Shortly after our 2019 Taste the Catskills ride, Curt mentioned he wanted to ride the Green Mountain Gravel Growler, a 250-mile bikepacking route that links iconic Vermont breweries. I was 100% interested but not able to commit. Apparently no one else was either so it never came together. But the seed had been planted and we started to make plans for this year.
2020 has thrown plenty of curveballs, including having to have my gallbladder removed in June. Even laparoscopically, this is major surgery that required 4-6 weeks off the bike. I spent the end of July, August, and early September rebuilding my strength and endurance – and researching and dialing in my gear for the ride. We also monitored travel guidance to ensure we were in compliance with Vermont travel requirements due to the coronavirus pandemic. For us, this meant self-quarantine in our homestate before traveling.
The first rule of bikepacking is Pack Light (or as light as you can). Originally we planned to bring summer-weight sleeping bags, but as it got closer to the ride, the overnight temps were plummeting towards 30*F so bringing a down sleeping bag (i.e., staying warm) became the priority. While I don’t think I brought an excess of things I didn’t use, my gear isn’t necessarily designed for anything but car camping. I had my shop install a rack and I used the panniers I bought several years ago for bike commuting.
(AFTER I got home, I weighed everything and discovered I had been hauling around at least 27 pounds of gear, food, and clothing. TOO MUCH!! This will be an important factor later in the ride.)
Day 1 – The Easy Day
Exiting Burlington was a combination of bike lanes and multi-use paths and far too many turns – but once we got out of civilization, the number of cars declined and the dirt dialed up. The route was mostly flat until we climbed out of Waterbury towards Stowe. The last 12 miles of the day was a portent of things to come.
The scenery was amazing and pedaling along pristine dirt roads so packed they were like pavement was a nice entry to the ride. We rode a short section of singletrack before deciding to stick to the road with our loads that were less than compatible with the agility singletrack demands. Also, pushing our loaded bikes up a steep incline to get back to the road was ridiculously hard.
We lunched at Stone Corral on the patio and were very careful to wear masks and use santizer when we didn’t have access to soap and water. The food was good and the first pint was had. Well, Curt had a beer. I’m just along for the ride and the adventure. On one of the phenomenal descents, Curt yelled for me to stop. Something was not right with his bike. He tightened up his headset, but I noticed his front skewer looked off. Turns out it wasn’t closed and tight. A few seconds later, we were back to descending … safely this time.
We arrived at our intended campground right on target, got set up, and then rode into town for dinner. It was chilly that evening and the down sleeping bags were very much worth their weight so far.
Day 2 – The Longest Day
Curt is an early riser, so by the time I rolled out of my tent at 7:15am, he already had enjoyed a cup of coffee. I am Not A Morning Person so I had to set my alarm clock to wake up in time to eat, get dressed, pack up, and roll out by 9am. The way we had divided up the route, this was going to be the longest day for miles. The route also had several significant climbs and more singletrack, which we knew would bring our average speed down significantly.
Unfortunately, my isopro fuel ran out while making coffee so when we got to the singletrack section, we opted to backtrack to the road and go into town to see if we could find fuel (and hopefully gain some time back into the day). Stowe Hardware to the rescue! Back to the road and the climbs that awaited us.
The climbs were slow but the descents were fantastic. The full load on the rear transformed my bike into a freight train and I had to scrub speed constantly to keep from flying out of control. Any bump or jostle, especially at speed, disrupted the weight balance and required conscious effort to keep in control. We passed through the first of several covered bridges and enjoyed lunch on the patio at Lost Nation Brewing.
With no campgrounds near our end point, we stopped by the Hardwick police station to ask for their recommendation (and let them know we’re here camping). They recommended a town park that turned out to be perfect. We set up camp and watched the sun set across the pond before turning in the night to avoid the mosquitos.
Day 3 – The Hardest Day
The temps didn’t drop until about 4am, at which point my down bag felt like a good choice. Or was I looking for reasons to justify bringing a bulky bag on this trip? I just knew I didn’t want to spend nights cold and sleepless because there’s no “out” on this trip, no calling to get picked up by a sympathetic spouse. Today was going to be tough, as the route was shorter but the climbing was still intense.
We rolled out under cooler temps to the Hardwick Village Market for more water and supplies. The employees there were super kind and helpful – if you are in the area, Hardwick is good people!
The route gods had a good belly laugh at our loaded folly when we started up an ATV road that as littered with boulders and washouts – and pitched skyward. This is where I learned that pushing my 80-bazillion pound loaded bike was actually more work than riding mechanically speaking. The energy to keep it upright in the conditions would have been too much though. So we hike-a-biked it where we needed and rode where we could.
It took us 2 hours to cover the first 12 miles of the day.
Lunch was in Montpelier at Three Penny Taproom. While we waited for our outdoor table, we stopped in at Onion River Outdoors and I had the guys check my brakes (and picked up a set of spare pads). ORO also runs the Muddy Onion Spring Classic, which is an excellent event that you should totally sign up for when events can run again. You can read about my experiences in 2017 and 2018. Montpelier is also good people.
