Daniel Jordan: Trip Report, 2019 Super 8 Grand Depart, South Lobe
THURSDAY, Sep 26
The moment of disbelief hit me while I was walking down Langdon Street with David Tremblay on the way to Onion River Outdoors, carrying a stack of pizzas and a backpack full of SPOT trackers. The Grand Depart was on!
At the pre-ride meeting I got a call from Kris Dennan. He wouldn’t be able to ride in the Grand Depart because of a schedule conflict Sunday, so he was riding up from Manchester VT -- 150 miles away -- to see us off the next morning. I told him I would hide leftover pizza at a secret spot in Richmond.
As I pulled into Richmond later that night I saw blinking lights on the road -- perfect timing! A good omen for the event. I pulled over and we shared cold pizza. Kris had his rig packed with overnight gear, and he would spend the next 9 hours performing some mysterious combination of riding and sleeping to while away the night.
Back at my place in Burlington I tried to sleep peacefully. Hard to do before a ride like this one.
FRIDAY, Sep 27
In Montpelier I parallel parked on Court Street, geared up, and headed over to the state house lawn. There were a few riders gathered and more trickling in. The morning was chilly and socked in but I knew the fog would burn off.
I rode to the coffee shop, where I saw Kris’s bike. The line to order went nearly out the door. I think Kris was waiting for his order. I used the bathroom (too much coffee already) and then tried to usher Kris over to the State House. It was already 7:45!
It was hard to believe the number of riders there, and more were arriving! I handed out the remaining SPOT trackers and gave hurried tutorials. Danielle Blanca was there — she had expressed intent to ride but had to withdraw due to injury, but I was really glad she came to ride out with everyone for a few hours anyway. It was also great to see Chloe Wexler at the start, and she was planning to ride out with the group as well. I asked her to take the group photo and she completely dominated that task, calling the group to huddle up, and later returning my DSLR back to me in “manual” mode with light metering dialed in.
David and Kris and I said some words to the group. The mood was good. We set off into the streets of Montpelier. As we rode in front of Capitol Grounds, a bystander asked if this was the Super 8! “You know it!” I shouted back.
Somehow I had always anticipated this moment being much scarier and harder to manage with riders and traffic. My feeling instead was one of gratefulness and control. There were very experienced riders and rigs in our midst, and I loved briefly flooding Montpelier with this peloton. The full 8 and south lobe riders turned right on Main Street, and the north lobe riders turned left.
We ascended out of Montpelier to clear views of a blue sky and patchy valley fog below. The group dynamic was really good. I talked with Matt Tschiegg about cycling laws in Vermont vs. Mass. The morning light and post-rain air intensified the colors of turning leaves, and I was glad that every rider got to witness the scene. At one point, a group of horses kept speed with us from across a large field, which reminded me of a car commercial. Pretty soon we were at Black Rd — an easy turn to miss, but definitely a good first “Class 4” experience for the Super 8. It’s brief, but very rough, and includes a creek crossing that you need to anticipate if you want to clear it. I sprinted out front for this section so people would know to follow me off the road and into the woods.
I found myself grouped up with Jeremiah, Kevin, Mikey, and Chloe. Soon we caused a cow to scamper off the road. There was a gentleman walking his unleashed dog, which some of us had to fend off. I took the opportunity to chat with Chloe, which I always enjoy, and it was great to have her enthusiasm. At the turn to School House Rd she bid me adieu to ride back to Montpelier! Now it was time to catch the three guys ahead.
Mikey and I had carpooled down to TNGA earlier that year and found that we had similar abilities and ambitions. I had shared with him my plan for this ride. I wanted to go fast and finish on Sunday around noon. This required careful selection of when to stop, and for how long. My habit in planning for ultra-pace rides is to cut the ride into chunks, and then reset the clock (mentally or otherwise) each time I complete a chunk. The summary of my plan was basically: get to Pete’s Camp (mi. 125) early enough to sleep a decent amount, hopefully by 10 or 11 p.m. Leave Pete’s at 3 a.m. Get to Bennington in the afternoon. Be on the rail trail as night fell. Sleep as needed, but keep moving. Finish in Montpelier by noon. 380 miles and 43,000 ft in 52 hours.
The downhill to Chelsea was exhilarating as always. I wondered if Jeremiah or Kevin would stop at Chelsea, but they looked to be moving on through. My plan necessitated moving through here as well, though when I had ridden this section in the spring with David T. and Akhil, I had been very hungry for a snack at this point. But now I was fine. The difference between then and now for me was 1) a summer involving about 2 months of HR-zone training for an ultra that August and 2) being prepared with snacks-while-riding for the Super 8.
Mikey is not much of a chatter and has a very mellow presence. Jeremiah and Kevin — not so much! I enjoyed hearing their tales of folks from back home, mountain biking spots, etc. A welcome distraction. When I got tired of active listening I just dropped back a little.
The winding roads after Chelsea are beautiful. David had mapped this section while he had spent time living in North Tunbridge. At this point you've crossed the continental divide between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Long Island Sound, and you do get that sense of the world falling away in front of you.
I became outrageously hungry. I pulled from my feedbag two folded slices of pizza from Thursday night sealed in a fresh freezer bag and devoured them.
Soon we were on the chunky roads between Chelsea and Cobb Town Forest. Much drier than the spring, but still challenging. Once the Hemenway Rd downhill came I was happy to be gaining speed, and I knew lunch was around the corner.
