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.

“Doh!”

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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Battenkilling my Choices

So I rode the Medio Fondo of the Tour of the Battenkill yesterday – 42 over-hyped miles. The good part was hanging with my friend Joe, who I don’t get to ride with enough since he moved away. We drove up together, shared a room in a cool, classic 1950s motel , and found a diner that served blueberry pancakes so big that I couldn’t finish one. Otherwise, the ride was a big “meh”. 

Now, how much of the meh was me and how much was the ride itself is questionable. Battenkill got a lot right. The volunteers were friendly and helpful, registration was a breeze, the course was well marked, the countryside beautiful, and traffic control outstanding. But for a ride with a reputation for dirt, dirt comprised no more than 20% of the miles. And the food and beer at the end was lame – Sam in a bottle, or Coors Light; and a choice of an eggplant sandwich (which looked deceptively like a steak sandwich), a hot dog, or a foil-wrapped burger. Oh yeah, there were chips too.

Being a D2R2 vet, my expectations might have been too high. That ride has so much vibe it throbs. The food and beer are outstanding. And the course is brutally better.

But there’s this, too.

I sucked.

Last year, a 42 mile ride was Thursday night. In years past, I wouldn’t have hesitated to sign up for the 74 mile Gran Fondo. Yesterday, I cried my way through the last half of the ride and finished in the middle of the pack.

I’m questioning my life choices. Or at least my cycling choices.

Since taking up mtbing, my time on dirt roads has plummeted. So, evidently, has my fitness. I’m half afraid to ride with the Thursday-night crew, and I wonder if I want to because those rides always hurt.

But that pain made me the best cyclist I’ve ever been. I felt good about my abilities. And that fitness makes mtbing all the more fun.

And speaking of the D2R2, there’s no way on God’s green earth I could ride it in the shape I’m in, which just makes me sad.

It isn’t just a matter of choosing what kind of riding I want, either. There’s this new job, which I love, but which takes more time than my previous ones. There are my volunteer commitments. And all of these things rob time from my family.

Maybe it’s the weather this year. Constant rain hasn’t made finding time to ride easier.

It’s clear I need to figure something out. Whether that’s to cut back on cycling, which at this point is more of an admission than a choice, or to figure out where my time is going and try to structure a more organized life (yeah, right…), or to drop some of the volunteer work, well, I just don’t know. What I do know is that all of these things are beginning to feel like chores, and that’s a problem.

 

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2820 Calories

You know it was a hard ride when you wake up the next morning still feeling hollow-hungry. Strava says the ride took 2820 calories.

Joe and Chris were coming for 2:00. We’d planned the ride with visions of a sunny April day. As Joe stepped onto my porch, the rain was mixing with snow. But Weather Underground said the rain wouldn’t last, and indeed, it slacked off just as we swung onto our saddles.

“How many miles?” Chris asked.

“Forty one.”

“Jesus Christ. Last night at the bike shop you said 25.”

“No, I said forty one.”

He said, “That must have been after the 8% beer.”

The descent from my house to Old Roxbury was cold. We’d get warm soon. The wind was more concerning, straight into our faces even in the valley. When we hit the gale along the open ridge top of Dorothy Diebold Lane, we knew just how bad this was going to be.

Steep Rock was quiet, sheltered by the ridge on the other side of the Shepaug, but the more open valley along 47 out of the Depot funneled the wind right into our faces. That disappeared when we turned onto the old tracks. We figured we might hit some mud along the old rail bed – There’s nearly always water somewhere on them. We didn’t figure we’d hit a 6 in. deep puddle that ran for what was probably 200 feet. We tried riding the side, but that was just mud. The puddle at least had a hard bottom, and we rode its center, our wakes lapping the shore.

If the ongoing rain hadn’t been enough, the puddle ensured that our feet were wet.

Joe said, “This is what happens when a mountain biker plans the route.”

My legs burned on the Whittlesey Road climb. The down to 202 was cold, but the occasional rain had stopped and the skies were bluing. Eventually we got to West Shore Drive. The west wind hit us full on when we came around the point of Mt. Bushnell. Waramaug had whitecaps on it. We only had to ride that for a mile or two, but it was’t much fun. It was just work, our heads down, our legs churning. 

