Jeff Mullen’s 2021 Vermont Super 8 Ride Report
This was my 3rd start in the Vermont Super 8 Grand Depart (GD) and I thought I would begin with a quick recap of my 2 previous rides –
2019 Super 8 (details can be seen in my 2019 ride report) – I had finished 13 bikepacking GD’s before finally getting to ride one in Vermont, and – because it includes roads and trails that I had first ridden, run and skied as a kid – it is near the top of the list of my most memorable rides. I finished in 6 days 9 hours and 25 minutes, which was the Fastest Known Time (FKT) at the time. 10 riders have gone under that time in 2021 (Logan Kasper destroyed it in early August) including all 8 Full-8 finishers in the 2021 GD!
2020 Super 8 – I made a late decision to join the GD and to attempt to ride the route ‘self-sufficient’ (no stops at stores, restaurants, etc.) but still set difficult goals for myself (like cutting 24 hours off my 2019 time). From the start things weren’t going well and I was making mistakes – leading to cramping issues only 40-50 miles in –and I decided to scratch in Woodstock (one of the problems of doing a GD so close to home – it is very easy to scratch). I came up with several excuses, but I simply hadn’t prepared well enough, especially for the extra food and cooking gear weight that I was carrying, and I decided that being home with my wife Leslie was my best option. I wasn’t motivated to change my goals to “just finish,” as I had done that already.
Ending my streak of 15 straight GD finishes (including the Coös Loop GD (northern NH) a month or so before the 2020 Super 8 in 2020) was a bummer and this was eating at me over the winter of 2020-21. Do I ride it again in 2021 to get the bad taste out of my mouth or just move on to other rides that I want to do? Either way I decided to follow a training plan for once to see how that would go. I purchased a 4 month plan that bikepacking legend Kurt Refsnider had created and used it to prepare for the mid-June Catskills Bikepacking ride. Things went well in that new event, and I had a great time riding with a bunch of cool folks.
With the satisfaction of having completed the Catskills event I decided that I didn’t need or want to ride the Super 8 this year after all and went back to my usual unstructured ways. But after a few weeks, the itch was creeping back in so I started getting in longer rides (including a 3-day ride in August and a 2-day ride in early September – both on a heavily laden bike) and eventually decided that, unless a heat wave or tropical storm was forecast for late September, I would sign up for the Super 8 GD a week or so before the start. And the event was getting some increased buzz – maybe due to the Super 8 film that was in the works – so I think a bit of FOMO was setting in too!
2021 Super 8
With cooperation from the weather gods, I was in Montpelier for the September 24th start. We did get a bunch of rain (especially on day 1 – though I much preferred that to the day 1 heat in 2020) and there was lots more mud to deal with this year, but the cooler temps (daytime highs mostly in the 60’s) were going to be perfect for me. This year the only goal was to finish though if things went well, I was also hoping to beat my 2019 time. Thus, I would mainly be racing the 2019 version of myself, and I’ve named my competition ‘2019 Jeff’ in this writeup.
Following is a recap of the 6 days that I spent on the route –
Day 1 (121 route miles ridden)
In my opinion, the first 100 or so miles of the south lobe are some of the hardest (and most beautiful) of the Super 8. This factored into my decision to ride the south lobe first (wanting to be fresh to tackle the tough climbs and to better enjoy the great scenery) along with the fact that most other Full 8 riders were also riding the south lobe first. The more camaraderie the better in these events!
I rode off and on that day with Erik, Dakin and David and we joined forces before riding into the night and made stops together at the stores in Reading and North Springfield. Dakin, Erik and I made it to Pete’s Camp around midnight (the section between Chester and Pete’s Camp seemed much harder this year) and David arrived a little later with Tim. Bertrand and Adin, the Full 8 leaders, had continued past Pete’s a few hours earlier.
It had been a wet/muddy day of riding and I was pretty much even with ‘2019 Jeff’ as he had gotten just past Pete’s Camp to the church (having missed the turnoff) at about the same time despite lots of time lost fighting thru the 2019 tornado debris in the last mile.
A memorable day 1 encounter was the caravan of overland vehicles that we ran into on the very rough and muddy 4th class road sections of Vershire. They were a friendly bunch of young folks and I stopped to chat with the guys in the first vehicle. It turns out that the driver was a bikepacker who had recently ridden the Green Mountain Gravel Growler with some friends. I think they were as surprised to see us as we were to see them.
