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.


Adventuretwin said...

Great review - thanks! I was thinking about riding my 29er hardtail and after reading this, it's an easy decision to chose it.

zencycle said...

Hardly sounds like "legitimate spring gravel road racing" to me....

mkr said...

Well, where I'm from, this is what gravel is like in the spring, especially early spring.

Mac said...

Gonna break out my old MTB that I've had for 23 years, my old rigid Giant ATX 760. Should be brutal and memorable.

Judy Stermer said...

thanks for the review and your words of wisdom--i appreciate the time you took to share this with all of us. and love that quote "hard like woodpecker lips."

mkr said...

Not a problem at all. We really do want to make sure everyone is prepared as best as possible and has a great time. No stress, just riding bikes. The adventure and memory it creates is what this is all about. That is why we all do it. The quote is from my friend Eiric Marro, a man who is as tough as they come.

Carly said...

Thank you for the great info and pics! After reading this and seeing the forecast, it is mtb for me for sure. Should be a muddy good time! :)

Don Loveless said...

I just finished Land Run 100 out of Stillwater, OK. There were several mile plus mud sections that required carries. Is the mud in Vermont the consistency of peanut butter mixed with maple syrup? Any tire recommendations for cross bikes?

mkr said...

Tire choice depends heavily on conditions. If soft, go for the biggest tire you can fit and I prefer file tread for everything save loose and rocky. Plenty of grip and low rolling resistance. If rocky and loose I'd go for something with more tread and a thicker casing to help prevent tears or punctures. I've punctured through the tread of semi slicks on sharp rocks a number of times. Good luck and have fun!