The Gap Ride

This weekend it was my turn to tackle to legendary Gap Ride. After a sleepless and apprehensive night, Linnea and I were on the road at 5 AM from Boston to meet my dad in Rochester for an 8 AM departure. Thanks to the miracle of the human body, the fact that I got like 3 hours of sleep Saturday night held off on kicking my ass until Monday morning.

We rolled out at 8:15 and hit the first gap, Brandon Gap. 8 miles at 4.5% sounds really easy, but of course the first 3 miles are really like 2%, so you get some nice 8/9% stuff near the top. Cresting the top at 9 miles (124 to go!) was really easy. I didn't even touch my 38x27 the whole way up. One gap down, five to go. This ride is no problem!

After Brandon Gap the road heads up the valley for 10 or 15 miles, winding along Lake Dunmore and generally being quite scenic. Just before the turn to Middlebury gap, however, there's a section of Rt 7 you have to ride that's very unprotected from the wind, just open fields. On this section we discovered a nice 15-20 mph breeze out of the north, which was going to nag us off and on for the next 80 miles.

Middlebury gap starts with a steeper pitch than anything Brandon Gap has to offer, crossing over the brook and climbing around a bend. I quickly found out that even the 38x27 wasn't magic, and had to stand to climb this section. There was a dude on a cross bike who had passed us earlier, and was still in sight -- he was spinning like 80rpm up it. I can only assume that he had some kind of ridiculous nancy-boy gearing that would be totally impractical for a cross race, like the 30x34 low gear on a Specialized Tricross Triple. I knew I would be wishing I had that kind of ratio come Lincoln Gap, but that didn't stop me from scorning him.

Middlebury Gap quickly flattened out to a beautiful, shady ride along a rushing stream. This was probably the most picturesque section of the ride, possibly because I was still fresh enough to appreciate that kind of thing. Near the top it kicks up to 10% again for the last mile, but all in all Middlebury Gap was very easy. Two gaps down, four to go, things were lookin good.

After 50 mph down Middlebury Gap (this one can be run safely with no brakes) we headed north into the wind on Rt 100 for 15 or so miles, over Granville Gulf up to Warren, VT and the beginning of the dreaded Lincoln gap. I spent a lot of time pulling us at 15 miles per hour into the headwind, and this is when my legs first started to confirm that this was, in fact, going to be a hard day. 50 miles down, 80 to go.

The climb over Granville Gulf was one of those things that would've been really painful, except that it gets mentioned so much I was expecting worse. Every trip report calls it a "mini-gap" so I knew the ride up to Warren wasn't easy. But it was shallow, only reaching 8% in a few places, so it was really a non-event. At least, in retrospect, any hill that didn't get me out of the saddle in the 27 barely merits recognition.

Warren turned out to be our lunch stop, because we were out of water (I'd already gone through 3 bottles) and low on fuel. We detoured into town and found a yuppie-tastic store (wine tasting? Seriously??) that made expensive but nice sandwiches. I promptly overate a large turkey sandwich and then regretted it. After all, I had to carry that quarter-pound of bird over Lincoln Gap in just a few miles...

The dude at the store told us that Lincoln Gap was the "steepest mile in America." This information, coupled with all the ride reports I'd read in advance that prominently featured people with triples walking, convinced me that the real contest was going to be see who lasted the longest before getting off.

There really isn't much of a run-in to Lincoln Gap. The road climbs sharply off Rt 100 and then levels out for a mile or two on gravel. When the gravel ends, things get super hard. Just before leaving the gravel a car passed us going the other direction reeking of smoked brakes, so I knew danger was imminent. We turned the corner, and there it was -- blacktop going straight up the hill at a truly ridiculous pitch. I checked my computer so I'd know where the mile of pain was going to end and got to work.