Day 2 (91 route miles ridden)
I had hoped to gain lots of time this day on ‘2019 Jeff’ as he had missed turns and made wrong turns and had gotten completely discombobulated for 30-40 minutes south of Wardsboro and again on a singletrack section north of Brattleboro (eventually bushwhacking to a road and ad-libbing from there). This year I breezed thru these sections and made it to Brattleboro around the same time ‘2019 Jeff’ had (my later morning start had blown my opportunity for gaining time). At the Vermont Country Deli I ran into Erik who had gotten an earlier start that morning and we rode together off and on the rest of the day.
In 2019 I had struggled thru the tough hike-a-bike section west of the Harriman Reservoir alone and wound up bivying close to a crossing of the west branch of the Deerfield River. This year Erik and I made it close to the bottom of the rough descent before Bennington where we bivyed behind a mysterious concrete structure surrounded by a chain link fence (I don’t want to know what is inside). I was having stomach trouble and hadn’t eaten enough this day so before laying down I tried to force down a bar but immediately started retching. Stomach issues would remain a problem for most of the rest of the ride which is very common for me in long/hard events.
We had arrived after midnight and were still encountering ATV’s and trail bikes at that time. I would never have guessed that there was as much activity on Vermont’s 4th class roads (seemingly at all hours) as we had seen in the first 2 days!
Day 3 (128 route miles ridden)
Up early, we rode the 3 miles into Bennington for breakfast and resupplying at the Stewart’s Shops. The southwestern section of the southern lobe is the easiest riding of the Super 8 and includes the section along the Battenkill River west of Arlington and the rail trails into Granville, NY and north of Poultney. Rail trails provide a nice break from potential traffic, hills and techy riding and I put on some music to help enjoy these miles.
I again rode with Erik off and on and we stopped for food in Arlington, Wells and Castleton. The stomach issues were persisting (basically gas/air build up until I feel nauseous and eventually burp a couple times and the cycle repeats) and it took some effort to choke down a sandwich at the nice deli in Wells. The Harbor View General Store in Castleton saved me by staying open a few extra minutes and having the best ice cream sandwich (maybe 3” thick) I’ve eaten in my life. Or at least it seemed that way as I finally enjoyed putting food in my mouth again.
One last refueling/recharging stop in Brandon (with more ice cream) around 7-8 PM before heading up the Brandon Gap paved road and enduring the cold descent to Rochester. Then more backroad climbs and rollers until I stopped for the night at the bottom of the Braintree Gap 4th class road to sleep. ‘2019 Jeff’ had slept 26 miles back behind the Brandon Inn on night 3 so I was maintaining my lead on him. Erik had earlier pulled ahead and slept at the top of the Braintree Gap.
Day 4 (80 route miles ridden)
Around 6AM a truck pulled out of a driveway 50 or so yards down the road and drove by and then drove back. I guess I hadn’t been stealthy enough (behind the long grass) and he yelled out “Are you alright?”, maybe thinking I had crashed, or my body had been dumped there. I responded “Yup! Just stopped to sleep before heading over the Gap. Thank you!”. Now wide awake, I choked down what food I could and soon started up the rocky double track.
It took a little over 3 hours to cover the rugged 20 miles to Northfield where I had the best breakfast of my life at the Common Cafe. It again seemed that way anyway as this was my first cooked meal of the ride and my stomach was pleasantly surprised. At the counter I was next to an older gentleman who had lived his whole life in Northfield. He was surprised when I told him the sections of 4th class roads that I had come into town on, and I got to hear some great stories of his bike riding adventures as a kid.
I made it to my car at 12:30 (completing the southern lobe 3.5 hours faster than ‘2019 Jeff’) and got going on my “Montpelier Pit Stop” tasks. My goal was to be in/out in an hour and to make no other Montpelier stops. I first started heating water and then began my other tasks (charging electronics; tending to my feet; adding food to my bike bags; replacing a few items of clothes; and some bike maintenance). I cooked a box of pasta and ate so much that my stomach (happy to again be getting real food) was starting to hurt. Figuring that would keep me fueled for a while! I overlapped with Erik for 30-40 minutes or so and it was fun catching up with him and Kam (the camera guy) who soon pulled in with his girlfriend.
With all the chatting, I got a bit disorganized and didn’t start on the northern lobe until 2:15. In Plainfield I ran into Erik as he was napping at the start of the new 4th class road section (I miss the easier rail trail section out of Plainfield Village that was cut out this year) and in a few miles we made the short detour to the Marshfield General Store before heading up the hill and into the Groton SF. I filled my water bottles at New Discovery CG and after darkness set in, I noticed that my GPS (eTrex 22x) screen had gone blank. I changed the batteries, but it still wasn’t working so I tried another set of batteries and still no luck (after getting home I realized that I was just having brain cramps and was putting in the batteries incorrectly!). Time to break out the phone and start navigating with ‘Ride with GPS’. This had me bummed as I’m not that familiar with it; I now had to worry about keeping the phone charged and it isn’t as easy to use in singletrack sections. I did like the voice cues though and may start using both ‘Ride with GPS’ and the eTrex in tandem in future events.
