2021 North Lobe Vermont Super 8 Grand Depart
The forecast was right—a band of heavy rainshowers were slowly moving west to east across the state. When I woke up around 4:30a in Burlington it was pouring. We drove through the band to a still dry Montpelier for the grand depart. Within thirty minutes of riding, the rains caught up. It poured for the first several hours, letting up somewhere around Danville. I saw a glimpse of blue sky.
This first part of the ride was magnificent. I’d been kicking around this ride with my friend Daniel Jackson all summer, and on Thursday he texted to say he was going to bail. A bruised rib (later confirmed to be cracked), car troubles, and lack of childcare all had conspired to make it nearly impossible for him to ride. Much to my surprise, I turned around at the grand depart to see him ride up—things just got exciting!
As we slogged through the rain, it was fun to exchange pleasantries with other riders. There was Jeff on a La Cabra, the same bike as mine, who’d recently ridden the Great Divide, Rob on a great looking Bassi Hog’s back, people on single speeds, with bikepacking bags, panniers, full suspension bikes, the whole gamut. After 15-20 miles the pack thinned and stretched out. We dropped down a hiking trail onto a lovely stretch of class 4 into Plainfield. It was wet but enjoyable. The first stretch of route that left me grumpy was the mixed use path in the Groton State Forest—it was steep and bumpy and runs parallel to some beautiful pavement. It was tempting, but I signed up for the hard thing.
On the backside of Stillwater state park the rain picked up and you could hear loons in the distance. Loon calls are probably my favorite sound—at once haunting, magical, and transformative, I took it as a good omen for the ride.
Before I knew it I was out of water and at Marty’s Quick Stop, a favorite spot to refuel. I grabbed a couple of Starbucks Double Shots, a gallon of water, and some Frito’s and lubed my chain. I waited for Daniel and we set off together toward Saint Johnsbury. I’d originally hoped to make it to either St. J or Lyndonville before resupplying, but stopping at Marty’s was just as well.
The next stretch went quickly enough—we talked about stopping in Lyndonville for some caffeine, but nothing seemed easy. I thought we’d see Danielle’s house and suspected she’d have some trail magic, but we must have missed it. There isn’t another on-route resupply until Newport, my planned stop for the night. I booked a campsite at the Prouty Beach campground, and was looking forward to some paper towels and warm water.
Before I knew it we were cruising along Darling Hill. Someone at the bike shop offered us a beer, but we had a lot of miles yet to go. At some point it had stopped raining, and I took off my rain coat and useless shoe covers, only for the skies to open yet again. It was warm enough that I was fine, though a bit worried about how cold it would be in the night.
Riding through Kingdom Trails in the rain was a harrowing experience. My front wheel slid out twice and I was very thankful for my dropper post. I took a lot of life off my brake pads, should have changed them before starting the ride. Grinding up the toll road was pretty rough, and then the babyheads on the waterbars as we traversed the CCC road and the ski runs felt like sidewall slashes waiting to happen. Fortunately, my tires held up and before long we were flying downhill past the inviting lean-tos. The rain stopped as we started to descend and the sun was lighting up the fog in the trees.
After a bit I noticed Daniel was missing, and I stopped. It was a great excuse to eat something and take a bathroom break, turns out he had a puncture but a quick dynaplug and he was back on the move.
We dropped into Victory and my phone lit up with supportive texts from friends watching my dot on trackleaders—what an amazing feeling. Soon I recognized where we were, the road came to a junction at an abandoned house where I’d recently stood and wondered what was up the road we’d just come down. The rolling, sandy roads of the Victory basin are some of my favorites and these were easy miles. We turned up an old favorite, Radar Road, and stopped at a bridge to filter water. I’ve filtered here before a handful of times, and the water tonight was quite high. I plugged in my lights and put on my headlamp. The miles ticked by until the route took a left and branched into new territory. The road grew gradually worse before turning into a narrow trail and ending at a very lopsided bridge. I didn’t quite trust it but across I went, only to find a wall of trees. At this point it was dark, and I managed to spot a goat path through the grass. I’m pretty sure I yelled “you have to be kidding me” before I plunged into the underbrush. Eventually the trail popped out onto some railroad tracks and dumped me out just up from Island Pond.
Friday night in Island Pond is a happening time—there were multiple loud parties and very loud pickup trucks driving back and forth between them. Everyone passed with space and the quiet roads were nice. I slowly lost Daniel on this stretch of road, my aero bars really paid off on these flatter segments.
