Monday, June 27, 2016

Vision Quest 2016

By Thursday night, I was pretty sure I was going to forfeit my Root 66 Series lead, cancel travel to the Bear Brook in the nether regions of New Hampshire and replace that dream for a team event, Vision Quest, put on by John & Katie. I had a lot of peer pressure from the other riders who had committed to do the 75 mile dirt ride over 4000 feet of terrain and 0a good chunk of the state. I never liked the sound of it, or the drop bar bikes most riders used. But I did like the riders themselves, and the whole reason it existed was to raise money for John's Cousin Kyle and his family. Kyle has ALS and one day of suffering on a bike cannot compare to one day of suffering with that disease. So I accepted, but was pretty sure there would be no way for me to put a dent in the course.

Vision Quest is 75-ish miles of trails stretching across Madison, Guilford, Durham, Killingworth, Haddam Chester, maybe Deep River, Clinton and Westbrook as well. It used to be 65ish Miles but rider Zac Hawk complained last year that it wasn't hard enough... So they fixed it. It consists of about 25% single-track, 60% dirt double-track, and 15% road. It starts at Bien Travel in Madison, drops into trails along the shore, then follows Route 1 to Guilford where it picks up the first stretch of off-road riding. The route presents a stretch of challenging single track, then continues north snaking through Guilford and Madison on forgotten fire and logging roads to Durham. Even when there are paved stretches, they are on ancient twisting roads with names like "Skunk Misery", "Roast Meat", and "Goat Hill."

There are three major refueling stations on the route. The first being at Rockland Preserve in Durham, which is after the first 10-15 miles. Next is after an East West traverse to the CT river valley in Chester where you can buy lunch and drinks at a small bakery. The last stop on the loop is about mile 60. The bacon station. This was a stop where you were almost back and you got recharged on hit meaty strips of delicious salt sticks. Those alone are worth considering for the effort.
 If I even started, it was unlikely I would get very far. I rode similar elevations the week before on my Nashbar Carbon road bike and found it very difficult to hit 40 road miles consecutively at pace. My typical rides are at either lunch or after work. If they go over 2 hours I'm pretty sure I'm missing a pick-up or drop-off or other obligation back at the home-front, so my distance is often limited. But that's okay. If you ride as hard as you can for an hour or more on tough terrain, it feels great, puts you out in the woods and you still have time to cut the lawn, pick up soccer players or go out to dinner. You can also ride nearly every day without need for recovery. But I thought about all the great people doing the ride, and the cause and I decided to give it a shot. Bike friends Mike, Kurt and Fabien were at the Thursday night West rock race, and provided further convincing. 

That night the weather was cold and awful with some rain. It seemed like we hadn't seen the sun for the entire week.  I felt triple-guilty about not going to my son's soccer game the next day. It was also the day before mother's day - compounded with the guilt for being away for a good part of the day from a weekend where so much always needs to  be accomplished around the house. FTW! I decided to skip all riding and blow off both Vision Quest and Bear Brook. That made me depressed, but you can't always do what you want. That's life.

The next day I woke up at 6:30 AM to a fox terrorizing the chickens. It was his second Saturday morning waking me up. I looked out the window to see the red guy about as big as an English Setter running around and around the chicken coop (dog pen with a cover), somehow thinking he might somehow find himself inside. Chickens are stupid though. And even though they are cheap, it felt like my responsibility to defend them. So on his first visit last weekend, I popped him in the side with a BB so he scampered off. This weekend all I had to do was open my window and he was gone. But I was now wide awake. I walked out to plan my day past by my bike stuff. I started cleaning off my tool bench and putting things away. My wife said "Why don't you just do your race? The soccer game is probably cancelled anyway. Its too wet." I wavered saying no, I made my decision (and one had to stick to one's decisions)... (like not going to Bear Brook? my conscience said). Anyway, there wasn't enough time to get ready. But after about two cups of coffee, it seemed like 45 minutes could be plenty of time to get ready. Plus I had been thinking about it all week, and knew what I would need.