Then I noticed my SPOT tracker was missing. I instantly knew what had happened. Normally I put my SPOT at the end of my seat bag (normal sized saddle bag, not a Viscacha or whatever) and this works fine. I had taken my SPOT out to give a rider a tutorial at the start, and then had forgotten to turn it back on, and at some point I'd checked Trackleaders on my phone and realized this, so I stopped to turn it on and then ride with it in my gas tank bag where I thought it would have a better chance at getting initial signal and where I could see the lights blinking so I would be able to confirm that it had signal. I had forgotten to take the last step of returning it to the saddle bag. This was really dumb, especially as I had left the gas tank bag partially unzipped so I could see the SPOT’s lights peeking out. It had certainly fallen off on rough Hemenway road. I decided to turn around and look for it.
After 20 mins of backtracking uphill I regained cell service and checked Trackleaders. I was hoping to be pointed right to the SPOT’s location — it was a GPS tracker after all. Unfortunately though the location had not updated in about 1.5 hrs, and I had been looking for about 30 mins… meaning that I had no real positive location on it, and it was unlikely I would ever again. The SPOT must have landed face-down! I decided to keep looking anyway.
Pretty soon I ran into Jeff Mullen. He told me what I wanted to hear: it’s not a big deal. Just keep riding. I would have my GPS file to verify my ride anyway. Bummer that my friends and family wouldn’t be able to follow.
So I high-tailed it to Strafford. I got a quick lunch. By the time I left, Erik Nelson had arrived, and then Jeff. Leaving Strafford, I started climbing up Turnpike and was soon in very familiar territory.
It's amazing how much easier a route feels once you know it, even a little bit. I had lived in this area 2015-2016, and Turnpike to Chapel Hill to Tigertown was my first contribution to the Super 8. Back when we wanted the Super 8 to link singletrack networks, I'd wanted to send riders up to the Gile Mtn Tower and down the Blue Ribbon trail -- but Blue Ribbon had been closed all of 2018. Around the connection of Tigertown and Mitchell Brook, there is the mighty Sue Spalding Rd, which is an extra climb to get to some burly and beautiful class 4 descent including Podunk Rd, with rock slabs the width of the road. It didn't feel right for the Super 8 though. At this point I felt that pretty much all riders would be trying to cover distance, as there's essentially no camping between Strafford (Cobb TF) and Bridgewater (Coolidge SF). I had reached out to the Charles Downer SF who had told me camping was not allowed there and gave me a recreational use permit to fill out ... which I never got around to. All this is just a snapshot, one-hundredth of the many design choices that go into a bikepacking route.
I cruised down Tigertown and started up the pavement to Joe Ranger Rd, taking advantage of the smooth miles to eat, and to text Kate (girlfriend) about the SPOT. The weather was perfect and I was feeling great. Once focused on riding again I tried to keep my heart rate up in the trying-hard-but-not-too-hard zone, which on slight pavement climbs meant I should be zipping along pretty fast. I looked at the hilltops to the west in their fiery foliage and tried to guess (as I always did on this stretch) which gap Joe Ranger Road took us through before Old King's Highway.
Climbing Joe Ranger I caught up with Kevin Moynihan. He was riding with spirit though I could sense he was getting tired after all the climbing to this point: 1.5 vertical miles over 65 riding miles so far. We soon passed the Appalachian Trail, which I have marked as a waypoint in case a rider needs to nap on the side of the road.
Mentally I’d regarded Joe Ranger as one climb, then nice roads down to Woodstock. I had forgotten the few short, steep climbs up in Pomfret. Some of the nicest houses around as well. I hoped other riders were able to reach this spot and get a good view.
I had allotted myself 45 mins to eat and recharge in Woodstock. In hindsight, I probably didn't need this, but I indulged because it was in my plan and I felt like I had earned it, and looking for the Spot tracker didn't put me too far behind schedule as I had been riding faster than planned. I enjoyed my mediocre gas station burger, taking the time to open a mayonnaise packet, two relish packets, a ketchup packet, and a mustard packet. While I was opening all those packets I thought about how Mikey and Jeremiah would be climbing up to Coolidge soon. I had grabbed a Coca-Cola because my friend Barry had suggested that Coke specifically had an aspirin-like quality. As soon as I took a sip I remembered: this drink has caffeine, and I needed to be asleep at Pete's Camp in only a few hours. So I went and picked up a Sprite instead. I hadn't drunk a Sprite in years. It tasted different than I remembered but maybe that was just me. Maybe I should have gone with root beer. I would later throw away the almost full Coke. It went deeply against my grain to waste something like that but I chalked it up to the many excesses I allot myself to try to perform well on these rides.
Leaving town I took a wrong turn, spun around real quick and there was Erik Nelson. He was also having trouble following the route out through Woodstock. We rode together down Rte 4 and had good conversation riding single-file in the traffic and shouting over our shoulders to each other. The sun was nice and the shadows were getting long.
After crossing the river at Bridgewater (after passing a driver being written a speeding ticket by a police officer, as is custom in Bridgewater), we started the climb up the obscure dirt road to Coolidge State Forest. Erik asked me what to expect over the next few days of the ride -- he had taken this as vacation time and wanted to strategize at how much he ought to be riding each day to strike that elusive balance between hard work and enjoyment. We both agreed that camping at Coolidge would be a good step for him, and I was enthusiastic about this as I had recently re-routed the course this way specifically so that Coolidge could be accessed for camping. Pretty soon we reached the spur, and I bid Eric farewell.
Not 20 seconds after I said bye to Erik, I spied Jeff Mullen way up the hill in front of me. But then I had to go dig a hole in the woods, so I wouldn’t catch up with him until later. When I did catch up to Jeff again, it was right at the top of this climb, after the road closes up and forces you to take on some rocky switchbacks. I always like riding with Jeff and after chatting briefly we descended together down the rough stuff, then the smooth dirt -- one long smooth dirt straightaway comes to mind -- then down a long stretch of pavement. The route cuts a completely pointless yet legal corner through someone’s side yard (whoops), then takes you into the flats between Reading and West Windsor, including a cool side view of Little Ascutney whose crags were very stunning in the dusk light. The golden fields broken by the jutting rocks didn’t feel like Vermont at all. I enjoyed the flat terrain!
