Words: Pierre Vanden Borre | Photography: Brian Vernor | Date:
Climbing is difficult. For many, those first encounters with hills come early in life. A reluctant BMX ride to a friend’s house or mini-mart perched atop the neighborhood’s highest ‘mountain’. During these formative experiences, the hill is an unwanted obstacle between you and your destination. And that’s all it is, an inconvenience. Only years later, when you make that transition from bike rider to ‘cyclist’, does the lifelong love affair with climbing begin, one of pain, euphoria and every emotion in between. Then, the hill is transformed. No longer a mere obstacle, it becomes a challenge; not something to avoid or skirt, rather something to tackle head on. Now, routes are selected precisely because they do have hills, not because they don’t. As this love of the incline grows, so the relationship is tested. Every rider will meet a climb, sometimes over and again, which has them slipping, regressing, back to that impression formed in childhood: Going up is hard, why do it if you don’t have to? This default viewpoint is so deeply rooted that it can be hard to relinquish. Climbing is difficult, often very difficult. Six Gap is the perfect ride to explore climbing’s inherent contradictions – the desire to challenge ourselves as cyclists versus our animal instinct to avoid pain and suffering.
Between the gaps, a number of sections of road are perfect for cruising. Taking in the resplendent country, the surroundings and sensations they provoke feel easy and right. Moments of pure harmony, of bike and road, universally loved by all who come and sample Vermont’s finest back routes. But always, those moments are punctuated by cruel, punishing steeps. Minutes, sometimes hours, when the scenery fades back, distorted by sweat and dirt, when the only thing to look at is the road just below your front wheel, five feet at time. Forcing yourself forward against the seemingly never-ending gradient, it hits you. You’ve been looking forward to this horrible experience for weeks. And when it’s finished, you’ll remember it not as it really was, painful and excruciating, but as something profound and rewarding, possibly even a good time.
Not everyone wants to spend his or her free time this way. Co-workers, non-riders, on hearing that you’re headed to Vermont for a weekend in June, say things like: “How nice, it’s beautiful up there.” They’re thinking, of course, of the cows, the farmland, the antiques, this new country idyll. ‘You’ll have a wonderful time,” they say. But when they learn you’re off on yet another ride, one that includes climbing, they wonder why you’re not heading for the coast, for a relaxing summer day at the beach? But as a cyclist, you know that beauty is more than just postcard scenery and perfect weather. While those things play a part, you know that without difficulty and struggle the experience is incomplete. Theirs is a passive appreciation.
Robert Frost, a poet with ties to Vermont and the Six Gap region in particular, is often perceived to be a nature poet who wrote about the quaint, pastoral nature of New England. In fact, the harshness of the natural world is a theme that runs throughout Frost’s literary visions. Perhaps there are parallels between his perspective and that of the cyclist, the desire to reconcile beauty and pain.
Riding up hills on a bicycle is an experience as much felt as seen or done. Exposed to the weather from every direction, in every form, the rider is forced to take it all in, to absorb everything and reformulate the relationship between the elements. The perfect June weather and pretty farm world isn’t nearly so straightforward for the cyclist. In the early morning light, that gloriously blue sky full of magnificent, cumulous clouds, is the very same sky holding the sun. Though it has yet to reach its zenith, it is a sun that cooks, burns and boils. And the ocean of wooded hills, stretching as far as the eye can see, rolling and heaving across the countryside is, to the rider, a preview of the gaps. The pain they bring has yet to arrive – but it’s coming. When it reaches you, the intensity of the effort makes living and being in the moment the only option. Down to the ounce, down to the chromosome. It makes everything more special and more beautiful. After all, no act in cycling is more intense than riding up hills. Climbing is difficult, and that’s good.
- 8-hours, 22 minutes in the saddle.
- 17-mph average speed
- 51-mph maximum speed
- 14,000-feet of climbing.
Winding its way through the Green Mountains of northern Vermont is a 142-mile loop that takes in six ‘gaps’ between these and the parallel ranges. A ride so difficult, it is a rite of passage for New Englanders in the know.
1. Middlebury Gap
Middlebury Gap begins when the ride departs Route 7 to run parallel with Middleburry River. The water’s deep, cooling effect is a welcome companion on hot summer days, especially along the lower slopes of the climb, where grades of around 15% are not uncommon. The road winds out of the damp and cool, toward Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf campus, its vast fields dotted with bright yellow cottages and Adirondack chairs, the surrounding Green Mountains framing the world. The stonewall-lined road by Bread Loaf is a reprieve between the lower slopes and the even more demanding upper portion of the climb, which begins when the Middlebury Snow Bowl ski area comes into view. From there, the climb is severe but finite.
After topping out, the descent is wide, open and brakeless down to Route 100. This ‘skier’s highway’ runs south to north and links nearly every major ski area in the state of Vermont. The road is sublime in the July sun, lined with pastures and ski-club boarding houses. The ride climbs over Granville Gulf, then glides by a waterfall and past a cart selling maple syrup and honey. The Grade-A, dark amber honey in bear-shaped bottles, has supplied more than one rider with the energy to get over the gaps. Enjoy the easy, pastoral landscape of Route 100, as every pedal stroke brings Lincoln Gap, the steepest and nastiest gap of the day, ever closer.
