Ted King leaned in and whispered, conspiratorially. “Don’t be obvious, but I’m pretty sure that’s Mike Powers.”
I turned, as discreetly as I could, and scanned the other patrons in the bakery, where we’d met Ted for some coffee, breakfast, and a chat. For a quiet town consisting of little more than three storefronts on a corner, it was getting busy. People were lining up behind us, or tucking themselves into corners to avoid blocking the door. Young. Old. Single. Couples. Families. Everyone fashionable enough that we could have easily been in a bustling cafe in a vibrant city. Instead of this sleepy traffic light next to a river. The smell of coffee and bread was strong and good. Flaky pastries crusted with slivered almonds and what looked to be the perfect amount of gloriously hardened icing stared at us from the glass case. Young men and women bustled about in back, baking things that I desperately wanted to eat.
I inspected everyone carefully, hoping that something in a pair of eyes, crooked mouth, or sunburned nose would stand out. And while there were dull chimes of familiarity in a few faces, nothing was ringing an actual bell… as to who the eff this “Mike Powers” might be.
The name sounded familiar. But I couldn’t place it. Was he a racer? A builder? Some legend of the cycling world that, if I was really half as invested in the sport as I pretend to be, would be instantly recognizable? A “Holy shit, you’re right! That IS Mike Powers!” kind of moment.
But I had nothing.
So what I did was… I totally pretended to know who Ted was talking about. Hoping that by playing out this charade I could fake my way to some eventual clarity on the matter. Or at least stall until I could google it in the restroom in a few minutes.
“Hmmm. Maybe?” I murmured back. Vague. Neutral. Safe.
Dorothy leaned in between us and quietly whispered. “You… mean Mike Myers?”
I’d been looking forward to Rooted Vermont for a while. Ever since I saw the first hints of it on social media. Not long ago, I’d gotten in my van and traveled up to New England to finally ride Kingdom Trails and explore the area. I’d returned home wanting more of everything the region had to offer. My partner, Dorothy, had grown up in New York and split her time as an undergrad between Scotland and Amherst, MA. Spending the time she wasn’t studying tromping around in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Paddling its rivers. Drinking its craft beers. Always telling me about how much she missed it and how much I would love it. I knew I would. No, it’s not the vast red rock desert that I dream about… all the time. But it is, for lack of a better description… fucking magical. It is. It just… is. It’s green. Beautiful. Quiet. Quaint. And more than that, it was everything I needed at the moment. It was mountains. Rivers. Wildflowers. Barns. Ferns. Sunshine. It was cool mornings. Brilliant evenings. It was that bizarre spectacle of grown ass adults wandering past perfectly good bars to order maple flavored soft serve. It was quiet roads. Hidden trails. Swimming holes. And did I mention rivers? The kind with sun-warmed rocks and cold waterfalls. Where you can pull off on the side of the road and jump in without reservation.
But more than anything… it was away.
It’s no secret… that I struggle with place.
Specifically, I struggle with feeling at home in a place. Any place, really, but particularly with the place I currently am. A not-so-small city smack in the middle of North Carolina. I struggle to feel motivated. Moved. Positive. Content. Alive. I struggle… to feel pretty much anything that isn’t a mounting panic at the possibility that instead of the pit-stop it was always supposed to be, this might very well be where I inadvertently spend my last days on earth.
What was supposed to be a glossed-over backstory became a setting. A minor anecdote became the plot. And what should have been a footnote became the entire theme of a book that I hadn’t intended to write. Not here, anyway.
I needed to get away. And feel something. It had been too long.
As with any event more than seven hours away, we decided to make the trip into a week long adventure, driving just a few hours a day and finding recreation at various trailheads and rivers and dive-bars along the way. Ideally, we’d have taken more time, but that was hard to justify. My mom had been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation in the weeks leading up to the event and things weren’t going well. Additionally, it meant that the shop would be largely unattended during my absence. Leaving seemed ill-advised… And selfish. It wasn’t until we were somewhere north of our second state line that I felt anything inside me start to relax. We worked our way north slowly… trying to clear our heads with rides and runs during the day… and playing the ever popular game of “I wonder who else is having sex in this Wal-Mart Parking lot” at night.
We arrived at Cochran Ski Area early Friday afternoon. Found a decent place to park for the night. Said hi to Ted and Laura. Met the Mike from SRAM who I’d been corresponding with regarding a bike. And rode immediately over to HATCHET for a beer. There we talked with some riders, avoided others, and basked in the idea of living somewhere like Richmond. From there we went with our new friend Joe to Stone Corral Brewing, just down the road, decided we wanted to drink more beers from HATCHET… and finally rode home in the dark… comfortably full. Sipping rye whiskey in the van and reading Zadie Smith before drifting off to sleep.