At this point I was putting a gap between Jeff and myself and thought about stopping to wait for him as I knew the navigation through the North Springfield Reservoir was tricky. The more I thought about this, the more I realized the thought probably stemmed from an emotional reaction at the impending darkness and a desire to band together. I knew I had time goals, and Jeff did too, and this was Jeff’s like 14th grand depart and he knows what he’s doing. I would later learn that he didn't have much trouble in this section, and it went relatively more smoothly than his navigation at other points on his ride.
Riding through the reservoir as night fell was beautiful.
Once I got to Chester, I made it a point to ride clean through the suspension bridge with super narrow hand rails -- and I did! First time ever. (Another rider tore his grip on the bridge). I have since swapped to x-wide Jones Loop bars and I don't think those would fit easily.
I love the climb from Chester to Pete's on the Super 8. There are at least two turns that surprise you, and suddenly you're on gnarly, beautiful Vermont class 4 climbing between old stone walls and ferns and maple trees. You enter on the edge of one person's property and you get spat out on the edge of someone else’s, and you're still climbing. It's over 1200 ft gain, which is a lot for a consecutive climb in the East. This part of the route is Kris Dennan's work, and it's masterful.
At this point my mind was rather fixed on how much sleep I would be getting at Pete's Camp. If all went well it would be 4 hours. It often happens that I'm too excited to fall asleep on night 1… I wondered if this would be the case tonight.
Just before Pete’s, there’s a class 4 that cuts right in front of someone’s yard, by their chickens and pigs and everything. I got to this section and there was a sign that said, “Road Closed.” This sign was new to me, and I wondered if it was “bikelash,” so I started preparing a script in my head for what to do if the residents came out to confront me.
But then I saw the massive wall of deadfall. From uphill to the left, what appeared to be an entire forest had fallen into the road. Can’t stop me! I thought. I started methodically working my way through it, and then I came to the bridge. The bridge had rails on either side, so the deadfall now comprised tree trunks and huge limbs at chest height. I pushed my bike underneath one trunk and then climbed over the top of it, being careful not to screw up my derailleur or anything else. The further back into the deadfall I looked, the thicker the deadfall appeared. I decided to turn around.
I knew how to get to Pete’s Camp through the neighborhood. I was filled with completely unfounded anger towards the landowners for what I thought must have been poor logging practices contributing to erosion and loose root systems. I had been frequenting this neighborhood on bikepacking trips for 3 years now, and had noticed more trees gone each time I visited. Turns out they had experienced a tornado a few weeks prior.
I was very glad to get to Pete’s, and I was pretty much on schedule. Jeremiah and Mikey — who had detoured around the deadfall — were milling about and were almost done setting up to sleep. I discussed plans with them. Mikey and I made plans to leave at 3 am.
Pete had left for us PBJ fixings and Little Debbie snacks, as well as water and campfire material if we wanted. Very generous! He continues to prove himself as a superhost for bikepackers.
I set up my sleeping gear on the floor in the cook shack. It was much warmer inside a structure than outside. I had my sleeping pad, my down lower-half sleeping bag, and my puffy jacket. I felt really comfortable and warm, and was able to calm my mind reasonably quickly.
SATURDAY, Sep 28
I awoke to my alarm at 2:45 and felt pretty normal. I had abstained from alcohol for the weeks leading up to the ride and I'm convinced this has a lot to do with how quickly I can wake up. I had laid out an extra strength double shot Starbucks can I had packed all the way from Woodstock, also I had a honeybun. It was a Krispy Kreme honeybun, but I think next time I will stick with the regular honey bun. It had >500 calories and took a long time to eat.
Mikey and I set out shortly after 3. Leaving Pete's has some quick turns. It would be hard for new people in the dark but I had ridden it at least twice before (and still managed to miss one turn). Infamously ledgy and steep Turkey Mtn Road was pretty dry, despite the recent rains -- a very dry August/September must have really helped.
There were two points on this stretch where an owl seemed to join us. It would swoop along overhead, casting huge shadows from my headlamp onto the tree limbs above, and then cruise up to a branch to stop and look back at us. These are some of the magical things that happen while riding in the woods at night. It made me feel like a wizard commanding woodland creatures. The same thing happens often with bats, and I wonder if this is because of a cloud of bugs around the very bright headlamps and smelly riders.
We reached a really nice hilltop vista looking down to Brattleboro around dawn. We had been working pretty hard and both decided to stop here and take it in. I checked my phone and found the Vermont Country Deli would be open, where I knew they had delicious and expensive sandwiches, and it was on-route (unlike the Brattleboro Coop which is off-route).
As dawn drew closer I had been growing increasingly sleepy, and by the time the sunlight was hitting the tree tops, I was beside myself with sleepiness. I wasn’t nodding off, but I would have pulled over and napped had I been riding solo. On a wide gravel climb I was able to close my eyelids 80% and mentally zone out for a few seconds at a time over the period of a few minutes. This is a sure-fire way to crash your bike, but somehow I kept it together. I kept my awareness trained on keeping Mikey just within squinted view.
Approaching Brattleboro there are some exquisite roads and paths, including one closed to cars that takes you through the
Watershed forest, then onto some town singletrack. The .gpx here is ground-sourced and good but it’s still difficult to find your way as the trails are faint. I was enjoying this section as I knew we were close to town and the morning air was very nice.
