A Day in Hell: D2R2 2012

confession by Jack Gregory

Forgive me, for I have sinned.  At least, I must have, because I went to Hell.  Actually, I went to D2R2 2012, but it is the same thing.  I am sure of it.  How could anything be worse?

Oh, I thought I was ready.  6500 miles on the year by mid-August, a record for me.  Tour of the Hilltowns in July, other races, major rides and centuries.  I was setting Strava KOM’s at the end of centuries, for crying out loud! I set up my CX bike with 32mm tires, bought my first-ever mountain biking shoes and pedals so I could walk if necessary.  I also had spent the prior week in Lake Tahoe above 6000 ft on a family vacation.  I was ready to kick some ass on the 180k D2R2 that I had signed up for in February.  I literally have not been in better shape in 30 years.

But that is meaningless in Hell.  Every bit of pride is used against you; it is why the guy with the horns is always pictured grinning.  He knows, and you don’t.

We had fun planning for the event; five of us were going to go, all D2R2 first-timers.  We encouraged each other, discussed bike setups and logistics.  I got a camp site so no driving up on event morning.  We traded messages faster and faster as the event approached.  Then, with a few days to go, buddy Josh started questioning the wisdom of doing the 180k (that’s about 112 miles, technically).  Something about some fear-mongering on the net by the ride designer.  How a Cat 1 took 8.5 hours at 14 mph to set what is considered the course record.  I said, bah, that’s the same fear stuff they always put out so some moron who rode 30 miles once doesn’t go out and have a heat stroke or something.  L’Etape du Tour, which I did in 2011, wanted a doctor’s note to allow you to ride.  How are they going to verify that in France?  It is just a barrier to weed out the weak-minded, I said.  The Cat 1 probably wasn’t even trying hard.

Yes, I actually said that, a pure roadie whose only dirt experience is a couple of Battenkills, where Juniper Swamp Road, a very short dirt 16% climb, is considered a monster.  Hit me now.

But several others on our team also began to hedge on the 180.  Alex had been traveling a lot and didn’t have the miles; Joe had been in a crash a couple weeks before, and had not ridden as much since.  So we backed off.  Taking advantage of D2R2’s flexibility, we changed to the 150k on the morning of the event.  No problems, we just had to make a notation on the sheet.  I wasn’t that disappointed; 150k is almost 100 miles, and that just meant I could “bomb” the hills more and not be as conservative.  Hey, maybe there was a Strava segment at the end I could nail the KOM on!

Josh and I drove up the Friday before.  Joe and Alex had schedule problems, or maybe were afraid to sleep with Josh, so they drove up later and had a motel room.  Christine said no way she was going to sleep in a “manure field”, and was driving up the morning-of.  We set up camp, no manure in sight, and headed off to the People’s Pint in downtown Greenfield for dinner.  We had dodged thunderstorms all the way up, and clearly there were some in the area, but they looked like they were sliding North.  While at dinner, which was packed with bike riders, Josh says: “I think there are more men in here with shaved legs than women.” He is so perceptive like that.  There were many impressive classic steel CX bikes outside; there was no question these were D2R2 people.  The place was packed; we had to wait.  But we got in, and by the time we were sipping the brew, the clouds broke, and it poured hard on all those nice bikes.  Lightning, too.  It was a pretty strong storm.

On the way back to the camp site, we noted the effects of a recent monsoon, and the car track across the field to the tents was now a mire.  I was wondering how my 32mm tires would roll in that the next day.  As we approached where the tent was, I groaned.  It was gone.  Oh, no, there it was, blown on its side.  The wind had pulled the pegs from the soft ground.  It was also full of water.  Lots of water.  Luckily, we hadn’t put anything it it; our clothes and sleeping gear were still in the car.  I pulled the car up so the lights were on the site.  We lifted the ground tarp and got the puddles out of that, then picked up the whole tent, still assembled, and poured the water out the door, and then pegged everything down again.  Some towels cleaned out the interior very nicely, and we moved in.