New England was putting on gravel events before “gravel” was even a word people used with a straight face. Multi-surface randonnees that wound through hills and farmland. Past the omnipresent rock walls bisecting a time before. Pavement turning to dirt turning to a path before turning back to pavement. People showed up on their 26 inch rigid mountain bikes. Road bikes with 700×23 tires and caliper brakes. Or bridging that gap with their cross bike. It was less a transformative soul-searching adventure that purified the riders and left them basking in the afterglow of some entitled bravery… and more just a really hard day on the bike that everyone relished.
Rooted was going to continue that tradition… and also open Vermont up to a whole new cross section of riders just now discovering the beauty of the road less traveled. There would be two routes, 48 or 82 miles. Each under the umbrella of #1 on the “Rules” page. “Mullet protocol.” Business in Front, Party in Back. My own mullet instinctively wanted in.
Back in the spring, I’d been fortunate enough to help interview Ted and Laura for the Bikerumor Podcast. We talked about the event and its origins. What to expect. And what had motivated them to ultimately put it on. All of which circled very much back to that idea of “place.” Aside from being a play on the terrain, on the ubiquitous roots that characterize much of the landscape and trails, the name “Rooted” was very much about this notion of feeling at home. Of feeling willfully bound to a place. Ted had grown up in the area and as much time as he spent away during his pro-racing career, he could still feel that in his blood. Laura… was coming around. Originally form Washington, she’d spent the last number of years in California. I asked her about an article I’d read where she had mentioned a particularly hard moment she’d experienced returning from a trip to SoCal. How they’d landed in Burlington to snow and bitter cold, and how she’d been unable to stop the tears of panic and sadness that overwhelmed her. Could she handle this, much less embrace it? I got that. I’d lived in SoCal for a little while… in the sleepy beach town of San Clemente. Days were perpetually sunny and temperate. Cold and rain being outliers. And while I’d certainly spent a few winter mornings bundled on the beach in a hoodie and jacket, waiting for the tide to change at T-Street and turn shore break into something ridable… That was the exception. Not the rule.
But Ted loved Vermont. And she loved Ted. And it was starting to grow on her. Hanging up her trainers for a pair of snow-shoes and cross country skis. Finding comfort in the dark. And even in the cold.
Until Summer, at least. Vermont is pretty easy to embrace in the summer.
Unlike some events that begin at hours so wee your circadian rhythms barely have time to process what you’ve done to them, the start of Rooted was a decadently reasonable 8am. By the the time we rolled out, I’d had ample time to lazily sip multiple cups of coffee. Eat freshly prepared eggs. Shave my neck fuzzies. Stare balefully at neighbors. And take the minimum morning recommendation of five healthy bowel movements. That’s healthy, right? Five?
Originally I’d intended to just ride my Keith Haring inspired Niner RLT steel. Singlespeed. Maybe I would change the gearing to something more appropriate for the course… but probably not. Then SRAM reached out to me about testing out a new Gravel specific handlebar that ZIPP would be unveiling soon. Along with the new SRAM etap AXS. Yeah… I could do that. The beauty of AXS is that it could very easily be installed on any bike with minimal labor, but they opted to send me a fully assembled Giant Revolt. My first ride on which was 82 miles of Rooted Vermont. I adjusted the seat post for the first time as I straddled the bike that morning next to other riders lined up at the start. Standing in the throng, I also checked the shifters. A green light in the front and a red light in the back. Damn. I thought I’d charged the batteries before leaving Greensboro days ago, but apparently not. So I dismounted and easily swapped them, placing the front in the rear and the rear in the front, figuring that if I did shift, it would likely be the rear derailleur.
Luddite tendencies aside, electronic shifting has never been a thing I’ve really considered. It’s as interesting to me as a nice suit. Or expensive fondue. Paying for a haircut. Deodorant. I’m sure it’s good and all… but I have other priorities. Other things I’m interested in that I would rather explore.
But I admit… SRAM AXS got me thinking.
I don’t remember much about the course. Meaning I couldn’t tell you elevation gain or grade or even when and where climbs or jeep roads or single track came in along the route. I just remember… that it was all so good. I remember vistas. Hollers. Winding hidden roads and exposed balds. I remember… saying “fuck yes” a lot. Like… a lot. Even if it had been pouring rain instead of blue skies and sunshine… it was everything I needed.
