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.
August has been an interesting month here in my New England home. The weather, for the first time in a long time, was mainly cool and dry, so a lot of riding happened, and I enjoyed it an awful lot. Not being too hot/cold or wet allows you to do your best riding, as it turns out.
That said, this month also sees the end of my focus on the road. I have all but stopped heading out to pile up paved miles simply for the sake of doing so. As I mentioned last week, local trails are calling my name, and while I have been riding them on my road bike lately, the mountain and cross bikes are also calling my name now. With the mornings growing darker (and chillier) I can see that it’s time to switch it up, and find some new fun.
My mind has turned to warmer clothing, the eternal search for the right winter cycling glove and a frank assessment of my lighting options. I’m not quite ready to put any of those things into regular use, but I do hate to wake up on that morning I need them and not know what I’m doing.
My friends who race cyclocross haves started their strange, cross-related rituals, mostly leaping over sticks and cones in public parks, like so many two-wheeled LARPers. Soon enough, I’ll be straining to hear the announcer over the rumble of a generator, and wondering who in the hell fixes the grass after a cross race.
Meanwhile the pros are winding down their season. La Vuelta, Worlds and the Giro d’Lombardia sit at this end of the calendar, a few remaining shots at redemption for those who have not quite met their “objectives” yet. Though those big races remain, it’s hard not feel as though a corner has been turned. This guy knows what I mean.
And while the summer is mainly over where I live, my friends in the southern hemisphere are undergoing the opposite shift. They’re gaining the light and warmth we are losing.
So this week’s Group Ride is about that shift. Is this a month of change for you? If so, what does that change look like? Are you pulling on arm-warmers yet? Or stripping them off? Are you switching from one bike to another, or training for a new kind of riding/racing?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
He is him, and I am me. This ought to be evident, but for some reason, initially, it is not. He is riding with one bottle, and I have two. His cassette looks like a small pine cone, mine a stack of pancakes. His quads challenge the elasticity of his bibs, while mine fit comfortably.
In the first hour, I try to be him, matching his speed if not his massive, crushing cadence. By the end of that first hour, I ought to have learned the lesson of our otherness, but I am stubborn, nigh on pig-headed, and so I go on pretending I am him and he is me.
We are flying. This is a thing he can do, and I can pretend to do, but apparently not for more than an hour-and-a-half. This became clear as he disappeared up a hill in front of me, still turning a huge gear despite the incline. He drops me without noticing, nonchalant, oblivious. I am an apple core flung to the roadside. Maybe an animal will happen by and carry me off.
But he sits up on the descents and I catch back on, still clawing at the air for oxygen as he turns back to the road, puts his head down and yanks me through the air in front of him. We do this over and over, silent except for the sound of my rasping breath.
Later we catch on with a larger group, and I am glad to see him go off on his own with faster riders. And yet somehow I still don’t have the sense to be myself. I ride to the front of the slower set, bridge the gap to the front, and then I’m on the back of his group again. It makes sense to me in the moment, as though I am just doing what’s in my legs to do.
This goes well for about 10 miles.
Then I am the yo-yo, straining at the end of the string, the leaf blown from the tree, drifting alone in the wind, finally there in no-man’s land by myself. I think to sit up and wait for the shelter of the slower group, but I resign myself to own this loneliness, to learn the lessons of my many mistakes.
That’s when it first occurs to me that I am me, and he is him. Training will not make me him. Persistence will not make me him. Cleverness will not make me him. He could be anybody who is constitutionally stronger than I am. It doesn’t matter.
A headwind kicks up and I am just crawling against the steepness, taking it full in the face. I concentrate only on moving forward. I question why I ride bikes. What business do I have even being here? I deserve to be alone (this much is true). A half-an-hour of slow pedaling and dark thinking pass in what feels like two hours.
And then he is behind me again suddenly, yelling a cheerful greeting that scares me very nearly off the shoulder of the road. They have taken a wrong turn, looped up and around and back onto the route, and they are with me again. I smile and curse my luck but resolve not to follow them again, to let them go and simply get back to my hard, lonely work.
