So I’m leaving tomorrow for a second shot at the Green Mountain Gravel Growler, an epic adventure in north-central Vermont. My brain alternates between “you got this, girl!” to “wtf are you doing?”
Readers may remember last year’s ride, which was deeply influenced by a few key factors:
Limited bikepacking experience (it was my 4th bikepacking ride)
overpacking (27-30 pounds of anxiety packing)
Not eating enough quick-energy snacks on the hills
digestive issues, directly related to …
having major abdominal surgery 3 months prior
While I had an amazing time on the ride last year, I’ve been pretty hard on myself for calling a taxi 18 miles from finishing the route. I have zero regrets about this, as I remember how deeply bonked I was, and used this vulnerable moment to inform my adventures this past year … but I also feel I have unfinished business with the Gravel Growler.
My girlfriends tease me about being a Finisher, but there’s an element of truth there. I want to finish what I started last year.
This year I spent a lot of time working on my bikepacking skills, starting in April with a local overnight and culminating in late July with the Cross-New Hampshire Adventure Trail: how to pack lighter, how to decide what to leave at home, how to dispersed-camp, how to know your route enough to know where other options are when your plan A doesn’t pan out.
I did another local overnight in August but have been focused on just riding and keeping the legs prepped. I have spent hours pouring over the map, dialing in contingency plans and writing down notes in case cell service is absent when we need it most.
This year, my friend Jess is flying in from Colorado to join me on this trip. To keep things light, we decided to shift from camping to lodging along the route. I think this will be a key benefit, as the weather forecast has two days of steady rain in the middle of the ride. If Brattleboro taught me anything, it’s having a warm shower and bed to sleep in is amazing after a day in the rain.
That and bringing spare brake pads in case we need to put in fresh ones after a rainy, dirty day.
I just weighed my bags for the trip … 16 pounds. A good chunk of that though is quick-energy snacks for the whole trip plus a few extra. Understanding this isn’t totally necessary as we can stop along the way to get food at convenience stores and local markets, it’s giving me psychological safety. And the load will get lighter over time.
Bottom line, I have three goals for this year:
Have fun, one day at a time
eat the damn pancakes
finish the ride happy, healthy, and feeling accomplished
A low rumble sounded. I’m pedaling up Old Cherry Mountain Road into White Mountain National Forest, enjoying the stunning forest gently hugging the dirt road, squarely centered on being fully present in this moment. My friends are out of sight behind me, but not worried … we’ll all regroup at the top.
That’s interesting, I didn’t realize there was a logging operation nearby.
A short distance later, the low rumble sounds again.
That’s not loggingoperations. That’s a thunderstorm. We need to set up camp NOW.
A few years back my friend Karen sent me a website for the Cross New Hampshire Adventure Trail (XNHAT). At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information other than a Map My Ride link and a few pages with trail conditions, including that ATVs had chewed up a section of the rail trail pretty badly. We put this in our back pockets for a future adventure when more information was available – but it was appealing because of the gentle rail trail grades, lots of dirt, and biking across New Hampshire.
Earlier this year I saw the Northern White Mountains Overnight Loop (NWM Loop) on Bikepacking.com and immediately wanted to do the ride for the scenery. But with a 6 hour drive to the start, I needed a bit more to make it worth the drive.
Karen, our friend Ashley, and I originally planned to ride the Brattleboro Loop from bikepacking.com but as the year progressed and the weather was persistently rainy, we decided to find something more in line with a Type I fun trip.
Enter the mashup of the XNHAT and NWM Loop: start from Woodsville, NH (a mere 4 hours from my house) and ride to Maine and back with the scenic NWM Loop hooked in on the eastbound ride over 3 days (2 nights). My friend Jean also joined us.
Day One Highlights
The Ammonoosuc Rail Trail isn’t your typical rail train in that it allows OHRV/ATVs. The gravel can get deep and chunky at times as well as significant washboarding. Wider tires help, but our hands were continually going numb from the vibrations.
The bridges and trestles are wide and well maintained, offering stunning views along the river
Seeing a buck running through the river. We watched for a bit to make sure a bear wasn’t chasing it before continuing on.
Covered Bridge at Bath
Old Train station in Lisbon
Lunch at Littleton Diner
Getting caught in a pop up rain storm leaving Littleton
11 miles of exposed pavement (Route 116) from Littleton to Whitefield is by far the least enjoyable part of the journey.
The shoulder is wide, but it’s a busy road with lots of logging trucks and virtually no shade or opportunities for shelter when weather changes
Deciding to pick up extra water in Whitefield since we intended to dispersed camp in White Mountain National Forest
Getting caught in another pop-up rainstorm as we leave Whitefield. This has got to be a record year for rainfall in the Northeast.
Back on quiet backroads and the start of actual climbing, not the gentle rail trail grades we’ve been enjoying so far
Old Cherry Mountain Rd is a fantastic climb into White Mountain National Forest
checking dispersed campsite after campsite and finding them all occupied. Feeling disheartened, but also that we need to get set up quickly because a thunderstorm is approaching.
Recalling there is a campground at the bottom of the descent … and going up to the front door of the house to see if we can get a site …. quickly
Spending the next hour on their covered front porch while thunderstorms form, merge, and then move south … while another forms in its place and dumping lots and lots of rain.
Fortunately the campground had hot showers for the coldest among us … and the owners brought us firewood so we could have a fire
Setting up camp, enjoying dinner and laughter by the fire
Everything is somehow still wet from overnight – but the temps are rapidly rising and drying things off
checking the weather forecast and realizing Sunday is 95% chance of .5″ of rain and by heading westbound, we won’t see any tapering off. Sunday is our longest day, an expected 65 miles on the Presidential Rail Trail, Route 116, and Ammonoosuc Rail Trails.
Making the decision to finish the NWM Loop portion of the route and then head back to the cars for a total of 57 miles for the day.
