Fresh Dirt: 7 New Gravel Rides We Love
In the past 3 years, a host of quirky new gravel rides have popped up across the state. Here are seven new ones we love.
Gravel racing has always had a reputation for being a bit unconventional. Where road riding is sleek and serious, the gravel world, even at its most competitive, has a grassroots feel.
At Vermont’s most popular races—rides like Rasputitsa, The Overland and The Ranger—gravel newbies can toe the line with professional cyclists like Alison Tetrik, Laura King and Anthony Clark and Olympians like Lea Davison.
At two Vermont races which debuted last year, the Peacham Fall Fondo and Rooted Vermont, you might find yourself pounding pedals or pushing your bike up a steep and technical Class 4 road shoulder to shoulder with former Tour de France competitors Ian Boswell and Ted King.
To hear Ted and Ian discuss the changing face of gravel racing, see “The State of Gravel.”
But true to the Vermont gravel spirit, for most cyclists, these are rides, not races. “Whether you’re out there aiming to win a race or just in it for the huge accomplishment of finishing one of these courses, gravel riding is about testing yourself against the terrain and the natural world,” says James Johnson of Analog Cycles in East Poultney.
It’s perfectly legitimate for riders to sit back, enjoy the scenery, take in the afterparty and think of gravel rides as a way to explore parts of Vermont’s landscape many never come across. The rewards are plentiful: At many rides, you’ll find farm-fresh food, treats like apple cider and maple creemees, local beer and all the beta you could ever want about how to plan your next backroads adventure.
At these events, you might compete for a home-baked apple pie or a hatchet made by a master woodworker rather than a cash purse. Plus, with more miles of dirt roads than paved ones, Vermont is the perfect place to use your bike as an adventure tool. Here are some new gravel races we love that have sprung up in the last two years.
Analog Rides, Poultney (March 21, June 13 & Oct. 10)
Ever since he was a graduate student riding around rural Pennsylvania in the early aughts, James Johnson has been obsessed with taking bikes to unconventional places. That’s part of why he and his business partner Candice Passehl opened Analog Cycles in 2017 in the East Poultney Vermont sugarhouse he inherited from his grandmother.
Analog may be the only off-the-grid bike shop in the country, and it’s located in Slate Valley, on some of the gnarliest gravel networks in the state, in a rural region that’s becoming known as “The Southwest Kingdom.” In 2018, the duo started hosting gravel events with an eye toward attracting those riders priced out of some of Vermont’s bigger races. For example, entry to the new Fifth Season Gravel Ride (March 21) is just $20 and entry to the 4×4 (June 13), now in its second year, is just $25.
“We have a really little, tight-knit riding scene here in Poultney that is just incredibly welcoming. When outsiders come here, it’s like, ‘Hey, come ride with us! Let’s show these guys the real roads, the ones that you can’t find on any maps anymore,” says Johnson, who lives in a yurt on the eight-acre Analog property.
New for this year, you can join the crew at Analog Cycles for a day of riding around the rugged hills of Slate Valley on muddy, snowy dirt roads to visit local sugarhouses for maple-inspired snacks like hot fried dough drizzled with fresh maple syrup and butter as part of Poultney’s annual Maplefest in the Fifth Season Gravel Ride and Race on March 21. Get ready to ride through slush and mud on rough Class 4 roads, with a hot toddy break scheduled mid-way through the 45-mile course.
On June 13, bring your ride to tackle the 4×4, an epic 40-mile slog over East Poultney’s scenic and “wonderfully terrible” Class 4 roads. Bring your Crocs and be prepared for mid-ride dips in secret mountain swimming holes, post and mid-ride beers and a whole lot of cows, barns and mountain scenery. As for the routes? Expect gravel “the size of GMO grapefruits” with plenty of epic washouts.
For the “hardest one-day all-terrain race and ride in the country,” try the Gorey Hollows Ramble & Race on Oct. 10. In 2019, just six people finished the self-guided 80-mile race, with the winner finishing in 12 hours. There are also 30- and 40-mile routes on beautiful, wild Class 4 roads through fall foliage. You may have to hike your bike up steep stretches of roads in the Taconic Mountains, “some of which were last resurfaced during Calvin Coolidge’s first term as president,” notes Johnson.
If you choose the race route, expect to do some orienteering. You’ll pass through ancient gores, ride up and over mountain saddles, through dark hollows and past secret waterfalls—all far away from any semblance of cell service. A GPS or similar device is required for participation in this ride, and there will be no sag wagon. But there will be plenty of beers hidden in old decaying school buses and some sweet singletrack.
The winner’s reward? A homemade apple pie and fresh donuts from the East Poultney General Store. All Analog Cycles rides are followed by camping, beverages and revelry around the bonfire at their store. Each of the campsites are labeled with flower names, and sit tucked in an old sugarbush near the shop.
