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.
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.
Picking back up a good six months after my last adventure, you may be wondering if I fell off the Earth or what. Maybe not – but let’s pretend for a moment.
The first half of 2019 was a targeted effort to do gnarly gravel rides and build up to the Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder in May. I was out almost every weekend either riding or doing trail maintenance on my local trails … and sometimes, both. I spent not one but TWO amazing weekend with my girlfriends camping and biking and having a blast just relaxing. I decided to go on the Taste the Catskills ride, a definite stretch but well within my capacity.
Then there’s the let-down period after a series of epic adventures.
I switched back over to mountain biking and spent a few months doing low miles/high smiles rides. I raced my mountain bike for the first time ever and placed first in the Cat 3 Beginner Women (19+) category. I went back to organizing my fall gravel event, which always takes more time and effort than one might think. I was doing trail maintenance.
I was stressed out, constantly running from one thing to the next … it just wasn’t fun anymore and I couldn’t remember the last time I had a day to just wake up and sit on the couch with a mug of coffee and my dogs.
I hit a wall of just being Too Busy. So I wrote all my volunteer obligations that I was taking a break.
Of course, in that break I came up with other things I wanted to do, like host a spring classic gravel grinder. And just ride my bike because I want to. And sleep in because I love it when I can do that.
So here we are, in January 2020, and I’m slowing working volunteer obligations back into my life and figuring out – what do I want to DO this year??
About a week ago I learned I’ve been selected as a 2020 Nuun Hydration brand ambassador and I am super stoked about this! I’ve been a big fan of Nuun since my brush with heat exhaustion on Day 3 of a 4-day bike tour and adding that little electrolyte tablet to my water profoundly revived me. Nuun has been my go-to hydration product for years and I’m proud to be able to represent the brand!
I recently picked up a 2020 Salsa Cutthroat GRX600 (a bike I’ve been eyeing for years but they didn’t make my size until this year) and am in the process of dialing in a gravel/adventure set up as well as a bikepacking set up. I love my other Salsa “groad” (gravel-road) bike but the Cutthroat has taken my gravel game to the next level. I’ve named her Monster Truck for the incredible traction, stability, and confidence the bike inspires.
For 2020, I’m starting to stack my spring gravel calendar with an eye towards pivoting to bikepacking for the the summer and fall.
April 19, 2019 – Coming this summer is a three day gravel ride through the Catskills. Slightly modified from what Ralph rode last year. No date yet, but thinking June. – Curt
The beginning of epic adventures is so small – casual words in passing or an idea that pops in your head … or in this case, posting a call for comrades on a social media site for bike rides. I’ve ridden several rides and events with Curt and Ralph so I know their style of riding, which made it easy to say YES to the invite.
Taste the Catskills is a 320-mile self-supported bikepacking route with over 22,000′ of climbing developed by local randonneur Ralph Pruitt. Ralph is known for seeking out every hill and every inch of dirt he can find. Deeming a route a “Ralph Ride” can only mean it’s stupid hard but incredibly fun and rewarding. It should be noted that Ralph previewed the route last year in one shot.
Lodging. We stayed at Blue Hill Lodge & Cafe in Clarysville and Hammo’s Pub & Lodge in Hensonville. Having a room booked in advance gave us a pre-determined end point each day as well as a cool shower and comfortable bed.
Packing. With the daily distance, heat, and humidity – packing light and fast was paramount. If it wasn’t necessary for three days on the road, it didn’t come. Everything fit in my seatpost bag, half-frame bag, and handlebar bag. Also, “fast” is all relative as we were out for 10-13 hours each day.
For a full list of what was brought and what was purchased along the way, check the end of the blog post.
Training. I’m not a fan of formal training plans in the same way I am not a fan of riding on a trainer. My general plan is to figure out what I’m getting myself into and build up to something that’s a reasonable facsimile. 2019 has been a year of challenging rides, with most including around 100’/mi of climbing.
