Archive: Vermont Overland Grand Prix: Crush and/or be Crushed

This is an archived post from August, 2014, on the old talltreecycles.ca site, rescued from the wayback machine. 

It’s finally happening. Dirt road racing is gripping the cycling world, shaking it up, and leaving riders asking for more. New events are popping up all over eastern North America, and this is just the beginning. On Sunday, August 24th, one such brand new event, the Vermont Overland Grand Prix, kicked off from Woodstock VT, and man, was it a day!

Many readers will know that I’ve been a D2R2 devotee and evangelist since 2009. Looking at the schedule for 2014, I’d intended on doing a family vacation down to Deerfield, head up to Woodstock VT the next day, then spend the week in the area leading into the Dirty 40 the following weekend. As luck would have it, work realities precluded both the week-long option, and the ability to bring the family down for D2R2 and/or VT Overland. They were bummed, as D2R2 is always lots of fun for them; no, they don’t ride it. It’s just them, the fields, flowers, the river, and a couple local attractions. The logistics didn’t work for me to head down for D2R2 alone instead of spending Friday with my kids, so focus shifted entirely to the Overland.

Unlike certain other dirt road events, the route for the Overland GP was not publicized. What we did know was that it was 51 miles (80km) long, had a lot of climbing, and a bunch of ‘Vermont Pave’ sectors, which are Class-4 roads that are not maintained in the winter. Essentially, these are some of the oldest ‘roads’ in the area, and consequently, rather eroded. Ottawa-area locals might picture the sectors used in the OBC’s Almonte Roubaix. Same sort of surfaces, with the key difference being elevation change. But more on that later. Leading in, the specifics were unknown to us, leaving tire choice feeling a lot more like gambling than strategic planning. Iain Radford and I were the sole Tall Tree Cycles riders heading down, and we both settled on the largest slick tires we have: Compass Hetres in 650B x 42mm on his Specialized Crux disc for Iain, and Compass Barlow Pass Extra Leger in 700c x 38mm for me on my Steelwool Truffle Pig. Our experience indicates that tires with very minimal (read ‘herringbone’) tread grip well enough in the woods to work out, unless there is significant mud, and/or really steep grades. Tread doesn’t tend to do much for you on dirt roads, and we wanted to be able to roll fast on everything that was hard packed. With as much volume as we had, the worst impacts shouldn’t pose a huge risk; cutting tires on sharp rocks would be the greatest danger. Gearing was as low as we could go, Iain on a 34×34, me a 39×36.

Saturday had us in the North-East Kingdom for our stay at Mike Lowe’s (Full Cycle) place, a beautiful house on a hill with a view. Mike led us on a quality-filled 47k loop Saturday afternoon, taking in his favourite dirt roads and a bit of the Kingdom Trails system. It is truly incredible how much variety there is in the area, how beautiful the surrounds are, and how high the quality of the riding is. We felt lucky to only have to travel 4.5 hours to tap into such fantastic riding, and to have such a great host sharing it with us.

Out the door at 06:00 to drive an hour and a half south to Woodstock, our jaws dropped as we pulled into town. Stunning. I had no idea what to expect from Woodstock, but what we arrived to find was a gorgeous town along the Ottauqueechee River (close to the magnificent Queechee Gorge). Rolling to registration along the main street, we passed one after another, heritage buildings in terrific condition, housing unique businesses of all kinds, from The Shire Inn, to Wilgren and Barlow Antiques, First Impressions Salon and Spa, Mon Vert Café, and Daily Grind Coffee – to name a few. Robust gardens of wildflowers lined the street, closed to traffic for the duration of the race. ‘Wow, our families would love it here,’ Iain and I agreed. Another gem revealed by a bike event.

Swag from some of the event’s sponsors: Owl Energy Bar (top quality and delicious!), Laurie’s Insect Repellant (the kids love it! http://on.fb.me/1C3hLS7), Vermont Spirits (we sampled their bourbon; it was terrific!), and The Bike Shop in Woodstock (didn’t need any emergency service, super!).
Fun event shirt, sponsored by Long Trail Brewery and Vermont Spirits. The beer was fantastic, as was the bourbon.

