Vermont Six Gaps Ride

Yesterday’s Six Gaps ride in Vermont fulfilled a goal I’ve had for several years. This 132 mile loop with 11,600 feet of elevation ascending has been a bucket list for a long time. I’m no stranger to riding in Vermont, but I never had the right window of opportunity to bang this one out.

My Top 10 Six Gap Ride Highlights:

  1. Preparation
  2. Friends Make the Difference
  3. The Six Gaps
  4. Pavement is Faster than Dirt
  5. It was Hot
  6. Equipment Choices Matter
  7. Vermont is Beautiful
  8. The Long Trail
  9. It Isn’t Just the Legs that Hurt
  10. Solo Adventures are Special

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1) Preparation

In planning the ride over the past few years, this link was the main source of my information: Six Gaps of Vermont – Northeast Cycling Don’t click it now. The website is down. OK, try it. Is it up or down? Well, last week, and for years before that, it was up, complete with maps, cue sheets, and reports. Early in the week, I double checked a few details and confirmed the route I was going to take. I was glad that I had checked out the site because there was a fresh post about new road work on seven miles of pavement through Middlebury Gap. I wanted to have a quick reference of the route to share with a few friends who had inquired about my weekend plans, so I pulled the site up on my iPhone. I snapped a fortuitous screen shot. Then, Thursday night, I returned to print more maps and re-read some of the key posts. The website was down and the URL was redirecting to an advertisement site. I can’t believe that this happened two days before my ride, but apparently, the force behind the www.northeastcycling.com website didn’t pay their GoDaddy bill.

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2) Friends Make the Difference

The window of opportunity to get this ride done appeared 10 days ago. I had a trip to Atlanta, Georgia, and then needed to get to the Sterling Machine plant in Lynn, Massachusetts. For several months, I’ve been needing to connect with Marilyn Ruseckas, who lives in Vermont. I had to pick up a beautiful oil painting that she made. It is going to hang outside my office at Horst Engineering’s Burnham Street plant. I’ve been holding that spot on a blank white wall since we expanded to that plant in 2015. Her studio is in Warren, right in the middle of the Six Gaps loop. Once Debbie was on board with the plan, I made the call to Marilyn.

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She and her husband, Adam Whitney, are long time friends from the New England cycling community and I’ve been to her house/studio/workshop a few times. They offered their spare bedroom to me, so the plan was locked in. I got home from Atlanta early Thursday morning and spent the day working in Connecticut. On Friday I left home for Lynn at 5:30 A.M. and beat the traffic. I spent the whole day at the plant, departing after 4:00 P.M. The trip to Warren took 4.5 hours thanks to afternoon traffic in southern New Hampshire, but as I got closer to the Green Mountains, I felt more and more excited about the pending adventure. Travel to Atlanta, travel to Lynn, and then a Saturday morning ride “squeezed in” wasn’t ideal, but that was the opening I had. At the Ruseckas/Whitney household, I ate the rest of their dinner vegetables and finished their bottle of red wine. We loaded the painting in my car, and chatted some more before bed. It was so nice to not have to sleep in my car, which was the alternative plan. Adam and Marilyn fed me in the morning, I checked out Adam’s sprint car (we have a long history of precision machining race car parts for motorsports customers). I lingered longer than I probably should have, but they have a great spot.

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3) The Six Gaps

I took what appears to be the most popular route for the Six Gaps, and it matched the map on Northeast Cycling site. I drove south on 100 and parked in the center of Rochester. I started the ride there and went clockwise. All six of the mountain passes top out at more than 2,000 feet of elevation, and each climbs more than 1,000 feet.

Brandon Gap

It’s good to warm up with Brandon. The entire climb is paved, and it is a mild ascent. I’ve done this climb many times. Some of those rides were from the other direction, during the Killington Stage Race, which was a Labor Day Weekend tradition in the old days. I did the race in 1992, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, and 2000. It was always one of my favorite events. In recent years, the race was reduced from five stages to three, and moved to Memorial Day Weekend. Coincidently, the race is happening as I type. I saw signs on the road announcing the event.

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Middlebury Gap

This is another road that I’ve ridden before. At least one of those times was during the Mad River Road Race, which eventually became part of the Green Mountain State Race, which took Killington’s spot on the race calendar, and is now held on Labor Day Weekend. I stopped at a country store before the real climbing started. I topped off my bottles, but didn’t stay long. The lowlight of this gap was the dirt road descent. “Dirt road” is not that accurate. It isn’t one of the regular dirt roads. It was dirt because in the past two weeks, they ripped up all the pavement and have yet to replace it. I knew about this road work and there were signs at the base of the climb warning “cycles” to stay away. I was prepared, but that didn’t make it any easier. The road was very wet from the lack of drainage, and it was no fun to get covered in mud two hours in to a 10 hour ride. The road was rough with loose rocks, so I had to manage my speed on the descent.

Granville Gulf

The gulf isn’t an official gap, but it also isn’t flat. This section of route 100 connected the lower loop with the upper loop. I might have pushed it too hard on this section because I was a little overcooked when I got to the base of Lincoln Gap.