The climbing didn’t feel like an issue so much as I haven’t ridden a century in something like 4 or 5 years. Looking at the daily breakdown of the route (we were riding this over 3 days), there were lots of beastly hills in the back half of each day – pacing would be key to make it through each day.
It was super hot & muggy and not very shaded. Once we climbed out of Pawling, we cruised on the rail trail for 30 miles – so most of the climbing was concentrated into the back 55 miles. Once we left New Paltz, opportunities for refueling and refilling water from commercial outlets dropped dramatically. After climbing Mohonk and Peekamoose, we were pretty shredded. A 15-mile downhill awaited us, which was such a relief. But we were rapidly running out of water and we still had a crazy climb to get to our rest stop for the night. Only 1 of the three camp stores we tried was open. The final 5-mile climb was obscene in places and I’m not ashamed to say I hopped off my bike and pushed it in places.
We arrived at the Blue Hill Cafe to find the restaurant portion closed. All three of us were tired and hungry; the thought of choking down another ClifBar as dinner was nauseating. Fortunately, the owner was closing out her register and set us up with fresh homemade chicken salad sandwiches, pickles, chips, and beverages. The cafe wasn’t going to open before we needed to leave in the morning so we were able to grab delicious coffeecake to go.
Day 2 – The Longest Day.
Coming off day 1 and seeing a forecast of even higher temps (near 90* F) and humidity paired with an additional 18 miles until our next overnight accommodations, we opted to leave earlier. Curt had to repair his front shifting cable so we ended up leaving only an hour earlier than Day 1. The morning chill was most welcome as we zoomed out of town and found our first good hill within a few miles. Today was Dirt Day and we knew there would be some formidable climbs in the latter half of the day. Dirt always takes a bit more energy than pavement but is generally mercifully shaded, which provides much needed respite from the sun.
Brunch was 45 miles into the day at a diner in Downsville where we gobbled up eggs and toast and homefries while draining glasses of lemonade as fast as the waitress could bring them. When asked where we were headed, we replied Windham … to which another patron exclaimed “That’s far!” About 75 miles far. Two women on motorcycles stopped me to ask about my bike setup … turns out one of them is planning a ride from Portland, OR to Denver, CO in September. She asked if I would be interested in that journey. I wish I could have said yes.
Leaving Downsville I noticed my rear tire had gone flat … not from the chunky dirt descent to NY30, but from a staple on the road in town. The guys had my tire changed before I could protest and say I could do it myself. Back on the road, we started the 10-mile climb to De Lancy that was happily mostly shaded. The same could not be said for the road between Delhi and Hobart, which was paved and radiant in the sun. It was so hot the tar was snapping under our tires. We ducked onto the rail trail but it was very slow going and overgrown. In the interest of time, we popped back out on the road into Stanford.
Maybe the best part of touring is ice cream stops. We were hot and sweaty and in need of inner cooling. A massive twist cone was just the ticket to keep moving. We’re at mile 82 with 36 hilly miles to go. By mile 101, we’re all cooked again and just want to get to our next overnight room but we have four more “bumps” to conquer before being rewarded with a 5-mile downhill into Windham. From Windham, it’s only another 3 miles to our room. We finally get cleaned up and head next door to Vesuvio Restaurant in Hensonville. We ate like royalty and after a long day, it felt good to put real food in the belly.
Knowing our final day would be lower miles and lower climbing, we opted to see what time we woke up to determine when we would leave in the morning.
Day 3 – The Easy Day
We woke around 6:30am and headed down the street to Nana Gail’s for breakfast, filling our bellies once again with eggs and bread and bacon for the guys. The day was overcast with a 50% chance of thunderstorms so we made sure our rain gear was easily accessible should we find ourselves in a downpour. A short climb out of the Windham area gave way to an epic 15-mile descent back to the Hudson River. We crossed on the Rip Van Winkle Bridge and made our way to Copake, where we would stop for lunch at Dad’s Diner. Our energy is high because we’re on our way home.
