Riding a century

  • D2R2 2018 Contributed photo/Philip Lussier—

  • D2R2 2018 Contributed photo/Philip Lussier—

  • D2R2 2018 Contributed photo/Philip Lussier—

  • D2R2 2018 Contributed photo/Philip Lussier—

  • D2R2 2018 Contributed photo/Philip Lussier—

  • D2R2 2018 Contributed photo/Philip Lussier—

  • Cyclists ride through the Poland Gate in Conway during the 2017 D2R2. Contributed photo/Philip Lussier

  • D2R2 2018 Contributed photo/Philip Lussier—

For the Greenfield Recorder
Published: 8/12/2019 11:08:41 AM

Gravel riding has become a new phenomenon among bicyclists. It’s hard to categorize it along the usual lines of road riding as compared to mountain biking. Neither name describes it well. Perhaps mountain biking “lite” or “adventure” road biking might be more accurate monikers.

Regardless of what descriptors are used, there are a growing number of bicyclists that are turning to gravel riding for a new challenge. In correlation, the number of organized gravel rides has proliferated in the recent past.

Locally, we have a well-known ride on the third Saturday of August every year called the D2R2, which is short for Deerfield Dirt Road Randonée. Its longest route is 180 kilometers or 112 miles with a good deal of climbing and has been dubbed the “world’s hardest century,” with a century being a bicycle ride of 100 miles. The D2R2 started out with three dozen participants in 2005 and now attracts “thousands” of people, who traveled “from 26 states and five countries” to participate in last year’s race, according to the Franklin Land Trust, which organizes the ride as a fundraiser.

Bicycle manufacturers are not blind to the growing popularity of these rides and have started to offer many bikes that are designed for them. Since much of the riding on courses like the D2R2 alternate between smooth and rough surfaces, the standard mountain bike with its knobby tires and more upright riding position are unable to match the higher speeds that gravel bikes are able to achieve.

Sometimes these kinds of bikes are given the appellation of being “all-road” bikes and that is probably the one I apply to my own bicycle, whose recently produced design is nevertheless based upon traditional French-made touring bicycles of the post-World War II era. Its frame material is steel, which makes it a bit heavier than the carbon fiber bikes that most dealers offer these days. However, steel is a very flexible material and absorbs the vibrations well. I have room for wider tires and, in an additional nod to comfort, use fenders with my bike. It is my do-everything machine on which I can run errands to the store, commute to work, take on loaded overnight tours, and go on long, lightly-loaded, continuous rides through the afternoon, night and morning. As a result of the latter type of riding, it has a handlebar bag and a generator built into its front hub which powers a headlight and fender-mounted tail light.

I live along the Ashfield section of the D2R2 and have often wondered what it would be like to attempt the long ride.

Using my all-road bike, I’ve ridden sections of it, starting and finishing at my door, and so could say I’ve garnered a taste of what it would be like, though riding a hard 40-mile section is still a far cry from doing the entire 112 miles of the 180 kilometer “long course.”

Last year I was given a chance to try it for myself.

Riders for the long course were the first to start at 6 a.m. on the morning of last year’s ride. I wasn’t particularly anxious to be in the leading group and so I took my time getting to the start, but mistimed my arrival and started even later than I had planned. It was raining lightly as I left, and I donned my rain jacket and knee warmers since it wasn’t especially warm at that hour of the morning. The ride number, which twist-tied nicely onto the front of the bike had a timing chip which allowed the organizers to keep track of those on the course and would provide all of us with our official starting, finishing and elapsed times.

The rain never really amounted to anything and so, upon reaching the bottom of the second climb, I stopped and took off the rain gear. I was also starting to warm up from the effort and getting just as wet as I would have without any rain protection. Stage one was 37 miles long with 5,000 feet of climbing. I was most familiar with this section of the ride since this was the one I’d ridden many parts of before, some of them beyond counting. It was the section that passed closest to my home, being near mile 21 where the first checkpoint and food stop was located. I passed no one and found myself being passed by groups of two or more riders on a sporadic basis. My plan had been to ride at my own pace though I supposed that if I overtook a solo rider the sensible thing would be to make common cause and ride together. However, that opportunity had yet to present itself. At the first checkpoint, I arrived as a group of four other riders were leaving. Two of them, a woman and man, had European accents. Three members of the group were wearing NYCC D-SIG jerseys. Another group of riders, all males, arrived as I was leaving.

