When you’re traveling in a van for over a year and you read about a gravel road ride/race based out of the state you grew up in…you put a flag in the ground on the date of the ride and make a point to attend. While on the ferry ride from Bellingham, Washington to Haines, Alaska, this is exactly what Pamela and I did after reading a blurb about the Franklin Land Trust D2R2 in Outside Magazine, #D2R2
The D2R2’s claim to fame is being one of the hardest gravel rides in New England and even on the east coast for that matter. The ride is held in Deerfield, MA, which is located in western Massachusetts where the landscape is littered with rolling hills, apple orchards,1800 century stone walls, mom and pop maple sugar shacks and where tractors out number cars. The area also contains miles and miles of “jeep trails” and unmaintained (during winter) dirt roads that create a network of endless routing possibilities, creating the perfect 1x riding scenario and gearing setup.
In early May, Pamela and I rode in our second consecutive Tour Of The Unknown Coast ride, based in Humboldt County, CA. This is considered the toughest ride in California as it takes riders on a 100 mile journey through roads lined with 300 year old redwood trees, up an unthinkable 25% climb that slowly ejects you from the Lost Cost, the road that parallels the shoreline which is constantly being battered by ocean winds and waves. The ride is a great challenge and one that many people return to do year after year, including Pamela and I, now.
When I singed up for D2R2 I was thinking how hard can it really be? Can it be as hard as the Tour of the Unknown Coast ride? Having grown up in New England I know it isn’t a place known for “easy” riding, thanks to the rolling hills and steep little pitches that forbid anyone from getting into a cycling rhythm, and that’s just on tarmac. Sprinkle in some dirt roads, and you’ve got yourself a riding recipe that brings a smile to my face.
D2R2 offers up a variety of route options, from the original 180K grinder to a bit tamer 160K slog, a 115K even 45 mile route and a family friendly 20 mile route. I was keen to register for the 180K route and ride with friends I knew from Philly, Vermont and New York. Instead I chose to sign up for the inaugural Mystery Ride. The title ‘Mystery Ride’ evokes wonder, intrigue and adventure, everything you want for a gravel ride, Right?
There are four known unwritten rules to the Mystery Ride, all of these were created on the days ride with other riders:
1). Don’t talk about the Mystery Ride 🙂
2). No questions about the Mystery Ride will be answered.
3). No cue sheet will be released and no GPS file will be released in-advance
4). All correspondence and descriptions (seen here) from Sandy (Event Founder) read more like warning signs and do no enter signs seen at a ski resort’s backcountry boundary with a sliver of optimism.
“Mystery Riders. WOW. You guys are in for some crazy s***. Sometimes we send you down paved roads that are too cool to pass up, and other times we send you down, by far, our gnarliest stuff ever. Don’t stress it, however: the roughest sections will have workarounds depending on your tire size. Overall, do not attempt this ride on less than 32c’s, and those of you on hardtail mountain bikes will have a complete blast with some of the 200-year-old jeep tracks. You will have lunch at the 160k lunch site. The difficulty of the last 25 miles is sensational, but as always, the aesthetic and historical qualities of the roads will be equally mind-blowing. Literally, the mystery finishes with three Patten-caliber climbs and five gnarly sections. Yeah, gang, holy s***. Either way, the hope is that the route itself will offer enough options along the way so everyone goes home dirty and happy.
*NOTE: First timers to D2R2 probably do NOT want to attempt the Mystery Ride!
My TIMEX watch started beeping at 5:30am, before the sun made an appearance on the horizon. As I looked out through the insect screen on the back of the van my mind thought it was way to early to be up. But I needed to fuel the body, pack my pockets with some Skratch Labs singles, Untapped Maple packets, a few packets of Justin’s nut butters and then there was the final gear check before the fast approaching, loose 7:30am rolling start time. Given the size of the checklist the morning felt relaxed, mainly because I knew I was doing the Mystery Ride and I wouldn’t be truly racing, but riding it. Yes I had all the right equipment, per the suggested list from Sandy:
Tires: Minimum 32cm – Check, ZIPP Firecrest 303 with 32cm tires
Gearing: Minimum 11-28 – Check – I was running a 10×42 with a 42 front chainring.
