Photo by Jason DeVarennes

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Vermonster - Training and Day 1

Back in the last century (I love saying that), skiers and cyclists could use the Amtrak Vermonter to travel with their bikes and skis from Washington, D.C. and points north so they could ski and cycle in various spots throughout Vermont. Sadly, after 9/11, the Vermonter removed its baggage car with little fanfare or publicity. I say "with little fanfare," because John and I only discovered the discontinuation of the bike service as we were planning a bike touring trip in Vermont in 2006. We had planned to cycle to Brattleboro and take the train to the northern terminus in St. Albans and then cycle back home to eastern Massachusetts. Unhappily, when I called to book our tickets, I learned we could not take the bikes after all. Don't ask me how removing a baggage car on a train to Vermont prevents terrorism! So instead of a trip covering the length of Vermont, we set out from home and did a round trip bike tour into southern Vermont. Have I mentioned that we did not own a car at the time?

The benefit of a remote start is skipping out on some of the nearby stuff we have ridden a million times already and it allows us to cover more ground farther afield. So, while we were bummed to miss getting into northern Vermont, we took the opportunity to ride areas in the south that we hadn't explored before. And it was an amazing trip. As a bonus, we happened to meet two ladies along the way with whom we have become best friends. We have biked together on numerous weekends ever since and taken a couple of trips overseas together also. So I am quite happy with how that trip turned out, but still hoped that someday bike travel in Vermont with Amtrak would be possible.

We have travelled with our tandem and single bikes on trains throughout Europe with ease. But in the USA -with Amtrak - ease is not the word that comes to mind. We've managed to get our coupled tandem onto the train in Eugene, Oregon, but not without a bit of hassle and warnings that there would be complaints about our lack of box from conductors at journey's end in Portland. We've also used the Downeaster service to get back to Boston from Portland, Maine, but the Downeaster baggage car disappeared earlier this year, and there is still no news on a return date. On the plus side, if you live someplace called Portland, you're in better shape than most!

As you might imagine, we were thrilled recently when roll-on bike service was announced for the Vermonter, which has a stop near our home in Greenfield. Various articles appeared in my news feeds promoting train/bike tourism in Vermont. This was set up as a trial, so we figured we should take advantage ASAP, before the trial might be terminated.

Well, loyal blog readers know that I was off in Ireland all summer, so we only got the chance to try it out this fall.

We'd heard success stories from friends in Vermont who had used the service, so we were optimistic. Then I looked on the Amtrak web site and saw that tandems were not allowed... And that only three bikes in total were allowed per train and there is only one train per day. Also bikes must be hung in a special bike cubby, with the front wheel removed, which sounded unnecessarily complicated. I surmised if we decoupled the tandem and bought two bike tickets that we could just hang each section by a wheel in an individual bike cubby. So we booked our tickets for a weekend away in mid-September. 

We planned to take the train north on Friday afternoon and then cycle back home over the next two days. However, given the mileage and just having two days with limited daylight, we decided to head for Montpelier, rather than going all the way to St. Albans. We could go up to St. Albans on a future trip.

Friday afternoon arrived and we pedalled our lightly loaded tandem the mile and a half over to the station. A short delay meant we had plenty of time to decouple the tandem as we waited on the platform. We were using a frame bag, seat pack and bar bag. We left the frame bag in place and removed the others. The tandem was also equipped with lights and fenders. 

The conductor was not happy with us and didn't see the humor in our claim of two touring unicycles when telling us that tandems aren't allowed. Surely the reason for this is the length. Since we'd decoupled and paid for two bikes, it seemed reasonable to me to allow these two bike parts. He let us on, but not without major grumbling on his part. 

Once on the train, the first thing we discovered when trying to make use of the bike cubby is that the hooks are tiny, and will not accommodate even mildly fat tires. Ours were 50mm. Don't think of bringing your fat bike or even your mountain bike. It is not going to fit! I don't know what they are thinking. No mountain bikes or fat bikes in Vermont? Really?