I made it to the West Barnet Quick Stop before it closed at 9:00 and I probably should have continued riding (‘2019 Jeff’ had been closing the gap today as had real 2021 riders) but, as I was unsure of what existed for upcoming bivy options, I backtracked a few hundred yards to the small park with a basketball court. There I set up out of sight on the grass under a tree and got some excellent sleep.
Day 5 (120 route miles ridden)
This was the day that I expected to finally drop ‘2019 Jeff’ as he had dealt with sketchy weather all day and was pinned down from 5PM that evening until early the next morning by torrential rain. Up early I decided to not wait for the West Barnett store to reopen and headed for Marty’s First Stop, 12-14 miles further up the route in Danville where I could fully charge my phone (outlets do exist outside the store by the picnic tables, but they are 10’ off the ground). Here I ran into Erik for the last time – like Tim and John, Erik made a very strong push to the finish – and he gave me some helpful tips for keeping my phone charged which alleviated some of my stress. And I believe this is where Tim and John passed me as I spent way too much time chatting with a Mad River Valley masseuse who has worked with bike racing teams during stage races and was an avid Phish fan. She was a hoot, and I heard some fun Phish concert stories and spent time trying to explain why I was scarfing down Skittles and not fueling like stage racers do (it’s sometimes all about calories and keeping the stomach happy!).
From Danville it took a couple hours to get to White’s Market in Lyndonville for more food and more charging. Kingdom trails were coming up and they were going to be harder to navigate without my eTrex. The ‘Ride with GPS’ voice commands weren’t helpful on the singletrack (like hearing “turn left in a quarter mile” when there is a trail junction right in front of me to figure out!) and the app seemed to lock up most every time I tried to check the screen. I got really screwed up once but made the right guess for getting back on route and, being somewhat familiar with these trails from 2019, I finally made it out of the woods without losing too much time.
Ahead of me on the Pinkham Road climb was another rider who I assumed was John and I looked forward to catching up to him and sharing ride stories. But I continued to be social and very inefficient. I soon had to backtrack for a dropped pair of sunglasses on the Burke Mountain toll road, had a long chat with a very cool English hiker about England, Wales and FDR and the New Deal (being at the start of the CCC road triggered that topic), chatted with filmmaker (and female FKT holder) Brittni on the CCC road, had a bad crash on the back side of Burke Mountain (trying to skirt a huge puddle, the front tire lost traction on a side hill and I fell into the puddle, bashed and bloodied both legs on rocks and got covered in mud which required changing some clothes) and chatted with Danielle Blanca (Vermont Bikepackers leader and avid supporter) who was out cheering on riders in Victory. But no problem! It was a beautiful day, I was in a great mood and the best sections of the route (in my opinion) were coming up.
The sun began setting soon after I hit the remote powerline section in Granby, and I added layers once the temperature began to drop. I was expecting a long, cold night and wanted to make sure I stayed warm and comfortable for as long as possible. With music helping, it was mostly enjoyable riding from there to Island Pond but the sections beyond were often very muddy and slow. Near Holland Pond I finally hit gravel roads and easier riding and I made it to Derby Line on the Canadian border at 3:45AM.
Day 6 (100 route miles ridden to the finish)
A bikepacking GD is technically a race but for most of us it is mainly a fun adventure that hopefully includes some great camaraderie. But I often think of the last day of a GD as “race day” – when the competitive juices kick in, and you push harder to the finish (maybe catching or holding off a rider or 2). I started my last day by making a tactical error by deciding to wait for the Derby Line Circle K store to open at 5AM. I had all my warm clothes on but didn’t break out my sleeping gear and got very cold and a little wet as I laid on the grass behind the store. I was very hungry and sleepy, but I should have ridden the mostly 10 flat miles to Newport before stopping.
When the store opened, I took my time strolling around as I tried to warm up, and once I did buy food I asked if I could stay in the store to eat it. The opening crew ladies were okay with that, and I eventually plopped down in front of the ice cream cooler and started nodding off. At some point I noticed that there was now a manager in the store who was warily eyeing me. When it began to look like she might try calling Social Services I figured I better start moving and finally left the store as the sun was coming up (2 hours lost).
