Three NCC members met up at the Sunderland Library on the morning of Sunday, September 18, 2022 to try a challenging unofficial gravel ride on a 40 mile, 3000 foot route though Wendell, MA.
Wendell had long been an area I was yet to explore, and so I was quite intrigued to discover an existing NCC gravel route that went there, but noticed it reprised badly washboarded Pratt Corner Road, which always seems to take far more out of me than the distance and actual climb warrants. Since I’d bailed out of a previous northbound unofficial club gravel ride by shortcutting to Jennison Road, Lake Wyola, Rattlesnake, and the Teawaddle Trail, I realized that could work again, created a route variation which did so, and announced a ride.
Conceptual plans are one thing, GPX files another, and what happens on the actual ride day yet a third. Assorted prep issues including deciding to sit down and write out a cue sheet on an index card just in case my phone died meant I headed out from Northampton a bit later than planned, and still feeling the previous day’s Saturday C miles rolled into our Sunderland Library meeting point five minutes behind schedule. But my companions were forgiving, and we soon set out on paving, in search of our first true gravel.
Alas it seems, my primary sin was not tardiness, but somehow misplacing a mouse click. We entered a park in Sunderland and circled both ways around a pavilion, but could not find the promised way north (it didn’t help that GPS was reporting our position at places entirely in conflict with facts on the ground). Finally after rebooting phones, in desperation we descended a rugged staircase to a visible paved road that would pick up the next gravel segment – and re-examining things later at home, I’d learn we should have been on that paved road all along! (I’ve since corrected the published route)
The Mount Toby forest when we finally entered it properly was both appealing, and challenging. I’d call it more the sort of mountain bike trail one can provisionally attempt on a gravel bike, rather than an actual gravel route.
We found only a few downed trees, but plenty of rocky patches and roots and momentarily steep climbs. As I remarked to another rider “now I understand why your shock absorbing stem is useful” – though fortunately some intentional effort to “float” a bit more gave my hands some desperately needed relief. A few months ago, I wouldn’t have considered that my bike could do any of this, but buying some used beater MTB wheels to move my gravel tires to has been liberating. Still my tubed 37’s felt like the minimum – this section with its countless rocks and roots would be a lot more fun on something tubeless in the mid-40’s!
Ultimately, my opinion is that the initial Mount Toby section of this ride is something that needs to be considered distinctly from the rest. Yes, one can persevere on a gravel bike, but the reality is that the steep and technical descent around mile 4-5 is something that calls for big mountain bike tires, flat bars, and capable brakes. That we got down it by a combination of riding and walking our gravel bikes is a testament to luck and the judgement of knowing when to quit, rather than skill. I’ll take pride in the spots where I was able to “send it” on briefly punchy climbs where others walked, but I’m not going to engage in correspondingly egotistical foolishness on a descent.
And while those climbs entertained differences of opinion, the final steep descents until we broke out momentarily again on paving were something else again – none of us even briefly considered trying to ride all of that!
Fortunately, after the technical Mount Toby section, things reverted to much more conventional gravel. Cranberry Pond was picturesque and I wished we’d felt we had time to stop. Subsequent Jackson Hill Road is a truly first class road – to be sure, unpaved, but still smooth, well bound with clay, and free of washboarding, so if bypassing Mount Toby, that’s the spot where you want to join the route. While the initial segment does climb, that’s implicit in the geography of the area – would you rather summit Cave Hill Road past the Peace Pagoda? Been there, done that, was glad to merely cross the subsequent descent already halfway down today.
I probably should have been clearer in the moment that where our route almost touched its return could have provided an opportunity to detour to the Leverett Coop, alas I assumed the notes in the published route made that implicit, so our ride pushed on up paved but substantially climbing Chestnut Hill Road. Shortly after a sign indicating some property for sale potentially interesting to one of our riders, that finally turned back to gravel and we headed north, uphill, into Wendell proper.
The mostly gravel roads of the northeastern loop through Wendell were absolutely everything that a gravel ride should be – well packed, isolated in the woods, sufficiently bound by clay and moisture, and providing an ideal balance of challenging climb and refreshing descent. While at first I’d worried about how far away our first potential for refill at the Wendell Store actually was, as we passed paved bailout after paved bailout with no one voting to divert, I began to realize that route was actually going to work out. Soon, we broke out on a brief but steep paved climb, ground up it, and turned south on a momentary diversion to the store.
You never know what you’re going to find at these rural village, convenience, and co-op stores. Many may appreciate interesting baked goods and treats, but honestly, I have the calories in my bar or trunk bag already, I’m just looking for the weight I can’t afford to carry – a big jug of water that can refill my whole ride. And fortunately, unlike at the Cummington Co-op yesterday, at the Wendell Country Store I not only found a gallon of water, but at an entirely reasonable price. Actually, on a cooler day and with just three of us, a gallon was more than we needed, but in terms of both single use plastic resources and cash outlay it drastically beat buying and trashing several smaller bottles.