It rained all night.  We stayed dry, and there weren’t any more thunderstorms, but I worried all night about a misery ride in the rain.  Even when the generators came on for the breakfast tent at 5am, it was raining.  By six, when it was a little lighter, the rain seemed to be lightening a lot, and the clouds were breaking up.  By the time we finished breakfast and met the other 3 members of the team, and added 3 more (John and Chris from a local rider group, and Alan, an Alex work-mate), there was some blue sky overhead, and things were really looking promising.  We assembled the bikes, met at the start line, and 8 of us headed North on the 150k route on wet roads at 07:00, but with blue sky ahead.

The first few miles are all on pavement, and are fairly flat.  But we encountered a problem that would plague us throughout the day; we didn’t know the route, and even Alex, who had the route loaded on his Garmin 800, could not help, because it was apparently wrong.  It did not match the cue sheets.  Josh had one of those cue-sheet holders on his handlebars, but many turns involved stopping, turning back, or just plain being confused.  This cost us a lot of time, because there are a lot of turns.  The 150k cue sheet runs to 3 dense pages, with few sections longer than 2 miles.  To make matters worse, our odometer readings were all over the place, and it didn’t take long before nobody’s odometer matched the sheet, or each other.

At just ten miles into the ride, I hit a piece of baling wire, about 8 feet long, and it went right into my cogs and rear axle, and I heard a crack, and immediately stopped.  It had wrapped around the cassette, the left side of the axle, and my left leg.  It looked bad.  But the noise I heard was the wire itself breaking under the chain, and once we unwrapped all the pieces, everything seemed OK.  Crisis averted.

These early miles were riding heaven; paved roads, gentle climbs that I could do at my pace, and a brightening sky.  We hit the first dirt section (after the usual debate about whether it was the correct turn or not), and it wasn’t too bad.  I was surprised to find myself in my easiest gear so soon (34×28), but ok.  We looked across at the top of a hill and saw Mt Monadnock.  But from there, the road got bad, then worse, then it became a 10% descent on a stream bed that clearly had been rapids not too many hours before.  I tried staying on the bike with one foot out for balance and pausing, but it was twisting my other knee uncomfortably, and I decided I would just get off.  As I tried to unclip, my free foot slipped and I fell back into the mud with the bike on me.  Crap.  Little did I know, I was having fun.  Trust me, when you see a sign that says “This road is no longer maintained by the town” it means “This is no longer a road”.  I know mudbloods love this stuff, but I don’t like unclipping at stop signs.  Walking a bike down a stream bed is not fun.

It wasn’t too long after this that our stronger guys, John and Chris remarked how amazing it was that we had been riding two hours and only managed to go 20 miles.  I remember thinking, oh, it will get better, it can’t be this bad the whole way!  Our first rest stop on the 150k route was the lunch stop for all other routes.  They weren’t set up for lunch yet, but it was still a nice stop by a covered bridge, and is one of the iconic parts of the D2R2.  I pigged out (as planned), by eating a banana, a whole bag of their excellent home-made trail mix (M&Ms, peanuts, raisins, craisins).  We were all still in high spirits and energy, and launched off to the next leg, which even then seemed like a long way to lunch.  And it was.  The faster guys, John and Chris, decided to go off on their own, and I couldn’t blame them; they were breezing up the steep stuff and we were struggling.  So we were down to 6.

The D2R2 iconic covered bridge. Lunch for many, but just the first stop on the 150K route.

At about mile 30, after our nth missed turn, we had our first real mechanical problem. Alan snapped his chain. We had no chain tool amongst us, but Christine had a master link.  We spent a little time trying to find the bushing for the inner link, but had no real idea when it came off, and the spectacle of everyone looking on a dirt road for a tiny bushing was kind of silly.  We decided the master link would be enough to get him back to civilization (the prior rest stop), and we decided to continue.  Down to 5.

