Tim Wagner :: Q&A with Jeff Mullen
At the 2021 Grand Depart of the Vermont Super 8, Tim finished the Full 8 in 5 days, 6 hours -- the third fastest known time. Here, Jeff Mullen -- two-time finisher of the 8 and prior FKT holder -- studies Tim's ride and provides him with some questions.
Jeff Mullen: Tim – congratulations on your strong ride! On an Instagram post you jokingly described yourself as a “flatlander from Philly”. But after finishing 2nd in this year’s Grand Depart (with the 3rd fastest time ever on the Full 8 – ~ 5 days 6 hours and 40 minutes I believe) you obviously have experience on a bike, experience in the woods and know how to handle tough climbs and gnarly descents! What can you tell us about your biking/bikepacking experience and what else would you like to tell us about yourself?
Tim Wagner: A year ago, in the summer of 2020, I decided I wanted to tour the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR). I thought the Trans Virginia 550 (VA550) would be a good warmup. In retrospect, it was much harder than the divide. So far in 2021 I have ridden the VA550, 900 miles of the GDMBR from Silver City, NM to Breckenridge, CO and the VT Super 8. This Friday, I am meeting two friends I met on the VA550 and we are going to fast ride the VA520 over 3.5 days. That will be the end of the season for me. I am already looking and planning for next year, which will focus around a true Great Divide Grand Depart on June 10th from either Banff or the MT border (whichever is open).
I have a good amount of backpacking experience and have spent many nights in the Appalachian mountains. In 2019 I hiked Vermont’s 272 mile Long Trail from north to south. It was the most physically grueling activity I’ve ever taken on. I think I finished in 18 days and by the end the inside and outside of both my knees were in extreme pain and I was having trouble walking. I also had lost a few toenails and my feet were partially macerated. For me, nothing has been as hard as the Long Trail and I don’t think anything ever will be.
We are a camping, hiking, backpacking and biking family. All of our vacations are based around the woods and we come to Vermont at least once a summer to camp in the state parks.
I have been biking for years and have done traditional tours with the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA) using pannier setups over the last 7-8 years. I took an extensive break from cycling to focus on yoga. I believe the focus on yoga and meditation has been extremely beneficial for every aspect of my life. I only recently started bikepacking with a sense of seriousness. I love it so much!
JM: 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?
TW: I heard about the VT Super 8 in July when I was sitting in a lean to at Molly Stark State park after we picked our kids up from a summer camp in New Hampshire. We decided to take a few days to camp there when we picked them up near Keene, NH. It was a fun day. I think we went to the Alpine Slide at Bromley Mountain earlier that day and I was looking at bikepacking options in Vermont and the Super 8 popped up. I decided to ride it a few weeks later.
My goal was to finish. I had no strategy. It wasn’t until Day 3 when we left Bennington that I really started to push myself and race. I was riding on and off with Dakin and John and once I hit the first go round of the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (the 8-12 mile stretch between Danville and St. Johnsbury) I was by myself and just decided to hammer it and I really started moving. So it’s fair to say that my approach shifted after a couple days.
JM: How did the south lobe go for you? It looks like you slept at Pete’s Camp (mile 121), in the Green Mountain National Forest somewhere east of Bennington (maybe ~ mile 210 or so) and at Half Moon State Park (mile 298). Were these stops pre-planned or were you taking things as they came?
TW: The south lobe was hard. My goal for day 1 was Pete’s camp. I ran into David Tremblay maybe 10 miles from it and him and I managed to get through all those massive puddles on the way there. I think we arrived close to 12:30 am and I was hoping to be there around 10 pm. I thought I could get to Bennington on day 2 but the nasty muddy hike a bike sections after the reservoir had different plans for me and wound up sleeping halfway up the climb before Bennington. I was going to go farther on Day 3 but the state park was there and I really wanted a shower. I decided to go to sleep early, clean up, and wake up early the next day instead of pushing through. I’m glad I decided to stay at Half Moon - the ranger didn’t charge me anything and had quarters for the showers.