But it doesn’t go that way. Apparently, I am not the only one who is not him. Two from the lead group have cracked, and they sit in with me, and we shamble onwards. Shamefully, I am buoyed by their suffering, and as I choke down synthetic calories and finish my water bottles I begin to rally.
I am still not him, but finally being me is not as painful as it has been. We all ride together to the end, some of us more happily than others. And then we’re eating cheeseburgers directly from the grill, swilling sugary sodas. The smell of hops takes the air. Feet go up.
The second group shows up an hour later, and by then I am mainly human again. We swap stories of suffering and joy. After the ride, we are all each other, and I suppose this is what’s important.
Sometimes you just need a new thing. As much as I love riding bikes, I don’t stay uniformly inspired and motivated year round. I get my head down into a routine, and I work it over and over until one day I sit up and say, “Nah. I don’t feel like doing this today.” And that’s when I need a new thing.
That thing might be mountain biking. When I get tired of the swish and swirl of traffic or the bump and rattle of potholes, riding trails can be a good palate cleanser. I switch over to that for a few months, find new motivation and get excited about turning pedals again.
Maybe the new thing is a new group, either slightly faster or slightly slower. The new group rides different routes or stops at different coffee shops. You get new stories and learn new customs.
Here, at the end of the summer, I needed a new thing, and fortunately I have discovered two things in the last month that have me all excited and in love with cycling again. The first thing is that I there are a lot of very small, local trail systems that I haven’t ridden before. These range from simple paths through vacant lots to full, serpentine systems tacked onto the back of reservoirs or parkland. With a pair of 28s on my road bike, I can string these small systems together into a pretty kick ass ride, mostly traffic free. The need to focus most of my energy on bike handling distracts me from the effort I’m making and hours fly by in veritable cyclo-bliss.
A friend introduced me to this style of riding, and I spent some time trying to memorize all the quick lefts and rights that would guide me from one patch to the next. My memory and sense of direction being what it is, this process was proving not as quick or effective as I wanted it to be.
Enter a small GPS device.
Some readers will know that I mostly eschew technology (said the guy called Robot, not at all ironically). I have ridden electronic shifting and found it remarkable, but have no interest in actually using it on one of my bikes. I find most cyclo-computers distracting and discouraging to the point of annoyance. And I probably never would have gotten a GPS unit…
Until I learned that I could chart a course through each of these little trail systems using one. In fact, many of the big mapping sites have even the really obscure trails marked, no doubt the work of my enterprising and technology-loving fellow cyclists. So now, I can wend and wind through all my regular stomping grounds, but on terrain I haven’t ridden before.
It’s like my whole cycling world made new, and I AM PSYCHED.
So this week’s Group Ride asks, what’s YOUR new thing? Or, if you don’t have one, what was the last new thing that had you really excited about throwing your leg over your bike and heading out the door? Maybe you’re just eying a new thing. What is it? And why do you think it might just be the key to unlocking a new suitcase full of courage?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
Regular RKP readers will remember Rob Discher who shared the story of his first tilt at Leadville in 2012. For those who’d like the refresher, you can read it here.
18 hours before the race, written in the parking lot at Colorado Mountain College just outside Leadville…
[Friday. August 10, 2013]
I’m not even supposed to be here, in Leadville.
I was just getting over my pity party about not coming up this year when the call came from First Descents that they needed a guy….someone who could ride this race on a week’s notice. Last year I wrapped my whole season around Leadville. This year I chased other goals, but that big belt buckle stayed in the back of my mind.
I have no idea how tomorrow will go. I don’t feel great. I have this lingering headache from two days ago that won’t go away, but I’ve got a decent nutrition plan and race strategy that I hope works.
There is the potential for something awesome though. Something big. Everyone says the course is riding fast. They graded a bunch of the roads and it’s been wet lately, which tamps down this high desert earth. I’ve been riding like a monster back in Austin all summer, winning crits, mixing it up on hard group rides, maintaining a steady diet of riding and recovery for months.
