The First Ride of 2021

I try always to ride on New Year’s Day. I’ve ridden in some gnarly weather to accomplish that, but yesterday wasn’t bad.

The first cycling thing of the new year wasn’t riding though. At 8 AM on that crisp morning, I met Mark at Upper Paugussett. Shouldering my saw and gear, I followed him up the trail and in about half a mile to where a good-sized ash tree blocked the trail.

The goal was to clear the trail and turn the ash into a skinny, but first we had to drop it. That took a little thought and a fair amount of undercutting. When it was down, we had something like half a ton of wood to rotate 90 degrees into position on the uphill side of the trail. This idiot forgot his peavey, and neither of us thought to bring a come-along. Working with tree-branch levers and log fulcrums, we spent about 45 minutes maneuvering the log into place.

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It was big and in the way.

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It takes thought to cut up a downed tree. Undercutting is often the best approach.
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Amazing how much weight you can move with levers and determination.
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Wedging it solid with rocks ensured the log wouldn’t roll back.
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Ten more minutes with the saw flattened the top.
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Ready to ride. The entry is at the other end unless you’re really, spectacularly good. I’m not, but it’s a hoot to build features for others.

After the trail work, I went home for a couple of hours. A ride was still in the cards though. I met up with Ben and Korey along Schaghticoke Road by Bull’s Bridge at 2. Clouds had rolled in and the day had become cold; about 35F and damp. The ride to the foot of North Kent Road is about 7 miles, at least 5 of it on dirt. We didn’t dawdle getting on our mountain bikes, but it took a couple of miles of pedaling along the muddy road by the Housatonic to warm up. Here, there are places where the Appalachians rise up in sheer cliffs from the river, and the road occupies most of the 50 feet of flat between the two.

We stopped at the foot of North Kent to pee and strip some clothes. As it happened, I should have taken off more. A family of hikers came through, going south along where the AT tracks on River Road. It looked to be a husband and wife in their 40s, and an older woman I took to be the wife’s mother. All of them looked fit, but particularly the matriarch.

She asked us, “Which way are you going?”

We pointed up North Kent.

“Have you been up there?”

That was when I knew she was local.

“Oh yeah.”

She smiled, I think maybe because we weren’t headed onto the AT where bikes aren’t allowed, but maybe because she was another fan of Type 2 fun and liked that we were knowingly headed up the hardest road around.

“You should have had fenders today,” she said, waving us goodbye.

North Kent is only 2 miles long, but it gains 1000 feet of elevation. And it’s gravel. Loose, rounded, bank-run gravel. There are ruts and deep drainages. Its north side is a 50 foot tumble into a gulley. It’s not unrelentingly steep, but where it’s steep, it’s almost unbelievably so. Today, there was also ice. I’ve cleaned it once, 2 or 3 years ago. I thought I could do it today as well, but on the penultimate steep pitch the clothes I hadn’t take off came back to haunt me. I was overheated and near puking when I put a foot down. Off came my gloves and balaclava, and I opened every zipper I could to expose my chest to the cold. Feeling immediately better, I clipped back in and rode on, disappointed in my rookie mistake that had kept me from cleaning it a second time.

Korey and Ben both did clean it. At the top, we debated our route back. It was 3:15, and we had only an hour or so of decent light left. We decided to retrace our route with a sidebar at the Kent School trails.

Ben, young and able, ripped down North Kent. He got a 4th overall time on the Strava segment, and I’m sure he could have KOMed if he’d known the road better and if he’d known how close he was. I rolled it at a much more sedate pace.

I’d never descended North Kent before, although I’ve climbed it probably 20 times. Ass back off the saddle, I had to will my upper body to relax as the tires crunched through the gravel. There aren’t many descents here that are long enough to leave my quads burning from standing on the pedals, but this is one.

At the bottom, I said to Ben and Korey, “We rode UP that?”

Korey responded, “I know. What the fuck?”

From there it was a mudfest to Kent School, where we followed Korey onto the trails. We’d been worried it would be too muddy to ride there, but the trails had drained well. It was only a month ago the only other time I rode there. Chris and Korey had dropped me effortlessly on the mildly technical beginning section. Toward the end of that ride I’d begun to feel my mojo again, a phenomenon repeated in the intervening weeks. Yesterday I held my own, riding at the back but mostly keeping up. What had intimidated me a month ago just needed looking up and pedaling. I had this.

