With more miles of dirt roads than paved ones, Vermont has become Ground Zero for the gravel grinding revolution with new rides and races popping up this summer.
In the beginning of the season there was Rasputitsa. It was in April and it was brutal.
The gravel grinder self-describes as a “psychotic 40-mile, insane, drop-to-your-knees-and-cry sufferfest with an absurd section so difficult that people won’t believe your stories, called Cyberia.”
Rasputitsa, which started in 2013, had close to 1,300 entrants this year and drew 992 people to complete 45-miles of muddy, gravel roads in the Northeast Kingdom.
Then there is the Vermont Overland, a cross-country adventure in August that takes drop-bar gravel and cyclocross riders bushwhacking through a mixture of pave, what could barely be described as class IV roads and trails, with 6,000 feet of climbing over 45 miles. That race has grown as well, going from 248 riders in 2014, to attracting some of the legends of riding including Ned Overend, and selling out with more than 500 riders in 2017.
Both races were modeled, to a certain extent, after D2R2, which started in 1992 as a dirt loop ride from Deerfield, Mass., coursing up through the quiet roads of southern Vermont. It evolved into an organized randonee ride in 2005 and in 2017 drew close to 1,500 cyclists to ride seven, non-competitive routes that range from a 12-mile family ride to a hilly 180-kilometer challenge.
Increasingly, gravel races and rides on dirt roads are popping up around Vermont, and not just in the spring or fall. They range from ride-it-if-you-can races such as Peter Voller’s Vermont Overland (which continues to mix national talent in road racing, mountain biking and cyclocross), to leisurely scenic rides such as the Tour de Farms, where you can pause along some of Addison County’s farm roads to sample local cheeses, apples and other produce or the Grafton Cheddar Grater, which, you guessed it, also has cheese stops.
Jack Bailey, the men’s head alpine coach at Killington Mountain School ,saw what fellow KMS coach and friend Peter Vollers had done with the Vermont Overland and started the RAS Ride, a 42-mile gravel ride over the dirt roads and trails around Peru, Vermont as a way to raise awareness of the rare genetic disease RASopathy that Bailey’s son, Shane, was born with.
“My inspiration for the RAS Ride came from Peter Vollers’ Vermont Overland race,” Bailey said. “Peter led the way in changing the way people ride on dirt versus pavement.”
“Jack has inspired me too,” notes Vollers, who now shares the proceeds of his race with area charities.
Gravel riding, Vollers will tell you, adds a different flavor to races. “It builds the whole tribe aspect. Gravel rides are not as competitive, and they allow you to build relationships with other people along the way,” he says.
In Vermont, gravel rides are also great ways to get away from the traffic and tour the hills and hollows. While the state has 7,151 miles of paved roads and highways, there are 8,750 miles of dirt roads (6,008 of which are gravel). The towns of Danville, Barnard, Bethel, Chester and Washington each boast more than 80 miles of unpaved routes.
“I basically moved back to Vermont because of all the great dirt roads,” says Val Cyr. A cyclocross racer from Rhode Island and former member of University of Vermont’s cycling team, she’s raced in Rasputitsa, the Overland and, this past June, the Irreverent Ride. “That was the most fun and hardest I’ve ever done,” she says of Irreverent. The ride took her from Mad River Glen over Braintree Gap where, Cyr says, “I was basically walking my bike up a forest trail with a 20-degree incline. Fortunately, they were handing out whiskey shots at the top.” The ride, which only about 30 percent finish, took her 14 hours. She loved it.
Cyr, who works at Ski Rack, sees gravel rides growing. “People want to get off the road and explore the backcountry routes in Vermont. More than half the bikes we are seeing sold now are gravel bikes, not road rides.”
If you had any doubt that gravel grinding is a now a thing, you need only look at the recent report on national bike sales from the NPD group. While there’s no specific category for “gravel grinders” the roadbike “other” and “cyclocross” (categories which include multi-surface drop bar bikes) more than doubled, with $28.9 million in wholesale sales in the first quarter of 2018, up from $10.1 million last year.
While there’s no single source for great gravel routes, if you ride one of these 10 events you’ll find routes in new parts of the state.
10 GREAT SUMMER GRAVEL GRINDERS
Grab your gravel bike, mountain bike or throw some wider tires on your road ride and get ready to ride some of the most beautiful routes in the state.
June 30: RAS Adventure Ride, Wild Wings
Forty-two miles and 4,000 vertical feet of climbing in either an open, junior or “guided” classic, no-drop ride. Support4shane.com
July 13: The Dirty Project (a.k.a. The Dirty Prouty), Hartford, VT
Limited to 120 riders and with a fundraising minimum of $100 to benefit the Norris Cotton Cancer Research Center, this 102-mile ride was the dirt-road, Vermont “badass” alternative to New Hampshire’s famed Prouty century ride. Thedirtyproject.com
July 21: Raid Lamoille, Craftsbury
In its sixth year, this ride (it’s not a race) moves to Craftsbury where you can do either 50 or 25 miles, but still ends with beer from The Alchemist in Stowe and food from the Craftsbury General Store. Raidlamoille.com
July 22: Glacier Grinder, Killington
The fact that this race is put on by The Endurance Society should be a hint that the 40 miles and 4,400 vertical feet of climbing won’t be a walk in the park. Endurancesociety.org
Aug 26: The Overland, Woodstock
The most gravelly (read: the terrain is going to be tough) of all gravel grinders, the Overland takes riders on 45 miles of “adventure” racing over the hills and through the woods of central Vermont with eight pave sectors. Vermontoverland.com
Sept. 1: Redemption, Brownington
If you’re not familiar with the quiet roads in the northeastern part of the state, the folks who brought you Rasputitsa give you another chance to discover them; this time, in an unsupported race. Yes, it’s a race: and you can ride 50 or 100 miles. Rasputitsagravel.com
Sept. 9: Cabot Ride the Ridges, Cabot
There’s everything from 10K to 100k routes to ride as you tour through north central Vermont with a gourmet feast of Jasper Hill and Vermont Creamery cheeses, Kingdom Creamery ice cream and wood fired pizza at the finish. Ridetheridges.net
Sept. 16: Tour de Farms, Vergennes
As much a moveable feast as a bike tour, the 30 mile route takes you on quiet dirt roads to sample the harvest from as many as 30 of Addison County’s top farms. And if you decide to shop along the way, a sag wagon/Farm Van will bring your purchases in a cooler back to the start. Acornvt.org
Sept. 23, West Hill Grinder, Putney
Starting at High Meadows Farm, in Putney, VT. Adventurous from 20 to 46 miles take you across gaps and wind through the scenic towns of Putney, Dummerston, Brookline and Westminster. In its second year, the ride raises money for the Windmill Hill Pinnacle Association. Westhillshop.com
Oct. 13, Peacham Fall Fondo, Peacham
When he’s not training in Nice to ride with his pro cycling team and riding the Giro d’Italia or Spain’s Vuelta, Ian Boswell lives in Peacham. This year, you can ride with him as he’ll be riding the Peacham Fall Fondo, covering 50 miles of backroads during peak foliage. Peachamfallfondo.com
Featured Photo by Ryan Dunn. Reporting on the RAS Ride by Maeve Ryan