Tuesday, April 22, 2014

2014 Rasputitsa Report

Scenic Vermont countryside.
It seems that a new trend has started taking hold in cycling and more in bicycle racing, that being an increase in the numbers of alternative format events. These events, while many if not all of the same characteristics of normal events, go the extra mile to add something unique. For instance, take a mountain bike race and hold it in late January and ride fat bikes. That happened earlier this year at the Moose Brook Fat Bike race in Gorham, NH. Cathy and I took part and had an incredible time, falling in love with the discipline in the mean time. You could also take a normal single loop road race format but instead of seeking out pavement, hold that race on roads that consist primarily of gravel. That was what happened this past August with the inaugural Dirty 40 race, which took place on the dirt roads of Northeast Vermont. This was the event that really got us thinking about the alternative race scene.

This type of event has been around for ages of course, though the bigger and more competitive endurance gravel events were spread across the country, making attendance challenging. Regardless, Cathy and I had long been fixated, mesmerized if you will, at paying money to ride around in circles on boring paved roads or office parks and then being predictably frustrated at the outcomes of said races. Lately, we'd become so fed up that we had basically all but given up on road racing. With that we reverted back to our roots on the dirt with increased participation in mountain bike racing filling some of the competitive void before cyclocross season started. Last summer, with the addition of our new camp in Kirby VT, we had also gotten back to dirt road riding. And a fair amount of dirt road riding we did, which with our carbon fiber Cannondale SuperX disc brake equipped cyclocross bikes, became a literal joy. So when the Dirty 40 came onto the radar last summer we were all in, dragging a fair number of our friends and teammates with us. The event was great and a wonderful gateway to the cyclocross season.

Gravel road took a beating from the storm last week.
This past fall and into winter, a number of us had starting taunting Heidi and Anthony of the Dirty 40 on social media that they should run a spring time event, directly in competition with another spring time event that has long billed itself as "America's queen of the classics". That is a tough race for sure, one that caters to the strong but is still a standard road race in which a small percentage of the total distance happens to be on well maintained gravel roads. More, the weasel who spends the race sitting back and conserving, biding their time can still do well as the race isn't hard enough until late. The race has become incredibly expensive, to the point where we can no longer justify it after doing the race for a number of years.

Anyhow, with much bravado a few of us who have roots in the Northeast Kingdom extolled the virtues and epicness of a real NEK mud season. We collectively suggested that an event should showcase those conditions in a race geared to the truly strong, all around rider who is equipped to deal potentially with the worst conditions imaginable, a real mud season. And so it happened. Anthony and Heidi, though somewhat cautious at first, switched gears and before we could say "just kidding" they had an event put together, with a slick name and everything. And so started the Rasputitsa. Cathy and I as well as Derek Griggs and Brian Irwin all put our money where our mouths were and quickly signed up. Along the way Cathy and I convinced our Bikeway Source/bell Lap Racing teammates it would be a great idea for them to sign up as well. Peter Vollers even put together a similar event this year, a ride in the height of winter out of Woodstock VT. This event, the Vermont Overland Maple Adventure Ride (VOMAR) was an outstanding ride and a resounding hit. people loved it and we managed to drag most of our team out to it. Another true highlight in a year becoming dedicated to adventure.

Sunny and cold for the pre-ride.
As winter marched steadily on, and on, and on we began to wonder just what we would be in for come race time. Soon we had more details on the event including an ominous section to be called Cyberia, a winter snowmobile trail which was promised to test even the toughest. Though spring finally sprung in southern New England, intermittently at least, there seemed to be no break up north. Really, why would we expect anything less given that Newport VT and the area to its immediate west gets some of the biggest snowfall and harshest weather in the Northeast. Before we knew it, we were only days away. We were all shown the full course map which looked great, but almost on queue, the weather was taking another turn for the worse. Last Tuesday after one of the first warmups of the season, we got a front coming through that dumped torrential rains and then finished by dropping the temperature by 40 degrees and leaving a couple of inches of snow. The rain combined with the snow melt created massive flooding, and erosion. The gravel roads that had started to thaw and turn to mud, froze back up only to thaw the top layer of frost when hit by the sun.

It was mud season for real. All of the stories we'd recounted of traditional spring weather and mud had managed to peak for the race. This was going to be awesome, or possibly horrible. After the storm, last Wednesday, Cathy and I took a trip up to Newport and did a frigid pre-ride of the the first segment of the course, out and into Cyberia. What we saw concerned us a bit as part of the trail was a solid stream of swift moving water. Cyberia was only 16 miles into the race so the thought of completing the remaining 30 miles with wet feet had me worried, given that the temperatures on race day were only supposed to be in the low 40's for the high. We got back home and scrambled to prepare footwear. We were also tight lipped on conditions and the exact details of Cyberia, not wanting to give up the surprises the promoters had been trying to keep.