Maybe this is the payout for all that due diligence. Maybe the reward for enjoying the bike so much…a reward in and of itself….and for riding as much as I have…is that I get to come up here at the last minute and tie up some loose ends from last year.
It was easy in 2012. I’d never seriously raced before and my first big goal was the Leadville 100, a grueling 104 mile race above 10,500 feet of altitude that has become wildly popular over the past decade. My primary objective last year was to beat 9 hours there, the marker under which you get the coveted “big” gold belt buckle.
I killed myself trying to clear that time, coming up just short at 9:02, and while I was proud of my effort and all that I’d done in year one on the bike, it ate at me. I knew that with a slightly different race strategy I could have beaten nine hours. A piss break here. A slower pace there. An extra stop for food and drink I didn’t need.
I thought about it all fall and came into this season focused on getting back into Leadville. I trained like hell all winter. Cold rides on lonely roads in the Texas Hill Country. Long hilly days with my buddy Justin, pushing 29 inch wheels on the Austin chip seal. Spin sessions. Core work.
That plan fell on its face in two separate acts – the first when I didn’t get in through the Leadville lottery and the second when I missed the cut at the Austin Rattler qualifying race by less than a minute. There would be no Leadville this year.
What do you do with a whole off-season of training when that happens? Somewhat out of spite, I turned to road racing. I started watching the grand tours and hanging out with guys who didn’t know a berm from a rock garden. I shaved my legs. I came out for the weekly crits. I set new goals after the old goals fell through.
I’d trained on the road bike the previous year, but never seriously considered racing. Missing Leadville changed that. My first races on the road showed I was strong but dumb. So I raced more, and got smarter. Road racing was fun.
I moved from a CAT 5 to CAT 3 roadie in about three months, and the more time I spent racing in the drops, the more I thought THAT was my home. On the road.
All of this made it that much more complicated when I learned, completely out of the blue, that I had a last-second shot to go back to Leadville. For the previous six months I hadn’t spent more than six hours on my mountain bike.
On Monday, August 5th, I took two strangers out to lunch who had read my post here on RKP last year and wanted to learn more about the race. They were putting the finishing touches on their Leadville training and were eager to hear about course conditions, nutrition plans, pacing and expectations.
That Wednesday, one of them emailed me to say the nonprofit he was riding with, First Descents, needed someone who could fill a last-minute race slot.
I came home that night, took my fiancée out for dinner and talked it over. The same woman who told me to make a run at Leadville last year gave me another firm kick in the ass and urged me to jump on the opportunity.
From there, things moved quickly. A local nutrition company, Thunderbird Energetica, offered to haul my bike to Colorado with their race team. Work was nice enough to let me divert the return trip from my meetings in New York through Vail. My old boss, Morris, a Leadville veteran, found me a bed at Colorado Mountain College for the weekend, two miles from the starting line.
My 2012 race prep included specific training, arriving early in Colorado to acclimate and pre-ride the course, and working with my support crew, all family, to understand my detailed race plan.
This year, there would be no acclimation period. There would be no pre-rides. There wouldn’t even be much mountain biking at all. My plan was to get off the plane from New York, pick up my bike, make sure the wheels were still round and the brakes weren’t rubbing, and let it rip on race day.
It was Saturday morning before I knew it.
I rested against my top tube, kitted up and shivering at 6th and Harrison in downtown Leadville. Sun coming up. Thin mountain air. Pre-recorded National Anthem streaming out the PA. Five minutes until the corrals close, then three, then none. Two minutes until the gun goes off. Everyone looking around. Faces betraying that sense of confidence racers try to put on, attempting to look calm when they’d spent months getting ready for what was about to happen.
In 2012, I started the race slowly, built my tempo through the end and spent most of the last four hours passing people. It was an awesome feeling, but that easy, early pace made it incredibly tough to clear 9 hours. This year, instead of going out easy, I planned to push it from the gun, gain time through the first two checkpoints, and hold on through the end.
