With the rising popularity of so-called gravel-grinder rides (and bikes), we've been excited to see that the calendar of dirt road events in New England has become almost crowded! It seems there's been at least one every weekend since spring, and we've been taking in many of them. I'm not sure how we first heard about the Fall Foliage Gravel Grinder but there was a lot of chatter and interest on a local email list for unpaved enthusiasts. Checking out the photos on F2G2 website and the route map, we saw that it would take in lots of nice scenery along little dirt roads in Berkshire County. We have ridden some in this area, but not extensively, so the promise of beautiful and quiet new-to-us dirt roads was enough to entice us to plan a trip.
The timing of the event, to take advantage of peak fall color, meant it was also going to be in direct competition with a very popular nearby cyclo-cross race, so I wasn't sure whether we'd see a big turnout on the day. Fortunately for the high school cross country team, benefactors of the funds raised from the event, there are plenty of riders who prefer to spend the whole of a beautiful autumn day on their bikes, rather than racing for an hour and/or watching other people race for an hour. Over 150 riders registered for this first year event.
The ride started and finished at Canterbury Farm, a cross-country skiing center and B&B. John and I took advantage of the B&B the night before, allowing for a relaxing start in the morning. We also checked out the nearby Dream Away Lodge, a very popular restaurant/bar/music venue in the middle of nowhere, yet seemingly known to all the locals and even the not-so-locals. The place was packed and the meal was delicious.
After dinner, we returned to the B&B and stayed up a while chatting with other cycling guests. After a good night of sleep, we arose to the smell of freshly baked muffins. Coffee, melon, pancakes and bacon fueled me for the first leg of the ride.
Riders could start anytime between 9 and 10AM and folks were encouraged to go out in small groups. Faster riders were asked to start later, to avoid arriving at the aid stations early, but those opting for the bonus loop or taking lots of photos were encouraged to head out without too much delay. Given John's desire to capture lots of fall color on his SD card, we headed out soon after the initial wave of riders.
From the get-go, we found ourselves on a lovely narrow hard packed gravel road - the first of many that day - heading up through the dense but colorful tree cover along a gradual climb. A couple of miles in John read aloud the next cue which stated "beginning of first climb." I looked down at my GPS, which already showed almost 600 feet of pre-first climb. Apparently they only labeled as climb inclines that made use of one's very bottom gear! This route had several climbs.
Fortunately, F2G2 was not a race, as the stunning scenery led to many of the aforementioned photo stops. Sometime after the first rest-stop, we came upon Jon and Chris, who had stopped to fix a slow-leak at a particularly photo-worthy location, and spent the rest of the day riding and chatting with them.
Chris has spent the last 7 months hiking the Appalachian trail with his partner, Greta. He was quite fit from the effort, but we wondered how he'd get along with his saddle after so many months apart! He coped, but did mention they might need to have some counseling - him and the saddle - that is. He told some great stories of meeting generous folks who provided trail-magic along the way, like a sag stop for hikers. The Pittsfield High School Cross Country team provided ride-magic for us on this day, with many energetic kids staffing the aid stations and providing encouragement along the way. They even baked some of the treats themselves. Among the many treats on offer, we sampled home baked cookies, banana bread and chocolate dipped strawberries.
|Scenes at the first rest stop|
The route took in lots of tiny roads, some of which were permanently closed to other traffic - trails, you might say. Recently fallen leaves combined with slanting autumnal sunlight to hide rocks and holes and called for extra attention. Heavy rain the previous day had also filled some puddles to axle depth - guess how we discovered that?
After a stop to chat with some friendly pigs, we continued with Jon and Cris on the bonus loop through Beartown State Forest. This section was super, with a few more trail-like sections than the main route. The three bikes all had plump tires that soaked up the bumps with ease, although one of Chris's tires suffered a spontaneous deflation event and we took a break while he replaced the tube. Brian passed us at this time, and we to-ed and fro-ed with him the rest of the day.
|Jon, taking in the view of the Tyringham valley.|
|Santarella, Tyringham's Gingerbread house|
The climb up Schermerhorn Road was considered the feature climb of the day, to the extent we got a Euro sticker when we checked-in, that pre-emptively boasted, "I climbed Schermerhorn." The volunteers talked it up, literally, at every rest stop, so we were curious what lay in store.
|The view from the base of Schermerhorn Road|
What awaited us was a closed road that climbed up into October Mountain State Forest. The surface was classic Massachusetts pavement with bits of asphalt roughly held together by the gravitational pull of black holes. OK, I'll concede that most of our roads actually do have better pavement than this one, but if we have another winter like this past one, that may not be the case for long. The steepness of the slope, along with the stone filled potholes made this long climb, at the end of the ride, especially cruel. Many riders on cyclocross bikes with typical cyclocross gearing found themselves making use of their cross skills, i.e. dismounting and proceeding on foot. Given that we now had a sticker claiming we had climbed it, we felt obliged to live up to it and, sure enough, we carefully picked our line and spun our way up. At the top, we were greeted once again by enthusiastic helpers at the final rest stop, which won the rest top award for best view.
|The view from the rest stop atop Schermerhorn Road|
The run-in to the finish was relatively fast and straightforward, but with more beautiful scenery along the way. Our well stoked appetites were soon sated with draft beer courtesy of Wandering Star Craft Brewery, soup, chili and burgers on the deck of the B&B, as the sun set on a terrific day.
The organizers talked about it being their first event, but you really wouldn't know it. It was very well run, with no issues of note. My only suggestion would be to do away with the race number we had to pin to clothing. I understand the desire to keep track of registered riders, but race numbers are for races. The act of pinning a number on my jersey mentally preps me for racing, and this was most definitely not a race. But more importantly, the weather was such that most folks started in jackets or vests, and pinning a number through a jacket is a no-no. As the sun and climbs warmed riders later in the day, those jackets and vests might eventually come off, finally revealing the numbers underneath. We were asked on several occasions for our numbers, but since it was on my back (and under my vest), I really had no idea what it was. To me a better option would be a wristband with the number written on it.
Aside from that, everything was great. The various aid stations along the way were staffed with energetic-beyond-words high school kids and the tables overflowed with snacks. The cue sheet was detailed and accurate. Where possible, there were arrows painted on the road and every turn was marked with a sign (political ad type signs). Arrows on dirt won't last and the sweep picked up all the signs, so you won't find those en route if you ride it later, using the GPS track and/or cues from the website. You also will miss out of the enthusiastic support staff, and the campfire at the top of the Schermerhorn climb and the great beer and wonderful feed at the end. But you will get the same great climbs and descents and awesome scenery, albeit with fewer leaves and less color in coming weeks.
This really was an amazing route and ride. The route was clearly designed by cyclists and flowed very well, even if sometimes the flow was made slower by the steepness of the incline! I would both recommend doing the official event next year as well as checking out part or all of the route in your own time.