Deep into our climb up Waitsfield Gap along the unmaintained Vermont Class IV “road” (a loose term, as most roads I know don’t prominently feature deep ruts, car-sized boulders, stones, dirt, gravel and overgrown scrubgrass), I refused to stop pedaling my bicycle. Gravity made the decision for me, however, and I suddenly toppled over onto my side, still clipped into my pedals and mildly regretting my stubbornness.
It was the most comfortable bike crash I’ve ever experienced, thanks to the trail being so steep and the distance to the ground so short. Plus, I wasn’t moving forward at all. I lay angled against the wet forest floor for a few seconds while my amused riding partner, Bill, approached from behind, slowly pushing his fully loaded rig up the 20-degree climb through the various obstacles in a technique the bikepacking community fondly refers to as “hike-a-bike.”
It didn’t matter that it had been raining all morning. This “road” would present a major challenge for ATVs and dirt bikes on the best of days, let alone for the drop-bar gravel bikes we were on. “Underbiked” is another term from the bikepacking lexicon that comes to mind.
So, the two of us settled into our hike to the top, nearly an hour pushing our 25-pound steel-framed Niner gravel bikes (think beefed-up road bike with wider tires) each loaded with about 20 pounds worth of tent, sleeping bag, clothing, water, snacks, tools and other necessary gear. This was Day 1 of our five-day journey through the Green Mountains, and it already was among the most fun days I’ve had on two wheels.
Bikepacking, or more broadly, adventure cycling, has exploded in popularity in recent years as bike manufacturers have embraced builds that feature stable and compliant (i.e. comfortable) geometries, fatter tires that can be run tubeless at lower air pressures, and flexible mounting options for rack/pannier systems or, preferably, rackless bikepacking bags. These gravel or “adventure” bikes are designed to encourage cyclists to venture off the tarmac and onto paths, gravel roads, dirt roads, double- and singletrack and other natural surfaces. They can tackle just about anything. Whether done with drop-bars, flat bars, hard tails or full-suspension mountain bikes, the activity has opened up a whole new world for cyclists by combining elements of camping and multi-day bike touring.
We started planning for our Vermont adventure a year ago in spring after ski season abruptly ended due to COVID-19. Our goal was to complete the Green Mountain Gravel Growler route featured on the bikepacking.com website. Scouted and mapped by bikepacking.com founder Logan Watts and Vermonter Joe Cruz, the 248-mile loop weaves along “storybook-farm dirt roads, flowy New England singletrack and rugged historic woodland paths” while circuiting through several of Vermont’s celebrated craft breweries.
“At its heart, the Green Mountain Gravel Growler is a route designed to enjoy over an extra-long weekend on a gravel/adventure bike with hearty 40mm tires or greater,” the developers write. “Daily mileage is low to allow leisurely tours and tastings. Along the way you’ll find abundant climbing, incredible views of the Green Mountains, rolling farmland and quaint New England charm … oh yeah, and some of the most amazing beer on the planet.”
Who could resist?
But to tackle this five-day, 248-mile loop — 70 percent of which is unpaved with more than 21,000 feet of climbing — we needed time to gear ourselves up and prepare. Our carbon road bikes and Ironman TT bikes weren’t going to cut it. Despite the challenges of shopping for adventure bikes and bikepacking gear during the supply shortages in a global pandemic, we were able to find everything we needed. We planned a shorter, three-day/two-night preparatory trip closer to home last September, fully loaded like we would be for Vermont later in the fall. The practice trip served its purpose well, giving us valuable insight on improvements we could make in packing, digital routing/navigation, daily distance expectations on rugged terrain and, as temps dropped into the high 30s on both nights we spent in tents, a heightened premium on staying comfortable off the bike.
