Ten (fool?)hardy souls decided to attempt the Vermont 6-gaps ride on Saturday when forecasts ranged from 40-60% chance of potentially severe afternoon storms. The weather pattern was identical to two days prior when tornado warnings were issued for the 6-gaps area. Those storms caused extensive damage and flooding. I had enough firm commitments to go ahead with the ride, even after close to half the riders dropped out for various reasons. Only one admitted 6-gaps required a blue-bird sky kind of day. Joining the ride were six riders from NY (groups of 3, 2 and 1), two riders from CT, one from MA for ten including myself. We were a diverse group; Ironman tri-guys, randonneurs, mountain bikers, hillclimb specialists and slow-twitch mutants.
The traditional route was chosen this time, hitting the gaps in Brandon, Mid, Lincoln, App, Rox and Rochester order. The weather was quite mild in the morning, even muggy. No long layers were needed. I speculated that even heavy rain would pose no threat of hypothermia, so I took no spare layers with me.
We rolled out shortly after 9am. We took it pretty easy up Brandon Gap, unlike in years past. I've learned my lesson on that one. There were some disparities in climbing abilities within the group. This had me a tad concerned already in the first climb. I've led enough of these rides over the years to gauge how riders are going to hold up after just the first climb.
On the scenic cruise along Lake Dunmore, we had our first unplanned stop. A saddle rail clamp failed. Lots of cursing could be heard emanating from the back of the pack. Turns out the head of a titanium screw sheared off. We were able to back out the remaining severed threads. I think it was Christian who suggested using a screw from bar clamp off stem to re-secure the saddle. It worked. Disaster averted. The bar clamp still had three screws to secure it.
Because it was hotter than usual and everybody had only two bottles, unplanned stop number two was in East Middlebury for water. This was a quarter mile off the planned route. Wouldn't you know it, my front tire flatted. First flat for me ever on a 6-gaps ride. I think there was more cussing. I told the others to get their water while I fixed my flat. I happened to have my hillclimb front wheel on with a latex tube. It was hard to tell if the latex failed or something punctured the tube. There was nothing in the tire. Good thing it was front wheel. I thought I brought long valve stem tube, but it was standard 36mm stem. I need long valve stem for rear wheel. I finished before the others were done at the store.
The climb up Middlebury had three of us split well off the front of the others. Alex Combes, James Harmon and I established a typical, rigorous 6-gaps pace. The group agreed to not regroup at the top but to regroup at the store on the other side. It took even longer for the group to get back together this time. The skies were becoming increasingly dark, and it was spitting rain every now and again. Alex has ridden 6-gaps before. It was James' first time and he was keen on completing the mission. I figured Lincoln Gap would be a good point to decide on splitting the group up, as our current progress was on course for an after dark finish.
With the group together on Rt 100, we got a bit of a paceline going. Things went well until the Granville Gulf, the misty, cool gap through the mountains. The waterfalls in there were monstrous due to all the recent rain. Our group didn't fare so well going over Granville Gulf though. The group fragmented despite a moderate pace. Alex, James and I paused briefly at the bottom of Lincoln Gap, didn't see anybody coming, then decided to head on up and wait at the top.
Heading north on Rt 100. Dark clouds build.
Alex had James all freaked out about Lincoln Gap. James even made last minute gearing changes to go lower. For someone that was winning open/pro MTB races on a singlespeed last year, I was freaked out that whatever lowest gear he was bringing would kill me.
It started to sprinkle on the 25% grade section. That combined with a wet spring and tree debris on the road made the surface slimy and very difficult to pedal out of the saddle. Multiple times my rear tire slipped so badly that I almost went over the bars. James and I stayed together, driving our heartrates very nearly to max. And that was at a whopping 4mph! Alex drifted back just a tad, complaining his his gearing didn't go low enough when he got to the top. Whatever. He ends up destroying everybody at the end of these rides anyway.
That put a serious burn in my legs. I knew I would pay for that later on Rochester Gap. Ah, oh, what was that? Thunder? None of us wanted to descend Lincoln Gap in a storm. It wasn't raining at the moment. Reports were the gravel was a bit gnarly to begin with. We figured we could be waiting half an hour for the last rider to make it up. This meant a rainy descent and put ride completion in jeopardy. Our decision was unanimous: it was time to continue without the rest of the group. I hated to move on with so few riders. The others had maps and each other, and I let everybody know when I organize these rides that splits may happen. It turned out to be a good call for the three of us. I learned later there was another flat in the group en route to Lincoln Gap.
On the Lincoln Descent, a third flat for the ride occurred. James was absolutely bombing the lower gravel section when he flatted. He was running a Stan's tubeless setup. A rock either pinch-flatted or cut through the sidewall. The Stan's sealant just wouldn't seal it. It would appear to plug, but upon adding more air, it would blow out and spew more Stan's. It was clear a tube was needed. Turns out a tubeless road tire is really hard to remove from a Stan's rim and get back on. Heavy use of a lever was needed. I was so afraid we'd flat the tube. It probably took us 20 minutes to fix it. We were now left with one tube between three riders.
