You are moving, but not without pain. Where is this pain coming from? Your back? Your legs? Your mind? You are ashen, gray. This would be apparent if there was a mirror handy, but there is actually nothing handy. You are upright and moving forward and that is all. This is survival mode.
There are many ways to enter survival mode, most of them a result of your own naivete, poor planning or naked hubris. How far is 100 miles? How many is 10,000 climbing feet? How many bottles do I need for this ride? Where will we get food? Did anyone check the weather? These are all questions that presage survival mode.
Sometimes circumstances contrive to take you there. The weather man has a jour sans. Mechanical forces array against you. Road construction disturbs your route.
Uttering the phrase, “I’ll probably be fine,” is what passes for an express ticket to survival mode. You can get there via bonking or crashing, or by simply failing to train up to the level of your aspirations. Here a foolish pride bleeds you dry as your friends chat amiably and you die inside.
In the Spring, on an unseasonably hot day, I showed up for a 70-mile cross “race” on a borrowed bike with one water bottle. Quite what I was thinking, I could not explain to you. It was laughable.
There was nowhere on the course to refill my one bottle. To add to the mirth, I crashed in the first twenty miles, and though it wasn’t a serious spill, the ensuing 50 miles of pounding turned my spine into a length of barbed wire. There was no comfortable position, no possibility of relief out of the saddle, no power to be derived from the muscles of my lower back. As the rest of my team settled into their groove and hammered through the final climbs and trails of the day, I dehydrated, too.
Fortunately, I had been in survival mode before, so when, suddenly, I became enraged about being dropped on an unremarkable hill in the last 15 miles, I knew where I was. Because you get used to pain on the bike, because you become inured to suffering, you sometimes don’t know how badly off you are until you lose control of your emotions.
The best rule for surviving survival mode, if indeed you feel compelled to finish whatever ride you’ve started rather than packing it in as a sane person might, is only to speak when spoken to, and to limit your answers to the barest minimum. In this way, you can keep your pain to yourself and not get it all over your companions.
A few weeks back, a friend of mine found himself in this particular spot of bother at D2R2. An early crash shook him up. Then he had double leg cramps. With over 10,000 feet of vertical gain, this is not a ride you want to cramp on. We spent probably the last 25 miles with him just doing the best we could, hanging back, taking our time. I was impressed with the way he continued to push on each climb. He dug down into some deep reserve, the reserve we all have but seldom are brave enough to access, and he finished.
We often say, here at RKP, that “to suffer is to learn,” but if you’re not careful you can turn that into a pseudo-tough-guy cliche. It’s all well and good to push at your limits, but you’ve also got to pay attention. You have to take the time to learn.
In the most practical sense, you can learn not to make so many stupid mistakes. You can learn to show up on the right bike with the right supplies. You can also learn not to overestimate your abilities. In this way, the more you suffer now, the less you suffer later.
But then, there are other lessons available. I believe there is value in learning to sit with pain, both physical and emotional. Low-blood sugar and dehydration will put you off emotional kilter. They will introduce you to chemically-inspired, irrational rage. The bonk is sometimes called “going to meet the man with the hammer,” but you can also become the man with the hammer, hammering yourself, hammering friends.
There are also the ego-crumpling effects of being the weak link. You feel you’ve let your friends down. Disappointment mingles with shame and anger. It’s a party you’d rather not be on the guest-list for.
A bike ride, though, is logistically insignificant compared to everyday life. Naivete, poor planning and naked hubris don’t confine themselves to in-saddle time. You get stuck in traffic. You pay attention to politics. Someone says something to you that rubs you the wrong way. You get ill. Your kids get ill. Your parents age. Your parents die. You lose friends. So much of it is beyond your control, and so little of it goes to plan. Big events and small distractions. Life on life’s terms. Just like on the bike, you find yourself, occasionally and unforeseeably, in survival mode.
And hopefully, just hopefully, something triggers in your animal brain. You have been here before. You know how to do this. This is practical reality, where riding and life merge and become the same. What you do is no longer an activity, a hobby. It’s a tool for living a better, calmer, more peaceful life. It is a proxy and a simulator, and all you have to do, in survival mode, is just keep rolling.
