At 5:45am, heavy fog sits in all the hollows and rolls up to the roadside and leaves everything beneath it wet. We park in the fresh-cut field and walk over to the registration tent where all is moving along in the proper subdued, pre-dawn manner.
During this, my third year at D2R2 (Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee), I realized how much I love this tent. The volunteers who staff it are uniformly cheerful and kind. There is never a time when someone isn’t having a friendly conversation there or warm food isn’t being spooned onto a plate. It feels like a good launching point for what will be my biggest day on the bike all year, and I hold it in my head throughout as an oasis at the end, those conversations multiplying exponentially, the smell of pulled pork heavy on the evening breeze. If I can just get back to that still, happy place, all will be well.
Soon we are at the business of nervously pinning on numbers and pulling on gloves. Everyone in the field is in some state of undress, bib straps dangling, shoes being buckled and re-buckled. The long route, the 180km (14,777 ft vertical) , leaves first, and so those who have camped in the adjacent field are still only just stirring in their sleeping bags or stumbling over to the main area for coffee and a bagel.
We roll out later than we intend to, as we always do, but there are enough miles in front of us that we can’t spend too much time caring about timeliness. D2R2 is not a ride you bang out and then head home to mow the lawn. D2R2 is your day, and the nature of the riding, mostly up and down in alternately daunting and thrilling bursts, defies your ability to over-plan it.
The morning is cool, verging on cold, just at the edge of arm-warmer range, but I resolve to go without so as to have less to carry throughout the day. My over-sized seat bag has multiple tubes, CO2 cartridges and tools in it; my jersey pockets are stuffed with food. I feel ready, in as much as you can ever be ready for a thing like D2R2.
Almost straight away we are climbing and we are on dirt. These are the event’s two main characteristics. If you are coming here to ride this course, any of the courses, you will be climbing and you will be on dirt.
Another primary characteristic is creaking. Chain ring bolts. Bottom brackets. Spokes. All of them straining and lurching against the grade. Torque making itself heard. Dozens of wheezing machines, off key, out of time. And then the whole mess popping and cracking down the descents. Rocks pinging off aluminum rims. Chains slapping stays. The occasional WHOOP of a rider whose rear wheel has momentarily lost traction in the sand.
After the first water break the riding goes from serious to extremely serious. We are only ever going up or coming down. It fatigues the body, but also the mind as it requires close and constant concentration. I force myself to run back down the cassette on the descents, to milk every ounce of gravity for what it’s worth. Up over 40 miles, over 50, we are just grinding them out, stroke-by-stroke.
And then, at last, there is a long, twisting descent that careens into the lunch stop at a grassy area by an idyllic covered bridge. Smiling faces pile in. Sandy, the svengali of this particular brand of suffering, is there, as he always is, stalking about in his heavy boots and shorts, making sure everyone is ok, but more importantly that everyone is having fun. The morning’s stories are already tumbling out. Minor crashes. Mechanicals. A general sense of disbelief at the scenery and the effort it takes to reach it.
If I am honest, I have been riding with a stomach full of doubt all morning. I have done the thing you must not do, which is to think too much about the miles to come rather than focusing on the road beneath your wheels. At lunch, that doubt lifts. I still feel good. I have seen the sun rise through the pines and haven’t put a tire wrong yet. We are past the halfway point.
I stuff my face with food, a sandwich, a handful of cookies, a banana, a bag of chips. I down three ibuprofen with a soda, and I’m ready to go. I know I can do the rest. My companions are going well, and in the early afternoon we crest four steep rises in a row with little effort. Then the course eases up, gives us some long stretches of smooth, easy travel. My Garmin, naively, reins in its estimate of our arrival time.
Free of the constraints of self-doubt and full of calories, the afternoon at D2R2 becomes a sort of spiritual experience. All year, as I ride my local hills and trails, as I incorporate dirt roads into as many road rides as I can, as I sit at my desk day-dreaming of my best moments on the bike, I am thinking of this part of D2R2. This is the part where I am finally inured to the suffering. This is the part where I am able to pick my head up from the bars and see the sweeping vistas, to smile at everyone on the road, knowing that we are all in that same magical place.
We roll inexorably to the finish, anxious to be done, to be back under that tent, but also savoring each mile. Of course, Sandy and his wide grin never allow it to be easy. There is a wall called Archambo, 27% of impossibility, loose and stupid in its difficulty. Of the 40 riders I see there, one makes it up. All others walk.
Then, somewhere past the 90th mile, the road pitches up vertiginously again. Patten Hill Road is a long, dusty, stair-step climb that pushes my heart rate dangerously close to its maximum. I have to find that point between blowing up and falling over, and somehow, just as I suspect I will put a foot down, the angles all tilt in my favor again. Then we are into the last rest station, water melon juice dripping off our chins.
We feel done and begin, at least mentally, to congratulate ourselves. We are not done.
At mile 105 we begin a serpentine downhill through deep sand and large stone. This is, perhaps, the worst road of the day, and it pushes each of us to the brink. Our forearms burn from the effort of steering and braking. Our legs go heavy from pushing through the soft surface. We are crawling again, so close to the finish, so close to finished.
Perhaps the final distinguishing characteristic of D2R2 is that it is relentless. You will need to ride hard all the way to the end.
By the time we spill back onto pavement, adrenaline has taken over the controls and we barrel into Deerfield at 20mph, headed for the salvation of the tent. We finish through the timing corral, which is, in our case, really just a way for the organizers to know we’re not still out there, dead in a ditch somewhere. And then we’re back at the car, half-dressed again, just trying to get some of the way back to clean and comfortable before attacking the buffet line.
I am not a high-fiver, by nature, but back in the tent I high-five Jesse, who I met on the 115km route two years ago. He lives just off the course himself, and seems to know everybody. We had ridden together throughout the day. He has the misfortune of being as
slow fast as I am.
I also high-five the guys from Brooklyn who I suffered through the 150km route with last year. They wonder why they only ever see me when they’re at the very end of their rope. I high-five this guy and this guy. I might be delirious with fatigue.
I down a pile of mac n’ cheese and another of barbecue. I stuff down a roll. Sodas disappear like singles at the craps table. Everything settles. Someone mentions that there is hot coffee.
It’s just getting dark when I leave the comfort of the tent. I don’t want to leave. I want to bask in the warm glow a bit longer, but the ibuprofen I gobbled at lunch have long since quit and my back is starting to complain about the folding chair I’m in. Still, it’s hard to walk away from D2R2. I spend so much of my year idealizing it, visualizing it, looking forward to it. It has a strange hold on me.
And now I find myself in the same predicament I did in 2011 and 2012, sitting in front of a keyboard, trying to get my head around something larger than myself. There is the scale of it, 180km, nearly 15,000ft of climbing, a whole day on the bike. There is the scenery, picture book New England, technicolor and high-res. There are the people, the ones I only see at D2R2, the ones I meet every year (Hi, Dave Kraus!), and the ones who ride with me. And then there’s what happens in my head.
I never believe, despite the evidence, that I can have a day like this on my bike, this big, this beautiful. But year after year, D2R2 delivers. Whether that’s by design or by accident (or both), I can’t really tell you. This ride will push me forward all year, and maybe a piece of inspiration that size is worth whatever price and whatever effort it takes to get.