THE VERMONT CHALLENGE:
Photography By Hubert Schriebl
What the New York Marathon is to the five boroughs, the Vermont Challenge is to our community.
It was, to say the least, an unusual request. “I’d never been asked to make 160 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches before,” says Andrea Seaton, executive director of Grace Cottage Foundation. “But when John called and asked me to do it, of course I said ‘yes.’ We here at Grace are humbled and gratified by all that he does for us and our community.”
What John Sohikian does is organize and run the Vermont Challenge bike tour, which he has done for five years now. This August 11-14, hundred of riders from all across the U.S. and Canada will spend four glorious days riding through Central and Southern Vermont’s picturesque countryside, across its covered bridges, down its river valleys, and through its historic towns. All thanks to Sohikian and the 50-plus volunteers he easily recruits – among them Andrea Seaton.
Organizing lunches, dinners, food trucks, caterers, snacks, water breaks and logistics for hundreds of people is a Herculean task. “Imagine throwing four weddings in a row for four days,” says Sohikian. But it’s all worth it for the positive impact — the “giving back,” to the Manchester and the Mountains community
The Vermont Challenge supports four food banks in the area, Stratton Mountain Urgent Care and Grace Cottage Hospital where riders will eat Andrea’s PB&Js while they pause at the 19-bed hospital in Townshend for a rest stop and water break.
Andrea didn’t just say ‘yes’ to John’s request, she went the extra mile and made the sandwiches on home baked bread with Blake Hill gourmet preserves made in Grafton, Vermont, just down the road.
This sort of care and attention to detail that Sohikian and his volunteers lavish on their project pays off in the form of riders who are not just “satisfied” but ecstatic.
“I was intimidated the first year I rode,” says Patricia Oqureck who came up from Pennsylvania. “A friend of mine said she’d found this great bike ride, 200 miles in four days in Vermont. I told her she was crazy.”
“And she said, ‘Exactly! So let’s do it.’” So they did and …
“It’s just the most fun I’ve ever had.” Among the many things Oqureck loves about the event is what she calls the sense of “instant community.”
“All you have to do really is show up in your bike shorts and you’re surrounded by instant best friends.”
A RIDE FOR EVERYONE
Since the point is for riders to have a good time, they can choose from rides of varying levels of difficulty primarily in the valleys or the mountains. They can also decide to ride one, two, three or all four days. The longest ride is on Saturday (day 3), which is a 76.8 mile loop that starts in Winhall, continues through Townshend in the beautiful West River Valley, up to Chester with its pristine Victorian village green, then back to Winhall through the charming town of Londonderry.
The shortest ride is also held on Saturday. It’s a 26.5-mile loop from Winhall to Londonderry and back. Go long, or go short. Riders can choose the length and difficulty of their ride. There are three choices every day.
“The roads are fantastic compared to where I live,” says Justin Karbel, an elite rider from Connecticut. “The accommodations are wonderful and the people are all so nice.”
But isn’t it difficult, one wonders, for him to ride alongside the less skilled riders that Sohikian is so careful to accommodate?
“Makes absolutely no difference,” says Karbel. “People ride the way they ride. They finish their ride when they finish. It’s not like a car race.”
In addition to the undeniably striking scenery of Southern Vermont’s mountains and valleys, the farm to table lunches, a kick-off dinner, a made- in-Vermont jersey and a water bottle, riders also experience John’s brand of personal attention.
Patricia Oqureck says she’ll never miss another Vermont Challenge now that she’s experienced other long distance rides. “New York, Delaware, New Jersey and Maryland … Those rides just didn’t measure up,” she says. “Not on any level.”
It comes down to a scene she recalls from the last Challenge. “Two riders were afraid they could not make
a certain section of the ride, and they went to John to discuss. With all that he had on his plate at that particular moment, he still sat right down on the ground with them and calmly re-routed a different course for them. It was one small moment in a very busy day, but I thought it was just fantastic.”
Just like those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.