That climb still hurts, but I never walk it anymore. It is a litmus test for me.
The rubber hits the mud
Turning onto Upper County to begin my home-leg, I spied another cyclist stopped a quarter mile up the road. He was kitted out and riding dirt roads, so it was likely that I knew him. He started riding away, so I spun the pedals harder in an effort to catch up.
The road had been graded maybe the day before and it was soft. I put out a lot of watts, and my quads were screaming “Dude! What the hell?” He just pulled away.
“Damn,” I thought, “this guy is out of my league.”
Giving up the pursuit, I slogged the bike through the mud wondering if I’d see the rider again.
And I did. He was pulled off to the side of the road 100 feet before the stop sign. A young guy, fit looking, he wasn’t anyone I knew. I said hi, nice day, and so on, and rode on by. Because I love the short climb from Upper to Lower County, I didn’t really want to share it with a stranger. Turning up 67, I climbed out of the saddle and pedaled hard onto Lower County.
The other rider got behind me though and caught up at the crest of the little hill by the renovated house. We chatted a little more, then he accelerated and dropped me. I get dropped all the time. It doesn’t really bother me because the folks who drop me have simply paid more homage to the cycling gods than I have.
But this time, I heard a whirring sound. I looked over at the bike and that’s when I tumbled to its extra-big down-tube.
At that moment, the deep burn in my early-season legs made me dislike the guy. Call me an elitist. Call me, more accurately, a Calvinist. But that e-bike poseur had not earned the right to enjoy my roads.
Just now, I was sitting on the couch. Unbidden, one of my dogs jumped up and laid down next to me, his head on my leg. He let me pet his head, feel the soft fur around his ears.
A friend who lived in India for a time told me of a temple he visited with his young son. When his son left some coins as an offering, the temple’s elephant gently bopped the boy’s head as a blessing with its trunk.
That’s how I feel every time one of my dogs elects to come up to me.
So it is when I ride with trail dogs. I love riding with them. No creature expresses joy so much as a trail dog. Several of my friends have trail dogs, and on a couple of occasions when I’ve run into them in the woods, I’ve recognized the dog before my friend.
One such dog was Tessie, Ben and Michelle’s pooch. A rescue pit, she was as happy a critter as I’ve ever known. Unlike a lot of dogs, she ran behind the pack. Behind, but close behind. More than once I felt her breath on my heel, although she never once got in my way.
Tessie died a few weeks ago, leaving a hole in my friends’ lives. Dogs do that. We know when we get them that we will likely outlive them. We commit to giving them a life in the full knowledge that dogs always break our hearts. We sign up for that pain because we know that what they give us during their lives more than pays that bill.
We rode Rockhouse yesterday, a cold and gray day. The trails were icy, but it was grippy; snow textured into ice by the passage of mountain bikes. It took a solid 15 minutes for the fingers I’ve mangled in power tools over the years to stop aching from the cold. Sometimes they hurt so badly I’m not sure if I could have told the difference between normal cold and frostbite.
But my fingers warmed up, and so did I. My companions probably couldn’t tell I had warmed up, since they’re all a lot faster than me and were largely out of sight. Maybe I need to find some older, less-skilled pals to ride with. I hate being the guy who’s waited for.
Nevertheless, riding the icy trails at Rockhouse was a benchmark. The slight pressure to keep up I allowed myself to feel spurred me to ride harder, to take chances. That’s not the right phrase though. Nothing I did yesterday was outside of my ability. Some of it was outside my comfort zone, but not my ability. That comfort zone is a mental artifact of my torn ACL. Getting entirely rid of that artifact while retaining an accurate image of my ability is the goal.
One of the first rides I took when my knee first allowed was there, back 7 months ago. I walked all the bridges then. Yesterday, I was able simply to focus my mind on looking where I wanted to go and not where I didn’t want to go. Mountain biking 101. Yesterday, I rode all but one of the bridges despite them being covered in ice. Yesterday, I relaxed my shoulders. I rolled some rollers and popped over some logs I’d been riding around. Slowing almost to a stop, I threaded between boulders where I’d have once put down a foot. Each time I ride these things it is less an act of determination and more an expression of being the rider I want to be.
Sure, there were moments I felt nervous. But 7 months ago, in perfect conditions, the entire ride was an exercise in nervousness. Yesterday was an excellent opportunity to compare.
