I Rode it Out

My youth imprinted upon me that I was not an athlete. Until the last year or two of high school I was the fat kid who was last to be picked for teams. The after-school sports I did try were embarrassing miseries. That changed somewhat around my junior year when a growth spurt combined with a summer of physical labor to thin me out and make me stronger. In gym class, being tall let me spike a volleyball, and in the spring I found that I could tear the leather off a softball. The first time I sent one over the left-fielder’s head both the opposing team and I stood dumbfounded while my teammates yelled, “Run!”

Crossing the plate once my legs did move was my favorite moment in four years at Belvidere High School. I had stolen the jock’s lightning and it felt good. Forty two years later, thinking about it still feels good.

Yesterday I mountain-biked. There’s a rock on a climb on the Blue Trail I’ve never cleaned in 5 years of mountain biking (4 years if you discount the year lost to a torn ACL). The previous time on that trail, I saw the line I’d always missed. Yesterday I rode that line and it was easy.

After that I bobbled a rock garden I’ve cleaned many times.

You just don’t know on an mtb.

Then came the stream crossing before the meadow. You’re riding through a hemlock wood along an old farm road when you come to it. The stream itself is nothing – Shallow and maybe 6 ft. wide. But before the stream is a 3 ft. drop. The climb out isn’t as steep, but it’s rooty and steep enough. Like the rock on Blue, I’d never cleaned it. I’d always taken the safer-looking, more gradual line and my wet tire always spun out on the roots. Yesterday, I hit if fast and I hit the steep part of the drop.

After the splash, I barely had to turn my cranks before passing the crux of the move, whooping with joy.

After 5 years of failure, success was easy.

There were little moments, too. On several rocky climbs I let the front wheel get too light and ended up in the weeds. My reptile brain said, “Put a foot down,” but the mammal brain more loudly said, “Pedal!”

I pedaled.

I rode out.

I grunted out, “Yeah!”

And that’s why I do it. That’s why I ride hard places. That’s why I push to overcome the fear that remains from tearing my ACL.

It’s like hitting that softball. It doesn’t happen every time, but when it does there’s no greater feeling.

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Not About Cycling

I have worked on and off as an editor at Fine Homebuilding magazine for many years, and was a reader from the first issue back in 1981. I still contribute to the magazine regularly and I’m ineffably grateful for the opportunity. It changed the course of my life, from where I live to the work I do to the friends I’ve made. When I was a young man struggling to learn the trade, and then to build a home for my family, I found a brotherhood of craft in the pages of the magazine that didn’t exist on the tract-home sites where I worked. As I became a part of Fine Homebuilding and met its editors and writers, it became clear that that community was real.

The magazine has evolved, of course, and I was a part of that. The early issues’ zeitgeist has changed over time. In the day, the stories in the magazine elevated the romantic side of building. There was a sense that building one’s own home, not just by writing checks, but by grit, by sweating, bleeding, and dripping snot, was a high-level expression of being human.

That sense seems largely gone from the magazine, for reasons good and bad. Mainly, I think that the world has moved on from those back-to-the-land hippy days when Fine Homebuilding occasionally published essays about the struggles involved in making your own shelter. To survive, the magazine had to change, to focus on high-end construction, cutting-edge design, and green building.

The early zeitgeist still exists within a certain community, however, if less so in the magazine. I miss that, but again, the world has changed. Home building was simpler In the early 1980s than it is today. A talented, enthusiastic layman could buy a piece of land then and craft a house.

I grew up among people like that. More than a few of us built our own homes. That drive seems rare today.

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Swimming

In an email exchange with some friends, I mentioned that I’d taken my first swim of the season in the Shepaug. There’s a little hole at a bend in the river. The water is slow and deep and all you see is river, trees, or sky. All you smell is that wonderful river smell. All you hear is the water and the wind and the birds. You feel more though – The coarse sand, the give of tree roots serving as ladder rungs down the eroded bank, the hard slipperiness of algae-covered round rocks, and then the cool of the water enveloping your body. The existence of a path tells that others have gone there, but I’ve never seen anyone else. I won’t say where it is because I like that it’s just me and ghosts.