It’s hot. We take frequent breaks in the shade
Turning left onto Jefferson Notch Rd and feeling relieved to see it’s a gorgeous shaded dirt road
Everyone taking the climb at their own pace
SO HOT at the summit!! Photos, food, quick break in the shade, then 6 miles downhill
Learning the Presidential Rail Trail is significantly more rustic than the Ammonoosuc Rail Trail. But the views!!
The heat is starting to get to some in the group so we start taking frequent breaks in whatever shade we can find
Whitefield Market for food and time in the A/C
lunch in the shady grass at the center common park was peak bike adventure happiness
Back on Route 116, which is still really exposed but now really hot as well
Arriving in Littleton and deciding to head to the river and put our feet in
GAME CHANGER! The river was so refreshing and cool.
It’s all downhill from here, with gravity gently pulling our bikes a little faster
Arriving back at our cars tired, dirty, sweaty, and happy for the overnight adventure with girl friends
Pro Tips & Takeaways
Align expectations prior to the start. Want to stop for photos and ice cream? Prefer to heads-down hammer between resupply stops? Be open and honest about this. Not everyone knew each other on this trip and talking over dinner about what we hoped to get from this trip put us all in the same mindset so we could have an amazing time together.
Be sure to “train” and acclimate. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know “training” generally means finding something similar to what you’re about to do and doing that a few times before the trip. If you prefer a training plan, knock yourself out.
This includes in all kinds of conditions – hot, cold, rain, exposure, shade. Know how your body reacts and how to adjust on the ride. And if the situation goes sideways, always prioritize health over schedules or expectations. Do not put yourself in a dangerous place for whatever perceived “glory” you’ll get from the trip.
Planning is essential for any adventure – know options and have back up plans.
We expected to camp at the dispersed campsites but they were already claimed with no one around to ask if we could share the site. Thankfully we had scoped a campground on the planning map that had room for us for the night.
Also changing our plans due to weather. Much easier to consider because we knew where the route option points were and distance between towns/resupply.
Prioritize packing for health and safety on the trip. Literally putting out legs in the ice cold river helped relieve the heat of the day and provided a nice respite.
Creature Comforts are important too!
Box Wine was worth the weight while around the campfire the first night
As were the Helinox and Z-chairs. The deluge had made everything at the campsite completely soaked – having a dry place to sit and warm ourselves by the fire was amazing
Rail Trail grades are appealing – but know the energy consumption increases as the surface gets progressively more rustic. Long stretches at a 1-2% incline can also sap energy reserves! Fuel appropriately and consider tire choice before heading out.
Not every adventure has to be EXTREME. Be safe, have fun, pick two.
total gear+supplies weight estimated at 24 pounds bike weight estimated at 25 pounds
The Bike & The Packs
Salsa Cutthroat GRX600, size 52 modifications: 11-40 cassette Teravail Rutland 42mm <– very pleased at the low rolling resistance and good traction in the chunk Salsa bolt-on framebag Revelate Designs Pronghorn Harness w/small drybag <–no impediment to shifters and minimized overpacking Revelate Designs Egress Pocket Revelate Designs Nano Panniers Revelate Designs Gas Can Topeak Explore MTB rack Sea to Summit eVent waterproof compression sack, Medium (14L) 26oz water bottles, mounted to fork 17oz collapsible Platypus bottle for extra water on Day 2
I spend entirely too much time on Bikepacking.com looking at routes and daydreaming about the pleasures of exploring time and space with everything I need loaded to my bicycle. As a subscriber of their print publication as well, there’s a regular feed of tales from the road that fuel my desire to truly experience the details of where we live. Less blazing my own path forward and more leaning in to those who know the best roads and the great places to stop for a meal to see the very best of what the location has to offer.
After tackling (and being humbled by) the Green Mountain Gravel Growler last fall, I decided to scale back and focus on building my skillset on overnights and 3 day adventures. Fortunately Roundabout Brattleboro registered as a great way to experience a mini-GMGG … and my adventure partner was totally game for a shorter route that fits nicely in a 3-day weekend.
In the ten days leading up to the trip however, it became apparent that Mother Nature was not planning to cooperate for the second long holiday weekend in a row. The first being Memorial Day weekend, which Curt and I had planned to ride the Delaware County Catskills Dirt Circuit but canceled due to rain and cold. The forecast called for two of the three days to be a steady rain with the third day a toss-up. Determined to stick to the plan despite the rain, we pivoted from camping to booking lodging in Wilmington and Londonderry. 80% less packed gear was nice!
Growing up, any time it was raining and I didn’t want to go outside, my mom would remind me I’m not made of sugar so I won’t melt if I get wet. So I dubbed this trip the Not Made of Sugar edition.
Day One: Where the Hills ArE
Making a conscious decision to ride bikes for at least 48 hours with up to 2″ of rain expected
the woman riding a unicycle under an umbrella, looking super unphased by the weather
Climbing 3,200′ in the first 24 miles felt much more accessible than it sounds
Running into a solo bikepacker on the same loop with full camping gear at lunch in Jacksonville
Coffee and warm sandwiches for lunch
Spillway at Harriman Reservoir
Catamount XC Trail is a GEM that should be savored
Replacing our disc brake pads before setting out (due to the wet and dirt from Day One)
Deciding to skip Castle Brook Rd since conditions were subpar on even the dirt roads (pretty soupy to peanut buttery)
Arriving at USFS 325 and deciding to remain on Forest Road 71 for above reasons (we missed the bus because of this decision)
Forest Road 71 is actually very lovely
A group of guys at a dispersed campsite with a huge fire going, asking if we wanted to come hang out with them and their red solo cups (and other altering substances)
Sitting at the gate for IP Road, weighing an up to 2 hour slog through mud or sticking to the road to make up time and get to resupply (and potential warmth)
Low traffic backroads climbing Stratton south to north with our rain jacket hoods down for the first time in the trip
Descending into Winhall in a blinding rainshower (funny how weather can be different on opposite sides of a mountain)
Seeing our fellow bikepacker at Winhall Market. He confirmed camping was super soggy and the trails were muddy.