We decided to once again skip singletrack sections where we could to try to make time to our destination, Waitsfield. We knew we’d either be camping in a town park again or trying to find a room at an inn and wanted to finish before dark.
Important to this route is paying attention to the names of the roads. Anything with “hill” in it usually has a substantial climb. So Hill Rd as our first climb out of Montpelier was peak Truth In Advertising. As we came up to Bear Barn Rd, I was running out of gas and decided to walk the steepest portions of the hill.
Being a rural area, there was a young girl on a quad riding up and down Bearn Barn Rd. She smiled and nodded at me and I reciprocated, a tip of the hat to a fellow female doing bad ass things. She became my spirit guide for this challenging hill as she kept tabs on Curt and I as we slowly pedaled up the hill. When the road ended in a class 4 two-track, she helpfully told us “it gets really steep near the top.” I smiled and thanked her, said we would be OK with that. She smiled and ran off with her dog while we continued onward.
The two-track quickly turned into a gnarly jeep road that did indeed get very steep as we approached the top. Much of this time was hike-a-bike again – which meant further wrestling my overloaded bike over significant chunk and boulders erupting from the earth. Curt mused that the other side was probably not the smooth descent we were hoping for.
It wasn’t. The descent was so steep and littered with rocks, logs, roots, washouts, ruts, and debris that it became perilous to try to ride it. So I ended up wrestling my overloaded bike DOWN the chunky descent. Whenever I tried to ride, the weight on the back of my bike made staying in control and using finesse to navigate the features nearly impossible. Knowing we still had to get through this -and a few more miles- and still find a place to sleep with only one more hour of daylight left- safety took priority.
The route then dumped us onto a class 4 road that was overgrown and had a few blowdowns to navigate (and thankfully no electric fences). Here is where is started to rain. We debated putting on our rain jackets or just leaving our vests on. We opted to not open up our bags to the rain and continued on. When we got to an actual dirt road, Curt noticed something was wrong with his front brake. It had loosened up to the point where it was about to fall off. He tightened the screws and we continued on.
After a long day of wrestling our loads over chunky terrain, we decided to stay at an inn. The first few places we phoned didn’t have any availability, but we did find one that had rooms available and booked online from the parking lot of another inn that didn’t have room for us. We biked over to Mad Taco and phoned in our order from the parking lot. It was dark and we were cold with sweaty gear when we arrived at Lareau Farm Inn as the only guests. A hot shower and a comfortable bed awaited us.
Day 4 – The Highest Day (or The Day That Broke Me)
Soul Asylum sang about being so tired that you can’t sleep and that was my experience. I didn’t get to sleep – real, deep, restful sleep – until around 3am and we were up at 7:30am for breakfast at 8. The proprietor was our chef and the whole wheat pancakes with berries sounded good but too sweet so I asked for scrambled eggs. This was my first mistake of the day, as I really should have just had the pancakes for the carbs. I also ended up eating the farm-made sausage, which I knew was going to mess up my digestive system but didn’t want to be rude. So no carb breakfast before a significant climbing day is Not Smart.
We lubed our chains and headed out under cloudy skies to be met with a decent hill within a few miles. I was climbing slower than the previous days, but attributed that to it being Day 4 and how much effort we had expended the day prior. My legs were stiff and it took a few miles for the ligaments in my left knee to soften enough to pedal without soreness. Soon we found ourselves at the base of the Lincoln Gap.
Knowing I would be climbing very slowly and possibly pushing my bike, we agreed to meet at the top. Curt was able to ride the entire Gap by switchbacking the whole way up as cars allowed. I had to hop off as soon as it started to get steep and ended up pushing my bike the final 2 miles to the top.
Pushing my loaded bike over the Lincoln Gap is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. The grades pitch to 20% and are unrelenting. The road would be challenging on an unladen bike; coupled with my load, I ended up pushing for 100 feet or so and then taking a break. Push, stop, catch breath. Push, stop, catch breath. Repeat for a half hour.
Once at the top, I was destroyed. We sat in the grass for a while until I had eaten enough to feel like I could continue on. This was mistake #2, as I only refilled what had been depleted.
A few miles later, Curt noticed I was climbing even slower so we took a break beside a pasture. I laid in the grass for a few minutes before deciding I needed to eat something. Curt also said I should eat something. I dug up a protein bar and started to nibble.
“How do you feel?”
I’m out in the middle of nowhere with no cell service, completely bonked, and with no options but to keep pedaling. Exactly my worst fear for the trip come to fruition. And by my own hand.
We decide to abandon the route in favor of getting into Middlebury for food and descended on a beautiful dirt road that followed the river. I remembered the fruit slices candy in my pocket and ate those to try to keep going. We found a sandwich place, but I couldn’t eat. I sipped ginger ale and tried to find an Uber back to Burlington. No cars available. We decide to ride to the campground we found on the map and see if we could get set up so I could relax.