I try always to ride on New Year’s Day. I’ve ridden in some gnarly weather to accomplish that, but yesterday wasn’t bad.
The first cycling thing of the new year wasn’t riding though. At 8 AM on that crisp morning, I met Mark at Upper Paugussett. Shouldering my saw and gear, I followed him up the trail and in about half a mile to where a good-sized ash tree blocked the trail.
The goal was to clear the trail and turn the ash into a skinny, but first we had to drop it. That took a little thought and a fair amount of undercutting. When it was down, we had something like half a ton of wood to rotate 90 degrees into position on the uphill side of the trail. This idiot forgot his peavey, and neither of us thought to bring a come-along. Working with tree-branch levers and log fulcrums, we spent about 45 minutes maneuvering the log into place.
After the trail work, I went home for a couple of hours. A ride was still in the cards though. I met up with Ben and Korey along Schaghticoke Road by Bull’s Bridge at 2. Clouds had rolled in and the day had become cold; about 35F and damp. The ride to the foot of North Kent Road is about 7 miles, at least 5 of it on dirt. We didn’t dawdle getting on our mountain bikes, but it took a couple of miles of pedaling along the muddy road by the Housatonic to warm up. Here, there are places where the Appalachians rise up in sheer cliffs from the river, and the road occupies most of the 50 feet of flat between the two.
We stopped at the foot of North Kent to pee and strip some clothes. As it happened, I should have taken off more. A family of hikers came through, going south along where the AT tracks on River Road. It looked to be a husband and wife in their 40s, and an older woman I took to be the wife’s mother. All of them looked fit, but particularly the matriarch.
She asked us, “Which way are you going?”
We pointed up North Kent.
“Have you been up there?”
That was when I knew she was local.
She smiled, I think maybe because we weren’t headed onto the AT where bikes aren’t allowed, but maybe because she was another fan of Type 2 fun and liked that we were knowingly headed up the hardest road around.
“You should have had fenders today,” she said, waving us goodbye.
North Kent is only 2 miles long, but it gains 1000 feet of elevation. And it’s gravel. Loose, rounded, bank-run gravel. There are ruts and deep drainages. Its north side is a 50 foot tumble into a gulley. It’s not unrelentingly steep, but where it’s steep, it’s almost unbelievably so. Today, there was also ice. I’ve cleaned it once, 2 or 3 years ago. I thought I could do it today as well, but on the penultimate steep pitch the clothes I hadn’t take off came back to haunt me. I was overheated and near puking when I put a foot down. Off came my gloves and balaclava, and I opened every zipper I could to expose my chest to the cold. Feeling immediately better, I clipped back in and rode on, disappointed in my rookie mistake that had kept me from cleaning it a second time.
Korey and Ben both did clean it. At the top, we debated our route back. It was 3:15, and we had only an hour or so of decent light left. We decided to retrace our route with a sidebar at the Kent School trails.
Ben, young and able, ripped down North Kent. He got a 4th overall time on the Strava segment, and I’m sure he could have KOMed if he’d known the road better and if he’d known how close he was. I rolled it at a much more sedate pace.
I’d never descended North Kent before, although I’ve climbed it probably 20 times. Ass back off the saddle, I had to will my upper body to relax as the tires crunched through the gravel. There aren’t many descents here that are long enough to leave my quads burning from standing on the pedals, but this is one.
At the bottom, I said to Ben and Korey, “We rode UP that?”
Korey responded, “I know. What the fuck?”
From there it was a mudfest to Kent School, where we followed Korey onto the trails. We’d been worried it would be too muddy to ride there, but the trails had drained well. It was only a month ago the only other time I rode there. Chris and Korey had dropped me effortlessly on the mildly technical beginning section. Toward the end of that ride I’d begun to feel my mojo again, a phenomenon repeated in the intervening weeks. Yesterday I held my own, riding at the back but mostly keeping up. What had intimidated me a month ago just needed looking up and pedaling. I had this.
Back out on Schaghticoke Road, we spun back to our cars, glowing thighs covered in mud from the road. No one wanted to linger. Everyone had obligations. But we downed a beer and toasted the new year.
When I got to Waldo, the gate was closed so I had to park outside. The day was cold, gray, and a little windy, but the night was supposed to bring rain, so this was the moment. I was alone – No one else was able to find the time.