Back out on Schaghticoke Road, we spun back to our cars, glowing thighs covered in mud from the road. No one wanted to linger. Everyone had obligations. But we downed a beer and toasted the new year.

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The Last Ride of 2020

When I got to Waldo, the gate was closed so I had to park outside. The day was cold, gray, and a little windy, but the night was supposed to bring rain, so this was the moment. I was alone – No one else was able to find the time.

Riding alone scared me until Chris set me straight a few months ago.

“You’re no more likely to get hurt. If you do, someone will probably be along soon anyway. Plus you have a phone. And if you want to repeat a section, you’re not holding anyone back. Don’t be a pussy.”

I’m not sure he actually said the last part. I heard it though.

Chris’s rationality is one of his best attributes.

I almost cleaned the first rock on Red, but my roadie-spin instinct got in the way. My front wheel got over, I but needed to be one gear higher to complete the move. Mainly though, I wasn’t afraid to try it.

The first two rock gardens were easy like they used to be, the lines obvious and my feet light on the pedals (which, I think, really means heavy on the pedals because my ass was light on the seat). The third was cake, and I made it over the logs.

For the third or fourth time in a row, the climb to the power lines was no big deal. Pedaling and looking ahead got me through the break in the stone wall, and looking ahead and pedaling more got me between the rocks and over the bump between the trees. The little chicane with the root and the trees and the rocks took just a little dance and a kick on the cranks and the next thing I was climbing the gravel ramp to the power lines.

I schralped the Schralpin’ Turns just fine. The re-route from the May 15 storm, the one that shoots up the rock slab to an immediate 90 degree turn between some jagged rocks, went perfectly. The slab scrubbed off just the right amount of speed to make the turn. After that, I got through the stupid rooty turn that’s always a problem and shouldn’t be, and then across the big beech root that looks like a big deal but isn’t.

The Yellowvator was nothing. For the first time ever I didn’t ride around the stone wall beyond the big new log-over. It too was nothing, but then I managed to fall off the boardwalk. Taking a turn too tightly, my back wheel dropped off. No big deal except the inside pedal was bottomed. It jammed on the boards and levered me sideways to land on my side in the mud, laughing at the absurdity of my Artie Johnson tumble.

Then on to Purple, where once again, I cleaned the first rock garden handily. It’s so psychological. I’ve been physically capable for months, but just didn’t have the grit to look ahead and pedal. Then, I followed someone else through, saw them take the line I always did take, and somehow that convinced my brain again that I could do it. I love that feeling when I’m halfway through something that scared me and I suddenly know I’m going to nail it. There’s a high line that’s better here, but the low line looks safer.

I took the high line.

Catching up to a group, I stopped by the quartz mine for a pull from my Camelback to give them time to get out front. Dismounting, I moved a few sticks out of the trail, then clipped back in holding onto a tree so I could zoom the ledge into the turns. As I came down from the turns after the quartz mine, a woman had her phone out videoing a man going over the rock before the high stone wall crossing. He hit it fast and there was four feet of air below his tires before he nailed the landing. I whooped out, “Nice!”, just for having seen that.

Moby bounced around more than I’d like on the descents. Probably need to let a little air out of my fork. Climbing up from the lake was the easiest it’s been in a year and a half. By the time I got to the top of the Yellowvator again, it was time to ride out. I’d been aerobic for a full hour and my legs were feeling it.

But I was feeling it. I’d been engaged with the bike and the trail for a solid hour of problem solving. Sure, I know the problems well, but also not so well. Not only am I still at some uncertain point on the Dunning-Kruger slope after fucking up my knee, the trails are different every time I ride them. It was good to have ridden alone. There were no distractions, no chats, just my brain and my body learning to trust each other again.

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Chilly Willy Nilly Old Ride

I spent yesterday afternoon fretting about the ride I was to do last night. It was a cold day, breezy, with little sun and occasional snow flurries. Adding in the fact that we weren’t starting until after sunset wasn’t inspirational.

I kept hoping Joe would text me that he was bailing out. Turns out he was hoping the same thing. Neither of us did though, so at 4:45 we found ourselves dressed in tights and layers and balaclavas, pedaling up my driveway with lights a-blinking.

The first mile was cold, but as soon as we started to climb our legs got the blood pumping. Two minutes later my hands were sweating. Cresting Grassy Hill by the airport, we caught a beautiful, bloody sunset through a small aperture between the horizon and the clouds. The run down 317 was right into the wind though, and we were glad to enter the shelter of the woods on Welton. In a theme repeated several times, cars gave us a wide berth, mostly crossing the center line into the far lane when passing us.