JM: And from Half Moon you got an early morning start and made great time to Montpelier and maybe spent less time there than many of us did. How did you handle what I’m calling the “Montpelier pit stop”? It looks like you went off route a bit so I’m guessing you were without a vehicle and might have had gear stored on David Trembley’s porch? Was there any temptation to pull the plug at that point? That may be the crux of the route – getting past Montpelier and all its creature comforts to go ride another tough loop!
TW: I rode Amtrak from Philly to Montpelier so I didn’t have a car. Daniel said I could drop a bag at David Tremblay’s house so I stopped there and chatted with David’s partner Shelley for a little bit as I loaded the food I had for resupply onto the bike. As I was ready to leave Shelley really wanted me to take some beer for the ride. I love beer and I told her that would be the end of me and I couldn’t do that. There was no temptation to pull the plug in Montpelier, I was having a really good time on the bike. I have previously learned that towns are traps and I don’t want to stay in them any longer than necessary. In fact, I don’t even want to sleep in them if I can help it.
JM: On the northern lobe it looked like you made good time to New Discovery SP that evening (mile 403) and then you got up early (before 4AM) and just killed it to the finish. From looking at your ride on Trackleaders it appears that you rode the last 236 miles in less than 35 hours. Wow! I started that morning 16 miles up the road in West Barnet (mile 419) and it took me something like 44 hours to finish and I also didn’t sleep much during this stretch. What can you tell us about this big push and what was motivating you? And how did you feel at the finish?
TW: When I arrived at New Discovery I decided to do what I did the night before which was shower, early to bed, early to rise. I woke up and John was there. The two of us rode together two hours in the dark until we got to the West Barnett Quick Stop maybe 20-30 miles away. As soon as I got breakfast and coffee in me I felt like a new person and ended up dropping John on a climb and never looked back. I felt great all day long and said to myself “I can finish this today.”
I was making great pace and then hit the Kingdom trail section, where Britni first appeared with her camera. She wanted to talk and so I did. After that, the documentary crew seemed to be everywhere following me. It was very surreal and very unexpected.
I remember going through the power lines in the Northeast Kingdom (NEK) and thinking to myself this is what the GDMBR is like. It was a nice change of pace from the rest of the route. I was really making great time and probably wouldn’t have stopped to sleep except for the mess that we ran into between Island Pond and Norton Pond. My socks and shoes felt like they were finally dry enough after the southern lobe and then bam, more puddles and mud and no dry socks or shoes anymore. It seemed ok until the sun went down and I was still working my way through the mud puddles. I ended up losing my glasses, toothbrush and toothpaste somewhere in those puddles.
I then ran into Erik and the two of us made our way through the next section (Bill Sladyk WMA – between Norton Pond and Holland Pond) where trail work was in progress. Just so much mud and completely unrideable. Eventually we came out to a road as we neared the Quebec border around 10 pm. My feet felt like ice cubes as the temps dropped into the low 40s and high 30s and I was soaked. All I could smell was manure and I kept moving my toes to try to keep them warm. In the border town of Derby Line we stopped at the Circle K store and all I wanted to do was buy those disposable hand warmers for my feet. They didn’t have them so I went into the bathroom and took full advantage of the hand dryer. I had both my socks and shoes off and was working the hand dryer as best I could to dry them out. I remember putting my socks back on and they were still soaked. I knew I couldn’t ride with them this way for very long before I would have to stop. Erik and I stealth camped in a farmers field right off the bike path that runs along the eastern shore of Lake Memphremagog to Newport. Erik was a little ways away and in a bivy. I have a Mountain Laurel Designs (MLD) Solomid shelter that worked really well. I remember tossing my solar sheet on the ground and then my bag down. All I wanted to do was warm up my feet. I passed out and woke up maybe 90 minutes later. My feet were warm but my body was very cold and getting colder. The ground was so lumpy and I could only smell manure. I said “fuck it, I have to keep moving” and I got back on my bike at maybe 2:45 am. I had on a pair of sleeping socks, then plastic doggie bags, then a pair of sealskin waterproof socks (that were soaked). Somehow I stayed warm enough to make it to daylight in Eden even though the temps were in the low 30s.