The best part about adventure cycling is that there are no rules. You can do it any way you want, anywhere you want, on any bicycle, at any pace. But adequate planning is crucial, especially when you plan to traverse through mountain country over a five-day period. Among our personal customizations to the Gravel Growler loop included changing our route direction from clockwise to counterclockwise and changing the route start to the condo we were staying at in Sugarbush Village. We lopped about 25 miles off the northern section of the route to better accommodate our sleep destination plans.
We also opted not to tent on night one, as my old college roommate lives just off the route in Calais, Vt. This was perhaps the best decision we made on the trip, as the first day we spent in the rain climbing over Waitsfield Gap — streaking down the mountain to Northfield and winding our way through Montpelier and ultimately up to Calais — left us completely depleted. Good friends waiting for you with a home-cooked meal, cold beer and warm beds made all the difference.
By now we were experts at packing/unpacking our bikes. We both had mounted fork bags (I used for quick access to warm/rain cycling gear when needed on one side, sleeping pad on the other), handlebar bags (I stuffed sleeping bag, puffy, thermals and other off-the-bike clothing I wanted to keep dry), frame bags (hard and heavier items like tools, tent poles, extra water, pump, battery charger, random food, etc.) and saddle bags (I used for tent, footprint, camp shoes, mug, etc.).
The campsite we found at Waterbury Reservoir on Night 2 was perfection. Great views, clear night, campfire, smooth ground to set up tents, outhouse facility. We slept soundly.
Be adaptable. We were greeted by a light rain on the morning of Day 3, when we planned to ride from Waterbury Center to Burlington. After stopping at Cold Hollow Cider Mill for coffee and apple cider donuts pulled fresh off their vintage conveyor machine, the skies opened up in a heavy downpour that didn’t let up for the rest of the day. Beyond drenched, we altered our route on the fly to maximize our speed to Burlington, opting to cruise on Route 2 rather than the rail trail. We booked a hotel room in the city where we laid out all our wet gear (even waterproof bags have their limitations) and took hot showers. Tenting out that night would not only have been miserable, but also likely dangerous.
Enjoy the ride. I’ve spent thousands of miles on my bike with my head down grinding out mph. I’ve also driven to the mountains countless times over the decades in all seasons, and as scenic as many of the roads are, there is simply no better way than by bicycle to view the landscape and the communities that treasure them, especially off the beaten path. Rolling south from Burlington on Day 4 along the shores of Lake Champlain and the farmland dirt roads in Shelburne, Hinesburg and Monkton was magical amidst the October foliage. We stocked up at a grocery store in Middlebury before setting up camp in National Forest land in East Middlebury. At the base of Lincoln Peak, the loose cans of Lawson’s beer I had squeezed into my frame pack was a nice reward.
Lincoln Gap was all that stood between us and our Sugarbush condo finish on Day 5. Revered for containing the steepest paved mile in the U.S. with maximum elevations reaching 24 percent, both the climb and descent presented a nice challenge. When preparing for rides like this, it’s important to reduce your pack weight as much as possible. Every ounce counts. Luxury items often don’t make sense, especially when grinding up a steep climb. Also, gravel bike gearing often comes stock with ranges that leave climbers wanting for more on the low end.
Zig-zagging across both lanes of the road approaching Lincoln Peak in my granny gear, I wondered how slow I could actually go and still remain upright. My bike computer was auto-pausing on me despite the fact that I was still making progress upward, albeit slowly. Any car traveling up or down the mountain road was likely to disrupt my back-and-forth rhythm and force me to clip out of my pedals. Cresting the top at 2,424 feet, I did just that, clipping out to bask in the achievement.
Cruising down the other side in excess of 40 mph left me impressed with the handling of my adventure bike. The combination of its longer wheelbase, 42 mm tires inflated to 40 pounds, steel frame, flared drop handlebars and pack weight made for an incredibly stable ride, even at high speed.
Throughout the ride, this security allowed my thoughts to wander off and reflect on these incredible opportunities we have to enjoy the outdoors in New England.
More than anything, it left me eager to plan the next adventure.