More coffee and a sandwich on the front porch swing, shivering in the rain
Lovely dirt along the Winhall and West rivers
Deciding to head into Londonderry to the bike shop to get another pair of brake pads (sadly, they didn’t have the specific brake pad my bike needed – but the rain stopped and the sun came out!)
Another hot shower, short walk to a tavern for dinner on the patio, and comfortable bed at the Snowdon Chalet
Day Three: Where Redemption is FounD
The weather gods have smiled upon our sacrifice and provided a perfect day for our final leg of the journey – mid-60s, partly cloudy, no rain
Coffee and continental breakfast on the motel porch to strategize the day, mist artfully decorating the mountain tops
Knowing today’s route trended downhill on long stretches of backroads
Most importantly, FRESH BIBSHORTS today!
Route 121 at mile 94ish was a little slice of heaven
early stop at Grafton Market for pre-lunch. Enjoyed half and decided to go for the final off-road section
Ledge Rd is a GEM that also should be savored.
We didn’t see our fellow bikepacker but we did see his tracks
Brookline/Grassy Brook Rd featured a gentle incline to mile 118, then it’s all downhill to the end
Eating the rest of our wraps on the side of the road, bike propped against a split rail fence while we soak in the farmland
Finishing on the beautiful Quarry Rd and the West River Trail
Plan ahead – but be flexible and adapt plans to conditions. Research your route, watch the weather, and adjust along the way. Knowing when to deviate from the plan in favor of health, safety, and fun is key. Pivoting from camping in the rain to lodging, making route edits along the way to save energy and time exposed to the elements, meant stripping away a layer of survival that was unnecessary for a three-day trip. Be safe, have fun. Pick two.
Bring extra maintenance items, especially on wet and muddy trips. Curt brought a can of WD40 to keep our derailleurs functioning. Checking and replacing our brake pads on Day Two meant we could continue our journey safely.
Pack for the weather. Curt’s fashion choice of rubber banded plastic bags over his shoes kept his feet warm and dry on Day One. We also brought extra socks for each day. I definitely wished I’d brought a thermal long sleeve instead of just a regular long sleeve jersey to better retain my core warmth. It was a tough call though – day two was supposed to be in the 60s, not the 50s, when I drove up to Vermont. Certainly had room in my pack for the “extra weight” of a warmer jersey and it wouldn’t have been terrible to have that option.
Water Resistant is NOT Water Proof. Know the difference. Packing my items in freezer zip-lock style bags kept everything in my panniers dry despite 2″ of rain and riding through muddy conditions. Side benefit: using quart sizes kept everything modular and organized!
Lube your downtown. Wet conditions mean extra chafing opportunities as skin gets waterlogged. Don’t skimp on the chamois cream if you know you’ll be out in the rain all day.
Eat, eat, eat. The best nutrition plan for me has been to start eating an energy bar within the first hour of riding and keep eating a bite every few miles. Eat real food as often as possible. Do not underestimate the restorative powers of coffee, pickles, and potato chips.
Fantastic adventure overall! Joe Cruz routes combine scenery with challenging terrain to create an uniquely amazing adventure. Guaranteed to be the best roads and trails available! Do not underestimate these routes though … enjoy the time spent experiencing the textures of the land.
Curt and I are already talking about our next trip and strategizing the GMGG Redux planned for this fall. We even created a day-trip loop to go back and bag the two trails we skipped this time due to conditions.
Many fun adventures begin with a text from your friend asking if you want to do something crazy. So I took a day off work, loaded up my bike, and we hit the road for a bike overnight.
I was deeply apprehensive going into this trip. 50-ish miles a day turned into 65. A fair amount of climbing (5,000′) on day one. Resupply every 35 miles or so. Coming off the epic bonk of Green Mountain Gravel Growler has been second-guessing everything. Will I be ok?
But my imagination is more powerful than my fear and I know my friend wouldn’t ask if he didn’t think I could do it. And worse comes to worse, it’s only a 2 hour wait if my husband needs to pick me up.
Highlights from the Overnight
Pavement involves radiant heat as well (I tend to forget this since I ride mostly on shaded dirt roads)
Quiet backroads lined by adorable farms
Having a bee somehow find its way under the chest strap of my heart rate monitor and having to disassemble my jersey/bib/baselayer combo on the side of the road to get it out
Relaxing in the shade because it’s hot
Bananas are game changers, especially if you can’t find pickles
So are bathrooms where you can “free up some space” without having to dig a cathole
AT through-hikers at the market. They started walking back in February!
unexpected dirt roads!
fresh thick gravel for miles (thanks MassDOT)
Stop for supplies and a break at the Great Barrington Food Co-Op
big climb and then …
Climbing out of the nature preserve in search of a place to set up camp for the night
we saw a porcupine!
Listening to the birds slowly wind down for the night, snuggled into my sleeping bag
Day 2 begins! Fortunately today Trends Down
unexpected adventure road, complete with dicey bridge
Mill River General Store & Post Office – a must stop!! Chat with the old men who run the store and ask about the mugs with names on them
Mile 95 – start climbing again after 30 miles of basically downhill
riding by a field where hay was being cut …
having a truck pass, flinging cut hay into our faces. hello allergies!
Mile 100 overall – feeling tired and ready to stop. Rest and eat a ClifBar in the shade
Realizing we’re just about at the top of the day’s climb so … keep going
North Kent Rd, fully loaded, downhill. Check Your Brakes!
sit-down food in Kent … only 15 miles to go
racing a rain shower to the end (although the cloud cover cooled us down and felt amazing)
Overall, super success. It’s still early in the season, so I’m happy to be able to have a successful long-day bikepacking overnight under my belt. I’ve accumulated enough gear now that I can put together a lightweight (15lb) setup and hit the road fairly quickly. And heading out was a reminder that it IS about the journey, real foods are better than cramming “sports nutrition” in your face all day, and take the time to connect to the people you meet along the way.
