Monday, April 11, 2016

Rasputitsa 2016 Course Recon - One Week Out

What a crazy spring it has been so far. The lack of winter was odd enough, in and of itself, but now we are getting a prolonged, nearly normal if not a bit on the cold side, spring. Strange new world in which we live and it's getting stranger by the day.

Starting out in fresh snow up top
This past Saturday, as in two days ago, Cathy and I were joined by our Coos Cycling Club friend Jeremiah for a recon ride of the complete Rasputitsa race loop. We decided to ride our Bikeway Source provided Cannondale Synapse carbon disc road bikes fitted with Clement X'Plor MSO 32c gravel tires, the bikes we'd been planning to race. As usual, we started the loop from our place, just a little more than a mile off the course at the bottom of the #Cyberia section, which is the ClassIV Victory Road over Kirby Mountain. We'd ridden that section just the previous day, so knew what to expect; mud and snow and really tough going.

We started out at a casual 10:15AM and at that point, the sun was up but the air temperature was still in the low 20's. Winter doesn't seem to be through with us just yet, though at this point in the year, the sun is certainly warm. Too warm in fact and quickly turns gravel road surfaces frozen tight from the cool night time temperatures into, well, slop.

Ridge Rd Kirby was in good shape thanks to the cold

The descent from the bottom of the #Cyberia section down to the Kirby Town Hall, a mile long double digit percent grade drop, was a bit sketchy as it was frozen and snow covered but not terrible. Luckily up at elevation things were still firm and it was still early enough that even Ridge Rd in Kirby was good and firm and we made out way toward East Burke on what is the end of the route, but for us was just the beginning. The descent down Brook Rd off from Ridge Rd was punctuated by frozen mud ruts and some snow cover in spots. That road is in a small river valley with dense tree growth on either side. It also faces west and this time of year, doesn't get much sunlight so is always in poor shape. It is also twisty with numerous blind corners so isn't the place to be a hero.

At this point we were still playing with good conditions and road surfaces that had yet to soften up much. The conditions down low, like on Mt Hunger Rd which is the final stretch before the drop down to the finish line was pretty dry in general and in good shape overall. This was mostly because it was still in the low twenties despite the forecast saying that we should get well above freezing on the day. there was virtually no snow on Belden Hill Rd, the drop down to the finish, but the road is washed in a number of spots and there was a little ice. Lose it here by riding over your ability and you will get a fun trip to the hospital I bet.
Starting to soften up a bit but nice views
And then we were through town and on the paved climb up Burke Hollow Rd, the start. That climb is way harder that it looks and people, myself included, have the tendency to go a little too hard on it. That decimates you for the upcoming rolling section of Darling Hill Rd which has three different punchy climbs on it, the third being the worst. Overdo on the paved start and miss the move and you could easily find yourself chasing for the next, oh lets say 30 miles. This section was still pretty good conditions wise though is bumpy and washboard.

The descent down West Darling Hill was fast but there were frozen ruts and chatter near the bottom. The road is one that can very easily get away from you. I have great respect for that descent. Bugbee Crossing Rd was much the same, firm still and in good shape at that point and with those conditions. In fact, even Brook Rd was pretty darn good though as we neared Carter Rd there started to be snow covering the road from the snow that fell the night before. This wasn't a problem at all as it meant that the road surface was still frozen. From Carter to Marshall Newland Rd conditions were firm and the descent, another tricky one, had frozen mud ruts, snow and generally aspects that required your attentiveness to navigate. The same with the descent down White School Rd. Firm and fast but rutted.

Back into the snow on Carter Rd
We then crossed RT114 and started what I assumed would be the section of the course with some very different conditions, the back side. Cathy wasn't feeling it at this point so decided to turn back rather than continue on past the point of no return. Jer and I continued and ventured up Victory Rd for the long multi mile climb that crested the course KoM and beyond to the height of the land. Conditions were still firm overall but the sun was starting to soften the bare gravel. Fortunately, much of the road was covered in snow, reflecting the sun and delaying the thaw. I absolutely adore riding snow covered gravel and both Jer and I were having a good time despite the steady upward trend. Truth be told, neither of us were out there killing it, that was not the goal. We knew there would be plenty of suffering to come, soon enough, so we chose to simply enjoy the weather and conditions that we were give.

