Last Saturday I took part in a famous East Coast ride known as the Deerfield Dirt-Road Randonnée (D2R2). Don't be too impressed: I only did the short Green River Tour, augmented slightly to make it an even 50 miles. It was a good way to test my comfort level with unpaved riding, and I had a wonderful time.
The D2R2 happened unexpectedly. For the past two years I'd tried to go, but each time it did not work out. This year I did not even consider it, for lack of appropriate bike. So I wasn't training, and hadn't done any unpaved riding in months. Then a couple of weeks ago, Rawland Cycles offered me to try a new bike they've just released - a sporty model with 650B wheels and fat tires. When I mentioned the D2R2 was coming up, everything happened quickly. The Ride Studio Cafe took delivery of the bike just days before the event, assembling and tuning it with miraculous speed. On Friday I took it on a shake-down ride on some local dirt trails and determined that I'd be able to ride it. A friend borrowed a van with room for three, and could give me a ride to the start. Late in the evening I packed, printed out a cue sheet, and devised a method to affix it sturdily to the handlebars. Then I tried to stifle my excitement and go to sleep. Finally I drifted off, to the sound of rain against the window.
The D2R2 is more than a ride; it's an event. Many arrive the evening before and camp out in tents. Neither I nor my carpool companions were able to do that, so we left the morning of. At 5:30am Somervillain and our friend Brian arrived at my door. The rain started up again as we rolled my bike into the van alongside the other two and secured it with bungee cords. The rain continued as we drove toward Deerfield, MA. I began to wonder whether it would get so muddy that I simply would not be able to do the ride, but tried not to think about it.
In the early hours the roads were empty and the drive took us less than two hours. The D2R2 start is an enormous grass field, surrounded by patches of woods and cornfields. A thick fog hung over it all. In the distance we could see rows of colourful tents. To the side were rows of densely parked cars and vans, laden with bikes. Riders were assembling their bikes, changing clothes and shoes.
There were cyclists riding in circles on the grass, as if warming up before a race. The start times are staggered, with the 180K having already set off before we arrived. Brian and Somervillain would be doing the 100K route, with a 9:00 am start and mine was the 9:30 start. We had plenty of time.
It was clear from the beginning that some treated the D2R2 as a competitive event and others treated it as a party. Groups of riders in team kit were gathered in clusters discussing game plans.
Others chatted with friends, as if they did not have a care in the world.
A row of portable toilets stood picturesquely, against a backdrop of mountain vistas. The rain seemed to be easing up, but the fog and the overcast skies remained. The grass was wet. My cleats sunk into the mud as I walked my bike toward the registration tent.
Not having pre-registered, I expected chaotic crowds, but it was civilised and well-organised. I registered and received a number to pin on my jersey and bracelet granting me entrance to dinner later. Each rider was also given a sticker with an ID chip (like the kind they use to track pets!) to place on their helmet, so that they could keep track of our times and whereabouts in case of emergency, since there is no mobile phone reception throughout much of the route. This is the first year they did the ID chip thing, and I have mixed feelings about it. But I dutifully affixed the sticker, and got my number pinned on. I have never done a ride with such official trappings before.
A hot breakfast was served, with coffee and vegetarian frittatas. There were also bagels, hard boiled eggs, pastries and juice.
I was so excited that I wasn't hungry, but forced myself to sit down and eat - jumping up occasionally to greet people I knew and to photograph all the fabulous bikes.
Most of the cyclists I knew were doing the 100K ride, with a few opting for the 115K and the 180K. I began to question my decision to do the short, flat route. But then I remembered that it wasn't about the distance and the climbing itself, but about doing all that on dirt roads. I am not a confident off-road cyclist, to put it kindly, and I've only done short stretches in the past. The shorter route was enough to start with, if I could even handle that much.
As the last of my acquaintances set off for the 100K, the sun came out, slowly bathing the green field in a warm glow. The sky turned blue. Now I was eager to get going.
Even though I'd now met some people who'd be doing the River Tour route, I decided to ride alone so that I could stop whenever I liked and take pictures. I'd brought my big, heavy DSLR camera in my saddlebag. I wanted to enjoy the scenery and take my time. I arranged the cue sheet at an angle that was easily visible from my vantage point on the bike. At 9:30am I set off, allowing the first wave of starters to go on ahead of me.
After following the cue sheet through a short stretch of paved side streets, I finally arrived at a dirt road leading through some corn fields. The dirt here had turned to mud from the rain, and had not yet dried out even though the sun was out now. I gave it a try and found that my tires could handle the mud.
It did get pretty bad in a couple of stretches - deep and viscous. I accelerated through it to keep the bike going. Later I had to clean mud out from under my pedals.
After the cornfields came a stretch that was unexpectedly un-D2R2like: a manicured bike path, and some main roads with awkward turns. This went on for about 5 miles and I tried to get through it as quickly as possible. I began to pass cyclists who'd started before me. Some of them looked worried and confused - clearly not having expected to be on the road with cars for such a long period of time, and not able to read a cue sheet and ride at the same time. Finally the cue sheet directed me to a (still paved) back road that was much quieter and passed through some scenic farms. But still no dirt.
It was not until mile 10 that the pavement ended again and the scenery changed from farms to forest. Here the dirt and gravel were damp, but not wet or muddy. There were ruts and some loose stretches, but all perfectly manageable on fat tires.
