Ah, Spring. It sucks so far.

A glorious April weekend, the first warm one following March’s leonine exit. I was dying to hit some trails, particularly after rocking the Scrhalpin’ Turns at Waldo last week. Friday I was thinking I might ride both days. One friend said he planned to ride Gussie Saturday, and I hung my hopes on that. But the day got away from him, and he texted mid-day that he couldn’t come out to play. By then I was engaged in my own chores and gave up on a trail ride.

Instead, I decided to work on some skills, specifically on doing a manual. I can get the front wheel off the ground, but haven’t dialed in riding it out, something I could do for a hundred feet at a stretch when I was ten. The one time I got close ended badly. I landed spectacularly and painfully on my ass, to the point that when Pat ran over to comfort her writhing-in-pain-on-the-driveway husband, my response was, “Leave me the fuck alone.” The pain subsided in a minute, but damn! Note to self – apologize to spouse and switch to flat pedals for this exercise.

Determined to make Sunday better, I committed to riding at 4PM, and put out Facebook and email feelers. Everyone had different plans. A lot of my friends did long dirt road rides in the morning. Another was at a conference in NH. Still another had committed to teaching a Congolese refugee how to ride a bike so he could get to work.

You can’t make this shit up. Seriously – Couldn’t the Congolese dude use some trail skills?

By 3:15 I resolved to ride alone, and got my kit on. I’m not wild about riding alone. It worries Pat. I learn from and am inspired by other riders. But perhaps most importantly, sharing outdoor experiences bumps them a notch – It’s an atavistic thing that’s encoded in our DNA, a remnant from a time when cooperation within a tribe literally meant life or death. Plus there’s the beer in the parking lot after the ride.

But my tribe didn’t want me Sunday. Fuck ’em. I was riding anyway.

It started well. Despite every pedal stroke pulling the muscles in my bruised ass, I cleaned the rock garden off the fire road for the first time ever by just following the rules – Head up, shoulders relaxed, feet spinning. Score one for me. Fast down Thing’s twists and then panting up the Red Steeps to Yellow, where I rolled the doubstacle of the rock wall and the sassafras log like walking down a sidewalk. Then it soured. Back on Red, in an abbreviation of the Schralpin’ Turns, I was slow and cornering wide. At the bottom, I couldn’t climb Extra Credit, losing my balance over and over.

Riding back up Thing, I didn’t have the energy to roll the easy rock garden, and even fell on the easiest bit from going too slow. At the top by the quartz mine, I stopped. I’d planned to ride up Red but was starting to think that wasn’t happening. Sucking the last water from my Camelback, I took its deflated bladder as a sign to head out, and rode the easy trail back to the fire road. Not wanting to suck quite that much, I turned off to ride the log and the boardwalk. I fell off the log, then rode off the boardwalk. At the truck, I found I’d only been out an hour, but I was fork-sticking done.

Monday morning, I felt like death and went to the doctor to find I had an antibiotic-worthy sinus infection. Which was good to know, because it told me I didn’t suck as badly on Sunday as I thought.

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Snow

Huntington3-11-17A month or so back, after a spate of good weather that had us out mountain biking nearly every weekend from October through January, it snowed. Only a few inches, but it also turned cold and windy. Not wanting to end the streak, Jeff, Ben, and I met at Huntington State Park, formerly the estate of railroad baron Collis Potter Huntington. I’d ridden here once or twice before 15 years ago but then got sidetracked by road riding.

The skies were Canadian-cold-air-mass blue and wind shook the car in the parking lot. As soon as I opened the door, even fully kitted up, the Sam-McGee-cold hit. My cycling shoes had no grip on the ice, and I wondered just why I’d thought riding today was a good idea. Still, clipping in and heading down into the woods got us out of the wind. And the day was beautiful in that winter-Kodachrome way. The trees and rocks stood out distinctly against the snow instead of blending into the brown and gray of a leaf-strewn forest floor or disappearing in a fugue of green, providing the forest with a sense of scale and distance lacking the rest of the year.