On-plan, I came out fast and moved my way up in the mass of 1,500 riders. We hit the first climb, St. Kevin’s, and I tapped out a strong pace…passing a number of people and eventually realizing that I was going way too hard. When you overextend at 11,000 feet and get short of breath, there’s this small moment of panic where you catch yourself, back off the pace, and pray your heart rate will come down.
Mine did, thankfully.
I held position through the climb up Sugarloaf and tried to stay loose through the Powerline decent. It’s the most technical part of a non-technical course, but one you have to respect. I pushed hard in a group through the rolling hills into Twin Lakes aid station around hour three and hit my first scheduled pit stop of the day. Three bottles, rice cake, gels, a proverbial slap on the ass and I was off.
Twin Lakes sits at the bottom of the Columbine climb, the most famous of the course because it takes you over the tree line at 12,500 feet. The climb up Columbine was nasty, as predicted, but instead of pressing I made the calculated move to sit up, take in fluids and eat. It’s around an hour and a half to two hours to get to the top, and I reasoned I’d be better off finishing the climb in 1:45 with a full stomach and hydrated than wringing myself out clearing it in 1:30. This ended up paying off…big time…about three hours later. At 4 hours and 36 minutes, I hit the turnaround. I was roughly 20 minutes ahead of last year.
The next two hours were painful but relatively uneventful. I could feel my mental state starting to deteriorate, which I rationalized as standard issue protocol for endurance racing at elevation. At the Pipeline aid station, about 75 miles into the race, things started to get interesting.
The first sign of wheels detaching from the proverbial wagon was that I completely missed my Pipeline aid crew. Just flat-out didn’t see them as I was going through the crowded line of support staff. I only planned to stop twice this race (compared to five times the previous year) and I was already crashing, so missing half my on-course nutrition was a massive fail.
In a perfect world, five-plus hours in, with on-schedule nutrition, I’d be in some mindless, thoughtless, sugar induced rage…kind of like the Berserker tribesmen back in the Viking days when they’d feed those monsters crazy juice and have them destroy entire villages. Instead, I had to go into full-on MacGyver mode in my search of calories, snagging gels, oranges and drinks from random people on the side of the road. Most of the time I had no idea what they were handing me. One time I grabbed a clean’ish looking half-done bottle off a stack of trash and drank it.
Results were mixed. Cramping got worse. Bike started moving slower.
The next bit of “fun” came on the decent down Sugarloaf Pass, just after I’d suffered up Powerline climb for an hour. I hammered the downhill in full cowboy mode, letting off the brakes and bouncing through rocks the whole descent. When I got to the bottom, I saw something that made my heart sink – my rear derailleur had come off the bike. It was just dangling there by the cabling.
Over the next 10 minutes, I figured out how to hold tension on the cable and push the gears around, but I could only do that on sections I could ride one-handed, and sometimes it just flat-out didn’t work. That meant walking hills I couldn’t see coming, head on the handlebars, calves cramping from the uphill slog.
With two hours to go I didn’t see any way I was clearing 9 hours. I started doing the math, trying to figure out how many miles were left, what pace I was holding, and how much time I needed to get to specific checkpoints. The dream was slipping away. My nutrition was in shambles, my bike in pieces. I was suffering badly.
I got passed constantly. Everything hurt. I thought a lot about quitting, but I recalled race founder Ken Chlouber’s words at the previous day’s meeting. He drew a picture of what it would be like telling people you quit after all the effort to get there. That image stuck with me.
I pushed ahead.
With about 45 minutes remaining, the lights started coming back on. It was a complete blur – scrambling for the shifter, which was flying all around the bike and “ghost shifting” on its own, grabbing whatever hydration I could from strangers, trying to force down a rainbow of gels I’d collected since my second aid station fail. It was the first time all day I didn’t feel horrendous. I battled a monster headwind into the finish, elbows on the handlebars, head down, getting as “small” as possible. It worked. I was getting stronger, picking up speed, crunching the numbers in a feverish attempt to see if sub-9 was within reach.
