Although not an official club event, 5 NCC Members met in front of the Whately Town Hall on Sunday 8/28/22 for a 29 mile gravel ride.
After an initial rider meeting to discuss routing options and people’s comfort with potential singletrack (we did none) and hike-a-bike sections (only one short stretch) we set off south and turned onto Mountain Road to head west into the hills on our first proper gravel segment.
This lead to Rocks Road, which I’d warned would get rough and likely result in some hike-a-bike. But fortunately we had near perfect gravel riding conditions – reasonable temperatures, but even better a long spell of drought had been broken by just a little bit of rain late this week, so while the ground had just enough moisture in it to hold the looser sections together and mean that (even when cars passed) we didn’t face any airborne dust at all, the part of Rocks Road that is notoriously often found to be more stream than track was completely dry. And much to my pleasant surprise, that section proved almost all rideable with determination – while three walked the brief steeper and rocky pitch, two of us were able to pedal all but two very short spots of it, one where some bits of log blocked the best line through the rocks, and other other being the large step formed by a corrugated metal pipe that crosses the track.
Rocks Road came out at the Mountain Street Reservoir, where we crossed the paved road and began the classic Adams – Depot – Nash Hill loop, comprising some paved climb followed by some mostly level or slightly descending gravel.
Until coming out at the base of the West Whately Reservoir.
Although I’d planned the route to ascend the unpaved Poplar Hill Road which eventually yields to a track, the only one of our number to have tried that previously thought it was a bit singletracky, so out of interest of time, we opted for the paved road climb past the dam instead – though I mean to return sometime and sample that when free to do so in “adventure mode”. Additionally one of our number with time constraints opted to split off and return from West Whately via the gentle gravel descent of Conway Road.
After the road climb and some rolling hills we took a right onto Roaring Brook Road which in many ways was the “gravel highlight” of the day – fun downhills, followed by some short and notable but manageable climbs. At one point it looks like you’re going to have to keep going up, but that’s the right onto South Part Road, while our route instead lead left remaining on Roaring Brook. There was also an estate sale going on at a house on the road, so atypically we had a few cars approaching us to deal with – a little tricky when met oncoming while descending where the ground to the right of the packed tire track has much looser material. Eventually Roaring Brook crests a final rise and becomes paved, but yields to a quintessential New England farm vista.
After a brief bit on paved 116, we took a careful left onto Graves Road. The driver immediately behind us on the curving 116 descent had been hesitant to pass, so ultimately when I realized they just weren’t going to I took advantage of that and took the lane early to prepare the turn, though I could see in my mirror a string of 5 or so cars bottled up behind them. There was no traffic ascending the hill, so we made the turn to Graves easily – oddly one of the cars followed us, then pulled a U-turn back to the road. The loop up Graves and down Boyden doesn’t really accomplish anything other than being some easy and enjoyable mild gravel, so I polled the group about bypassing it, but everyone was on board so we rode it.
That then yielded via a bit of paved Mathew Road to Hoosac Road, which was paved far longer than I’d remembered, though ultimately at an abrupt right on the descent turned to dirt – and with a few choice holes to surprise anyone unwary, too! Sadly, somewhere on Hoosac we lost contact with the rider who had been in the lead, and when we didn’t find him upon exiting to pavement, we retraced back to the gravel fork and went the other way around the triangle, still to no avail. I remembered that I’d made a careless offhand comment about Hoosac “dumping out near the Stillwater Bridge” so although that was not on the route, the remaining three of us rode down there to look, but without success in finding our missing member. With people needing to get back, we figured he’d shown strong knowledge of the area earlier and was probably fine – I managed to leave voicemail, though trying to text our specific intentions eventually yielded a “failed to send error”.
But with obligations to keep there was little choice but to re-climb the hill from Stillwater. I’d originally planned to take us on a gravel section of Sand Gully Road, but where we passed that turnoff under the power lines no one seemed very enthusiastic, so we kept heading south on pavement. That’s really a beautiful area, and my comment about usually seeing it northbound on the way to Vermont via Greenfield triggered some interest in organizing a centurish ride that way this fall – want to come along?
Fortunately a few final rollers saw us back at the cars. Contemplating my apparently general texting failure, I toggled my phone into and back out of airplane mode, which got things unstuck, immediately yielding a couple of earlier texts from family, and finally the ability to exchange messages with our missing rider, who it turned out had just decided to go on ahead on his own and wound up his ride enjoyably.
Of the three of us then present, two loaded their bikes into cars, while I set off to ride back home to Northampton, in the process transiting a bit of Pantry Road for the third time of the day(!). Given I had only part of one bottle left, and neither the frozen from previous night sandwich I’d consumed during the ride, nor the cliff bar I’d gobbled at the conclusion was quite feeling restoring, initially figured I’d better keep things simple with a Route 5 return. Definitely appreciated having the gravel tires mounted when negotiating some of the roadwork bypassing Hatfield. But fearing I might come back with almost but not quite 50 miles on the dial, decided maybe I’d risk a side adventure via Linseed, Coles Meadow, and the single-track Swamp Forest Trail after all.
Swamp Forest has rockier and rootier stretches at about the limit of what I consider rideable on my gravel bike, and that’s already a drastic increase from just a few months ago when I would have preemptively walked much of what it holds. But unlike the Marion Street or Halfway Brook trails there are relatively few stretches of alarmingly sharp rocks, though I was somewhat emboldened by having moved my bike’s gravel tires to a set of bargain used mountain bike wheels when I put road tires on the wheels it came with. Ultimately I had to dismount at one climby stretch of rocks and roots where after putting a foot down an ill-advised attempt to “rewind” a pedal dropped the chain, but other than that everything was either ridden, or pushed through with a few footsteps while still straddling the bike. Still I have to remember that some of the more low lying sections might be a bit wet and squishy if it hadn’t been so dry – presumably they call it the “swamp” forest for a reason – but now that I know it’s do-able on a gravel bike and not just an old MTB, the way it forms a fairly substantial bypass of Route 5 means I’d like to try to work it into a group ride plan soon.
Apart from the forest single track there was also some overgrown meadow.
I’d earlier sprayed my legs with some picaridin insect repellent (basically synthetic essence of hot peppers, which theoretically won’t damage performance fabrics, paint, bar tape, etc, though seems to be leaving pink stains on my socks) and offered the bottle around (no takers) so didn’t feel too bad about this bit of bicycle bushwhacking, but it still warranted both a quick tick check upon returning to the forest, and a more serious one back home – both fortunately negative. And if you have to exit a ride low on supplies and hungry, there are worse places to do so than to come out behind Walmart – though fortunately I didn’t need to stop and could complete the final bit home.
Group Ride: 29.4 miles, 12.7 gravel (maybe 100 yards walked by most) and 16.7 paved since we ultimately bypassed some of the planned gravel parts.