Wednesday, April 15, 2015

2015 Rasputitsa Report

Pre-ride in early March
When Heidi told us last fall that this year's Rasputitsa spring gravel race would move from Newport to East Burke, VT and then asked for route suggestions, knowing that we ride the area extensively, one route immediately stood out in my mind. It was a route that had all the makings of an epic adventure, given the season. One that Cathy and I rode frequently and enjoyed greatly. One that was familiar and close to home and one that had a built in Cyberia section that, depending on particular conditions, could be epic.

That route, with a bit of rework on the front side to try and lengthen it out a bit and get us off from any main roads, ended up being the course for the 2015 Rasputitsa.We were excited to have what we felt was a "home turf advantage" but at the same time, knew full well just exactly how challenging this particular course was going to be.

Just over one month to go and frozen
And then winter set in. At first we shrugged it off, enjoying the snow and the fat biking and the time away from the roads. Along about March we decided along with friends George and Rebecca to give the course a go, on fat bikes. It was a warm winter day, warm for this particular winter anyhow, with temperatures in the mid twenties and a rapidly strengthening sun that made appearances throughout the day. The first part of the course, the lower front side loop, was in pretty good shape and mostly frozen still. The sun was starting to melt some of the snow cover though and there were mildly wet spots here and there.

Climbing up Victory Road from Burke to Victory the climate changed and soon we hit full on winter, with cold blowing snow covered roads. Descending out we encountered a few spots of ice but nothing that was too terrible. The issues started, however, when we were on River Road, the downhill trending mainly flat road through the heart of the Victory Wildlife Management Area. The road was snow and ice covered but also frozen rutted with significantly more melt going on.

Up Victory Rd toward Victory
The issue was that the air temperature was still in the mid twenties, so the melt quickly re-frozen on the bikes, rendering cables and derailleurs useless. We had to stop a few times to get the bikes chipped out and Rebecca had massive issues with her's, while George was on his single speed fatty anyhow. Still good stuff and with the fat bikes, we rode the seasonal ClassIV road over Kirby Mountain which is sled trail in the winter and would come to be known as Cyberia. Slowly though as conditions were soft and loose, the common theme of the bulk of the winter to that point. Some mud late in the course was slow but still, not even close to mud season.

Fast forward a month and oddly enough, not much has changed. Sure, the daylight hours are extending but we still have two plus feet of snow on the ground and it still hasn't really gotten much above freezing for any extended period. Worse, we have been picking up regular snow. Another course recon with friends Jason and Jamie yields some sobering realizations that conditions are most likely going to be pretty rugged, beyond the difficult nature of the course itself. Mud, snow, ruts and frozen bikes pretty much summed up the day. Cyberia was snow covered but I managed to clean it all, on the CX bike. The mud sections were extreme and parts of the course were still dead of winter. We all did our best to prepare ourselves and everyone for what the course looked like day by day. The hope was not to scare people away but to make sure that they were adequately prepared to have the best and most enjoyable ride possible.

Ran into a little snow on the pre-ride.
One week later and it is go time. Cathy and I spend a couple days prior to the race at camp just a mile and a half off the course getting some recon in as well as doing chores like baking cookies and making donuts with my mom for the race. My parents along with my brother were volunteering to marshal at the end of Cyberia and I set them up with a pop-up tent, a fire-pit, a water jug, a cooler full of High Life and a spiffy banner thanks to Heidi. We picked up some additional snow during that time, adding to the 6" we'd gotten the previous few days. Gravel road conditions were bad but changes daily. Rain Friday afternoon made for a slightly soggy last minute pre-ride of the front side of the course. I wanted to hit it hard and see what the average speed might look like for the race. In hindsight, I may have hit it a little too hard as I certainly felt that effort the next morning.

The roads were a little muddy.
Friends Jason and Kara stayed with us at camp and we had a good, low key dinner and some conversation and then went to bed early to a camp that was at about 90 degrees from the overzealous wood stove antics. At the venue we chatted with friends we'd not seen this season and prepared for the race. Although we had ample time, neither of us really got in any kind of warmup. It's a road race after all, with a neutral start. That's plenty of warmup, right? Soon we found ourselves on the line, shivering from the wind and cold. Announcements, some ALF dance moves and soon we were rolling.