By the time we got to the Brattleboro retreat trails it was cloudy again. Mikey did a great job navigating through the trails. I knew this part of the .gpx route was off (looking to improve that for next year), and I’m glad I had his sense of direction in front of me. We met many friendly dog-walkers on this overcast Saturday morning.
We rode briefly through Brattleboro and to the Vermont Country Deli, which was everything I wanted it to be. After breakfast and coffee (and pot stickers because why not), I left there with two veggie samosas in a butcher paper bag, also an expensive local energy bar. There are huge cookies by the door, and it's fun just to look at them.
I kept packing up and left a few minutes after Mikey did. I set off for the climb out of Brattleboro and then remembered to stop and send out the email about the tornado damage leading to Pete’s Camp so that anyone getting there that night would be ready. I would later that day hear from Jeff Mullen that he went straight through the deadfall, and it took him over an hour!
Climbing out of Brattleboro takes a while, but true to form the higher up you get the nicer the roads are. There’s pavement but plenty of shoulder, and then the dirt is very nice. I think some of these roads are used on the D2R2. I came zooming down a dirt road and saw a family gathered in their front yard -- at the sight of me approaching, two small kids ran screaming for the house. Maybe they were performing but I got a laugh out of that.
In 1hr45 of riding I still hadn’t caught up to Mikey. After some really smooth dirt I found myself descending into a town and up to a chain-link fence in the road with “detour” posted on it. Bummer! But then I got closer and saw -- there was Mikey with a hot dog and a Coke, and people milling about in the street. It was a town celebration in Halifax and they had blocked off the road to car traffic. The weather was lovely and it was really nice to chat with locals. I saw an old woman set aside her walker and attempt to hula hoop. I got an ice cream and rode away with it.
Mikey and I rode together through the next section down to Whitingham. We restocked at the Jacksonville General Store and chatted with a guy up from Connecticut riding an unloaded Long Haul Trucker around the dirt roads. He was a really nice gentleman and I tried to persuade him to ride lower tire pressure -- he was riding at >70 psi with Continental touring tires! He told me about some routes up in Quebec on the Gaspe Peninsula … this is recommendation #2 for me so it must be worth checking out.
We left that general store expecting no resupply until Bennington. I think I got a vitamin water or some other sort of clear sugary drink, and I got some granola bars for the ride, but I wasn’t feeling the sugary snacks like I thought I should be. I wondered what was going on with me food-wise — my stomach is usually my strongest ally, but since the morning of the start it had been proving fussy. I knew I had enough Shot Blocks to make it just about anywhere, and I never get tired of shot blocks. Especially not the Ginger Ale flavored ones.
Jacksonville to Whitingham is more nice roads. I think it was Town Hill Rd where we came upon some other cycling event. Suddenly there was cheering and cowbells, and riders coming up from the other direction pulling into the parking lot. We got lots of cheering! I asked, “What ride is this for?” and they said, “Your ride!” … I gave them a fist pump.
The Harriman Reservoir was lower than I have ever seen it! I’ve only seen it maybe 5 times over the past 4 years.
We turned onto the Dam road. I was frustrated about something but I don’t remember what. There was a man on the dam with a dog and binoculars, probably bird watching. We continued north on the Catamount here -- rough rail bed but very beautiful, including some cuts into the stone.
We reached the left turn to begin the climb out and over to Heartwellville, and I knew this was one of the hardest sections of the south lobe. When Mikey rolled up I told him this next section would be the hardest part of the next 150 miles. I remember when David and Kris and I had scouted this part, all the technical climbing had left me sapped… though Kris had been able to clear just about everything… but this year I had been training and I knew more about nutrition and heart rate zones. My improved fitness made this section a fun challenge. I tried to stay on my bike and ride much of it -- I felt pretty good, and when my HR spiked as I cleared a technical section I knew to try to slow-pedal the next section until my HR subsided. I repeated this a few times, and walked a fair amount. It’s really a remote and wooded area, and the technical terrain makes it interesting. There are lines! You just have to know that you’ll be making slow progress.
After some rugged descending I followed the .gpx track smack into what I thought was a trail but was actually the woods. I saw I was a little south of the track on my Garmin, so I bushwhacked north through some thick brush (maybe 50 yards?) onto a sunny grass track. I waited here for Mikey to catch me. He had a confused look so I explained to him what happened, and we rode on. A few days later, I would get a phone call at 10:30pm from two riders unable to find their way through this section. I would pull up their trackleaders page and see where they were wandering and give them advice on how to find the grass track. The joys of being an event director. It would definitely be easy to get lost trying to find that connection at night! (And I am still not 100% sure how it connects).
After the nice roads around Heartwellville, it was time to get burly again on the way to Stage Coach Rd. This was one of the few sections of the Super 8 I had not yet ridden. I had asked Kris what he thought about Stage Coach, and I still remember his response: “It’s a brake-burner.”
What I didn’t account for -- and what I wasn’t mentally prepared for -- were the three blips on the elevation profile getting through the 3 miles or so before the descent. Loose rocky climbs, loose rocky descents. Back to back. Some of them completely unrewarding to try to climb due to how loose the rocks were. Walking time.
Many ATV’s passed us on this section. I rode down one hill to a group of them congregated -- mostly younger kids -- and they were parked in the middle of the road as though they owned it. I squeezed through on the side and asked if they were having a good time and got pretty much no response. Someone said, “hi.” I was a little disappointed as in my experience ATV riders are happy to share the stoke but maybe it was too early and they hadn’t had enough beer. Later on I moved over for two more side-by-sides -- neon hoodies, camo, American flags, country music -- and one of them stopped to chat with me. We got each other laughing then he offered me a beer. I had to think about it! I said, “Nah, I can’t, it would slow me down,” and he said, “Beer never slowed anybody down!”