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Image: © Matt O’Keefe
We drove out in a rain storm, eyes tilted skyward, half in fear, half in silent prayer, but the sky cleared as we rolled into the meadow, the white registration tent like a beacon in a stormy sea. The field where we parked our car was fresh cut and the smell of earth and of farming hung in the air. We padded across to the tent, got our packets, and then returned to the car to pin numbers and pull on kits, mostly in silence.
As usual, the start of D2R2 is soft, which is to say, no gun goes off, no pack of riders spills into the road. What happens is you leave.
And not so long after you leave, you begin asking questions. There are obvious questions like, “Where is the next turn?” Some combination of GPS technology, cue sheet scrutiny and just following a rider in front of you will provide an answer. Other questions like, “Is this the top?” and “Are you sure this is the way?” and “Is that even a road?” come up also. Quick answers: “No. This is not the top. No, I am not sure this is the way, but it is a dirt path between two trees and the cue sheet says…and no, this is not a road,” but sometimes the way is not a road, but it is all beautiful, so keep your head up and keep pedaling.
And even if you have ridden D2R2 before, at some point not too far along you will ask: “Why am I doing this?”
Holy shit! What a question?!?!
Because on the face of it, it makes no sense. There you are grinding your way up a wet dirt track in the woods. Your lungs hollow out as you labor up and up and up. Sweat burns at the corner of your eyes and your quads scream up at you, and you wonder if you will make it to a place where the road no longer goes up, or at the very least stops going up like a kid’s party balloon, carelessly held.
Of course, even in your abject state there are many answers to the question. First, you are doing this because you have never ridden your bike in such beautiful places, places you will never go by car or by foot. Every time you lift your eyes from your front wheel you are struck by your surroundings, narrow lanes through primeval forest, farms perched on the edge of sky top meadows, old tracks that ribbon along rivers and brooks. It is high and low and various and sundry but also uniformly gorgeous and always worth the effort of getting there.
Second, you are doing it, because all year you think of doing a ride like this, an epic (yes, epic) assault on the hinterlands, a gravel-grinding, soul-chewing exploit of a ride. In reality, however, very few humans have the will to force themselves to do anything so hard. Few of us have the clarity of purpose to scout, map and execute such a thing, so we pay our money and ride out with our friends and wonder at the suffering and beauty that greet us along the way.
Thirdly, and maybe most importantly, we ride this ride to know ourselves better. At RKP we say ‘to suffer is to learn,’ and D2R2 affords us that suffering in large and creative doses. D2R2 will tell you how good a climber you are. It will tell you how good a bike handler you are. It will break you down into your component parts and lay bare the truth of your riding.
It will teach you that you need to have an awful lot of food in your jersey pocket when lunch is 65 miles away. It will teach you that, though you feel strong and fast, it is best to keep your powder dry, because every ounce of that strength can be wrung out of your bones in a ten-minute struggle against a hill that has no name. You will find out that it is best to stick together and take care of your friends, because in ten miles they will be taking care of you. You, who normally eschew too-sweet sodas, will find that swilling a cold Coke at the top of a rise, with a smiling volunteer asking you how your day is going, will restore a humanity you didn’t even know you’d lost on that last dusty stretch of road.
Finally, you ride D2R2 to show yourself that you can. What a whopping large dose of self-doubt you can swallow after you do a thing like this. If you can ride D2R2, what can’t you ride? You are unstoppable.
We had a good day, my friends and I. Despite an early crash, one of our number soldiered bravely on to the finish, through double leg cramps and the creeping ache that comes from hitting the ground hard and then putting your body on permanent shake and grind for 60 miles. I felt as happy for him as I did for myself as the white tent hove back into sight after a full day on the course.
And, we met a lot of cool people as you will on a randonnee, riding together, helping with mechanicals, group-sourcing navigational duties. Next year I will look for the guys from New Hampshire whose buddy broke a spoke up on a nowhere hill in Southern Vermont, the young guys from Brooklyn who ground out the longest, hardest, meanest hill of the day with us, and all the volunteers who smilingly packed our faces with calories at each of the stops.
Safely back under the tent in the evening, the smell of pulled pork in the air, someone’s voice on a PA competing with the general din, I looked around the table at my friends and I felt happy, and I almost never wanted to move from that place. The air grew cool and the mosquitoes went away, and I sunk a Rice Krispies treat and washed it down with a ginger ale.
Finally, we stood before our legs seized and the plastic chairs ruined our backs. And then we drove home in the quiet car.
Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot
Some years back I was in an editorial meeting for a bike magazine when two of my colleagues suggested the publication for which we toiled needed to embrace bicycle commuters and the double-century crowd. It could have been a disastrous move for the struggling media property. Imagine Bobcat Goldthwait abandoning stand-up comedy to devote his time and energy to finger puppetry and you get the idea.
Somehow (I’m still now sure quite how I managed), I was able to dodge the editorial suicide by arguing: Commuters weren’t clamoring for bike magazines filled with tips on how to get to work faster/in better style/with greater training benefit/at less expense. The double-century set, no matter how dedicated they were as cyclists, were a population fractional to the size of the century riding set. The primary expression of the roadie lifestyle were the thousands of people doing group rides week-in and week-out and those were the people our advertisers were trying to reach, whether they knew it or not.
For the entirety of my life I’ve been at the shallow end of some bell curve. Hell, just being a cyclist confirms that. The irony here is that as a roadie who lives for his local group rides, I am, for once, the middle of the bell curve. For reasons I can’t explain, I can look at a marketing plan or advertising campaign meant to reach roadies and I can tell you instantly if it will resonate or not. I can’t do that with anything else. I’m not in the middle of the curve for anything else.
A strange offshoot of that savant-like talent is that I can also look at geometry charts and tell you how a bike will handle. My recent post on the Roubaix-edition Felt F1 brought up some interesting questions both in comments and email. The most obvious and direct question is why Felt won’t be marketing that bike to the cycling public. Well, there are two reasons why not. The first is a simple one, at least, seemingly. The Roubaix F1 has a bottom bracket lower than 27cm and that violates a fundamental CPSC rule. In broad (very broad) strokes, that regulation says that a bike must be able to lean a certain amount with its inside pedal down without striking the pedal on the ground. The math ordinarily works out to a cheap rat trap pedal plus 170mm cranks equals 7cm of BB drop. A few sizes (56cm and smaller) of the Specialized Roubaix feature a BB drop of 7.2cm. I believe they manage this because of the 25mm tires spec’d with the Roubaix. Now Felt could get around the rule either by spec’ing a 25mm tire (like Specialized) or by marketing it just as a frameset; BB height rules don’t apply to framesets, which is why Serotta and Richard Sachs can build frames with a 8cm of BB drop.
I need to interject an interesting aside here: Trek’s new Domane has a surprisingly low bottom bracket. In most sizes the BB drop is 8cm. On larger frames, bikes with presumably longer cranks, the BB height decreases to 7.8cm. How they are getting this past the CPSC I don’t know, but I intend to ask. They also spec the bike with 25mm tires. Will it accept 28s? Likewise, I intend to find out.
But back to the larger point, the bell curve. When you’re a custom builder you don’t have to worry about the middle of the bell curve. If you’re going to NAHBS, you’re going to build a randonnee bike to show because it gives you a great chance to build tons of bike bling into the frameset. From trick routing of generator hub wires and Di2 cables to well-integrated racks, lights and fenders, they are a great way to show off a builder’s chops. But if you actually show up at a randonnee event here or overseas (especially overseas) the riders who want to make it into that top 20 percent of finishing times are on lightweight carbon machines.
Now, back to the real(er) world. Imagine that a product manager, say one from Cannondale, did some dirt-road ride like D2R2. And let’s say he decided to get behind a dirt-road spec for a new edition of the Synapse. And let’s, for the sake of fantasy or argument (your choice), say he managed to lay his hands on enough long-reach calipers to outfit all those bikes with brakes that didn’t conflict with the 28mm tires he spec’d for it. What happens if the market for dirt-road road bikes favors Specialized for reasons of spec, price or market affinity? Heck, it doesn’t even have to be another big company; it could be that the market simply favors custom steel builders. Let’s suppose that Cannondale runs 1000 of those bikes, just to be conservative. What happens if they don’t sell? Well, they get discounted later in the season. Depending on just how many are sitting in the warehouse, they might have to discount them a bunch, in which case they could be looking at taking a loss on the bikes. You can guess where this leads: Take too much of a loss on a bike that was a gamble to begin with and you risk more than your employer’s capital; you risk your job. And if you want to find out just how fickle the market it, just ask a rep from one of the bigger bike companies about color choice and inventory. It’s not uncommon to find that one color (such as blue) sells like Ecstasy at a rave, while the other color choice (lime green, for instance) is sitting in the warehouse, gathering dust.
