DROVES Diaries II: Loop of Defeat

DROVES Day 1 Survivor
It is Saturday night on Memorial Day weekend. We are in Vermont. And it is snowing outside. It is really starting to accumulate now. We take turns running out onto the porch to snap pictures. We do not know what to do with ourselves, other than look at each other with a helpless giddiness as if to say "This is really happening and you are my witness, right?" Surely twenty or thirty years from now we will each be telling some bored youngster in our family about that time it snowed on Memorial Day weekend. But what to do with these emotions now that it's happening? Well, there is always instagram. 

The people I am with, they drink like Europeans - lots, as a matter of course, and, seemingly without getting drunk. There is also a great deal of eating. Tray after tray is passed around. I decline second helpings. I push half of my dessert onto a neighbour's plate. And still I feel close to being sick, while the others seem to thrive. I look around the table with admiration. I cannot eat like this, despite having ridden the same miles. Not that those miles seem like much to brag about in retrospect.

I slept straight through the night and opened my eyes at 8:30am. A heavy pile of comforters. Wooden beams all around. The air smells of outdoors and feels just as crisp. At first I marvel at how quiet it is. But then I realise that I'd simply grown used to the rain beating against the metal roof as background noise. It is raining as hard as last night, and it is almost as dark. 

Downstairs, some of the others are awake already, quietly eating breakfast in different parts of the room. I step out onto the porch and see a watery mess in the dirt driveway. It is raw-cold out, and I duck back indoors. There is coffee and I pour myself some. I settle down with a bowl of cereal and listen to the rain. 

Pamela is at the table with her laptop. Extreme weather warnings are in effect. She suggests that those who want to ride wait till mid-day, when the rain might ease up. And she proposes we do a short route - one that's designed as a half-day ride and is only 30 miles long, called the Victory Loop. Pamela and John debate whether the steep descent toward the end might be washed out and could be dangerous. They decide that today the route should be ridden backwards. "It is steeper in reverse, but safer." 

I copy the route and glance at the metrics: 30 miles, 3600 feet of climbing. All dirt. I eat my cereal and don't allow the figures to register. 

"The Victory Loop in reverse... doesn't that make it the Loop of Defeat?" 

More people are awake now, but there is no talk of riding. 

"I am fine right here," someone says. "Any board games in the house?" 

The RSC boys continue to work on John Bayley's bike. They are now opening the bleed kit for the hydraulic brakes. Matt Roy - an immunologist and pro bike mechanic - is wielding the syringe picturesquely as we all take pictures. 

But finally I am restless. Am I crazy for wanting to ride on a day like this?

At noon, Mo Bruno-Roy appears in a colourfully mismatched ensemble. She is going on a short mountain bike ride in the woods. After she sets off, I can take it no longer. 

I go upstairs and put on my cycling clothes. Fleece winter tights, baselayer, long sleeve jersey, winter jacket, neck warmer, full finger gloves, shoes, and those fetishistic-looking booties I'd been too intimidated to try all winter. I walk downstairs and amuse everyone. 

Before I can change my mind, I drag my bike outdoors and set off. The rain is like a waterfall. By the time I reach the end of the dirt driveway, my glasses fog up so completely that I must take them off. At the main road I turn right. 

As it is later remarked, there is no foreplay in the routes around Burke, Vermont. "They begin to fuck with you right away." 

The first climb happens immediately and it is 3 miles long, starting out paved and turning to dirt. One of those roads with the truck-on-triangle "Steep Grade" sign. I feel like someone hit me over the head with a hammer. I see stars. Blood rushes to my face. My mouth goes dry. My head starts to pound. And my legs feel like led. I grind in my 1:1 gear. I cannot climb like this starting at mile zero, I just can't. 

The dirt roads are beige and gritty. It has been raining for days. But remarkably, it is not muddy. Streams of clay-tinted water over wet dirt, but no mud. The ground is soft though, not unlike tightly packed wet sand. It gives under the weight of me and the bike. My tires stick to it, sinking just enough to sap my energy. Crawling uphill, I feel like a caterpillar, a snail. 

