From my perspective, as a course designer, my primary concern is safety. In the past we have had sections of the course that were above the ability of a number of the participants to successfully negotiate under certain conditions. One of those conditions is foul weather causing poor course conditions, another is fatigue and another still is the often poor bike conditions caused by the poor course conditions that compound late in the race. On a muddy, wet course many will completely chew through a set of brake pads during the course of the race and have little or no braking left at the end.
With that, the old course finish down High Meadow Rd which is a narrow, twisty and very steep gravel descent, concerned me. Experienced racers often take crazy risks at the finish of a race but when the inexperienced do the same thing, it is a recipe for disaster. So, for the past couple of months I've been working with the mountain and the land managers of the Burke Mountain Dashney Nordic Center to negotiate the usage of the Trillium ski and MTB trail to cut through to Dashney Rd which allows us to finish lower on the mountain. Permission to use the route was tentative and would come literally at the last minute, based completely on conditions. If it was dry or if it was snow covered, we could use it but if it was mud we could not. I was granted permission on Thursday evening and made the course change at 9PM Friday evening.
Why did I keep it a secret you may ask? Well, here was my rationale. In the past we have had issues with people trying to drive the course, the entire course, including the sections of course that might not really be road. I couldn't afford to have that happen and have damage caused to the trails by someone driving down them. It was as simple as that. So I published a video of the section which I called Tunguska, a moniker that unfortunately proved all too completely accurate, mid day Friday. The video is from me riding the segment on my gravel bike Wednesday evening in just under six minutes. So that's it, that is why. It's simple, it is really hard for tired folks to get hurt riding or pushing their bikes through snow at three miles an hour for .7 miles where as it is much easier on a screaming technical descent. It doesn't explain the missing sign that impacted many of the first ~150 or so people through that section. It was my fault and I accept the blame for that. There is nothing that I can do at this point except off my sincere apologies, learn from this lesson and strive to do better in the future.
With that, I also spent about twelve hours culling data from the finish results and Strava to create a theoretical finish order based on times not including the extra credit section that was not meant to be part of the course. By the way, two folks liked that section so much that they did it twice. Anyhow, the data was incomplete as not everyone had GPS or uploaded publicly to Strava so really it is simply an estimate but would give people a more accurate idea of where they finished up. If by chance you want to know how you would have theoretically finished based on time were the extra section not included and everything else was equal, I have a spreadsheet with that info.
Beyond this mishap, I think that the event was pretty awesome. I really liked the flow of the new course compared to the bookend brutality of the old. From the feedback that I have gotten about the course from racers they tend to agree with me. They liked the flow of this course, save maybe for the Tunguska section and of course, the extra credit section for those who were unfortunate enough to do that.
Enough about that though, lets talk a bit about the actual race itself, at least from my perspective from within it. This year I chose to join Cathy and ride my fat bike. Not because it was a better choice for the conditions. Not at all although I would say that this year's conditions and course mitigated some of the poor choice of the fat bike for a gravel race. I chose the bike to take the pressure off from the race and make it more about fun, which was part of the reason I used to race a lot of single speed back before it got really popular. I knew that there was a good solid field of racers signed up to do the race on fat bikes and I knew that I stood a much better chance of being competitive on that bike and in that category versus the open category, where I've seen a consistent back slide in my performance over the years. It was also a chance to race an absurd bike choice against everyone to see how it compared while still having the safety net of my own category to hide out in. I like that.
That said, the logistics of the mass start of 1300 racers of varying experience and ability all starting on a fast paved downhill was terrifying in and of itself but compounded on the fat bike with modern, full width riser MTB bars. There is a whole lot of leverage out near the end of those bars and if someone were to hook them at +30mph it would be lights out for me and many, many people behind me. Elbows out for sure. Here is the video of the start from Cathy's bike. This start really concerns me but even more when I thought about it after the event. Should we have a crash mid pack going that fast the sheer mass of the field behind could literally see people crushed to death like a Who concert. I hope that a way can be found to eliminate that start in the future before something happens.
this video from Cathy's perspective. My goal was to simply go as hard as I could for as long as I could to gain as much daylight between myself and anyone else on a fat bike as possible. I started near the front and kept an eye out for others and saw none ahead of me. Over the first climb I'd long since lost the lead group but was in a solid group in chase including JPow, who was heckling my bike choice, Chandler and Swifty. I lost some ground on the three gravel rollers but then made up some ground on the West Darling Hill Rd descent. I managed to keep my bottle and not crash on the array of potholes at the bottom of the road, a road already littered in water bottles when I got to that point. At least one person was not so lucky though and crashed pretty hard. This is another section that we need to avoid but have very, very few alternatives.
