This past June I was invited to join the biking and beer drinking Tour de Force that is BBTXL. Pronounced Bubba Tixel, this was to be the 5th iteration of Bicycle Beer Time eXtra Large. As a newcomer to the group, it seemed only appropriate to initiate a first on this site by asking my friend Ben (this year’s ride organizer) to be a guest contributor and explain both this incredible tradition and this year’s Bicycle Beer Time eXtra Large: Riding All Up In New England (BBTXL: RAINE, Rainy). He happily agreed, so drink it up…
Ben: There are two key components of BBTXL – a week of beautiful riding linking together breweries and notable bars, and a long stupid acronym. BBTXL grew out of BBT (Bicycle Beer Time), an Ann Arbor tradition of riding along the Huron river to Ypsilanti’s Corner Brewery . A group of regulars had signed up to ride RAGBRAI, but hadn’t done any overnight rides before. We mapped a route that strung together a few breweries across Michigan, had a friend’s brother follow in a Suburban and thus BBTXL was born on Memorial day weekend of 2012 (note: RAGBRAI is hot and kind of awful, kind of awesome).
Five years and post-grad school diaspora later, BBTXL:RAINE was a 19-person affair, heading north out of Boston, sweeping across New Hampshire, Vermont and back across Western Mass to finish in Worcester. Each day of riding is in its own tab below. For those interested in organizing a similar ride, I’ve gone through the pre-ride logistics, route planning, and break down the costs in the section labeled “Prep”.
People: Planning BBTXL is a ton of work and a great joy. It’s a job that has been passed around a bit, and when it’s been my turn, I’ve cherished it. Planning your own ride is far superior to any group ride. It’s incredible to have this growing network of friends that get together once a year to share the experience of spending a week riding, exploring and partying together. A better writer could find some words to describe it, but I’m just full of warm fuzzies thinking about this group.
In addition to being great friends, the riders invited to participate are deliberately chosen to be people that aren’t a liability. While there is certainly a range of speeds and fitness levels among us, everyone knows and recognizes when they’re at their limit of exertion, knows how to handle their bicycle, can make minor repairs and can help someone else if needed. This is critical for an enjoyable bike vacation and is not something you control in larger group rides.
Route and lodging: The central conceit of BBTXL is that we find a series of good beer destinations, arrive at one each evening and continue on a few miles to a camp. Planning starts by figuring out where the good beer is and where campsites are nearby. This year I shot for ~60-70 miles between stops. From there I start with the google bike route between the destinations which more often than not routes you on highways and other high traffic roads but at least avoids interstates. Invites go out to previous BBTXL riders and a few new folks; a $50 deposit covers campsite reservations.
Once the destinations are more or less finalized, I’ll start calling campsites. I generally prefer state campgrounds, but they often have rules about numbers of tents per site. It’s usually fine to ignore these provided you don’t cause any other problems. Private campgrounds can bit hit or miss – some are very accommodating and have large group tent sites and others are essentially RV parking lots. Even in the latter case, a field or something is available and a little time on the phone and go a long way. Budget wise, I tried to spend no more than $10/person/night on camping reservations. For the final night, everyone is responsible for their own hotel room.
Once beer stops and campgrounds are finalized (I went through ~4 routes in New England before I finalized things), I’ll start fine tuning the routes. I use RideWithGPS for the task – it’s rather unintuitive at times, but it is by far the best route planning option. You can print cue sheets, export to GPX tracks and use audio navigation during the ride. In RWPGS, I’ll populate the map with ice cream shops, roadside attractions and anything that seems historically notable. For each day, I’ll then take the coarse google route, attempt to move it to side roads when they don’t add excessive elevation and are in decent condition (satellite imagery is helpful, but not perfect for looking at road surfaces). This process usually adds 10-15 miles. Next, I’ll find parks or other public areas for SAG stops about every 30 miles (1-2 stops per day) where the trailer can meet us with snacks, provide company and pick up anyone who’s had it for the day.
SAG: Second to the route, SAG planning is probably the biggest bit of upfront work. I was really keen of making this a self-supported trip, but with 20 folks on loaded bikes for a week, the odds of someone having a shit day and not being able to make it to camp were just too high. With 20 people, if just makes sense to have a car with you.
The vehicle: All but one year we’ve borrowed an SUV from a rider and used a 6×12, covered UHAUL for gear. It’s exceptionally difficult to rent a truck with a hitch (probably for good reason). A 6×12 size trailer has ample room for 5-6 bicycles and everyone’s gear. Renting a trailer is pretty cheap (~$250 for 9 days) and we threw $500 to the vehicle owner to cover wear and tear.