The riding was non-stop loose shitty rocks right up until the point where you aim northeast and start descending -- and then it is a descent down loose shitty rocks! It’s almost a 2,000-ft descent, the longest on the Super 8. I had to stop in the middle to give my body a break. Yes, it is a brake burner.
The pavement was welcome and it was easy rolling into Bennington. I looked up the hours of the bike shop there and found it to be open only on Tuesday and Friday!
Mikey was surprised to see a Stewart’s there. One of the few in Vermont (they are all over NY). Famous for its Stew Brew, a beer that supposedly accompanies outdoor adventuring, and shows you so by including a bunch of outdoor adventure icons, including one of a guy vomiting.
At Stewart’s I experienced shopping paralysis, no doubt partially due to my underperforming stomach. I didn't feel as rushed as usual; I think Mikey and I were both chastened by the impending second night and the inevitable mind games that would be required to keep pedaling through it. With the paucity of resupply options during night-time hours, you need to buy everything you could possibly need, including treats for yourself -- all it takes is one or two disappointments for your fragile mental state to begin to crumble.
I decided to phone in a pizza over at Ramunto’s. She asked what I wanted and I was trying to ask what kind of flavors they had over the phone, and I again couldn’t make up my mind. I asked for half “the works,” and the other half sausage mushroom onion pepper. Turns out those are pretty much the same, plus or minus tomatoes.
At Stewart’s I ended up purchasing two 5-hour energies, some Trolli gummy worms, a Milky Way, a Snicker’s, a Cosmic Brownie, fig bars, a Red Bull citrus drink, snack mix, some individual cheeses, and some chips. I also got a Stewart’s hot barbecue chicken sandwich with two packets of honey mustard sauce, a chocolate milk, and a seltzer, to eat on-site. Mikey got many things including an empanada but I didn’t know if I wanted one. When we were eating outside, a Stewart’s employee leaving the premises in her truck asked Mikey what he thought about the empanadas as they were a new addition.
When we got to Ramunto’s Mikey and I decided to eat the Pizza out on the well-manicured lawn beside the restaurant. I don't know why that felt right but it did. Maybe so we could tweak our gear, maybe because we didn't want to get too comfortable indoors, or turn too many heads within chatting distance. The pizza was really hot and really good! I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to finish it, but the medium turned out to be just the right size (to eat two pieces and pack two pieces each).
After all this eating I did not feel overly full, which was good. Dragging out the time (1.5 hrs stopped in Bennington) probably helped.
When I had ridden the Super 8 Grand Depart of 2017, I had taken a shortcut from Pete's down to Arlington. I had cut over Stratton Mountain, down the IP road to the infamous Kelley Stand Road down to Arlington -- so I had skipped everything between Bennington and Arlington. On google maps I saw that much of it was pavement so I wasn't too excited to ride it. But riding it now, I was delighted to ride through the college campus, which is pleasant and affords a nice view to the east. Then afterwards the dirt roads are just so nice -- your first taste of Champlain Valley farm roads, which would make up much of the next 100 miles.
Ping! I broke a spoke. Just as the sun was setting and just in the front yard of some German Shepherds. They were being good boys and not barking or chasing, but now that we were stopped in front of their house they started approaching slowly and doing that thing where they close their mouths and keep their heads still and low as they approach -- very frightening! We rode up the road a ways -- riding slowly and verbalizing so as not to trigger the dogs’ chase responses -- and I found that my tire was definitely rubbing and I would not be able to simply tie the spoke over on its neighbor. I told Mikey this would be a minute, so he went on ahead. I pulled out my yellow Red Bull and my tools and went to work.
The Wolverine has sliding rear drop-outs -- AND I had replaced the slide bolt lock nuts with wing-nuts meaning I didn’t need wrenches -- which normally would have been very useful for this kind of pickle, but I was very lucky in that the spoke that broke was one that I could change without taking off the rear disc rotor, and I’ve got a DT freehub which means I just pull the cassette off the wheel. Because the spoke broke right at the J-bend, I didn’t need to replace the nipple either. All that to say -- it took me 25 minutes to remove the broken spoke and put the new one in -- which I did have! -- and I got it about as good as I would have gotten it at home in the shop. By the time I finished, last light had gone and I was full on night-riding. I finished the Red Bull and set off.
I don’t remember much about this section… pretty much dirt roads at night. There is a rail crossing that puts you briefly on a weird path. It was spooky and fantastic. I gave Kris Dennan another mental props -- bits like this are what makes the ride fun, quick connections through the in-between spaces of Vermont.
Arlington! From here I would be on familiar territory.
The roads that take you West along the Battenkill are pleasant. There was a historical marker that I had made a mental note to check, having led a friend to believe it was something related to the artist Rockwell Kent but I couldn’t remember if it had been Norman Rockwell… and sure enough it was Norman Rockwell, this was a house he lived in for a little bit in the 40’s when he did some painting of so-and-so, and had so-and-so modeling for him. Fine.
Hello, New York. Time to climb.
This is a pleasant climb. Remote woods, pretty smooth terrain. I saw a dead chicken in the road … it was mostly whole, but there was blood around it, and its eye was open, which made for a terrifying sight. I thought it might have been a bird of prey that did this, but then I thought, maybe a coyote or a fox? I had seen a fox an hour or two before.
Shortly after there was another dead chicken. This one had less of its body remaining, also very bloody. Then, there was another one. Three dead chickens at night, very ominous.
