Misty Memories: the Vermont Fall Classic
Vermont Fall Classic holds such importance for me, it's because this ride marked a point of no return. I didn't want to fall in love with this kind of riding, but I did. And it happened with a sort of romantic finality, a "sometimes you just know" moment that stretched into hours. I will never forget it. Several weeks later and now stuck at home with a bad case of flu, I keep dreaming about it, hallucinating it. Did it really happen the way I remember? Yes, I think so. But before I lose myself in purple prose, let me start with the facts.
However, several days before the event some new information gave us pause. To our dismay, the forecast pretty much guaranteed rain, possibly heavy rain. And then we received the cue sheet and discovered that the 100k route was actually a 123k, with about 6,000 feet of climbing. So, instead of a sunny autumnal ramble, we were now looking at 76 very hilly miles in the rain. Was it worth it to drive up to Vermont for the weekend for that? My brain said "no, stay home." But my heart said "go." Many of the others decided to go as well. Unfortunately, Somervillain - with whom I was meant to carpool - got sick shortly before the ride and couldn't make it.
On Saturday morning I hitched a ride to Burlington with Bekka and VorpalChortle, who would take part in the brevet before continuing north to Canada on a little Autumn vacation. Being first time participants in a ride of this magnitude, they had no idea what to expect and made plans for alternative, shorter routes just in case. Discussing the route on the drive up, we were all hoping that the bleak weather prognosis would turn out to be wrong. But so far things were not looking encouraging. After more than 4 rainy hours in the car, we arrived in Burlington and headed straight for the Old Spokes Home - a legendary bike shop and museum that we had been looking forward to visiting. This visit cheered us up considerably and I wrote about it in detail here.
The Vermont Fall Classic is an official, RUSA-sanctioned event organised by the New England Randonneurs, offering a 100k Populaire and a 200k brevet (read more about these types of rides here). But unlike typical brevets, the Vermont Fall Classic includes significant portions of unpaved roads. And while brevets of this distance (short by randonneurs' standards) are normally offered at the beginning of the season, the Vermont Fall Classic is held at the very end. The idea is that participants get to see the changing leaves while enjoying a crisp Autumn day along beautiful dirt roads. A large group of us from Boston had been planning to do this ride for months, to carpool up to Northern Vermont and make a weekend of it. For me, the biggest draw were the dirt roads. I planned to do the Populaire and assumed that the route would not be overly challenging, since Populaires are the gateway to randonneuring and are meant to draw new people in. Operating under this assumption, I also invited my friend Bekka (bikeyface) and her boyfriend VorpalChortle, who were interested in trying some dirt roads. We were all looking forward to a lovely weekend and ride.
Later in the afternoon, Bekka and VC proceeded to their hotel and I to the lodgings I'd be sharing with about a dozen other riders from Boston. Out of concern for privacy I don't want to say too much about where we stayed, but it was thoroughly communal. We were all to sleep in what was basically one room, mere inches from each other, with our bikes lined up down the hall. It was an interesting arrangement. After dropping my bike and bag off, I managed to get out for a walk along the shore of Lake Champlain before it grew dark. After that I headed to the town center (Burlington is relatively small and very walkable) and had an unexpectedly social evening - first meeting up for drinks with a group assembled by ride organiser Mike Beganyi, then later for dinner with the familiar Boston crew: Jon D, JP Twins, and Emily among others. I usually don't drink alcohol the night before a hard ride, but it was so cold and miserable that all of us ended up having some beers. There was a great feeling of solidarity that night, because we all showed up despite the terrible weather. We returned to our lodgings some time after 10pm and fell asleep before midnight.
At 5am the next morning I got up and prepared for the ride. Not knowing how bad the weather was going to be, I had brought several different clothing options including long winter tights. After stepping outside to check the weather I decided to wear those, as well as a long sleeve base layer, a cold-weather long sleeve jersey, and a lightweight rain jacket. I put on a visored wool hat. I stashed an extra pair of socks in my saddlebag, along with two small plastic bags in case of rain (more on this later). I made some coffee, ate some of my trail mix, and just after 6am headed out to the start at the Old Spokes Home with another rider. It was misty and raw out, but not raining.
At the start there were several dozen riders already gathered. Among these were many I recognised, even if I did not know them personally. One girl looked so familiar that I kept shyly circling her until she finally introduced herself as Lily, a recent addition to Seven Cycles.