In the past we’d used Bill’s Suburban (The Zip Code) which could comfortably seat 7. This year Kiersten’s RAV4 was called into duty with only 5 seats we found we needed to do a little shuttling but was still plenty capable.
The drivers: Getting someone to feed you, haul your gear, and bail you out for a week can be a tall order, especially when they also need to patient and have a good mind for logistics. Having at least one person who is more or less designated as in charge of SAG definitely simplifies daily logistics since they know where things are and develop habits. For this ride Cory and Gulin heroically volunteered to drive SAG – their expenses (meals, lodging, travel) were covered by the group. They were in charge of shopping for groceries on the road, meeting us along the way and bailing out anyone in need of roadside pickup.
SAG days: In the morning communal supplies are packed up after breakfast by the group – no one leaves before the trailer is loaded. It usually took our group 2-3 hours from when I got up and started breakfast at 7ish to when we we rolled out.
With about 30 miles to cover before the first SAG stop, this left about an hour or so to shop for groceries, fill water jugs and about 45 minutes to get the trailer in position to greet the first riders at the designated stop. They’d stay until the last riders came through (usually about 1 hour) and then either repeat for the afternoon or head towards the campsite. Since this year was so wet, SAG graciously dried out our clothes a few afternoons when grocery shopping was unnecessary. This schedule left enough time for SAG to handle the occasional roadside rescue.
Once at camp, everyone unloaded the trailer, we all set up camp and participated in cooking dinner and doing dishes.
SAG gear: We had a number of large tupperwares with pantry supplies, cookware and other shared equipment (though a much better labelling system and clear bins would have been an improvement). For the curious, this was our packing list.
Expenses: Another thing to think about when inviting people is money. While not everyone has the same budget, save the expense reports for work and split as many things as evenly as possible. Don’t invite people who object to this.
Our major group expenses included:
- Campsite reservations
- Camp meals and drinks
- SAG equipment (e.g. 5-gal coolers)
- SAG vehicle and trailer
- SAG driver expenses
We ate and drank at camp most nights, having filled growlers and purchased beer along the way. This kept expenses relatively reasonable, and the per-rider group expenses were ~$450 for the week. I spent another $100 in cash. It was by no means a bargain, but we ate very well and drank like lushes.
The night before we departed, we grilled at my apartments and enjoyed some of Boston’s finest beers.
Day 1: Boston to Concord
Beer: White Birch Brewing
We woke up early with nary a minute to recover from the night before, we managed to roll out of JP promptly at 8:30 a.m., trailer and all. There was light drizzle that followed us all day long, with a few short breaks of sun and some absolutely torrential downpours.
The route was peaceful out of Boston, following the Muddy River, passing through a still-sleeping Harvard Square, connecting to the Minute Man and out to the Bay Circuit trail, where we had our first SAG stop at Vietnam Vet’s Park. There was a race of some variety going on and they were nice enough to share some hot dogs and hamburgers with us, welcome even at 11 in the morning.
From there the route continued north into New Hampshire on quiet roads, skirting the sprawl of Nashua, after which we hit the first real hills going through Goffstown into Merrimack. Right as the route hit the Merrimack river, we stopped at a great farmstand and loaded up on bison summer sausage and pickled eggs before pushing on to White Birch Brewing.
The skies opened up on us as we left for White Birch and we arrived absolutely drenched. Bill Herlicka had opened up the place just for us – he gave us a quick tour and a prolonged tasting as we gorged ourselves on pizza. Bill couldn’t give a shit about anything but the beer and it shows. White Birch is housed in an old used car dealership, with walls punched out here and there, everything seemed gerry-rigged and nothing was polished. In a world where just about every town has a microbrewery that’s barely distinguishable from the next, White Birch is a place with character, great beer (the Raspberry Berliner Weisse is my favorite) and no frills. Bill was sweetheart and a great host for the night.
After dinner, we left in the pouring rain, arrived at our campsite in the pouring rain, set up camp in the pouring rain, drank in the pouring rain and slept in the pouring rain.
Day 2: Concord to Hanover
Cider: Poverty Lane Orchards
The rain mostly cleared out overnight. We ate the first of many greasy sausage and egg scrambles fashioned by yours truly and rolled out towards the Northern Rail Trail, a 60 mile stretch of gravel trail that would get us all the way into Lebanon, NH.
The alternative route on the roads looked relatively unappealing with lots elevation and heavy traffic, but I was still a bit worried the choice to follow the rail trail going into the day. Several years ago I routed BBTXL along the Eerie Canal Tow Path, a 90 mile stretch of pancake-flat gravel trail between Buffalo and Rochester. It was nice for a bit but absolutely mind-numbing by the end. This trail actually turned from time to time and looked a bit more exciting and… I think it was, but we still decided to cut off the last few miles in favor of the road. This turned out to be a mistake, as a we were greeted by some tough hills and stiff headwinds once we left the shelter of the woods. In all, It was a relaxed day, but the gravel and gradual grade wore us out more than we were realized and everyone was gassed by the end.