The Race

Approaching our 09:00 start time, the call ups began, and didn’t end for a while. Being Ottawa residents, we don’t tend to know too many of the New England cyclocross stars, but we recognized a few: Tim Johnson, Jeremy Durrin, Gabby Durrin (formerly Day), Elle Anderson, Ansel Dickie, Anthony Clark, Dan Chabanov, Will Letendre, and Alec Donahue (whom I’d watched in an interview about coaching recently). Of course, we knew Derrick St. John and Natasha Elliot from Ottawa. This would hurt.

What followed would be the hardest race I can remember.

Have you ridden D2R2? Can you imagine racing 80km of it? That’s essentially what we did. Except the downhills were harder, and there were full on trail sectors.

Iain and I started off fine, moving up to the front without issue while someone crashed on a large pot-hole and took at least one other rider with him. I am not accustomed to seeing pot-holes that size on dirt roads: over a foot in diameter, and 4” deep! As the climbing kicked in, we were soon part of a selection of perhaps 20 riders. All was fine until we hit the first sector, at which point it was GAME ON. I say that being a mortal, whereas, for the pros laying it down, it was likely tempo. Iain and I followed the pace as well as we could, the pack fully strung out, climbing and climbing the rough, ancient road. Immediately I felt unusual, not myself, perhaps still recovering from the previous weekend’s Mississippi Mills Grand Prix stage race http://www.ridewithrendall.com/events/mmgp2014/ . Or just not good enough. We chased back on off the top, and the elastic band stretched once again on the next sector. Dropped. Chase. Back on. Dropped. Chase. Back on. So it went for the first hour of the race.

Progressively demoralized – just like so many CX races – I was seriously contemplating sitting up and waiting for Iain, wherever he was, then touring the rest of the course. ‘They are too good, you’re done. Just sit up. Wait. Then roll. No, just keep pedaling. Who knows what will happen.’

Iain passes and I let an expletive go to communicate that I am having a very rough time. He can tell I am in a dark place. He doesn’t drop me, but keeps me close, pacing me as we continue up whatever ungodly climb we’re grinding up. We come together as the grade drops. “We should stay together and try to reel guys in; others will come off too.” “For sure,” Iain responds, “If we just work together we’ll be ok.”

If you’ve never been in this sort of position, you might not have any idea what it means to have an ally, a team-mate, when you are suffering and want to quit. It’s huge.

We quickly establish our strategy: I pull on the descents and wherever it’s flat (almost nowhere), and Iain pulls on the climbs. He can gap me a bit riding his own pace, knowing I’ll close back as soon as the grade drops. It’s a system. It’s simple. It’s all we can do.

A rider is ahead, but we want to blow through him, not have him attach. That doesn’t work; we are 3. Four riders are ahead, broken off. Together, Iain and I try to snap off the weakest, but none do; we roll on, just steady. Too slow, 4 or 5 have joined us. This has to be it, no more stragglers. It is. This is it. This is our race. One or two might come off ahead, our of the 6 or 7, but that’s it. This ain’t no ‘chase group.’

These dudes are climbers. Except the one other guy who is actually a little bigger than me. Just keep on doing what we are doing, stay close on the climbs, be safe in the woods. My chain jams as we roll into a descent and Iain doesn’t notice. I jump off, un-jam, chase back on. But it’s not easy. These roads are tough, you can never tell whether the radius of a turn will tighten, or whether a tough intersection is approaching. My tires grip well, my brakes work great; I am pushing the bike hard.

I roll into the one sector that is all downhill first and roll it unfettered. Alec Donahue comes by, no problem. He’s good wheel to follow, safe. The final, 7th sector is almost too much. Climbing and climbing, Iain is chasing four others, and I’m dangling. I’ve passed a few, including a rider we came onto from the lead group, destroyed. My legs are out of power. Not hurting; out of power. But it doesn’t matter, I have to keep pushing the pedals over. My God, that’s the top.

Do I have a flat or what? This last sector descent is rough, then grassy. The hissss sounds like a flat, but it could be the grass. I’ve already got a dent in my rear rim from some impact that didn’t puncture my tube. Love that. I don’t have a flat. Ansel Dickie wasn’t so lucky; we pass him on the roadside with a puncture.

