"I'll be back in around an hour or so." "You can go for more than an hour" said my wife.
Most of my rides are an hour or slightly more of solitude. Just me, my playlist, my Strava (as a motivator), and my bike, (which must be tuned flawless or I hate it).
I drove into dunk rock past the usual rider circus at the lower lot, to my customary spot in seclusion at the top of Dunk Rock. I wondered if those were the people on the blogs that came from towns hours north to tell me they read that I shouldn't park at the top for reasons they didn't remember or got wrong. (23 years parking in my spot and I'm not moving until I get towed)...
I don't use pads right now, cause I'm riding too much to fall at the moment… (Noticing that I never realize when I haven't been riding enough to know to wear pads and escape injury). But today I know I'm okay. It was supposed to rain. But it's nice and a little cool. First weekend of October. The leaves are starting to turn but not overwhelm my slightly wimpy (for westwoods terrain) X-king knobbies I bought for racing. They will be gripping the first layer of leaves and sliding all over the ledge rock in a week or two.
I unload and pack-up . The wide dirt trailhead feels like home as I put in my earphones and clip-in to my pedals eager to dip into the woods. I usually start my rides with a jump off the rock at the trailhead…if my back isn't too sore…But there are other riders…
Will they complain where I parked? I pull my ear plugs….
"You can ride with us if you want" - Some guy with a beard said… I think he was in a race with me earlier this year… I think I know most people I meet…. But I'm usually wrong. I say, "Want and Can are two very different things… I hear collective laughter…
They stop and name names. I get Brad, another Tom, Todd, Vin (I think)…. That’s all I remember… There were 8 riders, I count… I say "I'll do my best to keep up but don't miss me if I break off the back." Nobody hears or cares, and someone says "c'mon".
Suddenly I'm riding with a group!
A rare occurrence due to an aversion to planning, busy kid schedules, and being spoiled by being minutes from Westwoods.
Not sure if I'm gonna like this… Groups are too fast or slow or spend too much time taking pictures of each other, offering advice I already know, or choose trails I hate. Or get flat tires or sticks in the gears…Or I do.
We bank right off the blue trail onto the smooth concave green ridge trail toward the green square trail. I know it well, smooth to start, progressively more rocky tech as we crest the ridge and drop down toward the swampy green trail, and the pace is fine.
When we hit the rocky downhill to the green square dirt-road type trail, everyone seems to accelerate and drop into the tech downhill faster than I think I can manage, but somehow I do. Sometimes slippery tires act like skis on roots and leaves. I'm starting to like the group. Not too much talk, except for occasional obnoxiously funny one-liners. Good pace. Covering ground.
The slime planks lead west
We all cross the stream on the green trail over a tow board bridge then bang a right onto the orange trail. Soon we’re in the massive indian cliff/caves…
I love/hate this trail lately. Great green mossy swamp on one side, Massive rocky cliffs on the other and in between a rooty wet slimy rock goat path.
I went over the bars in the winter on it and it is just too eroded for my overinflated slippery/soapy brand spanking new 2.2s as the guys in front on 29ers rip it up.
One of the rider in the back comments to me, "those guys are really good riders". I like to think I’m a good rider but I’m getting spanked in this section. After a substantial bit of gnarly rooty rocky eroded wet single track, we come to the 200 yard two-plank bridge. I hope we will ignore it and go up the hill…
Instead we go right into the swamp mist onto the slimy bridge. It's wet and greenish as if frogs clean off the old slime on the planks…
I'm second. The first guy is pushing with his foot and balancing through the fog…
I see slight slips on his track on the bridge where his tire slides slightly with each foot push. It's that slick. He rode the entire rock garden orange no sweat, so I feel some sort of redemption cause I'm the only one pedaling at least part of the green slimy planks. The X-king treads are suprising me here with slick traction.
We end up at the bottom or the white-dot trail on the west side of the swamp.
There are hikers with Appalician Trail member patches sewn on their farmer jackets, binoculars and a map…
The group doesn't notice them. The group is amped to be off the bridge. One guy on an older carbon frame yells "Hit that shit" The AT jacket people smiled nervously and searched their map.
Each of the eight slams his rig into a cliff edge either levitating like ghandi smoothly up and climbing the 200 yard steep over rock and root, or like me, just smashing rings and splailing legs way out as we clumsily reverse back off it.
One guy shouts rapper sound effects like "Ping Ping Ping"… I didn't quite get it, but his delivery cracked everyone up and punctuated the entire ride.
Seemed like everyone is loving the ride so far.
We get to the top of the steep hill and they can't decide left or right. There are layers of trees down on this hill from the various blights.
Old rotten evergreens, newer oaks and some fresher ashes. The hurricane last year helped add to the mat of sticks and twigs around the trail.
