Wednesday, April 18, 2018

2018 Rasputitsa Recon - 4 Days Out

Tuesday afternoon I went out and drove most of the 2018 Rasputitsa race course. Given what the roads looked like Sunday when we were out marking the course coupled with what our road at elevation in Kirby looked like, I was anxious to see the state of affairs. To my partial surprise, once I got down off of the mountain that we live on it was significantly drier and the snow that we'd had off and on since Saturday stopped.

By the time I dropped onto the course on the back side of Cyberia, the roads were pretty darn good. Not quite as dry as Saturday but the temperature was above freezing where as it was below on Saturday. The roads were damp but not muddy.

As I climbed I started to transition into some snow on the roads but no where near as much as last Sunday, when we had picked up a few inches overnight. Back down to Newark St on Schoolhouse Rd the snow again disappeared yielding damp gravel but no mud. In fact, there was no mud really anywhere out on course. There was more snow for a few miles at elevation in the most Northern end of the course but that was to be expected and no ruts or ice.

All in all, the course was looking pretty good yesterday and should only improve in the next couple of days as the continual light precipitation we've had all week begins to taper off and the temperature stabilizes some. Saturday we should even see some sun, which will be a very welcome treat.

In terms of equipment, there is no right answer. Certain selections will be better in certain places than others. Yes, you could get around the course with a road bike an 25c tires if you were very careful on Carter Rd through the crushed rock. It would be a challenge and unless you are a world class cyclist, you likely wouldn't be fastest. As always, the bike that hits right in the middle of the scale and does the most the best is probably going to be a gravel or CX bike with 33-40c file or micro tread tires and gravel gearing vs. stock CX gearing. However, the right person on a fast MTB setup could also be right there as we have seen more and more often in the past. The MTB gearing may even favor the longer, sloggy climbs.

Here is the photo dump from the trip around the course yesterday in order starting from the back side of Cyberia and ending on White School Rd.

Enjoy and we will see you on Saturday AM if not at the School of Rock pre-ride or at registration!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

2018 Rasputitsa Recon - One Week Out

It has become an annual tradition for us, a tradition that one week before the actual Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race we get together with our good friends from the Coos Cycling Club and pre-ride this course. Honestly, as much as I love the race itself, I usually look forward to and enjoy the pre-ride even more. There is no pressure, no stress, just a group of friends having fun venturing out of doors, riding bikes, enjoying the sights, scenes and one another's company. And of course there is the post race feast.

This year we have a new course, one which travels into a completely new area for the race, a course that I was asked to lay out the route for. The funny thing about laying out a race course for a large scale event is that you have restrictions. What you dream would be a blank slate is really a very precise, regimented set of bounds in which you must remain. Obviously you need the route to be of a certain length and have a certain, reasonable amount of elevation gain. And then of course you need to take traffic flow into account, minimizing the use of or all together avoiding primary road usage or even crossings. Safety concerns such as turns and descents are of critical importance for consideration and then the fact that we are doing this in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, in the early spring caps it all. Many great ClassIV roads which we use as fabulous connectors in the summer are now, impassable either under water, mud, or as the case is this year, feet of snow. Lastly, we have a pre-determined start and finish point, further scoping our options.

What we are then left with is a puzzle to which there are far fewer pieces than it would seem are required to make up the breathtaking image on the box, the image that gives the true sense of splendor that you know well is right there in front of you. The final course ends up being somewhat of an abstract, impressionistic interpretation of the subject. "If only I could have looped us over here, or taken us up there.". Never perfect but hopefully a best attempt within the bounds provided. If you want the full, untamed experience of the NEK by bike look us up for a weekend tour or come to the Kingdom Graveleur KG2.0 ride this summer. It's the type of ride that we just couldn't do as a race.

Back to the story, this past Saturday we did our group pre-ride of this year's course. We started out at the Burke Mountain Sherburne base lodge at 10AM with snow flurries and a temperature of 30F. That would come to be the warmest point in the day as the front that was rolling in and bringing some mixed precipitation was also bringing in colder weather. Needless to say, the descent down Mountain Rd to East Burke was chilly. Keep in mind that this will be the case this coming Saturday and we will be following a Sheriff Department escort down the mountain, through East Burke and up Burke Hollow Rd. The Sheriff will pull off at the junction with Darling Hill where we will go left onto gravel and it will be race on.

That section is one of the hardest of the day as the pace will be brutal and the race will splinter almost immediately after it gets started in earnest. Darling Hill Rd is a succession of three rollers each followed by fast downs, culminating with the largest of the three. This is where the lead group will ride away. After the third you hit a fast but somewhat difficult steep  descent which turns to pavement and is your cue to start braking for a very sharp right turn followed by a long, fast twisty, crowned and bumpy dirt road descent that has a large amount of washboard at the bottom and itself culminates in a hard right turn.

Last Saturday this part of the course had a fair amount of washboard, pothole, water and a little mud but by and large, was in good shape. Today, it is not so great. Tomorrow, who knows and by next Saturday it could be anything. Basically things are changing day to day up here but my take is that the conditions we had last weekend were probably better than what we will see this coming weekend. The good thing is that the conditions were pretty darn good last week, as you will see from the images. The bad is that it will be highly likely that they will be less good this coming weekend, but who knows. Anything can happen.

