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WORDS: Pierre Vanden Borre | PHOTOS: Brian Vernor
Climbing is difficult. For many, those first encounters with hills come early in life. A reluctant BMX ride to a friend’s house or mini-mart perched atop the neighborhood’s highest ‘mountain’. During these formative experiences, the hill is an unwanted obstacle between you and your destination. And that’s all it is, an inconvenience. Only years later, when you make that transition from bike rider to ‘cyclist’, does the lifelong love affair with climbing begin, one of pain, euphoria and every emotion in between. Then, the hill is transformed. No longer a mere obstacle, it becomes a challenge; not something to avoid or skirt, rather something to tackle head on. Now, routes are selected precisely because they do have hills, not because they don't. As this love of the incline grows, so the relationship is tested. Every rider will meet a climb, sometimes over and again, which has them slipping, regressing, back to that impression formed in childhood: Going up is hard, why do it if you don’t have to? This default viewpoint is so deeply rooted that it can be hard to relinquish. Climbing is difficult, often very difficult. Six Gap is the perfect ride to explore climbing’s inherent contradictions - the desire to challenge ourselves as cyclists versus our animal instinct to avoid pain and suffering.
Between the gaps, a number of sections of road are perfect for cruising. Taking in the resplendent country, the surroundings and sensations they provoke feel easy and right. Moments of pure harmony, of bike and road, universally loved by all who come and sample Vermont’s finest back routes. But always, those moments are punctuated by cruel, punishing steeps. Minutes, sometimes hours, when the scenery fades back, distorted by sweat and dirt, when the only thing to look at is the road just below your front wheel, five feet at time. Forcing yourself forward against the seemingly never-ending gradient, it hits you. You’ve been looking forward to this horrible experience for weeks. And when it’s finished, you’ll remember it not as it really was, painful and excruciating, but as something profound and rewarding, possibly even a good time.
Not everyone wants to spend his or her free time this way. Co-workers, non-riders, on hearing that you’re headed to Vermont for a weekend in June, say things like: “How nice, it’s beautiful up there.” They’re thinking, of course, of the cows, the farmland, the antiques, this new country idyll. ‘You’ll have a wonderful time,” they say. But when they learn you’re off on yet another ride, one that includes climbing, they wonder why you’re not heading for the coast, for a relaxing summer day at the beach? But as a cyclist, you know that beauty is more than just postcard scenery and perfect weather. While those things play a part, you know that without difficulty and struggle the experience is incomplete. Theirs is a passive appreciation.
Robert Frost, a poet with ties to Vermont and the Six Gap region in particular, is often perceived to be a nature poet who wrote about the quaint, pastoral nature of New England. In fact, the harshness of the natural world is a theme that runs throughout Frost’s literary visions. Perhaps there are parallels between his perspective and that of the cyclist, the desire to reconcile beauty and pain.
Riding up hills on a bicycle is an experience as much felt as seen or done. Exposed to the weather from every direction, in every form, the rider is forced to take it all in, to absorb everything and reformulate the relationship between the elements. The perfect June weather and pretty farm world isn’t nearly so straightforward for the cyclist. In the early morning light, that gloriously blue sky full of magnificent, cumulous clouds, is the very same sky holding the sun. Though it has yet to reach its zenith, it is a sun that cooks, burns and boils. And the ocean of wooded hills, stretching as far as the eye can see, rolling and heaving across the countryside is, to the rider, a preview of the gaps. The pain they bring has yet to arrive – but it’s coming. When it reaches you, the intensity of the effort makes living and being in the moment the only option. Down to the ounce, down to the chromosome. It makes everything more special and more beautiful. After all, no act in cycling is more intense than riding up hills. Climbing is difficult, and that’s good.