6 Gaps of Vermont

June 21, 2008

We had marveled at the profile of 6 Gaps for months. Never really committing to the ride, always kind of kicking the tires. Yeah, it would be awesome to do that one day. It was just so insane on paper that we couldn’t honestly say to ourselves, yes we’re definitely going to try this. It was mythical; a fantasy ride. 130 miles, over 14,000 feet of climbing, and 6 mountain gaps to conquer. In one ride. On one day. Not only more miles in one ride than we’ve ever done, but double the amount of climbing we’ve ever done in one ride. Sure, we’ve been up Mount Washington. Every year. But this is like riding 130 miles with six Mount Washingtons thrown in the middle. It doesn’t even make sense. The only thing that did make sense was the day we would try it, if of course we ever did. Figuring we’d need the maximum possible amount of daylight, we always said that the summer solstice would be the ideal day for 6 Gaps. So a week out from June 21st, we kept an eye on the weather and with major reservations agreed that if the day looked ideal, and only ideal, we might give it a shot. And then maybe three days out, make that two even, we were all in. We were actually going to try this.

All we knew:

  • 130 miles
  • 14,000+ feet
  • 6 major climbs
  • One of the climbs has a sustained grade of 20%+ for over a mile
  • Someone else had done this before
  • All of those someone elses are way stronger than we are

Knowing this would be the ride of a lifetime, we wanted all the gears we could get our hands on. The plan was MTB 22×32 up front, 34t mountain bike cassette in back. We would motor the roads between gaps in the 32, making the best time that we could, and then manually move the chain down to the 22 at the base of each gap. Grampie came up with a 27t cassette in the back (he would discover much later after the ride that it was only 25t), but either way, we were both taking along gearing that we use to climb Mt. Wash. We should be able to climb anything. I can’t remember exactly, but I had some issue with my 44t chainring so that option, while we figured would have been nice, was off the table, but that didn’t really bother us at the time.

Friday night we drive up. Near Rochester, our directions take us along this road that is starting to seriously gain in elevation. It’s kind of steep, but we’ve seen worse. But it keeps going. Seemingly forever. I start to laugh in near hysterics because it’s getting so outrageous; after every turn it just keeps piling on. We wonder if this is one of the gaps, but neither of us really know. I’m driving and I plow through the whole thing pretty quickly, and we figure if that’s in fact a gap, it’s nothing we can’t handle. But already from this terrain alone we can tell something very interesting is waiting for us. Whatever it is.

We pull into town, planning to catch some sleep at the Huntington House Inn. An absolute gorgeous B&B, situated right on a grassy common in Rochester, and right on Route 100. You couldn’t pick a better starting point for 6 Gaps. Right out your front door and inside of a mile you’re turning right onto Brandon Gap to start the ride. Perfect. We could get up early and take all the time we needed, and just get things underway. With food in our stomachs and a half-hour of cursory stretching, we wind it down for the night.

Around 9pm, heads hit pillows.

And sometime around midnight, I can’t take it anymore.

Grampie has been snoring for hours, and absolutely nothing in my power has been able to block it out. It’s unbelievable. I have already gone through every single tool imaginable to block the sound. Pillow over my head, fingers in my ears, humming to myself, extreme concentration – I mean, nothing is even making a dent. I can’t even begin to drift off. This is a disaster. We’re planning to be up by 4:30, and that’s four and a half hours away. I need a plan, because this just cannot work. I am desperate, and I leave the room. I have no choice.

I take a blanket and a pillow and venture into the hallway of the inn, scouting an inconspicuous place to bed down. It isn’t happening here. I creak downstairs, out into the parking lot in the dead of night, and get into Grampie’s FJ, which we have jammed to the gills with bikes and equipment. I can hear animals in the woods, so if I’m gonna be out here, this better be quick. I pull both bikes out, rack them up, reposition a bunch of gear, and then curl up in the back seat. At this point I’m looking at a max of 4 hours of sleep in the backseat of an SUV in somewhat of a fetal position, which is the best my 6-foot frame can muster in here.

