“If you’re going downhill, you’re going the wrong way.”
I heard these words uttered by one rider to an oncoming cyclist during last weekend’s Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee (D2R2). A pack of us were working our way up one of the first climbs of the morning when we saw the rider coming downhill toward us. It was too early in the morning for anyone to be riding downhill.
D2R2 is without a doubt the hardest bicycle ride I’ve ever completed. It would be hard on a motorcycle, or even in a jeep. In its eighth year, D2R2 was conceived as a self-supported ramble through rural areas of Massachusetts and Vermont, using primitive dirt roads. Proceeds from the event go to support the Franklin Land Trust. There are five routes (40 mile, 100k, 115k, 150k and 180k), each more grueling than the other. In exchange for hard work, the rider is rewarded with a unique riding experience, unprecedented camaraderie, and glorious views of the countryside.
I learned about D2R2 by poking around various blogs and message boards and the Rapha website. It appealed to me because the route is on dirt and gravel roads. I wanted to try something different from standard road riding. Most accounts described the routes as difficult, but I figured I would be in good shape since I’ve been riding regularly since late April. Boy was I wrong!
I received the cue sheet a few nights before the ride and was a bit alarmed by the total elevation gain: 7,900 feet separated into four stages on the 100k route. Turning to my Garmin mapping software to convert the cue sheet into a GPX route, I was surprised to see that many of the roads were very primitive, or not even on the map.
I drove up to Deerfield on Friday, checked into ride headquarters and got my number and timing chip. Saturday morning, the field was filled with riders from around the world prepping their bikes. It rained all night, so the field was boggy; thankfully, the roads were in good shape and the rain ended about an hour before my start time.
I rode out with a group of three other men, who seemed to be pedaling at a pace that I could maintain for the day. My plan was dashed at mile four, when we hit the first dirt road climb. I was completely unprepared for the road conditions (no road, actually, just large stones and wet dirt) and the continuous steep grade. I reached the top of that first climb panting and demoralized, wondering what the hell I got myself into. That sentiment hung with me most of the day.
As I began the second climb, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to plow through the course. I was going to walk parts of the course in order to finish it. That made me feel shitty. I didn’t drive four hours to do a hike-a-bike event, but then I realized I was not alone. There were others who were walking up the steepest of dirt road climbs.
At one point I was climbing with a group of five riders clad in Independent Fabrications kit atop shiny IF bikes. I was keeping up and was even a little bit ahead of them until I made a bad shifting choice and was suddenly grinding up an incline at such a slow pace that I was about to topple over. I pulled over to rest. One of the IF riders (it turns out they probably were from IF since there was a company van in the parking field) asked me if I was alright. I said, “Yes, I’m just resting.” He thought I said, “I’m rusting” to which he replied “Rust never sleeps!” We encountered one another several times during the day and he reminded me that rust never sleeps, as a motivation to keep moving.
The comments from that IF rider typified the atmosphere of the day. Everyone was looking out for one another, offering encouragement and assistance. A shared struggle.
The first section ended at a rest stop at Little Big House Gallery. The second section was almost 24 miles long with 2600 feet of elevation gain. By this point, I had realized the need to break the climbs up into sections. Pedal a bit and rest. Pedal and rest. I’d work my ass off to get up a climb, and then be rewarded with a few paltry feet of descent before the route pointed uphill again. At one point, I was going 30 mph downhill and, a moment later, 6 mph pointed uphill. So much uphill with very little downhill in the second section.
The second section culminated in a long, bumpy downhill leading to a covered bridge where lunch awaited. The bike vibrated so violently on that road I could see the individual muscle groups in my arms shaking. It’s a miracle that I was able to control my speed and not fly off the saddle.
The third section began as a delightful post-lunch ramble on a traditional carriage road paralleling the Green River. We passed riders on the 40-mile route, several of which were traveling with their dogs. Then, with a sudden turn, we were heading uphill again toward Peckville Road. Peckville is described on the cue sheet as a “tough stair step climb.” What an understatement. My efforts were rewarded at the top when I arrived at Apex Orchards, home of the juiciest peaches I’ve ever eaten. I don’t eat peaches. I ate three there on Saturday.
My gut filled with peaches, I had one last climb to conquer before the last stretch to the finish line. Right up to the end, I kept asking myself why I signed up for D2R2, why I hadn’t prepared for all the climbing. Yet despite these doubts, the ride was still fun. The wonderful elements of the experience somehow offset the difficulty.
I finished the last couple of miles with a couple of riders who were finishing their 180k route. They’d gotten lost and appreciated meeting someone who knew the way back to the field. The day concluded with a hot shower courtesy of a local school, and a delicious spread of food provided by a local caterer. Each rider was rewarded with a free beer from a local brewery.
I’d have to say that D2R2 is one of the best-organized cycling events I’ve ever attended. At each rest stop, the volunteers thanked me for doing the ride and supporting the Franklin Land Trust. Unlike some mass rides that attract novice cyclists, the folks that attend Dee Two are serious about cycling. In my mind, that makes the event a little safer and more enjoyable because I don’t have to worry about being taken out by an inexperienced rider.
I learned a few important lessons from my first D2R2. “Dirt roads” in northern Massachusetts means really primitive jeep tracks, not pleasant carriage roads like one might find in a park. As such, I’d run tires with tread the next time, rather than the relatively slick Continental Gator Skins I ran. Mountain bike pedals and shoes are preferred over road pedals and shoes. I trashed my Look cleats on the first dirt section I walked and, as a result, I had difficulty clipping into my pedals for the rest of the day. And finally, I need to train in an area with more hills and steeper grades.
D2R2 is a world-class ride. I can’t think of any other ride that offers the dirt roads and scenic beauty of D2R2 while also supporting a worthy cause. You can read an interview with the creator of the ride here.
Rust never sleeps. Get out there and ride.