So with the least amount of coaxing I changed my mind. I asked her if she would mind picking me up off the side of the road when I bonked somewhere in CT. She said she would and asked me not to die. The ruch began. In 45 minutes I got my rack on my car, showered, prepared for hours on the bike with energy bars, fruit, my cell phone, tools, toilet paper, fresh socks, gloves, a spare cell phone battery and a fully charged cell. I was wearing my Rad N Gnar Kit and waivering back and forth between a bike jacket and a fully waterproof raincoat both were orange. I went with the raincoat. Then I remembered sunglasses, energy gel, and money for Chester. I took a $5, (turned out to be a $50 next time I saw it). Then I remembered this was about Kyle and ALS... even though I donated online two weeks before, I grabbed some more for the donation jar. Off I went, feeling both nervous about the ride, and good about the cause. I never signed up officially. But my name was on the sheet. John knew before I did that I would show up. The family around Rad n Gnar was as per par for the course warm and welcoming. I gave quick hugs all around and realized I had lost my spare gloves in the rush. Katie, John's wife had food poisoning and wouldn't be able to ride, John's dad looked like he could do 2 laps, and Todd R. another Westwoods and Rad n Gnar bud was there ready to rip. I don't need 2 pairs of gloves anyway. Many other riders I didn't recognize, but I understood last year's crew was a pretty high caliber bunch of riders, including Graham, a guy who figured out how to make money from riding, something most of us dream of, Bill the bike fitter from Zanes, a guy who owns almost all the fastest times on road and dirt in Southern CT. A-team riders from team Laurel, each of whom spend most of their time after bike races on the CAT 1/ pro podium. Zac, a local guy who I look at as a 13 year old kid even though he graduated from U-U-Conn a couple of years ago, but has been riding with me since he was 12... Mike G. raced with me for a season, losing to me consistently the first half, then beating me by minutes the second before moving up a category, then not racing at all but riding 70 mile road rides and 50 mile mtb rides pretty regularly. I still try to ride with him when time permits. Mike had a 29er mountain bike as well. Possibly to slow him down enough to make it fair for the majority of riders who sported the latest and fastest Gravel Grinder bikes. Pete from Laurel and his friend, whose name I forgot, were sporting single speed mountain rigs. Zac pretty much made his bike. It had many extra and custom welds and a dual 24oz beer bottle cage behind the seat. He also had highly customized Jorts (Jean Shorts). Cut off and expertly decorated with a Unicorn shotgunning a beer and lightning bolts all expertly rendered with Sharpies. He is a more evolved version of myself as a Westwoods mountain biker, able to ride almost any genre of two wheels and pedals with a huge amount of skill, road, xc, freeride, bmx, downhill, enduro and whatever else there is concerning bikes.  But most bikes were generally "standard", store bought, or custom, drop-bar bikes. Everyone had rain gear on, or at least under armor. It was a clammy cold wet morning with lots of rain for the rocks and roots the night before. My dentist was there, Dr. Scott, ready to go on a Mountain Bike as well. As I've known him through the years, it has become almost like a social occasion to get my teeth worked on, and needless to say, its more fun to socialize with him as well. This would be my first ride with my dentist.

Kurt D. from Laurel/Amity was track-standing first with one, then with no hands, as we approached go time. His dad gave me my first mountain bike about 28 years ago on a promise to pay him when my Pell grant came through. Then all through college Guy (his dad), showed me how to work on it, and let me put it in the shop stand whenever I needed to. Another way I look at it is, he was a bike pusher who got me hooked on Mtn biking, like an addict on crack... but in a good yet equally expensive way of course....  The previous week, when my pedal stopped spinning and came off stuck in my cleat as I warmed up for a local race, Guy delivered a new set of pedals from his shop so I could still race. Amity Bikes is the best shop to buy a bike or part from. Not as good to race with. I never saw Kurt or Fabian or Alicia of Laurel after the the start of the race. They would finish light-years ahead of me. Laurel , the Amity team, is a New England dynasty at the races. John said it was likely because they all have to chase Kurt through the woods on their group rides.  And there were also a lot of people I didn't know, sporting day-glow orange, red and yellow in the cold gray fizz. Not quite rain, not quite fog.