At some point during this climb, it rained. After a few minutes of denial in the light rain, I pulled out my jacket at just the right moment as the rain got heavier. I stayed comfortable and the rain did not last more than 30 minutes. I had put on my Showers Pass socks that morning at Pete’s Camp, and did not use shoe covers. I felt quite cozy in this rain (love my current rain jacket, and a cycling cap to keep it out of my eyes), but anything much heavier or more sustained might have been a different story for my feet.
Near the top of the climb, the road takes you right in front of a house. It’s a very nice house but you feel like you’re in their backyard, which always makes me feel uneasy. I don’t think anyone was home.
Descending out of here I realized I was pretty low on water. At one point I was riding beside a river with easy access and for no good reason at all I didn’t stop to filter. On one hand, the night was cool and I had flat terrain in front of me, but on the other hand, I knew I couldn’t feasibly ride until dawn on the dregs of my water bottles. Generally “just keep riding” is a pretty good idea, so that’s what I did. Later I would be on the rail trail and realize that even the water that was available to me was passing through pasture land. I trust my Sawyer filter literally with my life, but I also never intend to drink downstream of cow pastures. I was not setting myself up for success.
I was really looking forward to the rail trail. I got to Rupert and found a town building which I circled looking for a water spigot. Finding none, I rode over to a swingset and leaned my bike against it. It was 10pm but the small town was 100% still and quiet, which made it feel much later. I changed my .gpx track to the third and final track of the south lobe. I dropped my bibs and aired out. I got out my jacket and warmer gloves, got out my headphones, loaded a playlist, pulled up my drawers, and headed over to the rail trail. Time to grind!
No, too bumpy. I knew I didn’t have much rocky road until… Roxbury? About 100 miles away. I dropped psi in my tires, but not too much as there were certainly some sharp bridge curbs or the odd pothole. There we go. Time to grind!
Part of my heart rate zone training had revealed to me that I could push much harder on the flats than I thought I could. After 10-20 minutes of riding I was able to reach that sustainable and quick pace. No doubt my tired body took longer than usual to coax into this zone.
In Rupert I had put on some chamois butter. My ass wasn’t hurting, but I thought surely I would need it before too long. Now with the chamois butter I realized that my ass was stinging! Of course -- it was a brand I had never used before. I had heard from people never to switch up chamois butter during a ride, and here I was proving to myself that this was a bad idea. I stopped and removed what I could with a napkin I had stolen. The stinging would subside over the next few hours but that was a close call.
Another distraction was my playlist. I didn’t have much cell service and somehow had forgotten to download the newer songs I had wanted to listen to. I know how petty this sounds, but any bikepacker can tell you how amplified these small disappointments become on a long ride, especially if you are sleep-deprived. Anyway -- I settled on my standby bikepacking playlist called “You will need this,” which includes Boards of Canada, Radiohead, Mogwai: my favorite night-riding music.
So after another 20 minutes of adjusting and tweaking like this, I found my rail trail groove. I turned the music up pretty loud. Sometimes (too often) the spell was broken by getting spat out onto a road and then back to the rail trail. On the long straight sections though, I kept my headlamp fixated on a point ahead under the tunnel of foliage and pedaling with unbroken strokes, and I was able to achieve the sensation that everything except my headlamp beam had melted away. It was almost midnight and I wasn’t sleepy.
SUNDAY, Sep 29
In Granville I decided to try to find water. I rode by the Station House building which, I would later find out from Mikey, had a spigot! But I didn't stop to look. At the rail trail crossing with the town, I saw some people smoking outside a bar, and some kids with skateboards hanging out on the street corner. Something told me this town must have a 24hr gas station… and my phone said it did! ~2 miles off course but well worth it. At the gas station I refilled water (at last! also downing a bottle while I shopped) and microwaved a breakfast croissant. The attendant had done some bike tours in a former life and had some military experience, so we chatted about these kinds of through-the-night endurance events. It was a treat to feel “understood” in this way. There were kids dropping by the gas station to cure Saturday night munchies. I felt rejuvenated with my water and ready to get to Brandon.
There was a particularly great rail trail section (not positive if it was before or after Granville) where the rail bed is built up very wide and falls off on either side of you at least 15 feet. It’s fun and spooky at night.
At 1:45 the sleep monsters came to visit. I was on a long flat stretch of highway 22A. There was a large field to my right but I couldn’t see beyond it under the moonless night. I was having deja-vu of having slept in this field before and then waking up to the roving headlight of a tractor. It didn’t look like my odds of finding a good sleep site would increase any time soon, so when I saw some brush on the shoulder I pulled over and nestled down in a space where drivers wouldn’t be able to see me. I kept my helmet on (which cradles your head like a pillow!) and was pretty soon asleep.
In 20 minutes I awoke and got right back on my bike. The 20-minute break barely gave my butt time to get used to not riding. My head felt clear and to my delight I found that the sleep monsters were done with me (for now).
It was dark and after the pavement around Rte 4 I wasn’t having any fun. I knew I was riding by some nice lakes but I couldn’t see them in the dark; all I could see was pavement, nice houses, motor boats and docks. There is a short climb over to West Castleton that felt pointless to me. I was bored and cranky.
Around 4am I was coasting down by Bomoseen State Park, and there was a bright light -- Mikey! I was glad to see him and rolled up and asked how he was doing. He replied in his usual even-keeled tone of voice that he was fine, just trying to decide what to do. I think I remember him saying he had tried unsuccessfully to sleep. There was a water pump there so I refilled my bottles. He asked if I saw the dead chickens in the road! Scary stuff, we agreed. I told him I was feeling good and would continue on, and that I’m sure I would see him again.
About a minute after I left the night got much colder and I put my warm jacket on.
