North Kent Cleanup

On my gravel bike, I’ve never cleaned North Kent Road. It’s a mile of loose gravel that averages 9%, and pushes 40% here and there. I’ve spun out. I’ve popped my front wheel up and lost steering. I’ve run out of gas. I’ve always walked the walk of shame for some of it.

When Korey suggested we do it on mtbs, I thought that might just work. Right from the get-go at his house, he had the route dialed. Instead of riding a mile down US 7, we headed out through some hay fields, hit 7 for all of 100 feet, and then turned onto side streets. We crossed the Hous on 341, and pedaled down River Road, like I’d done dozens of times before.

As at Waldo, the gate on River Road was closed to keep out the riff raff, but we, being distinguished gentlemen, rode around it. Another half a mile in and the fun began. I shifted into my lowest gear right away and just pedaled. NK was eroded and rutted as usual, and I wove from side to side seeking the smoothest line. For one glorious bit, I rode the moss-covered and solid center hump, but that didn’t last long.

The mid-fat tires never even hinted at slipping, and I focused on cadence. The first steep section wasn’t bad, and there’s a little break after that where the grade lessens. I slowed my pedaling here to lower my heart rate, but that break doesn’t last long. The worst pitch is near the top. A couple of twists in the road keep you from seeing too far ahead, and memory hides whether it’s more up or the crest. Here, the legs began to burn, the nausea begins to rise, and the brain begins to say, “Put a foot down. Rest.” I didn’t put a foot down, but by reducing my cadence as much as possible without losing way, I cranked out the last 50 feet.

You know it is the crest when a roof hoves into view. There’s still some steepness between here and Modley Road, but it’s better maintained and not a big deal. Stopping at Modely Road, I felt my heart rate decrease palpably. We were literally only halfway up the mountain, but the hard part was done. We spent the rest of the ride losing all the elevation we’d gained, then riding back along the Appalachian Trail, where bikes aren’t supposed to go. We encountered three through hikers, giving them the right of way, and they seemed happy to encounter other human beings.

A fun route, and it’s got me thinking about swapping out my cassette and derailleur to bring the gearing on my gravel bike closer to the mtb.

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Humidity, Hills, and Fast Companions

It’s obvious I haven’t put in long miles this year. Or maybe it was the humid heat on Thursday night. Whatever – I sucked on the climbs. On the first one, Church Hill, I stopped for a few seconds because of the blood pounding in my head. I’m blaming the humidity because Jeff abandoned the ride at the top, saying he was going swimming. In three years of riding with him, I’ve never seen Jeff slough off like that, so maybe I should have followed his lead.

I didn’t though. It was my route. We rode on, three fast guys and me.

Where I burned one candle too many was on Walker Brook. First, I pushed to ride with the pack on the climb up the north side. On the descent, I led out in my big ring, never coasting, cutting corners, playing tag with my lactate threshold, knowing I’d missed a top 10 time by about 15 seconds two weeks ago, riding in front for almost all of the three and half miles. Strava or Garmin screwed me though, giving me a time 2 minutes longer than everyone else (who all got top 10 times) even though we rode as a pack.

The Judds Bridge climb wasn’t bad, and we pacelined along the ridge behind Sean. I got dropped on River Road and when we started up Squire, my quads were burning and the group’s taillights were disappearing. I gritted up Old Roxbury Road. Thoughts of abandoning at Bacon entered my head. That’s 2 flat miles from home, and the other choice was continuing with the group up Grassy Hill, and then riding another 8 miles or so after that. It was my route though. I climbed. The dirt was soft in places from all the rain. It hurt. I was depressed and hungry, maybe beginning to bonk despite the Gatorade.

The run down Welton Road was great, as it always is. I took a little pride in executing a smooth, 25 mph bunny hop over an eroded section. Booth Road was coming though. After Grassy Hill, I knew how much Booth was going to hurt. Its climb is only a tenth of a mile or so, but hella steep. The burn started right where the up began and didn’t let up until the top. That climb takes a minute, tops, all of which I spent in a motivational soliloquy hoping my body would stick to just burning quads and not transition to nausea.

At the top, as I basked in the residual burn, we parted. I rode the 4 miles toward home as slowly as ever I did. That was two nights ago. I woke early this morning thinking about how I need to get out at least one morning a week and ride more hills.