For minutes at a time, I would drift off and then wake up from a bad dream. This cycle repeated for about two hours, when around 2:30 I found myself absolutely freezing, on the verge of shivering. I hated to do it for fear of waking up the neighborhood, but again, no choice. I fire up the motor and let it run for about 15 minutes, getting some heat into the cabin. Since the backseat isn’t working, I migrate to the front seat and give that a shot. Another two hour cycle of drifting and waking abruptly, and my alarm goes off. It’s 4:30. Maybe, cumulative, an hour of sleep.

I tell myself, “well, that’s all we’re gonna get!”. I leave the truck, and head upstairs. I can’t believe this is how I’m going into this ride. The 6 Gaps of Vermont.

Grampie is up, and mercifully he stays awake and lets me try and catch some sleep. I notch about an hour and a half or so, and by 6:30, we motivate. I’m not even tired, because I know that thought, that concept, isn’t important right now. I’m pumped up at this point. It’s time to do this. We gear up and by 7:30 we’re riding. We have absolutely no idea what we’re in for.

You know you’re about to start a gap because every one begins with a large, intimidating sign that says something like “not suitable for winter travel” or “proceed at own risk”. On the one hand, it makes you nervous. But on the other, it’s waving you on. Here I am. Show me what you’ve got. Within a mile, we see our first one.

We turn onto Brandon Gap and roll along massive fields and pasture land; green mountains flank us like walls to the left and right, and the fog has settled in very low. What a picture. I’m just noodling along, remarking at the cowbirds perched on the utility lines. They’re chirping. Probably telling me not to do this. It is serene and quiet. We’re wearing quite a bit of clothing, and when the climbing really begins, off it comes. Terrific. We’ll be lugging this around for the rest of the day.

We crest Brandon Gap, and it’s a piece of cake. Nothing too remarkable about the easiest gap in the ride. After the top, we bomb down into Brandon, and then spin along the lake toward the Middlebury Gap. We’re making fairly good time, chatting away, just taking in every second of the day. The weather is unbelievable. Just pasture land, cows, and wide, wide shoulders to ride on. I love it.

We roll into East Middlebury, approaching the Middlebury Gap. We take a hard right, and it is on, big time. Our second gap starts incredibly steep, and then tapers to a grade you can really start to attack. The road is in pretty rough shape from recent storms, but we’re moving along well nonetheless. We climb in the shade for miles, surrounded by river and rock. It’s perfect.

Then, it gets hot. Hot. The grade starts to dig in on us near the snow bowl. It’s the first time we start to notice things other than the scenery. Fun time may be over now. We begin to slow, and when we crest the final grade we know we put a big one in the bank. I do for sure. But the views as we roll through the top of the gap are out of a magazine. A quiet sprawling campus situated among endless fields with small paths cut through them. And the mountains behind them. Everywhere.

At the bottom of Middlebury, we stop at a country store. The locals on the porch are about as local as you can get. I can only imagine what they’re saying about us. Among a lot of other things inside there is a huge poster on the wall for The Bucket List. The irony jabs me a little.

We refuel, do some more stretching, and we play a little cat and mouse mind game with each other. We both know that this is a bailout point. We throw the idea out there, just to see if it sticks. I know I’m tired. Of course I am. I’m also hot. I cooked like a sausage up Middlebury. But I know I’m not done yet. I don’t think I am anyway. I didn’t come up here for 2 gaps.

We agree to stay the course. We hop back on the bikes, take a left onto 100, and head up the Granville Gulf. 2 gaps down, 4 to go. We know there’s a hell of a lot of work left to do today. But we’ve carved out something. We’ve started.

Almost immediately after we take that turn onto Route 100, I bonk. Right after the stop at the store. Lights out. We’re rolling along farmland and I’m staring off at objects in the distance, muttering hardly a word. My battery is totally empty. Grampie is doing his best to try to keep me eating and drinking, but I’m fried. Hot. My Perpetuem tastes like I’m drinking hay. I have some caffeinated gels in my pocket, but I’m saving them for the very end, when I know I’ll need them. In hindsight, now probably would have been a good time.

We slog up Granville Gulf, and I lapse in and out of bonking. I’m on the razor edge. Streams surround us on the climb through the gulf, and I fantasize about stopping and pouring the cold water over my head. How absolutely fantastic that would feel. Why I never did is a complete mystery. Just keep riding. Riding, riding.

