I am tardy on this write-up. Sorry! I’ve been busy planning my latest trail care projects.
Gravel grinding is one of my most favorite things to do. Westchester County isn’t exactly known for its dirt roads – but we have them. Westchester Cycle Club has year-round dirt and gravel rides. Given the popularity of gravel these days, the Board decided to host a gravel event instead of the usual road ride, The Golden Apple Ride.
My summer was spent developing routes that were both beautiful and challenging – but not so much that a novice gravel rider would feel they were in over their head. I came up with four roughly-concentric routes, ranging from 30 to 60 miles. My co-Event Director Christine was busy getting permits filed and posters to the various bike shops in the area. I managed our communications, online registration, and marketing. She solicited volunteers and coordinated our rest stops and food. We met up monthly, then weekly, as the date got closer.
Event Directing is a full-time job and even with most of the tasks split between us, it was still a challenge. We had a few other volunteers to help us make decisions, complete day-prior tasks, and fund the event – Bob, Bill, Rich, and Steve – as well as a slew of club members who volunteered the day of the event. We couldn’t have done this without them!
My personal favorite part of the longest route is through a county park. The gravel is chunkier and the climb is a little over 2 miles long, but you feel a million miles away from civilization (even though NYC is about 30 miles south).
The day of the ride went as well as any event can go – a few hiccups but mostly awesome. The weather was overcast but warm and it had rained the night before – perfect dirt road conditions. The general consensus, confirmed by our rider survey, was the routes were beautiful; the food plentiful; the beer deserved.
I’m looking forward to Event Directing the ride again in 2019 – even though it means not getting to ride the event myself! Seeing the happy, muddy faces come back to the start was such a reward for all the time and energy Christine and I put into this event.
Watch the Dirty Apple Ride page for updates as to when the ride will be scheduled next year.
One of the perks of being a Pactimo Brand Ambassador is comp entries to amazing rides. When I saw the Golden Gran Fondo on the list, I immediately knew that was the one I wanted to do because it means a trip back home to see family, friends, and ride my bike with amazing scenery.
I -of course- said I’d do the longest route without really checking the elevation profile. Then I did and promptly thought HARD PASS. So I signed up for the 63 – still a formidable route – and got a friend to also register also. I spent my summer seeking out long gravel rides and extended climbing so I could get the feel for pacing myself over this type of distance and elevation gain. I felt both totally ready and completely Not Ready.
I reserved a hotel room across the street from the ride start (GENIUS, really) and rented a Liv Avail carbon road bike from EVO Denver. My sister decided to join me for the weekend as my support person, which was unexpected and totally appreciated.
The morning was warm and sunny with a low chance of rain. I picked up my timing chip and then waited for my friend. I also chatted with Julie, another Pactimo Brand Ambassador who I have been talking to online. Around 7:45am, we all gathered under the big arch in downtown Golden for the pre-ride spiel.
Right out of the gate we’re sent up Lookout Mountain. This was a ride I had wanted to do forever and hadn’t for a variety of reasons. It’s 5-mile climb that averages 5% grade, which ended up being more accessible than I imagined. Find a cadence and spin. I took a short break right after the end of the timed section and met a few other East Coasters (Philly, New Jersey, and New York in the house!) who were out for the ride. I also met Jan, who was turning 65 tomorrow and this ride was her birthday present to herself.
Coming down the other side, averaging 30 mph, was what cycling dreams are made of. Jan and I made it to the first aid station, manned by a local Boy Scout Troop. They had water, electrolytes, PB&Js – and an adorable puppy “for stress relief.”
I checked my text messages to see where my friend was. I had texted her at the top of Lookout to meet up at the first Aid Station – but unfortunately, my friend was not having a good bike day and ended her ride at 20 miles.
The next section was a series of two long hills up Golden Gate Canyon Rd. As a predominately gravel and mountain bike rider these days, I forgot just how exposed pavement is. Especially in Colorado. It was already well into the 80s and not a cloud in sight. My strategy here was to find an all-day pace and spin; pause in the shade when necessary (it was SO HOT) to catch my breath, eat something, and then continue on. There was also a pretty continuous headwind, which is great for cooling off but not good for energy to pedal your bike up a hill.
Along the way, I somehow lost Jan but met Kevin from New Jersey. We both had stopped in the shade to get some respite from the sun. I was out of water (and 5 miles to get to the aid station) and no cell service. One of the ride support vehicles stopped to check on us (and refill my water). Kevin took a ride up to the top of the steep climb; being told it was less than a mile to the top, I decided to ride.