Soon, the route turned off and up toward the section I’d been dreading. I knew there were some rugged miles between Island Pond and Holland, but I didn’t know what it would be like. The first dozen or so miles were all beautifully maintained logging roads. The night was starting to play with my eyes and at least once I thought a logging truck was a covered bridge (I’m not sure how). Soon enough the climbing started and the road turned from polished and packed dirt to lumpy rocks. At the crest of the climb the road more or less disappeared, turning into grass, mud, and running water. It was unrideable.
Quickly, my feet that had finally dried were soaked again as I pushed and pulled and dragged my bike through what felt like an endless bog. Eventually, it did end and we regrouped at the bottom of a fabulous descent. The route hooked hard to the right and there was a snowmobile map, though it proved useless for locating where on earth we were. Somewhere around Avery’s Gore I guess.
Back on a road for a second and up past Norton Pond. Here was one of the most beautiful sights of the ride, the bright moon through the mist off the pond along with a stand of dead trees lit in shimmery blue gray—magical.
Almost immediately the magic wore off as the fast dirt road gave way to a class four road that had just been regraded. The rain had turned the fresh dirt into deep, nearly unrideable mud. There were countless new drainages lined with straw(?!?) which hid even more mud. I’d hit the drainage and come to a full stop. This was probably the lowest point of the ride. I remember screaming something to the effect of “I hate this fucking mud” into the ether of the night.
Somehow, I made it through and found myself alone in the quiet night above Holland. The vast fields and massive dairy farms passed by under the moonlight. I put on my headphones during the miserable section just before this and I started up my bike playlist. The route trends downhill from here till Newport and I was feeling great. I often have a huge surge of energy toward the end of a ride, and I was feeling it. My speed rocketed up and I flew down these beautiful descents toward Derby.
Crossing the bridge between Canada and the US was super interesting, and then traversing along the border at around 1am with everything quiet was surreal. Finally, I turned onto the Newport bike path—the end of the day was in sight. At around 1:30a I was a mile from the campground, cruising in the aero bars at around 18mph, blasting “A Total Eclipse of the Heart” in my headphones and someone with a flashlight jumped out of the woods in front of me.
It was the border patrol. I guess bicycling along an international border after appearing out of the wilderness at 1am is suspicious. I explained that I’d come from Montpelier, that I’d ridden 175 miles and I really wanted to go to sleep. The guard offered me some water and gave me a few words of encouragement—it seemed my story checked out an I was on my way again. Finally—the campground!
I noodled around and found the tent site, startling some deer in the process, and then pulled back on the path to wait for Daniel. He showed up a little after 2, and we set off to hit the 24hour gas station. We pedaled up the hill to Cumberland Farms, and my eyes locked on to the neon “Pizza” sign. I couldn’t wait. We walked up to the door and there was a small handwritten sign “sorry, closing at 12a tonight.”
Desperate for food and crestfallen we rode another mile to the 24 hour Maplefields, which was also closed. Hungry and exhausted we went back to the campground. I gave Daniel my last handful of Fritos and I took a swig of my super skratch drink mix before settling into my bivy. It was nearly 3a and my alarm was set for 6.
I slept remarkably well, and we were back on the road by 6:30. A quick stop at the now open Maplefields for breakfast and a peek at trackleaders. As expected, Daniel Jordan passed us in the night after battling the Hurricane wilderness and not sleeping. I felt pretty nauseous and had a hard time getting moving quickly. Daniel Jackson pretty quickly dropped me up the first climb out of Newport.
The sunrise over the valley was sublime. I eventually caught back up with him before Lowell Mountain/the Bailey-Hazen Road. This is one of my favorite sections of road, and I first rode it with Daniel. He was on 48c extralight rene herse slick tires with full fenders. I so clearly remember thinking—if he can make it down this I certainly can.
This was not my fastest time up Lowell Mountain, but I took some refuge in seeing Daniel Jordan’s tire tracks change to footprints as I was pushing my bike up the steep and rocky pass. I swear this road has gotten so much worse over the years. The descent off Lowell Mountain might be the most technical of the North Lobe, I was hopeful it would be easier with bigger tires and a dropper post but it was…hard. There’s an incredible beaver pond with a view of the windmills after the descent; it’s a magical place. Overall, this section was just hard—the road was incredibly rough for a number of miles. Finally, we made it out of the wilderness and onto the smooth dirt heading into Eden.
