Saturday, October 17, 2009

Columbus Day Weekend in Vermont

Since I started cycling a little over a year ago, I have always enamored the idea of climbing a real mountain. Earlier this year I learned about a ride in Vermont called the Six Gap ride, a challenging 132 mile loop over six mountain passes. Columbus Day weekend coinciding with the peak in fall colors seemed to be the perfect occasion to celebrate the epilogue of a wonderful cycling season. In addition, I had the great company of my friends Ben and Olivia for the weekend, along with several members of our local cycling club, the FLCC. I left Vermont longing for more.

Six Gap Ride
Everything was fairly organized for our departure at 2:30pm from Ithaca. I got delayed because of a research meeting, but made good time getting out of the house, and managed to arrive at Ben's by 2:15pm. Ben had already disassembled his tandem for the trip. After loading the bike and bags we picked up Olivia on the Cornell campus. I was quite excited about this trip. The promise of a challenging ride with great company was something to look forward to. Perhaps the only deterrent could be the weather, which had not been very pleasant during the first two weeks of October.

Our drive to Vermont went without incident, except for a few missed turns along the way. I would rather miss some turns than have to listen to the annoying GPS voice. We made a dinner stop at the Blue Ben Diner in Bennington. The food was good and the diner quite charming. By the time we drove into Vermont it was already dark. It turns out I would see Vermont for the first time only after beginning the Six Gap ride.

Our destination was the town of Ludlow, at the base of Okemo mountain, a popular ski destination. There we would be staying with other FLCC-ers at the Trojan Horse Lodge. Ben, Olivia and I arrived shortly before 10pm I believe. We were greeted by Randy and Sam. Other FLCCers already present were Eileen and Brenda with her son Jordan. Our 132 mile ride required and early start if we had any hope of finishing in daylight. I wanted to get a decent amount of sleep before the ride, so I made sure to organize everything for the next day before chatting with others at the hostel. Unfortunately there was no internet at the hostel, but Olivia let me use her iPhone, so I was able to send out an e-mail to Patrick, a rider from Burlington that would join us for part of the ride and another to Rob, an FLCC-er that also would ride with his friend Jesse. Sam completed the list.

It was past 11pm when I managed to get in bed, after briefly speaking with Andrejs, who had arrived with his wife Diana. Andrejs was the one who suggested I stay with the FLCC touring group in Ludlow for the weekend, instead of driving out of Amherst, MA, as I had originally planned. For one, instead of driving 2h+ to the ride start in Rochester, VT, I would drive less than an hour. Furthermore, we would be able to spend some time with the other cyclists in the evening.

I woke up rather reluctantly to the alarm clock at 5am. We had to leave by 6am at the latest if we were to start at 7am. The morning was wet and cold. Drizzle was predicted for most of the morning and it would clear up during the afternoon. The good thing about driving to a ride far away is that a no-ride is not an option. I had fenders and I was really happy about that. Actually, it is difficult for me to conceive of riding without fenders in foul weather since I started using them.

The drive to Rochester was in the dark. Only once we got there did I finally get a glimpse of Vermont. After meeting up with Rob and Jesse we began our ride. First in line was Brandon Gap. It was long, but the slope was gentle. I was the first over the summit and immediately went down the other side. I must say that I like to descend more than I like to climb. The first couple of curves required full attention, but I managed to go through them without braking. Close to the bottom I slowed down to check a side road as Ben and Olivia zipped by me on the tandem. I chased and we stopped at a little store. A few minutes went by and none of the other riders showed up. I began to worry, so I decided to backtrack. I didn't get far before I saw everyone coming down the mountain. Luckily it was only a flat.

The terrain from the bottom of Brandon Gap to Middlebury Gap was mostly flat, a slight downhill I would say. We rode past Lake Dunmore on a particularly beautiful stretch of the ride. The foliage was exuberant and few cars were on the road. It was still rather cold, however. This slight inconvenience would be taken care of by the next climb.

Middlebury Gap began with a initial steep section. Sam stopped to shed some layers of clothing. The rest of us continued. Rob and I rode off the front and leap-frogged each other a few times. The climb was very long. It did level out, offering much welcomed respite. The road ran alongside a stream for most of the way up. The pleasant sound of water also meant that the summit had not been reached. The road suddenly became steep once again. Rob reached the summit and I followed shortly after. I could feel my heart beating hard. Two gaps had been conquered and four more awaited us. A few minutes later we were joined by Jesse, Sam, Ben and Olivia. The wind was blowing quite strongly on the summit. Rob was shivering. He had only brought a vest and was not even wearing tights. I offered him a wind shell jacket I carried in my Carradice Barley saddlebag, the first of many offers. He refused. As I pushed my bike towards the downhill I exclaimed "Now is time for the real fun." My Grand Bois "Cerf" tires are excellent at cornering, and I was able to comfortably let the bike go as fast as gravity allows.

We had reached the town of Hancock. There we decided to stop. I could not let pass the opportunity for a sit-down meal at the "Old Hanckock Hotel," where I enjoyed a ham and cheese sandwich along with a glass of Coca-cola. Ben was a bit skeptic of my choice for a sit-down meal, but he did not resist the temptation and ordered chili that he and Olivia shared. During lunch we heard a bit of NPR. On the way out Ben grabbed a muffin. He has been speaking wonders of that muffin ever since. Sam, Jesse and Rob opted for coffee and energy bars at the country store on the other side of the road. We were on our way to the dreaded Lincoln Gap.