Of the three of us, I was the only one who’d ridden Gunn Hill. I couldn’t really warn the others. In any event, they’d only hate me for a few minutes, and value the having-done-it for months. Gunn Hill was rain-soft dirt and stupid-steep. Joe’s roadie legs got him up first. I stopped for a moment to ease a nascent cramp. Hearing Chris’s locomotive-breathing pulling away got me back on the pedals almost immediately. My quads burned, burned so that I wanted to quit, burned so I knew there’d be cramps later.

I made it up. We all made it up. And we were all cold descending Findlay, descending Walker Brook. For me, from Walker Brook home was a suffer fest. The climbs – Judd’s Bridge, Apple Lane, Old Roxbury, and even the first bit of Transylvania – all heated up my burning quads.

So, yeah, it was a good ride.

And Strava is a lying bitch. There’s no way that was only 2820 calories.

 

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Identity

Yesterday I passed a jogger; A chubby guy dressed in sweats and laboring up a slight grade. New guy, I thought. I gave him a thumbs-up when I passed.

Adapting a sport like cycling or running is a lot like beginning a new relationship. Hey, wow, this is cool. I like her a lot. Does she like me? Will this work out? Maybe I should keep my options open for a while so I don’t make a fool of myself.

Like being in a relationship, being any sort of athlete is an identity. I didn’t call myself a cyclist until I’d been riding for 6 months or so. Saying, “I’m a cyclist,” is committing to the game. When you’re new and you’re laboring up that hill and you’re thinking about just how fat and slow you are and someone passes in a car, you feel like a poseur. It’s as if to even be out there you should have the BMI of an Olympian. 

Fuck that.

I think that keeps a lot of people from riding bikes. Or running. Or playing tennis. Because of course you suck when you’re new. It takes time to lose weight. It takes time to become reasonably competent. I’ve been riding bikes for nearly 20 years now and I will always suck compared to a lot of riders. But I’ve learned that that doesn’t matter.

I have fun.

I ride bikes.

I’m a cyclist. 

I might not say that if it weren’t for the people who encouraged me along the way.

And so I raise my thumb when passing struggling riders. Or runners. Because you never know how important a little encouragement from a stranger might be to that person.

 

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The 29er Tavern

Events have conspired to keep me off the bike this spring (weather, bronchitis, a marginally successful attempt to filet a knuckle with a putty knife), but I have been trying hard to remain relevant in my local cycling community. To that end, I’ve been stopping at the bike shop on my way home from work most Friday nights.

In early March, there would be no customers and no one minding the store except for the CCTV camera. John would see me on the screen in the upstairs workshop and yell to come up. Grabbing a beer from the fridge in the back office, I’d trundle up the stairs to find a small coven of regulars harassing him and Kevin as they built the season’s bikes, adjusted balky derailleurs, or installed baby seats and back racks for, I dunno, busy parents or hapless hipsters. Occasionally someone would lend a hand. Sometimes we’d plan rides for the weekend. Mostly we’d just bullshit. If you want to stay welcome, you don’t be an asshole, and you bring a six pack every couple of weeks. 

The weather broke this week, and last night there were customers. The same regulars hung around drinking beer by the bike displays, but dropping fewer F-bombs and mostly staying out of the way while John and Kevin waited on customers. At least half the time, someone knew whoever walked through the door. That’s how I met Krag, the first stranger who admitted to reading this blog. We follow each other on Strava now, have a bunch of mutual acquaintances, and I can’t tell you how cool is was to know that someone who isn’t obligated by the bonds of prior friendship reads my stuff.

But enough about me and back to the bike shop. A good local bike shop can be the hub of a cycling community; a place where people do know your name; a place whose worth transcends the store front. The advice comes from someone you know rather than a YouTube channel that may be well-curated, or not. They’ll make sure the part you ask for is the part you need. Stuff really isn’t any cheaper on the internet. When you do screw up your bike beyond your own ability, the price of your dignity when you bring the bike in for a real fix is a six pack. I doubt that most bike shop owners make real bank, although they should. I hope my appreciation, and yours, goes the rest of the way to convincing them to keep the doors open.

Because I really like having a place where I can stop for a beer on Friday night.  

 

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