This is also the only day I beat the guys up any hills. It should be noted they both have McGuyver’d their gravel bikes to have a 40t or 42t granny gear on their cassette – so they were mostly spinning up the hills like it was Sunday. My granny gear is 34t on my cassette so Grind is my middle name.
If I ever find the funds to start building up a custom gravel bike, you can be sure mountain bike gearing with deep low gears will be top on my list.
After lunch the clouds had given way to brilliant sunshine so we made our way to the rail trail for some shaded goodness. The connection between the two segments from Copake to Millerton is still under construction so we headed onto the pavement. We stopped for cold snacks and water in Millerton before heading back to the cool and shady rail trail to Wassaic.
Sometime after Wassaic, we decided to skip the remaining bonkers hills in favor of an “easier” route to the end. It ended up being only 600′ less of climbing (over 20 miles) but the hills were more rolling than challenging. We’re tired, our bodies are protesting, and frankly this is the second or third day in a kit so it’s getting a bit … funky … around here.
Rolling up to our start location, we decided to get cleaned up and have one final meal together at the local pizza place to celebrate our incredible journey.
Ride What You Got. I love my bike but it doesn’t take tires wider than 30mm. I ride the only gravel tire I’ve found sub-32mm. Sure, I can’t bomb down chunky descents and I have to pick my lines carefully, but I’ve become a skilled technical rider in the meantime.
Learn to Pace Yourself. There is nothing worse than bonking even a few miles from your final destination. Don’t dig yourself into a hole – be sure to eat and hydrate regularly. Take a look at the course so you have an idea of where the hardest parts are and don’t go for KOMs. You need energy for more than just today.
Learn to Eat & Drink On The Ride. “I can’t eat on rides.” You wouldn’t drive your car around on Empty, so why try to bike that way? It’s not a race – Don’t dig a hole you can’t climb out of. The way to do this is to eat something every 90min or so and sip your hydration beverage every few miles. Eat real food like trail mix, salted nuts, potato chips, pretzels … convenience stores are generally well-stocked with these foods. Some even have sandwich counters, which can save the day.
Be Clear & Copious. If your pee isn’t clear and copious, you aren’t hydrating enough. This isn’t always possible to achieve but it should be on your mind as an easy way to monitor your hydration levels.
Have Fun! The whole point of a bike adventure is to get away from it all and explore new places. Remind yourself that all you have to do today is ride your bike. And then go ride your bike.
Thank You to Ralph for creating an amazing route that showcased the hidden gems of the Catskills, to Curt for wanting to ride the route over 3 days, and to Yorktown Cycles for keeping my Salsa in top condition and for the excellent upgrade recommendations. The Nox wheels were clutch in keeping my energy transfer to the bike and not on rotational resistance. And to all my bike friends who have come out to ride bonkers events and routes with me in preparation for this adventure.
Or, we need more Girls Camping Weekends in this world.
My friend Karen and I decided back in January to try out bikepacking – backpacking but with a bike instead of hiking. Having never done this before, we both got very excited about a plan to ride to three different state parks/forests in western Massachusetts, camping every night in a different park and biking all day.
The only weekend we had available was Memorial Day weekend and the state parks require a two-night stay so we altered our plans and decided to reserve an established campsite for two nights with all our gear attached to ourselves or our bikes for the weekend. We researched bikepacking, read a bajillion articles, and scoured the internet for tips and tricks. We texted and chatted and set up Google Spreadsheets to track our planning: routes, gear, food, apparel. We called businesses and town clerks to find a safe place to park our cars for the weekend in town. We did two dry runs – one driving and checking out the Forest and one to mostly load up and ride the full route to iron out any kinks and establish speed expectations.
And then – the weekend arrived. Dude, we are totally doing this!
We had the most amazing time!
Friday we met up in Lenox, Massachusetts, loaded up our bikes and daypacks, and departed on a hot and humid day for Beartown State Forest. We didn’t have far (about 15 miles) to go but the bulk of our elevation was in a 4-mile section up a mountain.