Lincoln Gap

This was ugly. I got to the bottom of Lincoln at about the 60 mile mark and my legs were feeling it. I hit a low spot at the worst time. Lincoln Gap Road is one of the steepest in New England with a one mile stretch that averages nearly 15% of gradient. That’s like the Mount Washington Auto Road. There is a short section of dirt road, but it isn’t a factor. About a 1/4 mile from the top, I lost my momentum and couldn’t turn the pedals anymore. This necessitated a shameful push of the bike to the crest. My ego was bruised, but you do what you have to do and none of the motorists that passed me recognized me. Phew!  I was low on water, and probably hadn’t fueled well enough in the lead up to the climb. I was worried that with nearly 80 miles to go, that I was cooked for good. Thankfully, I recovered a bit on the descent. I stopped half way down and was able to fill all my bottles from a spigot at someone’s house.

Appalachian Gap

It was good to be halfway done with the gaps, but I dreaded App Gap in the heat of the day. This one has two distinct climbs, but strung together, it’s a long way up. The first “peak” is the KOM for the Green Mountain Stage Race. You descend a little, and then the real climb begins. At the top, it is just as steep as Lincoln. The road snakes left and then right, and there are fantastic views to the north and west. Thankfully, it is paved the whole way. The downhill was rough with a lot of potholes and cracks, but was paved and generally manageable. I was out of water again, so I stopped to replenish at a convenience store in Waitsfield around the 85 mile mark. I also had an all-natural root beer, which is very rare for me. I only drink “soda” once ever 10 years or so, and usually on an epic ride like this. I wanted the calories to go straight to my brain.

Roxbury Gap

It was a short ride to Warren Village, but in that stretch of route 100, I drained all my fluids again. Mentally, I wasn’t ready for Roxbury Gap just yet, so I stopped at the country store in the village and stayed for a while. I refilled my bottles and also bought some coconut water, a bag of chips, and some Battenkill Brittle. In front of the store, I sat on a bench for 15 minutes before getting motivated to pedal again. There was a lot of activity in town, so it was fun to just hang and soak in the Vermont vibe. I got rolling, and in no time, was headed up the gap. About three-quarters of the way up, two cyclists came bombing down the hill. It was Adam and Marilyn. Yahoo!

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At first, it didn’t register that it as them and not two strangers. I was feeling the pain, but pulled over and we chatted for 10 minutes. They had just picked up their new adventure/cross bikes at the shop in Waitsfield and were out on their maiden voyage. Their plan to find me on the road worked, and I welcomed the visit. Our interconnection lifted my spirits. We took some photos and then I went on my way. I really suffered on Roxbury. I wasn’t a rookie, having done this climb a few years ago from the other direction. Yesterday, I went west to east, so the climb was paved to the top. The descent was packed dirt most of the way in to Roxbury. The road is rough and I had my first serious mechanical mishap of the day. My rear fender has been rattling for weeks, but a stripped Allen bolt prevented me from adequately adjusting the clip that supports the fender from the brake caliper. On the rough descent, metal fatigue caused the clip to snap completely. So, from the 100 mile mark to the finish at 132, I rode with my rear fender rubbing my rear tire and rattling like crazy. My mind is still numb from that rattling sound. I tried to tie it up with a reflective strap that I was carrying, but I couldn’t make it work, so I just dealt with it. After Roxbury, I had only one gap go go, but the ride to get there was a long one.

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Rochester Gap

The first section of route 12A from Roxbury south to East Granville was rough pavement. Then, it smoothed out with fresh pavement for more than six miles. I hammered this stretch and got my average speed for the day back above 14 mph. The smooth pavement kept the fender bouncing to a minimum. It was mostly flat, so I was able to turn a big gear. When I got to Randolph, I was hurting again. I stopped for the last time at a convenience store and filled my bottles. I sat on the front steps of a building across from the gas station, and drank a cream soda. I was in the homestretch, but had a false sense of comfort about the last big hill of the day. Sadly, the road conditions deteriorated. Once I got outside Randolph, I started seeing signs for road construction. I hadn’t expected this and the fresh asphalt soon turned to rough dirt and rock. That stretch last six long miles. They had coated the dirt with an oily mixture to keep the dust down, but that just made it messier. It was teeth rattling, and most certainly, fender rattling. I had to slow my pace out of necessity. I cursed out loud on multiple occasions. That stretch from 116 miles to 122 miles was the worst of the day. I wouldn’t wish that stretch of road on anyone. To prove how bad it was, I couldn’t wait to start climbing again!

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The climb turned out to be more than I bargained for. I might have been hallucinating when Marilyn described it to me because I thought she said it was “easier” than the other five. Of course, I was doing it on hammered legs. It seemed to never end. Mercifully, it was paved the entire way, but it just kept stepping up. It even climbed higher after the official sign post that marks the top of the gap. I was thinking that couldn’t be right! By the time I got to the top, I was ready for the ride to be over. I bombed the descent in to Rochester. At one point, I passed a state trooper on the side of the road. The speed limit sign said 20 mph and I was going 40 mph. For a moment, I was hoping to get pulled over! Then, I realized that would only delay my quest for food. He didn’t chase me and I was back at the Rochester green after 9 hours and 27 minutes of riding. I started the ride at 8:13 A.M. and finished at 6:48 P.M. The water stops and breaks added up to about an hour.