Riding alone scared me until Chris set me straight a few months ago.
“You’re no more likely to get hurt. If you do, someone will probably be along soon anyway. Plus you have a phone. And if you want to repeat a section, you’re not holding anyone back. Don’t be a pussy.”
I’m not sure he actually said the last part. I heard it though.
Chris’s rationality is one of his best attributes.
I almost cleaned the first rock on Red, but my roadie-spin instinct got in the way. My front wheel got over, I but needed to be one gear higher to complete the move. Mainly though, I wasn’t afraid to try it.
The first two rock gardens were easy like they used to be, the lines obvious and my feet light on the pedals (which, I think, really means heavy on the pedals because my ass was light on the seat). The third was cake, and I made it over the logs.
For the third or fourth time in a row, the climb to the power lines was no big deal. Pedaling and looking ahead got me through the break in the stone wall, and looking ahead and pedaling more got me between the rocks and over the bump between the trees. The little chicane with the root and the trees and the rocks took just a little dance and a kick on the cranks and the next thing I was climbing the gravel ramp to the power lines.
I schralped the Schralpin’ Turns just fine. The re-route from the May 15 storm, the one that shoots up the rock slab to an immediate 90 degree turn between some jagged rocks, went perfectly. The slab scrubbed off just the right amount of speed to make the turn. After that, I got through the stupid rooty turn that’s always a problem and shouldn’t be, and then across the big beech root that looks like a big deal but isn’t.
The Yellowvator was nothing. For the first time ever I didn’t ride around the stone wall beyond the big new log-over. It too was nothing, but then I managed to fall off the boardwalk. Taking a turn too tightly, my back wheel dropped off. No big deal except the inside pedal was bottomed. It jammed on the boards and levered me sideways to land on my side in the mud, laughing at the absurdity of my Artie Johnson tumble.
Then on to Purple, where once again, I cleaned the first rock garden handily. It’s so psychological. I’ve been physically capable for months, but just didn’t have the grit to look ahead and pedal. Then, I followed someone else through, saw them take the line I always did take, and somehow that convinced my brain again that I could do it. I love that feeling when I’m halfway through something that scared me and I suddenly know I’m going to nail it. There’s a high line that’s better here, but the low line looks safer.
I took the high line.
Catching up to a group, I stopped by the quartz mine for a pull from my Camelback to give them time to get out front. Dismounting, I moved a few sticks out of the trail, then clipped back in holding onto a tree so I could zoom the ledge into the turns. As I came down from the turns after the quartz mine, a woman had her phone out videoing a man going over the rock before the high stone wall crossing. He hit it fast and there was four feet of air below his tires before he nailed the landing. I whooped out, “Nice!”, just for having seen that.
Moby bounced around more than I’d like on the descents. Probably need to let a little air out of my fork. Climbing up from the lake was the easiest it’s been in a year and a half. By the time I got to the top of the Yellowvator again, it was time to ride out. I’d been aerobic for a full hour and my legs were feeling it.
But I was feeling it. I’d been engaged with the bike and the trail for a solid hour of problem solving. Sure, I know the problems well, but also not so well. Not only am I still at some uncertain point on the Dunning-Kruger slope after fucking up my knee, the trails are different every time I ride them. It was good to have ridden alone. There were no distractions, no chats, just my brain and my body learning to trust each other again.
I spent yesterday afternoon fretting about the ride I was to do last night. It was a cold day, breezy, with little sun and occasional snow flurries. Adding in the fact that we weren’t starting until after sunset wasn’t inspirational.
I kept hoping Joe would text me that he was bailing out. Turns out he was hoping the same thing. Neither of us did though, so at 4:45 we found ourselves dressed in tights and layers and balaclavas, pedaling up my driveway with lights a-blinking.
The first mile was cold, but as soon as we started to climb our legs got the blood pumping. Two minutes later my hands were sweating. Cresting Grassy Hill by the airport, we caught a beautiful, bloody sunset through a small aperture between the horizon and the clouds. The run down 317 was right into the wind though, and we were glad to enter the shelter of the woods on Welton. In a theme repeated several times, cars gave us a wide berth, mostly crossing the center line into the far lane when passing us.
Perhaps the drivers thought us insane.
