Six Gaps Vermont – September 24, 2017
I had been reading about and researching the Six Gaps of Vermont cycling route for a while. Then one Saturday morning in early Fall 2017, when the weather forecast for Sunday called for a nice day in the mountains of northern Vermont, I decided to head out and do this ride.
After a long drive from Brooklyn, I stayed overnight in Rutland, and drove early Sunday morning to Rochester, Vermont, where I began the Six Gaps ride in a clockwise direction at about 8:45.
The Six Gaps are six mountain passes in Vermont. They are not as high or as long as the big climbs in the Alps or the Rockies (each one gains 1500-2000 feet of altitude) but they contain some of the steepest sections of pavement (and occasionally gravel) anywhere in the world. The steep pitches are long and without respite, making this ride quite a challenging one, even if you are happiest on a bike when the road points skyward, like me.
When I set out from Rochester, the weather was perfect for cycling, but the early morning heat meant I would be in for a very hot day in the Vermont mountains. Heading westward from Rochester on Route 73, the first gap was Brandon Gap – this was the easiest of the gaps, a 5.4 mile-long ascent at an average grade of 4%, climbing 1,200 feet, with some sections at 7-8%. The riding was great here, the roads were very empty on Sunday morning, and the road surface was good. I made good speed up this gap, and averaged over 30 miles per hour for the 4.5-mile-long descent off the summit.
After the descent, a few miles west of Goshen the route turns northward onto Route 58, passes along Lake Dunmore, to East Middlebury. From there, the second Gap begins, the Middlebury Gap.
The whole Middlebury Gap climb is an 8-mile long ascent, with a modest average gradient of 3%, but this is no easy climb. The last two miles of it are a consistent 8% gradient. By the time I reached this Gap, the sun was shining high, and the valleys were heating up. The heat and humidity made the climb very difficult but I knew there was plenty of climbing along, so I paced myself and enjoyed the beautiful solitude of the Vermont forests in the Fall. The riding here is not as scenic as the wide open vistas of other mountain ranges, but there is something so serene about riding up steep pitches in the middle of a forest with no sounds other than the bike wheels rotating, heavy breathing, and birds chirping.
Up and over the top of the Middelbury Gap and gravity came back online. I averaged 36 mph on the fast 2-mile long descent from the top of the Gap,and 27 mph for the 5.6-mile full descent to Hancock.
After Hancock, the route turned northward on Route 100 past Granville to Warren. This was a relatively flat section of the ride, although there were hardly any true extended flat sections the entire day.
Just south of Warren, a seemingly innocent left turn leads to a monster of a climb, the Lincoln Gap. The climb is just over 4 miles long and gains about 1,800 feet in altitude. A one-mile-long stretch of the climb, with an average gradient of 15%, is the steepest paved mile in the U.S. and one of the steepest paved climbs in the world. There are steady gradients on the climb of 24%, and a half-mile long stretch at 22%.
This climb is truly a beast. I was using 53/39-11/28 gearing, which is not ideal for such a steep climb. I read about many seasoned cyclists that had to walk the very steep sections – I was determined to make it all of the way up all of the Six Gaps without taking a mid-climb break of taking my feet off the pedals, and I did. Lincoln Gap was a challenge though – I was deep into the red zone. But it didn’t last for too long. After it seemed I had climbed up a cliff, at last I made it to the top, dripping a steady stream of sweat off my chin. What a climb!
After a rapid descent to the town of Lincoln, I stopped at a Vermont Country Store for a great air-conditioned lunch. The temperature had reached 90F and it was great to be out of the heat for a little while. After two big tuna sandwiches, a large diet coke, chips, three big homemade chocolate-chip cookies, and two ice creams, about 20 minutes later, I continued north towards Bristol before a turn eastward towards South Starksboro and the Appalachian Gap climb.
The Appalachian Gap was another very tough climb, not quite as hard as Lincoln Gap but as hard a climb as you’ll find anywhere. The climb is divided into two 1,100-ft climbs, interrupted by a 200-ft descent. The later half of the climb is 4 miles long with an average grade of 10% and sustained gradients of 18%. This was another beast, but a very scenic one, with several waterfalls along the way.
At the top of Appalachian Gap, I took a little break. I had completed four of the Gaps, and two of the hardest ones, a respectable ride by itself. I enjoyed the peaceful scenery for a few minutes and rested my legs. The descent off the summit was again thrilling as ever. For 2.5 miles, my average speed again exceeded 30 miles per hour.
After the Appalachian Gap, I rejoined Route 100 and made very good speed back towards Warren. From Warren, the route continued Eastward and up over the fifth Gap of the day, the Roxbury Gap. This was a 1,300-ft climb, 4-mile long climb at an average gradient of 6%, with a two-mile section at a leg-burning 10% gradient and with long gravel stretches, but after Lincoln and Appalachian, this climb didn’t seem too bad.
As the day got later, it got a bit cooler. Even though I had already climbed about 10,000 feet, I enjoyed this second-to-last, particularly desolate climb, quite a bit. There was hardly anyone around, and my body and legs were working perfectly getting me up over some big Vermont mountains.
As the sun dipped behind the mountains, I stopped in Randolph for a quick sandwich and to top off my water bottles. I continued south toward Bethel before turning westward toward West Bethel and then back to the starting point at Rochester. My GPS indicated only about 10 miles to go, but I knew that Rochester Gap, probably the third-hardest after Lincoln and Appalachian remained.
Turning my bike back uphill toward Rochester as it got dark, I summoned more energy for one last long push up the Rochester Gap. The Rochester Gap is 5.6 miles long with an average gradient of 5%, but with a two-mile long 7% climb and long stretches of 13% and 15% gradients. Climbing this last steep climb in the dark was challenging, but I had a bright headlamp and was very happy with the cooler weather. Only four or five cars drove by for the entire time I was on this climb – it was so nice to be out in the middle of nature with no one around.
When I reached the top, it was pitch black outside. I stopped on the side of the road, shut off all my lights, and took in the night sky filled with stars (something I don’t see in New York City). I had completed a tough ride up some very steep hills. It was a great feeling to be done with this ride, out in the middle of a dark Vermont forest. From here, it was downhill for 4 miles back to my car. I descended carefully, at 15 mph.
At about 8:00 pm, I got back to my car. I bought a case of water in a gas station which together with some soap made for a great improvised shower in a dark parking lot. I got back to NYC at about 2:00 AM after a magical day of uphills and downhills in Northern Vermont. If you are thinking about riding the Six Gaps, go for it.
Total Distance: 131.5 miles
Total Ascent: 11,601 feet
Average Speed: 14.7 miles per hour
Max Speed: 44.5 mph
Moving Time: 8:55
Elapsed Time: 10:50
Average Power: 177 watts