I arrived at the Eden General Store and had been wearing the only paper face mask I had to keep my face warm on the descents. I really wanted a buff but they didn’t sell them there. There were a set of stairs running through the center of the store and I asked if I could sit on them and warm up. The employees begrudgingly said yes but only for a few minutes. I was grateful, warming up, enjoying my coffee and egg sandwich and looking my worst when the documentary crew rolls in and started filming me again. I can’t imagine what the employees were thinking. They kept eyeballing me and talking to themselves. They finally said they needed to use the stairs so I thanked them and left. At that point the sun was up and I knew I had only 50-60 miles left. It was all good after that and I just cruised to the finish.
When I finished I was exhausted and truly wasted. My goal was to be completely empty at the end and, after sleeping only 90 minutes in the last 36 hours while riding 230 miles during the final push, I can say that I met that goal! Also making the finish memorable was getting to meet Super 8 winner Bertrand Doron. He was there to congratulate me and I ended up going out to dinner with him and his wife that night. It was great. He’s a real nice guy.
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 could go back and start it again? Or if you were to ride it again next year?
TW: Memorable highs is always meeting people. I love the camaraderie of these events and I meet really wonderful people on each ride. The low was the first 200 miles getting into Bennington. Hard hard miles with more mud and water than I envisioned. I should have known better considering it's wet “Vermud” but I was optimistic I could stay dry.
I would like to ride the Super 8 again and the only thing I would change is my tire choice. I would pick something that would work better in wet muddy conditions. The Teravail Sparwoods are great and fast but a little slippery. I fell softly at least 5 times simply because my tires lost grip. I would also approach the race with a more spirited mindset and not be as leisurely at the stores and stops I took. I wasted a lot of time at those stops early on. Like I said earlier, I didn’t feel like I was really racing until day 3.
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?
TW: Favorite spot was at sunrise on the Bayley-Hazen Military Road after crossing over Lowell Mountain. I think I was just glad to have that section over with as it was really rough and rocky. I remember seeing a sign on that hike-a-bike climb that said “best groomed trail” in 2016 and remember thinking the audacity. I know it was meant for snowmobiles but still, not the sign I wanted to see. I loved the section on the northern lobe before and after the power lines in the NEK. I also really liked the southern lobe after Bennington. It’s a great route! No bad sections!
Vermont never disappoints for wildlife encounters. On the southern lobe I saw a huge flock of turkeys and a porcupine. On the nothern lobe I saw a momma and baby bear in the middle of the road on the climb up Burke Mountain after the Kingdom Trails and a skunk that was walking down Main Street at 3 am in Newport.
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?
TW: I rode a titanium Bearclaw Thunderhawk. I have a Shimano GRX 1x11 with a 36 in the front and a 11-46 in the rear made possible with a little Wolf Tooth RoadLink help. Tires were Teravail Sparwoods 2.1”. I have a Son dynamo hub on the front which powers my KLite handlebar light. My bike setup is very comfortable with a long uncut steerer tube, a Redshift suspension stem and suspension seatpost. I also have the Redshift Kitchen Sink Handlebars and all their grips. I use a Brooks B17 saddle that I’ve had for 10 years. Its such a comfy setup that it makes riding easy and fun. I plan on adding a Fred bar with a set of aero bars simply for a different place to put my hands and an upper body position change.
My only mechanical issue occurred during the last 100 miles when I couldn’t get into my largest cog on the rear cassette. I fixed it easily when I got home, but the cable tension was off and there was so much grit in the barrel adjuster that it just needed to be disassembled and cleaned before it would turn.
JM: Congratulations on your earlier Trans Virginia 550 finish too! How would you compare that ride to the Vermont Super 8? Any bikepacking grand depart plans for 2022?
TW: The Super 8 was harder than the VA 550! No question! It was also much harder than the New Mexico section of the GDMBR.
My plans for 2022 are the Tour Divide (TD) grand depart in June (2700+ miles). It's already booked on my family calendar. I would like to finish in sub 20 days. Everything before that is prep and tuning myself in and getting ready to roll! I’ll probably do more Virginia rides to help train for it. It’s a great state to ride in the spring and fall. Maybe I’ll come back to the Super 8 next year. We’ll see after the TD.