With five miles left, for the first time, it dawned on me that I might make it. At two miles left I was pretty sure. In the last mile, as I came up 6th Street past the high school…the same place I saw the clock turn 9 hours last year…I knew I had it in the bag. I laid it on, crossing the line at 8:51 and letting out what Whitman would have called a “barbaric yawp” of total catharsis and supreme relief, completely drained.
The medical staff gave me one look, grabbed my bike, pulled me over to the tent and nursed me back to health for the next hour, checking my vitals and feeding me salt. That cot was the most amazing bed I’ve ever laid on and the medical staff couldn’t have been nicer. I finally got up, got out of my kit, and walked around the town center barefoot, soaking it all in.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, but that just seems to be how it goes with cycling. You dream dreams. You make plans. Fate and circumstance collide. I have been so fortunate to have been given all these experiences just in the last two years.
Just from throwing my leg over the top tube.
Just from doing something I love.
One of the ongoing themes of the infinite email thread between Padraig and me is how strange life can be. The older we get and the more our families grow, the more we find ourselves in unexpected situations, both positive and negative, an ongoing confluence of circumstance that serves up surreality like Dali on amphetamines.
And so it was that I found myself rolling through this New England countryside alongside Hennie Kuiper, on a bike I’d loaned him, and me somewhat dumbstruck as he spun tales of his many, many victories. 1972 Olympic road race winner, 1975 World Champion, winner of Paris Roubaix, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Milan-San Remo and the Giro d’Lombardia. Twice second in the Tour de France. Rival of Bernard Hinault, and part of a dominating ’70s Dutch team. Directeur Sportif to Team Telekom and Motorola. One of the true Giants of the Road.
At 64, he is still every bit the physical marvel he was in his prime. Chiseled calves. Barrel thighs. A style on the bike that comes from living there. He could clearly have dropped any of the motley crew we’d assembled for our little tour of farms and orchards. But he didn’t. He just rolled along and chatted.
How we had come to be here is still a little mysterious to me. One of Hennie’s sons lives here, in the States. His son is not a cyclist. He works, tangentially, with my neighbor, that is to say, they are not co-workers, but they are somehow professionally affiliated. This part of the connection I don’t really understand, but when I was asked if I’d like to go for a spin with a former World Champion I thought, “Yeah. I’ll do that.”
Four weeks later, I show up in Concord center to meet Hennie Kuiper.
After riding with him, I understand more clearly what it is that separates schlubs like me from legends like him. His physiognomy marks him out, even at retirement age, as something of an outlier. His musculature is just not something you see at the grocery store, or even at your local crit.
Add on top of that his own statement, made later in the day, that his talent was to be able to attack one more time, after 150km, after 200km, always one more time, a thing few of his generation, or any generation could do.
Having said all that, what most impressed me was his generosity. He never failed to answer a question, and he patiently listened to every opinion offered. He didn’t once mention how badly wrenched his loaner bike was, nor that I’d forgotten to put water bottle cages on it. His best trick was simply being just one of the guys, albeit the one who had taken gold in Munich in 1972 after a 40km solo breakaway.
So there I was on a Saturday morning, having the tale of Paris-Roubaix 1983 spun out for me, not by some historian or commentator, not by someone who’d sat in the velodrome waiting for the riders to emerge from hell, but by the guy who won the race. As a cycling fan, I found it dizzying.
He laughed as he explained how hard a grand tour is, and why he’d finished twice in the Tour but never won, how angry one of his domestiques was with him one day when he’d ridden at the back and been caught behind a crash, the seconds slipping away and the yellow jersey with them.
He said that the hardest day of his career was a long time trial early on. He knew how to go hard before that, but he suffered so much that day that something inside him changed and afterwards he could always go harder than he’d ever thought possible.
Throughout the day I drifted in and out of earshot, and each time I got close I found myself in the middle of another story. He talked about being in the car behind Andy Hampsten in the Giro, about battling with Hinault in breakaways, and all the while he asked little questions about us, our jobs, our families.
