The Roads Less Biked

If you find yourself in the backwoods of central Vermont on August 23, don’t be surprised to come upon a few bike racers crouched low on drop handlebars, brushing through branches, skinny tires spitting mud and rocks as they disappear down what 100 years ago was called a road.

Among them may be cycling legend Ned Overend, the Greg Lemond of off-road cycling (and, at 59, the 2015 U.S. Fat Bike champion), or six-time national cyclocross champion and local hero Tim Johnson. They will almost certainly be followed by a peloton of fiendishly fit men and women, sporting sponsored team jerseys, racing in the Overland Adventure Ride.

The brainchild of Woodstock real estate lawyer Peter Vollers, the Overland doesn’t fit any classic definition of a bike race. It starts and finishes at Suicide Six ski area, but with only 5 percent of it on pavement, it is far from a road race. A 53-mile overland loop, it’s not really a cyclocross course (which usually involves a criterium over obstacles) either. Since most riders use skinny tires, it’s certainly not a mountain bike event. ‘Gravel grinder’ might be the best term, but as anyone who has ridden the course will tell you, “gravel” would be a polite term for the loose rocks, fallen branches, mud and other obstacles racers face.

If anything the Vermont Overland Adventure Ride belongs to a growing category of event that has taken hold in Vermont over the past three years: backwoods, ride-anything, damn-the-mosquitoes tours such as Rasputitsa, Dirty 40, and Irreverent. These might be best described as suffer fests, except for one thing; they also appear to be a hell of a lot of fun—emphasis on the word “hell.”

“I like to call the terrain we ride Vermont pave,” says Vollers as he sips hot chocolate on an overcast July day at Red Hen Bakery in Moretown. “Pave,” harkens back to the European tradition of racing old roads, the most famous of which, Paris-Roubaix, sent the 2015 Tour de France riders on a 157-mile point-to-point route, much of it on cobblestones (pave, in French). With a nod to the Paris-Roubaix route, Vollers has dubbed the toughest section of pave the ‘Arenberg Forest’ and another section, ‘Koppenberg’ after the notorious climb in Belgium’s Tour de Flanders.

While parts of the Overland ride are so steep, rocky and overgrown even the best racers walk them, there are also long stretches of open fields, pounded dirt and the best part, sag stops and a post-race party sponsored by Worthy Kitchen, Vermont Smoke and Cure, Woods Syrup and Beanery Brewing.

Scruffily handsome, with sandy hair and a few days growth, Vollers, the 1989 collegiate national champion, can talk bike racing for hours. He raced in high school and college, made the junior national team and then tried to go pro. “This was back in the 80s,” he recalls. “I did really well on the junior circuit but I just couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I couldn’t keep pace with the pros.” The short answer, Vollers concluded: he wasn’t drinking the same Kool Aid, so to speak, that Lance Armstrong and so many other racers were. He hung up his pro aspirations but he never put away his racing bike.

When his son reached an age where he wanted to race bikes, Vollers looked around for a team his kid could train with. There wasn’t one nearby so he made a deal with the Killington Mountain School: He’d start a team and train the KMS kids if his son and others could ride with them. “Those kids were all super strong and motivated but they had few bike skills,” Vollers says. “There were days when we’d be riding down Route 100 and cars were whizzing by and I had 20 kids all over the road. So one day we came upon an old Class IV dirt road and I just said, ‘Guys, we’re turning left here.”” The terrain, rocks, gravel and roots brought a new challenge. It also eased Vollers’ mind. “No traffic, just woods and quiet and some beautiful country to ride through.”

This was country Vollers had already explored in his Land Rover, doing reconnaissance for his other side business of four-wheel off-road explorations, Overland Tours. “Vermont has all these amazing Class IV roads that go through some of the prettiest parts of the state. Years ago they connected farms and you still come across abandoned barns and old foundations.” It didn’t take much for him to piece together a bike course (available on Strava). This year, it runs from Woodstock to Barnard and back.

Vollers seems to know everyone of import in the varied circles he operates in. He reached out to founder and former creative director Ryan Dunn, (a veteran of Vollers’ four-wheel Overland tours), to photograph the 2014 event. He called Chris Bailey, a friend from Deerfield Academy who had raced with Vollers in high school and on the junior national team. Bailey, CEO of Hinesburg-based Vermont Smoke and Cure meats jumped in as a racer and a sponsor. Ed Keller, a managing director at Morgan Stanley (whom Vollers works with to organize an annual invite-only road bike Hedge Fondo for some of the top hedge fund managers in the world) rode in 2014. And, of course, there are plenty of entries from pro cyclocross teams.

In late July, Vollers sent an email that could barely conceal his excitement: “Look who just signed up: Ned Overend.” Overend, who runs Specialized’s race team, had been looking for unique courses around the country. “It’s different from Colorado climbing with short steep climbs, a lush landscape, humidity and just the different culture of the Northeast riding scene,” he said. Plus, he added, “I think people are sick of training and racing around cars and putting themselves at risk with distracted driving. That’s why I’ve been exploring the dirt roads.”

As we all know, they are the roads less traveled.

UP NEXT: 5 Great Gravel Grinder Rides