Vermont Brewer’s Festival weekend, part 1
I was one of the lucky few thousand who managed to click the right button at the right time to end up with tickets for myself and a couple friends from Vermont to the Vermont Brewers Festival last weekend, and, as you do, I immediately started thinking about how I was going to get there. The afternoon session is a sensible choice, because in the case that you do drive, you can spend a few hours in Burlington afterwards not drinking, maybe taking a nap in the park or eating as much as possible, before heading back safe and sober.
Honestly, I didn’t contemplate taking the bus, probably because every time I’ve crossed the border on a bus, I’ve had to wait at least an hour and usually two. One time, a panicked passenger from three buses back in the line was hustled through customs with us so that he could catch a cab to BTV airport in the hopes of maybe not missing his flight (fly out of Burlington and save, they said, it’ll be easy, they said). In other words, the Montreal to Burlington bus is likely to be about as reliably on-time as the 24 during rush hour, though at least a bit more comfortable. What I didn’t realize until much later was that crossing by car would have been equally bad due to the beginning of the mysterious “construction holiday”. Everyone I know in Montreal was going to the evening session anyway, meaning that carpooling was unlikely to work. So what remained was the last resort of the terminally cheap and excessively fit…
Actually I pretty much planned to bike there from the start.
When I looked at the map, I was surprised to learn that it’s only 148 km from Montreal. On the dubious assumption that I could average 30 km/h, I figured I’d just leave at 6 in the morning and be there in time for the festival at 11:30. After being reminded that no matter how fast I rode, I still had to cross a border and take a ferry, I figured it would be a lot less stressful to leave the day before, so the plan got modified to leaving at 5PM on Friday, riding to the end of the Champlain Islands, sleeping … somewhere … and then heading into Burlington the next morning once the ferry starts running at 10AM. As a bonus, I would get to test out my new PV-8 dynamo hub for the last hour or two of darkness. And boy, was it dark! Yes, this sounded almost like a plan.
Also, I would return on Sunday from my friend’s house in Marshfield, VT, for a nice 209 km ride. So I didn’t really want to carry a tent. As luck would have it, my landlords have a cabin more or less exactly where I was hoping to stop for the night and agreed to let me sleep there.
After forgetting my helmet, gloves, and keys, I finally made it out of the house around 5:15PM. I’ve had a heart rate monitor kicking around for a while that I never bothered to use, and I thought it would be nice to take it on this ride to make sure that I kept a sustainable pace. My goal was to keep under 150 bpm, and preferably under 140 bpm, at all times, except for short, steep hills. The route looked almost completely flat, and the wind was out of the south-west and not terribly strong, so not entirely unfavorable. Finally, I would be riding almost entirely on roads I’d taken many times before – the 217 on the CVRM brevet series and US 2 much further in the past, on Boston-Montreal-Boston in 2004.
Thankfully, unlike those brevets, I was not required to leave town via the horrendous pavement of avenue Victoria and some pointless noodling around in Brossard. I simply took the riverside path (really, it’s worth it, don’t take the adjoining road if you value your sit bones and rims) to boulevard Rome, then turned on boulevard Pelletier to get to the surprisingly friendly shoulder of Taschereau and its unfortunately synchronized stoplights, the less friendly 104 through La Prairie, and finally the “colonne dorsale”, the “mother road”, the preferred way to get as far south as possible as fast as possible, ladies and gentlemen, route Édouard-VII, a.k.a. rang St-André, a.k.a. Route Nationale 217.
Crossing the 30 I was a bit surprised to find that it was already after 6PM, and I felt glad I hadn’t tried to ride the whole thing in the morning, since I also hadn’t figured on it taking a pretty long time to get out of town. After turning onto the 217, though, I found that in my target heart rate range I could average around 28 km/h even with the slight headwind. I planned to stop only at the gas station in St-Cyprien (50km) to get some water, so hitting the border around 8 seemed feasible.
In actual fact you don’t really ride on the 217 about half the time, because in one of the peculiarities of the Quebec road system, a rang on one side of a river (here, the rivière St-Jacques or one of its branches) is always accompanied by one on the other side, and most of the traffic ends up on only one of them. So the fairly tranquil 217 is right next to the even more tranquil rang St-Marc and a couple of other roads like it. Of course, it turned out that the 217 was closed for paving and the traffic was detoured on rang St-Marc. Still I probably saw a total of 5 cars from St-Philippe to St-Cyprien, one of which was clearly on its way to the races at the Napierville Dragway, causing me to sing the theme song to “RuPaul’s Drag Race” repeatedly as I biked along.
At St-Cyprien I sent a “proof of life” text to my wife, refilled my bottles, and was disappointed to find that they don’t sell V8 at this gas station, only the much more expensive and inferior Mott’s Garden Cocktail. I contemplated the display of St-Guillaume cheese curds by the cash register, also not my favorite, decided that I didn’t really need the electrolytes that badly, and settled on an ice cream cone. Back on the road to eat the ice cream and head south after one of my trademark “très courtes pauses au contrôle”, probably 5 minutes at the most! Here, the 217 becomes decidedly small, and there’s no need or possibility to take any alternate roads. Occasionally a “maison ancestrale” goes by, built surprisingly close to the side of the road. There’s also some intensive agriculture which I had only ever seen early in the season – meticulously leveled beds of deep black soil, followed a few weeks later by mystery shoots. This time, in July, the sight and smell was unmistakeable – an onion farm!
There is something reassuring about a deeply familiar stretch of road – much like how coming home on a road trip always seems to go faster. At this point, I remembered exactly where the eggs and honey were for sale, the abandoned and overgrown corn crib, the one slight bend in the road, and I knew exactly where to expect the turnoff onto the random rail-trail that would take me to the banks of the Richelieu. Well, except that I forgot that it was after the road to Lacolle, and got confused enough to actually have to look at the map on my phone. Oops.