We met up with the families at a folk festival north of the city, racked the bikes and shook hands. The ride dissolved into hand shakes and kids running in circles. It could have been any group ride anywhere, ending. We had ridden with a world champion, and it was just like riding with a friend, which was extraordinary to me and that little bit surreal.
And then, a week later, just when I’d finished boring people with the story, the autographed picture above appeared at my house. I am not one for autographs. I don’t ask for them, and I don’t really understand their value. But in this instance, I took it for what it was, a sincere thanks for a ride shared, from a fellow rider. And that meant a lot to me, as I’m sure you can imagine.
Vélobici is a small company that designs and makes cycle wear in the UK. Chris Puttnam and his partner, Tara Love, grew up in knitwear factories, their fathers both running some of the last generation of British mills to produce domestically before it all went to Asia. They started Vélobici a few short years ago, driven by a desire to make stylish cycling clothes, but also to do it locally, to be part of the resurgence of British manufacturing.
Chris told me, by email, “We are very proud of the fact that all we produce is manufactured within a 20 mile radius of our homeland. And the performance fabric, including the Van-Dapper is knitted in Nottingham 25 miles from us. As a kid, I just enjoyed the whole environment of the factories and the girls fussing over you, fond memories. So when we created this thing it was always going to be produced in the UK.”
This particular review came about because Vélobici were advertising with us, which is how I became aware of them in the first place, and after looking at their clothing and hearing some of their story, I requested a kit to try out. Two things piqued my curiosity, 1) the slick, muted style of their clothing, and 2) just what the quality difference might be between their garments, produced in the UK, and other cycling clothing, produced in the Far East.
It should be clear. Vélobici did not request a review.
So a few weeks after I made initial contact, with New England still in the throes of winter, a package arrived. First impressions were very good. Pulling the bibs from the padded mailer, I was immediately struck by their weight and softness. Even coming out of a flat package, tossed and trampled in the international mail, they sprung immediately into shape, as if I’d just taken them off.
Turning to the jersey, I immediately discovered the two zippered, water-proof pockets, one at each hip, and thought, “Huh, those will be handy.” Of course, the top had the same heft and texture, too. It was cold the day the Van-Dapper arrived, but I layered it into my ensemble for the next morning’s ride, anxious to see if it was as nice as it seemed. I have worn it, on average, twice a week for the last 6 months, and it is the first kit I reach for unless the day promises to be scorchingly hot. More on that in a bit.
Vélobici’s design aesthetic is not so much retro, as it might appear at first, but rather minimalist. Their designer, Tara, clearly has the confidence that the garments speak for themselves more than any logo might. The Van-Dapper features some tasteful, sublimated logos, subtle fabric effects, on the legs of the bib and across the back of the jersey, and a small crest on the chest. Otherwise, it is stealth itself, all black with a single yellow accent across the rear pocket line and in a small notch at the top of the zipper.
I really appreciate a brand that doesn’t feel compelled to scream its logo at you from half-a-mile away. You won’t feel like a billboard in this kit, and you can mix and match it with any other clothing you like.
It is a functional garment as well, the meryl/lycra blend offers UVA and UVB protection. The full zip has that small yellow guard at the top to prevent chafing. The fully-lined collar makes it snug but comfortable at the neck. The piping is reflective, and in addition to the standard three vertical pockets, the jersey also features those two readily-accessible, zippered, water-proof pockets, one to keep your phone dry, one for cash, allowing you to forgo the classic phone in a baggie pre-ride prep. Finally, the jersey has a handy swatch of cloth beneath the hem for cleaning glasses.
All of these small things make the Van-Dapper the easiest kit to ride in that I own. The level of functionality easily surpasses the standard jersey fare. Vélobici have thought through the business of daily riding and offered solutions where most of us had simply accepted adaptations to other kits. The upshot is that I prep less and remain more comfortable during the ride when I am in the Van-Dapper.