The Bugbee Crossing Rd to Burke Hollow rollers were tough at that point but I hung in and then slowly plodded up Sugarhouse Rd on the paved climb. Paved climbs in the middle of nowhere in VT mean only one thing, the road is steep and justifies paving it in order to keep it passable in the winter. They are not your friend nor a welcome sight as a cyclist. Onto the long false flat climb up Sugarhouse Rd I had the opportunity to ride with Swifty and we were able to make up some ground. Crossing Newark St we almost got tagged by a car who had no idea what was going on as we started out into the intersection. Need a marshal at that intersection for sure as it is also potential high speed traffic we are crossing. At that point it is the approach to Cyberia as Sugarhouse Rd degrades to Camp Rd and eventually becomes ClassIV and un-maintained in winter. The road surface went to wet gravel to slush and then to snow and ice. It was soft and heavy pedaling and started to take it's toll on many individuals and their equipment. I tried to press forward as hard as I could to make ground before Cyberia and the impending death march.
posted here. We thank you all so very, very much.
Out of Cyberia we rolled up into the climb along Baird Rd as the conditions went from gravel to wet gravel to slush, snow and ice. Winter again and the road was slick for which the fat bike was not really a detriment once again. This was become a recurring theme where the down sides to the fat bike were far fewer than I expected. Our bikes are pretty light though and roll really well. I was running arguably the fastest and lightest tires on the market, Schwalbe Jumbo Jim 4.0 aired up to near max psi. Those rolled on crazy light HED carbon rims with full carbon bikes. With pedals we are right around 25# for the bikes complete so it is hard to consider that much of a detriment.
By Center Pond we made good progress chasing hard to bring back groups and make forward progress all the while me trying to manage speed using the old spin-coast-spin single speed technique as I was a bit spun out. In hindsight I wish I'd have switched over to the 36t ring I'd planned to but forgot at home. That said, being spun out isn't always a bad thing I learned from years of racing single speeds. It helps keep your legs from loading up when you naturally shift to and try and push a gear that is too big. On Burke Green Rd we made the left jog onto Duford Rd and then back up East Hill Rd to rejoin Burke Green Rd for it's last little climb. I must say that I was simply amazed by the number of folks out cheering for us in places I would not necessarily have expected. It was simply amazing to witness and was greatly appreciated by all.
Cresting the top and heading toward the end I soon found myself at the right hand turn onto the Burke Mountain Dashney Nordic Center Trillium trail. The trail that I was able to ride on my gravel bike on Wednesday was now mostly deep corn snow over an icy base. It was rideable in places, not in others. The fat bike was actually a detriment in those conditions over a bike with narrow tires that cut in and sliced through versus plowing. Still I road and ran my way through picking up spots in general.
We rode down Dashney to Mountain Rd and into the Sherburne Base Lodge entrance then up High Meadow Rd to the lower Roly Grail trail entrance onto the slope for the finish. Cathy got some video of the final section into the finish here. I crossed the line to see the overall men's leaders finished. Fortunately they looped back around and found their way out. I dropped my bike and grabbed Peter from Vermont Overland to get me back out to the junction with a sign. Still with my helmet and muddy gear on we made it out in less than ten minutes and planted the course arrow as about the 150th racer to that point arrived. Many had made it through but the vast majority would never know that anything had happened at all.
This event came with many lessons learned. As wonderful and incredible as it is, there is room to improve. There are also areas where we have to improve such as outreach to the surrounding community particularly those towns directly impacted. This needs to be done well in advance. They have to know what to expect and we have to show them what this can mean to and for them. that is often a tough sell as most folks see no direct benefit. We also need to work to try and remove risky areas like the steep downhill neutral mass start and the West Darling Hill Rd bottom (though it is like this every year). Then we as racers need to be better about the yellow line rule and respecting the laws and oncoming traffic. If this were a USAC event, they would have DQ's the entire field. I've been in that position twice in the past and as harsh as it is, it is fair and usually justified if not impartial.
Still, another excellent adventure. See you again next year.