For Rooted, as with True Grit earlier in the spring, I’d let go of any ambitions to “race” and made the conscious decision to just… ride. To enjoy moving and not stress about place or speed or standing. More than anything, I just needed a long day on the bike. Far away from my everyday. The Giant behaved fine. It was light and responsive. The Zipp bar was comfortable and forgiving. The flared drops allowing good control on dicey descents. I was nervous about the non-tubeless tires, but I had no issues… even careening down the chundery jeep road after aid station one. And the AXS shifting was crisp and precise. Sure, I misshifted more than a few times. I’m a spaz. But who among us isn’t?
I finished the ride with my friend Jeff Brown, who I run into at events far and wide across the US. Crossing the finish line and feeling uncharacteristically fresh as I lay there in the soft grass. This not-racing thing is pretty swell.
Then I headed to the van to change… wet-wipe my nethers… and claim my complimentary beer and meal.
A Shout Out: Among the many things that stand out to me about Rooted, from the volunteers to the venue to the course to the general party atmosphere of the entire affair… is the food. I’ve been extremely fortunate to participate in countless events in various parts of the world. And without a doubt… the post race food at Rooted Vermont was the best I have ever had. Hands down.
We sat on the hillside with our food and beer, and basked in pockets of sunshine and shade. Watching riders roll in as we drank hazy IPA’s and considered thirds. Eventually, we collected some towels and more beers, and rode our Salsa Powderkeg down to the river. Snaking through a trail and across dodgy bridges. Finding a spot where the water was clear and fast. Taking turns floating on our backs and laughing as we drifted away. Watching the sun descend slowly into the trees. Feeling so full of sky and that it seemed impossible.
Whatever numerous things I don’t believe in, be it god or love or fate or any kind of underlying meaning to life… I very much believe in chemistry. In how we react with things or people. With places. And how that energy sets the tone for everything. And how we can play all the mind games we want to try and adapt to a situation, but that chemistry will always dictate the outcome, fight it as we may.
Sometimes it’s dynamic. Powerful. Sometime it’s balanced. Safe. Sometimes volatile. Dangerous.
And sometimes… it’s completely inert. With no reaction at all. Cold water and hot water combining to create… just more water.
The chemistry I felt submerging myself in that river under that sky was strong enough that even the inertia of my everyday felt transformed. It was powerful. And real. And I wanted more.
I admit… I’m jealous of anyone who feels rooted. Of anyone who feels the pull of a place hard enough to consciously dig in and call it home. Because I’ve never felt that. I’ve felt the necessity to throw an anchor. Wait out a storm. Temporarily moor to a place to resupply. Be responsible. But I’ve never felt anything remotely close to an urge to put down roots. Anywhere.
But sitting in that river, legs delightfully toasty from a long day on the bike, resting on a bed of polished rocks…I could understand the pull. I could understand feeling Rooted in Vermont.
The next morning we rode back to Sweet Simone’s for coffee with Ted. Where it was as if just saying the name conjured him.
I’d looked right through him before… Average height and surprisingly diminutive build. Donned in a large straw hat and flannel shirt, holding his child’s hand as she pointed with the other at the same pastry I was eyeing. Hoping, as I was, to get a glimpse of this mystery man known as “Mike Powers,” I’d completely missed International Man of Mystery, Austin Powers. We awkwardly waltzed for a moment as he moved forward to order. A simultaneous step to the left, followed by a step to the right. Moving backward together as his daughter moved forward. Shimmying through another round of step, step, step as I laughed and apologized. His own head down. Hidden by the hat. Avoiding eye contact.
We moved to an uninhabited corner to unobtrusively await our orders and Ted leaned in again and whispered.
“Yeah. That’s what I meant. Mike Myers.”
Where to stay: Lots of nearby options, from air bnb’s to hotels to campgrounds. But if you can? Just camp in your car at the start/finish. Duh.
Where to eat: Hatchet was delicious. Good beer and food. And maple creemees, which apparently drive kids of all ages wild. Stone Corral Brewing. Sweet Simone’s for coffee. You’ve got options.
Where to buy a tire and brake pads: Village Bicycle Repair is right there in downtown. Small but stocked.
Where to frolic: There’s a river just across the road from the start/finish. But not far away is Bristol Falls, the kind of swimming hole you dream about. And don’t forget to climb Camel’s Hump for spectacular views.
Where to register: HERE! NOW!