Let’s talk about Vermont, gravel grinding, and the truly great weekend I had with my dear women friends (and Matt) at the Muddy Onion Spring Classic.
I am blessed to have friends who don’t hesitate to text me “Hey, wanna do this ride?” The answer is usually “YES.” So we secured a cheap hotel room and made our plans for a weekend of gravel magic.
The Muddy Onion Spring Classic is a ridiculously fun ride on lightly traveled dirt and gravel roads in north-central Vermont, hosted by Onion River Sports. Starting in the state capitol, Montpelier, the ride has more elevation gain than linear distance which is made abundantly clear over the first 5 miles. Several climbs topped out in the upper-teens for grade percentage.
The weather couldn’t have been more perfect – mid-to-upper 60s, partly sunny, and fast dirt. Very few sloppy spots on the road made for quick riding.
The first rest stop was about 13 miles (and 1500′ of gain) in and well stocked with chocolate-covered bacon, shots of local maple syrup, pickles, protein bars … and PBR. Water for your bottles was courtesy of the spigot on the side of the house.
It’s like being a kid again, out exploring dirt roads and having a blast.
The second rest stop was 26 miles (and 3200′ of gain) in – more maple syrup shots, more pickles, more chocolate-covered bacon, water from a hose … and fried PB& J sandwiches. We loaded up on electrolytes – only 4 more miles of climbing before the 4 mile descent into town.
We finished in a little over 4 hours of total time, around 3.25 hours of actual riding time, and 3900′ of climbing over 35 miles. Partook of the post-ride BBQ (veggie burgers or grilled chicken; potato chips; local craft beer, soda, and seltzer) before riding our bikes back up the hill to the hotel to get cleaned up.
Grabbed a coffee at Capitol Grounds Cafe and then a case of local craft beer at the state store before heading home.
If you enjoy riding bikes with really cool people, along quiet dirt roads with spectacular views, and you don’t mind a little climbing along the way … the Muddy Onion is a great choice for a challenging event!
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
Have confidence. Confidence in yourself, your bike (team), and your ability to learn along the way.
You have to trust that your bike (team) wants to stay upright (not mess up). It doesn’t want to go horizontal – it wants to keep moving forward.
You have to be open to trying new things, learning when to push yourself and when to dial it back, hop off and walk.
Mountain biking (and leadership) is about picking your line and adjusting on the fly. Look where you want to go, not at the obstacles in front of you. If you are convinced the obstacle right in front of you is the issue, you can be sure there is a much bigger or gnarlier obstacle just beyond it.
It’s about overcoming those obstacles using a variety of methods. On the bike there’s momentum, bunny-hopping, or shifting weight to maneuver over obstacles in the path. Momentum is almost always your friend. As a leader there’s momentum but also pivoting, keeping everyone focused, and moving forward.
Learn to be ok with totally wiping out/making a mistake. You aren’t going to always pick the right line, your wheel might get caught on a rock, you might get tossed off your bike into a puddle of mud. Take a minute to think about how you got there, then pick yourself and your bike back up and keep going.
Mountain biking is hard work but also a lot of fun and incredibly rewarding – as is being a good leader.
How do you see your favorite sport/hobby as a way to improve your professional skills?
I am so thankful to see 2015 out the door and welcome a fresh start, one that will include more miles, more smiles, more family and more fun!
2015 ended with my lowest annual miles since I bought a comfort hybrid and started tracking my miles with my favorite fitness tracking app, MapMyRide back in 2011, a slight 1,031.5 miles. Sure, I have lots of excuses like moving twice, a long snowy winter, cancer surgery, radiation, and organizational changes at my employer … and I’m proud that I made it to 1,000 miles. But I’m not satisfied with the downward trend of my annual mileage.
2016 also marks my decision to sell my most favorite road bike, my Felt ZW5, and buy a new bike. This is not a decision that I am taking lightly (I’m selling her to a friend who wants to get into recreational road biking) but is a necessary step to streamline the stable from 5 bikes to 3. I live in a very hilly area now and the reality is my vintage 10-speed cruiser, which beautiful, isn’t going to cut it. And I’ve been trying to unload my mountain-style hybrid for years – might be time to consider donating it.
