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.