In the weak early morning light I noticed how ubiquitous all the bicycles looked. On closer inspection, the bikes themselves were actually pretty different, but nearly all of them - from vintage 650B conversions to titanium club racers - sported front racks with traditional handlebar bags. It was a curious sight. As for me, I was riding a work-in-progress Rawland that had just been assembled the day prior - ridable, but still missing some parts including a handlebar bag. Sifting through my images from the day, I am amused to discover that I took virtually no pictures of my bike. I kept photographing other people's bikes and figured I'd get to mine later, but never did. Well, I will post some once it's fully built up.
As we fussed around before the start, there was a lot of speculation as to whether it would rain and how badly. This was when some of the riders explained how they keep their feet dry in the event of a downpour. Apparently, you are supposed to put plastic bags not over your cycling shoes, but inside them, over your socks. Frankly I could not imagine this working or being comfortable, but took the bags and an extra pair of socks with me anyway. The remaining space in my saddlebag was taken up by food, tools, a small medical kit, a roll of tape, extra cue sheets, and my camera.
We received brief instructions from the ride organiser, who would be riding the Populaire himself. There would be no support except at the start and finish. Convenience store cashiers were to sign our control cards. We were responsible for our own rescue in the event of abandoning.
After a double-checking of cue sheets and GPS units, both the 200k and the 123k group were given the green light to head out at 7am. My goals for this ride were vague in the absence of Somervillain. The two of us are more or less well matched in terms of pace and we had planned to ride together. Now that he wasn't here, I did not know anyone else doing the Populaire other than Bekka and VorpalChortle, so I thought I'd ride with them at whatever pace they wanted and not worry about the clock. We set off a little after the start time at an unhurried pace.
The first few miles were paved, featuring rolling hills. We warmed up, with occasional stops to make clothing and bike adjustments. During this time I experienced and resolved two mechanical problems one after the other (headlight and drivetrain related). But after the first 8 miles of the route everything went smoothly.
As pavement turned to dirt, we rode through beautiful farmlands with hardly any cars around. It occurred to me that if I wanted to take pictures, I would need to pick up the pace in between the picture-taking, unless I wanted the ride to take all day. So from that point on, we agreed that I would ride ahead, reconvening with Bekka and VorpalChortle at various landmarks and rest stops. We were in good spirits and glad that it wasn't raining.
As I surged ahead, the landscape grew increasingly remote and rugged. But I wasn't alone for long. Soon I was joined by an older gentleman who must have started later than the others but was now racing his way through the course. We rode together for a couple of rolling miles and then began to climb a startlingly steep hill. I was impressed that this man gave no indication - in his breathing, speech pattern or bodily language - that he was exerting himself in any way. He just kept chatting easily while his legs moved in elegant circles. This admirable demeanor inspired me to try and keep up with him on the monstrous hill. By the time we reached the top I was red in the face and panting, while this amazing gentleman was hardly worse for wear. And then I saw the street sign: Duffy Road. We had just done the 4 mile climb the cue sheet warned about. I was grateful I had not realised this going into it; sometimes it's better not to know! Shortly after we parted ways as I stayed behind to take a couple of photos. After that I continued on my own.
The intense climb left me feeling nicely warmed up. As the scenery grew yet more dramatic, I began to fly through the fog and mist, as wild bursts of colour exploded all around me. And this is when the ride began for me in earnest. I loved the texture of the dirt roads under my tires and experienced an intense flow of pure unbridled happiness to be riding on such roads again. Uphill, downhill, loose, soft, slushy, I loved it all. No fear, just an unbelievable endorphin rush. I got into a rhythm where my legs spun effortlessly, my body on the bike felt weightless, and overall everything just seemed so free and limitless and utterly perfect that I could hardly feel the ground beneath me. A part of me wished that Somervillain and Brian P had been riding alongside, as they had been on similar rides. But another part of me savoured the loneliness of the experience. I've had glimpses into this high on previous rides, but now it was as if a dam broke and an intense bliss flooded my senses. And I know it's just a chemical thing; it's not magical or metaphysical. But try telling yourself that as you are flying up a dirt road straight into a cloud of mist through tunnels of gold and magenta.
As I progressed toward the first control point, I saw that if I pushed the pace, stopped taking pictures, and nixed the idea of reconvening with Bekka and VorpalChortle, I could still make it within the official time limit. I considered doing this, but ultimately decided against it. What did finishing within the time limit mean to me? Truthfully nothing. If it had I should have approached the ride differently to begin with. Well then, logically there was no reason to strive for an arbitrary time frame just because it now appeared within reach. The first control point was at mile 35 and I arrived 15 minutes after it officially closed. I bought some water and asked the cashier to sign my card anyway, and she gladly did.
