Today my friend Ornoth and I cycled some 70 miles around Jay Peak, Vermont. The route included both of Jay’s highest peaks: Big Jay and North Jay, and at our highest point, we were 2300ft above sea level. With over 6100ft of climbing in total, and two Category 2 ascents, it was in some ways the most challenging ride I’ve ever done. It was also the closest I’ve come to riding in a foreign country; at times we were less than one mile from the Canadian border!
Our ride started and stopped in the town of Newport, Vermont, which sits at the southern end of Lake Memphremagog. The weather today was less than ideal: low 60’s with dense cloud cover and a stiff 17mph easterly wind during the good parts, and low 50’s and wind-blown downpours during the bad. Still, we both had an excellent time and enjoyed the scenery, challenges, and fresh air that northern Vermont offered.
We started out heading south / southwest from Newport towards Big Jay. We must have passed a dozen dairy farms, and by mile 18 we were turning onto the road that would take us to the summit of Jay’s largest peak. That first climb was a serious test, and the most difficult ascent I had completed to date. A false summit approximately 85% up the mountain made for a heartbreaking realization: the last 0.6 miles to the real summit pitched up to a 13% grade. Some raindrops began to fall as I reached the top and waited for Orny to make his way up.
Due the the cloud cover, there wasn’t much of a view from the top, but it was still very satisfying to reflect on the climb and talk about the impending descent. The next 5.5 miles were going to be a free ride at 40mph+. As we clipped in to begin our way down, the skies opened up and a steady rain quickly developed — adding an increased element of danger to our high-speed departure from Big Jay.
Just a half mile into the rainy descent, I encountered my first ever wild black bear. He was standing in the middle of the road, on all fours, about 200 yards downhill from me. Between my nerves, high rate of speed, and the wet pavement, a controlled stop was a pretty ambitious goal. I locked my rear wheel at least once; the thought running through my mind, “If you go down, you’re going to be a bear snack.” Luckily, I managed to stop upright, and the subsequent “Holy shit!” that escaped my mouth sent the bear lumbering into the woods along the side of the road. I only saw him for 10-15 seconds, but I’ll probably never forget that encounter.
At mile 28, we were out of Jay State Forest and arrived in the town of Montgomery. Freezing cold from the long, wet, brisk and bumpy descent, hot coffee from the general store was well-deserved and totally hit the spot. We were out of the rain, for the time being, and began the most enjoyable stretch of the ride along routes 118 and 105. Gentle rollers with river views, smooth surface, and a strong tail wind were welcome rewards. Our average speed increased to 18mph for this section of the ride, and we were able to do a little drafting work while sharing our observations on the scenery. Then came climb #2..
On mile 42, the rollers we had been enjoying for the last 14 miles were swallowed by a massive 6% grade furnished with some terribly neglected surface. It was the first leg of North Jay, that would prove to be the more difficult of the two major ascents we undertook today: 7.5 miles in total, 1900ft of vertical climbing, and an average grade of 6.5%. What really surprised me about this climb, aside from the duration, was the consistency of it. The last 5 miles had absolutely no breaks, rests, etc.. nothing shy of a 5.5% reprieve from the 7-9% norm. Too long to sit the entire time, and not quite steep enough to warrant being out of the saddle, this was a marathon and a definite test of stamina. The summit offered no scenic view, no visitors center, not even a porta-potty. A small dirt turnaround on the side of the road, huddled in low clouds, marked our achievement. We were less than a mile from the Canadian border. My phone picked up an international tower and prompted me to select roaming rates, as confirmation.
Just like the descent from Big Jay, once we started down the back side of North Jay, the rain moved in once again — much heavier this time, too. For the first mile, we were shrouded in clouds and fog and had only a couple hundred feet of visibility. I actually had a blast, having conquered my fear of descending at 40mph on wet, unfamiliar roads. But I think Ornoth didn’t enjoy it as much; I finished the descent several minutes ahead of him. Completely drenched and in the middle of nowhere, we joked about our decision to do the ride in the first place as we turned onto Rt 101 North with about 16 miles to go.
The final leg of the ride was unfortunately not as enjoyable as the previous sections. No major hills or rough surfaces challenged our spirits, but a steady rain and a stiff head wind made for a slow, cold slog back to Newport. The rain did subside as we crossed the Newport town line, and the final 1.5 miles around the southwestern shore of Lake Memphremagog were dry and scenic. Arriving back at my truck parked at the waterfront, we happily changed out of our wet kits and into some dry street clothes. Ride complete, bikes in tact, riders tired but uninjured. Success!
I will ride Vermont again next weekend in the Harpoon B2B, but I’m really glad we made the trip to Stowe and conquered Jay Peak.