The ground under and around the trail is amazingly rocky and lacks topsoil due to cycles of hard rains that are stripping off any hint of smoothness.
I didn't like that bridge back to Westwoods main system. Unsafe and slimy. But I'm thinking hopefully about the west side of Moose Hill Rd.. Im thinking we don't have to risk our lives on that slimy foggy swamp again.
While the group is undecided I offer the trails West of Westwoods, (which is still Westwoods, but is also in Branford somehow).
But I'm fairly honest and say I cannot guarantee a loop. I only know out to route 146 or out and back. Some guys vaguely remember a loop.
Everyone wants to go to there...
We hammer left up the more technical up hill section. I'm leading now, not in skill, but knowing the trails. One guy in a Bern helmet is testing my lungs on my wheel. We pull out onto Peddlars trailhead. At the brief stop we attempt to jump, and resultantly defile an abandoned abdomonizer that sits in the trailhead on Peddlers. Forks flex and plastic flies as the abdomonizer flails towards cranks and derraileurs. After it has been sufficiently defiled, we head tout on the road towards West of westwoods.
When we hit Pedddlars I notice the significance that there's a little dog with us. I noticed before, but he was a great trail dog, so not in my face like my labs who are no longer allowed to go for rides… But good dog does not so much have a sense of the road. Not his fault.
I tried to be nonchalant, but when cars came, I'd ride into the middle to slow them down and frustrate the drivers so they'd slow down just out of paranoia for the lil white jack russell looking thing, who seemed to be doing the same thing for us.
As we approached the entry road to West of Westwoods, I talked with a guy who got his blur off of ebay for $700. I love ebay. Nice bike.
As we turned onto the road to West of Westwoods I asked Brad if he was in any races this year that he looked familiar.
He looked like a guy who rode with the Berlin High school XC team… Maybe a teacher...
He said that he hadn't raced for a long time, but I looked familiar too. Must be the common trails. (chuckles)
Meanwhile a couple of the guys were riding wheelies for the entire road.
The real ride had not even started yet.
We dipped in and shit got fast. We climbed and headed out at an extreme pace. We waited at the hill tops for some guys to catch up and then catch their breath then hit it again.
The trail starts like Westwoods main, steep narrow and technical. But it opens up wide and rocky after the first climb.
There are less trees and general foliage, but more bigger rocks. The trail shape is firm and fast.
Now my wheels are spinning fast… finding the notches between the rocks at speed. I'm riding faster than I normally would in some of this gnar.
Some of these guys are riding as faster, yet effortlessly hitting shit with style…. Improvising off random rocks to launch over downed trees in the way of the trail … Random drops into piles of sticks that would snap my der in a flash.
- all stunts on-site and in the moment….
Now it narrows into rocky techs. There are stone mounds made from settlers, indians and quarry diggers.
There is an active quarry in the distance.
The weather is getting better.
We start to seek a loop back, but are in no hurry to turn around.
The lost loop
I say I would love to uncover a loop to Moose Hill, but each time we come to a likely candidate, I say "nope. I tried that one". After a while, I doubt myself and we try routes I've tried before…
We cannot find a loop and keep heading toward the south trail. We realize the little dog will not do well on Route 146 so we must head back.
We cross a field that has overgrown and rips my shins with raspberry prickers. We then turn around and rip back through it.
We spend a lot of time chasing dead ends not facing the fact we have to head back entirely the way we came but there is a good deal of stuntry and banter
to make the trip back relaxed. Good riders. Loud as the only people on earth, as we often feel deep in the woods.
This is a special part of Westwoods as well. I don't know these guys, but I'm really having a good time.
As we start our descent there's more delays. My tire keeps softening. I hit it with CO2 tire viagra… Some of the guys in the back seem winded. I ride in the back at times and the front, but we stay together pretty well.
The hot dogs at the front are good at waiting as well as flying.
No matter where you ride with these guys, the pack is always together.
But now it takes quite a while to return to the Moose Hill Parking lot.
Back in Westwoods at Moose Hill
Brad says he has to get back soon and asks how far we are. I offer that we can take a fast downhill or a windy tech trail that takes about 15 minutes longer…
For those who know Westwoods and Moose Hill - I'm thinking Pink to Purple to Yellow ridge vs. the Blue DH from the Moose Hill straight to the Dunk Rock parking lot.
Everyone defers back to me and says they'd like the extra 15 minutes if its more fun… I remember staring at Brad and wondering if he's gonna come or not. I think I know what he's thinking….
But I then hear my wife "You can go for more than an hour"
He says "let's just go"
I get a second burst of energy and head off to "sink the pink" - trail that is.
We hammer it pretty tightly and the fast guys don't make the steep climb up the rock before the purple cutover.
All the guys toward the back kill it. Brad makes everyone look like amateurs with his climb up and to the right leisurely pedaling at the top.
