(This is a look back to September, 2017. Clearly, not a reflection on current activities. Alas….)
As a beer guy, no hops-quest can be too obscure or time-consuming. Naturally, an article labeled the “Napa Valley of Beer” screamed for attention. These brewers were clustered in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont. (More screaming) At the same time, an inventive soul mapped a brewery route that became known as the Vermont Gravel Growler Tour. The convergence was too perfect. Add Tim to the mix and a plan spins up.
Day One – When you are out of Schlitz… In Montpelier, I mount up and attempt to roll. It is easy to think of Charles Lindberg watching the end of the runway while coaxing his overloaded plane into the air. Meanwhile, Tim’s carbon fiber bike seems to lift off with ease.
I quickly convince Tim to stay on the main road for the first leg of the trip. The only hills are bridges over I-89. This is shaping up to be a great trip. The rain is holding off. We are making good time and our first beer awaits. We arrived at Prohibition Pig, a great stop in the Town of Waterbury.
Now fortified with Schlitz, (really!) and smoky chili, we head for the Little River Campground and scored a lakefront lean-to. Better yet, there are modern washrooms and hot showers. Let it rain. We were warm, relatively dry and supplied with good local beers. In total, a portentous start.
Day Two – A pattern emerges – How quickly the ledger shifts. The climb out of Little River hit 20%, way beyond rideable. I pushed and tugged over a series of wet climbs. After a couple of false summits, we hit the top and rode a ridgeline. Now the trail was bisected by surging waterfalls, arched by deep forest and ended with miles of downhill on well-tended gravel. Tough but satisfying. We got back on pavement with slight bits of blue overhead and our Brewery just minutes away. Alas, the brewery (nameless) was a letdown. Tim and I were of equal thought. Let’s move on.
Once again, Tim graciously changed the route to bypass more climbs and stay on pavement. By 6:00 I was sipping my new favorite beer, Mosaic IPA, at the Lost Nation Brewery. A beer garden was attached to the brewery. Great beer, cool servers, blasting music, fine burgers. This is fitting into the holy grail. Our evening rest was dry and warm, at a roadside motel less than a mile from Lost Nation. Our bikes and camping gear fitted nicely in our snug room. Sodden gear was dried and Ben & Jerry provided the bedtime snack.
Day Three – The hills before Hill Farmstead – In Vermont the word “hill” inserted into a road name has an understated, yet ominous meaning. Today’s ride has about ten roads with the “H” word. Still, good cheer all around at the start of the first climb.
By the second climb, good cheer evaporates. Fortunately, the humid, foggy weather also dissipates. The transition to decent weather forestalls the deterioration of my personal climate. By climb four I am toast. The rest of the world is taking a morning coffee break. I’m in the realm of lost hope.
We approach Craftsbury with another ridge looming. There is good news. According to Tim, there is a tunnel ahead. (Wow, I got snookered.) And the countryside is Vermont lovely. A stop at the Craftsbury General Store reminds me that community is centered around these wobbly, never-in-a hurry, creaky floored, paint-peeled, crammed to the gills markets. Great food is prepared, local guys in Carharts offer advice, and the sun burst through. Bring it. I am renewed.
A mile from Craftsbury, on Ketchum Hill Road, I crack. The next 5 hills are pushes. There is a formula. At about 12% gradient I can longer overcome gravity clutching at the over-loaded bike. I push. At about 16%, I step out of my wet shoes. Contemplations while pushing:
- These roads are gravel because paving equipment couldn’t work these steeps
- That fuckin’ Tim is in much better shape than me. Where did he go?
- Do I really need all this shit in my panniers?
- It is possible that I might die here
And so on…
I catch up to Tim at the top of yet another hill. The sun slants across a row of ridges. Corn is growing into the road’s shoulder. Grazing cows are uninterested by bicycles. Tim announces one mile to Hill Farmstead. It is downhill. How quickly the tide reverses. I’m all in. In fifteen minutes, I’m in the sample room. Hill delivers. The beer exceeds expectation. This is the authentic Vermont brewery experience. The brew house is modern but in its original location. The brewers are flannelled and bearded and samples are free. (And dispensed by smiling women, also in flannel) Yes, the end to a perfect day.
Day Four – Capitulation and triumph – Tim kindly modifies the route. Again. We ride the final thirty-six miles on pavement. This route is north to south. My heart wanted the gravel. My brain said pavement. We churned through the miles. After bumping through the commercial clutter of East Montpelier the car came into sight. I looked for the girl holding my yellow jersey.
Day Five – The post-mortem – I previewed maps and elevation profiles. And I even gave my bike a quick tune-up the night before departure. (When my front derailleur wouldn’t shift while approaching an epic headwall, Tim reminded me of “the cardinal rule”. Always shake down your adjustments. I added another cardinal rule. Know your limits.)
You don’t always see the root of a problem. Like a gathering storm, a problem picks up energy while its future victim goes about his business. The energy is fed by bad decisions. Start with baseless optimism (again). Continue with under training. Close the deal with overloading.
It is easy to be cavalier on a thirty mile training ride. I set the trap of “I got this” while conquering our local hills on an unloaded bike. I missed the real truth. This trip was a reach. I now see it differently. Faulty neurology has bonded around a new set of safer ideals. And I owe my cheerful, accommodating friend a great big solid. Sadly, it won’t be on a bike. But Tim will always grab a beer.