At the top I stop and take out my camera. But really I stop because I am out of breath and my heart is pounding and my vision is blurry. There is nothing to photograph here. A farm surrounded by fog. Dark clouds pressing down on the soaked landscape. A cluster of sad, broken lilac bushes. Rain, rain, rain. My legs are trembling from the climb; I cannot handle an entire route like this. What am I doing here?

I get back on the bike and hope to rest on a flat stretch, but immediately I start to descend. There are some ruts and washboards now. The bike starts bouncing. I stop and lower the pressure in my tires. That helps. Letting the bike go, I steer around the bends and feather the brakes.

At the bottom, I see that another uphill stretch awaits. But I go off course and take a different road, one that looks like it might offer some rolling hills. But no, that road goes up as well. I stop when my computer registers a 20% grade, turn around and ride back down. Later I will do the same several more times, with similar results. There are no gentle roads here. Explore all you want, but expect at least 1,000 feet of elevation gain for every 10 miles.

Back on course now, the road goes up again, but at a gentler grade than before. The rain eases up. I sip my water and spin, feeling almost energetic. 

Now the directions say to turn onto Victory Road. It is a much narrower road, almost a trail, that runs though dense woods. It is gravely and rocky. The pitch steepens horrendously, almost comically. I put my water back in the bottle cage and keep pedaling, clicking through my gears until once again I run out. Then I grind. At this moment I can imagine few things more humiliating than grinding in a gear as low as mine. I don't belong here. 

I am crawling up a wall of gravel. My mind wanders. I have imaginary conversations with myself. I can't feel my legs, but somehow rotate the pedals anyway. Water and sweat stream down my face. 

Ahead, things get worse. I see that the sides of the road have caved in and are flanked by rushing streams of water.  I remember that this is the road with potentially washed-out descent that caused Pamela to reverse the route. As I climb further, ravine-like formations begin to take shape down the center, with streams of water flowing through them. I pick a line to avoid them, but this becomes progressively harder, until finally one ravine intersects the other. I ride over this in slow motion at a 16% grade. I try to keep going, but now the road is truly ravaged. Gravel starts to spill out in clumps under my front tire and I slide backwards. The grade steepens still and I get off to push my bike the rest of the way up, barely upright. My arms and shoulders hurt from the effort. I space out until I reach the top.

The descent is not much better at first and I keep walking. I can't pick out a line; it is all rutted out, or in the process of caving in. But finally I get on the bike, launch it downhill and hope for the best. There are large, sharp rocks and I steer around them. It is a 4 mile descent. I am falling and falling and falling. A free-fall. 

At the bottom I am suddenly jolted into alertness. Not by the end of the descent, but by the realisation that I am pedaling along a flat stretch. Having gotten used to vertical roads, it is downright disconcerting. And again, I feel as if my tires stick to the ground, as if I am riding in slow motion. The rain stopped. There is a lake - or maybe a flooded field - and I stop to take a break. I look at the time and see how late it is grown. I've added some extra miles to the route, but still have barely done over 20 so far, and it took me nearly 3 hours. I wonder whether the others, setting out to ride the same route later, might have passed me during one of the times I'd gone off course. I try to get a move on.

Next comes a long, winding paved climb with no end in sight. Once again I am crawling. Surely this cannot be called cycling, not at this speed. The grade steepens yet again and once again I consider walking. But just then I suddenly sense a presence beside me, and I see Ted. Pamela and Emily are not far behind. They tell me they left soon after I did, but I doubt that very much - it would not have taken them this long to catch me. 

Briefly we ride together. Nearly breaking my knees, I push myself to keep up, but they gently slip away. And when I see them disappear, it is through a veil of snowflakes. At first I think I am hallucinating, but it is unmistakable. Snowflakes on my handlebar bag, on my gloves, on the sleeves of my jacket. 

