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The Peacham Fall Fondo: Gravel Riding with Ian Boswell

The Peacham Fall Fondo: Gravel Riding With Ian Boswell
Peacham is a tiny town—population of less than 800—nestled in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.  What Peacham lacks in size, however, it makes up for in spectacular scenery.

In fact, it has been said that Peacham is the most photographed town in New England. Peacham also boasts some of the most incredible gravel riding that anyone could ever hope to find. Stone-strewn carriage roads surely outnumber paved surfaces, and Peacham’s location near White Mountain National Forest makes you quickly realize that the terrain is anything but flat. And this is exactly why I was coming; Peacham is also home to Ian Boswell, a professional cyclist for Team Sky from 2013-2017, and since 2018, Team Katusha Alpecin. On the afternoon of Thursday, September 19th, my girlfriend Lisa and I packed up our car, and along with our dog Makalu, made the 6 and a half hour trek from New York City up to Vermont.

Last fall, Ian and his wife, Gretchen, decided to start a gravel event – the Peacham Fall Fondo – so that they could share Peacham and the surrounding area with other cyclists.  The event was kept purposefully intimate, with only about 150 riders descending on the sleepy town.  The event was such a success (something I can attest to personally, since I was one of the lucky few who rode in the inaugural edition) that Ian and Gretchen brought the fondo back for a second edition.  This time, there was going to be a maximum of 250 riders, and unsurprisingly, the event sold out. 

Best rest stop with homemade apple pie!

It was, in my opinion, an idealistic amount of riders since the event was noticeably larger this year, but not so large that it lost its character and charm. In addition, Ian re-designed the route so that the ride covered approximately 50 miles and 5700 feet of climbing, with the steepest grade being around 17%.  Also thrown into the mix was one class IV section.  The course, itself, is set up as a figure 8, so after the first 25 miles, you find yourself back in the Town of Peacham.  It is there where you are greeted by the best rest stop ever at a cycling event – a homemade apple pie rest stop.  Yes – that’s not a joke.  At the 25 mile mark, everyone is given a slice of homemade apple pie, complete with your choice of ice cream to wash it down (I chose vanilla M&M)!

However, before the Peacham Fall Fondo kicked off on Saturday, I was lucky enough to be invited by Ian and Gretchen to come up to their house on Friday for a small gathering of about 25 people and sponsors. They had even invited famous New Yorker barber Julien Howard, better known as The Velo Barber to give free hair-cuts and scalp massages to refresh riders before and after the ride. We did a bit of pre-fondo riding in the area; 25 miles and 2700 feet of climbing.  Wahoo was on hand to also let us all play around with the new Element Roam head units.  As luck would have it, Ted King was also on hand for the pre-fondo festivities.  As many will recall, Ted raced professionally with Cervelo TestTeam, Liquigas-Cannondale and Cannondale-Garmin for over a decade before becoming one of the greatest gravel cyclists out there today, having won Dirty Kanza in 2018.    

Minor problems during the warm up ride

The warm-up ride on Friday started well enough. We cruised through the first 5 or 6 miles, having already tackled some steep ascents, a few fast downhill sections and some rugged terrain.  Then disaster struck.  On a short, steep climb, my chain snagged and I immediately came to a grinding halt and ended up on the ground.  Ian and two other friends stopped, and after picking myself back up, we inspected the damage and realized that a link on the chain had actually gotten bent, and as it travelled through the front derailleur, it jammed and caused the front derailleur to be ripped from its mount, essentially rendering the bike inoperable in its current state.

After about 20 minutes, however, they had my bike back up and running as a 1x.  It at least gave me the gears to limp home.  But for every set back, a new opportunity arises.  Essentially, since my bike was licking its wounds and we were already 20 minutes behind everyone else, the four of us took an alternate route to meet up with the crew, so I was treated to an hour+ of private riding time with a current world tour pro!  After the ride ended, we all were invited to a home-cooked spread at the Boswell’s 17th century farm house and converted barn before finishing the evening off with a bonfire, beer and marshmallow roast.  Of course, this was all necessary in order to ensure I was properly fueled for the main event the next day!

Raceday without feeling in a race

The following morning was a bit hectic to start.  My damaged bike was going to be pretty much unridable for the fondo, but Ian called in a few favors and was able to secure a spare bike for me to use.  Of course, that meant I needed to quickly swap out pedals, make some frame adjustments, get my speed and cadence sensors switched over.  However, I was just happy to be able to ride in the event so the last minute flurry of activity did not bother me at all.  As the ride started off, the 250 of us were led out of the town and onto the twisting, turning and rolling countryside by Ian and an antique fire truck dating to the 1940s.

It was at this point that any semblance of a town was left behind, and in front of us stood nothing but some of the most epic scenery one can experience, and words surely can’t do it justice.  The trees were starting to burst with the colors of fall, the smell of autumn was hanging in the air and around us, the only sound that could be heard was the crunch of rubber on a mixture of gravel, sticks and leaves.  Of course, the beauty of landscape was quickly shaken from me as I turned onto the first (of what would be many) difficult climbs.

Over the next 50 miles, I went through a whole range of emotions; I chatted and laughed with other riders, I lavished the fast downhill sections, I swore under my breath as I suffered up each climb, one after the next in succession. 11%, 12%, 15%, 17%, 12%, 11%, 16% and 10%.  Finally, as the ride was coming to an end and the snaking gravel carriage roads I was riding led me back to Peacham and the little white church I departed from, I started to wish that there was a third 25 mile loop to do.  My legs thought I was crazy, but my head wanted to enjoy the day just a bit longer.

But all was not lost, as the after-party was almost as good as the ride, itself.  Everyone is treated to live music, a hot meal (either pizza or some of the best Jamaican food around) and beer!  Plus, there are a few exhibitors set up, including Wahoo, Ridge Supply, a local bike shop and the Peacham police department.

As the day drew to a close,  I realized that the Peacham Fall Fondo was cycling at its finest.  It was truly one of those days we all long for; one of those days that helps us remember why we love the sport so much.

Image rights: Ansel Dickey, Julien Howard

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