Laura, what are you replacing your road bike with?
So glad you asked. I love talking bikes.
I thought really hard about what I love about cycling and what my goals are. A few years ago I might have answered “something light and fast!” because I was used to the plush but heavy ride of a comfort hybrid. And having a carbon recreational road bike has been amazing. I’ve taken that bike on so many adventures, across town and across the region. I’ve gone off-road and on, pedaling away the miles with laughter and friendship.
But the one thing this bike couldn’t be is my Swiss Army Knife of a bike. I have two multi-day bike tours planned and a bikepacking weekend with a friend. I want to be comfortable all day long, stop at mile 75 for ice cream, and keep on truckin’. And my thoughts are along these lines:
I love the road-absorbing qualities of my steel Peugeot, so a steel frame is critical.
I want lower gears to conquer steeper hills without brutalizing my legs. I live in a hilly area – biking home from the train station is roughly 100 ft/mile in elevation gain. I’m a big fan of spinning but have found my limits on a couple double-digit climbs.
And the reality is, I rarely use my very top gears because speed is not a huge factor in my rides. I love long, steady all-day epics with friends or 50-60 mile rides with stops for lunch. (note to self, find some new bikey friends so you can get back on the lunch ride train).
I like disc brakes. I also plan to bike to the train station a few times a week now that the bike lockers are available to rent (sent in my check!), and I need stopping power on the epic downhills.
I want to run bigger tires. I’ve been taking my carbon roadie on gravel grinders and let’s be real: 25s have no business on gravel. I’d like to run 28s or 32s for commuting and weekend jaunts; 35s or bigger on gravel or predominately off-road adventuring.
Fenders and a rack mandatory. Can be aftermarket accessories.
I need the complete bike to be about 25 pounds or less. A tall order for a steel bike, but possible. This is significantly heavier than my current road bike – but I’ll take the trade for a buttery-smooth ride and all-day comfort.
And the most important part, all this for $2k or less.
I’ve narrowed my choices down to a few bikes, looking to start test riding soon, in no particular order:
As I think back across this year, it’s been a stressful one. We sold our house (hooray!), moved to an apartment (eh!), found a new house (hooray!), moved again (two states away!), had to integrate quickly for end of the school year activities (eh!), and have been slowly unpacking and organizing/updating/painting the house. Whole weekends are devoted to Being A Real Adult and that’s never fun.
Oh, and there was that pesky thyroid cancer surgery and radioactive iodine over the summer too. I’m still working on getting my synthetic thyroid hormone balance. While I feel exceptionally thankful my cancer isn’t expected to reduce my life expectancy, I’m now working on finding a New Normal that includes a lot more down time than I’ve previously needed in my life.
No surprise, I’ve been struggling emotionally lately. Like on the verge of Stay In Bed All Day And Full-On Ugly-Cry While Listening to Sad Music and/or Watching Sad Movies. I blame a combination of work (mostly office politics, which isn’t my favorite thing to do), anxiety (impostor syndrome), and a general feeling that my life is very much Not In Balance.
Anyway, I’ve been looking forward to Thanksgiving break because it means a long weekend to relax AND Get Shit Done – but I was in a serious funk. Wednesday I finished up my holiday baking and in the evening my husband and I sat in our hot tub and talked. I know – First World Luxuries. But it didn’t help alleviate the sense of being completely overwhelmed, scattered, and not spending time on the things that matter most.
Thursday morning it was cloudy but in the upper-50s so I decided to head out for a road ride. I haven’t been on my road bike in a while and while it took some internal prodding to get out the door – but soon the pedals were spinning. For the first time ever, I decided to listen to music while I rode. I usually don’t because I like to be able to hear what’s going on around me – but I was on a paved rail-trail and used my Yurbuds, which allow the user to hear ambient sound while delivering high-quality audio. I really should invest in a high-quality single-earbud because riding with music was great.