There’s a fast descent, then a short but terribly steep climb, and then a wicked fast descent. I’d been having some shifting problems over the morning. I hosed my bike off at the campground early in the morning but didn’t lube my chain. I figured I’d do it later, but I had yet to stop, so my chain was making horrible noises and my derailleur would get stuck in my easiest cog on the cassette. With some finagling it would eventually shift, but as I crested this steep climb just before Eden my bar end shifter fell out the bar when I tried to coax my derailleur to shift out of the 50T cog.
I shoved it back in as best as possible and shifted into the middle of the cassette. The general store was close and I could deal with it there. After a blistering descent and a short bit of route 100 we were at the general store. I got my shifter sorted and re-installed and lubed everything up. It would work flawlessly for the rest of the ride.
I’ve spent some dark moments at this general store before, and I sat for maybe a little too long trying to eat as much as possible. Fifty-five miles to go. Less than a metric century. A fun day ride.
We set out and started climbing again, and quickly shed layers. I thought Daniel was right behind me, but he stopped longer than I expected to shed layers and I lost him, this was the last time I’d see him until the end. Soon I was on the long and incredible descent into Morrisville. It felt like I was flying. By this time the caffeine and calories from Eden had kicked in and I was starting to smell the end. Only two sections left—the unimproved rail trail that everyone had been dreading and the Woodbury Mountain Road.
I cruised down the rail trail in Morrisville, passing people out for a Saturday cruise. They must have thought I was a bizarre sight, caked in mud and crouched in my aero bars. Finally, I hit the end of the improved section. I paused for a minute to eat some powdered sugar doughnuts, anticipating blowing up a bit on this section and checked Trackleaders. Daniel Jordan was only five miles ahead of me! I realized that if I rode hard I could catch him—he was on a single speed and I had gears. I set out re-energized with a fresh goal.
I was riding fast and a little outside my equipment when I hit a rut that I couldn’t climb out of. I tried hopping but caught my front wheel on the lip and went down hard. The cleats on my shoes had loosened and I had a really hard time getting out of my pedals to get up. A little bloody, but nothing was broken. My handlebars were at a 45 degree angle to my front wheel, but everything still worked. I yanked them back into place, shook myself off, and jumped back on the bike still intent on catching Daniel.
Maybe fifteen minutes later I found him, tensioning his chain. We rode together along most of the rest of the unimproved rail trail, it was great to hear about his wild night in Avery’s Gore, and his new friends in Island Pond. Eventually I pulled away—again, having gears is nice sometimes.
Finally, I made it to Hardwick—20 miles to go! Coming into town I saw Carleton—he was dot watching and rode out to say hello. I wasn’t in the most coherent state, but it was so great to see him. He stayed to wait for Daniel Jackson, and I rode on to tackle Woodbury Mountain.
I’ve ridden this road several times, it starts with a steep wall of a climb before leveling out for maybe five miles of an undulating mix of dirt and class four roads, then culminates with one last steep and loose climb before a rip-roaring descent into Maple Corners. The first wall hit me hard and I ended up walking far more than I wanted. I just didn’t have the power to make it over the rocks. The middle section was amazing. I was able to hold good speed and set a strava PR on one section. I had a lovely interaction with a guy in a massive pickup truck. There are a few mud bogs and the whole road is popular with off-roaders. At some point I caught up to this truck and was riding his tail going through some of the downhills, and he pulled off and let me pass. It was super nice.
Finally, I hit the crux, the final climb. I was barely holding it together, and as I was walking up to the top Daniel Jordan rode up behind me, dancing up the climb on his single speed. He passed me right at the top, and I jumped on my bike for the descent. My combination of a dropper post and more progressive geometry gave me a bit of descending advantage and I caught him quickly. He kindly let me pass and I was off. Now it was a real race with less than fifteen miles to go.
I made it back to a dirt road and pedaled with everything I had left. I had to open up as much of a lead as I could—I knew if I stayed in the upper half of my cassette I could stay ahead. I pushed hard and dug deep whizzing through the small towns of Washington County. Through Maple Corners, past the Adamant Co-op, and up Horn of the Moon Road. Now I really was the horse smelling the barn—it was so close I could taste it.
Though, this wouldn’t be a bikepacking race without one last turn of the knife. My flying descent back into Montpelier was interrupted by a sudden turn onto Sparrow Farm Road and a track pointing onto a ribbon of singletrack. One last hurrah. After a rough start with more rocks than I would have liked, the trails transformed into a smooth, flowy, and fun crescendo, my tires singing as I whipped through the corners. Finally, I popped out onto the streets of downtown Montpelier. Pedaling through town, seeing people eating outdoors, I was consumed by so many waves of emotion, and then, there it was! The golden dome of the statehouse. I pulled up and fell into the grass. Finished.