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.

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