My friend Strother responded with a link to an article from The Atlantic on wild swimming.

I didn’t know wild swimming was a thing. I grew up doing it. In the small pond in my backyard where we also caught frogs, tadpoles, and salamanders. In the big pond up the road with its big bass. In Beaver Brook, the Pequest River, and the Delaware. Van Campen’s Glen, Sunfish Pond, the Muskonetcong River. Later on, in our late teens and early 20s, we made my buddy’s farm pond into a private resort. We bought a truckload of beach sand. We built stairs to the water. We floated a raft. All so we could skinny-dip.

Sure, I also swam at the town pool where I had official swimming lessons. And in the lake up the road where there were two sandy beaches and lifeguards and in my neighbor’s pool once they built it. But none of those places ever were the fun of swimming in a wild place. From when I was about ten years old, on summer days we’d bum a ride upstream and put our truck-tire inner-tubes into the water and float down Beaver Brook to the Pequest. We’d pass through forests and farm fields, lulled by the sun and hum of Farmalls. Long strands of green eel grass waved in the water below ancient eel weirs. Crawdads skedaddled. We scraped our shins bouncing off rocks, rode through riffles, got sunburnt, and rubbed our skin raw where the bottoms of our arms bore on the inner tubes as we paddled. We’d pull out at the small dam where the Brothers of the Sacred Heart monastery had a mini-hydro station. The dam stood maybe 5 feet high, and the algae-covered spillway was a terrific sliding board. Once out, we’d carry our tubes like bandoliers a couple of miles up the road to my friend’s house, feet squishing the water from our Keds.

You just don’t get those moments accompanied by the smell of chlorine.

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Longest Ride of the Year, So Far

We rode some dirt last week. Joe and I don’t set out to tear each other’s legs off, but by the end of our rides we’ve usually accomplished that goal.

The evening was perfect with some high clouds and blue skies and daylight for the entire 32 miles. There’s a spot under the power lines at Steep Rock where we nearly always stop for a breather. In the summer when it’s humid you can hear the electricity crackling. Last winter, we stopped there in the dark to look at the stars and realized there wasn’t a house-light in sight. Last week it was cool and green and perfect. It’s at the top of a snaky bit of singletrack I’ve written about before. I cleaned it, grunting it out one gear too high. Joe cleaned it, and raved about how his new bike actually let him stay on the line he’d picked.

Near the end of the ride is Old Roxbury Road. It’s one of two usual ways from the center of town back to my house. Both ways involve getting up one short but gnarly hill. One is paved. Old Roxbury is dirt and harder. I nearly always choose Old Roxbury even though by the time we hit its climb our legs are done. Going up Old Roxbury just hurts, but you just keep turning the pedals because it’s only going to stop hurting when you get to the top. You can get off and walk, but that hurts in other ways. There’s a payoff on the backside, though, a twisty, turny, ¾ mile long downhill with one short, steep climb near the end. If you ride a big gear, hammer the pedals, and cut corners, you can hit that climb fast enough that you literally roar with both pain and exhilaration as you crest.

It’s a moment that encapsulates what gravel rides are about.

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Kids

Did a standard hour’s loop at Waldo last night. As it happened to be a Monday, somewhere north of a dozen CCAP kids were there for a practice ride too. I’d guess their ages ranged from 10 to 17. Hearing them whooping and hollering as they rode the trails was pretty cool!

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Exuberance

At the end of the ride, I blew into the parking lot and got a little air off the pile of gravel left by the snowplow. A woman I got chatting with told me I looked exuberant.

There was a reason for that.

I rode Proud Mary for the first time yesterday. I wanted a real test so I chose the hardest trails within 10 minutes of home because, first, they really are hard, and second, they’ve become an obsession with me this spring. The Orbea was un-named before yesterday’s ride. Near the end of the ride, heart jamming and my soul happy among the leafing-out trees, I named her Proud Mary because she just kept rollin’ through the rock gardens. Credence started running through my head and she was christened just like that. Mary’s big wheels – 29 inchers – rear suspension, and wonderfully slack fork angle get her over rocks like no bike I’ve ever ridden. My average speed at River Road has been trending up, and even with the learning curve of a new bike and sessioning a couple of spots until I got them, yesterday jumped that average from 6.2 mph to 6.4.