On the first really steep climb after the checkpoint, gravel at about a 15 percent grade, I was passed by that small group of riders, who were more or less my age. One of the ones in the rear, probably closest in age to my own, remarked that he wished he had my lower gearing.

At an elevation of 1750 feet, a turn near Sidehill Farm in Hawley represented the highest point of the ride thus far and led to a 3.7-mile long exciting descent on a mostly gravel surface that deposited riders of the long course along the banks of the Deerfield River at an elevation of 550 feet. That 1200 feet of elevation change was being tackled in the opposite direction by a steady stream of riders following the 160-km course. I had a lot of fun on the descent, which the race organizers warned on the cue sheet was “steep, narrow, rutted, and stony.” Since the opposite side of the road was occupied by riders on their way up, it paid to be cautious on the occasional blind turn. I was also glad that my headlight was on because the corridor through the trees was dark on this overcast day and it gave the climbers warning of my approach. The pairs that were riding side by side slid back into a single file to give me plenty of room.

If I wondered how that climb was feeling to those on the shorter course, I didn’t have to wait long to find out. From the banks of the river, our route sent us up increasingly steeper grades until we reached an elevation of 1725 feet over a distance of 3.9 miles. The organizers had placed the second food stop of the day at 3.2 miles into that climb. At that food stop, I discovered I’d caught back up with the group of NYCC D-SIG riders. They might have spent a bit of extra time resting or I might have been able to gain time on them during the descents. I noticed I was overtaking more riders when the road turned downward than when it was the other way around.

The NYCC riders left before me.

After leaving the checkpoint, I noticed my cyclometer had stopped working. I needed it to keep track of distances between turns if I hoped to be able to follow the cue sheet. Up to that moment, the cyclometer and cue sheet had never been more than a tenth of a mile apart. I hadn’t really needed it since I was so familiar with the roads I had been on but I was entering unfamiliar territory. Not every turn had a road sign. Fortunately, the first one did. The second, which was marked “Road Closed,” quickly turned into a rutted, rocky, puddle-infested, double-track mountain bike trail. It didn’t last long and the numerous bicycle tire tracks I followed through the mud assured me I was still on route.

Exiting the trail onto a steadily downward sloping residential road brought me into contact with a woman rider who, at that moment, was bringing up the rear in the NYCC D-SIG group. I followed her as we coasted downhill and overtook the others. I slotted myself in behind them and at one point asked permission to tag along, explaining that I would have trouble with the route-finding without a working cyclometer. Eventually, I found myself riding side by side with the guy with the European accent. He said his name was Hans and he was originally from Germany but was now living in New York City. They were all members of the New York Cycle Club and the D-SIG jerseys denoted that all but him had recently been through the club’s gravel ride training (“d” meaning “dirt” and “sig” signifying “special interest group”). His schedule didn’t mesh with the training rides and his gravel bike had straight handlebars which would have needed to be switched to drop bars before he could participate. I joked that the D2R2 must be the final exam for the D-SIG trainees.

All of them had GPS units with the course loaded onto them. We occasionally rode past a turn or two but quickly made corrections and I never had to look at my cue sheet. I stayed with the group for the next 30 miles. I rode with them up Archambo Road, the notorious short (0.1 miles long), steep (27 percent incline) dirt climb. Hans stayed on his bike the entire way up and I made it almost all the way. The others had started walking closer to the bottom.

I was able to keep up with them on the climbs but realized I was digging a bit deeper than I had been when I was going at my own pace. I was faster on the descents than everyone but Hans. That did seem to be the reason I had managed to get connected with them.

The sky opened up when we reached the higher ground in Vermont.

The downhills began to take on an added challenge as the roads were beginning to enter the early stages of Vermont’s spring mud-season slickness. Another rider, who had joined the group for route-finding solidarity, overtook me on one of the downhills, saying I must be glad I had fenders. I glanced at his face, which had a mud stripe up the middle of it. His back was similarly tattooed. I replied he probably wished he had them himself.