Every VT race must have a covered bridge.
The day before the race, we headed to our camp in Kirby to spend the night. Of course, the water had frozen and despite spending nearly four hours working on it, I couldn't get it flowing. It was also a bit cool given the camp isn't fully insulated but we made do and had a good evening. Race morning greeted us with overcast skies and slightly above freezing temperatures. On the drive to Newport up I91 we hit rain and then snow going over Sheffield Heights. It eventually stopped and we made our way to the venue, being directed into convenient parking. The town was decked for the event, with the stretch of Main Street closed off and a big arch across the street for the finish.

We registered then got ready and headed over to the start where we chatted with the multitude of friends from the New England cycling scene. Amongst the legions of top New England masters racers in attendance, the event also drew hoards of other US and international tough guys as well as a few professional cyclists. I love this aspect of New England cycling; the fact that at any given race you can draw many of the top racers in the country to an event. I'm humbled to be fortunate enough to compete with masters legends the likes of Peter Vollers, Jim Nash, Paul Richard and John Funk on a regular basis not to mention the throngs of other tough guys, many of whom happen to be on my team or guys I race MTB and CX with, people that I respect and admire. Add into that the fact that direct from the Paris-Roubaix classic race was Cannondale Pro Cycling professional Ted King and the California Giant Cycling newly turned professional Ansel Dickey and perennial Cannondale professional Tim Johnson. Combined with many of the strongest guys from the Dirty 40 last year including the Tall Tree Cycles team from Ottawa, I could tell this was going to be game on from the start.

Back Coventry to Poutre Rd.
The start was a bit crazy, as you can image, with 350 or so racers of varying ability all vying for the front. There was a neutral roll out for a couple of miles that was all but neutral. The pace was high as soon as we were on course and the fight for the front got real. As the pavement gave way to gravel the intensity increased. People were nervous, anxious, possibly even terrified at being trapped in a mass of 350 cyclists going 29 miles an hour. As we approached the first hill the middle and back swarmed the front, everyone trying to get to the hill safely out ahead so they could then miss-shift, pop out of a pedal, overlap and crash or any number of other possible outcomes that were contrary to their well laid plans.

I made my way through the gaps that opened as racers ran out of steam or veered one way or another for this reason or that, which always happens when the road goes up. Soon I made it out to the head of the group and just kept going, trying to keep safe and string things out a bit. My legs were feeling surprisingly good at that point and I was determined to have a good race. My season thus far has had some highs as well as lows, which has had me a bit down and at odds. The winter of fat biking left me with great power and endurance but less that desired top end, which the prolonged winter and lack of spring has not helped to improve much. This race was going to be the test, one I was determined to pass or crumble trying. I made it to the top of that initial climb at the front and gazed back at the long open hill to see an impossibly long string of racers making their way up. Ansel was right there as well and hit it hard to keep the pace going, Ted and TJ on his wheel. I jumped in as did a long thin string of racers on this hillside roller coaster ride that paralleled I91 south.

Part of Cyberia during the pre-ride.
At that point the BSBL team was in good shape, with Kyle, Ben and myself all surfing near the front of the group. As the hills rolled on the group splintered and splintered again. By Covertry it was smaller still but had the bulk of the folks I expected to be present, like Jim Nash, Peter Vollers, Andy Gould, Robbie Stine as well as Kyle, Ben and myself still there with the lead. Then we hit Back Coventry Road and all hell broke loose. The line was already thin and the elastic started snapping as we ground our way up the climb. It was a tough climb and unfortunately, I knew what was coming next in the difficult turn onto the spongy, shallow Poutre Road climb and ultimately Cyberia a few miles later. I was at my limit and gapped off the lead group of six a bit. This made for a long, miserable chase on Poutre Road to train and reattach. I made it nearly there and one of the TREK-Fiera racers from QC who followed me up kindly gave me a quick push to get me the final feet onto the group. 

No time to rest though as Cyberia was literally right ahead of us. The snow of our pre-ride had partially given way to soft spongy earth which was excruciating to try and ride through. I quickly found the corn snow over ice much easier to ride through and chose that line. Immediately racers began to struggle and bike handling skills quickly showed themselves and payed dividends. Ansel was pushing hard and doing well as was TJ. I slotted in with them able to ride at least as much as they could. Then we hit the section that was a flowing river a few days before. The water had partially subsided but not fully. We picked our way through, running with the bikes and keeping dry feet as best possible, completing that section and starting the endless run to the top.