It was afternoon, and the trails had been found and packed nicely by the fat-tire crowd, but they hadn’t turned muddy. The conditions were as perfect as winter trails could be. But the perfect conditions and the beautiful day were belied by that same feeling of anagnorisis I’ve had looking down from the top of a black diamond ski slope. I was underdressed. I didn’t know the trails. The low traction situation scared me all out of proportion to the real risks. And topping it off, I’d suggested the ride. The only way I’m constitutionally able to deal with circumstances such as this is to suck it up.

I got quiet and rode. Well, I walked a lot. But I rode a lot, too. Jeff coached Ben and me through the same rock garden several times. I almost cleaned it on my last attempt, and felt good about having almost cleaned it in the snow. Jeff said, “This ride will make every other ride easier.” I tried my dropper post, feeling how the lower seat moved my center of gravity in a confident way on gnarly descents.

Despite these boons, I was tense and fighting myself. Flow I did not. I came off the bike several times, once notably when I got sideways in the snow on what would be a fun descent on dirt. The resulting sleigh ride fetched my side up against a tree – the bruise is very colorful, and caused me to spend half a minute wondering whether I’d cracked a rib. Another time I found my leg tangled up inside the bike’s frame while I fell sideways. Catching myself with my arm against a downed tree, muscles pulled on bruised ribs. I felt that. Still another time I vaulted entirely clear of Moby (I call my white, mid-fat bike Moby), somehow unclipping and landing in the snow as cat-like as I’ve ever done. Which is to say, not very.

By the end, my shoulders ached from tension I hadn’t shrugged off. As we rode along a flat carriage road, with each stroke I wrapped my toes around the pedal like a monkey would to encourage blood flow. I was too cold to feel my bruises. Paraphrasing Service, why I’d left my home in the south to roam ’round the poles God only knows. I was mentally done even before facing the hill up to the parking lot. Petulant with fatigue and cold, the idea of climbing it pissed me off. Almost immediately my rear tire spun in the snow, but anger bred determination and I kept the pedals turning until the tire bit. And then my front wheel was off the packed trail and into the deeper snow, but again, channelled infantilism kept my feet spinning. Two thirds of the way up that part of my brain dedicated to failure told me to quit. But I decided not to. Topping out, I hadn’t beaten the hill, but rather my own self.

We shook hands, and Jeff and Ben headed out. I don’t think they knew how mentally hard that ride had been for me. I took a moment to luxuriate in my bruises, while sitting in dry clothes in a sun-warmed Honda. Biting ice from the nipple of my Camelback, I drank water as delightfully cold as liquid water can be. I ground a handful of trail mix between my molars, the raisins and the chocolate covered espresso beans instantaneous mood changers. I remembered how the hemlocks looked against the snow, and Jeff’s words came back to my mind; “This ride will make every other ride easier.”

I thought about riding Huntington in the jungley misery of a July afternoon when I’d drain a full Camelback and salt-stain my gloves and wonder just when the thunderstorm would hit.

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Where I Learned How to Ride

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Cows wade in the Shepaug below Judd’s Bridge

Several years ago, before I ever rode epics such as the D2R2, in the morning of a gloriously hot New England May day, I set out from home on a solo ride that changed my view of where one should ride bikes. I don’t remember what led me to the dirt of Judd’s Bridge Road. Probably I thought it would be cooler along the Shepaug, cool enough to draw me off the pavement and risk flatting on the dirt.

I do know that I didn’t know where I’d go at the actual bridge on Judd’s Bridge Road. The likely option was turning around. I could have gone straight onto Tunnel Road, but that was abandoned and I wasn’t sure my road bike could handle it. I could have gone right and up Battle Swamp, but at that point I hadn’t yet embraced climbing, and Battle Swamp is one gnarly climb. That left turning left over the river and continuing on Judd’s Bridge toward New Milford. And while I didn’t know that road well then, the fact that it pointed directly at the side of Second Hill, which tops out 500 feet higher than the Shepaug, made it obvious that there’d be some gnarly climbing there as well. I decided to just poke my nose across the river, staying on the flats, maybe try to see where the old railroad had gone, and then turn home.