Speaking of conditions, I mentioned that we were starting to see some slop and also that we were still below freezing. Well yea, what that translated to was frozen crud, on the bikes, and the drive trains. Stuff was starting to pile up and tolerances were starting to get tight. We topped out on Victory Rd finally and savored the long, snow covered, rutted but incredibly fun descent down toward Granby. By the time we hit the town center and crossed the Moose River, turning onto River Rd, we'd lost the snow and started to pick up some melting and sloppy, soft surface. We also picked up two sets of other bike tracks, tracks that were very evident in the soft gravel. Immediately I started wondering who it could be and quickly wondered out loud if it could have been a mutual friend we'd invited on this ride but whom couldn't commit to the timing. Jeremiah wasn't convinced but I still suspected it was our friend Jamie who'd started his ride over in Lancaster.

River Rd was typical
And speaking of the Moose River, I'm reading a book about the timber harvest from the 1800's in Victory and Granby. It was large scale and there were numerous mills along the banks of the Moose. The Moose was used for log drives, to get timber from the Granby and Victory down to Concord and StJ and to market. There was even a railroad that made it's way up into the basin and beyond. There are many remnants of this era still present along the river in the form of footings and other concrete structures, though the true extent of the once thriving population are long gone, only a fading memory to very few in an area which is now, nearly devoid of human presence.

River Rd never ceases to deliver early season. It trends downhill all the way and should be a fast, easy ride but inevitably it is always muddy, washboard and soft and or there is a headwind. That day we had the former. Six miles of seemingly endless slogging through the squishy energy sucking mud, mud that also froze to the stays, the seat tube and the drivetrain, a drivetrain that quickly stopped working.

That was a problem
Tires and rims were rubbing on the gravel encrusted ice that literally polished moving parts clean and devoid of lubrication. Luckily I have internal cable routing and disc brakes on my Cannondale Synapse road bike, which meant no cables to freeze up rendering the shifting useless. However, the rear derailleur cage was literally, packed in and frozen solid. We spent some time chipping the frozen crud from the bikes before moving on toward Victory Hill Rd and the start of the real climbing. At the bottom of the climb we stopped again and extricated another batch of frozen crud from the bikes. We also lost the sets of tracks we'd been following as they continued South on River Rd. At that point I knew that it had to have been Jamie doing a route he and I had discussed a couple of weeks back.

And then we climbed, what seemed an endless climb up the soft grade of Victory Hill Rd, about a mile and a half steady climb up to Masten Rd, where the grade pitches up significantly leading up to the ClassIV seasonal Kirby Mountain Rd and #Cyberia. The approach is daunting. River Rd is always way harder than it should be, on paper. Then the first grade on Victory Hill Rd softens you up, the second pitch on Masten Rd puts a real sting in the legs and then when the real fun starts you are pretty well worked over having gone more than a few rounds already.

Slow and meticulous going in #Cyberia
Having ridden this section the night before, I knew what were in for. It wasn't going to be pretty. Snow covered with deep mud ruts with flowing slurry runoff. Because of the easy winter, the road over Kirby Mountain has been getting lots of traffic from both local residents and four wheel enthusiasts. The bottom half mile of the road was also used all winter for active logging. The net is that it is in pretty bad shape at present. In many places the frozen mud ruts are over a foot deep and a truck tire width wide (roughly a foot). You get in them and you can not get out. The center of the road is highly crowned and off camber and when covered in snow, is nearly impossibly to hold traction on. You just slide out. The section that was logged has some sticks and other debris embedded in the surface as well, just for added fun. To put it bluntly, this section is going to be challenging. Last weekend it was mostly frozen. We rode almost all of the way up but it was slow and methodical going in order to maintain traction and not slip out. If this stretch gets soft, it could be a mess.