Some sugar starts to work its way into my brain in time for the start of Lincoln Gap. Now, we know Lincoln is a bad one. But we don’t know where the bad stuff begins, or how long the gap is. We just know somewhere up this lefthand turn is something really, really bad. So we embark, re-energized by the prospect that something ahead of us is about to completely humble us. Somewhere ahead there is, as Doug Jansen describes, the mother of all grinds. A mile and a half of hell. 20-24% grade. Basically the nastiest final pitch of Mount Washington, only fifty times longer. Somewhere.

The pavement changes to dirt, and the weather changes with it. I can feel drops. In the distance, we can see a storm rolling in, and it looks bad. Nasty. We know we’re in for some major elevation, and we want no part of a nasty storm atop one of these gaps. We agonize over the decision but we wait this one out; it’s too dangerous. We take shelter on the porch of a vacant but impeccably maintained historical property and watch it pour. It seemed like forever. It was at least 45 minutes. I took the opportunity to take stock of our time at this point, and I texted back a message to Kristen with an estimate of our finishing time. That seemed safe, since we were nearly halfway done.

The rain let up enough, and we charged ahead. Did I ever. I wanted to eat this thing alive, wherever it was. I live for absolute suffer-fests. I was ready for one. And I got one. I got the steepest, most unforgiving, slap-in-the-face-at-every-corner climb I’ve ever done. It is so insanely steep and monotonous that you feel like you have to quit because it will never, ever end. Each switchback and you say, that’s it, I’m not doing another switchback. And then you do another. And another. And another. I keep looking ahead at Grampie, hoping at some point I would see him level off. Even a little. Never. It never happened. After an eternity, we reach the top.

We hang our bikes off the sign at a trailhead and just sit. For a good while we don’t even move. We are whipped. What the hell was that. What did we just do.

We descend Lincoln Gap carefully down miles of dirt road. It’s precarious in spots. You know you want to make up time on this ride on the descents, but here the road gets so sketchy that it’s nearly white-knuckle to the bottom if you’re off the brakes for any length of time. And just as the climbs on the gaps stretch on and on and on, so too do the descents. For all the work you put in, you definitely get it back on the other end.

We reach the general store in Lincoln. I park it on a bench and realize I am on the verge of total mental destruction. Another bonk. Zombie time. I just sit there, trying to reconcile how we’re only halfway done. I can’t even wrap my head around that. Grampie tries as hard as he can to get me to eat, but my interest level in the entire world right now is next to zero. I don’t care about anything. I eat a little, and another rider pulls up to the store from the opposite direction. We chat about what we’re out here to do today. “Out here ridin’ a mess of gaps today?” he inquires. We tell him we’re riding the 6 Gaps, and he doesn’t believe us and thinks we’re confused or something. We show him Doug’s map that I’ve been using all day as our guide, and we saunter inside the store, where the rider wants to review the map with the shopkeeper. They think we’re completely out of our minds. I can tell that they have absolutely zero confidence that we can do this ride. They know the area, and we don’t. We leave the store and the shopkeeper thinks we’re mental. Regarding App Gap, the next climb, he tells us that “the switchbacks will get us”. Whatever that means.

Outside the store, the rider offers us a shortcut. Rather than loop around 17/116 and start Baby Gap from the beginning, he says we can take a side road right next to the store and cut off half the climb. He leaves, and we’re pissed off now. As if we came all the way up here to complete half of 6 Gaps only to start taking shortcuts. What an asshole. This put a little pep in my tank. We forage on, making excellent time along the river out of Lincoln.

Baby Gap was nothing we hadn’t seen before at this point, and we’re having no issues with it. More of a battle at this point is the heat. It is hot, and we’re begging for shade. We’re not sure where the rough stuff begins on App Gap, but as we buzz along a slight downhill, we get the feeling that it’s not far away. And it isn’t. All I remember next is grinding up a neverending series of switchbacks, flanked by guardrailis. Back and forth. Behind me in the distance, I can hear the echo of motorcycles winding up the road like a bat out of hell. And at nearly every switchback the guardrail has been sideswiped and there are pieces of vehicle debris.