We made a No Guilt pact: no need to hang back for each other but definitely wait for each other at opportune moments. Spending 4+ miles on a 4% average grade is tough on an unloaded bike, much less with loaded bikes. No one was setting QOMs today but everyone was winning!
We made it to camp and got to work setting everything up.
The next day Karen’s friend G joined us. She drove in and brought a cooler full of food and two mountain bikes! After a quick breakfast (coffee and instant oatmeal), we drove over to Kennedy Park to hit the trails together. Fun Fact: G was on a 29er, Karen on a 27.5, and I rode G’s old 26er GT. Survey says, 27.5 and 29ers are best for steamrolling pretty much everything in your path.
After a great ride in the woods, we adjourned to the Great Barrington CoOp for lunch and continued conversation. We were a bunch of Chatty Cathys.
After G set up her tent, we hit the trails for a short hike around the pond.
Yes, it’s just that beautiful!
Set up another amazing fire (seriously, we had mad fire making skills this trip!) and once again, ate ourselves silly and went to bed too late.
Thanks to the cooler G brought, we had eggs for breakfast! Karen had bought her personal coffee blend and a french press so we stuffed ourselves for the day ahead. Super hot and humid again, we started pre-gaming with electrolyte beverages.
Today was a slightly longer and mostly flat to downhill route back to our cars.
As we pedaled into Great Barrington, it started to rain which felt amazing. We kept pedaling along the Houstatonic River, through tiny towns and past quaint New England homes.
The rain started and stopped a few times, each time feeling so refreshing from the humidity. The final 5 miles of the trip back were uphill and we were racing a thunderstorm. We didn’t beat it and ended up getting soaked with less than a mile to go – but it was so delicious!
It’s hard to believe the weekend is over – it went by so fast! Being able to completely unplug and just flow with the vibe of the day was so revitalizing. We also learned so much from this experience and hope to do this again soon.
All in all, A+ Gold Star Will Do Again.
See you on the road!
For those interested:
Salsa Colossal Ti, 53cm
Vittoria Cross XN Pro, 31mm
Revelate Designs Tangle framebag (small), Pika seatbag (small)
Osprey Daylite Plus 20litre Daypack (w/Hydrapak 1.5litre reservoir and Blaster bite valve)
Purist 20oz water bottle, Philly Bike Tours branded
ENO DoubleNest hammock, ProFly, Ember underquilt, and gear sling
GSI Outdoor Pinnacle Soloist cookset
MSR PocketRocket (w/fuel)
2 pairs of bike shorts, jerseys, and socks
Sidi cycling shoes w/SPD cleats
Hoo Ha Ride Glide, individual packets
not on the bike:
1 pair of shorts (KUHL Splash 11″ shorts)
3 T shirts (various bike-related brands) <–walking billboard
3 pairs of Patagonia Active Hipster Briefs
Moving Comfort Uplift Crossback Sports Bra (seriously, the best ever. So comfy)
Flip flops for around the campsite (LL Bean)
Hiking boots (Columbia)
2 pair SmartWool socks
midweight SmartWool baselayers (for sleeping)
bug spray, sunscreen, lip balm, basic toiletries
My Food (Schlepped)
We had way too much food. Karen brought most of the good stuff (2 packages of chicken sausage, rice and beans, Larabars) and G brought a cooler with beer/wine, juices, eggs, milk, the couscous/quinoa deliciousness, and coconut-date-truffle balls. We never got to the trail mix.
I brought the avocado, tortillas, small bottle of hot sauce, and a block of cheddar cheese. Some Kind bars and a packet of ramen noodles. Instant oatmeal packets. Stevia packets for my coffee.
If we were to do this again, possibly without the benefit of a cooler, we would definitely have more single-serve dehydrated food/meals and energy bars. There just isn’t a lot of space for bulky items like fresh fruits and veggies. But … having someone meet you with a cooler (or stashing one at the campsite in advance if you aren’t backcountry camping) opens up a world of great eating. Another option is to just eat in the little towns along the way or bike into town for more food. Lunch at the CoOp was smart and had air conditioning – so we could get out of the heat for a bit.