It’s a sickness.

 

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Rocks

The May 15 storm that Tunguskaed Waldo has actually worked out okay. The re-routes that Paula put in, and the bootleg clearing and log-overs on the red trail, are all improvements. Everyone’s favorite re-route is on the purple trail, adding a bunch of twists and turns to what had been a straight run. It’s a lot more fun, and most of it was minor trail work that didn’t take much more than clippers and rakes.

Except for the stone wall crossing. Unlike most stone wall crossings, the ground on one side is about 3 feet lower than that on the other side. The low side has a relatively long ride-up of 6 or 7 feet, even with the center of the wall taken down to the level of the high side. Initially, all that was done was a hurried lowering of the wall, resulting in a rideable but sketchy approach from the low side. If you hit it fast, you were okay. Probably.

Before

That bothered me.

My company gives its employees two paid days a year for volunteer work, a great benefit. I took one today to build a better wall crossing. It was a typically hot and humid August day. I got out early, leaving the house a bit after 7 to spend the day slinging rocks.

The key to stable dry-laid stone structures is a level base. I dug the first row of stones into the ground about 6 inches, then dug out a level bench behind them for the next course of stones. Each course is laid so the lower vertical edge of each stone bears on the upper vertical edge of the stone below it, in addition to bearing straight down on either dirt or stable stones. That helps each stone resist the forces placed on it by bikes, and should keep the stones from sliding out of place over time.

after

In all, it was an enjoyable day in the woods. Several cyclists came by, and the last one, an acquaintance named Mark, rode the new crossing both ways and gave it a thumbs up.  I’m looking forward to that myself, but for now, I’m cooked. Time for a beer on the porch.

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Fathers and Sons

Monday night, I rode Waldo with an old friend, Mark, and his 17 year old son Aiden. They’re new to mtbing, and wanted to get to know the trails. Two hundred feet into the woods, I looked back to see if they were behind me, rode off the trail, jammed my front wheel on a log, and did a classic, clipped-into-the-pedals endo. I have a bruise on my chest from where the bike landed, and one on my back from my phone’s Otter Box.

Ah, hubris.

The phone is fine, so yay Otter Box.

Once I got untangled from the bike, we rode on down the Red trail, which, for my money, offers the most Whee! per mile in the park. But at the junction with Yellow, Mark got a call from his wife about water in the basement, so they had to bail. We rode out the fire road, bid our goodbyes, and they drove off. A short shared ride, but it was good to see Mark after ten years, and good to see that Aiden had grown into a smart and confident young man. Most importantly though, I liked seeing that they seemed to have a close relationship. When my boys were 17, it was hard.

The light was fading a little, so I exchanged my sunglasses for my regular ones, then left the parking lot to hack around in the park for while. Riding up Yellow to head out, I’d crested the climb on the west side of the hill and was heading down the east side when another rider hove into view, hull down behind a stone wall and waiting for me to pass. With no helmet and dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, he struck me as a beginner. I said “Hi” and “Thanks” and rode on only to encounter what I assume was his son, a boy of about ten, pushing a new Specialized up the slight grade. I stopped to let him pass, taking an opportunity to demonstrate trail etiquette and maybe encourage the boy by saying, “Go ahead – Uphill rider has the right of way. Nice bike!”

A pretty normal encounter, really, except it felt oddly familiar. A dad wanting to bond with his son, probably pressed for time by the realities of a job and maintaining a home, trying to squeeze something fun in while the daylight lasted. Judging by the kid’s expression though, he wasn’t having a lot of fun pushing the bike up the hill. It felt like the dad was trying too hard, something like I might have done with my own kids.

I didn’t feel good about that.

Five minutes later I felt worse. Riding down the east side, I realized that the light had gone to the point where it was hard to read the trail and that I should skip the upper Yellow trail and ride out. Not a big deal for me, but that father and son were heading down toward the lake on the brighter west side and weren’t likely to realize how fast the light was going on the shady side. If they went all the way down, they’d be coming back in the dark. A failure for dad, an ordeal for the boy, a sadly memorable occasion for both unless the dad could handle it better than I would have.

