Words: Jeremy Dunn | Date:
Charged to deliver an epic New England ride, something quintessential and something hard. There was only one person to call – Dick Ring.
Laugh about it. No really, have yourself a good little chuckle. But then get over it because soon enough the name Dick Ring is going to bring tremors to your legs and a pained smile to your face. Because when weeks, months, even years from now, you tell the story about how you suffered the ‘rollers’ of New England, 100-miles of concrete waves, hundreds of feet high, relentless, cracked and constant, tunneling through dense forests and forgotten villages, it’s Dick Ring’s training ride that you’ll be talking about.
First, some history. Art Longsjo began his cycling career by riding from Fitchburg to Westboro, Massachusetts, an hour and a half ride, to compete in a local race series. He won the 1-mile, 3-mile and 25-mile races, and a legend was born. Art would go on to compete in the both the Winter and Summer Olympics of 1956, in speed skating and cycling respectively. Four years later, in 1960, the Fitchburg Stage Race became, in homage to a hometown hero, the Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic.
Every summer since, for the last 48 years, racers from around the country, including some of American cycling’s greats like Armstrong, LeMond and Phinney, have gathered in Fitchburg, MA, to compete in New England’s finest race. They don’t come for the plastic lawn ornaments, the empty barber-shops and closed diners. Nor do they come for the massive, darkly broken mills, artifacts from another time and way of life. They come for the rollers made infamous by Art Longsjo and his friend, Dick Ring.
Dick and Art were fabled training partners, their epic riding style attaining a legendary status in New England. Forty years ago, Art’s wife, Terry, approached Dick at the start line of the Longsjo Classic with a problem: “The announcer hasn’t shown up and the race has to start in a few minutes.” At the time he was a racer like the rest of us, albeit an exceptional one. But that day Dick stepped off his bike and into the announcer’s booth and the rest, as they say, is history.
That brings us to a very recent Thursday afternoon when I called Dick out of the blue. I told him I was a fan, both of his and the Longsjo Classic, and I explained that I thought he was the man to help me design an incredibly hard ride, starting and ending in Fitchburg, perhaps borrowing sections from the race route. A ride with maybe a bit more distance and pain than the Classic, something epic. I heard him, ominously, smile into big inhale – “I can show you some rollers that should do the trick.” I explained what the Rapha Continental project was about and made a plan to meet up with him at the New England Velodrome the following week.
Though he retired from professional announcing a few years ago, Dick can still be found at the New England Velodrome in Londonderry, New Hampshire. He volunteers there, teaching the area’s youth to ride and race. So I took my track bike and notepad and headed north, for a night of racing and entertainment. Dick is known to wax poetic about the virtues of cycling, in tight banked little circles or otherwise.
“Back then, training wasn’t as specific as it is now,” Ring explains. “The best riders, and Longsjo was definitely one of them, just rode and rode. 150-mile jaunts weren’t uncommon for us. We’d get up at the crack of dawn, eat as much food as possible, drink a bunch of coffee and set out for some town pre-determined, or not, town 40, 50, 60-miles away. We’d eat and turn around, it was that simple. The big trick was to try and make it back before dark. And let me tell you, that didn’t always happen.”
On the back of that night’s race results, Dick scrawled out a collection of match-sprints, street names and mile markers, that when put together formed a possible route, or about four routes to be more precise. I wasn’t sure at the time but I got the impression he was trying to take it easy on us. Little did I know.
Epic is a strange word
The greenery is in full, seasonal bloom and cherry blossoms line the connector road. People are out in the early morning light; mowing lawns, prepping boats and walking their overly excitable dogs. The cloud cover has been heavy all morning but as we cross into Fitzwilliam, a welcome break in the clouds raises spirits. So does the road quality. I don’t know what it is with this crew but any time we hit dirt, or the pave goes awry, we all start attacking. I’m not surprised when Pierre goes off the front. He lets out some kind of war cry, a primeval yell, as his rear tire starts kicking up dust when the road goes from highway, all broken glass and sectioned pavement, to deserted asphalt. Sand and dust snake across the road in oblique patterns. Cattails, jutting, populate the shores of the glassy lake to our left and someone mentions the scene has a fairytale quality. Sam leans forward onto his hoods, grits his teeth and pulls Pierre back into focus.
At mile 50, halfway through the ride, on the way into Athol, hunger sets in to the degree that Donnas’ Pizza looks amazing. As we munch turkey sandwiches with bacon and too much mayonnaise, Sam leans in from across the table.
Sam: This is hard. I didn’t expect these rollers to be so hard. I can see why Art and Dick turned out to be such great racers. We don’t have rollers like this back home in Oregon. Its either flat or straight up.
Jeremy: It’s good right?
Sam: Yeah, every time I start thinking about shifting out of the big ring, like at the top of a roller, it finally gives up so I don’t. Then, seconds later I regret it because we’re heading up again, over yet another rise. These would make you strong if you rode them all the time.
As we roll out of Athol the greenery deepens. Sunlight is salsa-dancing on the pavement in front of us. Fatigue wrestles with reality. A lone tree barely standing waves back and forth in the wind in the field off to our right. A swamp bleeding into open water signifies the start of Harvard Pond.
The rollers are starting to take a toll on our legs, just as Dick Ring said they would. He even laughed about it. “Oh just you wait,” he said, when I questioned the difficulty of the route. “Keep pushing on up and over those hills out there and eventually your legs are going to feel like they’ve up and turned to wood.”
After a short stop in the town of Barre, just a quick one to catch our bearings, we begin in earnest the approach to Mt. Wachusett. At the entrance to the park it takes us a minute to regroup before heading up the two-mile “climb to the clouds”.
It’s apparent that we’re really climbing and gaining elevation for the first time today when after a few turns we notice patches of dirty snow hiding from the sun under trees and embankments, and the temperature drops. The cool thrill ends as we ride past the tree line and into the summer sun beating down hot and bright without obstruction.
At this point it becomes clear. That while on paper the ride didn’t look so tough in practice, it is, over and over again. And even if you know it’s coming, Mt Wachusett, at mile 85 feels like a sucker punch. Maybe that’s why Art Longsjo and Dick Ring ended their version of this ride, now our ride too, with miles of sustained climbing. One last blow to finish you off. And whatever, it really is the perfect way to end the day. On top of the only mountain in the world, as far as the eye can see, with only a seven-mile downhill, give or take a few miles of rollers before home.
Dick Ring continued to ride the rollers until a ripe old age. But he would ride them alone because in 1958 Art, who was just 26 years old and at the top of his class, was killed coming home from a stage race in Montreal when the driver of their car lost control- cutting his promising career and his friendship with Dick tragically short.