Snow and mud ruts #Cyberia
As I mentioned, we made it up over though we had to pull over for a vehicle coming up behind us. Local traffic is going to be a problem as they need to keep moving so as not to get stuck. The road isn't wide enough to pass. More, there are literally two wheel tracks that they WILL_BE_IN. We will have to yield to traffic, there is no way around it. What that means is we will have to get off the bike and get in the ditch while they pass. They will not and can not get off the road for you so do not expect they will and if you push them into conflict, there will be conflict. The people going over that road are either going to be the really nice couple whose front yard you rode through on the way up, folks whom live there, off grid year round and use that road all year. It is their road really and we are guests so treat it as such. the other people you may run into driving over are the other locals and trust me, you do not want to push them as they would be happy to push back none of us need that. This challenge will be part of the race this year. If you see a vehicle coming, get off the bike and run up the ditch to get around it then continue on your way. It won't be any slower.

Couldn't get going again #Cyberia
If you let the bike get away from you on the descent, with the mud ruts we currently have, it will hurt you. Remember though that is there are people coming up behind you on that descent, don't block them. If you are in the rut, that's fine, you own it, but if you are walking three abreast, single up so others can get by. There is nothing worse than the self absorbed who are oblivious to others.

The descent down for us last Saturday was slow but incident free. As we got further down the snow tapered but the mud increased. We reached the bottom, pretty happy to be finished.

The Rasputitsa course is a stout route in any season but especially in the spring and winter. I knew that when I first suggested that particular route to Heidi and Anthony. One of the most appealing aspects of the back side of the course is literally, just how remote you are. For those who didn't look at the map, that is the only road. There are no short cuts, no cut through sections. Once you commit you are either going forward to the end or turning around and going back the way you came. There are no stores and phone service is spotty. It's as close to a wilderness area as we have in that general area, in fact, River Rd takes us right through Victory Basin WMA.

And for that reason, I love it.

My best word of advice is to be ready for everything as I believe, that is what we are going to get. There will certainly be some terrific gravel roads but I suspect there will also be some of the most horrendous conditions you can imagine. It may well be a race of equipment preservation, one where you must meter just how hard you push your bike as much as how hard you push yourself. We'll see, maybe it will all dry up. Maybe.

But I wouldn't count on it.


Friday, April 08, 2016

Race Reports

It's kind of funny that what started out as having primarily race report content, has moved completely away from that topic. I've though about and even starting drafting some race reports but then, for some reason or another, I loose interest.

I think that fact in and of itself, is telling. The overall fact that honestly, I'm losing interest in racing bikes. I still love riding bikes, as much if not more than ever, but it's changing. Cathy and I have now raced steadily at a fairly high and competitive level for over a decade straight. This will actually be the 11th season. We've had some great times, met and become friends with some incredible folks and ridden and raced in many areas of New England and the country that we otherwise would not have.

However, the desire is quickly fleeting. Maybe I've lost the killer instinct that I once had, the desire to compete as much for self validation as anything. I got a small taste of success and victory and wanted more and more. It fueled the fire for years leaving me looking for bigger challenges that brought the hope of bigger successes.

But some where along the line it became hollow. When put into perspective, the relevance of said victories in the obscure sport of cycling is little more than the medal you receive. Are you better for those victories?

And then one day it all changes, and you stop winning. That's when the thrashing starts, to regain something which you have grown accustom to having, something which you are, at that point anyhow, unable to regain. This continues for some time but without looking at the real why, the root cause, no amount of struggle will help fix it.

At some point once you have figured out the root cause, you come to the cross road. Are you willing or able to make the changes to get yourself back to where you once were? Are those changes realistic and can they be made? Will it even work regardless of the changes?

For me, as much as anything, it comes down to will. Sure, I need to work harder but I also need the mindset, the edge that makes me want to suffer, that makes me want to make others suffer. The gritty truth about success in physical competition is that you not only need to be a masochist and derive joy from pain, you also need to be a sadist and enjoy inflicting pain on others.