In January, after over 5500 miles, I decided to sell my beloved Felt ZW5 and get a new bike. It wasn’t because I disliked the bike – I still loved it more than anything. As I entered into my fourth year of riding bikes with my friends, I realized I wanted to simplify as much as I could. Find the Swiss Army Knife of a bike that would allow me to keep up on group rides but also handle non-paved adventures that I tended to take my old bike on. Something that would still feel as good at mile 80 as it did at mile 5. Something that wasn’t carbon fiber – I wanted something sturdy and real.
So I started looking at steel touring bikes and found it’s somewhat difficult to find them in my size and ready to test ride. I tested a Trek 520, which was stable and light but lacked the “let’s go have fun today” zip I was looking for. I tested a Salsa Vaya, which also was stable but not quite FUN. I wanted to test the All City Space Horse but the nearest shop that stocked All City bikes was 90min away.
I get it … niche market and all.
I talked to the guys at the local chain bike shop and after lots of conversation they gave me an excellent recommendation (Raleigh Tamland 2) – in my pricepoint, steel, wide range cassette, accepted wider tires – but no way to test ride the bike. I wasn’t sure I wanted to put down a huge deposit on a bike that I wasn’t sure I wanted.
I also talked to the guys over at the local independent shop and looked at a lot of “adventure bikes” with them, including the new series from Niner. We talked extensively about the types of bike I was trying to find. I really liked the Salsa Vaya but it wasn’t zippy. I need a bike with spunk.
Enter the Salsa Colossal Ti. Everything I wanted – real metal frame, wider range cassette, disc brakes, Ultegra components, takes a tire wide enough for gravel to not feel super sketch. Definitely more than I budgeted – but I rationalized it with how amazing this bike was going to be in my mind because I couldn’t test ride it. The shop owner said he test rode one and it was Next Level riding. My bicycle friends all said the same – if you can swing the Ti, DO IT. You won’t regret it.
So I took their word for it and put down my entire bike budget as a deposit.
I’m here to tell you this bike is the real deal.
When the Salsa marketing materials said “Works with you, not against you, when you are 45 miles from home” – they meant it. I had no idea my previous bikes – all of them – were actively conspiring against me – but they were. How many times have I felt like the bike was not moving forward and my legs screaming in a lactic acid bath?
Put a little more push into the pedals and the bike says YES PLEASE. The energy transfer is amazing. If you have gas in the tank, the bike is totally on board to keep going. Having a 30 (and 32 tooth) sprocket in the back has revolutionized my hill climbing – I was finally able to get up the local 100′-in-2/10-miles hill without walking. This bike eats up road noise like it’s candy – a silky smooth ride no matter what the conditions. The Ultegra groupset is crisp and quiet in its shifting. And the bike is so light – about as light as my carbon fiber bike was – but feels stable and sturdy. Indestructible.
If you have the means, I highly recommend titanium.
So my friend Karen and I are planning a bikepacking trip at the end of May and we did a mostly-loaded ride of the route into camp and then back to our cars. Even fully loaded the bike felt stable, nimble, and still climbed and descended with ease – even on a 3 mile 5% average climb up a mountain or a 16% grade down a loose, rocky abandoned road we navigated. All with minimal rider fatigue.
I swapped the stock Schwalbe One tires for Vittoria Cross XN Pro for this trip and had zero issues when we ducked off the pavement and onto grassy, mossy, overgrown rocky paths. Except for the rocks – let’s just say mountain biking in the 80s pre-suspension suuuuucked.
Side note: when riding around with camping gear loaded on the bike, it looks like you are on an epic adventure. Even if it’s just a dry run to shake out the kinks. It just FEELS cool to glide down the road, loaded up, enjoying sunshine, fresh air, and friendship.
Show some love to your local independent bike shop (what’s up Yorktown Cycles!)
Be honest about what you want from a bike and take the time to learn what you want
Adventuring by bike – especially with friends – is where the magic happens