The Strava Siren’s Song

 

Saturday dawned cool and sunny, a perfect September morning. Saddling up before seven, I went out for a casual ride. Grassy Hill was a slow climb, as it usually is when it’s the first vert I hit from home. The grass in the airport hayfield soaked my feet in dew. Welton Road was a fast and easy roll. I climbed the hill on Gold Mine out of the saddle just because I liked how it felt to turn a big gear.

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Looking east to Woodbury from Gold Mine Road.

Visual magic happened on Gold Mine between Bear Burrow and Booth roads. That’s one of my favorite morning views anywhere. On Saturday, the rising sun backlit the field and the trees and made the mist shine like polished silver.

I lingered there for a few minutes, then turned my attention to Booth Road. I felt good. The ride had been mellow so far; so far I had accomplished my goal of answering Pat’s question, “Don’t you ever just go on a bike ride for its own sake?”

But it was cool. The roads were in “hero dirt” condition.

The Strava segment called.

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Booth Road coming up. The Sirens singing from just around the corner.

I clipped in and rolled fast onto Booth Road, pushing up the initial shallow grade until my thighs burned. The wet spot in the right wheel track was still soft, so I rode the left around it, then dodged back to the right in case of oncoming traffic at the bend. The descent I counted on to give my quads a break began. Because of the great condition of the road I cut corners across the gravelly center with confidence, and carried good speed into the sharp climb at the end. Not long ago, I walked this climb. Saturday, I took the steeper, inside line up, out of the saddle and loving the feeling of watts pouring out of my legs and heart.

I owed for that though, and the nausea hit just beyond the crest. The segment turns north there onto Dorothy Diebold for the final quarter mile, but it’s flat for a bit before the last three bumps. Deep breaths. Suck in air, blow out CO2. Calm the system on the flat before the bumps. One hurt. Two started the tingling in my thighs and arms. Three had me wanting to hurl, but then I was over it. Finish strong – fifty yards to go, no coasting yet.

And then I’m off the segment and coasting on the pavement of Painter Hill. A hundred yards up and the nausea is gone. A hundred yards back to ride Dorothy Diebold toward home and the cardio is normal. I was pretty sure I PRed the segment, or at least it would be my second fastest time.

When I checked Strava later, I’d cut 30 seconds off my fastest previous time, down to 4:44. Even better, it was the 5th best overall time for the segment; One of my best ever. I beat out several riders I know to be stronger than me. But Strava segments, especially on dirt, don’t always go to the stronger rider. Saturday, I had the hat trick of perfect weather, perfect dirt, and late-season form. Plus, I had the inclination to go for it. And lest I get too full of myself, the KOM holder, my buddy Jeff, has an order-of-magnitude full-minute of time on me.

Still, pretty good for a fat guy four days past his 57th birthday.

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Ah, Fall

After the Labor Day Roast at Rockland, this weekend’s cloud cover and highs in the 60s felt invigorating. I rode both days. Saturday’s solo 18 mile graveller was quiet. In an hour and a half, I saw 10 cars, 11 motorcycles, 3 bikes, 4 pedestrians, and 3 dogs. Sex Life, the trail between Battle Swamp and Judd’s Bridge, was still slimy from the week’s rain, so I didn’t mind slowing down to move sticks off the path. Another set of tracks looked like someone had come up the hill earlier. I wondered if I knew the rider. Probably. Not a lot of people ride there.

Sunday, I did a group mtb ride, hitting Waldo with Ben and 3 guys who are newer to the game than I am. One of them, Matt, was used to riding the flowy trails in Utah and he was despairing of rocky, east-coast mountain biking. He loved Waldo.

I felt loose and relaxed in the cool air, and the trails flowed whoopingly. I only bobbled one tech, the rooty, rocky chicane between the trees on Red that has skeeved me out for two years. Going back and sessioning that is on my list. Late season strength and lower tire pressure now that I’m riding tubeless are both helping. Nonetheless it felt like other things were coming together as well.  I’m riding out of the saddle more and experiencing how much better that position allows the bike to move and be moved underneath me. The ride is smoother and turning is more certain, adding to my fun and confidence. Related to that, I’m working on the timing and mechanics of the front-wheel pop followed by the forward leap to clear obstacles. The results are small but encouraging, and I do wonder if a bike with a shorter wheelbase would handle that better.

