Monday, July 2, 2012

VT 6 Gaps: hot, haggard, and humbled

Sometimes a stupid idea captures my imagination and won't let go. My most masochistic friend Dana is moving back out west. Before he leaves at the end of the month he had to tackle the most grueling set of climbs in New England, the Vermont 6 Gap route. Our team mate Doug has chronicled every detail of this monstrous route on his website: 132 miles 12,000 feet of climbing over 6 major climbs, including the steepest mile in the north east . Of course, Doug's not the "hill junkie" for no reason.

Dana: our crazed leader
In my stupidity, I agreed to ride this route with Dana last Saturday. I had other rides/races in mind, but the weather looked good, and Dana is leaving for who knows how long, so...6 other friends (Big Brett, John J, Melody, Andy Harvey, Lou, and Mike Blouin) were equally silly. After a 4 a.m. wake up, one wrong turn, and two coffees, we arrived in Rochester, Vermont. We got rolling at quarter past 7 for a leisurely warm up on Brandon Gap. To my delight, I was climbing well and feeling good. Lou and I crossed the top together, the rest of the group about a minute behind. It is easy to feel good on the first 30 miles of a long day.

The last time I felt good on the ride, start of the last mile on Lincoln Gap

We caught a couple of groups who started ahead of us on Middlebury Gap. I was inspired to push a little harder to the top of this 7 mile pass. I've been climbing well (for my bowling bowl like shape) this season, so I didn't feel over worked, yet. The temperature had risen to near 80 degrees. But I was drinking regularly, or so I thought. At the route 100 junction we took a long break to refuel and change Lou's flat tire. I was eager to start up Lincoln Gap. I read Doug's blog about how steep and relentless Lincoln Gap is for the last mile. Yet I did not imagine just how severe it could be. The first 3 miles lulled me into a false sense of accomplishment. I was able to ride a steady tempo and lead the group upto that point. The last mile was the real cruelty. It is twice as steep as anything I had climbed before. I installed a 36 inner ring to go with a 28 rear cog. It was not enough gear. First Lou passed me and I was not surprised. Then Dana stomped past is a 34x32 gear. For half a mile I stood and forced the pedals over at 50 rpm. Then both quads started to cramp. With a quarter mile to go, I could not push my quads anymore, so I had to get off and walk. Oh the shame, the shame. I watched the gradient on my bike computer vary from 22-26%. In trying to remount the bike, my left hamstring seized up. I slowly rolled up the short finish pitch and flopped over into the ditch. 3 of our group, Dana, Lou and Andy managed to ride the whole climb. The rest of us stopped or walked part of it. The heat did not help our effort. After several minutes of stretching and recovering, I felt good enough to descend. We were all abit ragged at that point.

Hamstring stretches at the top of Lincoln Gap.
I would have lots of time to recover before App Gap, since John had 3 flats before we got to the top of Baby Gap. The only trouble was that the day was getting hotter. By the time we hit the last two miles of exposed road on App Gap the temperature was near 90. Cresting the pass, a cool stiff breeze quickly gave us some relief. But the damage was done, we were all tired, salt streaked, and dehydrated. I felt more pain climbing App Gap that day than any time I have climbed it in a race. We were also running an hour behind my estimated timeline. Yet smiles took over as we grouped up for a photo on top of the pass. We had made it over the toughest of the climbs.

Top of App Gap, we made it,
 so far.
We stopped for a late lunch in Warren. As we ate I began to realize just how shattered my legs were. Melody was in worse shape with heat sickness. Since she could not keep any food down, she decided to bail out down Route 100. Since John drove her to the start, he would bail too. I was happy to help them spin back down to Rochester. I had promised my wife I would be home by 7, and I knew it would be close even with skipping the last two gaps. The "spin" back over Granville Gulf and down Route 100 was hard, but not a death march. Andy decided to call it a day too, so he and I traded pulls for most of the distance. A chocolate milk, a large coconut water, and a clean set of clothes gave me just enough energy to get home.

In retrospect, I would attempt this again. But I plan to use more gears, and take more time. I would also avoid attempting all six gaps on a 90 degree day. Any two of these climbs in a row are hard. Tackling 4 or more in a day is monumental. All six? We'll see if I can do them all next year.

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