The approach to Lincoln Gap road was that of a slight incline. The nature surrounding the roads was exuberant. A real treat to the senses. Patrick had planned to join us for Lincoln Gap, but I had not seen him. Just as we turned off VT100 onto Lincoln Gap Rd I saw Patrick driving his car in the opposite direction. He told us to move on that he would catch up. I had read about a quarter mile section at 25% grade. I joked with Ben, "Where is this grade? Ha ha!" In retrospect I probably should not have said that. Rob, Jesse and I rode ahead for a while. The road switched to dirt for a bit and then became paved once again. Then it became steep, very steep. I thought that a quarter mile was manageable and pushed harder than I should have. I believe I didn't get the grade quite right. The 25% grade section had not yet begun and my legs were shot. This was no good. I didn't have a low enough gear to spin and my legs didn't have the punch to grind. What to do? I considered giving up, but then I started doing switchbacks. This alleviated the grade a bit, but even then I could barely manage to continue. I needed rest, but I could not stop! In order to give my legs a little bit of a break I started doing circles. I would climb a bit, then ride perpendicular to the road, go down a bit and then turn around. This gave my legs enough rest to keep on going. Every glance up the road confirmed the climb would not be over soon. First Rob, then Patrick, and Sam passed me towards the top of the climb. Finally Ben, Olivia and Jesse also passed me. Then, all of a sudden it was over. This certainly was the closest I have come to giving up on a climb. I had started the climb too quickly and drained my reserves too early. In the end I made it, and now was time to go down. What an awesome descent! The beginning was very steep with many tight curves on dirt. I demanded a lot from my brakes and they performed superbly. Along the way I stopped for a few pictures. Ben and Olivia were the first to join me. Once the rest of the group caught up we continued our ride towards the Appalachian Gap, finish line of the Green Mountain Stage Race.

At this time the clouds had moved elsewhere. The sun was shining in a blue sky. It still was cold at about 2pm and we had three gaps to climb. It would be difficult to finish the ride in daylight, but we had lights, so I was not too worried. We decided to keep stops to a minimum. Our next stop was just pass Baby App Gap, at a country store. There I bought some water, Gatorade and maple sugar. About a mile after we left the store Patrick got a flat. He urged us to continue. After his showing on Lincoln Gap, I was not worried at all. App Gap is a great climb. Only towards the end does it get uncomfortably steep. Even then, you are able to see the summit, so there is no deceit. Best of all, along the way the markings from the Green Mountain Stage Race were still there, so you knew how far you were from the top. I didn't resist and had to lift my arms as in a victory salute as I crossed the finish line, i.e., reached the summit. Rob followed and then Patrick, Jesse, Ben and Olivia joined us. The view from the summit was quite spectacular and well worth the effort to get there. Almost as spectacular was the ensuing descent. Tons of fun.

The day was growing old and it was quite clear we would either have to ride in the dark or cut the ride short. We opted for the former. After a brief stop at a convenience store we made way towards Warren, on the foot of the Roxbury Gap climb, fifth on the list. In Warren Patrick wished us luck and drove back to Burlington. Unlike the previous gaps, Roxbury had little to no traffic. On this ride there were no easy climbs. Roxbury had a sustained grade up to the top, with a little kick at the end. This time there were no markings to indicate the summit. Not that they were really necessary. A wicked descent was visible from the summit. The sun was now low on the horizon, illuminating the valley below. As had been customary, we regrouped at the summit and took a quick break. I had been drinking chocolate milk on almost every summit. A great treat. The tandem flew down the mountain and I followed as close as I could. At the bottom we had just one gap left. It was getting dark.

We were able to reach the town of Randolph, close to the beginning of the last of the gaps, Rochester Gap, still in twilight. There we refilled our water bottles and had a bit of food. I put on some reflective gear and a light on my helmet, in addition to my dynamo powered headlight. Rob finally took up my offer on the jacket. He was shivering and the jacket would help him stay warm. Unfortunately we would not be able to enjoy the view from Rochester Gap, so there is not much to say about that. On the other hand, there is some to say about the climb. It is long! Not terribly steep. In honesty, after Lincoln Gap, the other gaps are not as hard.

We did it! All of us were pretty happy at the end of the ride, and tired, and hungry. But we had all climbed the gaps, no one had walked, although I came close. In Rochester we took celebration pictures and parted ways. Ben, Olivia and I arrived in Ludlow just in time for some soup. We spoke with others at the hostel and then went for a stroll in Ludlow. The soup was great, but we needed more food. A local indicated a bar that served food until late. We shared a veggie pizza and cajun fries. Not a crumb was left.

Dirt Road Ride
The next day Ben, Olivia and I took it easy. We allowed ourselves to enjoy a good night of sleep. Late in the morning we drove to Quechee for the Annual Ibex tent sale. Ibex sells wool clothing, including cycling jerseys, bibs, shorts and other items. We made great purchases and were eager to ride in our new clothes. The owner of the bike shop in Ludlow, Mountain Cycology, really took the time to talk to us. Ben and him discussed tandems extensively. We then asked for some ride tips. Specifically, we were interested in a dirt road ride. He suggested a 30+ mile loop with a climb into the Coolidge State Forest. With a map in hands we stopped at the local bagel place for lunch before we began our ride a little late, at about 3:40pm. It turns out our timing was perfect. After a tough climb on dirt, we were rewarded with a view of mountain tops everywhere. The foliage was beautiful and the sun low on the horizon made for great pictures. I savored every moment. A sequence of fast descents brought us back to Ludlow just in time for Eileen's delicious lasagna. Dinner was complemented by a visit to the local ice cream shop.

The next day we drove back to Ithaca. The weekend was wonderful, but I wished it had lasted longer. I will return to Vermont, I am sure.

Information on the Six Gap Ride
Patrick's Pics

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hey Juan,

Another great write-up of a superb ride! One of your more memorable lines: "Even then, you are able to see the summit, so there is no deceit."
Your technique of doing "circles" on a steep ascent so as to rest your legs is quite ingenious.
Thanks for mentioning the Cerf tires.

As ever, John