Okay, let’s give Debbie Downer a chance to take a bow. The reality is a good bit brighter than that. The bike market is a good bit larger than it used to be. This is the legacy of the Lance Effect. Bunches of people who bought bikes because of Lance had the good fortune to join clubs, get a decent introduction to the sport and stayed with it. That bigger market has had a curious effect on what’s offered. (Okay, Debbie, we’re not quite finished; could you come back out a sec?) Factories making high-end product struggle to produce all of the frames, forks and components necessary to deliver bikes to bike shops each spring. You may think that consumer choice is the primary driver behind Cannondale offering the SuperSix EVO in Di2, 7900 and Red is to give consumers choices at different price points. That would be only partly true. Even Cannondale can’t get enough 7900 to equip all of those bikes with Shimano’s top mechanical group. Of course, these choices create another layer of risk for both the bike companies and retailers. What if consumers just don’t want to spend $8k on a carbon bike with Dura-Ace, but they’re fine with spending $9k on one with Red?
Let’s hope that shop has a crystal ball.
So that’s the minefield. But consider that we have bikes like the Specialized Roubaix, the Volagi Liscio, the Synapse (Cannondale) and now the Trek Domane (which is a replacement for the failed Pilot, oops). Our choices are increasing and the quality of what we ride has leapt. That’s a lot to celebrate. And it’s easier than ever before to find a custom builder thanks to the Interwebs. Here’s the thing about the bell curve: If the population grows, it grows. As events like D2R2 gain in popularity, more products that make those events more enjoyable will hit the market.
If the comments section of RKP has proven anything, it’s that we are a brotherhood. Well, that and that we’re passionate cyclists who love a good, hard ride. Okay, so it’s proven two things.
I’ve not too secretly held the suspicion that it would be fun to round a bunch of you up and go for a ride. The Ride Kite Rondezvous is ready for prime-time I’m pleased to say. The announcement took a little bit longer than anticipated but that was due to some negotiations to bring the overall cost of the event down (we’ve managed to shave off about 20% from our original estimate without dropping the quality at all).
We’ve added an item to the menu bar for the event, just left of the search field. That page spells out all the details from the length of trip (seven days, six nights), to the hotel we’ll be staying in (the historic Hotel Northampton) as well as the focal point of the trip: The Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee, better known as D2R2.
Aside from doing the ride we’ll have some special treats in store for participants. It will be a very fun time.
To learn more, go here.
I would like to tell you not to come and ride D2R2 (The Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee). It is not the most organized cycling event you will attend. The route is sadistically hard. It is dangerous in many spots, and you do NOT have the right bike for it, no matter what bike you have.
And yet, despite all that, sometimes because of it, this is the single best cycling event I have ever ridden.
Unlike many rides which start with someone on a bullhorn giving nominal instructions at a start line, followed by a starters pistol or some other clear sign that the ride has begun, D2R2 invites you to leave when you’re ready. Ride up to the sign out sheet. Record your number and time of departure, and then get rolling. Go.
What you discover, once on the road, is that there is no signage on the course. No arrows. No logos. Nothing. You are entirely dependent, for whatever length (100K, 115K, 180K) course you choose, on the cue sheet.
Here are some representative samples from the cue sheet:
“Continue straight past “Road no longer maintained” sign”
“Continue straight past gun club onto very rough jeep track”
“Top of hill, farm animals often in road; CAUTION, hard right turn on descent”
“T-intersection, LEFT onto Cowpath 40!”
Stage 3: “A hard dirt climb, a very hard dirt climb, and then a super-hard dirt climb”
“CAUTION: Super-fast downhil with crazy turns and full stop at the bottom”
“CAUTION: gnarly descent, stones, washouts next mile”
Rather than turning the ride into an orienteering course for the velo set, though, this approach to navigation forces everyone to talk. You start by asking if anyone has seen the sign for Cowpath 40, and end up talking about where they come from, what they’re riding, what they ate, etc. It galvanizes the pack, which is a good thing, because there are spots along the way where you need as many friends as you can get.
Another issue is the difficulty of some of the terrain. There are not just steep climbs. There are steep climbs on dirt, and there are not just steep climbs on dirt. There are steep climbs on loose dirt, strewn with gravel and loose stone. And there are not just steep climbs on loose dirt, strewn with gravel and loose stone. There are steep climbs on loose dirt, strewn with gravel and loose stone that go on and on and on, until you’re sure you’re going to throw up and quite possibly fall over.