All across southern Vermont, we were almost always on dirt roads, where the rule seems to be every hill has to be 10% or more.  The roads were in fine shape, really.  A little mucky in places because of the rain, and you could feel that energy loss, but you could descend with a fair bit of confidence, as there were no real potholes or rocks that would be tough to avoid on dirt at 20mph. But the hills never stopped.  One huge dirt pile after another, with barely the sight of pavement.  I was having a real hard time keeping a good cadence on the steep ones, blowing 300-350 watts at 60 rpm just to stay upright, even as I was worrying about using up my energy before the day was out.  And it dragged on and on.

We were still 20 miles from lunch at 12:30, with lunch scheduled to close at 2:30.  We were 5 hours into the ride, and had gone 50 miles.  I was beginning to think that Cat 1 guy had gone pretty fast after all.  But to be fair, we had lost a lot of time with the broken chain, the rest stop, and the constant effort to stay on the route.  We stopped at this little general store in Jacksonville, VT, where Rt100 and rt 112 join, and I saw a sign: “Greenfield 26”.  I was sick of steep hills on dirt, and even just heading straight back would be 80 miles (Deerfield being 5 miles south of Greenfield), and that seemed like enough to me.  But the team decided to try to make the lunch stop.  Being a team guy, I was OK with that.  After all, I wasn’t really hurting, I just wasn’t having fun on the steeps.  I couldn’t stand up on the loose dirt, which is my preferred method for climbing, and I didn’t have a low enough gear to sit and spin like the others.  But I wasn’t going to ride back alone; that is even less fun.

Of course, it turned out that one of the major dirt climbs of the day (enough to have its own Strava segment), heads out of Jacksonville.  It is Holbrook Road, and rises 500 feet in 1.3 miles.  I hit it pretty hard, knowing that I wasn’t going to be doing this much longer.  I was pleased to see that our earlier member Chris took the KOM on this ahead of us (doing it more than 2 minutes faster than I).  But I told Christine as we came down the other side that I was definitely going to peel off for Deerfield at the lunch stop; I would head back on my beloved pavement.  She also was not having fun.  As the only rider on a true mountain bike, with enormous tires, she had a great low gear, but it was a heavy bike and required extra work on every climb.  And there was always a climb.  Joe had also had enough.  So at the next intersection conference, we decided to peel off and head “more or less” straight back.  Josh and Alex were going to continue on to the lunch stop, and try to make it by 2:30.  I figured we would just get on Rt 112 and buzz back to Greenfield.  Down to 3.

But it didn’t turn out that way.  What followed was a four-hour odyssey of trying to navigate with a bad map, no real route knowledge, an iPhone that could not get a signal half the time (for the Google Maps), and just plain wrong think.

One thing about climbing all the time on a normal paved road is that you get just as much descent eventually, and you can blast down descents with relative abandon.  On a dirt, 10% descent, I could not do that.  I do not know what the limits are, and I don’t want to find out in the middle of nowhere Vermont.  So while I was not happy with my gearing for the gut-busting climbs, I was also not enjoying the descents.  When we hit the pavement again after splitting off, I thought it was Rt 112, and we flew down it for miles.  Only it was 8A.  Oops.  Suddenly we were miles from the intended route, in Heath (that’s a town in northern MA).  It was fun though; we averaged over 20mph for more than 5 miles.  After crawling all morning, it was like heaven.  We then met some guys on the 115k ride after our route crossed theirs, and decided to track back with them.  But they were going a little faster than we could collectively go, and we lost them.  And we didn’t have the 115k route sheet.  The map handout, which showed all rides color-coded, had nearly melted from sweat, rain, and constant reference, was pretty bad to begin with, and we started spending a lot of time trying to find the 115k route.  Eventually, we did seem to be on track, and lo, a designated water stop was just ahead.

Just a couple miles ahead.  On this left turn called Patten Road.

