Saturday, November 25, 2006

Smugglers' Notch is closed for the winter!

It was as good as it gets in November in Vermont. The temp was in the upper 40s and not a cloud in the sky. I decided to try one more run at VT 108 over Smugglers' Notch before the snow flies, which is usually well before now. This is a 60-mile loop for me; I call it "riding around the block," as all I need to do is take a right turn onto every road that is paved all the way through. I pumped up the sewups on my '82 Richard Sachs, hung a spare tubular under the saddle and headed out just after lunch.

It was a beautiful ride. The route travels aptly-named Pleasant Valley Road, which is one of the best cycling roads anywhere, in my opinion. I noted the sign in Jeffersonville announcing that the Notch is closed for the winter, but hoped that the recent warm weather had left the road passable. I went around the barrier on clear, dry road but a half-mile from the summit the ice started to appear. It's cold up there and where the cliffs shade the road on the north side, there is nothing to melt the ice. The road crew doesn't plow or salt the road once you get pass the barrier at the ski area. At first it was little patches of ice that made the rear wheel break loose with a "VVVT-VVVT" sound. Then it was the precarious slide of the front wheel until it caught pavement again. When there weren't many dry patches left, I decided I should get my cleat out of the pedal. Just in time! the bike shot out from underneath me just as I had my foot free.

I didn't want to turn back, expecting that the south side would be clearer than the north and knowing I wasn't far from the top. It was amazingly slippery in my road shoes; I had to aim for the crunchy spots and the bike didn't want to stay upright at all, even without a rider. As I neared the top, I actually passed another roadie walking his bike the other way! We agreed that the Notch should be considered closed for the winter.

The descent was even trickier than usual. The ice disappeared quickly, but the switchbacks on the south side are covered with clods of dirt that has washed across the road. The annual closing of the road makes it a pedestrian haven. People walking in groups are likely to cross the road right in front of you, not expecting cyclists to come whizzing up from behind. Even more hazardous are the unleashed dogs, who bound up from the brush to rejoin their masters, coming up out of nowhere right in front of you. I had to brake hard three times to avoid these dogs. And then there is the occaisional jerk, always a male, who just has to prove that his 4-wheel drive can still make the road. I so want these dopes to slide into the ditch! How gripping a steering wheel and pushing a gas pedal is supposed to prove to the world that these guys are tough is absolutely beyond me. Read the sign, dope!

It's a minor goal of mine to be one of the last roadies over the Notch as winter sets in and to be one of the first over it in the spring. It's a great ride, and the northern approach should be within the ability of almost any fit cyclist. We even rode our tandem over it this past summer. Give it a try, sometime!

Terrible Mountain on a Track Bike

It was a Friday in early November and I was heading south on I89 on a beautiful day, heading for a full-day meeting in Boston. Hoping that I would have an hour or so of daylight after the meeting, I had tossed my trusty old Raleigh track bike into the back of the car. This bike has tons of stories of its own, but we won't go into them here. Suffice it to say that I have owned this bike since new and rode it enough to actually wear out a frame! Riding this bike taught me the value of a fixed gear bike for city riding; a realization that preceded the current fixation on fixies by decades. Since I would be in fairly flat Boston, I thought that the track bike was the perfect ride to bring along.

I had just crossed the Vermont- New Hampshire border when my cell phone rang. It was the organizer of the event telling me that it had been cancelled, due to a problem with the facility. Since I had already made arrangements for coverage for my classes and there was not time enough to get to school before half of them would be over, I decided to visit a couple of the schools that we support that are located on the east side of the state, instead.

I visited the instructors at Hartford Area Career & Technical Center in White River Junction and the River Valley Technical Center in Springfield, spending a couple of hours at each location. I wrapped up the visits around 1:00 and decided that there was time to get in a hilly loop, even if I didn't have the right bike for it. I drove to Chester and found a pull-off where I could park and change. I sped off on the track bike, hoping to get in about 50 miles before dark.

A track bike is not designed for road use, having a single, fixed gear (no coasting), short wheelbase and no brakes. I had long ago added a front brake and road tires. I also had installed wooden rims to help absorb some of the road shock and vibration that telegraphs through such a tight frame. The frame geometry of this bike is not extreme by today's standards but in the early 1970s, such a tight, 18 lb bike was considered a real screamer. The short wheelbase helps make up for the relatively high single gear ratio (48 x 16, in this case), but it can still be quite a grunt muscling up the really steep stuff.

