Words: Jeremy Dunn | Photography: Brian Vernor | Date:
Those of us that reside in the Boston area had done this ride hundreds of times, leisurely cruising out and around the roads surrounding the Lexington/Concord area. At times pushing each other up Strawberry Hill, or sprinting for the Lincoln town line. Yet somehow this time was a little different. This time, instead of hammering down the broken, sun-blistered road that passed alongside Walden Pond, we found ourselves motionless next to its choppy shores.
Here we were, standing in carbon-soled cycling shoes, a few feet from where Henry David Thoreau penned the American classic, Walden, Or, Life In the Woods. Having stopped at the pond as a group, it was impossible not to appreciate the history of the area and the American ghosts that had lined our route. Often times, these ghosts are easily forgotten but as we left Boston that morning, we had traveled the same roads as some of the great heroes of American history and literature. On Walden’s shores, these ghosts finally caught up with us.
Maybe it was because half the Continental team is from outside Boston? I’ve noticed this phenomenon over the years; whenever I’ve ridden with people from out of town, they notice the things that I take for granted. People suddenly start remembering that they’ve always wanted to take a walk on the Freedom Trail, or they spot the historical sign marking the start of Paul Revere’s famous ride to warn the American militia of the approaching British. They make me feel foolish that I regularly forget the exact year of the Boston Tea Party (1773).
Or maybe it is because, when you really start to dig, especially in Massachusetts, you’ll notice that a few other ghosts are hanging around as well. Like Ralph Waldo Emerson, who owned the Walden property. Or Emily Dickinson, who grew up in nearby Amherst. Throw in Ben Franklin and that celebrated midnight rider Revere, and you have yourself a party. The one that I kept coming back to, however, was Thoreau.
I couldn’t shake him as we spurred our steel horses up and out of the sandpit that surrounded Walden Pond. What was he doing out here? Did he have it all figured out? In fact, it was something that our group spoke of often. Should we move out of the city and into the countryside? That would surely make us better cyclists. I mean, look what we could be riding every day. On a basic level, Thoreau’s quest for solitude in the woods surrounding Concord is one that we, as cyclists, recognize. We realize that, even though we may ride as part of a ‘team’, we have done the training alone, fixed our bikes alone. Even surrounded by people, we rely only on our own legs to make our bicycles move. We know this solitude in cycling because we face it everywhere. It is in the isolation of the time trial, the lonesome suffering of the greatest climbs, and the alienating feeling of getting dropped before the final stretch.
So we follow the path set by these pioneers, these ghosts. As we traveled the back roads of Massachusetts, we gave a nod to the tradition set down by Thoreau. Here was a man who chose to never fully reject civilization, to completely give himself over to the wilderness. In effect, it’s what we do every time we head out on a bicycle. On the one hand, we turn our backs to civilization, preferring a simpler means of transport to take us away and into the hills and surrounding countryside. On the other, we cannot fully commit to the unknown. Even after the longest days in the saddle, we still find ourselves turning around and heading back to the cities we were so eager to leave behind. Henry David Thoreau knew this duality better than any of us. Yet somehow Thoreau had figured it out, had kept a foot in both worlds. He could seek his inner self through reflection in nature and isolation but in maintaining his ties to the ‘real world’, he never relinquished the necessities it provided.
We had made a similar choice, turning tail and heading back toward Boston. Battered, we politely nodded at the remaining monuments in the passing towns. Weary, we paid a silent homage to what we locals had come to take for granted. Cycling has its own gallery of ghosts and every time I throw my leg over a top tube, I pay tribute to them. Today though, on this ride, we paid homage to a different set of spirits.
You’ll start the ride at Diesel Café on Elm Street in Somerville, Ma. At least you better start there. The coffee and espresso drinks are so amazing that you will likely delay leaving for your ride as long as you can. Once you finally get back on the bike and out on Massachusetts Avenue North you’ll be heading toward Lexington Center. Turn left when you hit a huge monument on what is known as the Lexington Battle Green. By the way, this route out of Boston follows the same roads Paul Revere raced towards Concord to warn the awaiting militia of the advancing British Army.