Crossing the Shepaug on the wooden deck of Judd’s Bridge, the air buzzed with insects and the hillsides that enclosed me were covered with the green lace of early summer. Passing through Judd’s Bridge Farm, black beef cows languished in the shade. A tenth of a mile in, Judd’s Bridge Road went vertical. But another road turned right, north up the valley, one I’d never travelled before. Walker Brook Road, the sign said.

It was quiet there. An old barn stood before me, and I felt light and alone in the way that I had sometimes felt as a boy during summer vacations. It was as if I could pass through the landscape unnoticed; in this Twilight Zone moment, Walker Brook Road called me to ride its shady dirt.

Walker Brook Road rose gradually, following first the Shepaug valley and then its own eponymous one. The riverine woods were open on both sides, and it was half a mile to the first house. In a Robert Frost moment, other dirt roads came in from both sides there, but I stayed my course. Soon, I was pedaling alongside a narrow pasture, dodging sandy spots in the road, the air smelling sweet and grassy, and then I was back into the woods. The valley narrowed, and the climb steepened just a little, but that was concurrent with the shade deepening and the air cooling because of the brook running along the road.

“I’ll turn back when this road Ts with another,” I thought. Chores called, and Pat would be worried.

Meanwhile, I climbed for miles through the summer day, passing just a few side roads and not many houses. I felt free, like I have driving endless roads in the West. I felt wonderment, discovering this place ten miles from home. Eventually reaching a T-intersection, the dream ended and I knew where I was. Even if I hadn’t promised myself I’d reverse here, even if home wasn’t calling me, I wouldn’t have wanted to cross that T. I knew the road ahead. It was nice, but it wasn’t what lay behind. Turning around, I descended what I’d climbed, making a perfect flight down the valley. There were no cars, no people; only me pedaling fast down a dirt road on a summer day, and knowing that this was how I should ride bikes.

 

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Oooph…

I’ve ridden a lot in the dark, but never much on anything resembling singletrack. This week’s Thursday night saw me on my first real night trail ride. I expected it to challenge me, but I hey, I know the trail – been there three times already this week. Well, it was a lot harder, and made even more so by how the day’s heavy wind had rearranged the leaves on the ground.

Mentally processing the trail wasn’t as easy at night. You don’t get a big picture, just a series of narrow samples in the helmet-light’s beam. It was hard to focus on looking ahead and picking a line, because my eyes followed the light, jumping far out into the woods on turns, wanting to lead me astray. More than once I caught a shoulder on a tree, led there by a flash of light shining on the trunk just before I reached it. One plus is that I saw lines never noticed in the daylight. Maybe the directional light picks out details better. I’l try to remember them next ride.

I rode focusing on the mantra of “Relax, look ahead, pedal.” Generous guy that he is, Jeff put me in front, but that didn’t last long. I was not the one to lead that night. For me, it was a short series of mountain bike fails.

Within the first ten minutes, I miss the turn at the T to hit the boardwalk, stopping the group. I ride off the boardwalk. Doing a slow turn around a boulder, my right foot catches the rock on its upstroke and throws me over on my left side. Getting up, the right shoe is loose and I realize I broke a ratchet strap.

I catch up, the group rides on. We meet Sean and Don coming towards us. They change direction and we ride together. Up the yellow trail to the red trail, cross a stone wall, thread the first pair of big trees, the ones with the twin rocks between them and the tight center line, feeling like I’m riding well. Not long ago I was riding around those trees. There’s a second pair of trees just up the hill, with a little chicane and a big rock just past them. The left tree puts the rock in shadow. Forgetting that it’s there, I bury my front wheel into the rock. The bike and I change vector, going from linear motion to forward rotation. Endoing in the dark, illuminated only by a helmet mounted light, is surreal, disorienting; a Blair Witch moment. It’s a weightless cartwheel of black with an FX streak of light. I feel the bike fly over me and realize I’m still clipped in. Landing hard on my shoulder with the bike atop, I hear my own, “Oooph.”

