There are no photos of me on that hill. No one captured the moment, coming around the first corner and already out of breath, when I stopped momentarily, put my foot down, and swore. No one heard me say, “Fuck it,” or saw me stand back into the pedals, or took much notice as I ground my…way…slowly…up…the…hill, passing a mass of riders who’d uttered their own curse, but resigned themselves to walking.
I have no evidence that, one dab aside, I rode the whole thing, deep in the red, at the very sharpest end of my riding season. My vision went tunnelly and my lungs rasped. My quads cried. I am not a tough guy or even a very strong rider, but this was a moment when I set my jaw and took gravity’s punch full in the kisser, then rode away over the top.
It’s just another dirt road really, one steep climb in a series of steep climbs in Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont that are part of the many routes and courses of the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonnee (D2R2). It’s probably not even the hardest climb D2R2 serves up. There is another, right near the MA/VT border that has broken my spirit at least twice. But this one was my first encounter with the intense dream-state of dirt road hill climbing.
I shit you not that I had visions of that road in my head for years after. It became the avatar of effort, a distillation of my sense of what I needed to be able to do in order to reach my best cycling form.
I was strong that first year. I had legs, and maybe since it was my first D2R2, I didn’t yet know to be afraid of the places the organizers might send me. I learned.
I also learned that we don’t choose the spots that light up our minds. My own private hill is just another dirt climb in an area spidered with them, but it etched itself into my psyche, a motivator and a cautionary tale, part inspiration, part PTSD. I gained a lot from overcoming my certitude, staring up its pitch, that I couldn’t climb it. It made me ride more and harder for years after. It taught me things that I’m probably still unpacking, like a difficult romance that ends in friendship.
At the top of the hill, that first time, I stopped and waited for some friends. There was a pool of cyclists there, hunched over bars or standing around talking. It was an anticlimactic denouement to a bit of riding that changed me, but then it had only just started to do its work. I hadn’t even caught my breath yet.