We visited Poverty Lane Orchards (maker of Farnum Hill Cider) as we passed through Lebanon, about 10 miles out from camp. They don’t usually do tastings or tours, but I had asked politely over email and they were very welcoming. Corrie showed us the orchards, cider press, and barn and then filled growlers. Their cider is made exclusively from (hundreds of varieties of) apples they grow on premises and was in short supply. They only had their top of line “Kingston Black” and their base blend “Dooryard,” both still ciders. The Kingston was truly exceptional – minerally and dry with rich apple flavors. I was a bit disappointed that their Extra Dry sparkling cider, a personal favorite, was unavailable, but they can only make cider as fast as the apples grow!
From there we continued north through Dartmouth’s campus into Hanover for the night, where we were treated to warm showers and a crystal clear night sky.
Day 3: Hanover to Killington
Day 3 was relatively short at 40 miles with a big climb waiting for us at the end. Our original plan was to stop at Worthy Kitchen for lunch, but we realized that they wouldn’t be open until dinner time. This threw a wrench in our drinking plans as Worthy Kitchen carries a ton of otherwise hard to find Vermont beers that we weren’t going to find anywhere else. Luckily Billy knew about Simon Pearce, which was already on our route in Quechee.
Just shy of 15 miles in, and after ridiculous steep stretch into Quechee, we came upon Simon Pearce. This place was absurd. It’s next to a covered bridge and waterfall; there’s a hydroelectric plant in the basement that powers a glass blowing studio on the middle floor whose products are for sale and used in the (very fancy) restaurant on the top floor. They also had Hill Farmstead beer. We were complimented by the bartender for our relatively fresh odor – apparently they are no stranger to cyclists stopping in post-ride. Having only gone 15 miles, were had not yet ripened.
We continued west and stopped for a full lunch in Woodstock, where we were denied poutine by our waiter who presumably was having a terrible day. After a long 2 hours, we carried on and all started receiving severe thunderstorm alerts on our phones. The group was pretty spread out by this point; I took shelter with a few others at a gas station that was out of gas but did have a cranky old woman and a cat who tolerated our presence. Feeling wholly unwelcome and ansty to make it to camp, we decided that we could make it up into Killington before the storm hit. We were immediately caught in a downpour and this time sheltered at Our Lady of the Mountains, only a few miles out from Killington. A few minutes later we finished the final stretch and arrived at Gifford Woods State Park (on the Appalachian Trail!).
The night passed quickly after we procured fixings for meatball sandwiches and enjoyed a bounty of Vermont beer picked up by SAG at Woodstock Hops ‘n Barley.
Day 4: Killington Loop
We had set aside our fourth day as a free day. For a few in our group this meant heading back into town to shop and going to the laundromat/bar combination and enjoying all sorts of suds. I got up and fixed breakfast for the crew and had a few beer-mosas, and decided I’d ride a chunk of my original route from Woodstock to Killington (which I had cut for a more direct route).
I rode down to Alpine Bike Works to wait out some thunderstorms and pick up a few brake pads for Kiersten, whose pads didn’t stand up to a few days of rainy and hilly riding. This shop was was right around the corner from yesterday’s gasless gas station (if only we had known!) and the staff gave me some tips on my planned route, directing me to Thunder Brook Falls on my way back into camp and towards a great corned beef sandwich at Woodstock Farm Market for lunch.
My route was figure eight shaped, on either side on Route 4 and the first loop was off to the southeast. Having just moved to Boston last year and having never ridden in Vermont before, it was on this loop where I learned that Vermont’s liberal reputation extends all the way to their definition of road. The climb out of the valley started on a reasonable smooth dirt road. I saw a sign for a cemetery which pointed off into the woods. I took a brief detour to try to find it, but got the willies after running into a rusted out old kitchen and returned to the climb. The road was gorgeus, following a stream almost the entire way up as the road got rougher and rougher. The climb finished on softball sized gravel along “Long Hill Road” and the descent was washed out and white knuckle. I was grateful I had gotten some experience mountain biking earlier this year, or else I don’t think I would have had nearly as much fun going down.
I needed a break when I got back to town, so I stopped in for some greasy garlic knots and an Otter Creek IPA at Ramunto’s. Refreshed, I braced myself for the northerly loop and another big climb. Chateauguay Road followed a stream yet again; the grade and road surface was more forgiving until it kicked up in the final half mile. I was treated to an gorgeous view of the mountains and a bomber descent before the climb back to Killington.