After miles, I can see the finish of the climb, and I can hardly believe I have to go up that thing. I can see it in the distance, but I don’t truly believe it. It’s really, really high up there, and there isn’t a whole lot of road left to get there. It’s unreal. The road becomes unreasonably steep. We’ve already been through three of these today, and the gaps have been just whittling away at our souls. At this point we are ready to crack.

At the top, we look back at the Adirondacks in the distance. How the hell are we even doing this.

Six miles of descent, and we refuel at the store at the corner of Route 100. At this point we’re at least heading back in the direction of the car. But it’s still 50 miles and 2 more gaps away. Again, another decision, as this is another bail out point. But after what we’ve suffered through today, there is no question we’re finishing this ride. The suffering has been so epic. There is no possible way we are letting this ride beat us now. We refuse to bail out.

I’m feeling okay now, and we roll along 100. Apparently we’re in the middle of a small foot race. We see a few runners along the road, and ahead, I think I see…girls holding out drinks for us? They’re waving frantically and cheering us on. It’s almost a mirage. As we get closer, we can see one of them with a gatorade, and one with a Bud Light. The good sport, Grampie takes the Gatorade handoff and I opt not to further imperil my nutrition and pass up the beer. I guess it probably wouldn’t have helped. Who knows.

Just before Roxbury Mountain Road, I bonk again for the third time. I’m ravaged inside. Not only is my mind destroyed, but I feel like I’m sitting on a cactus. We switch back and forth up the dirt on Roxbury. I struggle mindlessly to make S-turns up the grade. I have the physical strength to go in a straight line, but my brain can’t take it anymore. Grampie pulls well ahead of me at this point, and I lose sight of him completely. I never really know when this gap will crest, but the grade and the monotony is breaking me in half. As I come over the top, Grampie snaps a photo, and we collect ourselves. One more to go. It’s getting cold, so we button up a bit, and at this point we start to notice the daylight situation. We haven’t hit the 100 mile mark yet, and Grampie realizes that it will be hours until we finish, and that finish will happen in the dark.

We carefully decend Roxbury, and at the bottom, I look for a store. I am thirsty as hell and I badly need a store. Had I looked left, I would have seen one. But of course I didn’t. We made a right onto 12A and kept it moving. I am in serious, serious nutritional debt right now, and the bonk that started on Roxbury hasn’t faded at all. I am in bad shape. I am way off the grid. Facts keep stacking up against me in my mind. I have nothing left. And I have 30 miles to go. The Rochester Gap doesn’t even concern me right now. It’s the sheer time and mileage ahead of me that I struggle mightily to come to terms with. Along the road I stare at peoples’ yards, looking for a place to veer off the road and crash my bike. With me on it. I don’t even care anymore. I just want to be done. Parts of me hurt so badly right now. And we’re losing light by the minute. It’s around 8pm now, and we know that within a half hour, we’ll be in the dark. And we have no lights.

12A is an eternal stretch. Maybe the easiest stretch of the entire ride in terms of grade. Mentally, it is absolutely chewing me apart. I try so hard to break it down into manageable pieces. My tank is so empty. I just don’t want to be out here anymore.

For the first time tonight, fireflies make an appearance. As the daylight begins to disappear, I have this inspiring thought that they will light our way home. They are, to a degree. But the bugs. The bugs are so thick here. Whatever they are, they’re clinging to our clothes and pelting our faces. It seems like every few seconds an errant bug is pinging off my eye, or I’m spitting one out of my mouth. Dragonflies are on patrol but there’s too much food for them to keep up with. Every now and then I pick a few off my shorts and just keep moving. I look down and notice that a spider has begun making a web on my handlebars. Terrific.

I look ahead and see a yellow road sign with a horse on it. I am positive that for a moment I see the horse galloping in place.

One of the only things keeping me going right now is the thought that I never, ever have to do this again.

We roll into Randolph, and there it is, a store. Not only a store, but for the first time all day I actually recognize something. It’s the road we drove in on. I feel a speck of hope for us. Streetlights are lit all around us, and we realize now that it’s very, very dark outside. It’s night.

At the store, Grampie pulls two small LED headlamps out of his bag. I am in complete zombie mode and I have no idea what is happening around me. He zipties the lamps to our helmets. Knowing we’re one gap away, I figure this is the time to eat a caffeinated gel. Why I waited until mile 115 to have caffeine I wish I knew. And how about that. Within a matter of feet, the grid was powered up and I was back on the map. Ready to go. I have a lot to learn.