We gathered for the pre-ride inspirational speech delivered by John. He reminded us why we were there, and focussed us on what we were up against. Kyle gave us some inspiration reminding us that a day of our suffering, . We could always stop if we want to, but he is stuck in the suffer zone all the time. He thanked us for our support, and said he would join us next year if he got the cure.   Next, we were following a pickup down rte 1 then Middle Beach Road toward The Madison Surf Club into mist. Most riders had neon rain jackets on. As the pickup pulled over, we banked right onto gravel by the ball fields then into a stretch of single-track. Almost immediately a couple of riders went down on the wet rocks by a stone wall. This gave us our first clue about trail conditions.

On to Guilford
We rode at a quick place down Route 1 and took a right at the water tower for a long road DH with a quick right into Bear-house Hill. Another right and we were on my back-yard trails in the East River Preserve, circling the large golden Shenandoah-like field and heading up the double-track dirt road. The pace felt pretty fast, but I felt good. I was feeling kind of playful and I thought to myself, "It's not a race" so when the rest of the crew turned right for a gravel stretch up the powerlines to an exit back onto the road in Madison, I went straight and hit a stretch of double/singletrack that came out about 1/4 mile closer. I envisioned cheering the first racers as they would go by me puzzled how I got there so fast. I stopped at the road head and fixed my disheveled Camelback, cheering on faster riders, but realizing the lead pack had already gone by despite my shortcutting. I waited for my slot in the pack which was behind Mike G. and some other riders.

New England Trail
I was between two groups as we climbed the long paved hill on Route 80 and I still felt pretty strong. I like mountain biking, so it is a lot more fun with tolerable road stretches punctuated with trails versus the misery of pure road. We took a right into the trailhead for New England Trail, (formerly home to the Guilford Archery range). This starts as double-track then descends down a hill turning quickly and progressively more complicated rocky rooty single track. It was at this point we first caught the two single-speed riders Pete, from Laurel/Amity and another guy whose name I forget. I took a leak, had part of a Cliff bar and began riding once I was joined by another group of two women, Zac Hawk, and another guy, I'm not sure of his name. He rode a throwback looking adventure bike and had no helmet. We hit Race Hill, which is a rocky unkempt road in the back of Guilford, which connects to Goat Hill Rd. Which is even less kept up. Some challenging downhills on eroded double-track. We came across a giant logging machine at this point. The guy didn't see us and was waving a 3-ton tree/log around in the air of a crane cable. We were stalled wondering how to get his attention so we could pass. After a bit, he saw us and waved us by.  The trail turned really single-tracky and I started feeling much faster. I dropped a group behind and caught a couple of riders slightly ahead. This was now well behind Mike Gs. fast group with the Pete, and the other single-speeder, but still a good clip and making good time to hit the first station at Rockland. I never checked the time the entire trip so I am not sure when we got where.

Rockland Trailhead 
We went through a McMansion neighborhood to the Rockland trailhead and were met by Kyle and other volunteers cheering us in through the mist. There was oranges, chocolate Gatorade and water for us to refuel on. A lead group was long gone by now, but two other groups all gathered here. We left together gain in a larger group after briefly refueling. Here was another spot I could not resist striking out on my own. I took a right into Rockland trails and was planning on hitting the Downhill and rejoining the group on the road at 148. When I got into the Rockland single-tracks though they were very muddy and unstable. Feeling guilty I stayed primarily on the main double-track trail and bombed the DH to the parking lot on 79. I took the road to 148 just as the group of Mike G. and Pete hit it. It was raining and drizzling quite a bit. The single-speed guys hammered ahead and I stayed on the wheel of Mike and his group up some big road climbs to the left onto Bunker Hill, a small road which climbed up again then quickly devolved into dirt.