But I’m okay. The bike looks fine too. Hopping back on, I ride up the trail and the pain subsides in moments. But the helmet feels loose and keeps dropping into my field of view. I must have hit my head too, although it didn’t seem that way. With the helmet moving about, there’s a disconcerting randomness to where I can point the light. Fifteen minutes on, I realize I shouldn’t be riding with a damaged helmet and poor lighting. At the next stop, I say that I’m done. That’s the impetus everyone else seemed to need too, although I suspect we’d have done another lap otherwise, and we all ride out.

Apologies to the group for my clumsiness, and kudos to Joe, who kept up on unfamiliar trails, in the dark, on his fourth mountain bike ride!

 

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Shut Up Head

I imagine every cyclist has a particular climb against which they measure other climbs. Battle Swamp is mine. I know harder and longer climbs – North Kent and Lambert jump out. But Battle Swamp is in my back yard and I’ve been trying to ride it for 15 years. From Judd’s Bridge, the climb is a little less than half a mile and gains 263 ft. of elevation. At one point the grade is 31%, and the average is 12%. It’s dirt, and often wash-boarded. For years I couldn’t clean it. Mostly that was my physical condition. In better shape now, I’ve been cleaning Battle Swamp for months.

But every time I’ve turned up it, it’s been with trepidation. The old excuses run through my head, tableaus that have played out before. Losing control and riding off the road as my front wheel pops up on a washboard. Forward movement stopping as my back wheel spins out in August’s loose gravel. Dying in a soft spot. Reaching the top of the initial steep in such cardio desperation that I stop.

The latter is a regular in my panoply of cycling excuses. Part of me always wants to keep a round in the chamber, and the thought will flash into my head as I’m working hard that I should back off a little, that I shouldn’t wear myself so that I can’t clean the climb, or the ride, or be able to ride tomorrow. On Battle Swamp, backing off means stopping and maybe walking, which means I didn’t clean the climb, so there’s that rationale gone. And really, even going as hard as I can on any climb on any local ride won’t ruin me for the rest of the ride. I will get home.  And being able to ride tomorrow? Unless the D2R2 is the next day, what am I worried about?

Excuses.

Shut up head.

I have beaten each of my Battle Swamp excuses in the past year, but the failures of the past still echo through my mind whenever I gear down and turn up. On Thursday night last, keeping the answers to my fears in mind made those echoes quieter and more distant. I just rode, looking ahead, picking a line, centering my body, gearing up after the steep, maintaining a uniform effort all the way. I didn’t PR, but with the soft condition of the road, I didn’t expect to. Neither was it the desperate effort to just get up the thing that it had been in the past.

I know how to ride Battle Swamp. And now I know that, I can ride it harder. I wonder what Battle Swamp would be like if I were riding it for the first time now? It’s a Groundhog Day question. Have I improved as a cyclist to the point that I would I simply clean it? Or would I need to relearn the specific lessons about terrain that particular climb has taught? It’s impossible to say.

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Muddy Thirty

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A little mud never hurt. Much. 

“Planning a Dirty Thirty this week?” I asked Jeff.

He said something like, “If you’re game, so am I.”

It’s February, but the nighttime temperature was supposed to be 53F and the dirt roads didn’t seem too muddy. In fact they weren’t, but that’s relative. Riding to the ride, it was twilight and not full dark, indicating that the solar cycle is swinging our way. Jeff, Jason, Ben, and I left the Market, descending Judd’s Bridge from the center of Roxbury. The road was mostly smooth, always a little soft, always a little energy-sapping, and with enough seriously soft spots to focus your attention going downhill. In a few places, water flowed.

From Judd’s, we turned onto the Battle Swamp climb. Given the time of year, I felt surprisingly competent climbing its grades, which peak at over 30%. At least, I didn’t make the group wait long for me at the top.  I PRed the next big climb, Moosehorn, perhaps a good harbinger for the year, particularly since I wasn’t aiming for it.