I got tired again at 5 a.m. and checked my Garmin to see if I was near anything, and was really glad to see Pond Woods WMA close by. I had slept here in the past and would be glad to revisit. The two miles or so leading up to it lasted forever, and I felt myself wanting to go ahead and fall asleep. I found the overgrown entrance road and pushed up into a corner of the rocky parking area and found a flat spot to lie down, again keeping my helmet and shoes on. I set my alarm for 20 minutes. As I fell asleep to the rush of wind through the treetops I had the sensation of falling backwards. I awoke 15 minutes later to the sound of nuts and twigs striking the ground around me. I was terrified that one would hit face. I got rolling, turned my lights on, and felt content.
The night riding stayed weird. There's a fun class 4 section, and from here it gets hillier. The pre-dawn light started to sneak in as I rode by a misty bog. I gradually allowed myself to look forward to Brandon.
I was glad to get to Brandon as this represented the beginning of the end to me. In my ride plan I had envisioned riding through here around midnight… but the fact that I was many hours behind schedule didn’t matter too much as I had built in a a few hours to sleep in the camping-friendly Roxbury Town Forest a few hours down the road (which I might not need?), and my goal of finishing before noon still left some wiggle room to finish in the day time. My hard stop was finishing in the day time ... I definitely did not want to drag this out.
Brandon was very refreshing in the dawn hours, but I had promised myself another wink of sleep while shaking off the pre-dawn sleepiness on the dirt roads before town. I asked a man walking his dog for the time, and it took him a long time to dig his phone out of his pocket during which I was riding in circles, and he said it was 6:52. I rode up to the bakery and darn, it being Sunday they didn’t open til 8 (all other days 7). I rode over to the waterfall by the little park and it looked very inviting and pleasant, but I have a thing about sleeping next to running water (the noise freaks me out) and I needed to charge my phone and my backup Garmin.
There was a large courthouse/municipal building and I guessed they would have outlets on their porch -- which they did -- so I promptly plugged in my phone and sat on the uncomfortable dusty porch floor, then realizing that wasn’t going to work I dragged some chairs over and made my torso warm with all my jackets, put my hands in my pockets and was out cold.
I woke up about 30 minutes later having drooled all over myself and feeling well-rested. Someone had parked across the alleyway and got out of their car and that got me feeling the homelessness paranoia so I immediately started gathering my things up, and then I realized they were simply depositing a check or something at a credit union. It was only 7:30 so the bakery still wasn’t open but I felt the need to get a move on.
I have ridden Brandon Gap many times. This was the hardest it has ever been for me. It may have been the hardest climb for me on the whole Super 8 for just that reason -- it was paved (=boring), I knew it well so there wasn’t much surprise/delight, I was on a loaded bike… maybe if the bakery had been open some coffee would have made it better. The morning light and the mountain fog were beautiful, but I just wanted it to be over. (Reader take note: in hindsight I was sleep-deprived and emotionally drained. Riding over Brandon Gap at dawn is a treat!).
In no time I was in Rochester. Sandy’s! The sun was amazing. I took off my gloves, hat, and jacket and hung them over my bike to dry while I went inside and ordered a coffee (with a refill in advance, which she didn’t charge me for), a bagel with cream cheese, and a cinnamon bun. I went outside with all my food. The cinnamon bun was so good I wanted to cry. Especially the middle. The coffee was really good too. It’s nice to have food that tastes really good after eating gas station food and energy bars all night.
Someone was leaving the bakery and I sort of knew who it was from hearing other people talking to him -- Doon, the owner of Green Mountain Bikes in town, fresh out of dirt church and headed over to his sweet mountain bike back to ride it over to the shop. I chatted with him briefly and tried to gauge his interest in bikepacking. He did know Angus -- told me he had just been singing praises to Angus riding some trails he had just built on the back side of the fire tower. Angus is also one of the main driving forces behind the Velomont Trail initiative, which is this very cool project of implementing a singletrack corridor that runs from Mass to Canada … kind of like the XVT except if the XVT were a flow trail.
After Doon left I was chatting with a woman who let me know that if I needed anything there was the best bike shop in Vermont just across the street. It was Doon’s wife! She had also partaken in dirt church up at the new trail. She serves on the board for R.A.S.T.A. (Rochester trails alliance) and it was great to make that connection. She is also stoked on the Velomont.
So I got out of Sandy’s and started the climb up to Braintree Gap. I was excited about this because -- I’m embarrassed to admit -- I had never ridden Braintree Gap before this ride. Due to other route changes, we had needed a new way to get over the Greens that was south of Lincoln Gap. David had put Braintree on the Super 8 and the elevation profile looked maddening to me. Jeff Mullen had Braintree Gap listed in a mountain biking book from the 90’s, and he had ridden it years ago. Back when mountain biking meant backcountry.
As I approached the rough part of the climb I felt that I wasn’t up for the challenge, and my brain began to make nonsensical thoughts again, and I had the heavy and impending feeling of needing another nap. I felt that I wouldn't be able to face the challenging climb in my current state of mind. I wondered where I would be able to sleep. After a few minutes I saw a flat enough spot off to the side of the road. I was dizzy with tiredness, and felt not in control of my thoughts, as though someone else were thinking my thoughts for me, and they needed to leave my mind because the thoughts didn't make any sense to me. I propped my feet against a tree and folded my hands over my belly. The new morning air and golden sunshine felt intoxicating and I immediately succumbed to sleep.
The sleep was fitful because I thought a car might have been passing by. I was sufficiently off the road but I didn’t like the idea of being a spectacle. A car may have passed me, but it may have been a dream.
When I awoke about ten minutes later I felt somehow very fresh. Turns out I would feel this fresh for the rest of the ride. I had made it through night 2 on four crucial power naps. (This would total ~5.5 hrs sleep over the whole ride).