Next time I’ll probably just mount the rack back on my bike. We had to transport a gallon of water from town to where we finally set up camp and it was much easier to strap it to Curt’s rack than anywhere on my bike. Plus my sleeping bag didn’t fit anywhere so I strapped it to the top of my seatpost bag – but it kept shifting no matter how tightly I secured the straps. As a small-framed bike rider, the extra capacity and stability a rack provides will be vital for carrying unexpected necessities.
I also picked up a Helinox ground chair but didn’t bring it. Definitely wished I had carried the 1.4 lb chair while sitting on a pointy rock to eat dinner. haha
This past weekend my friend Anna and I put together a last-minute bikepacking trip to a local county park … for one night. I booked the campsite, threw together a quick route, about 25 miles each way with different roads, and scrambled to get my bike packed up the night before.
Isn’t that a lot of effort for not a lot of payoff?
Sure. And because it’s only (basically) 24 hours or less, one can experiment with minimalism and going as light as possible. Do I need this for the next 24 hours? No? Awesome – not being packed.
For this overnight, I wanted to try out a few things:
38mm GravelKing SK tires (vs the 2.2″ Teravails that come stock on the Cutthroat that I’ve previously used for bikepacking)
Narrower Tires. For this trip, we had mostly pavement and smooth hardpack with the only chunky gravel in the county park. The narrower tires kept things light and quick, especially when the road started tilting upward. The narrower set up was squirrely in the chunky gravel so if this had been a longer trip, I may have switched to the 2″ tires for the added plushness and stability.
Compression Sack for front harness. I was able to cram my tent, sleeping attire, rain jacket, and a few other items into the compression sack and then smoosh it down to fit between my bars. Being able to thread the front harness straps through the compression straps felt more secure than my usual dry bag.
Inflatable sleep pad. I have only used the self-inflating kind so this was new. The Thermarest was extremely comfortable and warmth-retaining despite packing down well and being very light. However it does fit exactly under you so I had to figure out how to place my arms so they wouldn’t be laying on the ground (and cold). It crinkles when you roll over, which wasn’t awful but I was worried about waking up my friend every time I moved.
Ultralight, ultra-packable sleep system. The 50*F quilt, liner, and sleeping pad all pack down super small, making it easy to just toss in the seatpost bag.
Prepaying for firewood to be left at the site by the ranger. Once the sun went down, having a fire to hang out around was super nice. Not having to schlep it by bike was even better.
Water Drop. I was able to bribe my kid with gas money to drop off a few gallons of water for us at the campsite since there is no water available in the park.
ThinGs That Didn’t Work So Well
Summer-weight sleep quilt with spring overnight lows. I didn’t pay attention to the “comfort” limit being 57* for my 50* bag. So even with all my layers plus puffy plus thermal liner, I was chilly all night and slept superficially (low was 43*F) . Going to need to figure out how to bring my down 20* sleeping bag in the future for spring and fall bikepacking.
Forgetting to take my digestive enzymes with dinner. While my digestion has stabilized pretty well over the last 10 months, I still have issues with fats and sugars, especially at the levels most backpacking meals contain. The PackIt Gourmet Chili was delicious – but my guts were gurgling unhappily all night.
Shoes. This was a mix – they were very comfortable around the campsite but after a dozen miles or so or riding, I was getting uncomfortable under the balls of my feet. Likely because the shoes need to straddle being stiff enough for riding without being too stiff for walking around after. Seeing as these are a 2013 model that I bought for bike commuting but then never wore, I’m sure technology has changed and may be able to find something that straddles this divide better.
Somewhere to sit that’s not The Ground. Because we had the fire going, I rolled over a tree stump to use as chair. Anna brought a lightweight backpacking chair. Exploring the idea of getting a lightweight backpacking chair to bring for the good times spent hanging out around the campsite with friends. Need to weigh the weight to need return – but sometimes creature comforts make or break a trip.
Bikepacking overnights are a great way to satisfy the need to get away for a bit and try new things in a low-risk way. It also just feels cool to be riding around on familiar roads with everything you need for a day or a weekend while everyone else is just out for their weekend ride. The gear signals Adventure Is Happening and hopefully sparks others to explore their proverbial backyards too.
The first day of the year …. a day that no matter what we did activity-wise in the last 365 days, the slate is wiped clean. Back to zero. The grind starts again.
I’ll be starting my year with doctor-advised rest to let my body heal. I’ve managed to create an overuse injury that needs time and variety to heal and allow for future bike adventures.
But I can’t help but start imagining what I’m hoping this year will bring.
This year will be transformative. My youngest child is expected to graduate from high school and head off to college, meaning it will just be my husband and I and the dogs in a few short months. Younger Me, sitting in the hospital after birthing her first child, could only dream of the day when her house and time would be her own again. I blinked, time happened, and the house doesn’t need to be this big anymore. We’re looking forward to helping our youngest get settled into the start of their adult life.
I start a new job on Monday, one that I am very excited for and see myself growing with over the next few years or so. Professional growth is vital to my mental well-being.
Continue with therapy to build and maintain healthy boundaries and explore areas that need some work.
WALKING & HIKING – I plan to continue with daily walks as long as I am able to work from home. My senior dogs definitely appreciate that as well. Fresh air and all the smells. I picked up some trekking poles so I can get out and hike more without destroying my hips and knees.
YOGA – I started this year with a 10 minute meditation on Om and rededicating myself to a regular yoga practice. I’m not as disciplined when it’s home-based practice and I certainly look forward to when my studio can open back up. But I realize yoga is a huge part of my life that I miss. As I get older, my body also needs gentle stretching to stay limber and flexible.
