March 25, 2023
What is the Fifth Season?
Snow. Rain. Hail. Blue skies. Cold. Mud. Huge puddles. Ice. Sleet. Maple syrup. Incredibly hard category 4 vermont "roads" covered in ice, hardpack, slate, and god knows what else. Relaxing vermont dirt roads. Cozy bendy creeks swollen with thawing snow. Sugar shacks. And of course, a whole lotta sick bikes. And I mean the kind of sick bikes that you won't find anywhere else: tanglefoots, crusts, fat bikes built for touring, retrofitted 90s mountain bikes, and a whole lot more.
Because that sounds incredibly sane and completely reasonable, Meg and I decided on it for our first group bike ride event. And our first big ride of 2023. Toad Hall-y sane.
We wake up very, very early. But, like Christmas as a kid; I was already awake before the 4:20 (heh) alarm. Before long we've fueled up with some coffee and light breakfast, and we're on the long, dark road to Poultney, VT, home to Analog's former-sugar-shack HQ.
Dawn breaks over the Green Mountains after a quick stop at the most curated gas station bathroom in the world in Castleton (mood lighting! ultra-cushy toilet paper! running water!). Thankfully, it's a hell of a lot warmer and less snowy here than it is back in Littleton. A brief drive later, we're in Poultney.
Out of the car and onto the bikes. As we ride to East Poultney (the true Analog HQ location, obfuscated to throw Big Bikes' Spooks off the scent), more and more bikes show up on the road and next to slightly-outdoorsy cars, adjacent to pretty-outdoorsy-in-an-unusual-way people. You won't find many North Face pullovers or Specialized bikes here. These folks troll the planet for the nichest, most intentional manufacturers around to get the very best equipment for their needs. Bottle cages from some dude in Durango? Check. Hoodies that you can only buy in Leadville? Check. Bags made by a half dozen people in rural Arizona? Check.
And the obsession doesn't end with the material: Tinkering with your own chain slack every other day because it's fun? Check. Nerding out over which tires have the best feel on cat 4 roads, but the lowest rolling resistance on pavement? Check. Esoteric disagreements about the merits of internal drivetrains? You know it.
The dual campfires crack and flicker in the early morning cold. The bicyclists keep their distance from the fire: sure, it's warm. But you don't want to get too adjusted to that heat right before the Fifth Season. The bicycles gleam and glisten in a million different ways, the combined product of a million different geniuses, leaning against every decent-sized maple in the sugarbush.
A moderately-bearded man dressed "Vermont sharp" in wellies, a flannel, cords, and a green Vermont Barn Coat climbs onto a bench. He clears his throat and, surprisingly soft-spoken, announces that the time has come for the Fifth Season. Racers should prepare for their ride-starting bog march, hunting drink (bottom-barrel bourbon, maple syrup, and "spices") and donut/apple-on-a-string eating contest. Riders should form a tunnel to the bog and first sugar shack to cheer the racers on.
Precisely 10 minutes later, the race begins with the boom of a shotgun. The racers hit the bog and eat off of a string. Some purchase gallons of maple syrup; turns out, a single gallon balances our multiple hours of riding time in the race times. As James says: this race is stupid. If you try to win this race, you're stupid.
It's a blast. Cowbells ring. Racers fall in the mud. Racers eat donuts and apples off a string. Racers fall in the mud again. And that's all before they untangle their bikes from the mess at the sugar shack and actually start the ride.
Soon after, the ride begins. It isn't long before we hit our first dirt road. And not long after that, our first hike-a-bike up a snowy, icey category 4 road. And not long after that, our first sugar shack, complete with complimentary maple cotton candy, bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup, and maple candies for the road.
Back to the dirt road-cat 4 road grind. We zoom through icy puddles. We haul the bikes over softening late-season snow. To keep up the pace, we ride through narrow canyons of snow, bottomed with inches of cold mud. Meg zooms so fast through the ice and snow and mud that I struggle to keep up. It starts to snow. It's beautiful.
After a long haul over a pass, we arrive at a stunning scene: a tiny one-room cabin by a small lake, with a merrily crackling campfire, a bucket full of "the substance" (strongly suspected to be bud heavy, sap, and the occasional rogue spruce tip), and a wood stove boiling a small batch of sap.
A golden retriever endlessly zooms through the crowd of riders, begging for pats.
The ride pauses here for a while. It's not so bad, sipping the substance by the fire and watching the snow gently fall on the lake.
The next pass is snowed out by the sea of flakes coming down around us. But it's no worry. We route back over the last pass (easier the second time) to reach our reward of maple syrup jello shots, beef stew, sap-boiled hot dogs, and maple syrup pineapple upside-down cake. There's hail. There's mud. There's ice. There's rain. There's snow. But everyone is in good spirits. We truck on, and before long, we're back at Analog HQ, sipping hot toddies and snacking on leftover breakfast burritos. Turns out the race winner bought something like 4 gallons of syrup at the first sugar shack and trucked it 60 miles over mountain passes and snow and ice and puddles back to analog HQ. (support local business!)
The ride was challenging, but with everyone doing it together, it never felt overwhelming. Even when the weather got sketch, I knew we could handle things. Our new bikes (coincidentally, Tanglefoot Moonshiners, which Analog Cycles makes) were incredibly fun. Truly the perfect bike for the ride: no suspension to slow you down on uphills, chonky tires for the mud and snow, an incredibly low bottom gear to conquer even the steepest hills, and high zero-reach drop bars to hang out in (a non-athletic cozy upright position) for basically the whole ride.
I'm sure we could have managed the ride on our touring bikes, or even our mountain bikes (soon to be liquidated, replaced by the Moonshiners). But thanks to our new bikes, we had a great time. It's nice to have bikes that feel cozy for all-day riding even on suboptimal terrain, and when you're soaked to the bone with ice water and muck.
So back to the original question: what is the Fifth Season?