Mark’s Ride Went to Eleven

Mattatuck Trail 4-15-18

Do you see a road? Photo by Paul Mayer.

At the dead end of Valley Road is a chain-link gate protecting the Shepaug Dam and reservoir, the main public water source for Waterbury, Connecticut. The land is posted emphatically against trespassing. To the west, a sign optimistically indicates the existence of the Mattatuck Trail, which borders the posted watershed. Another sign, evidently placed by someone who was more of a realist, labels that section as Hardscrabble Road.


The nearly vertical part in the middle of this Strava elevation profile is the beginning of Hardscrabble Road. 

On this glorious April Saturday morning, five of us, each on some version of a gravel-grinder bike, found ourselves at the foot of this leaf-covered track at the base of Warren, Connecticut’s optimistically named City Hill. No city exists in Warren, Connecticut, pop. 1461. None of us had been here before. Mark, who’d organized the ride, had shared his GPX file, so all expected this bit of terra incognita, without truly appreciating it.

Mark wasn’t there. Mark abandoned with a broken seatpost 5 miles into the ride. We were at about mile 23 with 30 more to go. It had already been an adventurous ride, with us crossing the Shepaug earlier at a spot where the bridge was. By “was” I mean “used to be.” The bridge was being replaced, and currently consisted of a couple of planks and bit of aluminum scaffolding intended for the workers, across which we carried our bikes. Once on the other side, I stepped ankle deep in mud, which played into some of my later decisions on Hardscrabble.

Romford Bridge out 4-15-18

Well, this is awkward. Photo by Paul Mayer.

Like the trail sign and the hill name, we were optimistic. Besides, the alternative was to turn around and ride up a state highway on our gravel bikes – hardly the point of the day. We clipped in and pedaled up the track. For a hundred feet or so. Then it got rocky, and we walked our bikes. Then the old road smoothed out a bit and we rode a bit. Then it got rocky and steep, gaining 400 feet in 1/4 of a mile, a 30% grade.

What’s better on a nice spring day than taking your bike out for a hike?

By the time we topped out, my back was aching from leaning over the bike and pushing it through the boulder field that passed as Hardscrabble Road.

The road suckered us in for a few hundred feet, becoming a shallow grade paved with moss and scruffy grass, with a stone wall to the right and pretty little gorge to the left. And then we came to where the crown of a large tree had blown down in the road. To get around it we scrambled over the stone wall and through the woods, trespassing in a minor way on water company property, back over the stone wall, and onto the road.

Which became a swamp. We rode parts of it, our wheels cutting furrows in the mud and leaving wakes in the open water. At one point, tired from forcing my bike over the soft ground and not wanting to fight the underbrush on the sides, I just walked down the center. My feet had been muddy since the bridge anyway.

Who could have predicted that an abandoned New England road that bordered an important watershed would be this wet in the spring?

Not us.

Near the top of the hill, the road crosses the end of a pond. In fact, the pond drains across the road. I pedaled through that narrow watercourse with relative ease. The short climb beyond that didn’t look bad, but that thought also proved to be optimistic. The roadbed consisted of sand and round pebbles, which proved exhausting to ride across. I walked, not because I couldn’t have ridden it, but because it hit me that I still had twenty-some hilly miles to ride and conserving some energy seemed wise.

By now, the group had spread out and we were all experiencing this section as individuals. Jeff and Jay, cyclocross racers by day, were in their element and well ahead. I, benefiting from my regular pretensions of riding with their ilk, was holding the middle ground, albeit wrapped up in a self-directed bout of schadenfreude. Mike and Paul were behind me, out of sight, but close enough that I heard one of them singing, “We’ve got to get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do…”

The final quarter mile down to Angevine Road was rocky and brushy, but downhill and rideable. Barely a hundred feet from the end, the broken Caterpillar track from a bulldozer lay in the trail, abandoned, I supposed, where it had broken and come off the machine, punctuating our ride with a metaphor.

We were back on roads currently acknowledged and maintained by government bodies though, and the riding eased by an order of magnitude. In fact, almost immediately we began several miles of descent, going fast enough that the mud flying off my front tire stung my face in a vaguely delicious way.

Ten or twelve miles further along, we met Mark coming the other way. Mark had replaced his seatpost and begun riding the course in reverse. He asked how the terra incognita had been.

We could have said something like, “Here there be dragons.”

But we didn’t.

“Great, easy, doubletrack.”


“Like a towpath.”


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No-Hopers, Jokers, and Wildlife

Heading fast down Judd’s Bridge Road at the start, hip-steering my bike around the potholes in the dirt, my mind briefly turned to how different my legs felt riding up this same stretch at the end of last week’s 30 mile gravel grinder. Ben had described his as “…burlap sacks of pudding…” and mine hadn’t been any better. And then I just rode my bike, dismounting to get around the gate onto Tunnel Road, feeling the bike slide around below me on the loose gravel, liking how much competence mtbing had given me when we turned our narrow, cross-bike tires down the rocky, rooty single track that led to the old Shepaug Railroad.

