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.



bikenliftr said...

Great write up Mike.

mkr said...

Thanks. We actually had a fun ride Saturday despite the conditions. I actually adore riding on snow and ice. It almost made the mud and cold worth while. Going to be interesting this weekend for certain.

Ben Mills said...

Great report on the conditions! So hard to predict how this will change with the warm, sunny weather for the rest of the week.

Any thoughts on what to wear for the race? I bought a ton of cold weather gear, including some deep winter Lake boots, but the forecast is saying up to 63 F in East Burke. That's shorts and summer shoes weather for normal riding. I'm just not sure my summer cycling shoes can take the abuse from the (potential) thick mud.

mkr said...

Agreed, the temp is going to be as much a challenge as the conditions. I bet we barely see max temp by the end and by starting at 9AM, I'd bet it will only be a hair above freezing when we shove off. There will be wet feet for certain so I'm planning MTB shoes and full shoe covers just to keep as much crud out as possible. Planning short sleeves with arm warmers and have not decided on what to wear on the legs yet. I may stick with leg warmers just because it is going to be nasty.

mkr said...

Rode a good portion of the back side of the course last night. Wow, what a difference a few days can make. It's going to be a totally different race than last year, or anything we've seen so far this year.

Ben Mills said...

Mud, mud and more mud?