A New Year's Cycle-Celebration in Central Mass.
While I’m relatively new to bike touring -- I’ve now got three trips under my belt, with the longest at five days -- I consider myself a pretty adventurous biker. Therefore, my fiancé Rachel, who is a less adventurous yet generally game cyclist, was not surprised when I suggested we spend New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day on an overnight trip. I was pleased that she agreed.
What made this trip eminently doable was the mild winter in New England. The forecast for New Year’s Eve was rain in the morning, and 40 degree temperatures. New Year’s Day was to be even milder, close to 50 degrees. We decided to modify the King’s Tour of the Quabbin to take us through Amherst, and to start and end in Barre. The Quabbin Reservoir, a man-made lake that supplies water to some 2.5 million Boston-area residents, was created in the 1930s by the construction of two dams and the subsequent flooding of the valley in hilly central Massachusetts.
Given the early rain, we didn’t rush out to our start; the first day was supposed to be around 40 miles of biking. We arrived at the beginning point not long after the rain ended, at noon. Our ride started out pleasantly enough, taking in pastoral landscapes and quiet forested areas. The route -- modified by an early wrong turn, which added several miles and a long hill climb -- also took us through small, picturesque New England villages.
For me, the trip really began once we bumped up against the Quabbin Reservoir. At this point, we entered sparsely populated woods and earned beautiful lake views. Hunters in their bright orange, and their parked pickup trucks, were abundant.
This is from the New Salem Lookout off Route 202 on our second day (true, it was a warm winter; still, there were no leaves on the trees when we were here). Credit: mememeflickr
After lunch -- at 3 p.m., and still only halfway to our destination -- the route took a decidedly urban turn onto Route 9, a busy two-lane state road. We chose to add miles, and risk riding in darkness, by continuing on our planned scenic route in the Quabbin Reservoir Park. The detour was well worth it; had this been a summer trip with more hours of daylight to dally, I would have gladly done so here. However, were I to do the ride again, I would also add small loops to avoid Route 9 -- the maps make all detours look long, but the distances are actually rather short (but possibly hilly).
We got as far as Belchertown, about 10 miles short of our destination, before darkness fell. We had already ridden 45 miles, so it was clear my original distance estimate was far off. “As long as we reach the rail-trail, the darkness will not matter,” we reminded one another. However, as a city boy, I certainly didn’t anticipate the absolute darkness (I could no longer see my front wheel) and ineffectiveness of my light, whose dim beam scattered in the ever-present haze. So, about a mile past Belchertown we pulled out our emergency smart phone and started dialing for taxis. Luckily, we were able to get one with a minivan, which picked us up back in town.
We stayed the night at the Allen House Inn, a B&B in the heart of Amherst. While the owners cater to bikers in the summer, the husband was impressed by our intrepidness given the time of year and the weather. He also informed us that our starting point was pronounced “BARE-e" (and not "Bar"), which explained the difficulty some strangers had had with our trip description thus far. After dinner at an Indian restaurant down the street, we said "Happy New Year!" early and got into bed at around 9 p.m.
The following day was both warmer and drier than our first day had been. We each packed away an extra layer, and happily started the day with a long uphill ride back toward the Quabbin Reservoir. Again, we rode a long distance on a highway with a minimal shoulder, yet traffic was very light. The indignity of the shoulder was moderated by gorgeous lake views for our first two hours.
We passed this mysterious-looking building on the final hill before rolling back into Barre. Turned out it's the headquarters of the Insight Meditation Society (again, we didn't see blossoms on New Year's Day). Credit: Sacred Circle Woman
Once we turned the corner at the top of the reservoir and began heading south, the hills diminished, the road emptied out further, and the scenery reverted back to the pastoral farm scenes we had started with. About ten miles from the end of our ride, a spoke on my back wheel broke, but I had no spare. I figured that with the light weight I was carrying and the short distance to go, I could easily make the remainder of the trip. Indeed, the last five miles of the ride turned out to be very gentle and mostly downhill; it was a joy to coast back into the center of Barre and pull up to our car. The distance this day ended up being a much-easier 35 miles.
Tip for this adventure: The highlight was going into the Quabbin Reservoir Park -- look for the loop including Winsor Dam Road to the west, and Old Enfield Road in the east. You can't miss them from Route 9. Additionally, Route 202 affords an excellent view eastward of the rolling hills of central Massachusetts. Based on our experience, my best advice to the prospective winter bike tourer is start early, dress warmly, and take breaks at the bottom and middle of hills so that on the downhill coasting you'll still be warm from the ascent.
Favorite local bike shop: Hub Bicycle Company, Cambridge, Mass. The owner of this shop is always super helpful, doesn't oversell repairs or parts, and is an all-around nice person.
Top Photo: From the Enfield Lookout in Quabbin Reservoir Park on Day 1. Credit: Daily Hampshire Gazette