Linnea and Dad using the whole road on the lower slopes of Lincoln Gap

For the second time I was helped significantly by the hype surrounding a climb. I knew it was going to be super hard and I knew that many people have failed to ride it. I even knew, thanks to Alex's report, that there was one super-steep long section when you turn a corner that was especially daunting, so I was ready to have my spirit crushed on every corner. One thing many people report that I had no problem with was lifting their front wheel -- 38x27 is waaay to big a gear to get wheel-lifting torque out of, plus it was almost impossible to sit down. I decided that I would go straight up until it killed me.

The hardest thing about it was managing the suffering. It's easy, when you see a corner coming, to think that it's going level out after that and try to up pace. It's not. Just keep turning the easiest gear you have a slow as you can. For me, this was about 4 mph. I still had to pull up on the bars with every pedal stroke -- the road is so steep even when you drop your fully body weight from the top of the cranks to the bottom, your center of mass still moves up the hill, so you have to actively pull on every. single. stroke. or you stop.

About five minutes in I started to really have problems. My biceps were actually becoming the limiting factor, as they were completely lacking the endurance to pull for 15 minutes. I had to change my rhythm to sitting down once a minute for a few strokes to rest my arms, and when I did sit my legs instantly would inform me that there was no way they could get uphill in the position. It was the absolute edge of what I could mantain, but it was still doable.

The whole climb kind of blurs together. If I was traveling 4 mph, I guess it would have taken 15 minutes. All I was doing was worrying about how much longer I could maintain the suffering when suddenly I saw cars parked up the road. I had made it. 38x27 straight up. I don't need no steeekin compact.

Linnea was a few minutes behind me, using the whole road to keep turning her 32x26. Shortly behind her came my dad, also zigzagging from shoulder to shoulder using a 39x34. The final climb report, for future gap riders:

Me: 38x27, no zigzags
Linnea: 32x26, zigzags
Dad: 39x34, zigzags, two stops but no walking uphill.

The mandatory top of Lincoln Gap photo. Note comically large XT cassette on Dad's bike

We were all thinking we'd have to walk the "steepest mile in America," so we were all feeling pretty victorious. We did the required photo-op next to the 2424 sign at the top and headed down the disgustingly bad descent to Lincoln.

This was where things got really bad for me. My front brake pads have some kind of hard pieces on them where, if you squeeze them hard, they start to grind and lose some power. Typically when this happens I let up on the brake for a second and it goes away -- unfortunately on Lincoln Gap this is a terrible idea, since you start descending at 20% and getting off the brakes for even a split second will put you up near 25 mph on terrible, winding pavement. Coming into a blind right-hander my brakes were grinding something awful so I let off for a second -- instantly I rocketed downhill and was suddenly having trouble making the corner. Thing should still be ok, as long as I use the whole road.... OH HELLO MR. TRUCK COMING UPHILL. The truck honked at me and moved as far over as it could, which meant I ended up missing its rear bumper by a few feet on the exit.

That was a nasty reality check, but I wasn't done making mistakes. More steep descending and I was trying to keep my brakes from grinding through my rim, so I was letting off intermittently. I looked ahead and saw what I thought was an uphill, but it turns out that it was just a flat (when you're going down 15%+, your perspective gets skewed) so I let 'em run. Then a bad combination of events happened --

1) I passed Linnea on the left without warning her, so she drifted left, meaning I went way into the oncoming lane
2) A vehicle came into sight coming up the hill
3) The road turned left and turned to gravel

What this meant was that I had to turn right, hard, to get back in my lane, but then also turn left hard to stay on the road. The right turn happened. The left turn didn't, and I went mountain-biking into the rocky ditch. I hung on long enough that by the time the bike endo'ed, I got a leg over the bars and stayed on my feet.

After that I slowed down.

At the bottom, it seemed like it had been ages since the end of Middlebury gap, and yet we were only halfway through. The ride had officially gotten hard.

There's not much flat between Lincoln and App Gap. We were quickly going back uphill, and the only motivating factor was seeing things like "GMSR 10k" printed on the road. Baby gap is a climb, sure, but after 20% on Lincoln it seemed trivial. Hell, I was sitting not even in my easiest gear. No problems. Unfortunately, the last 3k of App Gap is very much the real deal. It's the second steepest pitch of the ride and since you're 80+ in, it hurts just as much as Lincoln. The top of the gap is the best view of the day, but unfortunately when you near the top you can see the last 500m of 18% climb as part of the view.