Back on course, after the descent from Darling Hill Rd to West Darling Hill Rd you drop to a hard right onto Bugbee crossing Rd. The bottom of that is really bumpy so be very careful, but I've said that before. From this point you will be trending up for a significant time, pretty much all of the way to Cyberia. No, it isn't all super steep but it is mostly up.

  • Note: whenever you are riding gravel road and it suddenly, out of nowhere and for no logical reason becomes paved, you may be in for a steeper climb. 

This is the case in Burke Hollow where you turn onto the 2nd left up the paved Sugarhouse Rd climb. For those on the 2016 Rasputitsa pre-ride event in February, the ride included that road and near the end of Sugarhouse Rd, Patrick McCaffery produced one of the most compelling ride photos I've seen. The paved climb, the steeper part, is about a third or a mile and then things transition back to gravel and it flattens off to a mild uphill as it becomes open and exposed. Great views of Burke Mountain lie just back over your right shoulder but you will probably be head down fighting a headwind coming straight at you at of the North. God forbid it is soft as this false flat stretch can be somewhat soul sucking.

Toward the end you dip back into a sugar woods and finish the road at a picturesque sugar shack with sap buckets hanging from trees and a stunning view of the mountain once again back over your right shoulder as the backdrop. Don't spend too much time sightseeing or taking selfies though as once you cross the paved Newark Street you are on the approach to the fabled Cyberia, the unmaintained, untracked ClassIV road section.

The approach to the Cyberia segment from when you cross over Newark Street is about a mile long and the road conditions continually degrade the further you progress up the road. The upper end of this road was soft and loose last weekend despite the cool conditions so will likely be significantly more demanding in warmer weather. When you see a snowbank and snow ahead, you will know that you have reached Cyberia. If you have not seen it yet, here is a video I shot of the section back in February, when there wasn't quite as much snow.

Last week with temps above freezing the snow was soft and completely unrideable. Last Saturday with temps in the mid to high 20's, Cathy and I were able to ride the entire .6 miles, on our fat bikes. Nobody else was able to ride it though, even with 29er MTB 2.1" tires. They could ride a bit but would sink eventually. If you move quickly through the section on foot it should take less than 10 minutes even in poor/soft conditions which we will likely have. Unless it is below freezing nobody will be able to ride the section and even if it is below, you would need to be in the top group and on a fat bike to have any chance. Of course, that may change but the 3" of snow we got Sunday likely didn't help that chance. Regardless, don't plan your race bike around the Cyberia section. It is short and will not define the race.

Go straight out of the top of Cyberia and do not follow the snowmobile trail out into the field. Descend back down to East Ridge Rd staying right and then take a sharp right which will bring you between a rambling house full of Yankee treasure complete with cats, dogs, chickens and a goat on the porch on one side of the road and a farm on the other. If you hear banjos, put your head down and get moving. But don't go too hard because right after that farm the road will start to pitch up a bit and you are going to climb a to an area that opens up onto the left to a sloping field and a spectacular view of the Lake Willoughby Gap with the sheer vertical face of Mount Pisgah on the right and Mount Hor to the left. This area is part of the Willoughby State Forest and has groomed XC ski trails and backcountry glades in the winter as well as ClassIV and access roads and of course hiking trails in the summer. Lake Willoughby, a glacial lake, and it's flanking mountains were formed by a glacier trapped in the gap wearing it's way deeper and deeper, creating the sheer faces of the mountain and the remarkably deep lake itself. It is a favorite summer swimming destination of ours, once the ice goes out, in July.

This will signify the start of a solid block of uphill through which you will enter what will feel like another climate zone. The snowbanks will grow, it will get colder and it will look like the dead of winter. It may also get muddy as there is still solid frost in the ground up there. This lasts for a couple miles but can and will seem like more. Right turn from there onto Schoolhouse Rd and a quick little up before a wonderful descent that will bring you back down to metro Newark Center and the paved, Newark St which you will turn left onto. Here is a link to a video from that section back in February, the same day I rode the Cyberia section.

That arrival of Newark Street and the pavement should be a welcome friend, giving a chance to regroup, drink, eat and recover a bit all while hammering like the wind, likely into a headwind. The pavement culminates in dramatic fashion with a screaming descent that will bring you to the Newark Fish Hatchery, a frequent family trip for us growing up as $.75 bought each of us three boys a handful of grain we could feed the fish with. We'd then have a picnic lunch featuring ham and cheese grinders from the White Market Deli; the exploits of growing up rural.

But wait, there is more and after that respite, now we start to trend up again as we say goodbye to the Fish Hatchery and the pavement. I wouldn't really call this section of climb brutal, more just, mean. It seems angry, spiteful. I've hit it in the past when it was mostly ice. I've hit it when it was freshly graded. Last Saturday it was in good shape though the upper section was icy, glazed over and slick. Treat this section with respect as it will take you to the highest point in the course and past the mid point in the race but also keep in mind that after it, you will be trending down for a long ways. There are more climbs to come, there is no question, however the bulk are behind you. Save maybe for the hardest.