We entered Hell.  I was expecting a hill.  I had seen them all day, and I knew that between us and Greenfield was a big ridge.  But really, there is a limit to road making, and I figured I had seen it already.  I was wrong.  Patten Road is Hell.  I have never been on such a relentlessly steep, long dirt climb. I could not stand, so I had to muscle the cranks around for 2 miles at a crawling pace on some of the loosest road we had seen so far.  And suddenly, after having seen a total of maybe 10 cars all day on dirt roads, cars were trying to pass me.  Patten Road is one lane wide, and the edge outside the wheel tracks is loose gravel that drops off a foot.  Car after car came by, sometimes taking more than a minute to decide to pass me.  I am thinking, what the hell is this?  No cars and now a frikin’ parade?  I refuse to get off, knowing I will never get started again on this stuff on this grade.  I am going by riders who are walking.  I don’t want to join them.  If the car drivers want to drive up such a stupid hill, they have to expect a tractor or something, so they can wait.  Eventually, there are little places in the road where it gets a little wider, or the driver just gets sick of waiting (to their credit, they were a lot more patient than drivers around Boston), and the cars do get by.  As this grade starts to lessen, and the top is starting to appear, I see the rest area to the left, with a nice white tent, and lots of chairs with people sitting in them.  Wait.  They are all facing the same direction.  That isn’t a rest stop, but a wedding setup!  Thus the parade of cars.  I am happy for the couple and all, but where the hell is my rest stop!  It turns out to be just 100 yards further along.  A very nice place, on top of Hell.

It took me 16:40 to climb Patten Road, at a whopping 6.4mph.  I am sure with a more appropriate gear, and not thinking I was somehow in for a quick ride back to Deerfield, I would have taken it more in stride, but I really hoped it was over.  And then we got lost.

I mean, really lost, off-the-map lost.  We ended up too far south, but finally started getting an iPhone signal reliably, and Christine guided us back to Rt 116 and back to the base camp.  We hit a few more dirt roads, but nothing steep, and by the time we hit the timer at the entrance (without intermediate checkpoints, the timer is worthless; no one knows how far off course you have been), I felt OK about my adventure.  I ended with 85 miles, a total moving time of 7 hours 43 minutes (11.5mph).  But the clock time was 9:33, and thus my longest day on the bike, by far.  Total climbing was 8500 feet.  All my data indicate it was the hardest day I have ever recorded, which doesn’t surprise me at all.  It felt like it.

The dinner was excellent.  We each got a free pint glass with the event info printed on it, which is a great take-home.  You get a ticket for one free pint of beer as well.  The weather for the party was just perfect.  Not a cloud in the sky.  Not like I pictured Hell at all.  We met with Alan, who managed to get his chain repaired and get on the 115k route and finished a bit early, but with 60 miles.  John and Chris, our early strongmen, breezed in about 30 minutes after Alan, having done the entire 150k route in 7 or so hours.  They managed to hook up with a group that contained a local, who knew the route entirely; thus, they never missed or even hesitated at any turn.  That is the way to go.  The almost 2 hours we spent stopped wasn’t all attributable to rest stops and the chain break.

Josh and Alex (remember them?) pulled in almost 12 hours after starting.  They had done the complete 150k route, and then some.  After all that time, I expected a whimpering hollow shell, but after dinner and a beer (or was it two?), Josh was back to normal.  He even wants to do it again!  Here is what he sent us the next day:

We made it to lunch around 2:30 and they said they had only seen about half of the 70 riders they were expecting, so they were not closing up. They had a LOT of food. I ate pickles, a soda, a few Oreos, and a turkey and brie sub. We filled our water bottles, and headed out.

Right after the lunch stop was a ripping downhill that went on for miles. Then we had to climb East Rd, which is the unpaved version of East Hawley Rd. It was very long and steep. I don’t know how Alex got through the rest of the day without a smaller gear [Alex had a 34×27]. At the top I made a wrong turn and then found a Forgette Rd where the cue sheets said find Forget Rd. My road was a steep uphill that became a path that ended at a washed out bridge in the middle of the woods.

