Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Visiting Vermont 1/3

What is the most difficult thing about bicycle touring? For some, it could be dealing with bad weather, or sleeping in a tent, or navigating in the unknown. For me, the most difficult thing about going on a bike tour is simply finding some damn free time to do it. You see, I have a family, including 2 little buggers in pre-kindergarten age, and a 9-to-5 job. This means my options are severely limited. This is why I was so super excited when a rare opportunity appeared in this first week of September when my wife was staying home and I could take some time off to visit Vermont.

The plan was pretty simple. Pack all the stuff on the bike, including camping gear, load the bike in the car and drive early morning towards Burlington, VT. Next, I was going to leave my car behind for 3 days to loop around northwestern part of the state by bike.

I did some research online first in terms of what to see, where to go, which roads to take (as I wanted to include as many rural and dirt roads as possible) and also, where to park. I assumed I couldn't just abandon my car anywhere for 3 days without the risk being towed. First, I considered leaving it at the Burlington Airport - an obvious choice (even though it's not free) but then I discovered that Vermont has a pretty good network of Park&Ride locations - free-to-use parking lots where long term parking is allowed.

Day 1 - Essex to Lake Willoughby

I had to start early since it's a 3.5 hour drive from Arlington, MA to Essex, VT where I was leaving my car. Getting up at 4:30AM is no fun but at least there are few other drivers on road at such an early hour. Plus you would have a chance to see an amazing sunrise over the highway.

Once you leave more urban areas of southern New Hampshire and venture further north, you will start seeing more and more mountains around you. You will also see "deer crossing" signs on the highway, followed by "moose crossing" a bit later, only to end with "bear crossing" - a friendly reminder that this shit is real!

Past Montpelier, when my car radio was picking mostly French stations I was getting already too impatient to wait so when I finally arrived at the parking lot at 8:15, I quickly packed my stuff and was ready to set off at about half past eight.
All packed. Good to go!

The first thing I immediately noticed was that despite a pretty lightweight load, I could feel those extra ~17lbs (8kg?) on my bike. Not in terms of handling, but the bicycle felt certainly more sluggish, especially when climbing hills. That made me think - how those fully-loaded cyclists even manage to ride their 70lbs bikes?

Initially, I pretty much followed Rt 15 east, making my way through Jericho, towards Underhill, where I had to face the first climb of the day, a "measly" 11% grade on Sand Hill Rd. That's where the countryside clearly becomes more rural, with many cattle farms scattered around.
The roads at this point turned into hard-packed dirt or gravel but they remained wide, with the exception of Stebbins Rd, which looks more like a trail through the forest.
My next stop was at the old Grist Mill and covered bridge. Next, I basically followed Lamoille Valley Rail Trail towards Ithiel Falls.
I passed a few more farms along the way and I merged with Rt 100, where I started seeing cyclists more frequently. In fact, at the General Store in Eden there were so many of them that I felt I was in some kind of a road race. Too bad all those roadies stick to main roads only. They are missing an opportunity to meet all those cows.
It was the peak of the day and once I passed Eden, I started struggling on all those climbs towards Albany and later when approaching Barton. The sun was burning my neck, the wheels slipped on loose sand (when leaning too much over the bars) and the hills... I was swearing at them by the end of the day. Let's just say that the 28T chainring was used A LOT in combination with my largest 30T cassette sprocket.
If only it was a bit more cloudy, a bit cooler. I was ready to plug myself into an IV in one of those maple syrup harvesting installations that were pretty much everywhere.
More cows approaching.

Taking a tripod was a good idea. I could take a shot of my back.

Just a few more hills, few more mad descents and I finally arrived at Barton. This was the last chance to resupply that day so after refilling all water bottles and getting some food, I treated myself with some local beer.
By this time it was already late in the afternoon and sun was slowly setting. I followed Rt 5 south, along Crystal Lake towards Willoughby State Forest.
The plan was to camp at the Lake Willoughby, which means I had to climb over Bartlett Mountain to reach my campground. If you're smart, unlike me, you wouldn't want to leave your worst climb of the day for last, after you got up at 4:30AM, drove for 3.5hrs and rode 75mi (120km). Unfortunately, I had no choice.
Well, at least it was cool. The sun was low and trees shielded me from its scorching rays. I found myself multiple times riding uphill at a snail pace, around 5km/h (3mph), at which point I said "F**k it" and decided to walk. It was equally fast and actually easier. The good thing is, once you reach top of the climb and a clearing between the trees, the views are rewarding.
I arrived at the White Caps Campground around 6:30PM after 136km (84mi) only to find out that it was fully booked ("Obviously!"). Fortunately, it's perfectly legal to camp in Willoughby State Forest and that's what I had to do that night.
The beer was pretty good.

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