From quick glances at the cue sheet, it seemed we were weren’t far from the official “lunch” spot of the 180 kilometer course, the covered bridge over the Green River in Guilford, Vt. When we all finally rolled into the stop there were what seemed a hundred bikes here, there, and everywhere and their riders all milling about. All of the D2R2’s five pre-announced routes had a stop here. There seemed to be more than a dozen NYCC D-SIG riders holding a strategy session.

It was late enough in the day that most of the food offerings had been whittled down to just a few items. Everyone seemed to be picking up and clearing out as I walked back to my bike. Hans told me he was done for the day and taking a pre-designed bailout route back to the starting area. I told him I hadn’t made up my mind about finishing, but knew the route ahead well enough that I was willing to wait to make a decision, based upon how strong I was feeling when I came back down to cross the river again, about 14 miles further along.

At least one member of my former group, one of the women, continued on the 180-kilometer route ahead of me. She quickly out-distanced me as the road immediately started gaining elevation. The route took us 500 feet up in 4 ½ miles. It wasn’t any worse than many of the earlier climbs, but I now seemed to be dealing with post-rest-stop dead-legs and just couldn’t seem to find the energy I needed for the climbing.

The route immediately began descending to the east and I knew that meant more climbing would be needed between me and my Rubicon since the river was to the west of the high ground I was on. The route gave up all 500 feet I’d gained from the rest stop in 2.5 miles of steady descent. It then proceeded to gain it all back over the next 2.5 miles.

My legs were having none of it.

I found myself walking up some of the steeper grades. I was also feeling chilled as I went down some of the preliminary descents heading back to the river. I knew the last 2-mile stretch before the bridge was described as a “twisty high-speed descent” on the cue sheet. At what was probably the highest point before that, I stopped to shove some more candy in my mouth and to don knee warmers and my rain jacket.

I had no regrets about taking time to put on the extra layers as I flew back down the paved road — at one point topping more than 40 miles per hour. It was very exciting and helped me make up my mind to abandon the rest of the route, since ending my attempt on such a high note didn’t feel quite so bad.

After crossing the river, I turned left, south, and, where the cue sheet called for a right turn further on, I went straight ahead. I kept the extra layers on all 12 miles back to Deerfield, including during a stop at a convenience store to get some chips and non-diet soda. I was still wearing them when I passed an intersection with the road containing the last descent of the 180-kilometer course.

A voice called out over my shoulder shortly after passing the intersection. I was motoring along at 20 plus miles per hour. A woman in her 20s overtook me and asked if I was following the D2R2 180-kilometer route. I said I had been but had bailed out early. I told her I was now back on that route heading to the finish line and she was welcome to join me. She said she and her husband, who were both from near Boston, had been doing the 180 kilometers. The last couple miles had taken over an hour because her husband had broken his derailleur on one of the muddier sections of the route and he had tried to finish with his drive train rigged as a single-speed. His chain kept breaking and he was now just walking back, expecting her to come and pick him up with their car.

We reached the finish area together. I told her to go across the timing mat ahead of me since hers was a legitimate finishing time and mine was merely a record of the fact that I had returned safely. Afterward, I rode over to my truck, changed, and went to find out how to collect a beer ticket. The organizers gave out a beer glass and one ticket to all returnees. There was a buffet food line as well. I found a table with a couple of friends sitting at it and asked if they would watch my beer while I went through the food line.

Returning to the table, I freely admitted to my friends that I hadn’t gone the whole distance.

One had ridden a shorter “mystery” course and had a good time doing it. I said that finishing in time to get some beer and food and good conversation was ample compensation for losing the right to say I’d ridden the whole distance with a consequent return in the dark after everyone had gone home. I did, however, earn the right to say I’d ridden 100 miles (with the 12 miles back from mile 87.9 on the course) and while I hadn’t been able to complete the world’s hardest century, I’d completed probably the hardest century of my life.

The course isn’t going anywhere. I can still attempt it anytime I want.

Philip Lussier, 66, has been riding a bicycle since he was 4 years old. Cycling adventures include a cross continent trip from Anacortes, WA to New Carlisle, Quebec, Canada. The retired 30-year science teacher at Mohawk Trail Regional, successfully rode a bicycle to work every month of the school year. Riding during the winter months required studded bicycle tires (which are actually available). A version of this article first appeared in Bicycle Quarterly.


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