Perhaps the drivers thought us insane.

Booth was fine, its climb tough as always. I dropped Joe on that climb, because, as it turned out, he didn’t downshift soon enough and had to grunt his way up. It would be the only time I dropped Joe last night.

I hadn’t ridden the abandoned section of Chalybes in two years and half expected it to be blocked with trees downed by last summer’s wind storms. It was fine though. That section needs to make it into more of my routes.

I thought the coldest we’d be would be riding through the cornfields on Ridge, exposed to the wind a thousand feet in the air. It was cold, but but the wind made us work and colder still were the runs down Chapin and Walker Brook. By the time we hit Battle Swamp both of us welcomed the chance to warm up on the climb. I didn’t clean it, haven’t yet this year, but only put a foot down for a few seconds. The same proved true of Moosehorn, except both of us walked a bit of that one. By then our quads were beginning to cramp on the climbs.

But we weren’t cold.

On Dorothy Diebold, we caught up with, of all things, a Corvette, chugging slowly down the dirt road. Happily, it turned down Booth, its driver probably wondering just what the hell had caught up with him. The clouds had cleared by then, and the home run down Upper County and Bacon was moonlit.

It was a good ride – My legs only cramped up once during the night.

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Thanksgiving Eve

I’m not really sure if it’s a tradition. On one Thanksgiving Eve a couple of years ago, the parking lot beering was epic in that a cold front blew through and enveloped us in a snow squall. Prepared for the change in temperature, we huddled through the blow in our camp chairs and Carhartts. Ten minutes later the skies were severe clear and the moon was brilliant. That was so memorable that it’s in my head we always ride on Thanksgiving Eve.

Last year, I was out due to my ACL replacement. Maybe the guys rode and maybe they didn’t. Maybe that was the night they invited me to meet them for beers after they rode. But this year, I very much wanted to continue the tradition, and at the Pond, the site of my memory.

Ride we did. I cleaned the first hill on Pink String and got most of the second one. I rode as well, or nearly so, as I’d been riding at my peak two years ago. It bothered me some that I’d lost all that time in the woods, that one lapse in judgement had set me back so far physically and mentally.

But there’s satisfaction in not quitting. Riding the brutal trails at the Pond is by definition not quitting. And it feels now like I’m at the bottom of the second rise of a Dunning-Kruger graph, the moment past despair when long-term growth begins.

Those parking lot beers sure were good last night.

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A Good Ride

It was a long and uncertain week at work. There was no time for a Wednesday ride. I was getting through 12 hour days with 5 hours of sleep and 5 cups of coffee. On Friday, the situation seemed under control and I committed to riding Waldo on Saturday.

There’d been a lot of rain and while the surface leaves on the trail were dry, those underlying were wet. I rode a little cautiously, a decision justified by the mud and leaf mold on Mark’s leg after his rear wheel washed out on a turn within the first mile.

Again, I kept the rubber side down, and mostly kept up with Mark and Chris. The log-overs on Red still sketch me out, particularly when the wood is the slightest bit wet, so I skipped them. The trouble is that the trail intersects them at an angle. Laying in bed this morning, I thought about rebuilding them so they turned and banked a little. Not sure if that’s a good idea or not.

What made me happiest yesterday was cleaning several sections I’ve struggled on for years. When I was peaking two years ago, I got these sections regularly. All they take is looking ahead, keeping the front wheel light, and spinning the pedals. The climb up Red to the powerlines crosses a stone wall and then goes through a jagged rock garden that continues between two trees. The trail flattens for 50 feet, then passes between two more tightly spaced trees. At this passage, there’s a large root followed by a pair of rocks, all of which must be threaded in the space of three feet.

The other tough section is the rock garden at the top of Purple. I’ve been avoiding it since getting back on the MTB until two weeks ago. On that ride, I got about halfway through. Yesterday, I got it all. It helped to be watching Chris ride in front of me. It wasn’t so much that he was showing me the line – Hell, I know the line – but that his riding it gave me confidence that my own tires would stick to the rocks if I just kept pedaling.

And that’s the crux of why getting back on the MTB has often been frustrating. Two years ago, I had a better idea of what the bike can do than I do now. I had just about gained the confidence that would have leveled me up in a video game or a dojo. Now I’m relearning lessons I had mastered. The crash that took my knee out didn’t happen because of these how I ride routinely. It happened because I made a decision that was out of character for me.