It is not a soft, fluffy snowfall, but a sharp and sleety one. When the next long descent begins, it hits me in the face like needles; it stabs me in the eyes. I try to put my glasses on, but they fog up. So I squint, resisting closing my eyes completely. My face hurts, really hurts. I can see where I am going only approximately. The road is winding and steep. It feels as if I get through it by putting my bike on autopilot. 

Finally, a quieter, gentler road, and I am on dirt again. Tall trees shelter me from the vicious snow-needles. I check my computer and see I am 6 miles from the end. I pedal hard and try to get it over with.  

Nearly home now, from the corner of my eye I notice a car slowing down beside me. There is no one else on the road but us, and for a moment I panic. A serial killer on the prowl, preying on slow cyclists. But it is John Bayley and Matt Roy. "Can we give you a lift home?" I am confused, then slightly outraged. "In the car?! Why?" They point at the sky. "We were worried!" I assure them I am doing wonderfully, and wave them away. Some minutes later I drag my bike into the cabin, to the sound of applause. 

All this for 37 miles. But they were the hardest I've ever done. My legs are shot and my upper body is aching. I cannot imagine walking tomorrow, let alone riding. Feeling dejected, elated and utterly ridiculous, I go upstairs to wash and change for dinner. Out of the bedroom window I notice the snow again. Maybe I am dreaming all of this up.


  1. V has grit. A lot of us called it early on.

    That was a beautiful read. Thank you.

    The foreplay comment made me laugh out loud. It reminded me of my old cycling and rock-climbing buddies.

  2. Impressive! I can't wait to find out if you can walk the next day...
    Did you upgrade your cassette to 11-36 or something similar? It's a good idea. But the trip sounds wonderful!

  3. Excellent, engrossing account; a competitor's tale really. You defied the weather gods. Jim Duncan

  4. The rides when you're not sure you'll make it, when you're lost, when you just have to keep turning the pedals to get home- they're the rides you remember and savour.

  5. Wow, quite the ride! As you described the poor road conditions I found myself wondering how the Grand Bois Hetres with their smooth tread did? Not too slippery?

    1. They were not slippery, because the roads were not slick, always gritty. Thankfully the temps never dropped below freezing.

  6. Why don't you get lower gears?

    1. I'm rocking a sub-1:1 gear already, and going much lower would make the drivetrain inefficient for anything but uphill it seems. I just need more practice climbing.

    2. V has a point. Tight spacing and barrow range, or large spacing and wide range. Take your pick

    3. Somervillain - Curious, what gearing are you thinking for your new build?

      Jim - No really, I could use more practice climbing. (But okay: What gearing do you think is reasonable?)

    4. Well of course everyone could practice more of anything, but you are a spinner and the climbs you've described are basically mtb - type climbs where you are clawing for traction.

      Ideal world? Road triple, like Campy's newish one. Low q factor.

      Or a mountain crank set on your road bike. For this kind of ride even a 29er, if it fits. If not, 650b.

      The 50 is too big and the 1:1 not low enough to spin in limited traction/very step scenarios.

      That Herse crank allows for perfect double gearing for you I think.

      24/26 low, 44/46 big. 12,13 or 14 - really big cogs.

    5. My Rawland will have a 44/28 up front and 11/28 10-speed in back, for 1:1 at the low end.

    6. PS you don't need tight spacing on a bike like this - that's roadie style.

    7. So, currently I have a (White Industries) 42-28 in the front and a (Campagnolo) 12-29 in the rear, for a 28/29 low and 42/12 high. I also have a RH crank lying around that I haven't used yet, but same idea.

      I could put different rings on the crank. What concerns me though is that a bigger jump could cause problems when the cranks are mated with STI/ergo shifters.

      I could put a cassette with a bigger cog in the rear, though I'd need a different derailleur and (possibly, though maybe not) to rebuild the wheel.

      Mulling over the options.