Booth was fine, its climb tough as always. I dropped Joe on that climb, because, as it turned out, he didn’t downshift soon enough and had to grunt his way up. It would be the only time I dropped Joe last night.
I hadn’t ridden the abandoned section of Chalybes in two years and half expected it to be blocked with trees downed by last summer’s wind storms. It was fine though. That section needs to make it into more of my routes.
I thought the coldest we’d be would be riding through the cornfields on Ridge, exposed to the wind a thousand feet in the air. It was cold, but but the wind made us work and colder still were the runs down Chapin and Walker Brook. By the time we hit Battle Swamp both of us welcomed the chance to warm up on the climb. I didn’t clean it, haven’t yet this year, but only put a foot down for a few seconds. The same proved true of Moosehorn, except both of us walked a bit of that one. By then our quads were beginning to cramp on the climbs.
But we weren’t cold.
On Dorothy Diebold, we caught up with, of all things, a Corvette, chugging slowly down the dirt road. Happily, it turned down Booth, its driver probably wondering just what the hell had caught up with him. The clouds had cleared by then, and the home run down Upper County and Bacon was moonlit.
It was a good ride – My legs only cramped up once during the night.
I’m not really sure if it’s a tradition. On one Thanksgiving Eve a couple of years ago, the parking lot beering was epic in that a cold front blew through and enveloped us in a snow squall. Prepared for the change in temperature, we huddled through the blow in our camp chairs and Carhartts. Ten minutes later the skies were severe clear and the moon was brilliant. That was so memorable that it’s in my head we always ride on Thanksgiving Eve.
Last year, I was out due to my ACL replacement. Maybe the guys rode and maybe they didn’t. Maybe that was the night they invited me to meet them for beers after they rode. But this year, I very much wanted to continue the tradition, and at the Pond, the site of my memory.
Ride we did. I cleaned the first hill on Pink String and got most of the second one. I rode as well, or nearly so, as I’d been riding at my peak two years ago. It bothered me some that I’d lost all that time in the woods, that one lapse in judgement had set me back so far physically and mentally.
But there’s satisfaction in not quitting. Riding the brutal trails at the Pond is by definition not quitting. And it feels now like I’m at the bottom of the second rise of a Dunning-Kruger graph, the moment past despair when long-term growth begins.
Those parking lot beers sure were good last night.
It was a long and uncertain week at work. There was no time for a Wednesday ride. I was getting through 12 hour days with 5 hours of sleep and 5 cups of coffee. On Friday, the situation seemed under control and I committed to riding Waldo on Saturday.
There’d been a lot of rain and while the surface leaves on the trail were dry, those underlying were wet. I rode a little cautiously, a decision justified by the mud and leaf mold on Mark’s leg after his rear wheel washed out on a turn within the first mile.
Again, I kept the rubber side down, and mostly kept up with Mark and Chris. The log-overs on Red still sketch me out, particularly when the wood is the slightest bit wet, so I skipped them. The trouble is that the trail intersects them at an angle. Laying in bed this morning, I thought about rebuilding them so they turned and banked a little. Not sure if that’s a good idea or not.
What made me happiest yesterday was cleaning several sections I’ve struggled on for years. When I was peaking two years ago, I got these sections regularly. All they take is looking ahead, keeping the front wheel light, and spinning the pedals. The climb up Red to the powerlines crosses a stone wall and then goes through a jagged rock garden that continues between two trees. The trail flattens for 50 feet, then passes between two more tightly spaced trees. At this passage, there’s a large root followed by a pair of rocks, all of which must be threaded in the space of three feet.
The other tough section is the rock garden at the top of Purple. I’ve been avoiding it since getting back on the MTB until two weeks ago. On that ride, I got about halfway through. Yesterday, I got it all. It helped to be watching Chris ride in front of me. It wasn’t so much that he was showing me the line – Hell, I know the line – but that his riding it gave me confidence that my own tires would stick to the rocks if I just kept pedaling.
And that’s the crux of why getting back on the MTB has often been frustrating. Two years ago, I had a better idea of what the bike can do than I do now. I had just about gained the confidence that would have leveled me up in a video game or a dojo. Now I’m relearning lessons I had mastered. The crash that took my knee out didn’t happen because of these how I ride routinely. It happened because I made a decision that was out of character for me.