Usually a rail-trail is something I avoid like the plague, because it’s surfaced with slow gravel and takes the flattest, longest, most boring route from point A to point B. This one, however, is paved, and the view-obscuring trees that grow along it, which can make riding so monotonous, have the benefit of cutting the relentless wind which makes crossing the Montérégie such a chore at times. I know I’m not supposed to do this, but given that it was pretty empty, I felt free to crank up the speed and blast along at 32 km/h, and before I knew it I was turning onto the 202 to cross the Richelieu, which at this point is more like an extension of Lake Champlain. The bridge has a fantastic view of the lake and an old-fashioned turning railway bridge, but not much of a shoulder, so I didn’t feel like stopping to take a picture. There is actually a sidewalk on one side, but I’m glad I didn’t take it as people like to fish off of it and it wouldn’t be nice to buzz by them (they’d probably complain about “scaring the fish” or something). Next, a short false flat and a turn onto the 215, headed straight to the border, with a few hills and turns to remind you that you’re almost in Vermont.
At the tiny (but open 24 hours) Alburg-Noyan border crossing I encountered a stern guard of military demeanor who threw me for a loop by asking “have you ever been arrested or fingerprinted?” I think they fingerprinted me at the hospital when I was born, maybe, but I don’t know really… I pondered this for a second and replied “not as far as I know” causing him to bark back at me “if you had been arrested YOU WOULD KNOW IT”. No, sir, I have not, nor have I been refused entry to the USA! And then my passport was back in my hands and I was on my way, before 8:15, even a bit ahead of schedule. I resisted the temptation to ride into the abandoned (or maybe not?) missile site at the north end of Alburg and carried on through the sleepy town. As I turned onto West Shore Road, which I actually hadn’t ever ridden on before, the sun began to set, and I was able to get a fantastic picture, though not as fantastic as it looked in person. I also saw two herons wading by the shoreline.
After passing the turnoff for the amusingly named Isle La Motte and rejoining US 2, I turned on my lights as it was now getting quite dark. True to Schmidt’s own test results, the PV-8 produced a lot of light even at very low speeds with no noticeable drag, nearly as good as my old SON hub which I sold many years ago for no apparent reason. (Actually, true confession: aside from needing the money, the real reason was that it was a 36 hole hub and I felt like that was too many spokes for a front wheel. The new one is 32 spokes and in my more neurotic moments I ask myself if I really should have gone for 28).
Despite being pretty close to Burlington and something of a hot vacation spot, the Champlain Islands are really pretty empty and very quiet at night. I vaguely remembered that there were one or two stores on US2, but it seemed like I rode for a really long time before I finally got to one. I bought a pasta salad to eat later, chocolate milk to drink now, and a bottle of water, as the only bathrooms were outside porta-potties – thus, no tap to fill from. It’s a bit of a tradition that when I bike into the US, I buy the biggest can of the cheapest beer I can find and drink it at the end of the ride, but I wasn’t sure how much further I had to go so I told myself that if I saw another store I’d pick one up there. I rode on and sure enough I found the other store, where I bought a king can of Genessee Cream Ale and a bottle of seltzer, for a total of $2.47. Oh… pennies.
Suddenly, I realized that I had actually arrived in South Hero – on this part of the islands at least things seem to be pretty close together. I bumped along the gravel road to my sleep spot, drank the beer, ate the pasta salad, switched the SIM card in my phone and battled the very patchy T-Mobile reception until I finally fell asleep. It turns out that, had I left at 5AM, I probably would have made it to the festival on time, since I was able to cover 130km in 5:35 elapsed time, and the ride into Burlington was a scant 20km more.
The next morning, I woke up bolt awake around 5 and went down to the lake to watch the sun rise. After a long breakfast with a lot of coffee, I finally rolled out at 9:30 to try to catch the first ferry. The route to the bike ferry was well marked with little “bike ferry this way” signs along the back roads. Finally they pointed me onto a one-lane gravel road which lead straight onto the Colchester causeway.
The causeway itself is quite incredible, as it really is built out of huge blocks of marble – perhaps they had a special on it at the quarry when they were building the railroad? The breakwaters in the Burlington waterfront seem to be made out of the same stuff. Some of the blocks of marble have carvings on them as well, though I only saw one or two.
I got to the ferry dock, where a Korean bike tourist and a couple of Québecois cyclos (with matching bikes, of course) were waiting for the ferry to make its way over. They had recently upgraded it to a new boat with space for a lot of bikes, reminiscent of the little navettes fluviales that go from Lachine to Châteauguay, though a much, much shorter ride… about 5 minutes or less. You even get valet service for your bike! I bid farewell to my nautical companions and headed down the causeway towards Burlington, hoping to get there by 11. Unfortunately after emerging into the suburb of Colchester the signage for the path to Burlington is very confusing and I ended up going the wrong way along a different path for a few minutes.
Once I got out of the suburbs and across the very fancy elevated stretch of path and the new bridge over the Winooski River, the path became very easy to follow, and also quite busy. At one point I turned around to take a picture of the trail rules (which are remarkably well translated into French!) and a guy, who was in no danger of hitting me, zipped by yelling “idiot” at me. My faith in humanity was thankfully restored when, after pulling out my phone to check the time, I accidentally dropped it on the trail and a jogger turned around and picked it up for me (it didn’t even break, though the battery popped out…)
Just as I was pulling up to the festival site, around 11:15, I got a call from the friends I was meeting, who had also just shown up. It was time to drink some beer!