DROVES Diaries I: Que Sera Sera

DROVES: Morning 2
One of these does not belong...

That thought runs through my mind as I look at the others, scattered around the rustic living room, drinking wine and beer by the dim cabin light. Outside it is pitch black, and alarmingly noisy - the sound of heavy rain hitting the metal roof. The forecast says it will be the same over the next three days: The storm is circling in place, "tornado-like." No one talks about this out loud.

We are in Vermont for Memorial Day weekend. The group includes the Ride Studio Cafe endurance team (Matt Roy, David Wilcox and John Bayley), cyclocross racer Mo Bruno Roy, Dominique and Christine - two French Canadian women who specialise in hill climb races, randonneuring superstars Jake Kassen and Emily O'Brien, 1200K legend Ted Lapinski, and of course Pamela Blalock. A couple of others cancelled due to weather.

DROVES stands for Dirt Roads Of Vermont Epic Sojourn - an event hosted by the Blayleys, now in its fourth year. They rent a cabin near Burke, VT and invite friends for 3 days of riding beautiful, steep dirt roads. For some DROVES is a training camp before the string of summer's competitive events. For others it is a mini-vacation. As for me, I had no expectations. I could use a weekend away, that's all. When I asked Pamela if she thought I could handle the routes, I got the honest answer "I don't know" - followed up with "...but you're welcome to find out!" So I tagged along, bringing the bike "with the lowest gears" per Pamela's emphatic advice.

As the weekend approached, it became obvious that the forecast was dire. Not just a regular sort of dire, but exceptionally, obscenely, laughably dire: temperatures in the 40s and heavy rain for the entire weekend. Following the weather with morbid curiosity, I packed my winter gear.

Earlier in the afternoon...

I wait for John and Pamela on the curb outside my house. Bags in one hand, front fender in the other, bike propped up against the fence. It is a humid 70° in Somerville, the kind that makes it feel like 90°. Sweat trickles down my forehead. Finally the black Honda Fit approaches. Like a 4-year old, I jump up and down with anticipation as it rolls down the street, almost in slow motion, a tandem perched upon its roof majestically, along with a cluster of other bikes in various states of assembly. The neighbours line up to watch. Whatever is happening here, it looks important. By the time my bike is hoisted onto the roof rack, we are all drenched in sweat.

An hour into the drive, we stop for fuel and feel a drastic temperature drop. Half hour later, the skies opened up. We continue north, under increasingly heavy rain and a blanket of black clouds. Pamela drives. John entertains us with stories of cycling in Ireland and his early custom bikes. Studiously we ignore the topic of weather. In the distance I begin to see hints of mountains, shrouded in thick fog. The view looks like lumpy pea soup.

We turn onto the private dirt road not long after 7pm, but it might as well be midnight. I can vaguely see the outlines of a cabin, a tractor, and a pile of logs in a field. Everything else fades to black. Running from the car to the front porch, my teeth chatter. It is freezing. There is non-stop thunder.

But inside is a different world...

As I crack open the door, I am overwhelmed by the burst of orange - the interior is all wooden planks and beams, aglow from the light of many small lamps. An electric heater is blasting. There are couches and quilts and a heavy large table and a cozy kitchenette. A winding staircase leads upstairs.

A tall man rises from the couch, who I learn is Ted. He reminds me of someone, but not, as the other ladies start to tell him, of "that actor from The English Patient." Ted is quiet, but with a heavy, deliberate presence to him, like one of those salt of the earth male Twin Peaks characters. Within moments he and John Bayley remove all the bikes from the car roof and bring them indoors in one fell swoop. Then they shake hands and open some beers.

By the kitchen counter, two exquisitely fit women - Christine and Dominique - are opening a bottle of wine. "Ah Pamela!" they exclaim, with that charming Quebec intonation that stresses the last syllable in every sentence. Later they ask where I'm from. I am the new kid here, the object of curiosity, and a little out of my element. But at that point we have all had a drink and the story of my origins makes more sense than usually. Mo Bruno-Roy relates to my mess of an accent. She herself can sound Canadian prairie one minute, Nawth Shoah the next. She demonstrates back and forth for our amusement.

David Wilcox is keeping busy in the background. Minutes later he produces a tray of steamed potatoes and asparagus from the oven. The room is warm, garlicky. More wine is opened. No one talks about bikes, or the weather.

The bikes are everywhere though; everyone seems to have brought at least one. Soon Jake and Emily arrive and bring more. My bike is propped against the side of the staircase. I park myself on the rug beside it to re-attach the front fender. "Look, she is eager to ride!" someone teases me.

The evening is warm and familiar and endless. With a cup of tea, I sit across the couch from the Canadian hill climbers. Dominique is a brunette with a serene facial expression. Christine is blond and animated. They are about the same height. There is a ying-yang symmetry to them that is mesmerising. "Why do you climb Mt. Washington?" I ask, innocent that I am. Taking turns, they recount the history of them doing the race, which includes the story of how they met Pamela. But they don't say what compels them to do it.

This is the most relaxed evening I've had in ages...