We cut to Purple and do the remainder of the DH route without incident in a tight group. Those who can / want to hitting the drops.
There's some confusion at the left up the ridge. A few guys overshoot the turn to the steep cliffy ridge trail. We call them back up the hill.
My favorite trail
Though they know Westwoods, nobody in the group has done this trail before, and I'm thrilled I get to show them my favorite trail.
We bang the left up the yellow hill and start out. I worry a little about the dog because the immediate right of the narrow trail is a 100+ foot cliff drop, but dogs are better than humans at avoiding that type of stuff.
Now I'm thinking about the great riders at the front of the group and I want to hit my lines as hard as I can and somehow attempt to get close to one tenth of their skill level…
There's a tough corner that can be taken from an all out drop to a tech wheelie drop to a wide roll. And soon after another that does not prepare you for a quick scamper up a hill, that you need to be ready to spin up.
They are off the back a few seconds, but as I glance back they are finding their own lines, between the cliffy boulders, on-sighting lines impressive than my own practiced routine… (not suprisingly), I move aside at a quick steep climb I never have the wind or power to make so they have a shot. One rider on a 29er hardball makes it another on a 29er does not. I push up the lip and we continue to the top of the ridge to wait for the rest of the group.
One by one they show up. I am amped for the DH part of this trail and can't wait to see these guys tear up the roller from Yellow to Green.
Now all but two are at the hill top. There's calling back. No answer. I notice I've been gone for over three hours.
I hear my wife "You can go for more than an hour"… But three-ish with a lot to do that day is pushing it…
While one guy goes back to see what happened to the other two, I call my wife. She's not entirely happy with me.
About 5 minutes later the rider returns and says that Brad is not feeling well and its the same thing that happened last week. "I gave him a power bar and he felt better."
Each of the guys said they were going back to wait with Brad. "Your wife didn't sound happy Tom, you can break off if you want" I agreed, but I said somebody had to come with me to find out how to get back to the green trail. If they didn't find the unmarked right, they'd follow yellow trail back up the ridge and add about 30 minutes to their ride.
Vin, (I think his name was, they guy with the Bern helmet and little dog) said he would follow. We hit the last stretch of loose steep babyheads and washout with a vengeance, and even though he needed to get back, he said it was a great stretch.
I got home and was tossed into parenting stuff for the remainder of the day.
That night I got on Strava and checked my ride. It was a long time, with only about 2 hours 20 minutes moving time.
It was the first group of riders that held a decent pace and the only real holdup was my soft tire, other than the guys at the end of the ride.
I drink about 4 Sea Hag IPAs and fire up the laptop...
I added a note to the Strava map saying how great a ride it was and what great riders I rode with.
This should be the happy ending.
But Wednesday night I read on Facebook in bikerag "Who was that rider who died in Westwoods on Sunday?"
Hahaha what a coincidence, I thought… I replied I was in there with a group of 8 and didn't hear anything, but there was one guy who didn't feel well at the end….
"Sounds like him" - reply
I delete my posts and shut down. Fuckers were joking about it.
Not funny anymore.
I could not sleep that night. Called the police the next morning from my cell while driving to work.
Dispatcher said it sounded like my story matched the witness statements, but I'd have to come in for a report.
Instead I looked in the obits for Wallingford. There was Brad staring back at me, minus his helmet and bike.
His obit was as vague as they all are but mentioned Guilford and mountain biking.
It was the worst of rides.
Thursday, I could not get through the day at work. I leave early. Like that movie (Shawn of the Dead I think) where the main characters solve all their problems by going to the pub. My problems are solved by riding in Westwoods.
I rode when my dad died.
I rode when my unborn twin baby girls died.
Whenver I got a pink slip, it was waiting in my car while I rode before telling anyone.
How do I deal now?
When what I am trying to forget is so close to what I use to forget?
When my favorite place holds the worst reality and scene my imagination could conjure up.
I thought about Brad. Fuck it. I re-rode that ridge trail fast and flawless I'm sure he would have been right behind me if he could be.
I rode more too. I rode until my lungs burned.
My thoughts moved to the dozen or so spear points and arrowheads I found throughout the Guilford woods over the years. I found my first one in the patch of woods not far from where Brad left us.
I think if there are spirits, there would be spirits of those who made those points who hunted and lived and died there.
I thought that if there are spirits of the woods, Brad would be part of them, and I will think of him each time I ride my favorite trail.
I continued to ride hard on some slick rock tech, and found myself at lost lake as the sun was getting low.
I took a picture that everyone who goes to Westwoods takes off that rock over lost lake.
It 's a long view across the lake. You can see the railroad trestle in the distance.
There's a canal like series of rocks that leading from the stream below to the island.
The water is still. The tide is high so the air smells fresh with a hint of salt.