I like this kit best for rides in the middle temperature ranges. It is not as light as some others, but its luxurious comfort make it perfect on its own for any ride with an average temp between 50-70F. Sleeves and legs have seamless silicone grippers that play well with warmers, too, so it layers up to extend its use into winter quite nicely.
Some will take issue with it’s non-race cut. It doesn’t purport to offer aerodynamic advantages, but it is as comfortable and attractive a kit as I’ve ridden in.
The Van-Dapper set (bib and jersey) is well-made, under-stated, classic and durable. It has not faded under my heavy use, nor wilted under my less-than-on-label washing regimen. Take it from its package, hold it up, feel its weight, its softness. The differences between this and most of what’s out there are palpable, and hold up over time and use. At $360 (£230) the Van-Dapper set is as affordable (or not) as any high-end kit, but to my mind offers much more in functionality and quality.
Get it at Vélobici on-line.
Sometimes, late on a Friday, when I’m plotting a course across a digital map, seeking out roads I haven’t ridden, trees and lakes and towns I haven’t seen already, I get the Pogues’ Navigator stuck on repeat in my head. Though I am not certain, at this point, I would assign route-finding responsibilities to Shane MacGowan, the song’s story of British railway building gets me thinking about the history and tools of navigation.
Some of my favorite novels are travel epics (this, this and this, for example). There is a dramatic tension inherent in not knowing where you’re going, of having a goal and not being entirely sure you’re going to make it. Sometimes, as when you’ve bonked, it’s a question of survival. Sometimes, as when you’re meeting someone out on the road, it’s a matter of connection.
As I sit comfortably in my spot at the end of the couch, the dog at my feet, and the computer slowly warming my lap, I cut a far different profile than the million or so sailors who have worried at the treacherous rounding of Cape Horn or the foolhardy adventurers who made for magnetic north.
Of course, my own efforts at navigation have evolved rapidly in recent years. There was a time when you just needed to know your way around. You got lost a lot, so that later you could not get lost.
I have employed the strategy of inviting myself on group rides with older, more experienced riders, people who know how to get to Lost Lake, who know the back way out through Carlisle and Chelmsford, the little nothing turns that yield long rambles through farm country.
And then, of course, I spent time studying maps, both paper and digital, committing turns to memory and hoping the street signs would be enough to get me around the loop. This was an incremental approach, branching off of roads I knew, slowly growing my ride territory.
And finally, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) came on line with practicable cycling applications and devices. I have the Garmin Edge 200. I am a minimalist, but even this entry-level computer frees me from many of the mental and logistical constraints I have been fumbling with for years.
I like it, but sometimes I also wonder if I am removing too much of the experience of riding. Would the Aeneid still be in circulation, if Aeneas had been equipped with a digital Italy-finder?
This week’s Group Ride asks how you get around? Do you Garmin? Do you use some other magic box-like device? Do you tuck cue sheets in the leg of your bibs and cut for sign? How has what you do changed, and do you like the way it’s changed? What have you gained or lost?
Group riding is one of the cornerstones of our sport, two people, two-hundred people, single-file or in a long lumpen mass strung out down the road. I know of many local rides that have been together and going off like clockwork for decades, groups with their own custom jerseys, and others who organize and sponsor organized events for themselves and outsiders alike.
Equally, there are a million ephemeral little groups, folks pooling in parking lots, shaking hands perfunctorily before rolling out, temporary alliances that pass Saturdays and centuries together.
All of these rides operate under their own guidelines, some rigid, some quite loose, and I find it eternally interesting which rules folks think are universal, often things they’ve brought from another group or were taught when they first started out.
I will confess that I don’t like to ride in groups larger than five. That seems to be the tipping point for human organization, though I am sure your results vary. None of the groups I ride with are so regular or so long-established that order has had time to impose itself on a larger scale.
Some of the things that will push me away from a group ride include: guys “soloing” off the front to prove they’re stronger when the tacit purpose of the ride is to log some miles, talk some shit and generally escape responsibilities; big messy groups that block traffic, put people in danger and exhibit a general lack of concern about same; groups who drop weaker riders on non-training efforts.
