As mid-July approached and the days grew heavy with heat, I found myself reminiscing of the long Vermont climbs I raced when I was much younger. I had recently dropped my son off at camp in Plymouth and as I drove along Rt. 100 and the vaguely familiar roads near Killington, I somehow conceived the notion to ride again some of those old climbs: Rochester Gap, Middlebury Gap and Brandon Gap.
I drove to Bethel in the humid, early morning, parked my car, unloaded my bike, got dressed, packed my pockets full of food and spare tubes, then started riding north on Rt 12. The sky was clear. The air was thick and soft. The wind urged me along the valley road.
The left turn onto Camp Brook came much quicker than I expected and then I was already climbing Rochester Gap.
I had never raced up this one, as far as I could remember, but I had driven over it in the dark and the snow a few seasons ago to get to a ski race at Rikert. With the morning sun hitting the eastern slope and the heat collecting on the back of my black jersey, remembrances of snowy nights and slipping tires melted away.
The first section was steep, far steeper than I had expected so early into the ride. I climbed out of the saddle, my legs still half asleep, sluggish and crying out against the slope. The angle relaxed and I sat back down and found a slow but comfortable rhythm. The second section hurt a little less. The final section was when I realized I was over-geared with my low combination of 39 x 23. I had to twist and pull on the bars, out of the saddle, sending my heart rate to its upper limits.
That type of gear had, in the past, been able to get me up just about anything. I had rarely run anything lower than that in the last 15 years.
But then I was approaching the top and the trees thinned out and to my left I had clear view of Vermont’s rolling hills.
One down. Two to go.
I welcomed the shade as I cut through the cool air on the descent. The sweat that had collected beneath my jersey on the way up quickly evaporated. I adjusted my nerves for a fast drop down rutted, unfamiliar roads, often times seeing and avoiding long, lengthwise fissures at the last second. Catch my wheel in one of those and it would be all over for the day. Perhaps longer.
Back in the day, I was fearless descender, dropping off mountainsides with a speed that belied my 150 lbs. But this morning I had a hard time letting myself go. The bike handled fine even while the roads were questionable. But I was never quite sure what would be around the next corner, what might be coming up the road, so I flicked the brakes and eased up until I had a clear line of site, then let tucked in a let go.
I dropped into Rochester like a rocket, noting the posted speed limit of 25mph and comparing that to my computer that showed me going a little over 70kph, before finally pulling hard on the brakes and rolling to the stop sign at the bottom of the hill.
Then I was on Route 100, the seminal Vermont road, cradled by farmland, red barns and mountain sides that rose skyward on either side. I rolled out my legs, still stiff from the first climb and tight now from the descent, hoping there was plenty of flat road before Middlebury Gap. But that, too, came far quicker than I would have liked.
I made the wide left turn onto Route 125 and started the climb. Many years before, I had climbed this in the Mad River Road Race. I had come from the north, alone in my big ring, swinging right onto the road, bridging up to the break. But this time, I was already in the little ring and saving precious energy for the day. I had covered only 20km. And I was already suffering.
I dodged and swerved around fractured pavement and potholes. The sun was up and there was precious little shade. My legs turned over a slow steady cadence. Almost in survival mode. Memories of the previous ascent of Middlebury Gap started to haunt me. I recalled placing a 25-tooth cog on my back wheel the morning of that race as the road went up and my pedaling bogged down yet again. Slow, but manageable.
In my head, I played back memories of climbing this with a small group at the front of the race. Comfortable. Confident. We were flying up the hill by comparison to how I was climbing today. My legs had felt superb. I had bridged a huge gap – alone — and was back in contention.
But the years piled up. Fitness had been lost. I was nearly 20 years older and the years weighed me down. I wasn’t a twenty-something full-time bike racer anymore.
The ascent of Middelbury Gap went better than Rochester. It was a steady grade until the road kicked up in the last 500 meters, and I cleared it with plenty in reserve and attacked the descent. My legs were sore and even spinning a moderate gear was painful.
In that race many years ago, I had lead down the climb, fearlessly cutting corners and straightening out the road, often times breaking 55 miles per hour and well off the front by the time we reached flat roads again. But riding alone on this day, I soft-pedaled, unwilling to take similar risks on an open road and unable to carry any speed.
The descent seemed to take forever.
Then I was a back on flat roads and nearly half-way done with the distance and two-thirds of the way through for the climbs. I refueled along the way, in preparation for the last climb. I should have stopped to fill my bottles.
Brandon Gap lay ahead. It was perhaps the most revered climb of my career. There were certainly longer and steeper ones, but Brandon went back to the early days of junior racing and the Killington Stage Race. I had driven it in recon the first year I raced it in 1989. I had climbed it countless more times in racing and training. It had always come too far from the finish and with too long and easy a descent to be truly decisive in the races, but it represented my progression as a cyclist. Each time I did it, it got a little easier, I got a little better. But I never quite made it all that it should have been.
I was reflecting on this career as I started the lower slopes of Brandon Gap. The details of the climb were hazy in my memory. All I could recall was a long, final grind just when you thought you were done. The years made a parallax that altered distances and details.
I chased the rider I once was up the climb, barely able to keep up with the younger, faster me. I could see him climbing, seated in the saddle. Lean. Confident. He was suffering, too, but didn’t show it. Suffering and going so much faster than I was.
On the first steep section, I passed a group of riders who were dismounting their bikes and starting to walk. My former self had already disappeared around the corner, out of the saddle, rocking gently side to side, while I wrestled with the handlebars and begged for the road to level out and give me a few moments respite.
I had already been defeated, so early on the climb. The guy up the road was mocking me, playing with me. Always a little bit faster. He cast a look back over his shoulder to see where I was, grinned like an asshole, then picked up his pace again.
While I struggled.
I started to hate the rider up the road. How he had wasted all his fitness. Given up the on the career I was certain he would have had. I would have made different decisions. I would have done more with the opportunities he had been given.
I, at least, would have picked better gears for the day.
The climb was never ending. Around each bend, the road just climbed again. I had no memory of Brandon Gap in the sun. It seemed I had only ever climbed it the rain and cool of early September. The heat was starting to get to me. My bottles were light and hollow. My lips were dried and cracked when I grimaced. I just needed to get to the top of this and I would be safe.
One more turn and the summit was in sight.
I let the phantom rider up the road go clear. The races were long gone and I was no longer interested in racing him. I had nothing left to prove.
He waited for me without judgment at the top of the climb, a sober look on his face. He had no idea what lay ahead of him. After all the miles had been ridden and all the climbs had been climbed. All that the years would bring and take away. The promise of escape that was the bicycle and the Sisyphean curse that would bring him back to these same hills.
We rode back together. Not a word exchanged between us.
In silent agreement that we need never do this again.