In the languid summer, in the rise of the hill, as we work our way up and up and up, time suddenly slows and spreads, like a rain drop on the afternoon paper. The prickly tingle of sweat slants across my forehead and threatens to run saltily, stingingly, into my eye.
I wonder at the sand, hard-packed in places, that shushes beneath our tires. It has been rideable up to this point, but why should it stay that way? Why won’t we round some bend and come into a dry patch, unprotected by the swaying pines, that bears the sun’s full heat, so that each grain slips easily against the others, the cumulative friction of thousands and hundreds of thousands of very small rocks grinding against composite rubber and bringing us down, clattering into the dead dry grass of the verge.
How much sand must be here? I contemplate the impossibility of large numbers, fantasize about spending a life counting each granule, the road staked out like an archaeologist’s dig, the whole thing pointless but purposeful.
As my left knee crests its circular path, I become aware of the building acid in my legs, the dull ache forcing its way into the froth of thought. My heart pumps furiously to wash the muscles clean. How many beats per pedal stroke? I don’t know. And what volume of oxygen, distilled from the dusty air, commixes somewhere in my chest, air and fuel combusting in a chamber, firing a piston at some measurable output. All the math goes hypoxic though.
You don’t run these calculations when you’re fresh. It’s only in the desperate dwindling of resources that you begin to worry whether you’ve got what it takes to make the top, to relieve the burden of gravity, becoming a stone, plummeting, great gusts of heat bursting off your back, cooling the admixture of effort that earned you the descent.
My companion sits quietly just ahead and to the left, half a bike’s length on, but the hardness of the work separates us. He might as well be on another planet. I suspect in this moment that he is stronger than I am, that I am somehow holding him back, but this is only self-doubt creeping in, less a product of his superiority than of my own insecurity. We are not tethered together, he and I, but there is some not visible connection, a tension, like water bulging over the rim of a glass. His speed adds to mine. We react to each other’s whimsical surges, unconsciously. Much of the time I am only trying to hold him there, slightly forward and to the left.
I don’t know anyone who lives on this stretch. The houses are all struck back from the road, tucked in their own little glades. Trucks rumble and lurch from the ends of driveways, and I imagine their drivers shaking their heads and smiling bemusedly, wondering at these fools in lycra.
I think to drop my heel as I was taught to do, to scrape the sole of my shoe. In my water bottle, the electrolyte suspension, neon translucent, sloshes rhythmically, left to right, forward and back. It churns in liquid mimicry of my legs. I will wait until the road slackens to reach down, to pull the bottle from its cage and jam it into my gasping mouth. There is the urge to hold the liquid there, like the beach clutching at the tide line, but the need to breathe forces the drink down quickly. I can almost taste it. Almost.
This is a ride with nothing in it. We are not measuring ourselves with magnets or satellites. The route is a vague idea, not a careful plan, and we have only set out to test our legs and build some form. Of course, the test is always more stern than the idea of the test. In the flickering fantasy of riding, in the planning, we are always stronger than we are in the actual pedal stroke, this pedal stroke, with its heavy thud against the ego. Later, when we’ve had the chance to put these moments into the larger context, we will each pretend that we were not so far out into the hinterlands of our capacity, that it was more or less what we expected. This is the tacit agreement of riding friends, the first rule of Fight Club.
I am back to counting. My pedals have not yet completed one rotation, but I am trying to extrapolate the seconds per stroke, the strokes-per-meter or meters-per-stroke, the distance from the jagged stone we have just passed, jutting crudely into the side of the road, to the stump ahead, there at the limit of my vision when I think to tilt my head back, to lift my eyes from my top tube, from the slowly rolling bead of my tire. It could be a quarter mile or it could be a light year.
You can never get your glasses just right on a day like today. At the bottom of the climb the trees cluster tightly and the low angle of the sun leaves it dark. By the middle, the bright light is darting crossways, strobing past the corner of your lens, almost blindingly. And here, now, in the heart of the matter, far enough along to feel the full brunt of the topography but not yet in range of the relieving promise of the top, where the branches fall back and reach upward, everything is cracker-baked, only the dew of the morning and the rising water table, yesterday’s rain, keep the surface tacky and rideable. It all goes three shades whiter, washed out and harsh.