From the get-go the course provided amazing views as we were climbing out of the valley and into a maple tree forest where blue hoses crisscrossed each other, creating an expansive web of soon to be slowly flowing sap headed downhill to a sugar shack. As slow as the sap would drip from the trees I was making my way up hill. The first 11 miles seemed to tick off without a problem. There was a large section of tarmac that allowed for a steady warmup and some varying gravel and dirt road sections before the fun really started. The fun started around mile 21 as the loose gravel road pitched up and disappeared to the right. I couldn’t search long for the best route as I was busy looking just in front of my front wheel for the best possible route up, hoping not to dismount like others before me. Luckily I had set my gearing to be a one to one and I used it, shifting into the available 42, giving my legs a little extra to keep momentum on my side as I climbed. The course went from pitchy and loose to down right nasty and laughable when I got to a deeply routed out Jeep trial section that contained some large rocks (seemed to be from a fallen stone wall). Try as I might I had to dismount and walk, just as 99% of the others before me and behind me.
As myself and others made our way past the jeep trail section we talked about how it couldn’t possibly get much worse than what we just did. I should have known that verbalizing our optimism would jinx us. After riding for about a half mile we were greeted by a large 3’ deep and about 30’ wide mud bog with only one way across…trailblazing. It sounds like an annoying thing to do, hike your bike (in road shoes) through a forest when you what you really want to do is ride but knowing it was all part of the fun made these sections bearable. Plus there was company.
The bike and I were holding up great having hiked for approximately 3 miles of a 4 mile section, which took a few of us an hour to bushwhack through. #MysteryRide. Once back to civilized roads, I took a glance at the cue sheets and compared it to my Ride With GPS app, which I’d downloaded the Mystery Ride Route onto. After using the Show My Location feature I noticed that we had about 8 miles left till lunch and most of it seemed to be on tarmac with a semi steep 2 mile gravel climb. Knowing lunch would be about 45 minutes away was upliftings after what I’d just slogged up down and around. The ride to lunch included much more riding and far less hiking…this was a good thing. That semi-steep section though wasn’t so semi…it was STEEP, clocking in at 22% for just over a half mile and it was littered with large stones and years of decomposing leaves leaving no real way to locate a line to take. I was in the B.O. gear (Bailout gear..42) doing my best to keep traction on the rear tire as each pedal stroke got harder and harder due to fatigue and depletion of calories. After riding and hiking for about a mile, the steep hill lead to more hiking terrain even without the pitch…thanks to the rocks and rutted out jeep trail. My Diverge was well equipped with the 10×42 Force group set and 32cm tires. The thing that started to go on me was my legs and energy level. When I came upon the lunch station it was like seeing an oasis in a desert.
With good fuel in my belly (fresh turkey sandwiches, Nutella and Fluff on bread, pasta salad, Oreo cookies and a banana with peanut butter) and a a healthy dose of Skratch in my bottles, including downing a bottle of Rescue Hydration and taking a few shots of pickle brine, I felt as though my mind and muscles were back to life, likening the experience to Poppy-eye eating spinach. The roll out from lunch was relatively calm and the terrain enjoyable as there was little in the way of jeep trail climbing. When cued about the final 10-12 miles of the ride and what it could look like, i remembered riding should be fun..and I should be riding not walking/hiking my bike, so I opted to pedal around the final “hard” section and head towards the finish.
looking back at the ride, I brought a knife to a gunfight in the form of road shoes vs. mountain bike shoes. As exciting and as fun as the mystery ride was, I did sign up for a ride and not a duathlon. Next year when we return, which we will, I’ll opt for the more rideable 180K or 160K courses. I applaud the organizers for crafting a nasty and memorable Mystery Ride..which I’m dubbing “A Grab Bag of Awesomeness” ™ and thank them for the adventurous day, which I will not soon forget, for all the best reasons.