But a mile later, I’m still slowly climbing and the grade is ticking upwards. Another support truck rolled up and said “Hop in! You aren’t the first person we’ve given a quick boost.” About a mile later, they dropped me off at the top and I bombed down the road to the next aid station. Also, they had fruit snacks which were very much needed at that moment.
My goal had been to get to Aid Station 2 by 11am and it’s now 12pm. I decide to take a longer break, eat, and think about my options. The next section is a timed climb – and while my legs aren’t shot, the saddle on my rental bike isn’t playing nice with my sit-bones. And given how far off pace I am, do I really want to spend the next hour and a half climbing over 1,400′ over 12 miles? Not really. It was really hot, I was worried about the water situation, my saddle, and the headwinds (which we heard were worse further up in the canyon).
Thankfully Aid Station 2 would have also been Aid Station 3 – so Kevin and I rolled out to finish the route, minus the 12 miles. The next 5 miles or so were all sweet, sweet downhill through Golden Gate Canyon State Park. We used to take our kids camping there when we lived in Colorado so NOSTALGIA.
Then came Drew Hill. The meanest hill on the entire route. 1.5 miles with whole sections over 15% grade. Dirt over crumbling pavement. I knew it was coming and I rode the first portion until the grade got to a point where I hopped off and started to walk. Which was still a workout. Kevin and I talked the whole way up, cheering on the guys who were riding it. One guy fell over trying to ride up the hill.
At the very top, we were rewarded with spectacular views and a 10-mile descent back into town. We chatted with a few others from the Philly area (so much East Coast love out there!) and then bombed back to town.
This is probably the hardest Gran Fondo in the whole series. I was surprised by the relatively small number of riders compared to other events I’ve been to – but it seems the climbing scares a lot of people away. Nothing was truly awful except maybe Drew Hill. And to be honest, it sounds really impressive to say I had climbed over 5,000′ in 30 miles when I got to the second aid station. The climbing is definitely front-loaded.
While I didn’t complete the whole route, I have no regrets. I had a great day on the bike and met so many cool people along the way. Should I register for this again, I would do one thing differently: Bring my own bike. I know it, I love it, I trust it. It’s worth the hassle and expense. And maybe I would have tackled the second timed section because my butt didn’t hurt.
Despite not completing the whole route, I placed 5th in my gendered age bracket based on the timed segments I completed.
I asked this question at 4:30 in the afternoon as my friends and I took a trailside break, nibbling on yet another ClifBar to fuel the climb back out from the river. I’ve never been to Kingdom Trails before, and have heard nothing but amazing things. We’d been riding their favorite trails all day, and I was curious. My friends looked at me like I was crazy but after a long pause said … “I don’t know. It just is.”
But that’s where Kingdom Trails gets you. The trails are sublime. And I’m once again late to the party on this.
1. The trails are purpose-built. This is probably the most significant factor in why the trails are so great: Kingdom Trails are built to maximize your fun and have opportunities to dial in the experience to your skill level. Love railing berms? Getting some sick air off jumps? Screaming across narrow bridges? KT lets you do that. Just want to relax on singletrack that pops out of the woods into a field straight from a Dirt Rag photo shoot? KT has that too. The trails I rode were not too technical despite the Black Diamond Rating – but I attribute that more to skill-building by riding locally on hiking/biking trails full of natural features. Stand-out trails from the weekend were Kitchel, Troll Stroll, Pines, Coronary Bypass, Farm Junk, and Skydive.
2. The trails exist because of a collaboration between Advocates and Land Owners. Your day or season pass doesn’t fund some corporate entity out to make money on mountain bikers – the trails exist because of an agreement between a charitable conservation organization and landowners. This brings an important distinction that encourages everyone to be on their best behavior. Riders respect the trails more because who wants to be That Guy who ruined the fun for everyone.
3. KT doesn’t engage in price gouging. A day pass is $15 and a season pass is $75 – only 5 visits to make it worth your hard-earned money for a season pass. My friends and I rode for 3 days and barely scratched the surface of the volume of trails available to ride. If KT is within a 3-hour drive or you can plan more than one long weekend devoted to riding, a season pass is the way to go.
4. KT helps fuel the economic engine of Burke, Vermont. The trails are usable can be used year-round, weather permitting – and outdoor recreationalists need a place to stay. We booked a campsite at Burke Cottages & Campground, which has several large sites to choose from and a brand new shower house. Only a short drive into town for passes, bike rentals, or a hearty meal at the end of a long day on the trails. And the warm shower felt great after a long day on the trails. Also a convenient opportunity for tick checks.
