Rural Massachusetts

Deerfield Dirt-Road Randonnée 2005

180 kilometers, 70% of them unpaved. 3680 meters of elevation gain, most of them on loose gravel and rutted dirt tracks. 18 distinct climbs in excess 15% grade (one of them reached 25%). A swimming hole. No traffic. Countless splendid views. A bunch of riders as friendly and interesting as anyone could hope for.

It all made August 27th one of the best cycling days of my life. Sandy Whittlesey spent more than a decade exploring the back roads of western Massachusetts and southern Vermont and stringing them into a coherent whole, and the result was breathtaking in every sense of the word. It was by far my slowest century ever—11 hours from start to finish—but we weren't in a hurry, and when it was over I wished that it had lasted longer.

I remember the day as a jumble of beautiful images. Horses galloping next to us in the early morning light near Poland Gate. The plunging, twisty descent on loose gravel from Ashfield to Charlemont, memories of boyhood mountain bike rides in southern Italy flooding back to me as I left everyone behind. The 25% climb on loose dirt at Archambo Road—I'm proud that I never had to put my foot down. A rest in the cool shade at the top of Wilson Hill, while a fellow rider fixed a broken chain. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the fantastic control-cum-swimming hole on the Green River. The almost comically punitive succession of climbs on stage three: Wilken's Hill, Owl's Head Mountain, Gates Hill, East Colrain Hill, Copeland Hill, Patten Hill: "When will it ever end?!" M&M's and glorious views at the summit of Patten Hill. The incredible descent from Davenport Farm to Route 2, fast, difficult, and phenomenally scenic. And of course that final circuit in the corn maze just outside old Deerfield, where recent dry weather had fortunately obviated the "deep puddles and sticky mud" predicted by the cue sheet.

The ride was a Rivendell and iBOB reunion. I counted one Rivendell custom, one Atlantis, two Salukis, and three Rambouillets, not to mention a beautiful orange Bridgestone XO-1 in perfect condition, a couple Bob Jacksons, and several other steel bikes. The Baggins Bags and wool jerseys were out in force. There were also mountain bikes, and cross bikes, and road bikes with 23mm tires (at what point should one stop admiring madness?), and even a tandem, piloted of course by John Bayley and Pamela Blalock.

I cycled the whole way with Rick Gowen, my companion on many spring brevets, and Bryan Johnson, with whom I had ridden LEL in July. We spent much of the ride in the company of Kris Kjellquist, another Boston brevet regular, and Bob Powers from Long Island, whose impeccable XO-1 was the object of universal lust and admiration. At various times we were joined by other riders—a friendly mountain biker from NYC whose name unfortunately I forget, Ted Lapinski, Melinda Lyon, and the Blayleys, just to name a few—but ultimately the steep climbs and technical terrain made it difficult to keep a big group together. We arrived at the finish at 5:02pm (11 hours and 2 minutes for 110 miles!!), and watched our friends trickle in over the next hour or so.

I was the de facto navigator for our little threesome, and I relished reading the dramatic cue sheet almost as much as I enjoyed the cycling. I would turn towards Rick or Bryan and could barely contain my childish glee: "Half mile of 25% grade coming up!"—"Cue says 'begin hard climb' will last a mile!"—"Beware the deep gaps in the wooden bridge!"—"Cue says '20% grade - ignore Road Closed sign'"—"'CAUTION, begin gnarly descent - large stones and washouts'!" Pain, as they say, is the feeling of weakness leaving the body.

Many of my photos from the day were disappointing—blurry or out of focus. It just means I'll have to be back next year. But for now, here are some of my favorites from this year's ride.

You can look at all the photos if you wish.