In recent years, James and Candice have also launched three new Vermont brands for gravel riding: Tanglefoot Cycles, Discord Components and Fifth Season Canvas, and they have a new gravel bike designed specifically for Vermont’s notoriously rugged gravel terrain in pre-production: the Tanglefoot Moonshiner. “I think in the internet age, we’ve lost some of our regionality,” says Johnson. “I hope we can bring back the idea of a New England-made bike that is informed by where we live, so we can say, if this bike can survive Vermont, it can survive anywhere.” analogcycles.com
Distance: 35 to 80 miles Elevation Gain: As much as 12,000 feet Bike of Choice: Gravel bike with at least 38mm tires, studded if it’s snowy After-party: Riders are invited to BYOB and camp (in a tent) onsite at Analog Cycles’ off-the-grid bike shop and for a bonfire and revelry late into the night. Entry Fee: $20-$35
Vermont Adaptive Charity Ride Gravel Grind (June 20)
If you want to test yourself and take in the views, try this short gravel grinder. It starts and finishes at one of the most famous breweries in the state
The course winds its way off of Route 4 and up a mix of gravel and Class 4 roads through Bridgewater Corners and Chateaugay. The highlight of the ride is a stunning and unique view of Killington Mountain from the top of the course. “I mean this in the best way possible when I say that there is literally no reason you would ever drive one of these roads other than solitude and scenery,” says race director Jeff Alexander. “There will be moments when you’re like, ‘Where am I? This is the middle of nowhere!’”
This will mark the tenth year running of the Vermont Adaptive Charity Ride, a hugely popular and rugged road cycling event that takes riders up and over the central Green Mountains on stunning, steep, paved roads. In total, the ride draws more than 700 riders to Killington each summer, with seven courses to choose from, ranging from 5K to 100 miles in length.
“We who ride this area wanted to offer people the opportunity to get out on those back roads that only the farmers and the guys running maple tap lines are using,” says Alexander. “They offer access to some of the most beautiful parts of our state.”
The ride is designed to entertain the most rugged and skilled riders without alienating someone who wants to try gravel for the first time. “It’d be a great first exploration of the gravel scene,” says Alexander. charityride.
Distance: 17 miles Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet Bike of Choice: Gravel bike or hardtail mountain bike After-party: Live music from bluegrass band Saints & Liars and Grateful Dead tribute band The Wheel at Long Trail Brewery. Riders gets a farm-to-table buffet and a cold Long Trail brew. Entry Fee: $70 + $125 fundraising minimum
Rooted Vermont, Richmond (Aug. 2)
Every participant who crosses the finish line—from the pros at the front of the pack, such as Carla Williams, Jessica Cerra and Kai Wiggins who competed last year to the mere mortals who were happy to finish—can expect a high-five from former professional cyclist, gravel legend and two-time Dirty Kanza winner Ted King. “We’re particularly proud of our stacked women’s field,” says Co-Race Director Laura King, also a professional cyclist. “Seven of the top 10 finishers last year were professional or ex professional [riders].” This year, former World Tour Pro Ian Boswell and Dirty Kanza Champion Colin Strickland will also be racing.
At the first running of this self-guided ride, husband and wife duo Ted and Laura stood at the finish line for six hours as cyclists rolled into Cochran’s Ski Area after finishing both the long (82 miles) and short courses (48 miles). At the front of the pack were racers like Regina Legge, Carla Williams, Lane Maher and the Upper Valley’s own Mike Barton. But in back, there were plenty of folks who were just along for the ride.
“We like to say we have a ‘Mullet Protocol,’ by which we mean ‘Business in the front, party in the back,’” says Laura. For those seeking to race, it was a race. But for everybody else? It was just a big, professionally run group ride with friends.
The routes took 550 riders over some of the most scenic gravel riding in central Vermont, on incredible dirt backroads with steep climbs and screaming descents.
In the true spirit of gravel racing, there was no prize purse for the winner. Instead, last year, winners in each category were awarded an axe made by hand in Vermont by freeskier Ian Compton, and etched with the Rooted Vermont logo. There was a special category called the “Mullet Protocol Podium,” where each competitor was asked to vote for a rider or volunteer who most embodied the neighborly spirit of gravel riding by making someone else’s race day better. Sebastian Logue of Portsmouth, N.H., won for his choice of race attire in the 82-mile event: a pair of jorts and a cutoff button-down shirt. On several major hills, he’d race ahead, then pedal back to cheer on others as they made the climb. His prize? A gravel bike from Cannondale.
“We want to keep that grassroots, neighborly spirit at the core of our ride,” says Co-Race Director Laura King, who has also earned podium finishes in elite gravel races, among them Rebecca’s Private Idaho. “We had everyone from competitive racers in spandex to college kids riding in unbuttoned floral shirts with big goofy glasses and actual mullets last year,” said Laura.