Great crowd of hearty folks
As with all mass start events like this the start was a bit chaotic. The 25mph "neutral start" ends and the adrenaline and folly send folks on MTB's with loose jackets flapping wildly in the air to the front only seconds later to come straight back through the group as the acceleration continues beyond their capabilities. The middle swarms the front, taking up the whole road as those caught in the middle of the pack try to get to a side to move forward when the real surge occurs. Some creative passing on the dirt shoulder and I'm in a good spot exactly as the real effort begins and the bulk of the pack fades off. We head up the punchy first climb hard with Matt and Ian drilling it over the top and onto the Darling Hill gravel section. A small group of four forms and I chase but when the road trends up I feel the effort. Another group forms, the group I need to be in comprised of most of the top masters racers, but I falter over the crest and loose contact. The descent to follow is tricky but people are flying down it. I'm completely pegged and when the down turns to slightly sloggy flat and then up, I can not make the grade. And so I chase, alone.

After Burke Hollow, in the chatter, I loose my bottle. Knowing that I'll need it, I turn and head back for it. At that point Lee Wassilie comes by me and so I bridge back up up to him. Soon we are joined by Kevin Church, on his single speed. And I thought that I was suffering. The three of us work together as best we can given the conditions. Not much drafting going on. Kevin has to push the hill to turn the gear over and Lee has a much bigger small gear than I. I'd opted to run super low (11-36 cassette with SRAM Type 2 MTB derailleur) gearing on the Cannondale SuperX disc CX bike, fearing a mud-bog race. I also knew every part of the course and was well aware of what lie ahead. I could not believe the pace people were laying down and knew that if I did that, I'd collapse on Cyberia or it's approach. My hope had been that my snow riding skill would allow for a big gain there but that hope was long since gone as I knew the 1.3 mile ascent was all but unrideable and assumed that much of the 1.8 mile descent would be as well.

Ready for the start and what lies ahead
So I sagged the hills, spinning the lower low gear and losing ground to Kevin and Lee. Luckily I was able to catch on the flats and descents. When we hit Victory Rd and the first real sustained climbing, I made it clean to the small group what was in store. Kevin was still pushing hard and I kept telling him to just maintain, preserving his lead in the SS race. Lee was climbing very well also though his big gear was certainly weighing heavily. Just after the feed zone, when the road kicked up again and also got soft, Kevin blew. That was the last I saw of him. Lee got ahead of me and remained there over the top and down to River Rd, where I rejoined him. We worked together on River Rd as best we could and picked off stragglers from the chase group here and there. The surface was very good in places but full of pot-holes and power sucking mud in others. There was, as always, a headwind that played with your mind on the downward trending six miles of hell.

Then we came to Victory Hill Rd, the first of the two climbs up to Cyberia. It is about a mile and a half long, starts gradual and kicks a bit at the top. The surface was soft and sucked the life from your legs. Getting past that you turn left onto Master Rd and the grade increases dramatically for the next half mile then flattens for another half before dropping you at the doorstep of Cyberia. At that point Lee had put a hundred or so yards on me but I could see a numerous racers up ahead, trudging through the snow. I fumbled around trying to ride, only to fail and resort to walking. Eventually I started to run and then walk with big steps, then run, then walk. Amazingly, this technique was working. I caught Lee and then caught a couple of others.

Cyberia - Cathy riding, Jamie not having fun
Eventually I hit a short icy section that I could ride, until of course I wiped out and went over the bars off trail into 3' of snow, head first. That sucked. Soon I was back up and making progress. I chipped away and passed some more folks. Then I could see Tom Francis up ahead, so I ran/walked to catch and pass him as well. He was the last and I had to assume that there were only a few master's ahead, two of whom were Jean-Francois and Leigh from the Canadian Trek Equipe team. I knew these gents well and have raced with them many times before. I wasn't sure if anyone else was with them, but knew I'd not caught them for certain.