It is dark, and the road surface is littered with potholes. We ride onward, but we’re not even positive we’re on the right road. Once the streetlights are behind us we can see almost nothing. We slam into a pothole every hundred feet or so, never seeing it coming. We’re down to less than 10mph all the way to the base of the Rochester Gap, because there’s no possible way to ride faster and be safe. If what we’re doing is even safe to begin with. We’re barely visible.

It is devastating to know how close you are to finishing, only being able to safely ride at a snail’s pace. We can tell that it will take us two more hours to ride the final 15 miles. It is screwing with our heads like any gap we’ve ridden today.

On Rochester, safety is our first priority. We know we are in a dangerous situation now. We agree that when traffic approaches us from behind, we will pull off the road and let it pass. Which for the most part, we do. Cars fly through the gaps at night. Who even knows if they should be driving. None of them expect to see a couple of cyclists along the way.

Rochester Gap is almost a dream. We’re euphoric. We know the ride is almost over. It’s one gap away, and we’re on it. And we know this road. It’s the road we drove into Rochester; the one that put me into hysterics because of the never-ending grade. But it’s pitch black, and there’s nothing to see in the distance to intimidate us. For the first time all day we’re happy, conversational, even peppy. We just take everything in. The grades are still monotonous and difficult, but neither of us care. We can’t see a thing. We’re in familiar territory now. At least as familiar as it’s going to get. We can wring every last bit of effort out of our bodies now and we know we will complete the ride. We’re almost done.

From somewhere in the dark, I hear splashing. I whip my head to the right, and I catch a glimpse with my LED. In the swampland surrounding the road, there’s a moose about 100 yards away. I look ahead again and Grampie is flat out motoring. I waste no time and take off right behind him. If that thing comes after us, we don’t stand a chance, and I hope that moose has no interest in a hillclimb tonight. I don’t look back for a long, long time. Grampie refuses to look period.

We reach the top of the Rochester Gap. We are ecstatic. It is pitch black, and there’s nothing but stars in the sky. The scene is right out of a movie. It’s completely unbelievable that we made it. It’s not even real. We have no way of truly understanding what we just did. All we know is that we did it. One last check of the map. This is really it. We let out a yell at the top of the gap, and then begin our decent. Five miles to go. The work is over.

We roll off the gap and right into the parking lot of the Huntington House Inn with barely a pedal stroke. It’s surreal. It’s over. And it’s one minute before midnight. Nothing is open. Absolutely nothing. We hardly care. We pack up the FJ and drive two hours home, stopping to raid a vending machine along I89. Cheese crackers and Recoverite. Hardly a meal befitting the 6 Gaps of Vermont, but we’ll take it. We finished.

Total time in the saddle was 13 hours.

Start time: 7:25am
Finish time: 11:59pm
Calories: 6,000
Gaps: 6.

Epilogue

I swore I don’t know how many times during 6 Gaps that I would never do it again. In spite of that, though, I respected it. I even returned a few months later to the top of App Gap to watch the finish of GMSR Stage 3. I took some photos; they’ll give you an idea what the top of App Gap is all about. It was an awesome experience to go back and appreciate things without the duress of epic suffering in the mix. At least, not my suffering.

I ran a marathon in November ’07, and in a lot of ways it was like 6 Gaps for me. You never, ever, want to do it again. And then one day, after an indeterminate period of time, you’re ready to give it another shot. It’s “mental irregular” as Apollo Creed says.

Within weeks of finishing 6 Gaps, I was already thinking about trying it again. Somehow, in spite of the absolute hell I went through that day, I couldn’t help but consider the myriad of things I would do differently. Different nutrition, different gearing, what if the weather was different, different amount of sleep…

Regularly I even try to build the ultimate 6 Gaps bike in my head. Triple drivetrain, disc brakes for the descents, carbon would be perfect but don’t discount the feel of steel. Albeit a little portly, lately I’ve been thinking that this bike may be the starting point.

I was mentally ready to try the ride again by the fall, but I had too many other committments like punishing myself for something I didn’t do by riding singlespeed cyclocross.

I’ll be back in the spring, and I can hardly believe it, but I’ll be there.

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