Linnea near the top of App Gap. For some reason she's riding directly toward the camera even though the road goes right to left, I wonder what it could be??

We regrouped at the top of App Gap and talked to some motorcyclists, who were of course very impressed with how stupid we were to ride our bikes over this thing. There was no shade and no services at the top so we headed down pretty fast, on the best downhill of the trip.

The App gap descent isn't the best because of speed, it's the best because of the corners. There are multiple sharp corners with good pavement on the way down that are a blast. Lean your bike and pretend it's the Alps.

Of course, you could get totally messed up if you overcooked one of these, but there's plenty of signs warning you. A good rule of thumb is not to exceed a posted corner by 10mph -- there's one right hander before the Mad River Glen parking lot that's posted at 25, and I got through there around 35 just barely staying on my side of the line.

We refueled again at the bottom (5 bottles down) and were quickly climbing Roxbury Gap. I had this funny idea that we could just tough out the last 45 miles now, but of course that's nonsense. Roxbury gap is another 5 mile climb that teases you around 5-7% for the first 3 miles, and then just when you think things aren't that bad it goes up to 10% and turns to dirt. I was nearing 100 miles, the sun was beating down, and I hadn't eaten anything since my monster turkey sandwich in Warren 4 hours prior. I was definitely headed into bonky-land by the time I crested the top.
Climbing Roxbury Gap. Note moto coming up to give me a time check against that turtle that passed me a mile back.

The descent from Roxbury gap is pure dirt. With cross tires on it would probably be awesome, but not knowing it and having 23mm tires on, it wasn't really fun. Too many washboarded corners really kept you from feeling good about letting the bike run. At the bottom we refueled yet again, and I discovered that those "Monster" energy drinks are as terrible as you might assume. I can't believe what people will consume in the hope of getting some caffeine. Just drink some coffee, you lightweights.

Now we had a "quick" 20mph run over to Rochester Gap and we were almost done, which is good because it was now 6pm at night. We'd been out here for 10 hours. We were finally heading downwind, so I tried to push the pace a bit since I was pretty sick of the saddle. I didn't really have much to give after 100 miles, so I mainly just hurt myself while allowing us to ride 22 instead of 20, but after 3 straight gaps the miles just flew by, and next thing I knew we were at the beginning of Rochester Gap.

We drove over this in the morning, and as other people have mentioned, it doesn't seem that bad. Yeah. You know why it doesn't seem that bad? You were in a car, moron!

Rochester Gap starts innocuously and stays that way until the last 1.5 miles, just like every other gap. Then you turn a corner and see a 12% pitch. Beyond that is a flat, then a corner that's probably 14% on the inside, then a flat, and then a consistent 9-10% grind to the top. My legs had 125 miles on them so it was, of course, murder, although at this point I was totally accustomed to suffering at 6 mph for 10 minutes at a time.

One last quick regrouping at the top, then bombing the descent (no brakes needed except for the stop sign in the middle, and stop sign at the bottom) and we were done. 134 miles thanks to the detour for food in Warren. 14.5 average, 9:15 in the saddle for me.

I'm not sure where it would rank on the "hard things I have done" list. In terms of calories burned, it might take the cake. I would compare it most closely with doing a 24 hour race on a two man team -- in the morning, your body is just destroyed, but you have to keep pushing into the red over and over again to get around the course. The last two gaps were just like that, any exertion was painful but I could still get a reasonable effort out of my legs as long as I kept eating.

If I had to give advice to any future gap riders, it would be this -- the first two gaps are nothing. The last 4 gaps are the real ride, and every single one will kick your ass something fierce for the last 1.5 miles. Don't even waste your time looking at your computer and congratulating yourself on how close you are to the top of a climb until it's well under a mile to go.