The slight rise out of Lexington will remind you that there are some nice rollers in Massachusetts, even if they happen to be heading right through the outer developments of Lexington and Concord. In a little while you will jump back on to Mass Ave, as its affectionately called, cross over I-95 and head into the greenery that is the Minute Man National Historic Park. The protected forest is thick, dense and seems to lean over the road with a watchful eye. Or maybe that watchful eye is the military base, which is strategically placed within these same woods. Further down, the road curves towards the left and heads directly to Hanscomb Air Force Base. In fact the road that heads towards Hanscomb strikingly resembles the tarmac that lurks behind the walls.
Jet fuel assaults your sense of smell as you keep the Base on your right. Round the curve, the smooth texture of the repaved road makes a great place to launch an attack if you’re feeling up for it. A steep descent followed by a slight declination in the road makes it easy to keep the pace high at this point. However the preceding incline is covered with huge oaks that make it difficult to see some cracks that suddenly appear in the pavement.
Stay on Marrett Road, which after a slight right becomes Lexington Road—pay attention to these roads, as ‘Concord’, ‘Lexington’ and a few others are names used in nearly every town. After a sharp right and a sudden left, stay on Lexington road you’ll be heading into Concord center. Don’t expect any sort of fanfare, even though the road is lined with houses, big and small, each with a plaque signifying their age. Oddly, there never seems to be anyone out along this stretch.
Turn left at Hwy 62 and take a trip back in time when you hit the green at Concord Center. The whitewashing of the picket fences are reminiscent of the world Mark Twain created for Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. A creepy surrealism sets in quickly that isn’t likely to disperse throughout the day because the towns hardly vary from this point on.
Concord was the home of Thoreau in his formative years and from the looks of it, he may still be living here somewhere. On any given day in Concord, MA you will see a plethora of shoppers wandering the little boutiques that line the streets. Stop for coffee there on the town square, Helen’s Café boasts a stiff Americano that will keep you on edge for miles to come.
Cross over dangerous Route 2 and into the Walden Preserve. If you thought the foliage couldn’t get any thicker, here it does. Keep an eye out for Walden Pond on your right. Look left to see the home, or shanty, where Thoreau once lived. This is as good a spot as any to stop to check in with yourself and your ride mates. A moment of introspection feels very appropriate amongst these woods.
Skirt along the town lines of Lincoln and Sudbury as you make your way toward Weston. Atop Old Boston Post Road, Weston’s lone church still towers over the lawn that was once the meeting place for the townspeople. Once you leave this idyllic town the roads start to break up a little bit, probably the effect that the wet marshlands have had on the pavement. This starts to signal your departure from “civilized” Massachusetts. From here the town greens tend to be a little less green. Where there once was a Jaguar parked in the driveway, now there may be a truck, or a rust covered truck, or even a truck without wheels up on blocks.
You will really notice it most around mile 70 when you cross over the railroad tracks into the town of Harvard, Massachusetts. The yards of the abandoned train station are littered with rust coated machinery of an era long gone. Cast iron stoves, ovens and coffee makers clutter the yard and spill out almost into the street. Time allowing, have a walk through this appliance graveyard.
Outside of Harvard you will encounter the aptly named Old School Road. The old school still stands next to the road, long-abandoned with only a few flecks of it’s dark red paint that once used to greet students. We were nervous about this climb before we set out because of the pitch of the climb but you’ll find that although very steep, it only lasts 20-30 seconds. The climb that challenges comes at the end; Summit Ave.
To get back, turn around here and revisit some of the towns that you just came though, Sudbury, West Concord and a few others. When you hit Weston, you are officially on your way back to Boston. Turn right out of Weston and head along Wellesley Road over Route 30 and onto Commonweath Ave. At this point you are on the famed Boston Marathon course, just before the dreaded “Heartbreak Hill.” While it might be a killer for marathoners, “Heartbreak Hill” is more like “Ambivalence Mound” on a bicycle.
But there’s still Summit Ave. Do your best to enjoy one of the best views of Boston on this one last short, but steep, gut-wrenching climb.
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