From the Wendell Store we had to return north to Cooleyville, and then pick up Jennison Road familiar from the previous Quabbin gravel ride bailout. Someday I’ll find out what the purpose of that humongous, absurdly thick-walled tank on its side by the road there is, for today, the agenda was more about pushing on with the ride. Jennison goes on longer than one might think, but it’s great gravel and finally exits at the northeast corner of Lake Wyola to begin a wonderful paved descent towards Moore’s Corner. I habitually advise people to take time to note how the stream has carved into the rocks to the south of the road, but the truth is you can’t really do that from the westbound lane – one would almost have to be climbing to take time to note that bit of the natural world.
There’d been some debate if Rattlesnake was actually a sound choice. I’d opinioned that, especially compared to some of what we’d already been down, it was more “loose” than “steep” but I was still assuming we’d stop at Moore’s Corner and the Leverett Coop and make a formal decision between Rattlesnake and North Leverett road. As we approached the store however, the rider who’d expressed concerns seemingly voted with his cadence, and charged off down the gravel – one can’t really weigh options in consultation with someone riding on ahead(!) Climbing rattlesnake we came upon a couple also on gravel bikes, and while there might have been a momentarily sense of competition or curiosity, they ultimately pulled aside for a tire issue – a shouted “you okay, need anything?” elicited a reply that they had sealant and a pump – I sure hope that worked, or if not they were also packing the backup tubes we were. Part of me feels that while it’s traditional to ask, it’s also culture to prematurely decline, and I wonder how many of those riders who thought they had what they needed ultimately found they did not. Still, you can only help those who ask or accept.
After Rattlesnake we had a brief paved and almost paceline workout through Leverett, until missing to the turn to Teawaddle trail. I got to laugh and shout this time, only because last time it had been I who’d missed it. At least this time I actually managed to identify (if also block) the narrow entrance to the actual trail, rather than try the sketchy descent from the parking lot just to the west.
But Teawaddle is tons of tun (even if out of focus to a phone camera while riding). It’s an actual forest trail not a doubletrack road, but it’s an easy one, with few rocks and roots or extreme grades. All too soon its magical interlude came to an end as we skirted right around a fallen log, crossed a meadow via the path trodden through the grass, and climbed past the Teawaddle Farm that’s granted the trail and conservation easement. A passing jogger made a comment about overgrowth and was surprised when we reported no issues, perhaps getting though is not actually something that should be counted on (?). But I also noticed another trail exiting to the road just to the west, so there may be more options there to explore.
Our final last bit of gravel attempted to transit Juggler Meadow Road and then go north on Huckle Hill. On the computer, that’s what works, but in practice northbound Huckle Hill was blocked by an impressive dirt pile. I rode up it, and not only did the way ahead look clear, but there were no “no trespassing signs” however I could see on my map that there was a creek ahead, and one can never know the state of bridges on a blocked “road”.
Nervermind that I’d momentarily and comically gotten myself stuck on top, it seemed more sensible to instead take the other part of Huckle HIll west towards route 116. And while I’d hoped to have a quieter route back, it was pointed out that 116 would return us to the Sunderland Library, so we ultimately stayed on the ample if unappealing shoulder of that busy road.
After wrapping up the 41 mile, 58% gravel group portion to the Sunderland Library, I still needed to return to Northampton and decided to do so not only by exploring a few of the roads we’d skipped, but also by trying the trail from Mount Warner back down to the river. I plotted myself a route back via South Silver Lane, North Plain, and South Plain Roads. Anyone want a free fluid trainer? I evaluated one left on the curb and gave serious consideration to strapping it to my rack for the winter, but given I still had a bit of unpaved agenda ahead, ultimately opted out. Gravel Shattuck Road has sat there beside countless rides, and today I had both the tires and already in-need-cleaning chain to try it, so I did. What can I say? It’s a little bit of dusty gravel, like any other.
After getting passed by a rider in (I was sad to see) Joe’s Garage (rather than NCC) kit, I turned and ground up Mount Warner road towards my final goal of the day, the trailhead that would connect back down to the river.
Trails get all sorts of odd names for interesting reasons, but let’s just say that truth in advertising standards would mandate that this one be called the Brier Snagger Trail – because while the at times rooty underlying surface was nothing compared to what we’d seen on Mount Toby, and the degree of encroaching vegetation wasn’t all that bad… that encroaching vegetation had thorns! It’s enough to make you want to turn a pair of old Levi’s into riding chaps, and wonder why exactly cowboys were always shouting yipeeieiee! Any thoughts on the practicality of hauling a string trimmer by bike?
Anyway, suffice to say that the Mount Warner – CT River trail will probably NOT be appearing on another ride plan soon. But the Wendell loop? Albeit perhaps without the Mount Toby portion, that has potential!