There’s a lesson there.

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Time and Distance

A Land Trust committee I’m a part of met last night. I try to ride on Wednesday nights, but this meeting was held outside, in a parking lot at the foot of a hill I used to ride regularly but which I haven’t ridden in six years.

Kismet. I rode to the meeting.

This committee first met to discuss the project (replacing a bridge on a hiking trail) back in November or December. Not long past my ACL replacement, I attended wearing a knee brace and walking with a cane. Riding to last night’s meeting was a bit of a personal triumph.

After our business finished, I started riding up the hill. In the past, I’d often had to stop partway up to catch my breath. At the least, I would usually stop at the top, lean over my bars, and wait for my heart to stop pounding.

The first bit is mellow, climbing past a disused barn. At the next house, several dogs barked me past. Just beyond, the road entered the forest it would climb through for the next half mile. It gets steep here, but not as steep as in my memory.

Okay, I thought, this isn’t bad, but the really steep part is near the top.

Pedaling on, barely breathing heavily, I passed the driveway where I used to stop. Coming to the final steep pitch, it barely looked like a challenge. At the top, where I used to stop wondering if that was the spot they’d find my body, I was upshifting, riding upright, and feeling the cool air on my chest.

What a difference a few months or a few years can make.

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Easy Peasy

I did an easy 12 miler this morning with the goal of replicating the feeling of a ride from my memory.

My parents weren’t sporting people. My dad worked, and worked around the house, and drank cheap beer at the bar down the street. My mom’s idea of a perfect vacation was sitting in the shade reading while drinking Maxwell House and smoking L&Ms or Virginia Slims. That sounds bad, but really wasn’t outside the norm for the time and place.

It would have been in 1969 that we vacationed in Point Pleasant, NJ. I was seven years old and we rented bikes one morning. It was cool and sunny, and riding down the street felt effortless. The chorus to Little GTO ran through my head.

It was one of the happiest moments of my childhood, one of those innocent times that sticks with you forever.

Of course this morning’s ride didn’t replicate the feeling of that moment. It couldn’t. More than half a century has passed. Both my parents are dead and my generation is on the front lines now. But there were a few times, gliding down the slight grades of Welton or Dorothy Diebold Lane, when I felt an existential lightness that came close.

There’s a reason my wife calls my bike Rosebud.

 

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Bouncy, Bouncy

There’s a section we ride often on our gravel bikes. It’s a bit of old carriage road through a preserve, just two wheel ruts wide. It rolls, with three or four sharp climbs and an equal number of descents. Ledge-rock and baby heads poke through the gravel. To one side is a steep hill, to the other a steep fall.

The first time I rode it was at night, maybe 5 years ago. I stopped watching my friends’ taillights pull away and focused on the rocks in front of me. Where I didn’t walk the bike, I made a slow, wiggling line born of terror. I missed very few of the rocks that so scared me, bouncing over them, losing speed, losing control.

That section made me question whether gravel riding was for me, whether I’d ever be able to ride sections like that with the panache of my friends. But I kept at it. I don’t know about panache, but like the guy who was turned into a newt, I got better.

Two nights ago, I hit it again. Ass off the saddle, I put everything I had into the pedals. My bike rewarded me by flying up the doubletrack. My pounding heart barely entered my consciousness because I was having so much fun. All I saw was the line between the rocks or the rock best to ride over. Past the gate, I let go of the brakes and we, my bike and I, rolled down the final, rutted, stony descent to the grass beyond.

I don’t know if my bike can experience pure joy.

I know that I can.

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Cycling as a Calvinistic Rite

Last night, Joe and I rode 31 miles and change. Some was gravel, some paved, some singletracky. We pushed each other pretty hard, and by the end of the ride my quads were aquiver.

At one point about halfway in, we approached the end of the pavement on a road in Washington just as a car was crossing over from the dirt section. The driver slowed, and through his open window said, “Careful – There’s loose gravel up there.”

“Thanks,” I said. It was nice that a driver cared enough to warn us.

But gravel, loose or packed, was what we were looking for. Likely that driver had no idea that there are cyclists who seek out the more challenging roads. I mean, isn’t riding a bike hard and dangerous enough on paved roads?