Still cold, and with light rain starting, I also stopped in Newport and wasted more time before finally pushing on towards Eden (tackling the rough Poginy Hill and Lowell Mountain 4th class road sections). In the early afternoon, while coming down a hill after crossing into Eden, the route turned right and I met a ‘Road Closed’ sign at the bottom of the next climb. “Not again!” I thought. In 2019 I rode past a ‘Road Closed’ sign on the other side of Eden and was turned around and had to figure out a detour to Morrisville. As I pondered my options, I noticed a delivery truck coming down the ‘closed’ road and I waved him down and asked if a bike could get through. The driver explained that the road work was just about finished, and they had let him pass. Awesome! I continued and when I got to the work site I stopped and politely asked the worker in the bucket loader (just smoothing things out) if I could go thru. He responded “No, the road is closed” and started ranting about “you people…”. I explained that I had just talked with the truck driver that he let through, and he relented but started ranting louder about “you people…” (cyclists I assume). As I passed, I pointed out (in a raised voice as this was starting to seem ridiculous) that I could have easily passed on either side of the road (lots of open space off the road) and he yelled out “No, not if the road is closed you couldn’t have!”. I then jabbed my index finger into the side of my head (a “use your head” gesture) and he hopped off the loader and started running after me yelling “I need to get your name to my supervisor so he can explain things to you”. I outran him and immediately regretted that I hadn’t just said “thank you” and quietly walked through. But being 580 miles in with no real sleep in the last 34 or so hours, I guess my fuse was as short as his.
I stopped for food at the Eden General Store before riding over the hill to Morrisville and the start of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT) section to Hardwick that wasn’t officially open (marked as ‘trail planned’ on their website). This rail trail section is very slow and at dusk I stopped at a point where a driveway crossed over the trail to add a layer and to try to eat something. A pickup truck then drove 30-40 yards down from a farmhouse and a huge guy rolled down the window and asked, “What are you doing?”. I explained that I was just putting on a layer and having a snack and would be gone in a minute and he replied “Hmmm” and backed the truck up the driveway where he left it running with the headlights on me until I left. My 2nd reminder in only a couple of hours that, when riding thru areas where folks live or work, I should always be as friendly and respectful as possible. Cultural differences and biases against cyclists exist even in (mostly) friendly rural Vermont.
I bypassed the nicer food stops in Hardwick and stopped at M&M Beverage at the base of the rugged Buffalo Mt Road. My eyes and stomach agreed on some fresh popcorn and a slushy and I felt good as I knocked off the climb. The gravel roads along the side of the ridge of Woodbury Mountain are good riding but soon I was back on 4th class roads. At the start of this section, on a slight but fast descent, I had to come to a quick stop as there was a bear 20-30 yards ahead of me on the road. It didn’t immediately run off but after a few “Hey bear” yells it wandered into the woods. But in retrospect I wouldn’t swear that it wasn’t a hallucination as my brain was now seriously sleep deprived. No problems getting thru the remaining climbs and big descent of the rough 4th class section to the backroads of Calais and East Montpelier which seemed much longer at night.
Now past midnight I finally hit the Sparrow Farm singletrack that would bring me into Montpelier and to the finish. Soon the boardwalk section began which, in my current condition, I should have walked. From memory, it runs for 20 or so yards, is maybe 2’ wide and is maybe 1.5’ above the ground and towards the end I went off the side and it was too high a drop to easily avoid the fall after unclipping. The lower right side of my back slammed into the side of a tree before I hit the ground and I just laid there for a minute in pain. With my now hurt back (it took over a month for the pain to completely subside) I began riding tentatively and, despite having ridden this trail a few times, I made some wrong turns in the dark with ‘Ride with GPS’ not being much help.
I made it to the Vermont State House at 1:20 AM for a finish time of 5 days 17 hours and 20 minutes. Very happy to be done and to have beaten ‘2019 Jeff’ by 16 hours. There was no film crew waiting to catch my early morning finish and I just hung out for a while to unwind. When I did get to my car, I noticed that Erik’s van was still there (with him sleeping inside) and I wished I could have heard how his last 2 days had gone. At one point I was sure I saw him get out and walk around to the back and I said “Hey Erik” before realizing that it was only a hallucination.
Dropping out last year had been a bummer but I doubt I would have ridden this year if I hadn’t. So, I’m now good with how things have played out. And if/when I do “race” the Super 8 again, I’ll focus on being faster on the north lobe and hopefully get myself into “race day” mode. There are always more hours to be knocked off with a smarter, luckier and more determined ride!
And a big “thank you” to Daniel Jordan, Danielle Blanca, David Tremblay and Kris Dennan for all their efforts mapping the route, supporting the event, promoting Vermont Bikepacking, etc. And “thank you” to those that provided the neutral “trail magic”. It was a treat to come across the goodies and it was very much appreciated!