Descending Booth and Bear Burrow scared me a little – I was expecting ruts and mudholes, but didn’t find them. At the bottom of Bear Burrow, we turned onto Cross Brook. The south end of that road is abandoned. I’d ridden it in the fall and expected a bit of hike-bike. Jason lifted his bike over the first chest-height tree, then leapt it like it was a pommel horse.

I don’t know Jason that well, but without thought, said, “I hate you skinny little bastards.” He laughed. Now we know each other better.

There was snow to ride through, and then snowmelt that turned the remains of Cross Brook Road into a stream. In the middle of that is where I realized I’d dropped my chain. It would have been dumb to have thought I’d keep my feet dry. Fixing the chain, I lost sight of the last blinking red tail light in front of me. I wasn’t sure which way they’d go where Cross Brook hit Tophet, but between the snow and the stream, I knew everyone’s tires would be wet. On Tophet I followed the tire marks on the pavement, serpentine as they must have ridden a little slowly waiting to regroup. The trail led uphill to Welton. Welton is the wettest road in Roxbury, and from our direction it’s a slight grade up to 317. We worked for that mile and a half, and my legs were starting to make their objections known.

We rode up the middle of 317 to the airport, not seeing a single car along that stretch of state highway. We cut across the end of the runway and hayfield, headed for Grassy Hill Road to descend to Old Roxbury Road. The hayfield was a quagmire, and soon it was a quagmire under a couple of inches of snow. The snow stopped us all, and we walked the hundred remaining feet to Grassy Hill. We snacked and drank and Ben fixed his light, then down we went. On mountain bikes, Jeff and Ben bombed the hill, but it felt soft on my 32mm tires. I took it a little easy. At one memorable spot, my wheels sunk in a couple of inches and I almost fell over. From there on down, I rode like Grandma. At the bottom I apologized to Jason, who was on a mountain bike, saying he could have passed me. He said that no, he’d almost crashed too, and slow was good. Glad it wasn’t just me.

Old Roxbury Road brought back old memories. When I started riding as an adult 15 years ago, I couldn’t finish the climb to Lower County in my lowest gear on my mountain bike. I’d have to stop and catch my breath on the final switchback. I rarely ride that road in that direction any more. Riding strong past my old stopping point was a reminder that it can get easier.

We crossed Roxbury from east to west heading for the top of the ridge and the New Milford border. We took it easy climbing Mine Hill, to the point that I could ride with Jeff and Jason and hold a conversation. We turned onto the big Judd’s Bridge descent for our return leg. Jeff had ridden it the day before and warned us where it would be wet. He was right, but even though it was wet, it wasn’t very soft. I still held back, being careful not to outrun my light (I need a brighter light!). The temperature at the bottom had to be 10F cooler than at the top, and I was glad for the minor climb back to the center of town.

As we were saying our farewells, I saw Roxbury’s first selectman leaving town hall across the road.

“Hi Barbara,” I yelled.

“Who’s that?”

“Andy.”

“You guys are on a bike ride?” she said with some incredulity. “Watch out for crazy drivers!”

To which Jeff said, “We were waiting for you to leave…”

General laughter followed, then we all headed our ways home. At the start of the Apple Lane climb, I realized how shot my legs were. Climbing Ruccum was an exercise in lactic acid tolerance. On Transylvania, a mile from home, everything from my neck to my calves started to hurt.

It was a good hurt from a rare, warm February ride, with good company.

 

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Beats Spinning in the Living Room

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It’s been a great winter for cycling. I’ve commuted in every month so far, and have managed a Sunday mountain bike ride nearly every weekend. But this week, New England showed its character. Wednesday night, we rode trails in shorts because it was 50 degrees. Thursday, my company closed because of snow. Friday morning it was 11 degrees.

Late Thursday night, I got a text from my co-worker, Patrick, asking if I’d like to go XC skiing at lunch on Friday.

Well, yeah.

