The Fremont Branch of the Rockingham Recreational Trail runs from Windham to Epping. It is about 18 miles long, much of it open to ATVs, and all loose dirt. I rode a short piece of it a week ago, but never all the way through.
There's also an abandoned rail right of way from Windham to Manchester, part of the Manchester & Lawrence Line. It runs through Derry center, where a portion is paved. North of Derry, a section of this trail is overgrown or blocked by development, so a bit of road is needed. The trail resumes before going under I-93 and terminating at the Manchester airport. To form a complete triangle, a bit more of road is needed between Massabesic Lake and I-93 to pick up the the Portsmouth Branch.
A quick check in Google Maps suggested linking all three of the rail trail segments into a loop would net about 52 miles, almost all on dirt. Saturday seemed like a good day to try it. I was looking to do something long and not too peaky. The singletrack trails would be soupy after the recent downpour, and I was in no mood to combat the heinous wind on the road that the departing nor'easter was leaving behind. Rail trails tend to be built up beds and drain well, and they are sheltered in the woods for the most part.
I started from Windham Depot, just 20 minutes from my house. It was straight on into the fierce wind. I totally botched up the first segment, missing turns and missing picking the dirt rail trail back up again. I ended up on way more Rt 28 than anybody should ride. No shoulder with solid stream of cars and semi's. And the head wind nearly forced me to put a foot down a couple times. So much for a 3hr ride time.
Once on the Rockingham trail, it would be dirt riding away from traffic for the next 38 miles. I caught some partial tail wind heading out towards Epping, possibly averaging around 17mph. This trail bed has been improved significantly over the last few years, probably by the snowmobile clubs who heavily use this corridor in the winter. Pretty much all the low muddy spots have been fixed. Some sections have very chunky crushed granite laid down though. No problem for my hardtail, but potential pinch flat risk for CX tires.
In Epping, a near 180 degree right hand turn is made to take the Fremont Branch back to Windham. It follows Rt 101 for a bit to a culvert that passes under the highway. The next four miles are closed to ATVs and I didn't see a single person.
The ATV portion was as I expected. For 14 miles it was non-stop whoops and chewed up surface. Think beach sand with some pea gravel thrown in for good measure. In places, it was exceedingly hard to maintain 10mph on flat ground. 14 miles meant more than an hour of it. The good thing was very few ATVs were out, and the few I encountered were not knuckleheads. There was no way to soft pedal this stuff. Coasting for even an instant meant you were stopping. Just like going up a steep mountain. Good thing I was in the right frame of mind for it. I got back to the car in 3:40 hours with 51.5 miles on the odometer. There was not a hill to be found on this ride.
80% dirt 51 mile rail trail loop. Blue segment was piece I missed.
I don't think I've ever achieved this steady of a non-stop workout on local roads. On a flat, soft surface with no downhills or traffic interruptions, it is 100% work all the time. Actually, it felt a lot like going up Pikes Peak. The ride took way more out of me than I realized. Non-technical rides like these entail little risk and are great for letting the mind wander. By the time endorphins kick in, you don't even realize the engine is hammering away. It's as if your mind is loosely tethered to your body, getting a free ride through nature.
I suspect many mountain bikers would rather poke a spoke in their eye than do a ride like this. I find this a bit ironic. Recently, a local blogger lamented that a trail ride was only half singletrack and the rest was ATV trail or doubletrack. He suggested a road ride would have been better. Really? What I don't get is this mindset when on MTB, only singletrack can be ridden. Yet some of these same riders will pound out mind numbing hours on the trainer in winter months or train in traffic on road bikes.
The way I see it, a MTB is a universal bike. It can go where road and CX bikes cannot. And guess what? MTB tires don't disintegrate if they touch pavement! Sure, you go a little bit slower, but that doesn't diminish the training value or enjoyment factor if you have the right mindset. How much distance do you cover on a trainer? I've done very little road bike riding over the last several weeks, favoring instead non-traditional rides that blend a bit of paved roads, gravel roads, logging roads, ATV trails and singletrack, on a MTB. I make minimal use of open roads to link up lengthy sections away civilization. In fact, I've discovered some great singletrack recently because I was on a mountain bike and had the flexibility to explore. Just riding along, see a path ditch off to the side, think hmmm, let's check it out. Sweet stuff! Doesn't happen when on skinny tires.