    8. Yup, you have a messy drive train, you won't know if it works until you put it all together.

      A 14 tooth front jump I'd what you have note, smaller than the typical 16 tooth jump off a compact crank. Theoretically the front will shift fine with a 26 or /maybe a 24. A 24x29 is pretty low, any lower walking might be faster.

      Anyway solicit some more opinions. STI I'd said to work fine with Xt/xtr stuff.

    9. SRAM road with SRAM mtn as well.

      Also figure out if you use the 42/12, go from there.

  7. V put us all to shame - as we were just hanging out, enjoying watching the bike build and the sound of the heavy rain on the tin roof. I was ready to throw in the towel and go shopping, but she headed out into the downpour. BTW, she's way tougher than we are. We waited til it stopped raining!

    1. "...We waited til it stopped raining!"

      A more accurate way to put it is that you're all smarter and faster than I am : )

      But really, I figured if I waited much longer I might not have enough time to finish the ride before dinner - and given my speed, I was right!

  8. Very detailed account ... I felt like I was there with you on that ride ... some pictures would have been nice, though under those conditions keeping going would have been the priority.

  9. "A wall of gravel". Oh man, I know exactly what you mean. One moment you're riding a bicycle and the next (read in voice like my friend Serge for best results)"you are just leetle stupid bug climbing over rock like huge planet so can climb next one like stupid bug. Just buy a motorcycle and don't be stupid".

    I remember one climb up a fire road chasing some guys I shouldn't have been trying to keep up with, I couldn't maintain a pace that would let me plane over the cobbles like them so I just had to push them aside like some rusty old Russian ice-breaker I saw in a movie once, grunting along in a fog of sweat and corrosive language.

    It was so steep that you could feel the individual rocks slipping and rolling off the ones they were sitting on and sense just when the next layer down started to rotate and spin under the rear wheel. Walking was only a little better and the whole experience was just long years of misery tucked into the middle of a 4 hour ride. I didn't enjoy a second of any of those climbs that day but knew it was going to feel splendid to have done it later. It's just so messed up how that works.


    The posts I seem to enjoy the most are the ones where you are the most miserable, Hee Hee.

    1. Hate to ruin your fun, but miserable is not really the word. I wasn't enjoying myself in the traditional sense of the word on those climbs. But that was more due to being slow than to suffering (which I wasn't). One of the things I like most about cycling is the speed, and climbing at that rate... just wasn't cycling anymore, you know? No breeze in my face, et cetera. I like climbs, just not the super slow-mo ones, and especially not when an entire ride consists of them. I wonder whether anyone else sees it that way.

  10. Wow. Just wow. And now I feel really lame for only riding one way to the coast last weekend. The rain was just too much for me. But snow! And dirt roads! Whenever I check in here I'm continually amazed at your ongoing growth as a cyclist.

  11. These are the rides you diner out on for years. "Remember when we rode...."

    Been out this morning with Karl, Alison, Ian and Simon, my riding core team of 20 years now, plus the younger generation of Ian's future son in-law and friend. Lots of "remember when..." conversations and laughter.

  12. Walking up a 20% grade is hard work. A runner who can run up a 20 and do it with a motion that is readily identifiable as running is a good athlete. Many runners wouldn't even consider abusing their legs on such a grade. Pro cyclists in recent years have been complaining loudly about race promoters who include pitches at 20% in their courses.

    A quick look at the chart tells that 50rpm in 1:1 up a 20% takes as much horsepower as 23-24mph on the flat. The chart assumes, as it must, smooth pavement and no weather. The chart also assumes a perfect and continuous flow of power to the rear wheel. On the flats inertia does a fair job of covering up little gaps in the pedal stroke, on 20% grades I've never personally noticed forward inertia at all, only the absolute constant of gravity snatching the wheels backwards for every microsecond the pedals don't move smoothly.

    Maybe you weren't at 50rpm. Grinding at 40rpm and forcing the pedals at 30rpm may get 'er done for The One Big Hill, if it's hill after hill you get smaller gears. There's no shame involved. Higher pedal speeds will almost always be more efficient and you'll make more hills. There are only a handful of spots on the planet where there are more than a handful of isolated hills that steep that have improved roads built on them. Obviously and overwhelmingly you belong just where you are.