At the end of my 32 mile ride, I felt a bit better but still anxious. It was nice to spend a few hours just zoned out, spinning.
We had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner as a family, thanks for asking. We miss our friends all over the country and our family out West. But we are thankful to have each other, good jobs, a roof over our heads and food on the table every night.
This morning I grabbed my mountain bike and headed over to the local park for a few hours. I am so thankful that I know about this park because it’s perfect for my level: lots of easy flowy trails but also some technical details.
I zipped around a large family enjoying a hike in the woods. I rode over a few of the smaller logs (and just walked over the larger ones). I rode over the bridge across the Parkway and continued on. I fell off a stone wall. I kept going.
I was the only one on the trails. I stopped frequently to check the paper map I had downloaded of the trails. I stuck to loopy trails that connected easily. I powered up hills and bounced down rocky descents. I felt good.
I found a trail that ended up being a lot more technical than I expected – and I didn’t wreck. I felt like a million dollars.
I took a wrong turn; I doubled back until I found multiple trail blazes. I started experimenting with speed and not shockingly, momentum is your friend when you are mountain biking. I headed back to the gentler park and crushed every trail that I crashed on a few weeks back. I even took a few new trails and had to walk in a few places – but I felt amazing. I got home and took my dog on a walk.
This is exactly what I needed in my life right now. And I still have two more days to Get Shit Done: like laundry and cleaning the house and taking my car in for maintenance.
I need to figure out how to get more of this in my life on the regular.
Life if too short not to see you on the road (or the trails).
A few weeks ago I joined the local bike club on a mountain bike ride and discovered there are three parks with ride-able trails only a few miles from my house. It was really fun to get out in to the woods and not have to go very far. I took a little bit of ribbing because I had driven to the parking lot instead of just riding over, since it’s so close. But I was feeling good and trying new things and clearing logs that I previously wouldn’t have even tried. The trails are very leafy (read: slick) and have a depth that hides the rocks and roots pretty well – but overall are solid trails for early-intermediate riders like myself.
Last week I took my family to the same park to hike the trails. It was good reconnaissance on a few other trails we hadn’t ridden the previous week.
Today I decided to head out and try the trails by myself. I’ve never been mountain biking by myself – I have this belief that it’s better to be with someone in case anything happens. But I can’t keep waiting for “someone else” to be available to scratch the mountain biking itch – so off I went.
I opted to ride my bike to the park, which is only 3 miles away. We live in a very hilly area though – so those 6 miles (there and back) accounted for a significant chunk of the 850′ of gain I conquered today.
The trails were thick with leaves and my rear wheel kept sliding out – but I managed to stay upright. I have a hardtail 29er, which handles pretty well when I’m not in super-tight twisties. It always takes me a bit to get used to how the rear section of my bike is constantly getting knocked around.
Today’s ride was all about learning (and crashing). I rode up to a large log that I had previously cleared on last week’s ride – and stopped pedaling near the top, causing me to realize that’s Not What You’re Supposed To Do. I managed to clear the log without issue – but certainly set the tone for the rest of the short ride.
I ventured onto another trail. I walked one log and then tried the next one, which promptly tossed me to the side of the trail (and into a deep pile of leaves – soft landing!). Another log later I realized I wasn’t on an actual trail and headed back. The maps told me I missed the turn to stay on the “official” trail.
Found a different marked trail and decided to take it – it was super delicious and I was rocking the technical descent until my rear wheel slide out and I almost ate it down the hill. A short time later, navigating a leafy rocky section I was tossed off my bike and into a rock, which connected squarely with my knee. I walked the rest of the way down that hill.
Tried a few more trails with tons of big rocks – clearly my first foray into this park were just on the easiest trails! – some of which I cleared and some I was tossed off, struggling to keep my balance.
I only managed a few trail miles before deciding to head back home (since I have other Real Life things that need to get done today). And I hadn’t even ventured across the parkway to a bigger park with a ton of singletrack! But today’s lessons were solid and I’m looking forward to going back to hone my skills on the more technical trails.