I’m a pretty easy going guy, willing to go along and get along with almost any bunch of riders at least once. I have this idea that, once you show up to a group, you stay with that group unless there is an agreement to split up that makes sense for the safety and goals of all involved. There is a social contract involved. Isn’t there?
I have a tendency, as do most, to ride with the same people over and over again, but I also feel inclined to engage new routes and new experiences, so I end up saying yes to ride invites as much as I can. It’s a good way to keep it fresh and meet like-minded souls, even if you only ever roll with them the one time.
This week’s Group Ride asks about your group rides. Are they big? Are they small? Are there a lot of rules or only a few? What should the universal rules be? What do you like about the groups you ride with and what sets your teeth on edge?
Image: Matt O’Keefe
It wasn’t until I was showered and dressed and in the car, on my way to pickup burritos, that the feeling hit me. Turning the key fired the stereo, and the first thundering chords of my current favorite album came leaping out at me like a large dog, eager to greet its owner. I smiled then, and it dawned on me how happy I felt, a good ride in my legs, the promise of dinner, and the knowledge that I had nothing else to do for the day.
I had waited through the morning heat, the humidity embryonic and cloying, wondering if I’d get a ride in, if the worst of it would burn off or give way to one of those summer rains that leaves everything steaming and bright and clean. I did that annoying thing where you check the weather app on your phone every ten minutes, willing it to tell you a lie. With my most cherished (and hardest) ride of the year coming up, I didn’t think I could skip a Saturday’s suffering.
So at 4:14 I rolled out. It was 92F and still forbiddingly muggy, not the time to take on a set of hill repeats, but having squandered the morning, and with a bellyful of fear for being tragically under-trained coming into the high season, I didn’t feel I had any other choice.
Fortunately, I live at the top of a tall rise, a frequent training ground for the city’s more pain-inclined cyclists, and the best route to repeat is a mere 150 meters south of my driveway. For the first lap, I cut into the hill halfway up giving my legs a chance to understand what they were in for, before diving down clear to the bottom to begin the real suffering.
Now, I love climbing. If I was made to do anything on a bike (and that’s a highly debatable proposition), it’s climbing. I love the struggle and the rhythm of it and the way it washes your brain clear of everything but the effort. I don’t often do hill repeats, because I don’t often take on structured training, but if I do train it’s on the side of a steep hill. It’s a hard way to clear your head, but I am willing.
This particular hill also affords a sweeping view of the Boston skyline from Dorchester clear north to Somerville. There is a sprawling park very near the top, and thousands gather there on the 4th of July to watch the Boston fireworks. When flaying yourself with the lash of hill repeats, that view serves as a nice reward for every crest reached.
I worked at it for about an hour, up-and-down, up-and-down, with cars swishing lazily past me, the zipper of my jersey creeping closer and closer to my navel, everything succumbing to the torpid heat, my pace devolving from the first eager climbs to the final, staggering haul. Once I’d satisfied myself that I’d hurt enough, I went and spun my legs out on a slightly flatter route, everything feeling heavy, my head steaming.
And then the shower and the dinner plan, the kids splayed in front of the TV watching a movie and me in the car. The air-conditioning did its hot/warm/cold thing, and the music washed through me like a party drug. Endorphins and seratonin swirled, and the world outside ceased spinning, stopped rushing forward frantically, frenetically, for just a minute.
This is what I want, what I always wanted, the same stillness I get as I’m rocking gently in the saddle, pressed against that hill. I want to bring it with me, off the hill and into the house, to share it with my wife and kids and have it suffuse everything I do with clarity.
It’s not like that though. Its impermanence magnifies its brilliance. Scarcity raises demand. The high fades, even as legs buzz from the effort still, emptiness echoing in my gut. Hill repeats in high-summer heat? Yes. And another ride the next day, chasing, always chasing, just that minute of peace.
Image: source needed TDF 1961