The Green River Tour is described as flat, and it is compared to the longer routes. My 50 miles included about 2,600 feet of climbing. The 100K, while only 15 miles longer, included 7,500 feet of climbing. Still, even the Green River route is not pancake flat. On the outbound leg, there was a general upward trend. There was also a scattering of very short, but steep climbs throughout. My computer registered 10-14% grades on a few occasions and I would see cyclists walking up the steeper inclines. Riding uphill on unpaved terrain is more difficult than on asphalt and requires lower gears than would normally be used for the same grade. I did use my low gears liberally over the course of the flat ride.
The Green River winds through the woods picturesquely, and I found this part of the route extremely relaxing. The air smelled like leaves and grass and dirt after the rain. I could hardly feel the heat of what was now a very sunny day with temperatures in the 80s. I was torn between wanting to go slowly to prolong the experience, and wanting to go fast because it was fun and I was full of energy. A couple of times I turned around and went back just to have another look at something that I passed too quickly on the first go.
The beautiful dirt roads continued after the checkpoint, until finally I saw ahead what could only be the lunch stop: a red covered bridge surrounded by a sea of cyclists. The organisers were clever with the route design, so that all the riders ended up at the same half-way point lunch stop, which remained open from 12:00 noon until 4pm.
This spot was so gorgeous, words and pictures can hardly do it justice. Green water flowing so smoothly, that the river surface resembled a sheet of malachite. Then, suddenly, a waterfall, white water frothing over rocks. Thick leafy canopies provided natural shade. Soft fragrant grass and pine needles made for a cushioned sitting surface.
Cyclists arrived from all directions.
I made use of the pickle juice when refilling my water bottles, which made for an interesting conversation with a roadie who thought the stuff was there as a joke. Nope. And yum!
But most treated it like a big party, circulating and eating and socialising.
No one looked dead-tired or miserable. Most were not in a hurry. I saw lots of cyclists arrive but not many leave until I myself got going after 2pm.
The return route was slightly different, affording more glimpses of unusual structures and landscapes. It was difficult not to constantly stop to photograph things. There were several long, winding downhill stretches here made somewhat treacherous by viscous mud, puddle-filled ruts and loose gravel. I was surprised at how easily the bike handled through it all. I was really just thinking about how pretty everything was the entire time, not about the riding itself.
To ride for miles and miles and miles without seeing any cars, stores or pavement, was really something. The smells of undisturbed forest on a summer afternoon put me in a trance. It was at this stage that I added a short extra loop to my ride, to turn the 44 miles into an even 50. While I was not ready for the challenging climbs of the 100K, I did wish for more distance. But I didn't wander too far from the prescribed route, as my phone had no reception and I did not want to get lost.
It was sad when the dirt roads ended. But luckily, the paved stretch was more pleasant on the return route than it had been heading out.
A hot dinner was served, along with locally made beer. The party continued.
It's hard to describe what made the atmosphere so special, but everyone around me just looked so genuinely happy. There was a feeling that you could approach anyone and start talking to them.
And in that moment it felt that everything was right with the world. That feeling comes over all of us sometimes, however briefly. At the end of D2R2 I sensed that many of us felt it all at once. That's what made the event special.
As for the riding itself, I would describe the Green River route as relaxing, scenic and not challenging - provided you have a basic level of comfort with riding on dirt and gravel, and can handle the distance. The length of the official route is 44 miles, with just over half of that unpaved. The terrain rarely gets technical, and when it does you can simply walk. You can also walk up hills if your gearing is not low enough; the steep ones are short. I would, however, recommend wide tires (35mm+ should keep you comfortable) and reasonably low gears. Bring lots of water, as there will be nowhere to get it until the rest stop. And - very importantly - learn how to read a cue sheet. GPS computers can be insufficient and I found the cue sheet worked better. I was asked for directions at least a dozen times by riders who could not manage to read and ride simultaneously. As far as training, I would say just aim for being comfortable with the distance, keeping in mind that riding on dirt and gravel is more effortful and tiring than riding the same distance on pavement. If you've never ridden on unpaved terrain before, seek out some local trails just to get an idea of what to expect. And if trails are lacking, try riding up and down a grassy slope - the effort and traction are similar. Because riders are basically given all day to finish the route, there is no pressure and the Green River Tour can be anything you make it. You can see how fast you can complete the entire course, or you can meander at 5mph and take all day. All sorts of cyclists did this ride - from fast experienced riders who simply wanted to take it easy that day, to cautious novices.
Those who did the challenging D2R2 routes spoke of many things I did not experience. Grueling climbs rewarded by visits to a peach orchard and mountain-top views. Terrifying descents on loose gravel. A crash of a rider unknown to us, an ambulance struggling up a dirt road with the sirens on. Pain, sweat. Sweat, pain. But in the end the riders' faces showed mostly joy. Not the "thank God this is over" kind of joy, but joy from the experience of the journey.
For me, taking part in D2R2 felt like a mini vacation. I loved the landscape, the terrain, the camaraderie, the bikes - all of it. From reading and hearing about D2R2 in previous years, I could not get a sense for what the supposedly "easy" Green River route was really like, and so I hope this ride report was helpful for those on the fence about their ability to handle it. Next summer I would like to return and attempt the 100K route. The Rawland demo bike I rode was just perfect for the terrain and I will post a review soon. A thank you to Rawland Cycles and Ride Studio Cafe for making this happen at the last minute. A thank you to my friend Somervillain for the carpool. Thank you to everyone who organised the ride and volunteered, as well as the Franklin Land Trust (you can donate to support them here). And a thank you to everyone who tolerated my picture-taking and made for such great company. I hope to see you next year. More pictures of the event start to finish here.