This story was originally published on Senior Ripper.
There’s a unique sound that vibrates from a peloton. It’s something like a purr or a hum or a whir, but it’s not quite any of those. As I was thinking about this while concentrating on and adjusting to the subtle, nearly imperceptible movements of the cyclists around me, it dawned on me from my years as a beekeeper—it was a buzz. We were a hive. And even though I had never ridden in a peloton before, I was intuitively responding to it. We were working as a group, rolling along a beautiful Vermont road flanked by farmland. And for the moment, I was with them.
This was day 2 of the Green Mountain Stage Race (GMSR), the largest pro-am road stage race east of the Mississippi, complete with sprint competitions and King/Queen of the Mountain points. My older son had invited me to join him for this 4-day event, which includes a 6-mile time trial, a 37-mile circuit race, a 64.5-mile road race up two mountain passes, and a highly-technical criterium race through the streets of Burlington. At the time, I didn’t think too critically about the details. I saw it as an adventure with my nineteen-year-old, so I signed up.
Throughout the summer, though, often in the middle of the night, I did think about the details. My biking style is, well, relaxed. I savor bike rides. I soak up the views and stop for photos. But this was a serious event, so I tried to get serious about racing. I bought a new-to-me road bike, put my head down, and pedaled. All summer, I tried to increase my speed. By the time we headed to Vermont for the weekend of races, my fastest average time was 17 mph. It was a dramatic improvement for me, but not nearly enough to be competitive.
So I was surprised when I was still buzzing along with my peloton 10 miles into day 2. But things were about to change. At the 11-mile mark, the road narrowed, turned to the left, and rose up a gentle hill. As we moved into the turn, the pitch of the peloton changed ever so slightly. It was a signal, and I understood what it meant. In a rapid click, click, click, they were off. Just like that, I had been dropped. The gap widened with astonishing speed and soon they were over the hill and out of sight.
It wasn’t all that bad, though. After getting left behind, I enjoyed 26 miles of lovely farmland, a delightfully long and gentle uphill climb, and a deliciously fast, twisty 5-mile descent through the deep woods of Allis State Park. I came in dead last, grinning ear to ear. Biking is just plain fun, even when you’re racing – and losing.
Later that afternoon, over veggie burgers and a heaping mound of fries at The Worthy Burger Too, we read over the details of stage 3 in the GMSR technical guide. It was going to be tough. I had thought I’d be cut by now since the rules dictate that riders must come in within 20% of the leader. But the judges were lenient when it came to new category 5 racers. Despite my time, I was allowed to go on.
Early morning fog was lifting from the Mad River Valley as I watched my son and his group take off down the hill to begin their 64.5-mile stage 3 race, which would culminate at the top of the punishing Appalachian Gap (App Gap), Vermont’s highest 4-season maintained roadway. Soon after they left, I saw the familiar faces of my group of women making their way to the staging area. We chatted about the previous day and the task ahead. Most of them were on teams and had ridden this race before and stood a good chance at winning big prize money, but a few were unattached and relatively new to racing. Everyone was kind and welcoming. Those in position to win were at the head of the peloton, and the rest of us self-seeded ourselves. I kept to the back.
Unlike day 2, though, I was not to ride with the peloton on day 3. The fast downhill start left me behind right away. I kept them in my sight for a few miles, but before long, they were gone. I was just going to ride this one alone. And I did. I passed swimming holes, picnic areas, and covered bridges as I wove through the scenic Mad River and White River valleys and two passes over the Green Mountains.
When I reached the top of the Middlebury Gap, I immediately recognized it as one of the resupply spots where I had met my younger son and his friend the previous summer, when they were thru-hiking the Long Trail. It brought back memories of their incredible 272-mile journey, and I spent most of the remaining miles thinking about them carrying heavy packs along the ridgeline that framed my view. Their remarkable accomplishment gave me the inspiration I needed to make it up the final 500 meters of the App Gap, which tops out at an insane 20% grade. It was brutal, but the suffering made the finish line that much sweeter.
Descending the east side of the App Gap was scary. I had to stop twice to give my brakes— and my hands—a rest. It was a nerve-wracking end to a tough day, but I took solace in the knowledge that my son was waiting for me with the car at the bottom. We feasted on massive sandwiches at the Warren Store that afternoon and slept soundly until our alarm went off at 5 a.m. for our last day of competition.
Green fencing outlined the 1-kilometer, 6-turn criterium course up on the hill by Burlington’s Church Street Marketplace, overlooking Lake Champlain—stage 4. Each race was 25 laps, but racers would be taken out as they fell behind the peloton. And many did. Every field was diminished dramatically as the laps wore on. My son and I each got in a few laps, and we were grateful for what we got. We didn’t come to win. We came to experience a professional stage race, and the GMSR delivered. Even though it’s designed for competitive cyclists, this event is accessible to anyone who wants to give racing a try. And we’re so glad we did.
This story was originally published on Senior Ripper.
(I’m proud to be a Senior Ripper in training.)
Here’s a brief local news story about the event.