We back tracked and made our way down to Rt 112 south. From there we had to climb Ashfield Mtn Road. But on the other side we found ourselves back on the 150K route at about the correct mileage and not too far from the last rest stop. By that point we were told we were the last ones expected.

The last 17 miles was tough. It had a net elevation loss of 1,400 feet but still enough real climbs to make it a real push. We rolled in around 7:00. I got cleaned up, and Jack waited for me to have my beer and meal. We packed up and headed home. Alex had to rush, because he was late for his reunion.

Knowing what I know, I would try it again. There were definitely errors on the cue sheet, and I made some errors, too. I think that is part of Randoneering. We should have had more tools, better maps, and a 6:00 AM start. I enjoyed the day though, and loved the lack of cars.

Some comments from Christine:

I would go back and do it again…but ONLY on a lighter bike.  My bike was just too much of a tank.

I think we all learned a lot from the ride.  I enjoyed much of it, but some parts were literally torture.  But I guess what does not kill you makes you stronger.  I know I needed a different bike, Joe needed better shoes, Jack (and maybe Alex) needed more gears.  So maybe Josh had the exact right bike and shoes and gearing.

We definitely should have brought more tools and a couple more of those cue sheet holders that Josh had.

Somewhere in southern Vermont. L-R: Joe, Josh, Jack, Christine. Alex taking photo. About 4 hours in. Click to enlarge.

Final Thoughts

There were times on this ride that I was pretty sure that I would not do it again.  After re-reading it, I see that comes out pretty strongly.  But it is now a week later, and I am hedging on that.  There are very few hard rides or races where I didn’t want to go right back and have a do-over.  And I guess the D2R2 is one of those, and that probably is one of its appeals: it beats you, and you want a rematch.

Josh had read online before the ride where someone said, “Whatever bike you bring, it is the wrong one.”  I have been thinking about it, actually, from about the second hour.  What would I do differently?

Physically, I know I cannot be much better prepared.  I live south of Boston in a fairly flat area, and the standard “big hill” is the Great Blue Hill in Milton.  It is nothing, 400 feet in 9/10 of a mile.  A “5 minute” hill.  It is paved, for crying out loud.  I will never complain about a paved climb again.  To train for D2R2 here, you need to ride up and down Blue Hill for 7 hours.  Take a breather at the top and bottom, to simulate confusion about which way to go.  Then imagine it is dirt.  Now you understand D2R2.  But I am not going to do that.  Nobody will, because it is not fun.  But physically, that is what D2R2 feels like.

Technically, I think the best bike is one that you can climb a 15% dirt hill for 2 miles and not want to kill the route designer (or, actually, anyone within reach) at the top.  You need fattish tires, some tread but not big knobbies, a light bike, and a low low gear.  You need mountain-biker shoes so you can walk bad sections.  You need to have good route knowledge, a good map, and ideally, you need to memorize the turns or ride with someone who does.  A Garmin 800 with a map loaded is great, but it has to be the actual, correct map. Alex’s wasn’t, but it didn’t take long to figure it out.

Mentally, I wasn’t prepared for 10mph averages.  I wasn’t prepared for the preponderance of dirt.  Battenkill is only 25% dirt, and the sections are well known and anticipated, like cobble sections in Paris-Roubaix.  D2R2 is dirt, dirt, dirt, with the occasional washed-out stream bed.  I wasn’t ready for the steepness of the dirt climbs.  Almost every road is a very stiff dirt climb, steep enough that standing to climb is not very efficient.  You need to keep weight on the rear wheel.  The best mental positive is the boost you get from riding with a group of people you know and can have fun with.  Getting lost, breaking chains, and slipping on rocks in stream beds is a heck of a lot more tolerable when you are in a group of friends.  I certainly appreciate going to Hell with friends.