When I got to the car and put my gear away, I thought about getting it back out and riding down the fire road to see if they needed help. I decided against it, figuring that they weren’t likely to get hurt, and all they needed to do was take the fire road out when the trail hit it. Maybe they’d have a shitty time, or maybe they’d make it an adventure and I was projecting my own failures as a parent on that dad. Maybe they had lights. I didn’t other than on my phone. And the last thing that dad needed was some helpful asshole intruding.

I drove home.

I still don’t feel good about it.

 

 

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Wet and Beery

Mark asked if Ben and I would like to ride to Kent Falls Brewery Friday afternoon. An on-line acquaintance of his from Philly, Steve, was in the area and Mark wanted to give him a true gravel experience. The weather looked sketchy with thunderstorms forecast, but their likely onset was late enough that it looked likely we’d be okay. Still, we all stuffed jackets in our jersey pockets.

It was humid and hot with blue skies and high, puffy clouds when we headed our gravel bikes down a regular route that combined pavement, abandoned roads, dirt roads, old railroad beds, and a smidgen of singletrack. Some of that that old railroad bed is classic gravel-grinder challenge. It’s got some small downed trees, baby heads, mini-rock gardens in some ride-arounds, small stream crossings, rooty sections, and a bog or two, all through a forest and next to a class A trout stream.

Shortly after we finished the railbed, about two thirds of the way to the brewery, it clouded over. Big raindrops began pelting the hot asphalt of Romford Road, but we were literally on the edge of the cloud. If I hugged the shoulder, the rain missed me.

Talk about being favored by the gods!

Talk about hubris!

Two miles on we began the Flirtation Ave. climb, where the rain began with purpose. We rode the last three miles to the brewery through a deluge, pacelining around Lake Waramaug. The rain came down so hard that wheel-spray from pacelining didn’t make us any wetter.  The air was warm enough that we didn’t bother with our jackets.

At the brewery, the AC was off. Good. We’d have frozen had it been on. I had a nice, 5.6% sour farmhouse ale, and although it was still raining, was ready to ride on when Ben said, “Andy, you need to drink more.”

Mark had bought a round, this time of a quite drinkable 5.4% lager.

Two beers in, we rode on. It was still raining but not as hard. We all donned our jackets because the temperature had dropped a few degrees. From the brewery, it was nothing but up for the next mile, most of it while watching rivulets of brown water pass under our wheels on the dirt of Gun Hill.  Following Gun, we rocketed down Findlay, where I collected a descent I’d earned climbing it two weeks prior. We wound our way around to Walker Brook, which Ben and I both PRed with times that were only 15 seconds off top ten finishes. Note to self – Hit that when the road isn’t sodden.

In the last few miles, the rain stopped and hints of blue sky peeked through. Back at the start, we realized just how muddy and gritty we were. It was ugly.

There was no dissent when I suggested a visit to my swimming hole.20180708_195413

Great ride, Mark!

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Feet in the Water

Sunday, I mtbed with Ben at our home park, Waldo. On hot summer weekends it’s a popular place with citiots who pack incredible quantities of picnic supplies down the half mile fire road to the lake, but very little back up to their cars. NEMBA members end up cleaning their mess. I think the final straw this year was the piles of shit and toilet paper left alongside the trails. The ranger began locking the gate to the parking area over the weekends, leaving only the few spaces outside the gates available to limit use.

I approve. If you can’t take care of public property, you shouldn’t get to use it.

I drove past the gate, and the spaces in front were filled – even those directly in front of the sign on the gate that say “Do Not Block.” There were even cars parked in farm lanes on private property nearby. We parked half a mile downhill in the spaces at the Shepaug Dam. There’s a trail from there that leads into Waldo, but it’s the gnarliest climb in the park. I said to Ben as we climbed that 200 feet yesterday in the 90F heat, “I fucking hate those people.”

“Which people?”

“The picknickers.”

“Oh, yeah, those fuckers.”

Nonetheless, it was a grand ride. And the park was pretty empty. I rode the Scrhalpin’ Turns as well as I ever have. I can still feel the thrill when I think on it.

Later, riding back down that 200 feet to the parking lot, the Wheee! factor was pretty high. From there, with my cooler containing four iced beers and Ben’s two camp chairs, we hied on down to a shady spot on Lake Zoar. We waded in a couple of feet, set the chairs on the gravel bottom, and drank cold beer with our feet cooling in the clear water. A blue heron glided in and landed near a family fishing from their pontoon boat, and we sat and shot the shit.

