Wednesday, August 26, 2009

D2R2: A Dirt Road Delight

When I first heard of the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee, a little over a year ago, I thought it sounded like a truly dumb idea. Over 100 miles, mostly on dirt roads, with 16,000' of vertical gain; that's over three miles, straight up. It sure didn't sound like fun, even to someone like me, who rides 1,000 miles of dirt a year, just commuting.

Oh, what a difference a year makes. Somehow, the idea worked its way into my head. Perhaps it was all the times I stumbled across its mention, always intensely favorable by those who have ridden it, or perhaps it was just that I was in pretty good riding shape this year. For whatever reason, when the ride date approached, I decided to go for it. Now that it's done, count me among the D2R2's fans.

I wasn't really sure I was ready for this ride. I had a couple of double-centuries under my belt this year, as well as a number of other long rides, and a week before the D2R2 I did an 85-mile ride that included a number of steep dirt roads and Lincoln and App Gaps, for a total of about 7,500' of climbing. Then I looked at the ride's website, where it is advised that one include century rides with at least 10,000' of climbing as a training regimen. Gulp.

The D2R2 is considered by many to be one of the toughest centuries anywhere, though many say that Vermont's own six-gap ride may be tougher. As far as I know, it's the only ride of its kind. The D2R2's organizer is cycling legend Sandy Wittlesey, who says, “We designed it by placing pins in the map where the covered bridges and coolest sights were, then connected the dots with dirt roads. Our intent was to make the most beautiful ride we could …all we really want is for people to finish D2R2 saying, ‘Wow, that was really challenging, but totally worth it because it’s such a great bike ride.’”

All kinds of people show up for this ride, on all kinds of bikes. The course is probably best suited for cyclocross and randonneur bikes, but many ride mountain bikes. I saw everything from an old Raleigh Gran Sport to a recumbent, which was doing surprisingly well on the climbs. I was riding smooth-tread 30C tires, which worked very well in the dry conditions. Of course, there were a number of racer-types who sailed past, riding impossibly narrow tires and pushing impossibly big gears, but one gets used to that sort of thing happening. I went with the recommended 1:1 low end, and I'm very glad I did.

There is a shorter, 100K version of the ride that is offered and recommended for those who have not done the full 170K version, but I decided to go for the full deal. The weather was for a typical, hot August day, with lots of sun, so I made the earliest start of 6 am. There were a total of 480 riders registered for the three events, including a 32-mile ride routed straight up the Green River, and well over 100 people riding the 170K. The group started out at a pace that was a bit faster than I would have been able to maintain, but, luckily, I had a slight malfunction that took less than a minute to fix, but which permanently separated me from the fastest starters. I caught up with some other riders on the next descent and rode with them for a while, but there really isn't much benefit to be gained by riding in a pack on this ride, other than for moral support, as there are very few miles where drafting would be helpful. The D2R2 isn't a race, and most people are just looking to finish, and walk as few climbs as possible.

Since most of the ride is on dirt roads, the tree canopy gave a welcome escape from the August heat. I focused on maintaining a pace that I thought would take me through the entire ride and didn't worry about who I was passing or who was passing me. I do wish I had noticed that the guy who went by me on a Richard Sachs cyclocross bike in full team kit was the main man, Mr. Sachs, himself, or that the Independent Fabrications crew had brought almost everyone from the factory along. As it was, I met up with several Vermonters, and heard rumors of others, though I think I was the only one wearing a GMBC jersey.

After 50 miles or so of climbing and descending, including two of the toughest climbs of the course, I was really getting into the spirit of the ride. I was cleaning everything the course was throwing at me, my old mountain biking skills were kicking in and I was descending faster and faster on the cyclocross bike I was riding. On one long, nasty downhill just before the second break, I flew past a number of other riders; however, it was at the cost of a broken spoke, and twisting the handlebars in a 4-bolt stem. I even drove the brake levers down on the bars, which has never happened to me before. Luckily, I had the tools and parts with me necessary to fix things at the break.

The closest call I had, though, was when I was flying down a one-lane road by myself, after the final break. I came around a curve doing well over 35 mph, when I came upon a tractor coming up the hill, pulling some kind of tedder (a piece of equipment with long spikes, used to harvest hay). The equipment overhung the small ditch on both sides of the road, and there were trees on the left and a vertical embankment on the right. Luckily, the farmer stopped as soon as he saw me, leaving me just enough room to fishtail to a stop on the foot of road alongside the tractor's rear wheel, staring at the big spikes only a couple of feet ahead. The farmer cut the tractor's engine and deadpanned “That was close.” I had to hold onto those spikes as I climbed through the ditch to get around the rig, continuing on a bit more cautiously.

My total time for the ride put me in position 53 out of the 118 finishers, not too shabby. My actual ride time was 8:48, making it certainly my all-time slowest century. Still, I cleaned the entire course, rode some amazingly beautiful roads, chatted with a lot of fascinating people, saw some really cool bikes (including one made of wood!), and had a great time. The support was fantastic, there were showers, dinner and a band waiting at the end--all-in-all, just a great experience. I'll definitely be riding this one again.

Patrick's great photos of the event on Flicker.