Braintree Gap was rocky, but good rocky. There were plenty of firm slabs that made good climbing lines. I did walk a lot, but I rode a lot as well -- it required a lot of exertion but I felt good this late in the ride, having found a new reservoir of energy. Plus I knew I didn’t have many gnarly climbs left which surely raised my spirits.
The climb was long, but the downhill was longer. Going down the east side of Braintree Gap is so long and rocky that by the end of it I was so used to riding with my front end tilted down that I thought I had shifted or broken something on my bike when I got to the bottom -- the geometry just felt “off” -- but no, it was just gravity. It’s about a 1500-ft straight-line descent on rocky class 4 the whole time, and it took me 18 minutes including a pee break. I think this is the 3rd longest descent on the Super 8.
It’s hilarious that you barely touch the pavement of Rte 12A before you’re off it and climbing another mountain.
Climbing through Roxbury was a blur. I had bottomless energy to meet all the climbs. Some of the roads are super beautiful, benched into the hillside with a creek and waterfalls down below. There’s one point after climbing through pastures where you head left down a perfectly straight dirt road into a perfectly flat wall of forest with a hole carved out for the entrance of the road. No power lines, no fences, just a road going into a forest tunnel with a canopy so dense that you can’t see into the tunnel. It’s surreal.
It took me longer than I expected to get to Old Mail Rte Road. This is another legendary one -- tight class 4 with rocks, but nothing major, mostly downhill and fun. At some point you go by a road threatening to be flooded by a beaver dam, then the real class 4 starts. You’re on a VAST trail with very ledgy rocks. I didn’t ride all of them! There’s a final short bushwhack to get you down to the road and then you just fly down to Northfield.
Getting into Northfield I checked my phone. Kate was trying to schedule her day to ride from Burlington and meet me at the finish! Also I saw that David would soon be finishing the North Lobe -- how cool would it be if we finished at the same time? All this motivated me to finish -- I didn’t stop in Northfield although there are some great food options there.
I overestimated the time it would take me to get from Northfield to Montpelier. The climb out of town is so nice and steady, and after that the roads are eminently rippable. There were folks out on jeeps and bikes enjoying the same roads I was. After a short but really fun class 4 section with a punchy climb, the descent to Montpelier is gratuitously long and gradual. The weather was great but growing cooler. At some point here I mentally finished my ride. I was flooded with gratitude and was happy I would be able to see friends at the finish.
I rolled up to the State House amidst tourists. I asked a couple from Wisconsin to take a photo of me. She told me about her friend who rode from Portland to Portland.
I went by Chloe’s house to pick up my backpack (with my camera), and she had made me a sack lunch with a burrito and an apple, and after ogling all of her and Jaimie’s bikes, and then inhaling the burrito, I headed to Skinny Pancake to hang out with David and Shelley. I ordered a Heady Topper and some sweet potato fries. David and I swapped stories about our rides. I could tell my brain was being sluggish but deliberate and my verbal capacity seemed to be … not great. Kate showed up having brought our friends Pat and Kate (yes two Kates). It was great to have a little fete on the porch of Skinny Pancake in the sunshine.
Kate and I got some Chinese take-out before heading out and then stopped by the State House to see Mikey. The sun was fading and the evening was growing cool as he sat on a bench. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. His knee wasn’t feeling 100%. Personally I wanted him to continue as he would have been on track to set a very challenging time on the full 8! He was planning to call his wife to talk it over.
Mikey would end up driving home from there. The fate of the 8 is that you ride by your car when you’re 60% of the way done with the full 8. In Mikey's case, I don't know if it was a blessing or a curse as his knee had been bothering him towards the end.
I almost fell asleep in the passenger's seat on the way back. It was the best to be greeted by Kate and the end of this maddening ride, and then to be chauffeured back to Burlington.
At some point on Saturday afternoon (Sep 28) I had checked Trackleaders and noticed that my SPOT tracker was moving! I did a facebook post to ask people to keep an eye on it for me. We followed it to a house, where it gave a few pings and then fell silent.
The following week I set out in my sedan on the journey to this waypoint. I didn't know what I would find. Google maps tried to take me up a class 4 road. No sir. I retraced my steps about 15 minutes and navigated to what looked like a better road for the approach. Eventually I saw the mailbox with the number and climbed an even steeper road to this random person's house. I parked and found a side-by-side (ATV), an American flag, and a two-story house with a garage. A pair of bully breeds were giving me what-for from inside. I walked around and whistled, knocking on the storm door as well as the main door upstairs up the porch, trying to appear very friendly... but no one was home. I went on to leave notes taped to their door as well as in the mailbox.
A few days later, I got a call. This gentleman had been out riding his side-by-side and had (somehow!) seen my SPOT tracker lying there. (None of the other Super 8 riders had seen it, nor had I been able to find it!) He has a buddy who rides with a tracker exactly like mine, and he assumed it belonged to him! We chatted about the roads around Hemenway and Cobb Town Forest and found we had some common interests related to exploring. I asked if he could leave the SPOT in the mailbox for me, but he insisted that he would mail it to me. It's no problem, he kept insisting. In fact, his wife worked at the post office.
Sure enough, I got the package in the mail a few days later.
This experience serves as a reminder to me that the Super 8 routes through the neighborhoods of hundreds of Vermonters, and that we cyclists are a minority in the community of ancient road travelers. Bikepackers often feel tunnel-visioned in the wilderness experience, but we'd do better to remember that we're usually guests in someone else's home. In my 380 mile south lobe ride across a huge variety of rugged surfaces, I don't recall any downed trees (minus the tornado damage in Windham!), and for this I have the ATV riders to thank, the same ATV riders whom I sometimes curse for marring up the road. We have more in common with them than we might think.