All was right with the world.

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Haviland Hollow is Hard

(Edited to correct a factual error) What we call Haviland Hollow is really the Michael Ciaiola Conservation Area, named after a long time president of the Putnam County Land Trust. We don’t though. We call it after the road it’s on. That could be because mountain biking here predates the naming of the place or because none of my crew knows how to pronounce Ciaiola. Both are true, but the truth is uncertain. Additionally, the orange trail here is officially the George C. Cain trail. He was known as a great trail steward and advocate. A member of the NYFD, George Cain died in the line of duty on 9/11.

Korey and Chris have ridden here for years. I rode with them here once, last October. It’s hard. Probably the hardest place I’ve ridden. It’s old-school northeastern riding. It’s not a place to ride often. It’s a place to return to test yourself. We don’t know the trails well. Last year, we found some flatter, flowier (I’m using the term very loosely) trails at the top of the mountain. But right now, we’re at the bottom of the mountain. Today it’s Korey and Ben and me, and today we won’t find those trails. We needed Chris.

The start is innocent enough. Through a gate and along an old road, loose and rooty, and with a stream crossing not a hundred yards in. Just beyond that we turn left onto singletrack. Immediately there’s a short climb that takes strength and skill I lacked a year ago but am delighted to find today. That’s followed by a roller coaster whose sight-lines are masked by undergrowth. The undergrowth ends and we’re riding through an empty group campsite, followed by another short, technical climb and then another empty campsite, followed by yet another short, technical climb that leads to an old stage road.

The stage road climbs alongside a stream whose bed is hardly rockier than the eroded track we’re riding. We pick our lines and still we need to pop and boost our bikes over ledges, still we bash our pedals on bottom-bracket high rocks. It’s badly drained. We muddy our wheels in the wallows and clean them in tributary stream crossings. We suck in humid air and drive our pedals around. The stage road goes on for long enough that I wonder what was here two centuries ago that made the road worth building.

Eventually we leave the stage road and follow a singletrack through the woods. The trees are bigger here and they mostly shade out the undergrowth. A big oak that came down in the May 15 storm blocks a stream crossing and adds a Fitzcarraldo level of challenge. The trail markers seem random. We aren’t sure if the orange markers are for the orange trail or if they’re red trail markers that have faded. The red trail intersects itself in places. Unless it’s the orange trail intersecting the red trail. We’re lost, but it doesn’t matter. Roots weave a mat along the trail. Big ones cross the climbs, holding the dirt and jerking our wheels around. There’s enough hike-a-bike to satisfy our most masochistic tendencies. But we get a couple of fast and dodgy descents, and more than a few satisfying climbs, before topping out at an overlook where we surprise a couple enjoying the view.

“You rode bikes? Up that?”

Yeah, we rode up that. The bikes weren’t always assets.

We leave the couple, then find a radio tower all a-post with dire warnings. We follow its service road down until we turn onto a trail that Ben identified on the map and which Korey and I recognize from last year. The map shows a trail off this trail that we want to take, but almost immediately there’s a sign forbidding bikes. Right – We made the same mistake a year ago. Reversing to the first trail, we ride down one of the best descents of the day. We stop beyond a stream crossing and choose between beer or more riding.

The ice packs in the cooler won’t last forever. Beer wins.

Ben and Korey go first so they don’t see my next act. Mounting my bike, I catch the crotch of my shorts on the seat. Unable to get my weight back, I’m instantly unicycling downhill on my front wheel, my back wheel wagging like a happy Labrador’s tail. When the front wheel inevitably jams on a rock I vault over the bars with uncharacteristic grace to land on my feet.

Hilarity over, I remount and roll down the baby-head strewn trail until reaching a rock face that drops 8 ft. or so at about 45 degrees. I would ride it except for the boulder field runout. Ben and Korey have already walked around it and I follow suit.

Crossing a sketchy bridge whose ends land on the remains of an old dam across the stream we followed in, we’re soon careening down the stage road. It’s much, much shorter going downhill.

Sweaty, muddy, scratched, and bug-bit, dry clothes and wet beer are welcome.

Already I’m replaying the ride in my head, realizing how much better I rode than I did a year ago. And already I’m thinking I want to come back while what we rode today is fresh. I think I know where we needed to turn to find the trails we rode a year ago.

 

 

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