Near the top of Cyberia I was again able to ride which helped recover my aching back a bit before the descent. Speaking of the descent, amazingly, it was rideable. No, it wasn't fast or easy or pretty but it was quicker than running. I descended as hard and fast as I could and before long, I saw two ahead of me and soon realized it was Jean-Francois and Leigh. Luckily I caught them just as we came out of Cyberia, right where my folks were setup. It was important to me to try my hardest and make a good effort as this was the first time my family had seen me race. I'd spent the race thus far disappointed in myself for not being able to hang. Catching back onto the masters group at least was some vindication.

Cyberia - March of the damned
The guys pushed super hard down the Kirby Mountain Rd descent into North Kirby. This road had been really poor that morning and is a very fast, technical descent on a good day. Naturally I was a bit timid but at the same time, didn't dare get dropped again. As it flattened a mile later I bridged the small gap and rolled back onto the group as we started the short paved climb by the sculptures onto Ridge Rd. Oddly enough, I was now slower on the descents but could make up the space on the flats and ascents. We shared the work when possible and I tried my best to cling on the descents. On the Brook Rd descent they gained some space and I had to chase hard when we hit Hunger Mountain Rd.

At about a half mile to go I rolled over the final small knoll first and stayed at the front keeping a solid but steady pace. I'd not really seen the finish but knew there was a snowy chute. With 1km to go I picked it up a fraction, trying to stay on the front. We made the corner down the drive to the snowy chute and I pushed a little harder. Just as we hit the snow Jean-Francois came by on the left and I got caught in a rut and crashed. Leigh narrowly missed running over my bike as I scrambled to get up and moving. That was it. We each rode or ran the descent as fast as possible but the small gaps held to the line.

Top of Victory Rd one week before the race
What a day. Optimism turned to despair turned to elation turned to despair turned to regret. As you can see, racing bikes is a very emotional process, if you let it be. Should have, could have, would have plays over and over in your mind. You analyze and replay. The only reality that matters though is did or didn't. That said, reflection can help better prepare one for the next time and regret to be a very strong motivator. Regardless, it turned out to be a very good day. There is no shame taken by losing the "sprint finish" to gentlemen the likes of Jean-Francois or Leigh. They are both outstanding cyclists and racers. We finished up 5/6/7 overall and 1/2/3 for the masters. It was nice that we finished so close together and it was great to see and ride with those guys, if only for the final 7 miles.

In hindsight, I wasn't physically prepared for the race. I suspected this beforehand as I'd done almost no intensity work. Sure, I had tons of endurance on the fat bike but very few really hard sustained efforts. My course knowledge and fear there of also got inside my head. I think that I was overly cautious with my efforts before Cyberia and a bit too conservative. The technique I used in Cyberia, the run/walk/run/walk and use long strides worked surprisingly well. I made all my advances right there and gained half a dozen places. I knew going in that this was going to be my wildcard and luckily, it was.

Cathy finishing up
Cathy had a great race. She decided to race on her Borealis Yampa fat bike and had a great time. She was also the first woman on that category and finished well in the upper middle of the entire fat bike group overall. Realistically, given the soft dirt conditions, the fat bikes were probably much less a disadvantage than they normally would be. I did some testing last week and it seemed that a fat bike was about 20% slower than a race MTB which was about 10% slower than a CX bike, on pavement. On squishy dirt roads with slow climbs and a 3 mile snow section, we are probably much much closer to a three way tie. Each bike had certain benefits and each had drawbacks. That is awesome in and of itself as it made sport of preparation and bike choice as well.

Anyhow, it was a stellar event as all of this series has come to be. Cathy and I as well as some others were talking and thought it would be fun to host a ride once the weather and conditions improve, on the same loop so that people can appreciate just how spectacular that is.

Friends had asked about getting us to show them our favorite dirt roads in the area. Well, these are. Come back and check them out once the weather changes. I bet you agree.

Monday, April 06, 2015

2015 Rasputitsa Recon II

Last Saturday, Cathy and I along with friends Jason and Jamie from the Coos Cycling Club did a recon ride of the 2015 Rasputitsa race course. This year, the Rasputitsa has moved south to more temperate climates while sampling some of the best and most challenging gravel that the Northeast Kingdom has to offer.

Cathy and I have a special connection to this year's course because, well, we helped design it. This is in our back yard, literally less than two miles from our cabin, and is a loop that we do frequently all year round. I also grew up just a few miles from much of the course and my family all still live right in the area. I fondly recall hammering my Chevy Chevette over these same roads when I was in high school.

Enough with the reminiscing, so lets get some background. Last year's Rasputitsa was a great event and we had stellar conditions. It was hard, there was no doubt about that. Nobody wanted this year's event to be lesser and given the stellar gravel there was to choose from, this year's course was mapped out. The loop samples some of the fabled Darling Hill made popular in cycling circles by Kingdom Trails and circumnavigates Burke Mountain and the Darling State Park and Victory Forest. It visits small villages like Burke Hollow, Gallop Mills, Victory and Kirby. It also traverses Ridge Road in Kirby, one of the most scenic and picturesque roads in the NEK.

It is a big loop and has no cut through sections. It is in places, remote traveling through a vast expanse of wildlife management area, the Victory Basin Wildlife Management Area along River Rd, one of the longest stretches of flat gravel locally. In order to connect the loop we travel over a Class IV town road from Victory to Kirby, VT which goes over Kirby Mountain. This is a seasonal road that is closed and the winter and serves as a primary snowmobile corridor trail.

The official 2015 Rasputitsa Course Map has been posted for some time now for the organizers. Look at it, review it, study it. Look at the climbs. Look at the descents. Note the grades and take into account the conditions and then prepare for them. The section of snowmobile trail is about 30 miles into the ride, after the longest continual climb of the day and continues to climb another 500' in 1.8 miles before descending out another 1.3 miles. Keep that in the back of your mind but also remember that you are about 7 miles from the finish when you get off the snow. My parents and brother are volunteering and will be setup right there marshaling that intersection and will have homemade donuts and cookies as well as some adult recovery beverages to help lift people's spirits. I'm also planning to have a fire pit there to help warm people up should they need.

With the winter that we have had, and in many ways are still having, coupled with a field of over 500 cyclists registered for the race and eager for details all eyes are on the social media for information. As mentioned, we rode the course last weekend on modified cyclocross bikes. We also rode the course last month on fat bikes. At this point, the course conditions are changing literally day by day. In many points on the course it will be full on mud season. In the NEK of VT that means 4WD vehicles are required, literally, to make it through and even then if you are not careful, you can find yourself in the ditch.

Other parts of the course may still be frozen and snow covered. This was the case last week with both the windswept crest of Burke Green Road and then again for the top few miles of Victory Road and then Masten Road in Victory. Of course, the entire 3.1 miles of the climb and descent over Kirby Mountain Road/Victory Road is unmaintained for wheeled vehicle use and under a couple feet of snow. The rest of the course, much like all of the course, will be varied. There should be no more snow but there will likely be soft gravel in places as well as some good long sections on Ridge Road.

In terms of the really difficult stuff, there was surprisingly little of it this past weekend. The worst road was the 1.7 mile ride from our camp to the course, with two sections that of quagmire that required walking. From there I personally was able to ride 99.9% of the course on my CX bike, with some very creative measures of course. Cathy was able to ride all but about the final .3 miles of the ascent on the sled trail up Kirby Mountain. That said, conditions were very favorable Saturday in that the temp was dropping and the wind was howling, crusting the corn snow top of the trail enough that we could make forward progress. It wasn't fast but it was faster than walk/running.

Do not count on the same conditions for that section this coming Saturday. Assume you will have to run the whole up and will be able to ride only parts of the down if and only if you are very good at riding in snow. I'm not bragging here but Cathy and I are very proficient at riding bicycles in snow. I'd be willing to bet that we spend more time riding and racing bicycles on snow than anyone else in New England. We also have bikes setup with tires and gearing that promotes riding in loose conditions. I'm guessing only a small handful of others would have similar success in those conditions. Please plan accordingly and have shoes that you can walk or run in for an extended distance.

That's about it for the course. Honestly, it isn't fast but it was pretty darn rideable if you worked really hard at it. It did take a toll on the bikes though. Our bikes froze up from the slush and mud re-freezing on cables, derailleurs and in the yolks of the stays multiple times. We foraged for sticks to poke, bang and prod the ice off and clear the systems. It was very similar to the 2013 Cyclocross Master's World Championships Friday AM races where bikes were literally rendered useless. I plan to bring a tool to aid in the clearing of mud and gunk and have it handy in my pocket assuming that I will need it even though it looks like we may be above freezing for the race.

In terms of equipment, I've been saying that given the current conditions, think of this more in terms of a muddy and hilly 40 mile MTB race than in terms of a gravel road race. I personally can not imaging trying to push a stock CX gearing ratio on some of these soft, loose, steep climbs let alone any kind of stock road gearing. If you can do it, kudos and I certainly hope you win as you would deserve to. I'm gearing closer to a MTB bike, even on my CX bike.

Braking is going to be a factor. We have at least a half dozen long, steep descents that are going to require effective braking. At least three of them are more than a half mile long and will need your full attention so as not to run into problems, especially given the conditions. The worst decent is directly following the snow section over Kirby Mountain at about mile 33. Pay special attention to that one and use caution. The mud, water and grit will grind brake pads to shreds quickly and efficiently. Make sure that you start with pads in good condition and if you have rim brakes, good rims that are not worn thin.Obviously, disc brakes will be a big advantage.

Make sure that your derailleurs are properly adjusted and aligned and be cautious with your shifts. Shifting under extreme load with a drive train that is stressed by the mud and grime may well result in either a broken chain or a derailleur in the spokes. Both can be very catastrophic. Though counter intuitive, this is not the time to use that old worn out drive train as it would be more likely to fail under the duress that the day is sure to bring. We have all new drive trains on our bikes.

If you figure that you could be a contender in the type of race I have described, I'm guessing that a CX bike is going to be the fastest, barely. I think the most fun bike to ride over this type of terrain in these conditions would probably be a fat bike as it is the most stable platform. I don't believe it will be as fast though.

Alternately, a MTB is not a poor choice either. I'd guess there will be less than 20% of the course where drop bars may even remotely benefit you. Alternately, there is probably 20% of the course, primarily fast descents or technical climbs where wider, more stable flat bars on a MTB would be a benefit. What I am telling my friends who ask and whom are probably not vying for the lead group is to go with a MTB over a CX bike, as much for the lower gearing, improved braking and upright riding as much as for the added flotation. Honestly, I think many people would have more fun the MTB and it would be equipped far better to deal with the conditions.

Lastly, have fun. That is what it is all about and is why we do it. Few if any are getting paid for this. As I stated earlier, this is going to be as much a race against the conditions and oneself as it is a race against others. It will be a long day in the saddle and there will be times where everyone is out of it and off the bike. Assume that the lead group will finish in about 3 hours but also assume that it will take some double that time. Plan for it.

Set yourself up to have the most enjoyable day you can in spite of, if not in celebration of, the weather and conditions. Day's like this are the ones that will make a lasting memory, that you will look back on and recount for years to come. If you are not a proficient mud racer, set your expectations accordingly and don't assume that you are likely going to win.

Instead, enjoy the day and spending it with like minded folks who want to be part of something crazy and fun like riding bikes in some of the most horrific conditions imaginable. The kind of conditions that can rip the tracks off from tanks. Think of how far ahead this is going to set your fitness vs. the people riding their bikes around in a circle on some windy dry and warm course in CT. You don't get hard by being soft. This is going to make you "tough like woodpecker lips" to quote the oft saying of a good friend.

All of the info is out there so you should all know exactly what to expect. It is now up to you to plan accordingly. Everyone knows what they are up against. In terms of the course and conditions, everyone is up against the exact same thing. We asked for this and this year by gosh, we are going to get it. This is the real thing. This is legitimate spring gravel road racing.