2. Lincoln Gap
Lincoln Gap links the town of Lincoln with nearby Warren. If the Vermont Long Trail didn’t pass over its summit, it would be hard to imagine why any car would travel it. The road rises immediately from the left-turn off Route 100, and while the lower slopes are moderate, they vibrate with anxiety about what’s to come.
Soon enough, the climbing gets serious and stays that way until the very the end where, already approaching the preposterous, it manages to get steeper still. The road is heavily shaded by trees and sheltered from the sun, but the price for these comforts is the moss that grows over portions of the pavement. At a 20% grade, it’s nearly impossible to keep the front wheel pinned to the road and avoid accidental energy-scuking wheelies. Unlike the typical wall or power climb, these steep sections keep going and going, up a road never meant to be ridden on a bike.
Coming to the top of Lincoln, riders can experience a range of emotions. Some are triumphant with accomplishment while others get lost in the banality of riding bikes up big hills. Some burn with the shame and calf pain that comes from dismounting and walking. As you near the summit, you’re surrounded not by wilderness and isolation but rather gaggles of hikers. Decked out in packs, technical shorts, gaiters, and walking poles they go about their day-hiking and bird-watching business.
The descent begins on narrow, broken pavement and fisishes with section of loose dirt and gravel. Areas of ‘washboard’ seem to be even more punishing at lower speeds, so the best one can do is push the descent as fast as you can and cling to whatever traction you can find. Collapsed farmhouses and driveways littered with ‘snow cats’ go by in a blur.
Located at the bottom of the hill and many miles into the ride, Lincoln General store, bustling and adorned with mounted deer heads, is the perfect place to refresh.
3. Appalachian Gap
The winding road over Appalachian Gap seems to be a favorite among motorcyclists. Guys riding street bikes take the gap at full throttle. Wearing bright leathers bearing checkered-flag patterns and names such as ‘Sick Boy’, they race over in arcing turns and descend with abandon. The cyclist’s ascent is much more measured. The lower elevations are a mix of moderate pitches and sweeping bends, which soften the rider up for what’s to come, the final push to reach the break in the ridge. Stencils from the Green Mount Stage Race, which finishes on top of ‘App Gap’, dot the climb. Around “GMSR 2000M” is when it begins to hurt. A small respite comes with a short descent but is tempered by the sight of a radio tower, still 500 meters above.
The descent down App Gap is the ride’s highlight, coursing down in a mix of open views and tight turns. The ride passes Mad River Glen, a classic, bare bones kind of ski area, and down to the junction with Route 100 in Waitsfield. Riding south on 100 leads to the hamlet of Warren, largely comprised of the Warren General Store. It is an ideal way station for lunch.
4. Roxbury Gap
Dump Road begins with a quick punch after leaving Warren General Store. On legs already taxed by the efforts of Middlebury, Lincoln and Appalachian, eventually a slow drawl of road delivers you to the base of Roxbury Gap.
Roxbury is exposed and, on a clear summer day, the sun beats down hard. Reptiles slither about the sun-warmed tarmac. Near the top, the road turns to dirt, as if on cue, right when the real climbing begins. The dirt is soft and riddled with small stones. Tire tracks left by riders offer a packed vein of dirt, a map of the most direct route up the fall line.
Roxbury is dirt on both sides and the descent, washboards covered in scree, also requires expert lines. Slipshod handling feels unnatural at first and the inclination to tense and brake is hard to fight. Embracing the chaos and attacking works best. From there, Route 12A, freshly paved, feels impossibly fast and smooth, even otherworldly. Vivid yellow and white lines positively beam and the still, oily road glistens. Two gaps two go.
5. Rochester Gap
Like Middlebury Gap, Rochester’s gentle start lures the rider into a false sense of security, establishing a manageable and consistent tone. Then they come like sucker punches, a series of walls, all formidable, steep and long, all severe enough to crush morale. After the walls, the road continues upward and emerges from the tree cover to literally cut through the rock of the mountain. The sun drops low and casts light both golden and austere. Just enough time left in the day for Brandon Gap.
6. Brandon Gap
Brandon is mercifully mellow. The pavement is fresh and smooth and lined with a helpful, rust-colored industrial guardrail which monitors your progress as you glide to the top. Where Lincoln had its hikers and Appalachian its motorcyclists, Brandon has its boaters. Cars and trucks towing boats make for Lake Dunmore, a cottage-lined recreational area between Brandon and Middlebury. Towards the top of Brandon, views to the right are dominated by marshland and rock faces.
With all the gaps in the bag, Lake Dunmore seems a just reward as a warm down. People go by in flip-flops and beach towels, or sitting on ATVs. Casual early-evening diners mill about. The temptation here is to pour it on but the end is deceiving and the route carries on for another 10 miles of fields, filled with crickets and chirping frogs. The light is low, the sun now almost set.
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