Iain, then I roll through the ditch onto the dirt road and easily use the descent to reel in the three who gapped us. We are five, and this feels like the final group. It’s the other big guy, Matt Mitchell (545 Velo), Chabanov (CRCA/Foundation), and Austin Vincent (CyclocrossWorld.Com Devo Team), Robin Liston (Mason Racing). Inside the final 3k, Mitchell attacks and I am the only one to go with him. We’re both bigger, with the same sort of ability, so this is good. I let him work hard, then take it up. The others chase on. Somewhere in the mix, Vincent tries to cross a covered bridge in the middle channel, and crashes. Iain is almost taken out, and has to chase back on. Fortunately, Vincent is uninjured.

“Owwwww!” Mitchell has given away his status: suffering. I bring the pace up a little to make it harder on him. It works. He’s blown. I ride off, the other three gapped, Iain waiting for the others to chase. They don’t, so he breaks from them, coming up solo. Liston chases on, trails Iain, and is trying to get to me as we are inside the final kilometer.

We have no idea what the finish looks like. Poor planning. I’m funneled into a narrow channel along the right of the road as traffic moves on the main street up from the start/finish area. Is this it? I’m pinning it as if this is the final. Liston is chasing, Iain leading. But wait, there is some sort of steep climb near the finish, so that’s coming! I’m channeled in a circuitous route through alley and over a pedestrian bridge before getting shunted up a paved muur, then an unpaved up, ascending the backside of town. Full gas, I know that I have nothing to lose; all I have to do is get up with a little gap, and I can hold it. I increase the gap over the top, hit the hairpin switchback fast, exit onto the main street straight, look back, see lots of daylight, and can pedal it in without having to go full gas. Iain cramps and can’t hold off Liston. Great finale. We’re happy, and optimistic we might have pulled a top-10.

Iain is 9th, and I am 7th. We’re so happy. From feeling utterly dejected, to riding a really good race, we’ve ridden smart and pulled off just about the best results we are capable of. ‘Just about’ because Alec Donahue had slipped off in the last sector, and Iain and I didn’t know, so didn’t drive the pace to catch him. He finished 6 seconds ahead of me, with Tim Johnson in 5th about 6 minutes ahead.

Derrick St. John spent 60 of 80k on a solo break, to be reeled in by Anthony Clark and taken in the sprint as he cramped. $1000 to Clark, $150 to St. John for the KOM points. Durrin rounded out third. Chapeau, gents!

Natasha Elliot suffered a time-sucking mechanical that put her out of contention, unfortunately. Gabby Durrin (Neon Velo Cycling Team) was victorious, followed by Elle Anderson and Marti Shea (Destination Cycling). Congrats, ladies!

Check out an animation of how the race unfolded here

Here’s the race, as recorded by my Garmin.


Photos by Ryan Dunn

Photos by Scott Smith

Iain and I were delighted to find a stunning spread of food and drink provided to racers on a side-street after the race. It was second only to the Ride of the Damned’s spread, catered by The Foodery, though their provision of local beer and spirits samples draws the margin awfully close! Bowtie pasta salad, quinoa and lentil salad, black bean and arugula salad, two varieties of local sausage, peaches and desserts rounded out a perfect offering. The resounding impression I got was that the whole community, from commerce to the public, were behind this event. It felt like a team effort motivated by passion for life rather than profit. I immediately asked myself what it would take to create such ambiance in Ottawa, and I think the answer is ‘a miracle.’ The more cycling events I do in far-flung locales, the more I learn that small communities can pull off things big ones either can’t or simply don’t. This was a heck of a well-run race – particularly given the fact that it was the first edition – and we didn’t encounter anything but hospitality and competence throughout the whole experience. The Overland VT motorsports club that was the backbone of the event had riders on motos up and down the race course, and they were ace riders (if not perhaps a little overzealous at times…). Iain an I discovered a town we didn’t know existed, and we’ll be back with our families to stay overnight and spend money at the local businesses. And we can’t be alone. Everybody wins. As my wife says, ‘Bike races take us places.’

Thank you to the whole Vermont Overland Grand Prix organizing team and volunteers for putting on an amazing race, and to the whole community for your understanding and support. Thanks to our fellow riders, those who were out to suffer and out to tour alike, for making the race great. And thanks to Iain Radford for being a fantastic team-mate.

Chapeau to Doug Corner, Peter Schuk, and David Bilenkey of Ottawa for being among the brave few who rode D2R2 on Saturday, then Overland on Sunday!

This coming Saturday brings the next dirt road racing round, the Dirty 40 (day-of registration is possible). With another stacked start list shaping up, it’s going to be another hard race. Can’t wait!