At that point I was in third but by the half way point I'd slipped back a bit and was overtaken by Ted and then John Funk. My lower back was screaming and starting to spasm but we all basically ran the same pace and were all within maybe 40' of each other. Near the top the terrain got better so I tried to ride, surprisingly able to move along fairly easily. This allowed me to close the gap back up and rejoin the lead group, who stopped for a shot of maple syrup and some pictures. Soon though we were off and when it pointed downhill, I fell into my groove and just started letting the bike flow. This worked great and I passed everyone, gaining a reasonable gap and hitting the dirt road first with enough time to complete the following climb ahead of TJ. I hung at the top waiting for the rest of the lead group to come back together, excited to be where I was and psyched at just how much fun that descent really was.

Cathy and Michael finish up a solid day's ride.
From there we settled into a group of six with Ansel, Ted, TJ, John Funk,  Jean-Francois Blais and I making our way down out of the highest point in the race along rolling dirt roads. A few miles later we were joined by a pair of guys from Mason Racing, Gered Dunne and Robin Liston who managed to bridge there was back to the group, which was now eight strong. We rolled strong and smooth for the next twenty miles in a nice steady rotation, enjoying light conversation and the Vermont countryside. The rotation was stout and at times I worried about how the efforts would scale, knowing that I was clearly outgunned on many fronts. Also, not having scouted the final section of the course left me at a loss as to what was in store for us. Further, I thought that the race was a few miles shorter than it actually was so my estimates as to how much we had left vs. where we were was compounded by what I thought I'd heard was the last 8 miles being mostly flat run in.

The net was that when we hit those final soft gravel rollers, the real suffering began. Over the first we started to splinter and Jean-Francois, Robin and I got gapped with me being on the tail end. I managed to chase around and re-attach but the others could not make the jump. On the second of those rollers, the biggest one, Ansel decided to have a go at it and turned the screws. Ted went with him and the two caused a gap. John, Gered and TJ followed momentarily and I gapped off them, still reeling from the previous effort and the cast was thrown. I could see them just ahead but couldn't get there. Ansel and Ted were killing it and speeding away as my my ride and my race in the group behind them, in front of me. I wanted to bridge back but just couldn't manage as the gap continually grew while I watched the three dance up the rollers ahead of me. By the time we crested the final roller and made the right hand turn onto the false flat of Farrar Road my train had left the depot and was a couple hundred yards up the road ahead of me.

Cathy happy to be done.
Afraid that the pair behind me might catch me and not wanting to give up just yet despite my moment of weakness in the rollers, I went into full TT mode. At this point I knew there were only about 5 miles left, a bunch of which is on flat road. I can lay down reasonable power and go pretty fast in those conditions so I gave it everything. Slowly, I started to gain. The trio was getting closer, and closer, and closer. The huge gap had slowly narrowed to where I literally was within about 100' of them. And then TJ looked over his shoulder. Not sure why as nobody had looked behind to that point. He said later that he though he saw a big group chasing but in reality it was just me. Regardless, they hit the gas and try as I might, no further progress could be made. In fact, as soon as the attacking started within the group, the gap went out and at the finish was to 27 seconds to TJ, 24 seconds to John and 17 seconds to Gered and 1:40 up on Jean-Francois. Ansel bested Ted for the overall win in a finish time of 2:28:27, 5 seconds up on Ted and 1:27 ahead of me. Honestly, I am incredibly happy for Ansel. He worked like a dog all day and made it a real race. He is also a really, really good kid.

The bulk of the BSBL team was not far behind at all. Finishing in the next big wave with Peter Vollers, Rob Stine and Andy Gould was Ben and Kyle. Soon after that was Sam and then Skip with Thomas coming in a bit later. Cathy persevered as always and finished up strong with our friend Michael Whitfield, crossing the line together. Cathy say's she didn't have a great ride but I know how hard she worked, how hard she always works and it makes me proud of her. Michele wasn't feeling it so took a slighter shorter route back instead finishing safe and sound.

M40+ podium with John Funk (Jean-Francois Blais missing)
In retrospect, as happens so many times when you are on the limit, a momentary lapse and unwillingness or inability to go that 5% harder for a brief period resulted in going ballistic for an extended period trying to make up for the lapse. I've put it all in perspective and understand. You can only do what you can do and at the point, it was all that I could do, plain and simple. In looking at the Strava segment for the four mile final run in, I was almost exactly the same pace as the group of three ahead, covering it in 10:04. Had I managed to make it back it would have been a good story but I'm satisfied with the ending I got. I finished 6th overall and the 2nd M40+ racer. Ironically, though not, the top 7 places included three professionals, three guys over 40 and one amateur under 40. If we take this further out, to the top 20, the percentage of 40+ increases. The older athletes in New England are not necessarily slower than their equivalent, younger peers. That makes for some really great masters racing.

