*Note: no elephants were harmed in the writing of this blog post.
Desmond Tutu famously said that it is best to eat an elephant one bite at a time. Having spent a small amount of time in the presence of elephants and much of my life as a vegetarian, it is ill-advised (the food choice, not the lesson).
Several weeks ago, a friend and I started talking about distance cycling and bike-packing. He’s a long-haul kind of cyclist, where I am a weekend warrior, riding 5 or 10 miles, sometimes 20 or 30, depending on my mood. I’ve done a handful of 40+ mile (~64km) rides, but with no consistency or methodology. So when we started talking about the Cross-Vermont Trail, which had recently added a new bridge and some additional bike path sections, the ride sounded long but nice. It was more of a passing conversation and felt like more of an aspiration to me.
Somehow, the conversations turned into reality, then gear accretion. So now I was the proud owner of panniers and a new light set (add, later, fenders and additional rain gear!). And if you have the equipment, well, you’ve got to use it…
The Cross-Vermont Trail is a self-described “patchwork quilt”: ~90 miles (~145km) in 12 stages of trail and road, stitched together to traverse Vermont and follow the Wells and Winooski rivers from the town of Wells River to the banks of Lake Champlain in Burlington. It goes along gravel roads and wooded fire roads, country lanes, scenic bike paths and (where absolutely necessary) routes 2 and 302. Click here to see the route in its entirety.
4th of July weekend seemed to be a good opportunity to take a stab at it. In my head, we’d do it in cozy legs: 30 miles a day, see some pretty covered bridges, eat some ice cream, do a little antiquing and town-wandering in between the segments. The plan evolved to riding it in 2 legs, bisecting the journey in Montpelier (note: pronounced “mont-peel-ier” to my non-native New England dismay and discomfort).
Reality: more legs than ice cream. Add in the gods of inopportune monsoons piling their own thoughts onto the subject.
So we ended up riding the first half (~40 miles or so) on day 1, somehow dodging the showers that were forecast; even seeing some much-appreciated breaks of sun. The ride was mostly pleasant: pine and gravel fire roads through old rail trail sections, manageable hills, nice river views, and few people about. Okay, there was the very stupid wipeout after I lost traction on a washed out sandy patch (a mere flesh wound…). And there was the sketchy stretch of route 2 in Marshfield or Plainfield with fast traffic, a surface that had been graded for repaving, and tight, gravelly shoulders which made for a nerve-wracking 10 or so miles (especially after one big truck with a trailer made a WAY too-close-for-comfort pass).
Perseverance pays off, though. Entering the charming city of Montpelier proper via their carefully-manicured bike path, wending across old railbeds, then riding squarely through the center of town, made the band-aided knee and those scary asphalt memories melt in moments!
Between the lingering haze from the Canadian forest fires, the heavy clouds, and what felt like 900% humidity, that night the air felt impending. Impending What was the question. We didn’t want to find out, so made the decision to wait out the rain, spend an extra night here, and play tourist for a day in Montpelier (mont-peel-ier).
Montpelier was quiet. Eerily quiet, in fact. We had passed the Barr Hill distillery on the way in, lending itself to ideas, as did the post-ride bees knees cocktails. So to dodge raindrops, we wandered around the city, visited Barr Hill for history and honey gin (their story is worth a visit on its own), and took in a weird matinee (Asteroid City) at the adorable Savoy theatre (their real buttered popcorn is also worth the visit!). I can’t imagine a better way to spend a rest day.
The ride: Day 2
When the early morning wake-up call featured light showers, I was worried that the day might be a washout that would see us pedaling for 11 hours in the rain. But somehow we again dodged the worst, and by 7:30 the streets were drying and the showers stayed at bay.
I don’t know which leg of the ride I enjoyed more. The 2nd half was more road than trail, but the roads were dirt or gravel and transported us through farms and quaint neighbourhoods, over wooden bridges and along the Winooski river. In some spots the hills won, and my pride hurt more than my legs. Climbs aside, the ride – roughly 50 miles of it – was rewarding and inspiring in so many ways. I’m grateful to the weather for cooperating. I’m grateful to my riding partner for being patient and supportive and funny. I’m thankful for the CVT association for building such a nice trail network. We encountered smiling cyclists and courteous locals throughout the day, even a trio from Canada who were on day 9 of a huge loop through Vermont and Mass.
There’s always an elephant. Take small bites…
The bites: I spent the 2 weeks prior to the trip dodging raindrops at home, stealing short rides when possible, and pounding on a trainer in my living room after work (saddle-time, as it were). I took what was in front of me on each leg of the ride and tackled each section of the ride: the rolling hills and gravelly and slippery parts, even the hardest climbs, one by one… It wasn’t the longest ride ever, or the most difficult, but when we finished with a quick view of Lake Champlain and were met (us sweaty and probably a little stinky), by a smiling chatty driver who piled the bikes in the rear of the van and shuttled us back to the car in Wells River, it all felt just a little bit perfect.
The skies opened up during the car ride back, and I thought, as we watched a bear run across the highway and the postcard-esque New England scenes flash by: I feel good. I’d like to do this again.