4) Pavement is Faster than Dirt

I have no problem riding dirt roads. I prefer when I know about them. The surprise road work on route 12A was a bummer. It added a little excitement. The wet road through Middlebury Gap was a mess.

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5) It Was Hot

So far, we have had spectacular weather for Memorial Day Weekend. 85 degrees in Vermont is warmer than usual for late May. The sun was strong and there was no breeze. I sweated buckets. I started with two large bottles and a container of coconut water. I stopped five times to replenish the fluids.

6) Equipment Choices Matter

Earlier in the week, when I was planning the ride, I thought briefly about riding one of my standard road bikes, like my Richard Sachs or my Spectrum Titanium, but I erred on the side of caution after learning about the Middlebury Gap road work, and went with my tried and trusted, Seven Axiom SL. I didn’t have the time to swap gears on those other bikes and I wanted wider tires. The Axiom has 28 centimeter tires, 53/39 chainrings, and a 11-27 cassette. It was perfect for the conditions. I removed my rack to save a little weight. I used my Dill Peak Gear handlebar bag. The Axiom is the bike that I fit the best on. The fenders were nice to have…until they broke. This bike is four years old, and recently got fresh tires, but it needs drivetrain work and a really good tune-up. This was the last big ride before it gets an overhaul.

7) Vermont Is Beautiful

It was a glorious day in the hills of Vermont. I never tire of those mountains and envision myself spending even more time there in the future. One of the most beautiful parts of the route was early on when I rode by Lake Dunmore in Salisbury. The country stores were fantastic, particularly the Ripton Country Store on route 125. That place had the charm that you think a classic general store should have.

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8) The Long Trail

I crossed the Long Trail four times. It runs along the spine of the Green Mountains and holds a special place in my heart. Ever since Debbie and I thru-hiked it in 2005, it has been my standard for adventure. The trailheads were packed with hikers enjoying the warmer than usual weather. After our mild winter, the trail has been drier than usual. Mud season wasn’t a factor and the hikers have been out in force. Debbie and I are Long Trail End-to-End Mentors, and we have helped a higher number of candidate hikers than usual. Last month, we were on the LT in southern Vermont. I’m ready to go back.

9) It Isn’t Just the Legs That Hurt

My legs are fine. It’s my neck and back that are the most sore. These rides tend to give you overall fatigue. I have that foggy feeling that is hard to describe. During the ride, my only issue was a hot spot on my right foot that wouldn’t go away. I’ll have to check the position of my cleat, but it was uncomfortable and annoying, even when I loosened my shoes.

10) Solo Adventures Are Special

Nothing is more enjoyable than a solo adventure in the mountains. It would have been nice to have company for part of the ride, but I cherish these trips. I set my own agenda. I ride my own pace. I get a lot of thinking done on these adventures. I plan business strategy, I set goals, and I use the time to reflect. Many of my thoughts end up in these blog posts. I didn’t take many photos, and it wasn’t for a lack of views. I didn’t want to stop. Once I got moving, I decided that if I was going to finish this thing, I had to roll. 10 hours is a long time to sit in a saddle. I brought my earbuds, but never used them. Some days I feel like zoning out and listening to music. Other days, like yesterday, I avoid the music and just focus on my surroundings. There was so much to see, and I was never bored. The drive home was challenging. After I washed up and loaded all the gear, I drove south on 100. I stopped at the country store in Pittsfield for some snacks. Dinner wise, nothing appealed to me, so I drove farther south. I checked out a few places on the Killington access road before settling for a sweet potato fries and a draught Long Trail Ale (a classic choice) at a local tavern. When I got going again, I was tired. Eventually, I stopped in Chester, and took a two-hour nap in the parking lot of the Vermont Country Store. I visited a lot of country stores in one day! I awoke at 11:45 P.M., feeling refreshed, so I drove the rest of the way home, stopping briefly at our Burnham Street plan to drop off the painting. I was in bed by 2:15 A.M. and never heard the wicked thunderstorm that ripped through Bolton overnight.

Thinking back to the ride, I moaned a lot, particularly on those long climbs. My Strava activity for the ride will likely remain one of my favorites. I think this is the longest single ride I’ve done. I’ve had longer rides based on time, but not as much mileage. I did the Detour de Connecticut in 2012, and that was more than 120 miles, but that also had a lot of off-road sections where  you go slower. A couple of years ago, I scouted some of these roads, when I did a 118 mile ride from Crawford Notch to Waitsfield.

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I think the lasting memory of yesterday’s ride will be the feeling I had going up Roxbury Gap with the finish within my grasp. Now I have a painting (that features the Green Mountains) that will forever remind me of this adventure. I would turn a corner thinking that the climbing was over, and the road would rise again. That feeling of suffering is hard to describe and you have to experience it to realize why it hurts so good.

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