When reconvening with the others, it was good to catch up and share impressions of the route. Though a bit shell-shocked by the 4 mile climb (as was I!), Bekka and VorpalChortle were clearly enjoying the ride. At a rest stop around mile 25 they were in great spirits and had no intention of implementing a short cut route. Ditto at the first control 10 miles later.
I left the first control when I felt my muscles beginning to stiffen up, while the others stayed to have a bonk-preventive meal. I had been snacking pretty much continuously since the start of the ride and preferred to wait until later.
The next 20 miles are when things turn hazy. Not hazy because I don't remember them, but hazy because my memories of this stretch seems improbable. The rain did not begin right away. First the mist and the black clouds gathered. And this gathering was happening in a way that was visible to the naked eye. I could see shapes forming right in front of me, the density of the fog changing, twirls of white and gray mist dancing over the mountains and the fields. It was like watching one of those nature shows where they speed up hours of footage to show visible patterns of change that would otherwise be unobservable. Well, they were observable here. This wonderous dark magic show coincided with a steep 3 mile climb toward Smuggler's Notch. I was so mesmerised that I could hardly feel the climbing in my legs; I was practically floating upward in the swirls of dark mist.
Some time later, I paused at an intersection, trying to make sure the dirt road I was about to turn onto was the correct one. A lone station wagon was passing by and pulled over. The man rolled down his window and yelled "You don't want to go that way on a bike, trust me!" That's how I knew it was probably the correct road.
This next 5 mile dirt climb really wasn't bad compared to the previous two long climbs and all the other shorter steeper ones. In general, there were very few flat stretches on this ride, and climbing began to feel normal pretty quickly. Climbing felt like a state of mind and the dark weather felt oddly appropriate.
It began to rain right after a long, out of control, I-should-be-scared-but-I'm-not descent. I remember the winding narrow dirt road finally dumping me into an open field with surround views of mountains, and that's when it started. Not hard at first. But here is the strange thing, and another one of those memories I don't trust: I keep picturing the rain being black. It could not possibly have been, but that is how I experienced it. Sharp black droplets of rain at first, then sheets of it. I did not take my camera out again after that. The rain enchanted me at first. But once the mist dissipated, the whole thing lost its supernatural appeal: Soon I was cycling in a nasty and in no way romantic downpour with several miles to go before the next control.
It is rather impressive how wet one can get over the course of those several miles. While my jacket was blessedly waterproof and my tights surprisingly water resistant, my shoes did not just get soaked through, they filled with water and became freezing little torture-buckets in which my feet were trapped. To make matters worse, the scenic dirt roads suddenly ended, forcing me onto a winding main road with heavy and erratic traffic. There was very poor visibility in the rain and drivers sped past sending tall sprays of disgusting water my way. With the constant traffic lights, I began to feel cold and shaky. My eyes burned around the edges, as if from a fever. Finally I approached the second control point at mile 54 ...except for me it was mile 58, as I'd accidentally done a bonus loop on one of the climbs earlier. I arrived 45 minutes after the official closing time.
The second control was a very nice restaurant with the misleadingly casual name The Village Cup. Some other riders were just leaving as I left my bike on the porch and gingerly made my way through the entrance. This was a sit-down restaurant with white table cloths, where local families had gathered for early dinner in their Sunday best. Filthy, soggy and trembling, I half expected to not be allowed in, but the management was hospitable. I found a spot in the corner of the bar and ordered hot food, anticipating that Bekka and VorpalChortle would join me soon. But as I waited for my meal, I received a message: They were at a gas station, 5 miles behind me and were not going to continue. They planned to hitch a ride back to Burlington, then return in their own car to get their bikes. If I wanted, they could then collect me and my bike as well. That sounded pretty good right about then. But later - after consuming a cheeseburger, a beer, and two cups of scalding hot coffee, I felt much better. I could think clearly at least. The first step was to implement Operation Plastic Bags. Retrieving the spare dry socks from my saddlebag I went into the bathroom, removed my shoes, removed my wet socks and dried my feet with paper towels. Then I put on the dry socks and over those the plastic bags, tying the handles around my ankles. Then I put my shoes back on. It was amazing! Warm, and I could not feel the wet shoes at all. At that point I realised that no part of me was really uncomfortable anymore. My tights had dried out while I sat in the restaurant. My top layers never got wet in the first place under the rain jacket. I decided to make my way to the finish on my own two wheels.