5. There is a lunch shack in the middle of the woods. Probably the most brilliant business concept is the lunch shack in the woods. We had been riding hard all morning and getting hungry. No need to leave the trails to refuel or gnaw on bars and goos all day (although you totally can and the Country Store has ridiculously good breakfast and lunch options). We joined the throngs of riders at the lunch shack for a quick wrap, chips, and a refreshing beverage. Stone benches under huge pine trees dot the area around the shed, providing respite and shade.
Bonus Reason: The Views. The trails and the views are some of the most beautiful I’ve had the privilege to experience. Do yourself a favor and climb to Heaven’s Bench. Take a minute to look around when you pop out of the woods into a field.
I had the privilege of renting a Santa Cruz 5010 C XE for the weekend and I can’t speak highly enough of this bike. Nimble, playful, and spry, the bike climbed and descended with ease. A mere 27 pounds, the bike felt light yet stable. There were a few places on Kitchel, in particular, where the bike certainly wanted to get some air. The wingspan of the handlebars felt wide but over the three days, I got used to it. I forgot to ask for a women’s saddle (or to bring my own) so let’s just say downtown wasn’t terribly happy after 3 days of riding.
But I will say – I think this trip solidified the bike I plan to buy once I’m fully employed again. This bike just made me happy.
Do yourself a favor and book a vacation up to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont and hit the Kingdom Trails. You will not regret it.
Everything hurts, which is why I’m signing up again next year.
Sunday night I lay down and thought “My body hurts. Everything hurts. What a great day.”
The Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder is by far the hardest gravel ride I’ve done in the year or so I’ve been riding dirt roads. But it’s also one of the most interesting, scenic, and diverse rides. Organized by two mountain bikers who wanted to showcase the beauty and bounty in and around Columbia County, New York, FDGG takes you on an epic journey through peaceful farmlands, quiet forests, and some of the best hills the Taconics can throw at you.
Let’s start with – it’s been a long winter and wet spring. This week was no exception with more rainy days than not. It rained the whole day before the ride so we knew it would be a bit sloppy. The forecast for Sunday was continually changing, showing we were either going to have a really rainy day or just overcast. Most of the questions being sent to the organizers on the Facebook page were around tire choice.
In the end, I’m not sure what the best tire choice would be for 65 miles on mostly peanut butter roads, some paved, and 6 water-logged, muddy off-road/tractor road sections.
I, of course, went with my 26mm Panaracer Gravel King SKs. It was that or my mountain bike, and I didn’t feel like riding that for 65 miles.
My friend Matt rode with me, and I’m so glad he did because this year was a true test of strength, stamina, and grit.
In the Beginning …
The first three miles of the course is on a grassy rail trail with a gentle incline and really sets the tone for the event. Fairly quickly the ride separated the speedy folks from the ones who wanted to enjoy the day.
Back on the road for a short bit to get to the second off-road section through a nature preserve. If you are not a mountain biker or cyclocross racer, this is the first sign the route isn’t for you as you are basically on single- and double-track. The rains made this section extremely muddy, and we ended up walking good portions because the mud was so rutted, slick, and deep. We were in good company though – virtually everyone around us was also walking their bikes.
The first water stop was at a brewery around mile 16. Fueled up on maple syrup shots and pickles, skipping the whiskey-soaked Swedish Fish (which we heard were amazing). Topped off water and got back on the road. The clock indicates we’re slower than expected.
More beautiful dirt roads before heading into Off-Road #3 – singletrack edition. We’re yo-yo’ing with the same people and camaraderie is high. We’re getting a bit tired, but we aren’t pushing the pace terribly because conditions are pretty soul-sucking. But at least it’s not raining – just really, really soggy. Rode as much of the singletrack as possible; walked where it felt prudent. Popped out into a field with the first full rest stop at mile 27 on the other side of the field.
FDGG has excellent rest stop food because it’s catered by local businesses like Bountiful Bread Bakery who had delicious sandwiches prepared. I chose the peanut butter on cranberry-walnut wheat bread; Matt chose the turkey with stuffing and cranberry spread. Refilled water, checked the time, had another cookie, then back to it.
Matt and I have ridden gravel grinders together and we both expected to be done around 3pm as a 10mph average is a good estimating target for rides with 100’/mi of climbing. As we left the rest stop, I started doing the math and said “I don’t think we’ll be done until 5pm.” Our average progressive speed, inclusive of breaks, had dipped below 8mph. But with the bulk of the ride (and the majority of the climbing) about to happen, we didn’t want to burn too many matches.
(There are no photos to add to this section because it’s basically a pain cave.)
The middle 20 miles has nearly half of the total climbing for the day, an endless series of rollers with a few back-to-back-to-back hills that put you squarely above 10% grade for a bit.