    1. "50rpm in 1:1 up a 20% takes as much horsepower as 23-24mph on the flat. The chart assumes, as it must, smooth pavement and no weather."

      Factoring in the dirt/gravel, that feels pretty accurate. I don't think I've yet managed 25mph on flats on dirt.

    2. "Yet"? Sounds like it's in the plans. These adventures are making you ambitious.

      The faster you go in dirt the more roadlike it is. Sit loose in the saddle. Ease the grip on the bars. Let the bike bounce around however it likes and mostly let it steer for you. When you stop responding to every little blemish in the path there's suddenly a lot more power available to the pedals.

      This is also the best style to adopt for going fast on pavement. Good style is enforced on dirt. So long as you play nice dirt is far more predictable and forgiving than pavement.

    3. This is the inherent problem with low trail.

      It promotes going slow and micro-managing the terrain.

  13. living in the flay midwest, i envy your weekend. having lived in oregon and pedaled through almost every possible condition and terrain, i get it...sounds like fun.

  14. Eff bomb.

    It's good to get your ass kicked by Ma Nature.

  15. Dreaming? or a nightmare!:) Captivating!

  16. Amazing!
    Does your bucket list get shorter or longer now?

  17. No one else went riding? What about the other days? In any event, you all certainly made the best out of a crappy weekend!

    1. Some rode the same loop as me, others did shorter rides, and a few didn't ride that day. The other two days everyone rode.

  18. dejected, defeated, elated? so, so good and all important to growth.

    you seem a smart, creative, and introspective person. this blog has opened new experiences and you've taken advantage of it all, wonderfully so!...but i think you've yet to hit your stride. something will change, it has to. keep at it and keep it alive. kudos.

  19. Burke. Northeast Kingdom. Tough country. Banjos playing in the broken glass. I once rode that way from Montpelier to Sherbrooke.

  20. You've described yourself as a nervous rider, which doesn't match up with your matter of fact descriptions of descents and sliding backwards on gravel. What changed?

    1. Just a case of expanding comfort zones. It's a struggle for me to develop certain skills that seem to come naturally (or at least easier) to other cyclists. But I do get it eventually and begin to feel more comfortable in those situations.

  21. "One of the things I like most about cycling is the speed, and climbing at that rate... just wasn't cycling anymore, you know? No breeze in my face, et cetera."

    Oh my, but you've come a long way in three years.

    1. Hm? Curious how you mean, specifically w re to that quote/exchange.

      I should perhaps elaborate that I happen to have a high pain threshold, always have. So climbing to me perhaps does not feel the same as to others. I can either push the gear, or I can't. And when it feels like I can't, it's dizziness or the blood to my head feeling that stops me, rather than pain per se. Something to do with my response to changes in heart rate, I am told. So I spin, and I'm okay, but slow, and it's annoying...

  22. No deep meanings intended. I can just remember you getting very nervous about speed in general and downhills in particular.
    Now they are one of the big positive factors.

    I wasn't making any reference to pain (or ability) at all.

  23. "somervillain June 3, 2013 at 9:11 AM
    My Rawland will have a 44/28 up front and 11/28 10-speed in back, for 1:1 at the low end."

    Somervillain is getting a Rawland? Which model? Will it have 650B wheels, the new Stag?

  24. This is like a Dante's Inferno take on a passage in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, about going from Laurel in Montana to Red Lodge then over the pass to Bozeman through snowfields in June. I don't know what the opposite of 'voyeur' is, Velouria, but whatever it is, it's you. Pirsig would be proud of you.

    Did it occur to you that maybe Ted, Pamela and Emily only ventured out because you had? :)

    "I assure them I am doing wonderfully, and wave them away." You could have condensed that into two words, one with four letters, the other with three (maybe you did!). :) Often the best help is no help, as I'm sure you'll agree. You have great friends, though.


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