This was the first real personal highlight on what I hope is going to be a successful season of racing. I'm not sure how many more of these I have in me and am starting to think about retiring to fun rides. Really though, they are all fun rides. With races like the Rasputitsa, maybe I'll never give it up. These gravel events along with the fat bike races and other challenges we haven't even thought of yet, help keep the sport fresh and new. That is what makes it exciting and fun, doing something new and challenging. Finding new adventures in the same familiar means, pedaling your bicycle around the countryside.

Many thanks to Heidi and Anthony as well as Newport for making this happen. You folks get it. This is what racing, and riding bikes is all about.

Monday, April 21, 2014


Over the past few years the cycling community, primarily the professional cycling community, has come under fire for massive doping practices. Really, this is nothing new as cycling and almost all sport has had doping and/or cheating scandal nearly since their inception, based on reports and accounts. I think this is more a statement of unfortunate human nature more than anything else, that some people will do anything it takes to gain a perceived advantage on the competition. Clearly, that doesn't always scale, especially when one's livelihood not to mention large sums of money are involved.

The doping specific scandals have hit many of the top tier US sports in the past decade as well. Baseball, tennis track and field have been some of the most visible and doping regimens would seem both pervasive and unremarkable in many of the physically demanding professional contact sports like football and hockey. Infractions tend to garner little attention and result in minor disciplinary actions.

However, cycling has chosen to take the high road and crucify those who are caught breaking the rules with performance enhancing drugs. At least, that is what they have been saying. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter has been then the governing bodies have long known of the practices and have been party to bribes and coverups in relation to those systematic programs.

There have been a number of movies and books as well as the federal investigations which chronicle in depth the horrors of the programs. The numerous first person accounts to the hard core gritty details of the actions of the cast of characters, athletes, management, sponsors and officials has left such a bitter and unpleasant taste. After each of the books I've read detailing the practices and the personalities, I have felt sullied, left dirty and wanting to wash my hands. I recognize and sympathize with the arguments that doping became an arms race and that it was pervasive and to a degree, was mandated. That doesn't make it right, doesn't make it better and doesn't make it less sad or disgusting.

What can we expect though, when money and jobs are on the line. When the sponsors are making money, the athletes are making money, the promoters are making money and as we have come to find out, the governing bodies are making money in a whole host of different, often inappropriate, ways. It is the nature of the beast and happens each and every day on Wall Street, in boardrooms, in politics and basically any other place where there is something to be gained. Again, unfortunate human nature.

Don't get me wrong, I love cycling and always will. I honestly live for it, even though it is just an avocation and I am simply an amateur athlete. I think that is part of the attraction though, that on the surface cycling much life many endurance sports, is so pure. It pits us against the competition but more importantly, us against ourselves.

So yesterday we finally got around to watching this year's version of the Paris-Rubaix race which we had on DVR. Part of the reason I watched it was because local American racer Ted King was in it and I'd met and spend time riding with Ted this past weekend at the Rasputitsa dirt road race in Newport, VT. I'd raced with Ted (and his brother Rob) once before and had spoken briefly with him a couple times in the past at CX races. More, he is good friends with a number of folks that I know well in the cycling community. They have always spoken highly of him and with great respect. From my limited first hand knowledge, Ted seems a witty, intelligent and humble man, not to mention a very gifted athlete with a stunning fashion sense when it comes to toques.

In watching the Paris-Roubaix race, I couldn't help but think back to the now exposed doping practices that many of those same racers had been party to. I also couldn't help but think that despite the cries of a cleaner sport, cries that we have all heard time and time again, I still wonder. That doubt or really, disbelief leaves me at odds. I love the sport and it is great to see the young local talent, kids like Ansel Dickey who we have literally watched grow up on the bike at the races and whom I also had a chance to ride with this weekend, sign professional contracts. Let me make it clear, I cast no doubt on these men what so ever. I'm torn simply that it feels more like war that they are sent off to rather than what should be simple, pure athletic competition at the top level.

I'm left hoping against hope that none of these young people are faced with the choice requiring them to have to do something illicit in order to continue their cycling careers. We owe it to them, and to those junior racers who are the next wave, to be able to compete without having to risk their health and well being by partaking in systematic program of illicit practices. We should be ashamed of ourselves for letting it go on as long as we have, treating these young athletes like animals that we tweak and modify via any means possible to gain advantage on the competition through which we gain personal or financial advantage ourselves.