This is also where I had to humble myself and walk two of the steepest hills, my energy sapped from the struggle just to navigate the soggy conditions. We took a breather at the top of one particularly nasty climb and a tall guy on a Rivendell and wearing Crocs stopped too. He reminded me of one of my kids. We chatted for a few minutes, then continued on.
This is also where it began to rain, turning thick nut-butter roads into pea soup. Our bikes are so caked in mud, gears grinding in the grit. The SKs are shedding mud well, but I still find myself spinning out a few times while trying to power through thick mud. Every fishtail of my rear wheel, every slippery root or rock on the off-road sections remind me that the skills I’ve learned on a hardtail mountain bike will always serve me well in any terrain.
Mile 40 brings us to a pop-up ice cream stop catered by Cold Stone Creamery. It’s stopped raining, and we’re getting chilled, so we put on a few layers to keep warm. We’re at the final rest stop in 7 miles.
The End …
The rest stop at mile 47 is a bounty of food: bananas, PB&Js, Mexican chocolate cake, and probably more importantly, COKES. We take a little longer to enjoy full-sugar soda guilt-free, eat, and strategize our next 18 miles. We still have the last 2 off-road sections to go, including one notoriously steep grassy incline that is sure to be even soggier and slick now.
There aren’t many people around us now, and we overhear many people opt for the bailout at this point – cutting a few miles but staying exclusively on paved roads back to the start. We are not these people and soldier on.
Despite the rest and refueling, there’s simply not enough power left in my body to power up the grassy hill, so we end up walking. We get in a rhythm of riding when we can and walking when we spin out. I will note here that Matt is a beast and rode more hills than I did and I remain in awe of his power. But to be sure, we’re both hurting at this point.
We continue on the roads to the final off-road segment and stop to decide if we want to ride the soggy, grassy loop through a field. We made it this far, I’m not throwing in the towel yet – so in we go. The mowed path goes down, down, down, and then turned sharply right and UP. Hopped off and walked – there was simply no traction on the water-logged grass. Took a short singletrack loop up to a gazebo for a short break to take in the incredible views. We’re 60 miles in and closing in on 5pm. Matt and I are both exhausted.
The last few miles are downhill, as any difficult ride should be. We roll into the finish, and people are still milling around, the band is still playing, and there is plenty of hot food and cold beverages waiting for us. Nearly 8.5 hours after we started, we were finally done. And we are far from the last people to roll in.
Probably the best part of this ride is the organizers did not pressure anyone to be done by a specific time so they could clean up and go home. They built an incredibly challenging and beautiful route that was meant to be savored. And then let those of us who wanted to finish despite incredibly challenging conditions do so.
We cleaned up, we hosed off our bikes, we said “great ride!” and headed back to our homes tired but accomplished.
Which brings us to …
the opening statement about everything hurting. It hurt to lay down. Ever fiber of my body held the dull ache of full depletion. I haven’t been this wrecked from a ride in a long time – a sign of a really good time.
At the end of the ride I wasn’t sure I’d want to do this ride again but here we are, just a few days later, and I’m thinking … if the conditions are drier next year, I’ll be there and so should you.
Last year I did my first gravel grinder, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Dirt and gravel roads are some of the quietest, most scenic ways to see an area by bicycle. And yes, they often have hills that challenge your mind and body to just. Get. To. The. Top. one pedal stroke at a time.
When Onion River Sports closed last year, the fate of the event was in limbo – but fortunately, a group of former employees decided the show must go on! If you’ve ever doubted what a small band of committed people can accomplish, look no further than this year’s Muddy Onion.
The route was revamped. The rest stops streamlined. The hospitality still off the charts.
Whereas last year we had perfect sunny, dry conditions – this year was almost the total opposite. Winter didn’t start relinquishing control until just a few weeks before the ride. It has been raining more than it’s been dry and sunny, and the roads and trails are in a nearly perpetual state of mud. Lots of people opted for mountain bikes and fat bikes this year over gravel or cross bikes.
Let’s take a moment to talk about what everyone seemed to be talking about leading up to the event: tire choice.
Last year I threw on 30mm Michelin Mud2s, which are excellent mud tires but sadly do not provide enough clearance on my Salsa Colossal to be used in truly muddy conditions.
This was a flawless choice for this year’s conditions, ranging from wet sand to wet hardpack to full-on mud-pits conveniently located at the bottom of every really nice descent. The tires tracked beautifully in suboptimal conditions and were fast-rolling on paved sections.
