When I moved to New England in 1997, I bought Mountain Bike Vermont by Jen Mynter. I was on my way to becoming the Hill Junkie at the time, and one particular ride in the book caught my attention. It was Mount Cushman, described as "by far the longest and most challenging ride in the book." Back then, and still today for the most part, most off-road riding on public lands in Vermont is on forest service roads open to motorized vehicles in summer months. The Mt Cushman loop was a mix of paved, gravel and jeep roads that passes over two gaps and hits the summit of Mt Cushman. Saturday, I did a variant of this ride.
My plan was to park in Rochester and head out on Rt 73 just like how we begin most 6-gaps rides. Instead of climbing Brandon Gap, I planned to take forest service roads across to Rt 125. I had no intel on this route whatsoever, just forest service, Google and DeLorme map info showing a potential route.
About 1.5mi up Rt 73, I turn off on a dirt road. Immediately, the grade kicks up to 12-17% and stays there a good while. My goal was to get liberal amounts of threshold effort in on this ride. No problem on grades like this. The road eventually peters out to doubletrack, which then became bush-wacky. There were no signs or gates. The weeds and grass hid frequent perils, like slimy diagonally placed deadfall just waiting to suck your front wheel out from under you. Other times, the surface would give way to murky goo that lie just underneath.
At a trail junction, a cable and sign said trail closed. Crap. That was the way my GPS track told me to go. So I took the open route, which promptly started to plummet towards the east. Clearly I was not going to complete this route as planned. The initial descent was so steep and perilous that I don't think I went over 6mph, yet my ears kept popping from rapid altitude loss.
On Rt 100, I abandoned plans to ride anything more on west side of Rt 100 and proceeded to Braintree Gap. This gap is roughly half way in between Roxbury and Rochester Gaps. Another good 10 minutes of anaerobic effort was gained on the initial gravel road part of the climb. A small sign said Braintree Mountain Rd. Uh, oh. This is going to be hard. It looked more like rutted out creek bottom with brownie mix covering everything. It appeared to be open to motorized vehicles, although it would take a high clearance 4WD or ATV to make it up this thing.
Beginning of Braintree Gap. It gets gnarlier and steeper as the
I brought my 29er hardtail with Stan's Raven semi-slick tires pumped up hard to avoid sidewall damage. They absolutely sucked on greasy granite. There were many ledgy outcroppings on this climb. A couple forced me to dismount. There was water trickling down most of the climb. As I approached the top, an ATV rider came over from the other direction.
The bugs were bad, so I didn't stop at the summit. The descent down the east side was even steeper and looser. My wrists nearly crapped out from braking fatigue. Had I been riding with somebody else with robust tires and full suspension, this descent would have been a lot more fun. Must have been 50 waterbars on the way down.
Rt 12A took me over the beginning of Randolph Gap. Again, some gravel road is taken to gain the first portion of the climb, but now, three hours into it, my legs weren't working all that well. My GPS track indicated when I reached the road that went up and over. At first, it looked like it might be passable by cars. It was very soft and wet though. Cars had been on it. But soon I realized it was just to reach a parking area for the hike up the rest of the way, presumably for Mt Cushman. This climb was going to be more of the same - rutted out creek bottom.
Beginning of Randolph Gap. Looks almost road bikeable here, but
soon degenerated into full-on Jeep road.
The grade was relentless enough that I - gasp - stopped to catch my breath. My legs were ready to shit the bed. Other than a stop and couple dabs due to slick tires, I did ride the whole thing. The top is quite pronounced. Not quite a knife edge, but close. Double tracks went both ways along the ridge line, one to Rochester Mtn, the other to Mt Cushman. This is state land and open to non-motorized use. I figured I was up there, I might as well ride the mile or so up to the summit of Mt Cushman even though I was out of water.
Apparently, ATV's used to rule this place years ago. There were giant pools of quagmire, many that you couldn't ride around. These were polliwog and mosquito larva infested stink ponds. One time I tempted fate and tried to ride along the edge of one of these cesspools. Midway, my front tire dove so deep I couldn't even see the brake rotor. It wasn't water, it was mud all the way. Needless to say, my legs went in as deep to catch myself. I nearly had to abandon my bike in place. The muck had such a tenacious grip on it. Had it pulled a shoe off, I would never have been able to recover it. The bike made heinous sucking sounds as the muck gave up its stronghold. My shoes were filled with the goo and I had no means to rinse them out. Did I say this shit stunk?
The view from Mt Cushman was nice, but marginally worth what it took to get there. Later at home, I learned that had I ridden a bit further out, there was potentially a better view from where hangliders launch.
View east/south from summit of Mt Cushman.
The descent back into Rochester was another slo-mo affair. Nobody would find me out here if I ate it bad. I had to be careful. Loose rocks and running water were again the feature of the day. Randolph Gap dumps our right near the stop sign on the Rochester Gap descent where we take a left when doing 6-gaps. From there, it was pavement at 40+mph the rest of the way into town.
Braintree (center) and Randolph (right) Gaps.
I finished the ride with 39mi, 5700ft vertical in 4.2hrs on the Garmin. Intensity earlier in the ride put me in a pretty wrecked state. A large roast beef and cheddar sub and coffee from the corner deli in Rochester were enough to get me started on the drive home. I'd consider doing a Braintree/Randolph loop again, but only after a dry spell, on a dualie, with some real tires. There are actually four dirt gaps over that ridgeline, the other two being Moretown and Roxbury, both road bikeable. A hundred mile four-gapper on a mountain bike comes to mind...