BIKEPACKING – My arsenal of bikepacking gear is in good shape, so I’m planning to do more overnights/weekends and two longer trips:
* local overnights to various parks and forests in the Hudson Valley * Brace Mountain & Beartown (3 days) in the tri-state area * Roundabout Brattleboro (3 days) with some girlfriends, targeting June (pending vaccinations being readily available) * Taste the Catskills (3 days) triple century is a strong Maybe * Green Mountain Gravel Growler or VTXL (5 days) with my adventure partner (pending vaccinations being readily available)
GRAVEL EVENTS – I’m also keeping an eye on gravel events. Given covid’s unchecked community spread, I won’t be able to run the Frozen Apple again this year unless we do it late in the season. I signed up for Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder in May to have something to look forward to. But I’m also trying to keep it flexible because if 2020 taught us anything, it’s be ready to change plans.
I’m not sure yet if I want to target a bike goal this year other than having as much fun as possible. I love mountain biking and have been getting better in the last couple years, tackling terrain I previously was scared to think about. I enjoy riding on new roads and meeting up with friends to explore. I barely touch my road bike, but it’s super fun to ride because it’s titanium with carbon wheels so it flies.
Maybe it’s OK to just say I’m going to ride when I want and do other stuff when I want and find balance.
We have the whole year ahead of us … let’s make it a good one. See you out there.
nobody asked me for my opinion but you’re getting it anyway
Hey Laura, I’m interested in getting a gravel bike. What do you think I should get? Well … what do you want to do with that gravel bike?
I spent a lot of time reading about gravel bikes before pulling the trigger and getting one: various frame materials, geometries, gearing, and tires. It’s a lot. But it all comes down to what you are looking to do with your gravel bike.
Are you racing? Don’t buy a bike made for bikepacking. Prefer smoother hardpack to logging roads? You probably don’t need tire clearance for 2″+ tires. 38mm might be just fine. Want to load up your bike and disappear for a while? You need a bike that is in it for the long-haul too.
There’s other searches you can do to learn more about gravel specific bikes but here’s my recommendations based on my own research. Think about what’s important to you now and what you think you might want to try and get yourself a bike that will meet those needs and aspirations.
A word about bike brands: You will not see a Big Three bike on this list nor will you see Lynskey. Lots of people ride and love them. I have no beef with them (cue my girlfriends laughing hilariously about a certain brand I believe rides dead). If you have one and love it, keep riding it. More important than anything is the bike works for YOU and you WANT to ride it.
I prefer the “boutique” brands that cater to specific types of riders. All of the brands below are one I’ve ridden and loved because the bikes are spunky and fun. They WANT to be ridden and make it fun to explore. I subscribe to the Salsa ethos of Adventure by Bike and it remains my #1 brand.
Think about … Drivetrain (1x or 2x)
It’s a tradeoff – do you want lower gears or higher gears?
1x are good for general gravel riding and racing and yes, they do provide a similar range of gears as a compact road setup. If that works well for you, amazing. Get yourself a 1x set up. Enjoy!
For my purposes, DON’T BELIEVE THE 1x HYPE. Yes it’s lower maintenance and yes, it’s a cleaner aesthetic, but if you plan to do any bikepacking or major climbing, do yourself a favor and get a 2x and the biggest cassette you can MacGuyver onto your bike. You’ll thank me when you spin up steep hills like it’s Sunday morning while your riding pals grind it out and are ready for the post-ride beer well before you’re legs start complaining.
In the early days of my gravel riding, I mounted 26mm Panaracer GravelKing SKs to my titanium road bike and hit the dirt. This is the only gravel-specific tire I’ve found that comes in sub-30mm widths. GravelKing SKs are my go-to gravel tire for the low rolling resistance on pavement and just enough bite to handle most hardpack and light gravel roads in the Northeast. I like them so much I bought 38mm GK SKs for everyday gravel uses.
For bikepacking and mixed terrain that includes trails, I’ve been using the stock 2.2″ Teravail Sparwood that came with my gravel bike. When riding unladen, the wider tires are smooth rolling and P L U S H. Like riding in a La-Z-Boy down the road. When laden, the extra width provides stability, traction, and additional support as terrain changes.
In terms of width, wider tires generally have more rolling resistance so if you aren’t looking to ride in a place where width makes the ride safer and more comfortable, you don’t need the widest tires out there. Everyone has their preference for width, but generally 35-38mm works for a wide variety of situations. If you want the extra traction and stability in uneven terrain, look for clearance for 50mm or more.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER? Tires can be swapped to reflect the ride you’re doing or your preferences – but tire clearance on the bike can’t be changed.
When I took my Cutthroat out for the first few rides, I kept the stock 2.2″ tires on. The bike felt incredible on flats and descents – but sluggish as I pushed through the extra rubber on the ground when ascending. I started to question if I even liked the bike because I had done so much research but wasn’t able to test ride and omg what if I made a really expensive bad decision …..
Then I put on some 38mm GravelKing SKs and the entire ride feel changed. The bike was no longer sluggish on the uphill and I still felt confident screaming down descents, something I never did on my road bike with the narrow SKs. Swapping the tires aligned my lived experience with my research and the Cutthroat is now my favorite bike to ride.
Best for: mountain bikers, anyone looking for a swiss army bike that can tackle anything you throw at it, bikepackers
Pros: Confidence and stability come standard. The GRX hoods are much (thicker? wider?) than road hoods but that comes in handy when bombing down a chunky descent and you want something that helps you feel in control.
Cons: Overkill if you only ride manicured dirt roads and have zero interest in bikepacking. It looks like a mountain bike too so if you want that clean road-bike look, this isn’t for you.