This was a long section of old dirt roads and single-track that led across Chester and across 81. There were goats, some challenging hills, heavier rain at times, and at some point, we hit Skunk Misery road, the greatest road name in the world, and enormous mud puddles. I wondered if it would hurt or help real estate on Skunk Misery being named such. Pete thought it would help. We got to a cross road and were unsure which way to go. We stopped for a snack and Zac and the single speeders met us from behind. Pete had led the charge up the hill, and in his climbing fury had missed the bunker hill turn. They had to backtrack to get back to us. He said "At least this year I didn't fall in that swamp puddle" Shortly after we were riding single file through yet another swamp puddle. Pete went over the bars and disappeared in the goat stinking water. Stunned, all witnesses quickly dismounted and walked our bikes around the puddle. It was cold, so it was only somewhat funny.

Another section I knew because I used to ride Cocknaponsett all the time, from the Beaver Meadow entrance. I, as usual, started to lose the faster group on the climb and felt sure the follow group was right behind me. This time I was wrong. I pulled out my queue sheet for the first time and was reassured we were on page 2. But the pages were hopelessly stuck together from being soaked.
Page 2 is fused to page 1 here. iphone has no signal.
No way to navigate other than wait for more riders.

I looked at Strava but the map would not load, just my track. I realized that I could not depend on myself to follow the route. I would have to stick with other riders until I wore out. I rode back looking for bike tracks, but then a follow group of two women cyclists. Stephen from Rad N Gnar came up. I stayed with them and we found the left of single-track and some other road and trail turns into Chester. One with a great Tinker jersey (Mexican day of the dead type skull in neon on black). I enjoyed following her up the hills and checking out the detail in the skull on the jersey. I get why riding a wheel on the road makes climbing easier. It lets you pace yourself and focus on something other than the always too distant top of the climb. It struck me that Tinker looks more like the skull-face on the jersey every year. We hit the coolest downhill of cascading smooth rock unlike the rock in our neck of CT.Like giant steps worn smooth, with a stream cascading down from the rain. The other woman cyclist on a cross bike was flying and went over her bars as we were ripping down a technical downhill. Of course, she was fine, being a mountain biker, you don't get hurt when you fall. I realized that is probably why we stick with it as if it was something you get hurt at all the time, you'd probably find something else to do with your time. As we climbed the a long hill I noticed we could see the CT river through the trees. One of the lady cyclists, shouted from farther behind that a car sprayed something out the window at me as they passed, but I didn't notice. I noticed my knee was starting to hurt because my new cleat was off kilter.

Lunch in Chester
I forgot about the quest for too long and got a grilled cheese with bacon and tomato. While I waited for my sammich I hit the tiny bathroom in the quaint little restaurant. The sink counter was sopped with a layer of mud covered by a layer of water. I guess everyone on the quest refilled their camelbacks here and didn't clean up after themselves. I tried to wipe the sink, but the mud on it was scratchy and uncooperative. I decided to ignore it as did those before me. It was great sitting outside eating the grilled cheese. The bread and bacon were primo. Briefly, I forgot the ride and was enjoying the company. I met a guy named Jacob, who I met before maybe, and his wife. I could have sat and chatted moving over to the Pattaconck for beers, but too soon everyone was off. I felt recharged and tried to pack and go as quickly as possible. I still had no idea what time it was.

The two ladies I rode in with, lost patience waiting for me and started ahead, but remained within site. I never closed the gap, but biked with Stephen for a while, he found the right into the woods off road again, and we climbed an enormous section of double-track through an amazing stretch of dramatic cliffs and hollows. My dentist later said he used to play Jeep tag in that area. The two girls, Jacob and his wife seemed just ahead on the forever climb. My knee was killing. I had to ride with my foot out of the clip, (not fun with an eggbeater pedal), which I did for the entire 20 or 30 miles back from Chester to Madison. I could have stopped and adjusted it, but thought I'd just make more problems potentially, so I continued on. Stephen slowed on the climbs way too much for me. I worried that I would never get back, so I started spinning ahead. But on the downhill, though I opened it up pretty good, I never saw the forward group again. I rode for a while with a guy who was fully kitted and making a fast pace. I followed him out to 148 and moved north from Chester toward Killingworth past Cedar Lake and the south entrance of Cocknaponsett. We turned left on the road toward route 80 passing the Chester airport with more climbing. I faded big time on the hill and Mr. drop bars disappeared ahead bearing right in the distance. There were little pink flags to guide me into another part of Cocknaponsett, with some long stretches of dead roads through the forest. I passed a man with a dog with no jacket, and could not imagine how/why he got there in the heavy rain. I looked for flags, but obviously missed them as I eventually came out on Route 80 nearly across from the turn toward Westbrook, I think it's 154 near Break-Neck hill rd. Another great name. My knee was about done and I was wondering if I seriously injured it.

