There’s an ache in all of us for freedom. To step out through the door and feel the wind whispering past our ears as energy surges through our bodies. For those that practice it, bikepacking is the purest form of escape – and they never really need a reason to hit the open road or trail.
When adventure calls, it’s only a matter of time before you’re compelled to answer. Once AJ Powell got it in his head to ride from home to the Atlantic Ocean, wending through the New England countryside with a couple of friends, the idea was unshakeable.
Three friends, four days, 255 miles — one unifying journey from Lake to Sea.
There is something incredibly romantic about travelling from point to point, away from main roads, with a few of your friends, stopping in small town and general store after small town and general store. You see the world differently by bike, and even on a few-day trip, you can take in more than you’d absorb on a week-long trip by car.
If ever there was a place tailor-made for taking on these types of bike routes, it’s Northern New England - USA. Beautiful dirt roads, rail trails, single track, woodland double tracks and generally less busy paved roads make it a route planner’s dream. When I started looking at a few long-distance routes to take on late in 2021, I came across a series of rail trails and dirt roads that connected much of the distance between my hometown of Burlington, VT and the seaside city of Portland, Maine. It was a slightly meandering route, but what good cycling route doesn’t meander at least a little bit.
I’m sure a few beers were involved in convincing my friends and colleagues Chase Pellerin (photographer/designer) and Tanner Bowden (writer/photographer) to join me in the endeavour. I don’t really remember the moment that we decided to actually take on the trip — probably because there wasn’t one. I think it was more or less understood that I wasn’t yielding on the concept and that attendance was mandatory.
Before I knew it we were packing our bags, tuning our bikes and getting our first taste of gravel as the long road opened up before us.
Our first day took us from the shores of Lake Champlain at Burlington’s Oak Ledge Park to the state’s capital of Montpelier (before you read that with its namesake’s French pronunciation, Vermonters say Mont-peely-er). Anxious minds and fresh legs propelled us down some of the most beautiful dirt roads in the state. Our hydration plan was airtight, our fuelling consistent — there was nothing that could stand in the way of knocking out the miles.
Day two was greeted with sore legs and grogginess — a theme that would recur throughout our ride. The day kicked off with a pastry and a coffee to fill the stomach and shake the haze in our heads, followed promptly by a punchy little terror of a climb, and some of the more exhausting surfaces we’d experienced, and it ended with grogginess-inducing beers and pizza.
Legs, grogginess, pastries, coffee — we settled into a routine. A healthy mix of coffee, Skratch and meat sticks (locally made in Vermont) powered us through the White Mountains on day three, past a good sized black bear, skirting the Presidentials and across our second state border of the trip.
The final day of our journey began with a pre-sunrise wakeup, minimal breakfast, and a cold descent down from Sunday River into Bethel towards our final destination of Portland on the Atlantic Ocean. It was our longest ride (each day progressively pushed the envelope), but some of the best conditions we had all trip. Beautiful sunrise and brisk morning temperatures gave way to picking our way around lake after lake on our way to the coast.
Our arrival in Portland was met with a cool ocean breeze — a welcome reprieve from the mid-to-high-80s Fahrenheit that we’d experienced up to that point. A spin down the Eastern Promenade Trail brought us to Fish Point, where we descended a short rock slap and dipped our wheels in the ocean. We were two hours ahead of our expected arrival, which left plenty of time for a celebratory beer. Not much was said in those moments, but we all knew exactly how the others were feeling.
What better way to cap my 30th year than with a four-day ride to the coast. A crucial miscalculation on day one resulted in some pretty serious sunburn on my arms, but after that everything was gravy. We had zero mechanicals — zero. Not a single flat or leak, though I did have plugs ready in the event of one, which is probably what scared them off.
It’s also worth noting how friendly everyone we encountered was. It’s a stereotype of Vermont and broader New England, but everyone was genuinely lovely. Lots of inquiries as to where we were going and what we were doing at every general store and small town. And always willing to show us to the back where we could fill up our bidons.
Only in New England can you traverse three states in a mere four days on a bicycle. This makes the place seem small, but from the saddle, I discovered that the region, which I’ve called home for decades, packs more into a small space than I ever imagined. The mountains in Vermont are different from the mountains in New Hampshire and those of Maine; each river we crossed or rode alongside was distinct; and every town, however small – some seemed to be nothing more than a general store and a post office – has its own character.
Our journey convinced me that the only way to really understand this is to travel by bike. Our bikes allowed us to move quickly enough through the landscape for its changes to be apparent and provided us access to byways that you can’t travel by car. It’s reassuring to know that we only saw a small slice of it all too – there are plenty of other routes and rail trails scattered across this region that, on a map at least, look deceptively small.
I had never ridden more than 35 miles in a single day, used cycling shoes, worn a bib, nor uttered the phrase “chamois cream” before this trip. I trained out of fear for a month or so prior to our departure knowing that I would be in deep sh*t without it. The dual leaders in front of me were kind in their pacing and gracefully waited for me on top of every ascent.
I enjoyed the science and necessity behind the constant fuel consumed. It made me feel like some unqualified experiment, but the results were there — I didn’t even come close to bonking, even if I was regularly dusted on the trail. I like to think my multiple falls were less due to clumsiness or turning too sharply on what I was told was “cabbage”, but simply a reminder from the cycling gods to keep me humble.
Even if I still look like a half-filled doughnut in Alt_Road cycling kit, I feel confident and look forward to hitting the road again soon, as long as I have my team there to lift the over-packed bike off of me.
Bears Seen: 1
Elevation Gained: 11,637 ft (3,546.95 m)
Miles Traveled: 254.72mi (410km)
Items Lost: lens cap, rear light
Beers Consumed: 18
Pastries Consumed: 14