Comments: This is what I ride. I bought this bike because I wanted to keep riding gnarly logging roads – just not with narrow tires. I also wanted to do more bikepacking (which I also started doing on my road bike) so a bike that can take me and my stuff anywhere I wanted to go was vital. I wanted ultra-low gears so I can climb every mountain and not get obliterated by the grind so I swapped in an 11-40 cassette. Paired with the subcompact 30-46 up front, my gear-inches are as low as 20. (calculate your gear-inches here – bikepacking/touring should be sub-23 with preference for sub 20)
Best for: roadies looking to go fast on dirt, gravel originalists, anyone looking for a sexy bike to take on dirty adventures
Pros: Look at this sexy bike! The first bike designed for riding on gnarly Midwest gravel roads before gravel riding was cool. The Warbird is a perennial favorite for good reason- it’s an awesome bike that will get you stoked on riding all kinds of dirt.
Cons: Definitely more road-end of the gravel bike spectrum although it looks like with the 2020 models Salsa updated the spec to be more bikepacking friendly (30-46 subcompact up front, 11-34 in the back).
Best for: Anyone looking for a really lightweight machine that crushes dirt and gravel for breakfast
Pros: Santa Cruz makes bikes that are just really stupid fun to ride. The Stigmata is no exception. Built around their deep background in mountain biking, the Stigmata and sister bike Quincy are for those who are looking for a lightweight bike that rips.
Cons: Only fits up to 47mm for a standard 700c. You can squeeze in a 2.1 if you get a new 650b wheelset … so not a pick for seriously-loaded bikepacking.
Best for: multi surface touring and those looking for a more traditional road bike aesthetic. To quote their marketing materials, it’s as if a mountain bike and a road bike got together …
Pros: STEEL IS REAL. and bombproof. This bike is going to take you places and still love you when it accidentally get dented by a wayward flying rock. 2″ tires are standard, which will make for a plush ride feel.
Cons: The standard gearing really only gets you down to 24 gear-inches, which is nowhere close to what a touring machine should come with. But it does split the difference of speed vs climbing. Steel can be heavier than carbon, if you care about that.
Hope this helps! If not, there’s plenty of publications that have Best Gravel Bike of <Year> on the web. You can also comment and I’ll do my best to help you figure out what to take a look at.
This year has been cray on top of the previous three years of political cray here in the US. At this point I’m pretty sure the Hadron Collider shuttled us into an alternate reality that we’re only now able to escape.
I’m sitting here two weeks from starting a new job, enjoying a few days off before becoming the New Kid At Work again. But wait, didn’t you just start a new job right as the pandemic unfolded? Yes, yes I did. Life is too short to waste time trying to please those who won’t appreciate it.
Despite the cray, it was still a pretty decent year. Instead of my usual bike pics, I’m going to share some of my favorite memes from the year because WHY NOT. For bike pics, check my Instagram.
We started the New Year back home in Colorado with family and friends. I continue to cherish spending the time together before the world seemed to fall apart. I celebrated Chinese New Year with my coworkers at a local Chinese restaurant. Laura, are you sure you want to go to a Chinese restaurant? You aren’t worried about coronavirus? Yes, I’m sure. I’m confident it won’t be an issue. I started a “training” series for those who wanted to ride my latest bike event brainchild, The Frozen Apple.
February involved more gravel riding, my youngest kid being featured in the school district art show, and a questionably-advised brewery and distillery trip with friends. Swag for the Frozen Apple arrived and I spent a lot of time ironing out details and getting volunteers.
March saw our world upended. I still can’t believe my goodbye happy hour was at a bar and we all hung out inside, laughing and talking and hugging multiple times. The simple joys of The Before Times. I then started a new job just across the bridge from NYC and 4 days later was advised to work from home for the foreseeable future. Westchester and NYS shut down. It was really scary to live in the epicenter county of a viral outbreak. So much panic buying at the grocery store. Then came the deep paycuts, reconfiguring our budget, and spending hours on hold trying to talk to a rep about mortgage payment relief. Finally see my GI doc. My youngest kid got to have the first Quarantine Birthday.
We end up canceling the Frozen Apple due to the president declaring a National Emergency.
April brought warmer weather and solo bike rides to help manage the stress and anxiety of Pandemic Times. Mask mandates begin and thing start to feel safer – but the grocery stores are still broadcasting an odd mix of 80s pop music and “During these trying times ….” messages. Feeling thankful we bought a huge set of toilet paper and paper towels when they were plentiful.
More solo gravel rides and I’m hitting my stride – seeing a big jump in speed and endurance. All signs point to an amazing bike year and I’m averaging over 100 feet of climbing per mile ridden. I buy myself a smartwatch to monitor my body metrics because it sounds interesting. My girlfriends and I lament not being able to have a Girls Bike Camping Weekend. I start to incorporate one other person on bike rides, and only mountain biking rides because it’s much easier to stay socially distant in the woods.
I’m also apparently in need of my gallbladder to be removed. So I bow out of a redux of Taste the Catskills.
June is a big pile of nothing. Elective surgeries had just started resuming within the last week or so so I’m thankful for the timing of having my gallbladder removed. I should write a post about that experience because there’s a lot that I thought I understood but really didn’t. Main take-away: Laparoscopic surgery is still major surgery. Next time, maybe take more than 3 days off work to recover. I rest, read, and walk the dogs. Celebrated another Quarantine Birthday for my oldest kid.
Ah yes, Birthday Month! Technically I’m allowed to bike again, but I keep it mellow and stop when my insides start to feel Not Great. I discover I still need to stay on a reduced fat diet (I decided to aim for 50g of fat per day because that felt ok) and add in digestive enzymes, which help tremendously. My oldest comes over for a long weekend visit. I turn 43.
