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.


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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Fear v. Fun

Both my knee and the weather were pretty fair last week. I got out on the road three times, even setting a Strava PR. Not bad for two and a half months after surgery. It’s been good to ride outside, but I’m still months away from hitting the trails again, a fact that does not keep me from thinking about hitting the trails again.

I wonder what that’s going to be like.

It will be tentative at first as I feel out my limitations. Of course, starting on easier trails will be the play, but eventually I’ll come to some feature that’s at the edge of my technical ability (As opposed to my physical ability, which I think of as strength and wind). Those are the places that strike fear in me, and a lot of times when I’ve gotten into trouble, it’s when I’ve reacted to that fear with bravado instead of patience and caution.

Bravado isn’t good. It isn’t fun, even. Even when bravado leads me to success, I find I’m only a little less scared the next time because I didn’t necessarily understand how I did what I did.

Part of what drives me is impatience. At 58, physical decline is inevitable. It often seems that if I don’t ride something now, it’s not going to happen. That’s a consequence of coming into the sport late in life. My friends have been riding for 10 or 20 or 30 years. I’ve got 3 under my saddle. This year would be 4 if I hadn’t lost it to injury.

No more injuries. Well, okay, cuts and bruises and scrapes. Nothing more that requires an orthopedic doctor. And maybe that means there are things I’ll never ride. And that’s okay. I do this for fun, not to prove anything.

Which leads me to the question of what I find fun about mountain biking. There’s the obvious. Time in the woods. Time with friends. Schralping the turns on the red trail at Waldo. Making it up a tough hill. Cleaning a rock garden. A controlled descent.

Those things are fun. They do not inspire fear. And therein lies the answer, I think. Like the hippies said, “If it feels good, do it.” Engel’s corollary will be, “If it scares you, walk around it until it looks like it will feel good.”


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If You Can’t Ride…

My friend had said that they would be out of the woods about dark. That’s when I pulled in, me and my healing knee, my bike hanging dusty at home. As I had driven over the ridge between there and here, the sun was setting. That hued cacophony of light quickly moved west. Its passing marked the time that we were supposed to vacate the dirt-road parking lot.

We broke out camp chairs. We cracked beers. 

Our rebellion causing no concern, we sat long enough to watch the moon glide through the high crotch of a bare beech, its branches a black lacework against the marine-blue sky. A north wind scudded the clouds overhead, their shadows a running tarnish on the silver ground.

It was cold, but we shrugged off winter’s entropy and traded warmth for an hour of companionship. A hiker’s headlamp flickered through the trees on the far side of the valley, telling us we weren’t alone in the pleasure of a winter evening. Nearly so, though. Three cars passed by, the drivers intent on home. Jets passed over, their red lights alien, the people in them utterly remote from our reality.

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More Zwift

Seven weeks ago today, my left ACL was replaced. Today, I rode London on Zwift again, taking one minute and twenty seconds off my previous 15 minute and eight second PR up Box Hill from a week ago. Maybe I could have gone a little harder, maybe not. Gauging sustained effort on a long climb is as much an art as a science. I did put out everything in the final 30 seconds, crossing the line as the nausea hit.

It was good. Twisted maybe, but life affirming.

Comparing myself against the 15 or so local folks I follow on Strava, I’m at the bottom of the Zwift PR barrel. Not always at the very bottom though, and I’m moving up. Most of these people have always been faster than me in any event, so it feels like I’ve lost surprisingly little ground. And it feels good to see that I’m sucking a little less each week.

I’m cautiously optimistic for the spring.

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