With the declining daylight, I decided to cut off part of the ride by taking a "shortcut" through Andover. This is always risky when it's a road that you have not traveled before. Andover proved to be at the top of a significant climb, several miles long and steep enough to require an impressive switchback. The pavement was new and the road follows a classic Vermont mountain stream. Everything was fine until just after the switchback when I twisted my foot slightly and heard a SNAP and noticed one cleat was now sloppy in the pedal. I decided that it would be extremely difficult to get started again if I stopped, so I continued to the top of the climb where I stopped to discover that I had broken one of my cleats. Now, that's not such a surprise on a pair of 25-year old shoes with lots of miles, but it still can be a serious problem on a track bike, where good purchase on the pedals is critical. Going down descents means that you have to pedal at a very rapid pace, since you cannot coast or shift to a higher gear. Still, I didn't want to turn back, so I decided to take my chances and continue on the loop.

The descent down to Weston is quite steep, so I worked very hard, resisting the desire of the bike to rocket down the hill by pushing hard backwards on the pedals. You don't back pedal on a track bike like you would on a coaster brake. Instead, you apply backward pressure on the pedals in the same way that you apply forward pressure on a climb. The difference is that it's not as efficient, due to the position of the leg on the power stroke and you use a completely different set of muscles.

Half way down the slope I passed the only other rider I saw that day, who was riding a triple-zoot Trek up the hill. He sure gave me a funny look as I worked so hard pedaling down the hill! Once the slope eased up, I let the speed increase and concentrated on keeping up a high spin without letting the broken cleat slip out of the pedal.

I turned onto VT 100 at Weston and was happily spinning away the miles when I came to the intersection where 100 splits off from VT 155. It suddenly came to me where I was and that I would now have to go over Terrible Mountain before reaching Ludlow. I have strong memories of this climb, having done it many times from the other direction during the classic 100/200 double-century ride. Luckily, the climb from the south approach is shallower than from the north, though many times longer. As the second major climb of the ride, it took a lot of effort to muscle the fixed gear to the eventual summit; then it was another stand on the pedals and work the old Weinmann sidepull brake to control the speed on that nasty descent.

Once in Ludlow I clicked on my flasher, as the light was starting to fade and the traffic had picked up quite a bit. I spun up the pace as I passed VT 131, feeling very sorry that I would run out of light if I turned off on that incredibly beautiful road. If you ever get a chance, ride VT 131 from Ludlow through Cavendish. It is a gorgeous, gradual downhill that follows an incredible trout stream. It's pure joy on two wheels.

I had enough left in the tank to keep the RPMs up as I went over Proctorsville Gulf and down the other side. Once the road leveled off, it was only a few more miles to the pulloff where I had parked the car and I ended the ride just before the daylight started to fade.

The next day, I was stiff, but the second and third days I could hardly walk at all! As I said, the fixed gear uses a whole different set of muscles when going down hills and I had sure abused them. Moderation and training may be the key but still, I am glad to be able to say I've been over Terrible Mountain on a track bike!

Friday, October 20, 2006

Not Quite a SLAM

About six weeks ago, I got an email from a listserv announcing a running of the Six-Gaps bicycle ride. Vermont is known in many circles for its “gaps,” which are mountain climbs that wind up steep hillsides, passing through natural saddles formed between peaks. There are a number of these that crisscross the spine of the Green Mountains in the central part of the state. For some reason, the north-south pass on Route 108 outside of Stowe is called Smugglers Notch. What makes one pass a “notch” and another a “gap” is beyond me. Smugglers’ Notch is quite different from any of the gaps with it’s sheer rock cliff rising hundreds of feet on the west side—it really looks like a notch. Hazen’s Notch is significant, but much less of a climb than any of the gaps. Plymouth Notch is an easy ride and one wonders how it merits a name at all—go figure.

The Six-Gaps ride covers the named Vermont gaps, which include, in order, Lincoln Gap, Appalachian (App) Gap, Middlebury Gap, Brandon Gap, Rochester Gap and Roxbury Gap. The distance is a total of 116 miles with the gaps rising from 1500’ to 1800’ in elevation change . Grades on most of the climbs average around 10%, but Lincoln Gap is in a class by itself, with about a mile and a half of grades that reach 24%. To give a sense of perspective, the steepest grade you will encounter on a US interstate highway is 5%. San Francisco’s Lombard Street reportedly averages 14.3% . Lincoln Gap is not just steep—it’s stupid steep.

I filed the Six-Gaps ride into the back of my mind as a definite “maybe.” I hadn’t done a single truly epic ride this season, though I have logged many miles and quite a few mountain climbs. I’ve done three double-gap climbs, if you count Smugglers’ Notch as a gap. As the day of the ride approached, I decided to go for it but the weather changed to a dreary, cold, rain and the other riders all backed out, as did I. Now, how to justify the triple chainring setup I had bought to attack Lincoln Gap?