Decide I’m officially IN for the Green Mountain Gravel Growler, a bikepacking trip my friend and I had been planning all year to do. A tropical storm knocks out our power so I have to go into the office to work for a day. It’s the weirdest feeling even though only a few others are there and the whole office has been rearranged to be socially distant and masks required when not at your desk. Work stress on top of everyday stress and anxiety are building up and my usual mechanisms aren’t working. I end up having an anxiety attack, signing up for therapy, and talking to my doctor about a low dose of SSRI.
I get my life back with therapy and Lexapro.
Training rides and bikepacking prep. Finally get a Girls Bike Weekend in the Berkshires and it’s everything we needed it to be. We booked adjacent campsites and brought all our own stuff (no sharing anything). We rode gravel and had campfires and talked. It felt magically to spend time with friends I love.
Green Mountain Gravel Growler pushed me to my limits and even though I had to push myself to the very end of my physical abilities, I have zero regrets and look forward to another week-long trip next year. I learned some valuable lessons and have some amazing stories to tell.
October started great – I recovered from my deep glycogen deficit and did some low-key rides with one or two others. I’m driving home one evening from running errands and notice a kitten in the road that looks like it may have been clipped by a car. So I stop and move it to the side of the road … and it bites me.
Cue a massively infected finger, several calls with the Dept of Health, and a mandate to go get a rabies vaccine. PEAK 2020: Potential for Death by Kitten.
I decide I don’t want to be working in the dining room anymore so we convert my middle kid’s room to an office. I redecorate with bike-themed posters. Pete and I celebrate 23 years of marriage. I decide my bike goal for this year is to average 100 feet of climbing per mile ridden.
I’m no political junkie but hot damn, this election was a roller coaster and I’m pleased with the outcome. I’m ready to get back to hating my elected officials a normal amount.
A rare warm November day meant I could meet up with my best bike girlfriends for a mixed terrain gravel ride upstate. I went solo camping with my senior beagle and had to cut it short because it was too cold for him. I rode bikes as much as I could.
As the year comes to a close, the long sleeve thermal jerseys come out, the days are too short, and it feels like time has been a raging river and slow as molasses. January and February feel so far away. But I have hope that with the covid vaccines being rolled out, we will have a shot to get back to mostly normal by this time next year.
I say mostly normal because this year has allowed space to refocus on what’s important. Suspending the things we distract ourselves with forces us to reckon with who we are, what we believe, and what we stand for.
My 70 year old dad got covid this month. He’s still not out of the woods yet but we are thankful he’s been able to ride it out at home so far.
A seemingly minor mountain biking injury blows up into a chronic knee issue so I have to abort my climbing-per-mile goal at an average of 99.4 feet of climbing per mile ridden. I’m not disappointed – this year is teaching me to be at peace with Good Enough (or Close Enough).
As I unwind myself from my current work obligations and prepare to engage in learning a new corporate culture and team, I am thankful for many things:
* Front-line employees and first responders * The privilege to work from home * My family * Friends who also take the virus very seriously * that this year is almost over
I’m still thinking of my bike goals for next year. To be sure they involve more bikepacking trips and hopefully time with friends and family again. And my middle kid will be celebrating his Quarantine Birthday later this month.
Until next year, keep the rubber side down and see you out there.
One of my favorite things to do is plan and go on adventures with my friends and our bikes. There’s something really sublime about putting everything you need (or most of everything you need) on your bike and heading out into the woods. I’ve learned a lot on each of my bikepacking trips, starting with a weekend at a campground to the most recent five-day adventure through northcentral Vermont. Here’s my Top 5 tips to make bikepacking enjoyable. Experience will help you dial in what’s right for YOU.
Note: I’ve linked to different products but they are not affiliate links. It’s just what I’m using.
Safety First: Know your route to dial your ride – and provide detailed information to your emergency contact back home
Planning is everything. Spend some time reading up on where you are going, what the road/trail conditions may be like, the weather, sunrise and sunset times, where resupply opportunities are and at what mile marker (both overall and daily mileage), and determine how long you intend to be out for both best and worst case scenarios. Write all this down. Bring a physical copy with you on the road to reference when cell service is spotty – but also share your plans with your emergency contact.
My riding partner and I created shared Google Docs and Sheets while planning our trip, which made it easy to update before the trip and the provide to our partners back home while we were out.
This will also help you choose the right gear. Chunky logging roads and singletrack are generally more comfortable on wider mountain-bike tires whereas hardpack and paved roads are more amenable to narrower gravel tires. Significant off-road will require secure loads that don’t shift much while dirt and paved roads will allow for a more DIY setup.
Start with the gear you have. It’s also ok to buy specialized items
It’s true that you can bikepack on the bike you have today with the gear you have today. This is often the cheapest way to get started. Borrowing gear from a friend to try it out first is also great! Sometimes this will mean things are heavier, bulkier, or don’t have a natural home on the bike. This is also OK!
Limited Space Tip: Separate the pieces of your gear to fit into the different bags you have … and yes, a backpack might be unavoidable given smaller framed bikes don’t have the same generous cargo space as larger frames. If so, keep the lightweight stuff in the backpack to minimize stress on your shoulders.
If you are like me and a shorter rider, you don’t have a ton of space on your bike and you’ll need to make tradeoffs to fit everything. Warmer-weather trips may be easier to fit everything on the bike whereas a spring or autumn trip – and the variable weather that comes with those seasons – may require using a rack or backpack to expand your carrying capacity. And yes, you absolutely can use your existing rack and panniers to bikepack – don’t let anyone tell you differently. Bikepacking isn’t an aesthetic – it’s using your bike to transport you and our gear over a variety of terrain.
For my 5-day trip, I wrapped my tent poles in my self-inflating sleeping pad and strapped them to the rack while my tent, rainfly, and stakes went into a 13L drybag harnessed on my handlebars.
If you had a great time and want to keep bikepacking, pick one or two items to swap and start lightening the load over time and as you have funds. Picking up items on sale or “old” versions when a company releases a newer version is also a great way to get high quality gear on a budget.