6 miles later, we arrive at the campground and are told we can’t stay because the bathrooms are closed. I’m wrecked. Curt is handling everything at this point and for that I am grateful. He calls the only hotel in Bristol and reserves two rooms. 5 more miles. I put a few more candies in my mouth, take a swig of ginger ale, and pedal on.
Robin the Innkeeper (Bristol Suites) met us at the front door and got us in our first floor rooms immediately. Of course you can bring your bikes into the rooms. The rooms are good size, well appointed, and very clean. I take a cool shower and decide to keep nibbling on ClifBars to stabilize and hopefully eat my sandwich. Curt heads out for a burger and beer. I’m able to get to a place of feeling stable and fall asleep by 7:30pm.
Day 5 – The Homestretch (or The Day I Tapped Out)
By the grace of a deity, I wake up at 7:26am and panic because I forgot to set an alarm for Saturday. We’re meeting at 8am for breakfast, mostly ready to go. My stuff is still strewn everywhere from the day prior. I get everything packed up , clean up, throw on my bibshorts under my joggers and t shirt, put on flip flops and head across the street to the Bristol Cliffs Cafe.
Bristol is a quintessential Vermont small town, rimmed with mountains that were ablaze with autumn foliage and turn-of-the-twentieth-century buildings on the downtown block. I have been to several Vermont towns but never felt so comfortable. It was a truly magical morning moment, the kind you daydream about when thinking about your next adventure.
After getting my egg & cheese on a bagel (carbs with my protein breakfast!) and coffee (Curt got pancakes again), we walked to the town park to enjoy breakfast. I was feeling hollow still but hoped breakfast would satiate me and allow me to finish strong.
“You have to finish that.”
“I know I do.”
I got 3/4 of the way through my sandwich.
We decide to take the shortest route to Burlington because I’m suffering. All road, no more dirt. Minimal hills. Only 30 miles. A few hours. I can do this.
6 miles later I am nauseated and feeling lightheaded. We pause at mile 10 and I eat a little more. I re-stabilize and we push on, but Curt notices I’m riding slower on the flats now as well as the hills. He pulls over at mile 12 and I follow suite.
“Curt, I’ve got nothing left. I have to be done.”
We take a few minutes for me to eat and drink and I’m not stabilizing. I am so far into the red I’m wondering if there is a color deeper that that for the hole I’ve dug myself. Curt walks up to the nearest house to ask if they will call a taxi for me, which they do without any question. Taxi will be here in 30 minutes. We move ourselves next to their driveway and wait. I nibble a ClifBar and eat ClifBloks and sip my water. My arms and legs are tingling. By the time the taxi arrives, I am feeling stable again – but I know better than to try to do anything. Curt and the taxi driver load my bike into the minivan.
I thank Curt profusely for taking care of me and tell him I will text him when I get to my car, when I am leaving Burlington, and when I get home. He finishes the ride solo.
Once back at my car, I get changed and it saps my energy again. I gas up, pick up snacks to nibble on and a ginger ale to sip, and begin my drive home. A few hours later I feel well enough to finish my egg & cheese bagel, a short can of Pringles, and four Nature’s Bakery fig bars. I’m singing along to the songs as I drive. Just stopping the ride was a good place to start recovering. We ordered in pizza when I got home and I fell asleep surrounded by my very happy dogs.
As I sit here at home, doing my best to do as little as humanly possible and eat small amounts frequently … What an amazing adventure! This was far harder than I expected, in no small way compounded by my own errors of not ruthlessly packing light, not eating enough, and underestimating how long it would take to get through some of the gnarliest bits. I know better but sometimes I think it won’t matter as much – and I am basically wrong.
And maybe a small part is taking on a challenge like this only 3.5 month after major abdominal surgery that has altered my digestion. Even using digestive enzymes with each meal, I’m not positive my body was processing the fuel I was giving it optimally.
Our timing couldn’t have been more perfect for great weather and near-peak foliage. Although it could have gone in either direction (too hot or too cold), I think it would be better to do this ride in early September to go as light as possible if camping.
I need to review my gear list and figure out what could have been left at home and what needs to be replaced with lighter or smaller gear should I want to do something like this again. My 2p tent was 5 pounds, each pannier was 11 pounds, plus I had my sleeping bag and a self-inflating sleeping pad. Too Much Weight.
For sure, the best way to experience this route would be a credit card tour – book a room at your final destination so you don’t have to worry about bringing more than a few things. If it doesn’t fit in the handlebar bag, framebag, or seatpost bag, it shouldn’t come along. Or – have someone be your SAG with all your gear and meet you along the way for water, supplies, and keeping the ride as efficient as possible.
I’m looking forward to doing this route again, possibly extending the trip and recalibrating daily stopping points to accommodate the time it takes to clear the class 4 and singletrack sections. Also, if you are looking to do this route and hit up as many breweries as possible, you will need to factor that into your time to complete each day.
See you out there!