I’ve done a number of long rides and hard climbs. In my youth, I would ride to Massachusetts from Albany, NY, ride over Mt. Greylock, and return over Petersburgh Pass. Yet, a few years ago, I tried the Killington-Pico Cycling Club’s LAMB ride (Lincoln, App., Middlebury & Brandon Gaps) but bailed out half-way through. The fact that I was exhausted and my car was less than five miles away proved irresistible. Though I’m in decent riding shape, I don’t know if I could pull off the Six-Gaps ride without experiencing debilitating leg cramps—my greatest nemesis. Without the need to meet up with other riders, I started thinking that a different combination of climbs might be more convenient, hence the SLAM, for Smugglers’ Notch, Lincoln Gap, App. Gap and Middlebury Gap. If I can tackle these successfully, they can be extended to include other gaps, with an emphasis on clever acronyms.

The triple setup I purchased from Peter White Cycles is a TA triple adapter for my classic Campagnolo Super Record crank that allows the fitting of a third chainring that is much smaller than the normal 41 tooth of the double setup. Campy made a triple with a 36 tooth small ring and other manufacturers made a 30 tooth ring to fit this setup, but these cranksets are quite rare and expensive these days and the sub 36 tooth rings are virtually impossible to find.

Fitting the triple adapter and finding suitable derailleurs that would shift both it and a wide-range freewheel proved to be a much bigger challenge than expected. I ended up with a Huret Duopar rear changer and a Campy C-Record front. The TA adapter does not use the shift pins, ramps and gates of modern triples, so finding a chain and front mech combination that would shift from the middle to the inner ring proved quite problematic. Three derailleurs and four chains later, I had an adequately shifting bike, but it was after noon. If I could have started by 9, I would have been able to tackle the SLAM. With these short October days, though, I would have to shorten the ride.

Since the whole point of the triple was to get me over Lincoln Gap, I decided to ride to App Gap and do it from the west, crossing back over Lincoln Gap from the harder east approach. Starting right from home, I went down our steep 3.5 miles of dirt road and started right out climbing wicked-steep Wes White Hill. I don’t know what the grade is of this short paved road, but I suspect it is about 22%. The setup worked ok and I didn’t use the bottom gear, staying in the 30-26 combination on the steepest parts. I proceeded against a stiff headwind down to App Gap on the Main Road through Huntington and had no trouble climbing over the gap. I stayed in the 42-26, my normal gear for this climb, most of the way, dropping to the 30-26 for the 500 meter 19% grade pull to the top. The forecast was for rain starting sometime in the late afternoon and the sky was a mix of blue and dark, foreboding gray. Coming down the other side, I decided to take a detour down German Flats road to the Sugarbush Access Road, which proved to be a long but not-to-tough climb, followed by a fast descent back to Route 100.

A couple of miles south in Warren, I turned onto Lincoln Gap. I have heard it said that Lincoln Gap boasts the steepest mile of paved road in the continental US. I cannot prove or disprove this, but it is one steep climb. I’ve done it twice successfully with a 36-28, but it was quite a grunt. My first attempt a few years ago was with a 42-26 and I couldn’t do it. This time, I stayed in the 30-26 most of the way, dropping to a 30-34 for the last pull to the top. The 24% grade is so steep that you have to slide forward in the saddle to keep the front wheel on the ground. This problem was exacerbated by the shift into the 34 and I had to get out of the saddle or be especially smooth in my cadence.

The descent down Lincoln Gap’s west side is no fun. You need to really lean on the brakes going down the steepest paved section and use great caution on the gravel stretch. Once the pavement starts again, you can let ‘er rip and it’s a fast ride down to VT 116. I decided to complete the loop by climbing VT 17 up the “Baby Gap,” the climb and descent that precedes App Gap, and diverting back down the Main Road through Huntington. The south wind, which ceased to be a problem as I criss-crossed the Green Mountains on the gaps, became a nice tailwind. I kept up a quick 22-26 mph pace until it started raining just south of Huntington. I picked up the pace to a blistering 26-30 mph until turning onto Dugway Road, where I slowed down to cut the amount of mud thrown up from the dirt road. It was pretty dark by the time I hit the top of the 16% grade on our dirt road, so I was happy to arrive home in the cold drizzle.