Once you get past the beach cruisers and rail-trail riders, cyclists are a breed apart. Getting even halfway good at this sport calls for embracing the pain that comes from pushing hard and tolerating the pain that comes from injury. It is part of the identity, a source of perverse pride. Get a group of cyclists together and eventually the talk will turn, often gleefully, to pain.

The disdain that runs through the cycling community for e-bikes and e-bikers springs from the cyclists’ relationship with pain. E-bikes seem like cheating. They take the work out of the ride. They take the pain out of the ride. They provide un-earned fun.

E-bikers are always going to have bring their own beer.

 

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A Glimpse

(Edited 8/3/20)

I had a professional bike fitting done on Friday. Andrea made some tweaks that definitely improved my position on the bike. One in particular smoothed my pedal stroke considerably. Early Saturday morning, I re-rode the 26 miler I’d done Wednesday with friends. Riding back roads alone is a simple joy. How fast or slow I go isn’t influenced by the presence of another cyclist. It’s entirely up to me. We rode one .7 mile Strava segment in Washington that I hold the 5th fastest time on, 2:09. I’m proud of this. I don’t have a lot of high standings on Strava. I’ve ridden with the other 4 guys who have faster times here and I know just how much better than me they are. The ride when I turned myself inside out to get that time stands clear in my memory. Yesterday, I did that segment in 2:12, my second best and still a top 10 Strava time. I’m starting to wonder how much work, how much weight loss, it would take for me to get the KOM on it. The segment suits me. It’s not all climbing – I’m too big to ever be a great climber. It rolls, calling for relatively short bursts of power, the kind of watts a carpenter’s quads can deliver. I would have to go 25% faster. Not all of that translates to power. Some of it translates to the day being right; to mastering the road, shifting right, getting out of the saddle right, and most importantly, gutting out the last 100 yards of climbing.

I write that because it occupied my mind yesterday. And that made me realize I haven’t been riding as much as I want to. If I put in the work, I could be as strong as cyclist as the guys who beat me on that segment. I think I’d like to be. But my job has been on my mind. Work around the house has been on my mind. I was grouchy. I resented all the things in life I say yes to. Small projects for clients or friends. Sitting on town boards. Even organizing rides.

These are all things I like to do. I’m lucky to have the chance to do them. But sometimes I do too many things. Sometimes I resent being an adult. Sometimes I wish I were the kind of person who could just say, “Fuck it. Sun’s over the yardarm somewhere.”

But I’m not. And maybe I’ll never be that cyclist of my fantasies. And that’s okay, because the rest of my life is pretty damn good.

Sunday morning, I sat on the porch for half an hour nursing a cup of coffee. At the end of the yard a woodpecker was having its way with a rotten birch. I could tell from the thuds of its beak in the soft wood that chips were flying from its felling ax of a beak. I imagined the bird’s occasional glance around for the redtail that frequents our woods, and, when the thudding quieted, Woody’s triumphant breakfast of some fat and wiggling grub. A shower passed through, followed by a hummingbird buzzing the hanging baskets. It glanced at me, decided I could be ignored, and went on needling for nectar.

I thought about why yesterday had disturbed me so much. Most of what I’m doing is exactly what I want to be doing.

It could be the politics of the moment. I fear for the country. I fear the looming fascism our mindless president is fostering. More so, I fear the mindful toadies that encourage that orange-haired motherfucker. I despair for my friends who don’t see the situation as I do. I wonder about the protests. I see the truth being lost between the two extremes. I wonder why people can’t just be. And I think that I need to take a break from social media so I can focus on these things that are important to me.

There’s a stretch of Judd’s Bridge Road where its packed dirt takes up all the space between the Shepaug River and the steep slope to its east. The slope is part of a hill leavened by a granite batholith that intruded below the overlying schist when North America divorced Europe, leaving their children to raise themselves above the Atlantic. There’s a visible uncomformity where the two kinds of rock meet a little further on. The west side of the river is a field where beef cattle graze. Above that is a ridge where granite has been quarried for two centuries. West of that ridge is a valley where limestone quarries give rise to the place name of Marbledale. Pangea meets the Appalachians here. The forest along the road consists of hemlocks. The river is well shaded, and it’s been dry enough lately that you could walk across the Shepaug and keep your feet dry. I’ve seen loose cattle wading the river on a hot day here. I’ve seen the river over its western bank here. I’ve seen ice floes and blazing maples. Lately, I’ve seen kids riding bikes here. They asked me for recommendations about where to ride more.

I want to spend more time in places like this.

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