Dirt Road Racing: The road less travelled abuzz

The ‘Gravel grinder’ bike category might have just hit the mainstream on Planet Bicycle Industry, but the ‘format’ of riding the name depicts is the furthest thing from new. The race everyone knows well, the Tour de France, began on unpaved roads. Sure, there was some pave involved, but fans of the spring classics will know that pave, by today’s standards, is hardly what we’d call a ‘paved’ surface; pave is cobblestones. In other words, road racing was from the beginning quite dissimilar from what it is today.

As roads morphed into smooth surfaces, the high volume tires riders once rode likewise morphed into tiny, high pressure, aero-before-aero bone shakers. Except they were mounted to steel frames, which absorbed much of the vibration the average contemporary frame would transmit straight to your spine. As frames became more rigid (see aluminum and carbon fibre), the tires stayed the same, 22mm and 23mm wide being the standard at all competitive levels. But roads were degrading while frames were becoming more rigid, and less resilient, all the while shod in tiny tires.

Cyclocross started to really pick up in popularity around 2000 across North America. The postwar boom a distant memory, and municipalities strapped for cash, compounded in numerous juristictions by the volatility of winters precipitated by both climate change and regular climatic rhythms, roads were in atrocious conditions all over the place. Riding them on stiff bikes with skinny tires, while drivers chatted on cell phones was a shitty deal.

Riders everywhere gave up riding that shit all the time. At the same time, masses of first wave mountain bikers were transitioning to road riding, bringing with them an unconventional approach to road riding, bike set-up, and fun. Mountain biking offered the opportunity to rip around away from cars, in nature. Dirt road riding was the next best thing, relatively devoid of the risk of smashing trees and rocks.

So, for numerous reasons, people have been riding dirt roads for years, and in some locales, racing them too. Some races, such as Tro Bro Leon, in France, have long traditions, while others, such as the Barry Roubaix (Florida), and our own Almonte Paris-Roubaix (near Ottawa) have been running for decades. The latter, colloquially referred to as the ‘Almonte Roubaix,’ was started up by Ian Austen of Ottawa in 1990. At the time, all the roads used for the 80ish km long route were dirt. Since then, many have been paved, but the route retains numerous sections of dirt road, along with older unmaintanted ‘roads’ that equivalent to Class 4 roads in the US. Effectively trails, these sectors require careful bike set-up to balance the risk of punctures agains rolling resistance one the smoother portions of the route.

Dirt road riding and racing are thus very familiar to scores of riders, yet the bike industry has just recently caught on to the genre. Labeling anything with room for 28mm tires or larger ‘gravel grinders,’ bike companies are shamelessly jumping on the bandwagon, throwing their product into the ring. Among them, it is clear that some actually understand the genre, and others don’t. Thankfully, there are many cyclocross bikes that use ‘North American’ or ‘American’ cyclocross geometry (lower bottom bracket) available, which also work extremely well as dirt road bikes. I’ve experienced the difference of the extremes, having ridden a steep and high Pinarello cx bike on the same roads as my Steelwool cx bike with a low bb and slacker head angle. The difference in descending stability was predictably massive.

As the bike industry catches up, pairing higher volume, high quality tires with wide rims on disc hubs, the technology is finally catching up. Meanwhile, dirt road events are flourishing. One need only visit gravelgrindernews.com to get a sense of the magnitude of the number of events running in North America. Since most of us can’t afford to travel to the mid-west and beyond to race, we focus on the North-East for our dirt road racing/riding jollies.

Are we at the point where we can race a full dirt road season? Not yet. But we’re getting closer each year. The following is a breakdown of events within striking distance of the Ottawa region, many of which the Tekne team will contest.

Kickoff: The Steaming Nostril

Clarence-Rockland Classic – Hosted by local racing club, Ride with Rendall, the CRC is a unique race just east of Ottawa. Contested on a mostly flat parcours of paved and gravel roads, the CRC always features challenging cross-winds, flats tires, and team tactics. Starting out with a couple mellow climbs away from the Ottawa river that don’t inflict much damage, the parcours loops through farm roads south of the river, zig-zagging the grid lining farmers’ fields. The shit always hits the fan one the final climb, a short grunt, followed by two straights across the plateau, then descending into a false-flat finishing straight. Tactics are the name of the game for this race. It’s not a hard parcours, but it’s a very difficult race to win. Our riders always look forward to this race, and it’s a particularly good opportunity to crack the seal on the season, since group sizes tend to be smallish. Our riders always look forward to this one, and we’re still hunting for our first win.