Friday morning found me frantically searching in the dark for my gaiters.

At lunch, we drove half a mile to the old insane asylum in Newtown, the grounds of which are now maintained as parkland, and strapped on our skis. It was a tough go at first as we were the first out and had to break trail. We had nearly finished the first circuit, and I was looking forward to getting a glide going on the next go-round when I heard Patrick say he had a problem.

Yeah he did. The soles had completely seperated from his boots. We ended up walking out, but I was inspired.

Saturday morning, I grabbed my skis and Micah, the more biddable of my two dogs, and headed for the old Shepaug Railroad bed on the Orzech Preserve. I’d never taken either dog skiing before, and figured it made sense to start with Micah. I wasn’t sure how far we’d go. My quads are in decent shape from cycling, but there’s another muscle, I believe the abductor longus, that runs down the inner thigh and is so far as I can tell useless for anything other than skiing. Clear evidence of intelligent design there! Historically, either that abductor or my lower back had been a problem when skiing.

There was a good chance someone would have been out on Friday and broken trail, but I wanted to get there early to beat the inevitible hikers who would mess the snow up with their postholes. I was happy to find that something that really isn’t supposed to be on Roxbury Land Trust property – I think a quad, but I’m not sure, had sort of groomed the trail. There was another set of ski tracks as well (from my friend Julie the day before, as I found later), and hardly any postholes. Awesome!

About a mile in, near the Volunteer Bridge that links the trails on two seperate Land Trust properties, the quad tracks disappeared. A little further on and so did any evidence of hikers and all that lay before me was two beautiful Nordic ski tracks in the snow, crisscrossed with deer trails. Another quarter mile in and and Julie had turned around. img_0946In fine fettle, I broke trail to the end of the mantained section of the rail bed. Beyond that, the old rail bed becomes private property. I considered taking the access road to the hay field that’s right there, but decided not to overdo things. That right there is maturity.

Micah led me back, although he’d slowed considerably from his initial burst of energy and my ski tips would occasionally nudge his hind feet along. About halfway between the Volunteer Bridge and the parking lot though, he lit out after something, looking to his right toward the Shepaug River. Micah chases large birds. I’ve seen him in our front yard running circles and looking up at a circling hawk. It’s supposed to be a smart breed…

Today though, he was chasing a bald eagle as it flew north along the river. The eagle minded Micah not at all, landing in a tree about 50 feet from the trail. I stopped and watched for a few minutes, and then skiied on back to the car. We didn’t see another person in hour we were out. Later in the day when the sun came out, I drove by and the parking lot was full.

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Sunday morning, my abductor longus was only slightly sore and my felt back fine, so I grabbed Micah and his brother Gus and headed out again. It was snowing, and there was one car in the lot when we got there, so I figured we’d meet someone. The trail was a shadow of its yesterday-self, Julie’s and my ski track crusted over with iced-up postholes. Weekenders, I think, city-dwellers who are oblivious to how their actions might affect skiiers because, well, they just don’t know. It wasn’t much fun, although the fresh snow helped. Folks, if you’re hiking in the snow, don’t walk in the ski tracks, okay? At the Volunteer Bridge we met the couple whose car was in the lot. Our dogs sniffed and wiggled, the humans chatted, and we went our own ways.

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As on Saturday, the footprints soon stopped, and nothing but double track lay ahead. At the end, I decided to head up to the hay field today, not having had to break any trail. We did one circuit and headed out. Shortly before we started to run into footprints again, another skiier hove into view. Seeing Gus and Micah, she called to them. One thing I love about Roxbury is that most people seem to be dog-people. Her name was Maura, and the first thing she said, referring to the icy footprints behind her and in front of me, as well as the perfect double-track we were on was, “That was a pain in the ass, but this is nice.”

Indeed.

There were no eagles today, but again, the fresh snow took some of the sting out of the ruined double-track back to the parking lot. And what took even more of the sting out of the ruined double-track was that skiing on it spared me the misery of riding my bike on the trainer.

 

 

 

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