But having stayed in the restaurant for as long as I did sealed my fate of not being able to make the cutoff; with only an hour remaining on the clock and over 20 miles to go there was no way to do it now. Given that reality and the relentless downpour that awaited me, I had a genius idea: Since I would not be finishing the ride officially anyway, I could take a short cut - shaving some miles off and minimising my exposure to the terrible weather. I looked at my map, memorised the direct route, then set off. The rain was just as nasty as it had been earlier. I was cold and pedaled hard to warm up. But the shortcut turned out to be a bad idea. The road was basically a highway, and the further I rode, the worse it got. A couple of miles later I had to admit defeat. I pulled over, studied the map, and figured out how to get back on course, having done yet another bonus loop. And then, on rolling hills along paved and dirt roads, I rode the remaining 20 miles to the finish in continuous rain. There was water everywhere at this point, with messy slush along the dirt stretches. I have never cycled in worse conditions, but I can't really say I was miserable. I remember feeling great as I rolled into Burlington. At an intersection I caught a glimpse of myself in a storefront window and laughed at how wet and dirty I looked. "Girl, you are nuts!" yelled a woman from across the street cheerfully. I nodded and smiled as filthy rainwater streamed down my face. Somehow everything about this ride made sense. I arrived at the Old Spokes Home and got my meaningless brevet card signed at the finish, just as I had done at the controls. I finished over an hour behind schedule, thus unofficially completing the course with some extra milage tacked on, for a total of 82 miles (132k) with over 50% dirt and over 6,000 feet of climbing. With all of these factors combined, plus heavy rain for the final third of the way, this was the hardest ride I have done to date. It was also the most enjoyable.
At the finish I wasn't tired. I chatted with the 100k finishers and friends of the 200k riders as we waited for the latter group to arrive. I learned that a number of riders abandoned, finding the conditions unpleasant.
But those who did finish looked pretty good. The weather had been so over the top terrible for the second part of the ride, that it was frankly funny.
One after another, riders arrived covered in mud, sand and grime, peeling off their rain jackets like some filthy bandages.
"Man, that was awful!" they would exclaim, grinning ear to ear, as they reached for a slice of post-ride pizza.
The pizzas did not last long.
As we discussed the ride, we all seemed to agree that the climbing did not feel as tough as we'd expected. It was more or less constant, but it was also well distributed. Some said they found the dirt challenging once it started to rain, but this may have been due to tire choice. I was very comfortable on these particular dirt roads in the rain.
Once all of the riders were accounted for, we took turns changing in the bathroom of the laundromat next door and eventually said our good-byes. I got a ride back to Boston with Emily and her boyfriend Jake in their rented pickup truck. We were all exhausted, and I do not envy Jake for having to drive 4.5 hours in the dark after the day we had. After rolling my cruddy bike into the house, I showered and climbed into bed after midnight. I was not physically tired, but emotionally I was drained. As I fell asleep, I found myself back in Vermont doing the ride again. I rode through mist and black rain, up and down endless hills, as my tires rolled through the slushy top layer of the smooth tan dirt. I had a control card in my pocket and it was many pages thick, like a small book.
But there I go again, drifting away from the facts. And the facts are as follows: 50 riders were expected at the Vermont Fall Classic this year. Due to the weather, the actual number at the start was 40. In the course of the ride, 10 abandoned. 12 riders finished the 200k and 14 finished the Populaire within the time limit, with an additional 4 completing the course on their own time (myself among these). There were no injuries or accidents reported. Participants traveled from all over New England and beyond, many bringing spouses and staying in the area for the weekend or longer.
I took part in the Vermont Fall Classic because it presented an opportunity to ride on dirt roads. The fact of it being an official brevet was incidental. At this stage, I am not sure that I am ready to do these kinds of rides on the clock. Not because I can't make the time limit if I try, but because these rides are too pretty and too new to be rushed through. Possibly next season I will join a few of the local brevets and see how I like those. But I can't help being more interested in the dirt roads, and regret that this kind of riding requires travel. I met some great people in Burlington, whom I would enjoy seeing again and riding with, and I know that others from Boston felt the same - it was a wonderful, welcoming atmosphere and an exciting weekend. I would like to thank organiser Mike Beganyi and the staff of the Old Spokes Home, as well as all the participants, for making this ride special and memorable. Complete set of pictures here.