By Kris Kjellquist, 8/27/05
Letting Sandy Whit-tlesey design a century route is like letting Tiger Woods design a golf course.
This is the analogy that popped into my head about half way through this 113 mile dirt road ride through Western Mass and Vermont. In both cases you just might finish, enjoy the course, and appreciate the talent of the designer.
Sandy spent 12 years exploring the roads to put this course together and it shows. He weaved an incredible network of dirt roads to cover well over 100 miles with minimal pavement and virtually no traffic to contend with. In fact, the entire Vermont portion of the ride never touches pavement except to cross two roads. The more I think about the course the more I am struck with the amount of effort and time Sandy put into this ride. These really are roads that are not meant to be found. Many are closed through the winter. I had a feeling this ride would be epic from the day it was announced, but I had no idea what we were in for.
The ride started in Old Deerfield, MA at 6 a.m., so I was up at 3 a.m. to eat breakfast and get there with plenty of time to spare after a 90 minute drive. I arrived in the dark and fog to find Sandy and Don Podolski setting up a table for registration. Don is the Western, MA Regional Brevet Admin and he put in a lot of time helping Sandy promote his first ever Randonneurs USA event. I signed in, paid my entry fee, and received my brevet card. This ride is a RUSA Populaire which generally means a shorter easier ride often held at the beginning of the brevet season. At just under 200K this ride was on the shorter end it but it certainly was not going to be easy.
I said hello to some of the usual suspects and we were off into the early morning daylight and fog. The air was damp and cool, but most dressed lightly as the forecast called for a dry warm afternoon. Sandy led us out with a car escort for a few miles until we turned right onto the first dirt section where he sent us all off with a wave and some encouraging words.
The dirt sections on this ride ranged in condition from hard packed clay to roads only an experienced Jeep or off-road driver would tackle in a car. Some stretched the definition of the word "road." The vast majority of sections were a dream to ride and the others were just more of a challenge. In fact, as the roads got worse I think the smiles got bigger.
The ride itself was broken up into 4 sections and 3 checkpoints. Even as we were riding I found it hard to distinguish individual stretches or roads and I knew a detailed accurate report might be tough. It was an endless series of roads that tunneled through trees, steep climbs in the warm sun, and amazing views as you crested the peaks! Because of this I am going to go through each section with some details and highlights in note form.
Stage 1: 34.8 miles, 47% dirt, 3700, climbing. This was the second easiest section of the day. Legs are fresh, excitement was high and air was still cool. Early on you are taking it all in and just getting a sense of how great this ride is. I think we saw less than 10 cars total and only 1 or 2 were passing us. The remainders were seen at intersections. None of the soon-to-be infamous climbs appear in this stage. The section is tons of fun, great roads, but it creates a false sense of security for the day. There's a nasty climb to the first checkpoint, and at this checkpoint you see your time and realize it's going to be a long day! It's a long, fun day!
Stage 2: 28.4 miles, 77% dirt, 2800, climbing. Stages 2 & 3 are "brutal" according to Sandy. Again, imagine a hole of golf that Tiger would call brutal. You have to translate to your own ability and terms. Brutal is a great word! Especially challenging is another description. Three peaks over 1700, and massive descents after each. While they are fun, just remember you climb right back up again. Two highlights included the 25% dirt climb at mile 42, and Arabian horse running with us at mile 44! There's a great place for swimming at the end as well. It's a nice place to wash up as you're pretty dusty and grungy by this point.
Stage 3: 32 miles, 70% dirt, 3000 climbing. Although there's less climbing listed I found this to be the hardest stage of them all. It seems everything is steep, rough, and it was getting hot at this point. You also are getting more and more miles in your legs as you approach each climb. Sandy listed 5 major peaks on the cue sheet in this 30 mile stretch, including a bear of a climb to finish the stage at the top of Patten Hill. You are rewarded 10-fold with the view at the top. Mentally the stage is easy in one way. You just count off the peaks and when you hit #5 you are done. There's always a point in each brevet where I realize, barring a major incident, the ride is "in the bag". In this stage approaching Patten Hill you get that mental boost from realizing the last major hurdle jumped over. Luckily, there is a convenience store just under a mile from the start of Patten Hill. I highly recommend a Coke or other quick fuel just before this climb.
Stage 4: 17.9 miles, 51% dirt, 700 climbing. Aaaaah, the finish is in sight. Nothing but a few small paved hills and some nice downhills and you are done. Just DON,T MISS TAYLOR RD. at mile 101. It's easy to miss when you are tired and missing it will surely add a nice 1-mile climb to get back! I know, we did it. Not too much to add here, but the finish is interesting. Sandy traditionally ends his personal rides in a local cornfield and he takes us through it on this ride. It's a lot of fun and surely adds to the mystique. You cruise back into Old Deerfield feeling like you've been gone for a weekend of camping. There's an odd sense of returning to civilization. You've completed an incredibly hard and brutal ride that you didn't want to end.
This was probably my best single day on a bicycle. It was great to ride with some familiar faces like Max, Melinda, Rick, and The Blayleys (wish we saw more of you). It was also nice to meet some new people like Bob Powers of Long Island. If you ever want to sell that X0-1 give me a call!
Sandy Whittlesey should get some kind of award for this ride. 12 years of planning and exploration really showed and really earned some good bike karma! Thank you and see you next year!