To be sure though – no tire will save you if you can’t handle your bike when it’s sliding in a few different directions. Pro tip: mountain biking on a hardtail will give you the skills needed to improve handling on the road too.
Vermont is blessed with an abundance of dirt roads and beautiful scenery – and the Muddy Onion gives you an opportunity to experience both. The first 5 miles still trend up, and by the rest stop at mile 10, we had climbed over 1,300′ while passing family farms, open fields, and taking in views of the Green Mountains.
The middle 17 miles looped us up to Mirror Lake and the tiny towns that dot Vermont. Screaming downhill to flat lake-side roads that provide an air conditioning effect – not much needed when it’s barely 60*F out! I had pulled off my arm warmers sometime in the first 10 miles, and I certainly wished I had them on as we passed the lake. We passed through beautifully dense pine forest, the scent of pine filling the air. Coming into the final rest stop with around 3,000′ of climbing under our legs.
The final 10 miles feature that last few hundred feet of climbing and the last 4 miles trending DOWN and the welcome sight of getting back to Montpelier after 37 miles, 3,650′ of climbing, and a whole lot of dirty fun.
Racked the bikes and enjoyed the post-ride BBQ and beverages before getting cleaned up and heading back into town for a coffee at Capitol Grounds Cafe/802 Coffee and purchases at the state store. Sadly, no one at the store knew the whereabouts of Richard. Richard was our superlative Southern Gentleman/MOT clerk last year, and we were hoping to see him again this year.
(I’d love to know how much the Muddy Onion, a smaller gravel event, brings Montpelier in tourism dollars: in accommodations, food, and other purchases. I drive 5 hours each way and purchase gas, stay in a hotel, eat at local restaurants, and make purchases while visiting. Bikes Mean Business!)
The Muddy Onion has once again proven gravel grinders don’t have to be gratuitous sufferfests or hike-a-bike. With an enjoyable route that features stunning scenery and quiet backroads, none of the hills were insurmountable despite providing a truly meaningful challenge (although let’s be real, this year’s peanut butter-like conditions made the steepest of hills that much more challenging).
Full Disclosure: As you saw in my last post, I’m a Pactimo Brand Ambassador! But I bought these with my own cash and no consideration has been given to review this product. The views are my own!
Spring is a tough time of year. It’s gradually getting warmer – but mornings can still be very much below freezing with afternoons not getting really all that warm. And if the sun isn’t out, it can feel a lot colder than it is. It can be tough to get layering just right.
I’ve always suffered through spring with the suboptimal cycling bottoms until this year.
Fellow women, if you haven’t made the switch from shorts to bibs – don’t wait. Bibs are a game-changer. They aren’t just for pros or people on race teams or people who ride faster than you. Bibs are for you! Bibs slim the midsection and avoid the dreaded muffin top that even wide-band shorts can impart. Bibs mean I don’t have undue pressure on my belly while riding. In short, they are more comfortable and let you focus on the ride, not your apparel.
After three solid gravel rides in these, here are four reasons why these bib shorts are revolutionizing my bike life right now:
They are super warm and cozy – yet breathable. The thermal fabric is soft against the skin – even the straps are thermal – but I don’t overheat while grinding up gnarly hills. No more red belly or thighs at the end of a ride!
They provide gentle compression, hugging your muscles to support them as you go one more mile or climb one more hill.
Reflective Technology (RT). The cuffs of the shorts have reflective threads woven into the fabric. This is a subtle yet effective way to stay visible but it doesn’t look obnoxious.
The chamois is so comfortable I forget I’m wearing bike shorts. Maybe that’s an exaggeration – but I also think that when something works for you, it’s easy to not think about it and just focus on the experience. It’s the same chamois as in the Apex short liner from Pactimo’s mountain biking line.
(I got into Pactimo through their mountain biking line. I wanted a pair of baggies that weren’t too baggy and a jersey that was understated but also, totally rad. Pactimo delivered! I recently picked up another pair of baggies and liners for the upcoming season.)
Invest in yourself! Don’t suffer another chilly ride during shoulder season with sub-optimal bottoms and get on the thermal bib train.
You may have noticed my blogging went waaaaaaay down a few years ago with my move and cancer diagnosis and treatment. You may also know life got a little crazy and culminated in a year of introspection and self-care.
Time to dial it back up to 11.
This year I’ve started building a full slate of super-rad events where you can ride with me if you’re in the Northeast:
And of course – looking to add a camping & mountain biking Girls Weekend, maybe another week-long bike tour, and perhaps a road ride here and there. Have a ride you think I should know about? Drop the knowledge in the comments.
I’m so stoked, and I hope you are too for this year’s riding season. You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram for timely adventure updates.