Just when it seems to be nearing bed time, Matt Roy arrives, dripping wet. He is carrying boxes of components, a bag of tools and a work stand. The RSC Endurance Team has recently snagged a sponsorship deal (Seven Cycles, SRAM, Rapha, Zipp and Clement), which would equip the three riders with bikes for long distance mixed terrain racing. John Bayley's frame had just been welded earlier in the day. They'd dragged it up to Vermont and now planned to build it up.

At around 10pm, they set up the stand in the kitchen. I make endless cups of tea and look on with fascination. An eccentric bottom bracket. Road levers for hydraulic disc brakes. 700X40mm tires. Everyone gathers to watch and ask questions, drunk on the exoticism of the strange machine.

The rain beats against the metal roof like a chorus of tribal drums. I resist imagining the condition of the dirt roads. But then no one seems intent on forcing me to ride. Not only that, but by the group's demeanor it isn't clear whether they plan to ride themselves. Perhaps there is an unspoken agreement to write the weekend off and spend it indoors - drinking, catching up with friends and building bikes? It does not feel right to ask.

Finally I see Pamela at the far end of the room, producing her laptop and GPS unit. I walk over, and, feeling as if I'm vocalising the unspeakable, ask whether she plans to ride tomorrow. She says "Let's play it by ear and see how it goes?" - a stunning pronouncement coming from her. She shows me the updated forecast, which now threatens temperatures in the 30s, floods, and - my eyes can hardly believe it - chances of snow.

The original plan had been to set off at 8am and ride either a 90 mile or a 60 mile loop. The new plan is to sleep in and see what the road conditions are, come mid-morning. Walking upstairs, I can hear the clinks of wine glasses below, complemented by rolls of thunder and the sound of rain outside.


  1. Lovely post! Wine, beer, food, bicycles, a cabin, friends and a storm. You have described, almost to a "T", my idea of heaven.

  2. I could have kept reading this for hours. More please!

    1. Alice - I'll trade you for your Big Dance ride report : )

  3. aww ... I had to smile when I read about your sense of "one of these things is not like the other..." I had the same sense of 'do I really belong?' when I did DROVES 2009 and listened to all of Pamela, John, Christine and Dominique's racing stories. But, yes, despite the accomplishments they're a wonderfully humble unassuming bunch and that whole crew is great company. I'm glad you got to enjoy yourself. Look forward to reading the rest of the series.

  4. Enduro 7 - I don't see anything weird about it at all except for the eccentric bb. What's the app here?

    40c tires - it's just a clearance issue; discs make it moot.

    You'd do well to have asked some questions regarding it if you want to design bikes.

    Why race the mountain? That's a peculiar question.

    1. "Why race the mountain? That's a peculiar question."

      It sounds like the answer from that crew would have been more interesting than "Because It's there."

      I'm staying tuned for the next installment...

    2. It is basically a road/race bike with fat tires. Eccentric BB is to enable switching between 700C and 650B, which JB wanted. Pertaining to the bike as a whole, the hydraulic disc brakes + road levers +11 speed combo is new I think. Frame has some new kind of reflective paint on it which is neat.

      I am following the design of this and their other enduro team bikes; the project I'm involved with is in a similar genre.

      Also, riding a bit of this.

    3. I'm guessing the eccentric is easier to adjust than popping out a link or two, more precise also.

      Hydros are newish to road. A big deal in all conditions.

      Care to tell who's fabbing yours? Doing the aesthetics or actual geo?

      I was curious about the Domane when it came out; my feeling is the front end will seem too stiff compared to the frame.

    4. What would popping out a link or two have to do with switching from 700c to 650b?

    5. The effective chainstay length does not change when you change wheel size, so popping out a link or two would never be required or even make sense.

      What does change is the bottom bracket height, so on this bike the eccentric bottom bracket can be used to accommodate that.

      You still would have to be careful: there are only two combinations where moving the EBB would not also change the seat angle. And even with these, you would have to adjust the saddle height after moving the EBB, and also the handlebar stack if you wanted to retain your usual fit.

      In any case, popping out a link or two would not be a substitute for an EBB in this case.

    6. Oh it's a Seven project. I'm "providing input" w re to geo and ride feedback. Aesthetics will be almost irrelevant on this one, at least in the 1st iteration.

      Liking the Domane's handling so far, but the cush is less than what I expected.

    7. The primary reason for the eccentric is to deal with a catastrophic derailleur failure. Should a derailleur get blown apart or damaged in a crash or from flying sticks, John can shorten the chain and turn the bike into a single speed. The eccentric allows for fine tuning the chain tension. But it also will allow for the switch between 650 and 700's as was pointed out, by keeping the relative distance to the ground the same. We recently borrowed some 700C wheels to use on our tandem that normally has 650's and it was surprising, despite the truly small difference in size, that we noticed we felt further from the ground!

      The wheel size choice of 700C for this build was partly dictated by availability of appropriate tires in various sizes. For Dirty Kanza, where we are right now, the best tires for the flinty rocks, are only available in 700C. But since we have a few 650B wheels in the inventory and the disk brakes allow it, this bike, like our tandem was built to work with either.

