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.


Anonymous said...

Great post. My wife and I have a house near Lyndonville VT, and go there from Ottawa pretty much every weekend if you are ever looking for other folks to ride the gravel or mtb with. We race Single Speed but have lots of geared bikes at the house to limit the pain over the entire weekend.

George Lowe

Cathy said...

George - it is a very small world! We have a camp in Kirby, and my parents live in Carleton Place :) We should definitely get together to ride this season!

Cathy (Rowell)

mkr said...

George, would love to hook up. We are starting to think about pulling together a big old dirt ride and part up there. Our camp is on Kirby Mountain Rd, which is part of some stellar gravel riding loops. Shoot me your email address and we can keep the channels open.

Alec Petro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alec Petro said...

Nice write up and nice job Mike....you are keeping good company as well. Congrats! Best, Alec

Anonymous said...

Mike, my wife and I share an email account: bearkalane@mac.com

We will be back down on the 3rd of May. We ride Kirby mountain road all the time. Our house is on Sheldon Brook Rd and that is a main way for us to get back to our place.


lescaret said...

So that's what was going on up front! I'll see you up there next year!

Hey, good report, amigo, I enjoyed it.

Dubstoevsky of Team Shad

Anonymous said...

I'm signed up to do Rasputitsa single speed. I would really appreciate some tips on gearing.
Don Loveless
Tulsa, OK

mkr said...

The official course is not yet published but for last year's course and conditions I would think a stock SSCX race gearing like 40x17 would be stout, making the bigger climb to Cyberia miserable. I think that I would gear a bit lower, toward but not at 2/1. If conditions were dry and hard, stock CX would probably do fine, though the climbs would still be tough.