The after-party at Cochran’s base area aims to show off the best of summertime in Vermont, with maple creemees and a farm-to-table feast prepared by chef Justin Walker of Walkers Maine Restaurant in Portland, featuring dishes like octopus ecabeche, wood fired local beets and slow-roasted pork shoulder followed by fluffy, Untapped Maple Tres Leches cake. rootedvermont.com
Distance: 48 or 82 miles Elevation Gain: 4,000 feet or 8,000 feet Bike of Choice: Gravel bike After-party: Epic open-air feast with live music and beers on draught from Lawson’s Finest Liquids and Shaftsbury Cider at the base of Cochran’s Ski Area. Entry Fee: $120
The Point to Point Gravel Grinder, Montpelier (Aug. 1)
For 19 years, the Point-to-Point Ride to benefit the Vermont Foodbank traced the backroads of the Connecticut River Valley, often ending at Mount Ascutney, where copious amounts of Harpoon brews were available.
For 2020, the ride is starting from the State House lawn in Montpelier and in addition to road routes that range from 25 to 110 miles, the organizers have added a very cool new gravel course.The gravel ride follows well-maintained dirt roads with the occasional segment on a paved county road through the high hills of Calais, East Montpelier and Maple Corners and even passes under a barn on Tebbetts Road, near Woodbury.
Winding past hill farms and small lakes with views of both the White Mountains and the Green Mountains, it’s a stunning place to ride, with a few historic villages that are only accessible by dirt road.
At the finish, you’ll join the hundreds of other riders on the State House lawn for a party with food trucks, live music a bouncy house and lots of local beverages and, of course, beer from Harpoon. The race benefits the Vermont Foodbank and teams are encouraged to fundraise. thepointtopoint.org
Distance: 40 miles Elevation Gain: 4,300 feet Bike of Choice: Gravel bike After-party: Live music on the State House Lawn, with a bouncy house and kids’ activities and a village of food trucks offering tasty local fare and pints of Harpoon beer. Entry Fee: $65 before June 1, with a $150 fundraising minimum.
Peacham Fall Fondo, Peacham (Sept. 26)
Created by pro cyclist Ian Boswell and his wife Gretchen in 2018, this ride is not a race. Instead, it’s a 40-mile meandering ride through the rolling backroads of the Northeast Kingdom, with scenic rest stops and about 80 percent of the route falling on dirt roads. Riders can enjoy all the usual support at aid stations, along with homemade apple pie with cheddar cheese made by members of the Peacham community. As Boswell, a former Tour de France rider for Team Katusha-Alpecin who now races gravel for Wahoo Fitness says to riders about the event, “Although I love apple pie, I can’t eat it all.” His ask of participants? Take in the scenery, chat with your fellow riders and the friendly locals you meet along the way and never say no to a slice of pie. This year, the course will feature one Class 4 section but “nothing too gnarly.”
Above: 1. The night before the Peacham Fall Fondo, Gretchen and Ian Boswell host riders for a homestyle meal in their historic Peacham barn. 2. Part of the fun of routes like this one? You’d never find them on your own. 3. Gretchen and Ian Boswell host riders for their pre-ride celebration at their Peacham hill farm. Photos by Ansel Dickey
For the second year in row, the organizers are offering a 25-mile Friday Roam Ride with Wahoo from the Boswell farm, followed by a home-cooked family-style meal in the historic barn with local brews and a bonfire-side conversation with the athlete and community sponsors. peachamfallfondo.com
Distance: 50km, 80km or 35km & a 5k fun ride for families Elevation Gain: 5,000 feet Bike of Choice: Gravel bike but road bikes with 28c or larger tires are ok After-party: A farm-to-table feast with local beer and a silent auction at the center of Peacham’s picturesque village. Entry Fee: $70.
The Hibernator, Burke (Oct. 17)
If you’re looking for a race that takes you even deeper into the hills and plains of the Northeast Kingdom, than Rasputitsa, consider signing up for The Hibernator. Though snow, rain and sleet are never out of the question in October in the Northeast Kingdom, this race takes riders off the road and onto rugged terrain wherever possible. From grassy treks through farm fields (yes, you will need to yield to the occasional cow) to spectacular views from secret vistas on Class 4 roads, this ride offers a bit of every type of gravel terrain.
But the aid stations really make it stand out. Stop midway through the ride at Honest to Goodness Farm for a cup of apple cider, pressed before your eyes with a wooden hand-crank press and spiked with their woodfired maple syrup. As you push onward, you’ll find the best of October in this rugged and remote part of the state and find some amazing doubletrack. Blowdowns, trenches, cobbles and dismounts are not out of the question, and a mountain bike will serve riders well on about 20 percent of the course. All profits from the event support local trail stewardship at Northwoods Stewardship Center.
Distance: 100 km or 50 km Elevation Gain: 9,000 feet or 5,000 feet Bike of Choice: Gravel, cyclocross or hard tail mountain bike After-party: Grab a beer and homemade pumpkin chocolate chip cookies at the finish, along with a slice of pizza from Lyndonville-based Tomassoni’s Wood Fired Pizzas food truck. Entry Fee: $65.
Featured Photo: Arider dips onto an adventurous Class 4 road on the Peacham Fall Fondo. Photo by Ansel Dickey