I was lucky. I had good legs all day.
Ride founder Sandy Whittlesey has done what so many of the iconic races/rides in our sport have done before. He has looked at the area he lives in, figured out where all the most interesting places to ride are, and connected them with a bit of ambitious cartography. This is not a ride that seeks to imitate other rides. This is a ride that tries only to show you exactly where you are.
The ostensible purpose of the event is actually to benefit the Franklin Land Trust, a group that “works with landowners and communities to protect their farms, forests, and other natural resources significant to the environmental quality, economy and rural character of our region.”
In this case, that means rolling farmland, rambling jeep tracks, absurd, escapist dirt roads that shoot up inclines and snake along ridges, paved bits that bisect primordial forest and everywhere the rumble of a river or a brook.
I have hiked, biked and traveled all over the parts of Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont the D2R2 takes in, but I had never ridden an inch of Whittlesey’s route. He showed me what I’ve been missing.
We rolled back into the start/finish meadow around 5pm with the first drops at the leading edge of Hurricane Irene plopping heavily into the grass. The grills were sizzling, the smell of burger grease wafting on the wind. There was a line at the beer tent, and there were smiles on every face.
It would be easy to chalk up the joy of D2R2 to the scenery or to the hard-man difficulty, but that would fail to capture the spirit of the thing. Simply climbing really hard, technical terrain does not make a ride great. D2R2 takes you up those roads because that’s the only way to see what’s up there. And, of course, you get the descents. I touched 50mph on one of them, a sketchy paved track that swooped and banked like a drunken sparrow. It was, without exaggeration, the best descent of my life, the sort that mixes bowel-guttering fear with smile-plastering joy. At the bottom I could only manage a torrent of profanity to express the complex emotions I’d just felt.
In this, its seventh year, the D2R2 has grown into a big, happy, unruly mess of an event. The word is out. Just short of 1000 riders took part, and word of mouth alone will drive that number higher in 2012. I would like to tell you not to come.
But I can’t.
Photos courtesy of and © Andrew Conway.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.
Last Fall, Padraig asked me if I’d ridden D2R2. I hadn’t. Generally speaking, I haven’t done a lot of events of any sort since my kids were born, but this year has been different. The boys are 4 and 6, and I am turning 40, so I’m trying to get some things done with my fitness, while I’ve still got it. I ran a crazy off-road half-marathon in July. I signed up for D2R2, too.
D2R2 is an event like few others. A long, dirt road ramble. An adventure race. A scenic romp over hill and dale. A giant cyclo-festival that is most certainly and explicitly NOT a race, that boasts beer and barbecue and lots and lots of fist bumping.
I pulled out the cross bike, thick with dust, and set about tuning it for a full day of dusty suffering. Honestly, it took me the better part of a week to get that thing tuned up and dialed in. After my first attempts I took it to a local trail system to test my work. What I discovered is that cantilever brakes might as well be twin Rubics cubes, such is my inability to get them tight, even and balanced. I also learned that my seat was too high, and not level, and slightly not-straight. A great wrench, I am not.
Back to the garage and the work stand and the hex wrenches. Back to the kids nipping at my heels, moving my tools from one place to another, asking me too many (i.e. all the right) questions.
Today, two days in advance of the grand depart, I took the bike to a more challenging milieu, a six-mile loop of semi-technical single track. If I could make it there, I reasoned, I could make it anywhere.
It was only six miles, but it was exactly what I needed to transition my brain from my road machine to off-road machine. Keep your weight forward on the loose climbs. Let the bike float beneath you on the descents. Lean into the turns. Avoid the trees. You know, the basics. By the end, I was hucking it off the big (read: not very big) jumps and sprinting into the banked turns. I was having fun.
If you read any of the bike forums dedicated to this Saturday’s event, you will begin to believe that you are not ready, can’t ever be ready and are likely unworthy for the daylong sufferfest. Fortunately for me, having sweated the technique a little, I know that even when you’re not ready, you still ride, and everything works out just fine.
At least, I hope so.
If you will be at the ride this weekend, do keep an eye out for me. I’ll be resplendent in my RKP kit, and I will need all the encouragement I can get.
Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.