Great weekend for riding, eh? Unless you are a CX racer. Then you must've missed your double shot of brownie mix that has characterized most of the Verge series this year. Figures now that we have perfect conditions across New England, Dave Penney and I had to go out of our way to find less then perfect conditions. On 'cross bikes no less.
A loop that has been on my ride radar for a couple years now is the Kelly Stand Rd/Mt Tabor Rd double hump loop. Both roads reach high elevations adjacent to wilderness land in the southern Green Mountains of Vermont. Jim Hayssen, who joined us for 6-gaps a couple years ago, told me about these exquisite dirt gap climbs. I've ridden Kelly Stand a couple times, once last November, then again this summer on the tandem with my wife. Kelly Stand reaches about 2800ft elevation and is toward the front range of the Green Mountains. This means it accumulates snow earlier in the season than other areas, even the taller White Mountains much further north in New Hampshire.
Mt Tabor Road at Devils Den
We parked in Londonderry, VT. This was right at the base of the Mt Tabor climb. We planned to ride the loop counter-clockwise. It was barely above 30F when we rolled out in AmFib tights and lobstah mitts. Daylight is short these days, and we were starting a 5-6hr ride at 10:30am. Risky. Steep climbing immediately began on paved Landgrove Rd. The coldness did not matter. We soon ran out of pavement and found ourselves on 1.5 lanes wide dirt Mt Tabor Rd. Only a couple cars passed us the whole time on this 10+ miles stretch of dirt. As we reached the summit, there was a nice dusting of snow in the trees and on the ground. This implied there would be much more snow on the higher Kelly Stand pass.
The Vermont Valley with Green Mountains in background
The descent was marvelous, dropping about 1500ft in four miles. There were some nice views through the trees of the valley below from the winding bench-cut road. This dropped us on Rt 7, a paved road with wide shoulders. We promptly got off this on Mad Tom Rd, which climbs at a heinous pitch for a mile or more until levelling off after gaining 700ft. This too turns to dirt for several miles before dropping back down much closer to Manchester, VT.
We stopped briefly to refuel in Manchester before heading further south to pick up Kelly Stand Rd. Kelly Stand is one of my favorite dirt gap climbs. It is never steep as it follows a rushing stream for 10 miles up a narrow canyon. It also gains 2200ft from the valley. We hit the lowest elevation of our loop between Manchester and base of Kelly Stand Rd. The temperature had risen into the 40's here.
Kelly Stand Rd nearing high point
Climbing Kelly Stand gives you several false hopes of achieving the summit. You're climbing for 6 or 7 miles, see blue sky through the trees and think, ah, finally there. Nope. You round the bend and see another half mile of 5-7% grade. You go through this a few times before you really hit the high point of the climb. The deal today was we started seeing snow about halfway up, the same elevation as the top of Mt Tabor Rd. Last year when I rode this in November, there was no snow at the bottom, but 6" of snow and unrideable ice at the top. I worried a little bit. I knew it had snowed here earlier in the week, but I figured the sun had burned it off by now.
By the time we reached the summit, the temperature was below freezing and the road was ice covered. There was 2-3" of snow on the ground. The road was just barely rideable and made for white knuckle descending. A little ways down the ice and snow turned to slush and made a mess of bike and body. We could have ridden anywhere else and stayed clean, dry and warmer, but no, I had to drag Dave out into the boonies to find freezing cold slop.
FS-431, with Stratton Mtn in background, threw a bit of everything at us. Steep uphill grunts, bony descents, brush and blow-downs, snow and slush, sand and deep leaves. Not your typical drop-bar riding.
The prior times I rode Kelly Stand, I bombed all the way down on pavement, cutting across the Statton ski base area and down to Rt 30. I had a special treat in store for us today. Pavement is for pansies. We were going to cut across on Forest Service Route 431. This skirted high up on the flanks of Stratton Mtn, maybe half way up the ski area in altitude. I had no on the ground intelligence on this route. It can be seen in satellite imagery. We were on 'cross bikes afterall. Many people ride Kelly Stand and Mt Tabor on road bikes, but we came equipped for any uncertainties and some adventure. I had trouble finding FS-431. I thought it started before we picked up pavement on the descent. We backtracked. found a forest service map at the Appalachian Trail kiosk and got reoriented. Should have trusted the GPS. That cost us maybe half an hour. Our daylight margin was now down to about zero, and we had 25 miles to go, half of it off-road with unknown conditions.
One of several drops along the high terrain section of FS-431
We found FS-431. It was little more than a doubletrack rutted "cow" path. And still being above 2500ft, there was plenty of snow and ice around too. We'd have to average about 10mph on this 10 mile connector to get back to car before sunset. I recalled from the profile that there was "fuzz" along this part of the route. Normally, these sharp spikes aren't real in Topo 7.0. But dang if they weren't real this time. We must have went up and down about five times, rising and falling more than 100ft each time on bony doubletrack. Much of the descending was washed out rock garden, something heinous to tackle on a 'cross bike with 80psi tires. Then throw liberal coating of leaves and snow over the rocks for good measure. Flatting out here with no daylight margin was not an option. Neither was poking along. I think we averaged about 7mph for the next 10 miles. We lost all the vertical in just the last couple miles. It alternated between rock garden, loose sand, snow, deep leaves, and many, many large water bars. You could never tell how deep some of the water bars were, as they were filled with leaves or mud. Dave whooped it up once we hit a real gravel road at the bottom. FS-431 was supposed to be the highlight of the ride. Don't think Dave saw it that way. It was barely CX bikeable. You'd even have to be careful on a full suspension MTB to avoid pinch flatting.
Once we hit pavement below Stratton, it was 10 miles back to the car. The temperature was plummetting fast, probably back down around the freezing mark. There were two modest 200ft climbs along the way. Dave lit it up on the steep 12% bitch. I nearly died trying to stay with him. He said it was payback for FS-431. The sun set before we got back to our car and cars had their headlights on. That is how close we cut it. The thought of having to spoon with Penney in the wilderness to survive the night was a strong motivator to not mess up. The GPS could have died. It was the only thing keeping us off the many spur two-tracks. FS-431 is gated, so it was cluttered with plenty of tree debris. A sheered derailleur would have meant trying to find our way out of the woods in darkness too.
I find the most satisfying rides are ones that you barely finish, either by physical limits or length of day. I've had closer calls with night fall, especially one time riding solo in California. Our ride went 76.7 miles with a 5.3hr riding time, climbing 6740ft. About half of the route was on dirt, and way more than half the time was spent on dirt. This is the longest dirt ride I've done with my CX bike, and a punishing ride it was. Dave and I both agreed the Mt Tabor climb and descent totally rocked. We'll definitely be back to do this loop again, although I may have to rethink the FS-431 part. I have some even more grand loops in mind for next year.