      There are lots of other subtle and not so subtle customizations on this frame, and once DK200 is in the books, and John has some time, he will do some blogging with all the details. I will chain him to the desk!

    8. Thanks for the explanation. Coming from the dinosaur world of the mid 2000s this wheel-changing stuff is crazy!

      Well remember the D is a full on road race bike, not an enduro (this name is funny coming from moto), not a rando. Its compliance is built for Fabian - of course it's going to be stiff, relatively speaking.

    9. That would make more sense. It was presented to me as a good choice for long distance/enduro and bad roads.

    10. Thx for that fix pix. And my chain tension/link deal wasnt so far off but whatevs looking fwd to the bike report.

      Full on plastic bikes will never be truly compliant like Ti or steel, H├ętres notwithstanding.

    11. The BB eccentric will make it easy to run a fixed cog.

      For catastrophic derailleur failure better to start off with a Campy NR derailleur. It's a 1-second, 1-finger, no tools operation to set them for single speed operation and you retain the ability to get off the bike and shift manually. Once you get used to it they work fine with brifters. I've only actually done it with 8 and 9 speed cassettes, can't see why it wouldn't handle an 11. So it shifts a little slower. Basically far less vulnerable to getting branches caught than the modern stuff. Easier to carry a spare derailleur than to spend all that time and effort messing around. And the current market price is around $20 for a good used. Limit is 30 teeth.

    12. go Rohloff and belt drive :)

  5. ScottUKEireloverMay 30, 2013 at 5:58 PM

    Nice friends, good for you V - enjoy.

  6. my weekend diaries did not have legends or superstars but the narrative did include friends, good food and drink, and of course a bicycle :) the weekend you describe reminds me of similar brilliant times in oregon in the 80's, working in bike shops, hanging out with friends, exploring logging roads, remote areas, and enjoying campfires and new found experiences....all the beautiful things in life at the time! well, then kids happened and bikes and priorities changed, we've all aged and lost some endurance and competitiveness, but the good things remain and are centered around the simple, the available, and the bicycle!! doing the best we can with what we've got always seems like a good idea....

  7. The best adventures can't be had alone. A group like this is a pretty cool thing and opportunities to go along are not to be missed.

    I've been fortunate enough to have been invited along with some much younger folks on a couple of big trips and even though I was barely hanging on at times,it was the BEST. You just cannot duplicate that sort of thing by yourself.

    The next time I cross paths with a bunch like this I'm going to jump in and try make friends and play nice so I can have adventures like this till I get old a fall off my bike for good.


  8. I knew y'all were in the NEK! I recognized landmarks from around lyndon VT, esp. The covered one lane bridge... northeast kingdom is a magical place regardless of the weather!

  9. I would love to know what you think of those Lake boots. I am thinking of getting a pair and they are always on sale in the summer.

  10. How does one get invited to DROVES, besides knowing the host, having an dirt road bike with very low gearing and fenders, be willing to go out in conditions that most would stay indoors and turn up the heat to ward off the chill, and be willing to follow Pamela and John anywhere that they think bicycles can go, though you might disagree?

    1. Just email them : ) They put up an open invitation on their blog/website.

    2. This has been a pretty low-key *non-event* for the past few years. We've usually sent out emails to veterans first, then open it up by posting on a few local email lists and various social media, as well as our blog. Both of my loyal readers come on the trip :-) Admittedly this year, time got away from us, and we didn't do a whole lot of promotion ahead of time. The Bike Barn has limited capacity, but there are lots of other places to stay nearby, so we could have a much larger crowd. The routes are all publicly available on RideWithGPS, and from the routes page on our blog. This is not a formal event. No fees for rides, no releases to sign, no sag. We do this every year over Memorial Day, and anyone who wants to ride can just download routes and join in. We usually do a potluck dinner at the barn one night and try to go out the other, but our favorite restaurant in town closed this year, so our eating out was also different from the plan. It's a good idea to contact us if you want to ride (or eat) together, since sometimes, plans are fluid, like this year. With the atrocious weather and the new bike-build, Saturday was very different from the original plan. Type-A's might have to stifle those urges, and I think I did a good job of that myself this past weekend, as nothing went according to plan. Anyway, stay tuned, both here and on our blog for ride reports.I am crewing for the RSC enduro team at Dirty Kanza, so may have a bit of time to get caught up on the blog, since I have internet, and no bike :-(

    3. That's very nice of you to host DROVES each year! The previous routes that I've found on RwGPS look fantastic. Do you create new routes each year? Can't wait to read the ride report. Hope to do it one year. And maybe we will meet in the Catskills one day :).

    4. That comment was 99% in jest. I think your rides would be great but not all of us can get in that great shape (for me at least) that early in the season.

      I have checked out your Ride With GPS site and have used at least some of your road suggestions on a recent Harvard rides and keep an eye for other ideas. I did notice your Waitsfield to Ludlow ride from a recent DROVES. I used some of those roads a decade or more ago but the rest was new to me an intriguing.

      It is very nice of you to open your rides. Maybe one day I will be in shape and have time to join you for a DROVES.

  11. I so enjoyed this post! Beautifully written. Thanks for sharing, and looking forward to Part 2!


Post a Comment