As you wrap around the North end of the course in Westmore past Bald Hill WMA with it's rock face cliffs, expect the weather to be even more severe. It was here on last Saturday that we all froze up. This is the point in the race where if you don't have a jacket or wind vest, you will probably wish that you did. The temp was in the low 20's and we were no longer producing much of any body heat because we were starting to descend. Our hands were damp from sweat as were feet. I had pulled my jacket off much earlier to expose breathable layers but put it back on quickly. The road also became slick with ice glazing the surface. Descending down some of the steeper sections off the top was slow and methodical, picking a line that afforded the best traction. Often, when the road surface is icy, that line is at the side of the road, near the ditch. Typically there will be snow and often rocky rubble which is textured and will afford some traction. If nothing else, the snow at the side of the road is a berm that will hold lateral traction and help keep you upright. I generally seek those out when it gets tough. By and large though, conditions were pretty good last week and the course route is mostly a straight shot back once you turn onto Center Pond Rd and start heading South. As you make your way to Center Pond you will pass camps, cabins and some very eclectic, rustic looking structures, wave at the nice folks and as always watch for animals in the road.

You will pass Center Pond on your left and soon after you will come to an intersection where you will proceed left on Maple Ridge. This climbs briefly but will soon bring you to the intersection with Dufour Rd where you will go left and descend only to turn right onto East Hill Rd and regain all of that which you lost, and then some, back to Maple Ridge. Crest that climb and you descend past a quaint fence lined cemetery on your right at Schoolhouse Rd toward your destination of Cole Rd, which is on the right. This is a nice gently descending, rippingly fast gravel road that would take you back to Burke Hollow though you will be going hard left onto Carter Rd before left. Jer and Leigh who dropped me and my wildly spun out fat bike on that stretch made it just past this 120 degree turn onto Carter Rd before I called out the turn to them. This has long been a favorite ploy of mine.

Those who did the 2015 or 2016 editions of Rasputitsa will recall Carter Rd. For many, it was where contact was lost, the final straw. Maybe that was just me though as I got dropped going over the top of the gentle up in 2016. The descent down from Carter Rd after you cross Burke Green Rd is no joke. It is steep, twisty and the conditions are poor.

The road surface has been so soft that they have been dumping truckloads of inch and a half crusher run (up to 1.5" pieces of crushed granite ledge) in to fill the soft spots. This will eventually pack in and mix with the gravel but as of Saturday past it meant the road surface was made up of angular 1.5" stone. Bicycles don't handle very well in that, tires don't much care for it and worst of all, it is very proficient at completely removing large sums of flesh from bone if you should find yourself sliding through it. By all means be aware and when you see it, slow down, be careful and treat it with due respect.

After Carter Rd you hit Marshall Newland Rd, which is a bit more rolling. In fact there are some punchy climbs on it. The road surface last weekend was pretty good though there were some significant potholes to be had. Quickly you find yourself turning left down White School Rd, the road where the Kingdom Trails White School trails terminates and also the road where the Good and You trail crosses over. This is a fast descent with a great view of the mountain and some bumps and chatter that would pull your hands right off the bars if you are not paying attention. It was rough Saturday and there was some slop that easily sprayed your glasses making visibility a challenge. Carry as much speed as possible up the paved end and turn right onto RT114. Take a drink, catch you breath and get ready for what is coming because almost immediately it is there on your left.

Pinkham Rd. In general I avoid it like the plague. I've done intervals on it in the past but it pretty much just sucks. This time of year it tends to be soft as well. Last Saturday it was pretty good actually but it is still a long sustained steep climb that is going to challenge everyone in some way or another. It is also multi part so don't burn everything in the tank on the first part or you will be sad on the upper part. Speaking of the upper part, once you get over it you drop down to the Mountain Rd and then go left up Alpine Lane past Burke Mountain Academy and up to High Meadow Rd. This descends to the finish and is what I consider to be the most dangerous part of the course. It is steep, narrow and twisty. Last year many people blew various corners ending up on lawns. Be careful and keep it in control. It's hard to win races with a broken neck.

It will be interesting to see what people think of the course. In all honesty, I tend not to ride in Newark all that much for the reason I cited earlier; the hills seem to be mean. The course was a pretty good fit though and gave us a chance to see some new terrain. It will also have a very different feel that past races. Rather than being punctuated by bookmarked climbs, we spend the early half of the race doing most of our climbing saving only one big effort for the end. It will be interesting to see how folks deal with that and how the race plays out. In theory, the race could come back together on the run back down to East Burke and the finish. A solo or small break working hard to be pulled back by a larger, better rested group on the final climb. Or it could just be a tough individual who just goes out and crushes everyone on their own, departing never to be seen again as everyone is left to wallow in their own mire and misery.

One thing is for sure, it will be whatever you make of it. Be realistic with your expectations but don't set limits. Anything could happen though charging to the front of the fieldf on your fat bike on that first climb probably isn't the best idea.

Doesn't mean I won't do it though.