My family is waiting for me, back home. I can imagine my wife reading a book on the back porch, a glass of tea, unsweetened, in front of her. The kids swirl and caper in the road, our dead end drawing scab-kneed boys from all over for roiling games of hide and seek. Excited shouts go up from beyond the widow’s house at the corner, and then all falls tensely silent, kids stuck in the gaps behind garbage cans or perched anxiously at the corner of the garage. I wonder at what point my absence will become problematic.
There is a relief to completing one pedal stroke. Each revolution is a challenge, a microcosm of the whole ride, with struggle at top and bottom, strength somewhere in the middle, the search for rhythm. You have to believe you can keep going, round and round, up and up and up. You have to know you can finish.
Often enough, the joy for me is in letting the hardness of turning the pedals over draw me into the moment. I don’t live there as a rule, too bound up in doing the next thing, planning for future exigencies, sifting through the inadequacies of the past. The present is the only place I can do anything, but it is also the hardest place to be. Sometimes, in the heat of the afternoon, out with a friend, I can drive myself there, an ox plowing a furrow, an idiot riding a bike.
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.
They never even looked back. Two fellow travelers, grinding and swinging up the hill in front of me. As I turned the corner into the climb’s lower ramp I glanced up and saw them there. I thought, “can I catch them?” and put my head back down.
My wife had been emailing with some friends about summer plans. Summer. As if that’s a thing now. And their calendars were filling up, and there I was in my tired desk chair shaking my head and wondering at people who were thinking about more than what was in front of them at the moment.
I have not been too hard at the pedals for these last few moons, succumbing to winter like dry leaves to a campfire. Still, those two riders on the hill weren’t drilling it. They were trading off the front like they were serious, but I was making up ground. “Oh, I’ll just go hard in this first section and see how much gap I close,” I told myself. Them swiveling their way into the middle, flatter part of the climb.
“I’m sorry,” I typed back to my wife. “I’m OTB as far as the summer goes.” And she to me, “OTB?” And me back, “Off the back.” And her, “Oh.” And then nothing.
When I reached the flat after the first rise, that blessed point where you can get a real gear back under you, I gauged my progress and saw that I was, in fact, reeling them in. What was 40 meters had shrunk to 20. The swish and roar of traffic made the whole thing something of a pantomime, them fleeing, me pursuing. I clicked twice down the cassette, stood into the work.
I suppose if you know you’re going to be OTB you do something to mitigate the consequences. You seek help. You delegate what tasks you can to willing collaborators. You let folks know you might not be getting back to them with the alacrity they’ve come to expect.
With the gap cut to 15 meters, maybe 12 really, my sonar or dead reckoning or powers of estimation now being swept into the dustpan of oxygen debt, I thought to do the right thing. I eased off. Not to give up. Not to back off. Not to concede defeat. But rather to pace myself. Too anxious am I usually to hurtle across a gap, this the recipe for blowing up, so that just as I make contact, I lose the ability to hold myself steady on the bike. I go all knees and elbows, power draining out the acute angles of my flailing.
Work is busy, and I have placed my attention there, perhaps to a fault. It is not so much that I am behind with my work, but rather that I feel a sudden quickening of results there. The momentum is with me (us) and I am hell bent on holding it and keeping it and stoking it, taking what the road will give me, riding the lightning. You get my point.
And so, with maybe 10 meters to go, 10 striding paces to close the gap and kiss in relief the rear wheel of a rider I’ve never met, I saw that I wouldn’t make it. Nearing the top of the climb, the whole thing only about a mile long, we were flattening out. They were pressing tentatively at their own shifters. Having not gone full gas, they were able to exploit their improved terms with gravity to an extent that I was not.
I never know when I’m going to be OTB. At some point, I lift my head to see what’s coming and realize I’m not close to where I ought to be. I’m out of shape. I haven’t thought of the summer. There are things outside work that need my attention. What have I been doing? Why? Are my priorities all out of whack? Usually, yes.
I had not gone that deep yet this year. Rolling up to the top of the climb, watching my friends, total strangers still, take the corner that leads away from the up. My lungs burned. I was disappointed in myself for not catching them, but also happy that I had convinced myself to try.
When you’re OTB, you find out who your friends are. My wife has planned our summer. She knows I’m not a great planner of leisure time activities. I’m task oriented. I clean the bathroom. I pick up after the dog. Equally, on the bike, the guys I ride with will spin along next to me, chatting, because that’s what I need, that’s what they need, and we all know we’re OTB, but we’re working on it. It’s not so bad.