Dashed Visions of Rescue 
I waited for someone to show up, but realized I must have missed the turn much farther back in the woods. No flags. It started to rain harder and I was feeling very lost and alone here. I decided to pull out my phone and call my wife for a rescue. I rode about 55 miles at this point, I think.

My phone immediately died before the first ring. I laughed at it. I had the spare battery I had packed for just this occasion heh heh. Celebration was was short-lived as I could not find the cable to connect it. I found some bread from lunch that I stashed in my pack. Nothing to do but ride back toward Madison. It was nice to start with a huge downhill past a large lake. Then a disheartening uphill climb my knee was 100% against. I thought of stopping at the little gas station at the circle for a phone, but decided to push on through. Instead of going right and seeking out the bacon station with no clue where it was, I decided to head to head left and go through Clinton on Green Hill rd. back to Madison. I continued down Scotland road to Route 1 and took the right to finish at Biehn Travel.

I was greeted with cheers! Katie said I was easily mid-pack... But I appeared to do better than I actually did time-wise by cutting out the bacon station. Not as disappointingly, I also missed the last stretch of trails, but ended up with nearly the same miles on my cut back. John smiled and congratulated me on my time. He said it didn't matter that I got off track, it was my own journey, at that point of blurred mental state, I agreed. I went straight to the port-o-potty and drained a few gallons it seemed. I checked the time. It was 4:30-ish... Wow! a few hours in the saddle. I forgot a change of clothes for the recovery beers and burgers. Living close decided to blast home and shower. I came right back to a crew of faces from the trail and those who set off in the morning and I didn't see after the first stretch, for a couple Scotch Ales in the parking lot around a fire, and celebrate with the others who finished. There were also burgers aplenty.

Vision's End
We gathered around a fire in the cold dusk eating burgers and drinking beer.  Mike announced it was my longest ride, and I was somewhat embarrassed due to the caliber of riders all of which probably do longer rides than this on a regular basis. Despite the fact that I have been riding mountain bikes since before many of them could walk. When I thought of it, there were 3 and 4 hour, even longer epic rides, but that was before I had technology to track it, so it doesn't really count in modern Strava time. It didn't matter though, I felt like we were now all on the same team and just won our first championship. Burgers were great, and beer, though I prefer IPAs, was cold and delicious. Zac pulled in and Stephen pulled shortly after I returned from my shower. Zacs beers were long gone, but he looked relaxed and ready to ride home if he needed to.

My knee pain almost vanished the following day as I adjusted my clip on my shoe. I was able to race later that week. During the ride my Santa Cruz Tallboy carbon had no complaints and performed admirably, coasting alongside gravel-grinders on the road, and eating tech sections for breakfast. I felt much more comfortable on that bike than I do on a road bike, so even though it wasn't a choice since I don't have a gravel bike, it was a good choice.

This was a challenge that helped raise awareness and money for ALS helping others and made me more aware of how far I could push my limits as well. Thank you John for sharing this vision with me, and supporting my effort, even though you are a far more capable rider.  Anyway, this is like a month after the VQ, and I had this saved as a draft before the ending... Like they say about the pain of child-birth I don't remember many details or the pain as much as the amazing sites great company and sense of accomplishment.

I don't know of any pictures of myself doing the Vision Quest 2016.  You'll just have to take my word I was there...

...Or maybe it was all just a Vision after all.