Sunday, September 14, 2008

Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée (AKA D2R2 ) by Melinda Lyon

Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée (AKA D2R2 )
The Retro Randonnée Ride
By Melinda Lyon

Photos by Melinda Lyon, John Bayley, and Ted Lapinski

Scroll down for a video of the 2008 event by Mike Bulda.

Related Links:
D2R2 Website
Photos by pro photog Ben Barnhart
Melinda at P-B-P 2007, which she completed in 56:33

August 23, 2008 marked the 4th annual Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnée Ride. I first heard about this ride early in the summer of 2005 and was intrigued from the outset. Some folks in Western Massachusetts had set up a century ride composed primarily of dirt roads.

This event, according to the website, was constructed with the early days of pro cycling in mind. The roads then were unpaved and the suffering was enormous with primitive bikes (by today’s standards) and muddy, dirt roadways. Western Massachusetts still has a network of dirt roads, loosely maintained seasonal roads and abandoned right of ways. The idea for this event was, why not run a century ride on these roads for those riders inclined to some suffering and looking for something outside the box?

To accommodate the less ambitious, the organizers offer a 100K route that is somewhat more forgiving to the less experienced cyclist. The final mileage on the 100 mile route tops out at closer to 112 miles, with 16,500 feet of climbing, so a 6AM start time is set to give riders the maximum daylight to finish the punishing route.

The brainchildren of this ride are a group of experienced and talented cyclists from the local area. Saunders Whittlesey and Don Podolski have participated in and organized cycling and ultra marathon events in New England and beyond. Don is the Berkshire Brevet Administrator and Saunders is a rider to top all riders. Twice a champion of the Boston-Montreal-Boston 750 mile randonnée ride, he smashed the course record on that ride in two consecutive years and still holds that course record. While a great rider, Saunders is an amazingly down to earth person and very supportive of “the rest of us” who only see him briefly before he rides away at the start of long distance events.

In the weeks before the ride every year there is always a lot of e-mail chatter about the proper bike and tires for such a ride. Saunders tells us that a road bike with beefed up tires (28-32cc) would be adequate if conditions were dry. I had purchased a Rivendell Rambouillet in the spring of 2005 and rode this bike for the first 2 years of D2R2. This year I had a new Redline cross bike to satiate my increased interest in this kind of ride. I had developed an enormous curiosity to find dirt roads that are fun for cycling. In fact, I developed a similarly themed, if not nearly as hard, ride in my local area that I have just started to offer as a ride to like minded folks.

The weather forecast for the 2008 ride was for perfect late summer, dry and warm conditions. New England had a very soggy summer and the condition of these dirt roads was in question. There was a wide range of bikes at the start, including full suspension mountain bikes, heavy duty touring bikes, road bikes with 28-32mm tires, and a lot of cross bikes.

The ride starts at its lowest point, the Deerfield River (150 feet), so the ride only goes up from there. The ride is listed with 11, 500 feet of climbing and 70% of the ride is on dirt roads. (As I mentioned above, the climbing is far more than the “official” amount.) It was a beautiful morning and the first dirt section with climbing came right away. I was surprised at the early pace some wanted to keep, but I wanted to relax, enjoy the scenery, and hopefully get back before dark. There were a few ups and downs before the first major climb to Poland Gate (1260 feet) at mile 12. This is followed by a short descent before a major climb to up to Hawley topping out at 1800 feet.
So far the climbs were steep but the mixture of dirt and pavement had been relatively kind and the scenery was fabulous. Old farms, older stone walls, and tunnels of old growth trees lined the roads. My Redline was performing well and the big 35 mm tires were holding the gravel and dirt well. Everyone seemed to be relishing in the early morning fresh air, knowing that the day would be become cruel before long. The descent all the way back down to the river valley in Charlemont is steep and always has some loose gravel. Several riders pinch-flatted on this section (I had done this myself a few years back).