N + 1….

It’s a good place to be heading into the fall. Last year, losing most of the summer to the broken wrist left me nervous about riding as well as out of shape. The year before was my first as an mtber. I think that this autumn is going to be fun.

 

 

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Hot at Rockland

Arriving in the parking lot at 9, it was already warm. When the fast guys started showing up, I knew I was in over my head. On the first climb, pushing myself to just below nausea, I got dropped. This was not the hill I wished to die on. Trying to keep up would be futile, would probably lead me to crash, and would take away from their fun. I did catch up with Ben, or rather, he waited for me, and I said I was going to bail on the group. He was thinking the same and I was more than glad for the companionship.

Catching up at a trail junction, we said our goodbyes. No one tried to talk us into staying. We rode on, and Ben and I each PRed a number of segments, so we were pushing, but three hours later the fast guys came out of the woods just a few minutes after us, having ridden 13 miles to our 11.

I’m sure I would have died.

Ben and I had a good, fun, hard ride. I learned. Paying attention to the fundamentals paid off. Rockland has a bunch of tight turns. Slow-speed balance isn’t my strong suit, and I’d be teetering through an acute turn, weaving my bars between trees, then look to where I wanted to be, the pedals would turn, and the bike would go there. That’s almost magical. It feels wonderful.

Other twisty situations were on climbs. I fight a fundamental laziness. If it looks physically hard, my impulse is to say “Fuck it,” then get off the bike and walk. I’m saving energy for what? I don’t know. But I overcame that voice, powering up chicanes through acres of laurel thickets. My thighs burned, but so what?

Other times I screwed up, but began to understand how. Getting over big rocks on climbs is a struggle. Time and again, I’d get my front wheel onto the rock, and then try to pedal over it rather than thrusting my body forward. That would jam the pedal against the rock and jack the back wheel off the ground, relieving me of any motive force and stopping progress dead. I need to session this skill.

Riding in 90 F temps took a toll. I sucked my Camelbak dry half an hour from the lot. My legs felt weaker and my reaction and planning abilities were declining. I stopped figuring out how to ride challenges and began worrying about crashing on them. I walked the final rock garden, one I’d cleaned the last time, because I didn’t trust myself.

In the car, I had two bottles. One was insulated and filled with iced Gatorade. The other was just water. I poured half the water over my head, then drank the other half before changing into dry clothes. A river or a lake would have been welcome. I sucked down the Gatorade. A mile out of the lot, I passed a convenience store, turned around, pulled in and bought a big, ice-cold, sugary Powerade.

Not a bad Labor Day.

 

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Hot, Slow, and Buggy

It didn’t feel bad when I left the house to ride the trails at the pond – hot and humid, to be sure, but bearable. I didn’t consider how well the forest would hold the humidity. Within the first mile, I’d sweated through my clothes. By the second hill, my heart-rate was through the roof and the blood was pounding in my head, forecasting a two-Treximet migraine later that night. More than once, my back wheel spun out on condensation-slick rocks. I stopped even trying to get up the tougher hills, opting to walk the bike and save something for the next day’s planned 30 miler.

Although I wasn’t loving the conditions, the mosquitoes were. If I stopped, their buzzing sounded like the special effects in a jungle-survival movie. With one particularly well-aimed slap, I killed four at once. It was only when I stopped that they descended, so much of the ride was a balancing act between surviving the heat and humidity and evading the mosquitoes.

Still, I pedaled through to Minor Bridge. Riding back, I was shot and my skills were at an ebb. In the shadow of the hill, the flat light made it hard to pick out lines. Coming around the corner into the first descent I buried my front wheel against a rock and launched over the bars, landing on my shoulder, hip, and leg. The bike was fine and I came away with minor scrapes and bruises. Mainly it was a caution to pay very close attention for the rest of the ride.

I opted for the easy way out, riding through the hayfield and down to the railbed rather than climbing the hill again. At the car, I traded my empty Camelback for my backpack, which contained a towel and water shoes, then rode the quarter mile down to the swimming hole. Wading in felt incredible, and my first shallow dive into the Shepaug must have left an epic cloud of mud, sweat, and mosquito parts.

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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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