It sickens me to read just how open the doping practices were and how spouses, families, sponsors, management and even doctors all knew and not only allowed it to continue but in many cases, facilitated it. The federal governing body, the UCI seems to be making some change hopefully for the better however, we here in the US still seem to cling to the same management that has clearly been a big part of the problem. Conflicts of interest should be taken into account when appointing or electing our leaders, shouldn't they?

Hopefully the changes really are in the works and the sport if becoming cleaner, safer for all. For us amateurs, it is just riding bikes, which is probably why we love it so. For the professionals it is also a job. It would be nice if it wasn't also a long term health risk. Just look at so many ex-professional athletes who were part of the doping programs of the 70's and 80's, who are now dropping dead. Do all the people who made money off of them, who encouraged them to use, who provided them with the where with all, the pushers, dealers and pimps (to call them what they are) really care or were the athletes just meal tickets, meat?

This is why I am left disenchanted with professional cycling and have had little or no interest in the international racing scene. If I'm saying this, as a life long cyclist, what are others saying? In America, I suppose it's is back to the norm, where the majority are oblivious. They are sold on fiction and fairy-tale.

I guess that I will start to believe when things really do start to change. When a race like the TdF has massive dropout rates, which would be expected of any other super-human feat or when a race like the 150 mile Paris-Roubaix isn't continually being completed faster and faster year over year (apples to oranges but this year was the slowest average since 2010) . I'll believe it when I see the data that suggests it. Then, we can truly stop believing in fairy-tales.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Still Winter

Despite a couple of contradictory days earlier this week, winter does not appear to be done just yet. Makes for a nice picture though.

View of the Presidentials from Jefferson on RT2

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Minor flooding of the roads
Do you ever have those days that make you question your decisions or choices? I assume that everyone does really. They are the days or times that test you, and your conviction. No, this isn't always some weighty, life decision. It can be something simple.
Sure, I have those other moments that test my life decisions all the time. Should I really have gotten out of high tech even though I hated it and it was driving me crazy? Perhaps not, but I did and I feel much better, albeit poorer, for that decision. Should we have adopted two cats a little more than four years ago? Well, two cats are probably less work than four cats, though they are small and don't take up much space and all told, don't eat that much. Should I have raced road vs. MTB last weekend? In hindsight, probably not. Racing road just frustrates me. I learned that long ago, which is why I've mostly retired from racing on the road. In a word, I'm a "poor" road racer. This past Sunday reminded me of that. I just get so caught up in having fun putting in digs that I forget about the end game. Actually, in this case I didn't forget, I had a plan and I executed upon that plan and it failed, twice.
That is a small brook, at least usually.
We make choices and then we deal with the consequences of those choices. As much as we would really like to calculate, plan for and control all of the details leading to the outcome, in most cases that is simply unrealistic. In my opinion, the best you can do is hone your skills at adapting. It is like building basically anything, you plan and do due dilegance but inevitably, there is a design flaw that you are forced to deal with. Adapt, improvise and overcome. Honestly, that is one of the best aspects of woodworking, fixing your mistakes so the end result looks intentional. Maybe I just make a lot of mistakes so I get lots of practice but I've gotten quite proficient at hiding the flaws. As often as not, I do so through accentuation of the very issue. Add a contrasting decorative spacer piece to fill the gap. Between you and I, my granite tile countertop has that exact feature and it looks pretty darn neat.
Wet but warm-ish
Maybe this is why I like the idea of building things out of scrap material. I've created a number of wooden pieces from scrap wood and old pallets. One of my favorite ever is a patchwork coffee table with walnut scrap pieces and reclaimed oak and maple from pallets, complete with the nail holes. Something from nothing if you will is much more satisfying than using pristine materials. Anyone can build a level and plumb wall with straight wood but the true craftsman can do it with twisted Home Depot junk.

Anyhow, I started this post in my head last Tuesday evening, when I was riding in the monsoon. It occured to me that it was one of those days that made me question my notion to not only continue to ride every day, but to do so outside and not indoors on a stationary trainer. There have been a number of those days in the months since last August that I have ridden outdoors each day of, which have caused me to question the decision to keep riding. That said, the hardest part is always getting going, taking the plunge if you will. Once you are in, the water is often fine, as it was this past Tuesday. I've come to value those odd days that are the most challenging to get motivated for in the first place. I suspect that this is for the simple reason that overcoming the challenge of the  day itself, is an accomplishment which we successfully completed. The rest from there is all just gravy.