Here comes the dirt bike
Beware of the dirt bike
Because I hear they're coming to our town
When I bought my Seven, there was one thing I said I didn't want and was never planning to do with the bike. And that was get into dirt riding/gravel grinders. I had an old rigid MTB (my Nishiki) with racks and fenders that loved gentle offroading and I was happy to keep any dirt rides in the touring/slow toodles camp. Not for fast riding, or even the closest approximation of "fast" I can manage.
The paint was barely dry on my new darling when I took it on the Middlesex Canal Tour, for which it was overkill, speed/efficiency-wise (this was more a city bikes tooling along at 10mph between informative stops sort of ride), but it was new and I wanted to ride it. And then we turned off the pavement onto trails, and the bike...rode just ducky. On little 23mm tires pumped up to rock-hard. Sure, I wasn't going very fast, which helped, but the handling was fine. Hrm
, I said. I'm still not doing gravel grinders
, I added.
At my first brevet, up in Burlington Vermont, one of the experienced riders, Frank kept trying to convince me to come back up for the Fall Classic. I still couldn't imagine doing that much dirt on the road bike, and I couldn't quite imagine doing brevet speed and distances on my Nishiki. He did make it sound like fun, though. And he was the first (of many) randonneurs to be very welcoming of my newcomer self -- to just assume I would succeed at anything I tried. I didn't, however, try the Fall Classic that year. All hail the dirt bike
Philosopher dirt bike
Silence as we gathered round
We saw the word and we're on our way
The next year, though, when it rolled around, I was itching for a little vacation, Burlington was beautiful when I last went, and a weekend trip for good food and a little bike ride (for me) and dirt road run (for dphilli1
) sounded ideal. The 114k edition, not the 200k, since I wasn't really sure I could hold brevet speed on dirt and hills.
Once I started riding, though, I didn't much care if I DNFed, although I was trying hard not to. It was just simply wonderful to be out there.
You can get scenery and stay on pavement, but willing to go off it yields some of the most marvelously quiet places to ride. Well, quiet except for the skittering of dirt under tires. I talked to myself about trust a lot on this ride. Trust your tires, I said. Trust your brakes, I said. Trust your legs, I said, and go. I bombed down descents one razor's edge of reflex ahead of the dirt sliding under me; I hauled the bike around trying to scrape myself up hills without spinning out. I walked, some, of course. It's me. And I made time and stopped for photos
. (I've linked the album before, but now you have context.) Soul-crushing dirt bike
Self-propelled dirt bike
You see I never thought I'd understand
Till that bike took me by the hand
Now I ride
Now I find myself pulling up Bing Maps (which, not always accurately, shows dirt roads, unlike Google maps), and poking at routes. I throw a little dirt in here and there when designing routes, although I refrained from adding any to the nightride. (Though a permanent version of that course with dirt might be in the works, or a free-route perm with paved/unpaved alternates.)
After tweaking my knee futzed up my brevet schedule, I went looking for consolation-prize rides, and one popped out. We bought a rack for the car and I dragged David up to New Hampshire to try and ride Raid Rockingham
, which is pretty much an ideal beginners gravel-grind -- it's not especially hilly, it's not a far schlep from Boston, and it has an easy short-cut down from ~60mi to ~40 if necessary.
That, alas, did not go quite as planned.
I almost threw on my big saddlebag with a spare tire, because I wasn't sure how rough the roads were, and because after the 300k tire debacle I was feeling touchy about tires. I didn't, though, because I hadn't had any dirt-related tire shenanigans, ever, and was pretty confident I'd be OK. That turned out to be true. David's tires, though, were another story. They were beefy 'cross-ish/city-ish tires, but they weren't new any more, and a few miles after he'd dropped me on a hill, I came across him looking dismally at his bike. He'd shredded a sidewall, and was dubious about his ability to fix it. I think we could have, if we'd kept at it, but after blowing the first spare tube before we'd found the real problem (and setting his ears ringing) and then having the patched original tire not hold air when we put it in to a makeshift-booted tire, he wasn't ready to try a third time. So I rode on to the aid station, alerted the sag wagon, and then rode back to the start to meet him (after some no-cell-reception shenanigans and miscommunications). Hopefully he'll still be willing to go the next time I drag him on one of these.
Thwarted again, I started thinking about other rides. We'd be going up to the White Mountains, and I wasn't really sure I wanted to do a big epic hillstravaganza -- but given that our hotel was basically at the top of Crawford Notch, my options were: East: drop down and then climb back up the notch, which definitely qualified as big hills, West: go quite a ways on busy 302 and then come back on it, with nice roads in the middle and a variety of hilliness options, or to go North, which meant dirt. And meant one major named climb -- Jefferson Notch, but didn't mean a really LONG hill. The questionable part was the other hilly dirt road -- Old Cherry Mountain, which had no google-maps photos and the only ride reports came from mountain bikers heading all the way up to the summit; I'd just be taking the road and not the spur trail/ex-road to the summit.
I learned two lessons on this ride: one, how low I can push below the recommended tire pressures and not pinch flat. Two: bring bug spray. Riding, you're going fast enough, generally, that bugs aren't an issue. When you're changing a tire by a picturesque but mosquito-filled mountain swamp, this is not true. I was a little worried -- I was only three miles in, Old Cherry Mountain Road was generally nice, but I'd used up one of my two spares and I hadn't been able to find the cause of the puncture -- I was assuming pinchflat based on the fact I'd dropped my pressures from the usual in expectation of much dirt, but I wasn't able to get the tube to hold enough air temporarily to find the hole. I put the new one in, ratcheted it back to recommended ranges with my tiny pump (<3 my Lezyne micro floor drive pump), and it was fine the rest of the way. I was up and over the rest of the outbound leg quickly, and onto the one flat bit. That was actually the least-pleasant part:
While the scenery was bucolic, the gravel was rough, and the fact that my Seven is not, in fact, a gravel grinder or a 'cross bike was making itself known. It's a great bike, and handles this crap as nicely as an endurance road bike can, but it's not its home turf. And a deerfly facebombed me and stung me on the neck, which hurt way more than it should. So I was really quite happy to turn onto the notch road, which was about as perfect as dirt roads could be, except for the up-half-a-mountain bit. I gave directions to some lost tourists looking for the trailhead parking lot at the top of the notch, and tried not to think about how much more quickly they'd get up there.
But the climb was, as of then, pleasant. It followed a little brook upwards, occasionally acquiring pavement as it bridged the water, and if there's one constant I like in rides, it's water. It slowly got steeper and steeper, stairstepping a bit. I told myself that maybe this was the steepest bit and the notch was just past that bend, and pushed; no, the notch was at least a mile and a half in my future. I tried to stay on the bike, past the point I'd do so on a brevet; I didn't have far to go once up and over, after all. The faster I went, too, the fewer bugs could land; somewhere around 4-5mph the mosquitos start to be able to catch up to me. But eventually I ground to a halt, and started walking the steep bits and hopping back on as soon as it flattened out enough to do so; the road continued to be some of the nicest dirt imaginable, which helped. At last I came around the bend where the steep kicker really starts, and from there it wasn't far to a point where I was looking around for the fancy National Forest notch sign. I even went back and forth a bit in the notch looking for it, but alas, no photo op presented itself. Might have been behind one of the parked cars; the trailhead parking had spilled out onto the road-sides for a quarter-mile in either direction.
I wasn't very disappointed by the lack of sign, though. Well, I thought, I'll just have to go back and climb it again some time. Maybe next year. Some day I'll get all the way to the top without walking.