The Hill I Didn’t Die On

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.

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  1. TominAlbany says

    I went back to my own ‘cycle hell’ (called Sickle Hill Rd) last summer during the COVID lockdown. I went alone. The last time I’d gone, with a couple of friends, I ended up walking part of it. That was 20+ years ago when I was much stronger(?) and not smarter. I attacked EVERYTHING in those days. Pace wasn’t something I understood.

    When I cleaned Sickle Hill last summer, on a lark really, as I’d not really intended to climb it when I left the house that day (LIAR!!!), I made sure to inform the riding buddy who’d been with me that day, all those years ago. (As you said, we don’t choose our lessons or what sticks…) He didn’t remember it.

    D2R2 is a ride I’d heard of before you started writing about it at RKP and it’s on my radar. My first dirt road race/ride was supposed to be The Farmer’s Daughter in Chatham, NY in mid-May – now moved to August – thanks pandemic. I’m going to put something else together or find some friends that can give me that taste again. Flying (pacing, Tom!) into the unknown.

  2. dberkstresser says

    I have one of those hills too. It’s sometimes called Dogmeat. It took me three months of training and 11 tries before I finally cleaned it. (At least the first section.) Now it’s a yearly event on my birthday and called the calibration ride. I might make it again this year but I don’t want to be accused of Hubris. (32 in a row now). Time to stop typing and go train…

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