John Ritayik :: Q&A with Jeff Mullen
The 3rd place finisher in the 2021 Grand Depart shares his ride experience over Q&A with Jeff Mullen, two-time Super 8 finisher and former FKT holder. John claims to be a newbie to bikepacking, but with finishes of the Super 8 and the Adirondack Trail Ride, plus some long NE bikepacking tours to boot, John has plenty of insight to deliver as he recounts his Super 8 experience.
Jeff Mullen: Congratulations on your 3rd place finish in the Full Super 8! With your amazing last long day of riding, it looks like you finished in 5 days 10 hours and 13 minutes which is the 5th fastest known full 8 time (and only about 30 minutes off the 4th fastest time). What can you tell us about your prior biking and bikepacking experience that set you up for such a strong effort? And what else would like to tell us about yourself?
John Ritayik: Thank you! I am still new to bikepacking, 2020 was my first year, but I have been riding bikes most of my 47 years. I started with a few shorter overnights and 1-2 day trips in my area of NY before entering my first event in September 2020, the TATR Grand Depart in the Adirondacks. This was my first ride longer than 2 days and I jumped into the deep end of the pool with that event. This year, around Memorial Day, I went on an 1100+ mile journey. I started with the VTXL gravel route in VT and then headed to Troy, NY and picked up the Empire State Trail. I rode the trail to Buffalo and then turned around and headed home. I rode though Letchworth SP, the Finger Lakes region, Binghamton and then followed the Delaware River to Port Jervis, NY and back home to Kerhonkson, NY. It was an amazing 12-day trip.
JM: And how did you hear about the Vermont Super 8, what motivated you to sign up and what were you goals and expectations at the start of the ride? Did you have a strategy or plan for the ride?
JR: I found out about the event on the Bikepacking.com website. After riding the VTXL I knew the hills would be tough, so I went in with an under 5 days and 17 hours goal (5 days 17 hours was my TATR finishing time). It is a long event so I didn’t want to go too hard and blow up in the first two days. My strategy was to sleep as little as possible and finish as quickly as I could. I decided to leave the tent at home and just use a bivy, sleeping bag and sleeping pad and was hoping this would save time. I am not the fastest rider, but I can tolerate long 12+ hour days on the bike.
JM: Day 1 was a difficult one with all the rain and the wet/muddy conditions. The first 2 riders rode past Pete’s Camp (Bertrand and Adin) and 5 of us stayed at Pete’s Camp that night (mile 121 – all arriving between midnight and 12:30 AM). I expected you might join the party but it looks like you stopped at mile 111. How did the first day go for you and where did you sleep that night?
JR: The rain on day 1 was a tough way to start the event but I knew the forecast looked better for the next few days. I guess it’s good to get the terrible weather out of the way while you are still fresh. It was nice to spending time riding with some of the other riders from last year’s TATR. I had planned to make it to Pete’s Camp, but I made a few too many stops. I wouldn’t have reached the camp until after 1am and I didn’t want to wake everyone, so I decided to just pull off the road and find a flat spot to sleep for the night.
JM: And how did the rest of the south lobe go? It looks like you may have spent night 2 close to the bridge over the west branch of the Deerfield River (mile 204 - where I stopped on night 2 in 2019) and night 3 in the Brandon Gap where it looks like you had to do some searching for a suitable spot to sleep (mile 320). 3 nights of primitive camping! If you could do it over again – where do you think you would sleep with the south lobe experience that you now have?
JR: I really enjoyed the rest of the south lobe. I got to spend some time riding with Bob, Dakin and Tim. I knew Dakin from riding with him at TATR 2020. All three of these guys are great cyclists and fun to ride with. I went into the event knowing that most of my sleeping spots would be just off the road in any decent spot I could find. It took me longer than I hoped to find spots on nights two and three and neither of them were great. According to my Garmin, I slept 3 hrs 22min night one, 2hrs 52min night two, and 3hrs 4min night three. Thinking back, I probably should have started looking for spots a little sooner, but I waited until the point of total exhaustion.
JM: From Brandon Gap it looks like you made great time to Montpelier with short stops in Rochester and Northfield. And it appears that you spent about an hour and 15 minutes at the “Montpelier Pit Stop”. What did you have waiting for you in your car and how did you spend this time? Was there any temptation to hop in your car and drive home (as other Full 8 riders have done in the past)?
JR: Having my car parked at Montpelier was great. The most important thing I had waiting for me was a complete change of clothes. It is amazing what a fresh set of clothes will do for your mental well-being. I also spent the time there taking a baby wipe shower in the back of my truck and grabbing some snacks and a new portable charger for my electronics. I also used this time to do some quick drivetrain maintenance. I never let the thought of quitting enter my mind. Once you start thinking about it your event is over.
JM: Now starting on the northern lobe with a tough 260 miles still to go you made it to New Discovery SP that evening (mile 403) and got an early start with Tim Wagner in the morning. From there it looks like you rode the remaining 236 miles to the finish without sleep and with some of the usual stops for food along the way (Island Pond, Newport and Eden). Wow – an amazing effort! What can you tell us about this long push and how did you feel during it and when you finished?
