Riding Massachusetts' Bay Circuit Trail

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

By Richard  Nangle (SingleTracks, January 2014, #131)

The Bay Circuit Trail is a massive hiking trail that rings the city of Boston inside the I-495 belt in the shape of a horseshoe. It's a largely unknown amalgamation of paths of varying quality that cut through 34 Massachusetts cities and towns and connects the beaches of Newburyport and Duxbury.
For hikers it is a long and glorious 25-day trek through beautiful parks and open spaces. The Bay Circuit Trail was conceived of in 1929, but through the generations it was never completed. Last year the Appalachian Mountain Club and Trustees of the Reservation joined forces with the Bay Circuit Alliance in an effort to finish the trail.

However, the dirt roads and single and doubletrack are also suitable for mountain biking. Bikers had taken on certain sections, but until this year none had ever completed the entire 215-mile route.

The ride was led by Paul Benson of Waltham, who was joined by five of his longtime mountain biking buddies, Adam Young, Gerald Finnegan, Scott Rosenthal, Steve Goneau, and Keith Borgaro. No one in the biking circles he traveled had heard of it being done. Consider that Rosenthal and Finnegan once rode from Brookline to Montreal in a single day - 320 miles in 18 hours and the other guys in the group have done multiple endurance races and ride 24 hours races, single speed World and US championships. The Bay Circuit would be two-thirds that distance in double the hours. The riding would be 12+ hours each day through an all-star lineup of Massachusetts parks and open space including Lowell National Historic Park, the Merrimack River Trail, Nobscot Reservation, Borderland, Duxbury Town Forest, Carlisle State Park. Benson's group rides together every Wednesday night, regardless of weather, and has been doing so for 14 years.
To prepare for the September weekend on the Bay Circuit each rider scouted a section of trail. There were three months of preparation. Part of that preparation was being aware of the sections that were re-routed for cycling. Although the majority of the Bay Circuit is open to both hiking and cycling there are sections that are off-limits to mountaixn bike. Most of these sections are re-routed and marked for cycling. The group compiled an extensive checklist of items to bring including spare bike parts, clothing items, tools, first aid kits, and of course, the much needed shammy butter for the adventure.
Day 1 began at sunrise as everyone loaded up all six bikes and gear for the next three days on a shuttle to bring them to the start of the trail on the beach in Newburyport.  

Benson gave the group one final pep talk before the ride began."There are some nay sayers out there who think our adventure boarders on retarded. 215 miles in 3 days they say is crazy. They think it is over before it even started. Was it over when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell NO. I say we are mavericks, visionaries we forge our own path and set lofty goals, except at night when we're in a cozy hotel.”

For most part it was a tough first day.   The weather was not ideal.  "If there's one thing that makes a bike trip hard it's pouring rain," said Young. And on the first day it was pouring. Early in the ride they came upon Harold Parker State Forest, which they agreed was a highlight of the trip. "I've never seen anything like it. The trails literally turned into mini rivers as the rain continued to come down", said Borgaro. Gerald Finnegan of Brookline blew out his derailleur early in the day and had to do the entire leg in a single gear. His teammates ended up pushing him the final two miles in the rain after his derailleur completely exploded. They finished the day in a failed attempt to find a place to eat, "riding through the streets of Lowell as they were lowering the corrugated steel windows," Benson said. The first day of the ride was on Sept. 13 - Friday the 13th - and it felt like it. Young compared the 65-mile trek to a 150-200 mile ride on pavement. It was grueling. After 13 hours of pedaling, the group finally made it to the their hotel around 9pm where they began the process of drying out their gear for the next day.

On Day 2 their friend Rich Wolfe of Arlington brought a new rear derailleur for Finnegan, and some much needed optimism, and joined in on the ride.  The Bruce Freeman bike trail through Westford and Action was a pleasant and easy ride to start the day with.  The sun was shining and the group moral was definitely up. Almost predictably though, around 1pm of each day, no one was talking to anyone. "All you could hear is the sound of pedals turning," said Finnegan. "It was like a knitting group on wheels," said Young.

Scott Rosenthal of Jamaica Plain noted that the route took his group through private backyards on a number of occasions. Fortunately, the people were hospitable. That was especially true when the riders disturbed a nest of yellow jackets on an Ashland section of trail. Benson took the worst of it with 25 stings. A helpful neighbor heard the bikers screaming in pain and came out to provide first aid. Steve Goneau of Burlington had four stings. Wolfe had three. Young, who is allergic to bee stings, was stung once but fortunately did not have an adverse reaction to the sting. He and Finnegan had been in front, They disturbed the nest but were gone before the bees could respond. Goneau and Wolfe retrieved the two bikes that in all the commotion had been left by the nest. The bees were still swarming, but seemed to relent for 10-second intervals, just enough time to grab the bikes. It was a real life game of Angry Bees. Benson's hands were swelling up, but despite the excruciating pain, he continued on. At day's end another friend, John Pansire of Ashland, met the riders with a pickup truck full of food and drink that was much appreciated. They bypassed 10 miles of trail because of lost time and rode on to their hotel, but not before stopping at a liquor store near Gillette Stadium to load up on Pabst Blue Ribbon for the traditional post ride beer around 9:30pm.

Day 3: Everyone was tired and sore, but they could finally begin to see the finish line.  Strangely enough, day three was actually easier than day two for some of the group as their bodies began to acclimate to the long hours on the saddle. There were more road connecting sections and power line trails on day three, something they said they never would have bothered with except with the bigger picture in mind. Although the group already had 200 miles under their belt, there was a sense of rejuvenation when they were rewarded with 10 miles of buff singletrack that winds through Duxbury. As the sun began to set, they rode the final stretch of double track through cranberry bogs as they neared the finish line, a bluff overlooking Kingston Bay in Duxbury. The view, said Finnegan, "was quite fabulous."
They had picked the right time of year for this ride. "The temperature was just right," Borgaro said. When it was over, Borgaro couldn't feel his big toes for two weeks. Benson's fingertips bothered him for weeks, and not because of bee stings. Still, they are hungry for more. "We got to see a lot of nice trails we never would have ridden," Benson said. "It was good to see them once in your life."

What they have in mind would be a quantum leap: The Tour Divide from Banff National Park in Canada to the Mexican border along the Continental Divide is 2,700 miles in 19 days. Stay tuned…

Gerry    Firefly Custom Ti 29er
Adam    Specialized Stumpjumper FSR 29r
Steve    Specialized Carve 29er single speed
Keith    Yeti SB95
Paul    Specialized Carve 29er.
Scott    Zanconato Custom 29er SS