Nobody likes being preached to, least of all a recovering Catholic. So I'm not the one to get all holy on you, suggesting the correct and proper way to pay homage to whatever deity you worship. There's plenty of glassy-eyed cult puppets at your local airstrip to fill that bill. No, all I'm going to say is that everyone has to find their own way to celebrate life and the mystery of a higher authority. If speaking in tongues or swooning at a Baptist revival does it for you, more power. For me, that celebration is found sitting atop a fine Bontrager leather saddle.
Every spring the gang and I observe Easter Sunday and the day light savings switch with a crack-of-dawn spin to Red Rocks on Boston's North Shore (like I said, not everyone worships the same). This massive granite outcropping on the edge of Gloucester overlooks all of Cape Ann and the Atlantic, with views as far north as New Hampshire and Maine and south to the tip of Cape Cod on a clear day. Sometime after midnight, about a half dozen bleary-eyed bikers leave spouses or partners or empty beds to gather at Big Fred's place for a jolt of caffeinated mud, last-minute adjustments and some idle, often unintelligible chatter. Well before dawn (about four a.m.), we click in, night lights ablaze. Our goal? To crest Red Rocks just as the sun breaks the horizon.
The riding here is snug, urban singletrack - very technical - interspersed with powerline trails, old jeep roads and ancient cow paths. We give thanks for benevolent skies and the efforts of a handful of dedicated trailbuilders who carve their vision into the hodgepodge of private, semi-public and public lands that dot the area. If the weather’s right, like it was this year, the sky is a canopy of flickering stars and fluffy clouds. We set out through our traditional shortcut - the Myopia Polo and Hunt Club. Always gives me a charge to get those hound dogs all wound up. With their yelping urging us on, we pick up the pace and head for Chebacco Road in the big rings. Bursts of mist filter though the rod-like lances of our lights as our breathing catches up to our legs.
Slicing through a little ravine to get to the other side of Chebacco Lake, I hope the stream at the bottom is only ankle deep this morning. It's been known to swallow bikes and riders whole. Our posse splashes through the run-off intact, and pace-lines to Bishop's Grave (named after an old settler, who's bones are still buried here somewhere, according to local lore). Bishop's is our race track - a winding, rutted doubletrack that, in Colonial times, may have been a major connector between the towns of Essex and Manchester. Today, surrounded by second growth hardwoods, it's a tricky but fast little rip of trail. Babyheads and booby-trapped mud bogs can quickly take out a wheel, especially in the dark, when your line might be suspect. It rewards the technically adept, and punishes those who let their focus wander.
Our 12-wheel train rumbles out of Bishop's and through Packers' Park in Manchester. Next up is the Firetower Hillclimb. In the early season, this gravel ascent, with it's steep pitch and two false summits, is pure grunt work. The late winter snowmelt chisels mini-crevasses across the hairpin turns. Traction is dubious. Still, everyone makes it to the top, heart rates maxed.
Encouraged, we drop into the Firetower Singletrack, a relatively new stretch of trailbuilding artistry. Beams of lights bounce wildly as we bob and weave over and around this ridiculously tight connect-the-dots ribbon of sod and stone. The train breaks up, with a few trials guys leaping off the front. My front wheel jams between a root and rock, and the stem slams into the inside of my thigh, just missing my naughty bits. An Easter morning miracle. We reconnect at The Pipeline, another rough jeep road known as a motocross haven and a four-wheeler graveyard. With everyone accounted for, and the sky fading from black to dark blue, we make the final hump to the granite dome of Red Rocks.
Over the years, we’ve witnessed a few I’m-pretty-damn-sure-I-can-
see-God sunrises from this bald lookout. Today, our prayers are answered again. The clouds to the east hug the horizon, bending and reflecting the light, creating a magnificent canvas of pastel pinks, oranges and reds that bleed into hazy whites and soft blues.
"Man, this is why I get up every morning," says one of our ringleaders, Jim Black, staring almost trance-like over the ocean. I pause for a moment, munching on a snack, covered in sweat, bruises and rich New England grime, and think about how lucky I am. Maybe even blessed.
After a few minutes of reflection and awkward attempts to capture the moment, the guys start getting antsy. Someone snaps Jim, who lives for these moments, out of his endorphin-induced hypnotic state. My mates saddle up. I take a mental snapshot, and we roll away. For another two hours or so we play under a dazzling Easter morning sun -- piecing together a 25-plus mile loop -- before bringing the party home for a big ol' farmer-style breakfast (well-earned, to be sure!). I survey the gleeful faces of my friends. Yes, this is definitely a celebration.