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? 

Fortunately we brought straps and were able to attach both wheels to the frame of the cubby, hanging our two touring unicycles in the space set aside for one bike. Since the tandem fit into a single cubby, the second bike ticket wasn't really necessary, and potentially prevented another couple from traveling north with bikes that day, due to the restriction that there are only three bike tickets sold per day. Therefore, if your group contains more than three people, or if other cyclists have already booked one or more of the three bike spots, you are out of luck.

IMNSHO, the bike cubby is poorly designed, if the word design can even be used in this context! The requirement to remove the front wheel means extra boarding is required. It is also potential cause of damage to front fenders. If the bikes must be hung, the hook should be mounted higher to eliminate the need to remove the front wheel - and there is plenty of height available over the hook to allow that. However, having to hang the bike also means removing panniers or having to lift a heavy bike, again adding time to the boarding process. We were told that the Vermonter's goal is to take less than a minute at each stop, so eliminating hassle with removing wheels and panniers would certainly help. In not much more space than is currently allocated for the bike cubby, by removing an additional row of seats, bikes could easily be accommodated in a true roll-on fashion... parked upright and secure, with two bikes in the space currently allocated for one.  

With an eye to a future trip with a group, we asked the conductor about the possibility of parking bikes in the open area across from the cubby and allowing more bikes. This area is supposed to be reserved for wheelchairs, but there were lots of large suitcases under the sign that clearly stated No luggage here! So that restriction, at least, didn't seem to be enforced. 

I bit my tongue. John was diplomatic as we secured the tandem and took our seats. But most importantly, we didn't get thrown off the train for bringing an illegal tandem!

The ability to bring bikes on the train is great, both for one way trips like this one, or for just heading away and spending a few days cycling before taking the train back. But there is lots of room for improvement. And I'm happy to share my experience and ideas.

So if anyone at Amtrak or Vermont tourism is reading this, please consider improving the service, by accommodating more bikes AND more types of bikes - mountain bikes, fat bikes, tandems (which, incidentally, make it possible for people with certain disabilities to ride).
Our weekend bike tour was a success and I will say that we did our part to boost the Vermont economy. We had a wonderful dinner in Montpelier and stayed in a B&B there. Then after a delicious breakfast in a cafe, we headed south. We stopped at lots of bakeries and cafes along the way, stayed at another B&B in Woodstock and then ate our way south back across the border. Hey Vermont Tourism, your local businesses want cyclists like us, who spend money staying in inns and eating out a lot! Do what you can to make it easier.

Anyway, this was sort of a trial run for the upcoming Vermonster group ride in late October. Our friend, Caleb, had come up with the idea of having a group of cyclists take the train up to St. Albans and then ride back over the next 4 days, taking in as many small and dirt roads as possible. Initially, there were multiple folks interested, but the three bike limit presented a significant logistical hassle. I offered to go up a day early to open up one space. In the end, we had only had 4 people travelling north, and due to a forecast of bad weather on the first day and to reduce mileage some on her first multi day tour, Kait decided to come a day later and join us in Waitsfield.

So let me repeat my plea to Amtrak and Vermont Tourism, more cyclists would come spend money in Vermont, if you allowed more to come!

Enough about Amtrak. On to the ride.

I mentioned bad weather on the first day...

When picking a weekend, Caleb's rotating and shifting work schedule gave us limited choices for open weekends. Still when we picked the end of October, no one even considered SNOW.

But SNOW it did. 

In the week before the trip, there was a flurry of emails and messages among our group. We had 4 people planning to take the train up from Northampton and Greenfield. We also had two riders joining us from their home in Waitsfield, VT, with plans for to take the train back north at the end of their tour. However, as the forecast become more foreboding, our chatter focused on the weather rather than logistics. The early forecasts for rain morphed into forecasts for snow. We endlessly chatted about clothing choices, with me changing my mind every hour! Fenders became a requirement, both for courtesy and comfort.

Our local forecast mentioned light flurries on Thursday, the day we would board the train, but it also predicted no accumulation.  The forecast for Vermont suggested that Friday would be the worst day, with things improving over the weekend.  Ha. Forecasts! 

Thursday afternoon arrived and John and I pedaled our lightly loaded single bikes (no tandem this time) the mile and a half to the train station in Greenfield, as snow fell and covered the road. Caleb messaged me from Northampton to alert us about a half hour delay reported there. We took the extra time to go get coffee and wait inside the warm cafe. I kept an eye on the Amtrak app on my phone to know when to head back to the station.