The descent to the river valley and Rt 2 is followed by a steep and paved then dirt ascent to our first checkpoint at Heath, Massachusetts at almost 1800 feet. A breathtaking view was our reward for a tough climb. The next section is reported to be the toughest and it always lives up to that reputation. A very rough section of road continued our climb to Heath Center.
The cue sheet says “25 percent climb” at the Archambo Wall. Sure enough, it is a wall with loose dirt to boot, so I bailed out early and walked up most of the 200 yards. My low gear of 34-27 is not enough for this monster. Plenty of riders make it up this with higher and lower gears than me but I am old enough not to worry about it.

Next came Christian Hill, which some say is the toughest of the ride. Loose gravel and an unrelenting grade usually make this too tough for me, but all of the rain during the year have washed some gravel away and make it almost bearable. Some soft dirt, a few wheezes, and the top is mine! There were even some playful Arabian horses at the top of this hill also taking in the summit views.

We soon crossed the state line into Vermont and had a long gradual climb to the highest point on the course at Deer Park (1950 feet). A few rollers, good, hard dirt and some pavement led us into the 2nd checkpoint at the Green River covered bridge.
On such a pretty day there were lots of chances for pictures at this scenic red bridge. The idyllic lunch spot was at the river level so that meant another climb to Owl’s Head Mountain (1400 feet) and then back into Massachusetts.

The last third of the course seems to have more pavement and a net downhill so the miles go by more quickly. There is a long, paved downhill in West Leyden, Mass, and then a left onto Green River Road. This was a nice gradual descent next to the river over hard, smooth dirt. Then time for another climb up to Copeland Hill (1130 feet) and yet another spectacular view.

The last mega climb comes at 100 miles. Patten Hill is 1000 feet of climbing in just under 1.5 miles. Thankfully the steepest part is paved (20% grade) but the top is really tough. The grade is a steady 15% with a few small flattish breaks but the accumulated miles of the day plus the loose gravel make it pretty punishing.
I have been determined to make it all the way up this last big climb without walking every year and I succeeded again this year. The reward is an open summit of fields and a beautiful farm with views over to Mt Snow in Vermont. We had our last checkpoint at the top. It is nice to take a breather and admire the views, but there are still a few miles to cover.

The last 16 miles are anything but easy. There was a steep descent down to Rt 2. At the 100 mile point I try to check my “century time.” In the inaugural year of this ride we got to the century mark at 4:30PM. My friend Kris Kjellquist stated proudly that this was his “personal worst” century time of 10.5 hours. The Deerfield town line is an engaging reminder that the end is near but not quite yet. The cue sheet encourages one to ignore a road closed sign and “begin gnarly descent, large stones and washouts, next mile.”

This last section is really slow going but by now the end is near and it is just a matter of time. One wonders what other surprises the ride will throw at you with so little time left. Finally we dropped back into Deerfield for the final 2 miles, thankfully flat, smooth and paved. In the first years there wasn’t much fanfare upon finishing. Now, the ride has been combined with a local farm/music festival so the atmosphere is very festive. There is time for a cold drink and a meal and perhaps to swap war stories of the epic just completed. Every year I drive home dusty, dirty and tired. The bike is muddy and dusty. But I always have a huge smile on my face that I keep for a few days after.

Melinda has done long distance cycling-racing for 20 years. Her first ride was a 24 hour event in 1988. Since then she has done 4 PBPs (2 first female placing), 6 BMB's, many brevets, and she is the course record holder at the Saratoga 24 hour event. She commutes to work 9 months of the year and tries to limit the use of the one vehicle in her household. She works 40 hours a week as a cardiac technology specialist in invasive and non invasive procedures. She will be 46 years old in October 2008. She doesn't have a website for the current ride she's organizing (next scheduled for Oct 18th) but folks can contact her directly for information about the ride. It is 80 miles with 18% dirt, 2 major water crossings and lots of mud. Not much traffic, especially by Eastern Mass. standards! Melinda's email is melindalyon "at" verizon dot net.

Here's a recent photo of Melinda: