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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.