We’ll catch on. Just give us some time.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I’m sure it is a sacrilege to take up any time, this close to Paris-Roubaix, discussing anything other than who will win over the cobbles of Northern France, but sacrilege is kinda my thing, so today we’re going to talk about a conundrum I recently faced while riding my mountain bike with some friends.
The morning was pretty perfect for a trail ride, cool and crisp. I showed up a few minutes early and scared some deer in a meadow near the trail head. All seemed right with the world.
Then the guys showed up, and I realized I must have left my legs at home. I was immediately and for no obvious reason in the red. I’d ridden a fast gravel ride with them a few nights before, and my legs were dead. Sure, I’d failed to spin it out the following day, but I figured I’d had enough time to recover.
I did my best to follow a wheel, but pretty quickly I was off the back (OTB) and just trying to limit the damage, i.e. not lose them in the woods and/or throw up.
I kept it together reasonably well, and pretty quickly the time to head to work came upon us. The guys wanted to do one last loop up a steep climb before heading out. In my head I was thinking, “You’ll never make it up that climb,” and then, “It’s not a tragedy if you bail on the climb,” and then, “It’s so lame if you bail on the climb,” those three thoughts running in series, over and over as we wound our way back toward the foot of the hill.
I should add, at this point, that the climb itself is not that hard. I’ve ridden it a thousand times. Sometimes I’ve even ridden it just to see how fast I could do it. It’s probably 2-3 minutes of hard work, and the reward on the other side is a twisty, fast descent that most would term, “fun.”
It would also be overly dramatic to call this some sort of ontological crisis, but I found myself wondering immediately what you guys would think. What should I have done? Swallowed hard at the bile creeping up the back of my throat and willed myself up the incline? Or made an excuse and ridden off on my merry, shattered way? Never mind what I actually did. What would YOU have done?
Oh, and since it is actually the Friday before Roubaix, you can go ahead and pick a winner, too. We’ll have an FGR two-fer!
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Photo courtesy of Matt O’Keefe.
The hill leading to my house is not that long, but it features a couple of steep ramps, no matter which direction you come from. I know, because I have tried coming from virtually every direction in a vain attempt to avoid having to climb them.
The nice part is that you can put together almost any kind of climb you want if you know which way to go. One approach is well-paved and fairly gradual. Another is brutally steep, but short. There is one way to go that keeps you off the super steep until the very end, but some of the access to it is paved in a fashion similar to the Arenberg Forest. I go that way when I want to pretend I’m riding a Belgian Classic.
Each route I’ve chosen affords a different profile. There are some that are roll-y, up and down. There are some that give you good flats to rest in, in between lung-busting pushes skyward. And there are some that manage to be both long-ish and steep-ish in a way that makes me want to cry blood.
As I was churning away at my smallest gear last night (and I’ll not disclose that gear’s ratio in order to preserve the illusion that I am not a complete waste of saddle space), I was wondering which is better, a climb you know intimately or an ascent you’ve never seen before.
The familiar climb is nice, because you know how to pace yourself. You know when to rest and when to push. You know when you’re nearing the top and can access that little bit of pre-relief that’s just around the next bend. At the end, you can assess your form, because you can compare it to past ascents.
On the other hand, the familiar climb can be a killer, because you know exactly how much further you’ve got to go. You can judge your lack of form because you know it ought to hurt less than it already does. You know all the potholes and asphalt scars, all the odd, roadside trees, so there’s not much to distract from gravity’s brutal crush.
A climb you’ve never seen before can be terrifying. You feel good at the bottom, but how long will that go on? Will it get harder? Will you have pumped yourself out before the hard part? Can it get harder than it already is? For a brain already fighting with oxygen debt, legs already filling with acid, the unknowns can cause a lot of unhelpful anxiety. A strange hill is like a bogeyman, stuck behind a tree, waiting to knock you out of the pedals.
On the other hand, sometimes I climb best when I have no idea what’s coming. On the most brutal steeps I’ve ventured, it is almost always the case that my mind has been more settled, that I’ve been more in the moment, and thus more in the pedals, than I would be if I knew what misery awaited me. I have done things I’d have thought not possible through simple, blissful ignorance.
So this week’s Group Ride is about climbing. Which do you think is better, the old familiar or the surprise left hook? Would you rather know what’s coming or just deal with it when it comes?