By the time it reached Greenfield, the train was about 45 minutes late, but we were warm and caffeinated and had plenty of time to take photos. When we boarded, the conductors were ready for us and our bikes and they were very friendly and helpful. They said to just park the bikes there. (No hanging, or removing wheels!) We had our straps ready and secured them to a railing and took our seats. This was so much easier than our first trip and really a much better use of space and time! We didn't have issues with our too-big-for-the-hooks tires, or the fenders or the weight of the loaded bikes. We just rolled on, secured them and sat down! I hope I don't get anyone in trouble for reporting this! 

We settled in for the journey north. We chatted away with Caleb and texted Kait about our good fortune with bike storage. Several snow photos were posted to Instagram. 

The weather and track conditions saw the 45 minute delay stretch out to one and a half hours by the time we reached St. Albans. We were supposed to arrive at 9, but it was 10:30 and all the dining establishments were closed when we arrived. Luckily for us, we found a pub whose staff took pity on us and made us sandwiches. After a great meal and some local beer, we made our way to the nearby motel and got some sleep. 

Friday morning was chilly and damp, but breakfast of pancakes and Vermont maple syrup warmed us and stoked us for the day to come. From the windows on the train, we saw lots of snow on the ground heading up. But we seemed to cross a snow/rain line along the way. We were surprised to see green grass and colorful leaves on trees, despite being so far north.

We did see a little snow at roads edge as we climbed out of town, and joked about getting photos, thinking we wouldn't see any more snow... spooky foreshadowing music should be playing now. 

A steady drizzle made us appreciate our fenders and rain gear.

The weather turned surprisingly mild and, after lunch, it even improved.

As the day wore on, the precipitation stopped and rain jackets were even packed away.

Our destination for the night was Waitsfield, where we would stay with David and Nancy. Just a few miles shy, we could not pass up a snack stop at the delightful (and cyclist friendly!) Red Hen Bakery, before attacking the final climbs to their place. Our long day and numerous photo stops saw us arriving in Waitsfield under cover of darkness. It was a lovely evening to ride and the climb kept us plenty warm. However, I joked that we really needed to find friends who didn't live on mountaintops!

Dave graciously offered to meet Kait's train in Montpelier while Nancy prepared an awesome meal and we enjoyed hot showers.

Warm and fed, we slept soundly dreaming of adventure for the next few days. Stay tuned. The fun was about to begin...


  1. I enjoyed this read. I think I actually enjoyed the section reviewing the inadequate Amtrak approach to making space for bikes more than I enjoyed the section about the ride. I barely know you, but the disappointment (I could use a stronger word) came through quite clearly.

    I used to commute almost daily on an Amtrak into D.C. - the Amtrak trains were an alternative to the Virginia Rail Express trains, and accepted the VRE ticket - and the conductors (mostly those on the VRE trains - which were Amtrak conductors, btw) sometimes would explain the stupidity flowing down from above, and also that conductors had the authority to refuse bikes even on trains designated for them! Supposedly due to "limitations" at certain stations. Such total poppycock.

    Perhaps the most interesting thing was the rationale behind all the empty seats on the east corridor trains that went from D.C. (or further north) to Florida. Amtrak management insisted on keeping seats available in case someone(s) decided at the last minute to book passage for the entire DC to Florida trip. Empty seats that could have been sold to intercity travellers - yeah, that seemed a good way to raise revenue.

    Anyway, the Amtrak review section also warmed my heart in another special way -- you write so much better than I, and you almost never have typos, missing words, etc., that I was happy to see several such mishaps in this post. :-)


  2. The Coast Starlight (West Coast) finally just got bicycle service. Ours isn't roll-on service, it is heft the bike up to the baggage car service. I left my Carradice Barley on the bike, with only some tools, small first aid kit, and spare bicycle bits in it. I've gotten flak from baggage car folk for this before, but the baggage car attendant couldn't really complain when a 60 year old grandmother hefted her bike up to him... My review on the Coast Starlight bicycle service: http://lynnerides.blogspot.com/2016/12/first-200k-in-11-months.html.

    Looked like you had a wonderful ride!

  3. Great post and pics. Glad I stumbled on your blog. Any suggestions for a dirt road excursion leaving from Burlington? I'll be camping there next month for a few nights and would love to explore these famous roads one morning before the family wakes :) Mike