Proud Mary is far more capable than her engine.

Climbing? Mary has a dinner-plate on the cassette that gives her low-end gearing like a Cat 955. Three hills in the preserve have pitches that push a 40% grade. I never got up them until yesterday. One I had to attempt twice because muscle memory stopped me the first time at the point where I’d never before been able to get my pedal stroke past TDC. On one memorable ride last year, I hit that point and had trouble unclipping. The bike started rolling backwards, spinning my legs in reverse. That was unsettling. The second time yesterday, I just determined to keep my chest low and my feet spinning and Mary torqued right on up. That’s when I realized that if I can give her the RPMs and the weight distribution, she’ll climb anything. I did need to stop at the top for a minute because, you know, tunnel vision and nausea. Next time though… On the way back I bobbled one hill by being in too low a gear and spinning one foot off its pedal, but that’s just a familiarity thing.

Before the hay field, there’s a stream crossing where the water pools in the bottom of a gully. You’re riding along a grassy old farm road and the ground disappears in front of you, dropping you 3 feet down to splash through 5 feet of 6-inch deep water. On the other side is a steep, rooty bank. I’ve never gotten all the way up that bank, either dead-ending a front wheel on a big root or spinning out a wet back tire. Yesterday I came closer than ever and I know with just a little more speed going in I’ll clean it.

For all of that cross-country capability I expected to sacrifice some nimbleness. Nope. The bike handles with the confidence of Prince’s backup dancers on a rainy Superbowl halftime stage. I think that’s a combination of the full suspension keeping the brandy-new tires firmly grounded. The bike just goes where I look, something I need to brand into my brain.

I feel inspired to ride harder, to work on technique, to get better. Maybe I should have named her Louie instead, because I think this is going to be the start of a beautiful relationship.

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Great Gravel

Cross Brook Road does go through if you have the gumption to try.

Joe and I rode 26 miles last night. It was mostly gravel roads and, with 2500 feet of climbing, mostly up. It was the first full short-sleeve, two-bottle ride of the year. The weather was perfect and the company great.

To continue my last post on thresholds, I’m definitely past one. Bear Burrow, Booth Road, and West Church are all killer climbs. Each I’m sure pushes a 30% grade in places. With other bikes, it’s been hard to keep the front wheel on the ground. A month ago, each of them had me wanting to puke. Last night, there was no nausea. Last night, there was power to spare. I had the oats to push the pedals harder, to see how fast I could ride the hill instead of just seeing if I could climb the hill.

Climbing West Church in particular was fun. Steepest at the bottom, I geared up after the big turn and rode hard. Breathing heavily, quads burning, I was doing 15 mph uphill near the top.

Yeah, my legs feel like lead this morning, but cycling is fun again.

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Threshold

I rode the Pond yesterday, the third or fourth time in as many weeks. Yesterday was with two younger and fitter guys. Strangers I was showing the trails, they kicked my ass in a gentlemanly way. Even though I pushed hard, I’m not in my 30s anymore.

It was good though. I only felt like puking once or twice, and I made it up one pitch for the first time since my surgery. I hit two technical sections that I’d just begun to clean last week as if they were easy. The ride left me hungry for the rest of the day but my legs didn’t feel burnt.

This morning I woke up feeling that feeling that only cycling has ever given me. It comes every so often when I’ve picked up my riding pace. Nothing hurt. The normal aches of middle age weren’t there. I felt lean and strong, aware of the steady beat of my heart.

It’s as if I’m at a threshold. I’m not in my best shape yet, but my body is ready to be pushed. My mind pictures the joyful pain of rising from the saddle to punch out a climb like I couldn’t have done a month ago. It’s a moment I chase, and one to be relished.

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Those Roots

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.

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The Pond

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.

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