I turned on my light to ride through the tunnel, kept the bike upright across the ice that still covered the rail bed in two places, and then turned off the light to save battery. We left the tracks to buzz down more singletrack to the dirt road through Steep Rock preserve. No one was there at 7PM on a drizzly April Thursday, just the four of us on our road to nowhere.

In a quick up and over whose only purpose was miles of quiet roads, we rode out of and back into the Shepaug valley, heading up a rocky carriage road and then down to the old tracks again for a couple of miles. The rain stopped, and we bounced over small, downed trees and rode though several sections that buried our wheels in 3 inches of mud. I hadn’t ridden here in a year, but I knew there was a stretch populated by baby heads coming up. At about the time I decided it was dark enough to justify burning battery, I was in the baby heads. Relax, pedal, pick the best line you can see. Once through the hazard, I took a hand off the bars to turn on the lights.

And then we were on a road again, then a dirt road, then a paved road, and then down Nettleton Hollow until we turned up Calhoun Hill. The bottom of Calhoun is dirt, but it’s not impossibly steep, although it was softened by the rain we’d had. I watched the taillights of my buddies get smaller as they rode away from me – An inevitable part of riding with with younger, faster guys. They’d wait at the top, and in fact, I preferred to be alone during the sufferfest I knew was coming. The last 150 yards of Calhoun Hill is paved, but the grade is 30% or more. It’s unbelievable. A gut buster, a thigh burner, an existential question mark for every cyclist who rides it. When I got back to the group at the top, I asked, “What asshole put this climb on the ride?”

Well, I did. I designed the course.

Down Horse Heaven (New England has the best road names), to 47 (not all of them) to Holmes Road. The sign said Dead End. Not for us. At the top, where the dirt road transitions from Roxbury to Woodbury, there’s 100 yards of road abandoned so long ago it’s now just a section of forest between parallel stone walls. Geared down, our tires rolled over dead branches and ground covered with inches of leaf mold, and then we were on pavement and rolling down and then up, past houses where Frank McCourt, Arthur Miller, Marilyn Monroe, and Alexander Calder had once lived.

Up the hill, left onto Cross Brook, through the swampy abandoned section, and the hardest work was over. We rode Welton, a mild climb up the softest dirt road in Roxbury, to 317. Jeff plucked a spotted salamander from the middle of the highway to keep it from getting run over, moving it to the verge of the road. We crossed the hayfield at the airport, wheels sinking into the soft grass so that even going downhill took work, and then we rocketed down the dirt of Grassy Hill Road to Bacon where Ben and I parted ways with Jeff and Jay.  A quarter of a mile on, what had to be a great horned owl flew across the road twenty feet in front of us.

The red warning light on my headlight came on about then, and another half a mile on, the light went black. I made it to my driveway riding in the light from Ben’s bike. We parted, and I turned on my spare light to get home.


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Skills Aren’t Free

Jason passed when I took the ride-around and he hit the drop. I fell in behind and the ride turned into a Red Bull video – At every dirt hump or trail-side boulder he had both wheels off the ground. I swear the guy’s got a pilot’s license. It’s still winter, so he was riding flat pedals in Vans. In the summer, he rides in Teva sandals.

I’m in awe of guys like him. I was a cautious, un-athletic, fat kid from a family that valued sports not at all. Without sports, I didn’t develop balance, coordination, or strength when I was young. But I read a lot and considered myself some half-assed kind of intellectual. That was optimistic, but it gave my pretentious high-school ego the altitude to look down on jocks. As things played out, I wish I’d been at least a little bit of a jock. I’ve been playing catch-up for all the years I’ve been riding, and never more so than since I started mtbing.

So, when I see guys like Jason who make their bikes do magical things, it looks to me like they sprang from the womb with that ability. But of course they didn’t. Maybe they started with more talent than me, but maybe not. While they make it look easy today, I remind myself that, undoubtedly, they paid for their skills with skin and blood.


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Spent, Bleeding, Sweaty, and Hungry

When I got to Waldo last night after work, the parking lot was full. Paula was there on a NEMBA PR mission, circulating and encouraging people to come to this week’s meeting. A youth team was there for a practice session.

I shook hands with a couple of Strava acquaintances, but my ride was with three regular riding partners and a pit bull named Tessie. Everyone I was with is faster and more skilled than me, but not by as much as they were a year ago. The night’s group dynamic sucked me in. Jeff and Jason were pulling incrementally ahead through the Schralpin’ Turns, but at a slow enough differential that by hammering and focusing, I stayed close. It was an exercise in the basics of looking ahead and foot position, of pumping and weighting the wheels correctly, and of body position through the turns.

We were rocking the Casbah faster than I’d ever rocked it when on an uphill turn my left pedal hit a rock, unclipping me and forcing me to put a foot down. Ben and Tessie passed me then. I ran uphill for a few feet to a flatter spot, clipped back in, and picked up the pace. When I checked Strava later, I’d PRed the segment even with my dismount.

When I got home,  I was spent, bleeding, sweaty, and hungry.

I couldn’t stop grinning.