JR: New Discovery SP was a life saver for me. I was going to try to ride further into the night but when the attendant at the gate said they had lean-tos available I was sold. I was starting to get cold and didn’t want to spend another night on the side of the road. This was the only decent night of sleep I had the entire event and I also got to take my first shower! It was also great to meet up with Tim again. He stayed in the lean-to right next to me. I woke up at around 3:15 am and after a great 5 ½ hours’ sleep and the shower the night before I decided that I would ride the final 236 miles straight with no sleep. Tim and I got an early 4:15 am start and we were able to hit the West Barnet Quick Stop right as it opened. I thought I would be able to finish in 24-28 hours, but this did not go as planned. It ended up taking me around 38 hours to finish. I have pushed myself hard many times in the past but this might have been the toughest 38 hours of my life. Towards the end I began to fall asleep while pedaling and I also began to hallucinate. This is not the safest thing while riding on trails and roads. In the end I was happy that I gave it everything I had and completed my goal.
JM: It is now a few weeks after the ride - what were the most memorable highs and lows and what do you think you would change if you were to ride it again next year?
JR: The entire ride was a high for me. I live in a beautiful part of the Catskill Mountains in NY but Vermont takes beautiful scenery and amazing roads to the next level. It is an absolute stunning ride from beginning to end. If I had to pick two highs of the ride, they were eating pizza and wings with Dakin in Granville, NY and the shower and lean-to at New Discovery State Park. It’s the little things in life that bring you the most pleasure! The lows are easy for me. The Bill Sladyk WMA section was soul crushing! It felt like 50 miles of shin deep mud. The second low point was the final singletrack section before getting back into Montpelier. I was a zombie at this point and trying to navigate technical single track was not easy. I don’t know how I made it without crashing a few times.
I don’t think I would change much. When I ride it again, I will try to spend more time in the moment and enjoy some of the amazing sights. I will also try to eat a little better. I think I only had about 2-3 sit down meals. The rest of the time I ate convenience store food.
JM: And what were your favorite sections or spots on the Super 8? Did you like the south lobe or north lobe better? Any memorable encounters with people or wildlife?
JR: My favorite sections were first riding down from Brandon Gap at sunrise. This was a much-needed descent for me. I was feeling pretty crappy after a terrible night’s sleep and the long climb and this downhill brought some life back into my legs. My second favorite section was Burke Mtn and the Victory area as there are some amazing views in that area. If I had to choose, I think I enjoyed the south lobe better. All the people I met along the route were amazing! I had the same experience when I did the VTXL in the spring as VT has some super nice residents! It helps when you are on a fully loaded bike. Everyone wants to talk to you to find out what the heck you are doing. I did see some cool wildlife along the route including moose, coyotes, porcupines and turkeys.
JM: I know many folks would also love to hear about your bike and gear choices. How were you set up and what worked well and what not so well? Any mechanicals during the ride
JR: I was very happy with my bike and gear choices. My bike was a 2019 Niner SIR 9 hardtail with a 120mm Fox Shock. I was running a SRAM GX/XO AXS drive train, XX1 Chain, 10-50 cassette. Shimano XT 4 piston brakes. Shimano SPD pedals. SQ Labs handlebar, stem and grips. Brooks C17 carved seat. Carbon We Are One Wheels with 2.35 Vittoria Mezcals. Oveja Negra Frame Pack and 2 Chuck Buckets. Revelate top tube bags and seat bag. Salsa Anything cradle and handlebar pouch. Olight headlight, Bontrager Flare RT rear light. Garmin Edge 530 for navigation. Anker 13000 mAh and 26500 mAh portable chargers for electronics.
Here is my non bike gear. Osprey Duro 15 hydration pack, Columbia Moonstone 32 sleeping bag, OR Helium Bivy, Cocoon Pillow, Klymit Sleeping pad, OR rain and down jackets, Mountain Hardware rain pants, RedWhite bib shorts, Showers Pass shorts, Darn Tough socks, Pearl Izumi Shoes.
My only mechanical issue was with my rear brakes. After the Bill Sladyk mud fest my rear caliper was so full of mud it was barely working. I was too lazy to take it apart and clean it out and I probably should have. Some of the remaining sections were super sketchy due to the fact I was using 95% front brakes. I was super happy with the AXS wireless shifting. I submerged it multiple times in puddles, mud and a river and it never missed a shift. I was getting about two full days of battery life per charge.
JM: You’ve now completed the 2020 TATR and the 2021 VT Super 8 (possibly the 2 toughest routes in the northeast!). How would you compare the 2? Any plans yet for 2022?
JR: The TATR and Super 8 are both amazing routes. They are also similar in their amount of misery. I would say the Super 8 had more mud but I really enjoyed that you could ride more sections of the Super 8. The TATR had some brutal hike-a-bike sections on terrible snowmobile trails. Also, I did not have to climb over one downed tree on the Super 8 which was a very nice surprise compared to what you deal with on the TATR. I would say TATR was a bit harder because of the hike-a-bike sections but I enjoyed the Super 8 more. Someone needs to link both routes for the ultimate pain fest.
I’m still undecided on 2022 but I am leaning towards the Arkansas High Country race next October for my main event. I would also like to do the Catskill Bikepacking Route in my home area.