My experience: When I started, I spent about 6 months buying a lot of stuff because a car-camping 2-burner Coleman Stove doesn’t fit well into a bikepacking setup. I picked up a half framebag and a seatpost bag for my road bike. I used a backpack to hold clothing. I bought a hammock because it was cheaper than a small tent and sleeping pad – and fit into my seatpost bag. It also meant I could avoid a sleeping bag altogether. I read about hammock camping and bought an underquilt (lashed it to my handlebars with two straps I found at an outdoor shop). I bought a one-person backpacking cookset and backpacking stove with my REI divided (also went into my seatpost bag). The half-framebag held food/snacks and layers.
I eventually bought a tent and sleeping pad that I continue to use on camping trips – but came to realize on the last bikepacking trip that at 7 pounds total, they are too heavy for longer expeditions. So I am replacing these with ultralightversions for future longer bikepacking trips. This change alone shaves 5 pounds off my setup … which brings me to my next tip.
Make a packing list and edit it. Then edit again. And Edit once more before you go
Over the past couple bikepacking trips, I’ve started to develop a basic packing list for my adventures that I can add or subtract from based on my needs to a particular trip (see bottom of the post). Somethings will always be needed – on-bike navigation, ID, insurance card, and funds, charging cables for electronics – but for everything else, be ruthless. Especially if you don’t have a ton of space to begin with.
Because you did your research on the weather, conditions, and resupply opportunities you can start dialing in what gets packed. If you plan to stay in BnBs along the way, take the tent and sleeping pad off the list. If you are camping, you probably don’t need to bring a full toiletries kit; a travel toothbrush, toothpaste, and a way to clean up at the end of the day may suffice. I like travel packs of baby wipes or Wilderness Wipes. You may not need to bring meals for every day if you have frequent resupply opportunities – bring a day or so worth of food. Prioritize items that meet your dietary needs and anything with limited availability.
Then as you get closer to the time to leave, check your packing list against likely conditions and make adjustments. Edit out anything unnecessary. Can you live without Item X for Y Days? If yes, remove it from the list. If no, keep it.
And edit again as you are packing. Swap heavier items for lighter weight options. Prioritize items that can serve multiple purposes or can be worn for multiple days, like rain jackets or wool socks. Bring food in single-serve sizes, removing items from their containers to consolidate space. It is OK to decide to take something heavier or single-use because you want to … just remind yourself of that when you are in the middle of a challenging moment and ruing some of your life decisions around packing.
My experience: On my summer Catskills bikepacking trip, I packed a lightweight travel dress (swelter shelter dress) under the misguided impression we might have time to hang out after a days ride. We did not – but it came in handy when we only had one option for a place to eat the second night and it was a fancy restaurant. Zero regrets because it wasn’t a huge impact on weight – it packed down really small and didn’t weigh much.
But on the autumn Vermont trip though, I didn’t heed my own advice and started adding things right before I left. I brought two pairs of pants: one that rolled up to capris if it got too hot and a pair of athletic joggers to sleep in if it got too cold for just my wool baselayers. I did not need both and one packed better than the other. Next time, only the most packable and flexible pants will be packed. Don’t give in to Panic Packing!
A note on multiple kits: In the past I brought a fresh kit for each day. For shorter trips, this is fine – but on longer trips, that’s dead weight. Lael Wilcox talked about her ultralight bikepacking tips and one was bringing only one kit (although she doesn’t ride with a chamois). While my male riding partners have long subscribed to this tip, I was reticent because women’s plumbing is different. But! Fear not – on my last trip I brought 2 kits total, one to ride in and a spare, and used a travel-size package of witch hazel wipes to clean up my chamois before hanging it to dry each night. I rode three long days in the first kit before switching and didn’t feel unsanitary.
To be real though – putting on a fresh pair of bibs after three days feels amazing because the chamois isn’t so compressed.
Make peace with possibly needing to change your plans or route along the way.
Adventure means sometimes things go sideways despite all planning. Don’t hang your hopes on doing everything exactly as you thought it should be. Just starting is something most people don’t accomplish – so make contingency plans and be ok with modifications. Know you will be much slower than when you ride your unloaded bike.
My experience: When I knew I didn’t have enough stove fuel for the trip, I tried to locate more locally with no success. When I ran out on Day 2, we decided to make the trip into town to buy more. When we came across an outdoor shop, they didn’t have any. We called the next option before going and thankfully they did have the right fuel and we got back on route quickly.
When we attempted singletrack with our fully-loaded bikes early in the ride and it was much slower, we made a decision to skip the singletrack sections in favor of making up time on the road. With limited daylight and plenty of hike a bike sections, it was a good decision to keep our average as efficient as possible.
The whole point of bikepacking is to do something fun and different – so embrace the adventure! Your bikepacking trip might be to a local campground or it may be in another location altogether. The keys to having a good trip are being prepared, being realistic, and being open to possibilities. Make a plan, gently push your comfort zone a little further out, rinse and repeat.
It’s also important to know your limits and when to pull the plug and head back to civilization. Especially after my last trip ending in a taxi ride back to my car, I’ve heard so many stories of very experienced adventurers also having to cut their adventure short because something wasn’t going well. Those stories help me put my own experiences in the context of trying and learning when things don’t go well and adapting for next time. I’m already planning to do more trips next year, mostly focused on 1-2 nighters to experiment more. And of course, a redemption shot at the Green Mountain Gravel Growler.
See you out there!
Laura’s Basic Packing List
Here’s the start of my packing list. I add or subtract items based on the weather, where I’m going, and how long I’ll be out. It’s not exhaustive and I’m sure this will keep evolving over time and as I get more experience … but it’s a place to start.
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.)
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.
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.
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 FarmInn as the only guests. A hot shower and a comfortable bed awaited us.
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.
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.