I'm not sold on the road tubeless concept yet. I was an early adopter of off-road UST tubeless technology. Max inflation level is lower with road tubeless. This might have contributed to the flat, as it makes it easy to pinch the tire. Ironically, tubeless is supposed to eliminate pinch flatting the tube. One positive aspect is you will probably never roll a tubeless tire off the rim when you flat. That always scares me because I bomb down mountains at 50+ mph so often.
We made a quick stop at the Lincoln General Store. I inhaled a massive cinnamon roll that must have had 500 calories of frosting alone on it. Some jerky for protein and sodium, Gatorade for fluids fulfilled my fueling needs.
The sky was turning black to the south and the thunder was deepening. Alex was as jittery as a mouse looking for cover when the lights are turned on. I figured we were going to get wet, but it looked like the worst would pass just to our south as we headed north to App Gap. I couldn't get "Thunderbolts and Lightning, Very Very Frightening" out of my head for the next hour.
It started raining earnestly as we began climbing "baby App," the first rise before the real climbing starts further up. The rain felt good actually. We passed a couple on a tandem on the way up. The lightning stayed at least 1-2 miles away from us. There was some thunder directly overhead, but very high up. Just as on Lincoln Gap, our pace escalated to nearly all-out on the 18% to the summit. I thought I breathed slowly at VOmax, but I found James breathes even more slowly. He did hit his maximum heartrate cresting the top. I figured I just screwed myself over with that effort, as surely the next two gaps would bury me.
Summit of App Gap with sun starting to poke through.
The rain had stopped by the time we summited. The road was wet, so the dicy descent would be even dicier. Our pace was now back on track for completion of 6-gaps. Our plan was to stop at Stark Mtn Bike Works in Waitsfield to pick up more tubes, refuel, check radar, then proceed with Roxbury Gap if radar didn't look too risky. What the time lapse showed was an intense cell moved through Lincoln just after we left there. Talk about a close call. The radar suggested if we got over Roxbury fast, was should miss the next storm cell heading our way.
Rt 100 south to Warren just sucked. It was bad 10 years ago when I first did this ride, and it is far worse now. There were places where no clean line anywhere across the road could be found. White line to white line busted pavement, patches and holes. I thought some state roads in NH were bad, but Vermont seems to be worse. Fortunately it is only five miles to Warren.
As we began the Roxbury climb, Alex's true slow twitch colors were beginning to shine. He wasn't slowing down. I was damaged goods after Lincoln and App. James was in similar condition. Many riders say Roxbury Gap is the second hardest of the six. I don't see it. Alex claims it is, although you surely couldn't tell from how quickly he scooted up it. The three of us crested within two minutes of each other. There was more thunder to the south of us, which surprised me. I expected to get poured on heading south to Randolph.
The heavy cell we narrowly missed earlier left the long, dirt Roxbury descent a wet mess. The gravel itself was smooth and firm for the most part, but water running off meant a constant stream of mud in the face. I managed to hit 41mph in muddy gravel on 23mm tires. James went even faster. Our bikes were trashed and in need of new brake pads upon reaching the bottom. A final, quick stop at the Roxbury General Store to top off our water had us on our way. We also got one more peak at the radar. It looked like we might get wet, but nothing severe. Turned out the rest of our ride was dry, except for the mud that leached into my chamois...
Muddy and still smilling.
It is a lot less fun pacelining with only three tired riders down Rt 12a than a pack of 10-12. We took long pulls, but a few miles per hour slower than we typically haul through this 15 mile long valley. The sun was starting to poke through again as we turned onto Camp Brook Rd for Rochester Gap.
When we got to the steep "guardrail sections," I was max'd out holding Alex's wheel. A morbid curiosity made me ask what his HR was. 160-something. Dang. He was hardly working and I was on the edge. I immediately caved and let him go. Soon he had minutes on me. Slow twitch freak. James was just a bit further back. Rochester is always a death march for me. At least I wasn't cramping. We stopped nearly twice as many times than last fall when I last did the ride, so it was easy to stay on top of fueling and hydration. I think the jerky really worked. Other times I've eaten sardines with success.
There were some high-fives when we all got to the top. It was pretty much all downhill back to the car. I was reluctant to let my speed run out, unlike James, as the road was still wet in spots. Just as we popped out in Rochester, Christian was rolling in. He gave us an account of what some of the rest of the group experienced. The other New Yorkers had left already, and Chris from MA also was gone. I believe everybody else completed four gaps.
Parking lot after the ride.
I logged 131.8 miles in 7:54 riding time, one of my slowest times in many years. Not disappointed. Still got one heck of a workout and got to show one new rider around the whole circuit. Most of the other riders experienced some or all of the gaps they rode for the first time too. I've had pretty good luck with weather on Memorial Day weekend, so we were due for a less than perfect day. Perhaps next year we'll have better luck.