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.
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.
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?
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.”