Rather than return back on 4, I swung around to the east, stopped at the waterfalls and climbed into camp on route 100. I was greeted by a lively bunch of campers as the sky opened yet again and we huddled under a tarp as we made foil packet dinner and enjoyed more beer from Woodstock Hops N’ Barley.
Day 5: Killington to Sunderland
We were all looking forward to the descent out of Killington until we were on it. Along a high-traffic highway in 40-degree rain without any breakfast in our stomachs, it was real miserable start. By the time we arrived at our breakfast destination, Maple Sugar and Vermont Spice, we were more than ready for a break. We inhaled pancakes, guzzled syrup and purchased warm clothing.
Fortunately the weather picked up and made for a beautiful afternoon riding south through the Green Mountains. A bit of wind, rippin’ descents and a some top notch napping made for a memorable afternoon.
We rolled into Manchester Center’s Farmers market around dinner time, where we enjoyed pierogi, coffee and then continued on to a heavily taxidermied lodge for a couple of beers. Dusk set on our way into camp and accented an already wonderful view.
Day 6: Sunderland to Hadley
In every BBTXL I’ve planned, there’s been one day when I’ve given everyone a common enemy: me. That was Day 6. A fried spam breakfast, followed by gravel roads that deteriorated into streambeds, tough climbs and a lot of miles to cover had everyone hurting. Thankfully the weather relented and we had a perfect dry and sunny day. For all the challenges, the payoffs along with route were incredible, and I wouldn’t change a thing if I did it again.
I spent the day riding with my partner, Kiersten, an exceptionally tough and strong rider – traits which were certainly necessary today. The day started with a gentle gravel climb followed by a steep and technical 1500ft climb at the base of which Kiersten’s chain snapped. As the climb went on, the gravel coarsened until we found ourselves hiking our bikes up a rocky stream bed. When we emerged, we found ourselves with a spectacular view alongside some very handsome horses – a much needed pick-me-up before we bombed down into North Adams, MA.
From there the route continued south, up another big climb where Kiersten’s chain failed again (never was the chain tool on my multi-tool so helpful), then a series of punchy, gravelly climbs that felt relentless until we met up with SAG.
After SAG, things were relatively flat until an incredible 1500 foot descent on ribbon pavement (on which I exceeded Fred Woo-hoo speed) launched us on to a very welcome rail trail through Northampton and into Eastampton for beer. After a quick round, we headed back to camp at the brewery’s owner’s farm in Hadley, just across the river.
Back at the farm, we made sausages for dinner and were asked by the hosts to keep our fire modest. Apparently “modest” in Hadley is enormous everywhere else; minutes after building a fire to our satisfaction, the host dropped three pallets on it! We took cold hose showers, dried ourselves next to a raging fire, and enjoyed some delicious beer and great company.
Day 7: Hadley to Worcester (or close enough)
The last day of BBTXL has been Hawaiin day since year one. Hawaiian shirts are easy to find, not terrible to bike in and look proper silly. Looking stupid gets us a bit more attention on the road, but it’s usually quite positive. We packed up for the last time and enjoyed a few minutes of dryness before the temperature dropped and rain descended upon us again.
Our brewery stop of the day was about twenty miles in, at the absurdly hyped Tree House Brewing. We arrived in a torrential downpour to enormously long lines. Fortunately our SAG drivers were by the front when we arrived so we were able to purchase a ton of their coveted tall boys and 750mls bottles.
Kiersten and I set out in the wrong direction from Tree House in a biblical downpour. Kiersten had already taken a spill (along with a few others) on some dangerously angled train tracks early in the day and despite our outfits, the fun was gone. We rode back to Tree House and asked where the closest delicious meal was. The rain let up a little, and we rode the last 10 miles or so with Pete to BT’s Smokehouse (conveniently BYOB) where we ate delicious brontosaurus-sized beef ribs. SAG picked us up a couple hours later and conveyed us to Worcester.
Logistics reared their ugly head as we shuttled people and suitcases around for a bit and eventually found our way to our (entirely out of place) B&B, “Châteaux du Lac.” It was exactly what we needed – big warm shower, two (2) jacuzzi’s and a gazebo on the water. After a terrifying Uber ride downtown (The driver was very intent on getting us to try his shawarma pizza and seemed cocaine-y) for dinner at Wormtown Brewing, we retired to the gazebo and put a dent in our Tree House stash with the gang.
We woke up next the morning and most of the group took the train back to Boston, while I drove folks with flights to catch back in the SAG van. There was no great finale, just a great week of memories and an ever-mounting anticipation for next year’s BBTXL.