A couple of hours after arriving home and wiping all the rain and mud off the bike, I heard a loud BANG. My last, beautiful old Clement Criterium Cotton sewup had blasted a hole in its sidewall. Should I mourn the loss of such a rare and classic link to the lost heritage of wonderful Italian handmade racing tires, or thank my lucky stars that it didn’t leave me by the side of the road, prying a tire off in the cold twilight rain? If only it had lost most of its tread, or flatted with a repairable puncture. Oh, well. At least it had a grand last ride.

As far as the gearing is concerned, I think I might see if I can find a 13-28 or 13-30 seven speed freewheel. It’s not so much a question of whether or not I can make it up Lincoln with a 30-28, but if I’ll have enough left afterward to do at least two more gaps. Time and a convenient Indian Summer day may tell.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Double-Gap Ride--Too Early!

This has been a warm winter--too warm by Vermont standards. Interestingly, the snow level at the stake on Mt. Mansfield has tracked the average depth pretty closely, but there are huge drops, where the snow has almost disappeared. Unfortunately for the ski areas, those drops have typically been just before important weekends. Downhill areas that made snow did ok, though the conditions were rarely great, but the crosscountry areas took a real beating.

The thaws did make for a lot of early-season sloppy road biking. Luckily, I have a couple of bikes with fenders to keep the crud off, and a couple of those steeds have had to resign themselves to becoming the designated road salt rides. I have gotten in more miles by this time of year than any other since I moved to Vermont 25 years ago, including a couple of gap rides.

Vermont has a number of "gaps", really mountain passes that branch out east or west from VT 100, passing over the spine of the Green Mountains. The list is generally recognized as,
from north to south and east to west: Appalachian Gap, Lincoln Gap, Middlebury Gap, Brandon Gap, Moretown Gap, Roxbury Gap, and Rochester Mountain Gap (taken from Vermont Deathride). I would add the perhaps misnamed Plymouth Notch (really easy) and the wonderful Smuggler's Notch to the list. About the only difference is that gaps run east-west, and notches run pretty much north-south, but even that's not consistent, as in the case of Hazen's Notch. At any rate, the gaps and notches are favorite targets for cyclists. All are a challenge and some, like the stupid-steep Lincoln Gap, are epic memorable-for-a-lifetime rides for most cyclists. I ride Smuggler's Notch and Appalachian Gap several times a year, since both are on nice 50-60 mile loops from my house in Bolton.

So perhaps that's why I snapped at the bait when John Painter suggested a double-gap ride over Appalachian and Middlebury gaps, the route of the Green Mountain Stage Race, on March 11th. We met up near John's home in Starksboro and headed down VT 117 to the bottom of VT 17, where the App Gap starts. The temp was in the low '40s and I thought I might have been a little overdressed, though it didn't turn out that way. I was riding the Bianchi Squadra, as it had a 42x26 and index shifting--it was a good choice. John, of course, dropped me right away on the 'baby gap'. I caught him once, when he stopped to take off his jacket, but he didn't let that happen again. It's not that John is 20 years younger than me--he's just an amazing all-around athlete.

I didn't have any trouble getting the rest of the way up App Gap, and John is always kind enough not to take off at the top of climbs. I did my share of the pulling down VT 100 through Granville Gulf to Brandon where we took our only real break. Getting up Middlebury Gap was another thing, however. Middlebury Gap is easier than App Gap, but it grinds you down as it gets steepest at the top--in true Vermont gap fashion. About 2/3rd the way up, the leg cramps started and they stayed with me the rest of the ride, which was a long 30 miles. I'd be going along just fine when "WHAM", I'd get a slamming pain in the leg. Calf, thigh, left leg, right leg, they all took their turns tormenting me. Still, the wind cooperated, dying down toward the end of the day when it became a headwind, the sun poked out a few times, we rode past melting snowfields, ticked off a couple of gaps and got in a rugged 65 miles, earning some serious bragging points for this early in the season. Woo-Hoo!!!
VT-BUDS is online! is a website for Vermont tandem teams to connect for rides and to post ride reports--s sort of tandem rideboard. The site is setup so that people can post ride photos in their announcements and reports. The site is up and running just in time for Vermont's riding season (I saw four other riders on my 30 mile round-trip commute yesterday). I think this is an original idea, so time will tell if it takes off or fizzles. The hope is that it will encourage people to ride tandems by making it easier to connect with others. Tandems are socially oriented by their very nature. And if more tandems are seen out on the road, more people will be interested in giving them a try. Tandems are a positive image for cycling. While some people immediately get annoyed when they have to slow down to pass a single cyclist or, even worse, a pair of cyclists riding side-by-side, everyone likes to see a tandem!