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April Showers

One thing I miss now that I work from home is commuting by bike.  Wanting to get back into a more regular riding schedule now that the weather is warming (Marginally – we got 4 in. of snow on Monday), I did 14.5 miles of pavement at lunch time on Tuesday. Strava said it was 34F, and the forecast was for rain starting at 1 o’clock. I skipped out of the house at 11:30, aiming to be back half an hour before the rain began.

Of course I was barely out of the driveway when the first drop hit. But, cycling is an outdoor sport, and I was dressed well enough for an hour, even a wet one. The plan was to go easy, working the kinks out of my legs from Sunday’s more epic mtb ride.

It had been months since I’d done this route, an old favorite; months I’d spent mtbing rather than riding roads. It was a pleasant surprise to find that I could ride the climbs easily. I welcomed them, knowing that they were keeping me warm in the increasingly hard rain. Ten miles in though, I turned into the wind. I was soaked through and most of the climbing was done. Normally, the fast rollers on Gold Mine and the long, shallow descent on Grassy Hill are fun parts of this ride. Normally, I’m not soaked to the skin nor peaking out between the brim of my helmet and rain-covered glasses. The chill set in on Grassy Hill. By the time I turned down Rucum, my shins ached from the cold, and some grit lodged in the discs was making an annoying sound; that is, when the brakes weren’t applied and shrieking from the wet.

Ten minutes later I was home. Gravel Gertie got a quick rinse, and I was in a hot shower five minutes after that.

Not every April ride is bluebirds and daffodils. With some, the joy comes just from finishing them. And that’s just fine.

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Until last October, I worked at The Taunton Press, a 16 mile bike ride away. I commuted a couple of times a week in all weathers except when it was icy. Between two and three years ago, I kept a journal of my commutes. These two photos were taken on my rides home, a couple of days apart in March, 2015. I love them both. Cassidy Road is paved on the Southbury side and dirt at the other end where it hits Roxbury. It added half a mile and a hard climb to my commute, but this is one of my favorite roads for its barely-traveled beauty. It’s on top of the mountain above the Southbury Training School, one of the higher spots around.

The first shows the beauty and promise of a warm, early spring day. It was the sort of ride that left me feeling that God was in his heaven and all was right with the world.  The second photo is shows a different perspective. The weather forecast changed between when I left in the morning and when I headed home, going from a cool spring day to one with snow and rain squalls expected. I debated calling Pat for a ride home, but the timing of the approaching storm looked like I’d be able to just squeak through.

Now, those clouds aren’t behind me. They’re between me and home. The camera is looking north, and they’re coming in from the NNW. I had a choice here. I could have ridden in the direction away from the camera and away from the storm, but that road drops down onto some state roads I prefer not to ride. I chanced going forward. I had 7 miles left to go, usually half an hour of riding, which that day I hammered out in about 20 minutes.

A mile and a half on, it got blustery on the descent of Flag Swamp Road, a dirt hill that’s given me more flat tires than any other. I bombed down it, probably hitting more than 40 mph. Swinging around the corner from Flag to South St. to Squire Road put the wind behind me, and I pedaled like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz up its short, steep climbs.

I got across 67 and onto the cursed climb up Rucum past William Styron’s old place. There I rode hard enough I wanted to puke at the top of the climb. I was still dry, but that was about to end. As soon as I hit Transylvania, a mile from home, a squall blasted me with cold rain mixed with snow for half a minute. And then it passed. I flew the rest of the way home and down my driveway, a thousand feet of dirt. At the bottom, a hundred feet from the garage, the sky opened up.

If I hadn’t stopped to take the photo, I would have missed that cold drenching. But I wouldn’t have the photo and I wouldn’t have the memory – It was well worth the cost.

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Fear and Biking

One common thread with cyclists is what non-cyclists often see as a degree of fearlessness. Or stupidity. Cyclists accept that it’s only a matter of time before they get hurt. Non-cyclists frequently use fear of injury as a reason to pursue what my friend Jeff claims is an even more deadly pastime – Couch surfing.

Fear on a bike is counterproductive. Fear makes you tense and slow to react. Fear creates the target fixation that leads a cyclist to ride straight into the tree. Fear makes you slow down when you should speed up. Fear makes you tense. Tension makes you crash.

Experienced roadies and commuters combat fear with knowledge. Because they have learned the rules of survival, riding in traffic is no big deal. And then there’s mtbing. When I turned onto the trails it became clear that I was able to have fun because I don’t much mind cuts and bruises. I was with my brothers here. The chorus of, “Nice one!” rang through the woods whenever a buddy crashed.

But I sucked for a long time. Not minding cuts and bruises is after the fact. I was riding afraid. Fear makes you tense. Tension makes you crash. And then one day, I wasn’t afraid anymore. I have limits still, but the tension left my shoulders and I sucked a lot less.

I think that’s what you see in this video where the producer goes mtbing with his wife. He’s a bit of an ass, and she’s got real snot to be out there, but I recognize the tension in her shoulders and I hear the fear in her voice. If she can relax, she’ll get good. If not, she’ll stop riding. Or get divorced.


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