Anyhow, I'm not sure where I am right now. We've been doing hard weekly road rides and there have been some glimpses of hope. The VOMAR ride last week, which isn't a race though it is, didn't go as well as I'd hoped. Still, given some of the challenges such as a cold that has settled hard in my lungs and won't seem to dissipate and completely frozen hands early on and course conditions that didn't suit my strengths, it wasn't all bad.

We'll see. Maybe I'll get super psyched for racing soon. Or maybe there will just be lots of epic ride reports in my future. One way or the other, I'll still be riding bikes.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Nine Hundred 71 Days

I keep saying that I'm going to stop, that I can stop any time that I want, maybe tomorrow, but not today. Compulsion, addiction.

Late last year I said at the end of the year. Early this year I said after 1500 days of pedaling a bicycle straight (which included riding on the indoor trainer at times for the first year and a half). lately I've been saying the goal is 1000 days in a row of riding a bicycle outdoors in New England, which it would seem is 29 days from today. During the winters, most of that time has been in Northern New England be it Western Maine or the Northeast kingdom of VT.

Riding outside every day, in every type of weather condition imaginable has taught me one simple lesson, the hardest part is always just getting out the door. Once you are on the bike and riding, it's all the same, all so very simple; just you and the bike. And of course whatever conditions you are dealing with be that snow, ice, rain or all of the above.

Some times you have to work at it a bit, in order to be safe, and choose your ride time and location wisely. For me though, I usually ride at the same time every day, logical after work around 5:30PM. In the winter that means it's cold and dark but that consistency gives me some semblance of familiarity, and peace.

The ride has become a daily ritual, almost a spiritual event at times, sure to happen as sure as waking on the day or going to sleep at the end. I won't lie, there are many days when the ride feels like drudgery, like a chore that simply has to be taken care of for the day, like cleaning out the kitten's litter box. I'm an excellent litter scooper and attack it like a science. It is, after all, my job. Everyone has to have a job and as I find myself lacking in gainful employ, I've adopted that as one of my few regular vocations, along with grocery shopping. It's just what I do.

And so I ride. In the back of my mind, as much because I can as I want to. My health is good so why waste perfectly good days without a physical celebration of that fact, a fact that we can not, must not, take for granted. One day that will change, whether we are present to recognize it or not.

So, as the brief sunshine is blotted by the clouds and impending rain, I look out knowing that I should get out and ride now all the while knowing that I'll probably just wait until the evening, and the pouring rain. Maybe I've become oblivious to the conditions, numbed to them, a slave to the inevitable ride that will happen, regardless. Maybe the conditions reinforce the memory of the ride which could all too easily slip away in the annals of the log, not even a memory.

Some times the most memorable rides, the ones you look most fondly and vividly back upon are the most  grim and grizzly. The late December 2015 NEK 50 mile 34 degree pouring rain ride is one of those that I will recall forever. The February 2015 nine hour 60 mile fat bike loop through remote wilderness which degraded into a slog through loose powder is another. The same fat bike loop the year before in reverse which two of us pushed each other hard to complete in only seven  hours is another. The 80 mile ride from Twin Mountain over Crawford up Bear Notch (in the snow and ice), over the Kanc and up through the bike path in Franconia Notch (also in snow and ice) and all on road bikes, with road shoes, is another. Too many to list but so many fond memories to cherish. Memories of actions through which we are self defined, or at least, I am.

In fact, a quick mental list of my all time most memorable rides includes epic rides that all had epic tales of suffering and misery. What does that tell us? I suspect we as humans are wired that way, to remember the bad as life lessons. Now what does that tell you, when those like me look fondly back at those events and worse, seek to emulate them moving forward. Gluttons? Masochists?

I choose to think of people like this as life adventurers. The road less chosen is where it's at. Life is about loops and not out and backs. Never take the same old path you've chosen before if you are presented with a new one to explore. You never know what may be down that path and you may be missing something, incredible, revealed by simply making the choice.

Ride on. Live life. #RideOutside365