Battenkill – This race in New York state, just south of the Adirondacks, has seen a fair bit of change over the years, first vying to become a full blown PRO race, then scaling back to focus more on regular elites and the rest of the bread and butter categories. Spreading categories over two days, and including a Gran Fondo into the schedule, Battenkill throws hilly paved and dirt roads at riders over a variety of route lengths. No climbs are truly BIG, but since the race falls early in the season, it’s often difficult for riders to get enough climbing practice in beforehand. Dirt road surfaces tend to be somewhat tame, but Battenkill seems to be trying to make the race more dirt road oriented each year, so it’s difficult to predict just how rough it will be in 2015. A small Tekne CC team will contest the race this year, and we’ll likely run 28mm tires and hope for the best.

Almonte Roubaix – As mentioned above, this is one of the longest-running dirt road events around, and it’s a favourite for Ottawa-area riders. The parcours is a mix of paved, dirt/gravel, and trails. The first trail sector arrives inside the first 5km of the route, and a selection always forms there. The race is typically fairly tactical, as the favourites – Osmond Bakker and Derrick St. John tend to be isolated, yet very strong. If you’ve never raced a bike before, this is a great one to start with, as many do. It was my first ‘road race’ I ever did….on a fixed gear.

Rasputitsa – What the hell is that? Russian for ‘the mud season,’ the Rasputitsa is organized by the same fols that deliver the Dirty 40 race, both in Vermont. The Rasputitsa saw legends like Ted King and Tim Johnson race its inaugural edition in 2014, which was an outstanding race. For 2015, the race moves to East Burke, and will thus feature a brand new course that includes three pretty big climbs. Class 4 roads will figure, but the extent to which this course will be gnarly remains to be seen. We won’t know until the preceeding two weeks whether it falls before, during, or before mud season. If during, the dirt roads will be very soft and thus power sucking. A couple things are certain: the race will be organized really well, and the completion will be tough. We’ll have a team there aiming for the podium.

Paris to Ancaster – I’ve never raced this one since it has always conflicted with local races, and it’s far from Ottawa. However, reports have always been glowing – despite the MASSIVE start lists – and some pretty fast riders have hit up the race recently, such as Jeremy Powers, Jonathan Page, Mike Garrigan, etc. The parcours is a mix of paved, dirt roads, and full on singletrack, a great blend for us mountain bike types. It’s not super long or super hilly, but the pace is high, and there is often a good deal of mud. This year we’ll have a small team in attendance.

Ride of the Damned – Coming into its 6th year, the RotD is our contribution to the dirt road calendar, offering up a different format than usual. Our Raudax format pits teams of 4-6 riders against a challenging loop from Ottawa to the Paughan Dam in rural Quebec, then back. The route is hilly, extremely scenic, and very challenging if the roads are dry and loose. It’s non-competitive; riding the course well as a team is what teams aim to accomplish, and every year, some don’t succeed on that front. The raudax format provides the opportunity for riders to learn how to help each other over difficult terrain, a skill that is significantly trickier than group-riding on ‘good roads.’

Vermont Overland Grand Prix – This race kicked off in 2014, and it blew our socks off. Figuratively, it kicked the shit out of Iain and me. We were not prepared psychologically for the onslaught of climbing we rode into with the leaders through the first 30km of the route. However, we dusted ourselves off, and rode a great race. The post-race fare of food and drink was stunning, solidifying our appreciation for the event. With many top-level cyclocross racers in attendance in 2014, the VTOGP is bound to attract many again in 2015, which will make for a very tough race for us again. However, every rider out there seemed to love the gnarly, hilly, super exciting course in 2014, so I think we’ll see plenty of riders out again to ride the race as a challenge event.

Dirt 40 Race – Twice on the podium for Iain Radford and myself, the Dirty 40 is a big target, and a great race. This one is shaping up to be the prototype for dirt road races, as it features a high dirt road to paved road ratio, is hilly but not extremely so, and the post-race fare is excellent. The race is very competitive at the front, and again, like the others, great fun for all ability levels. The scenery is beautiful, locals welcoming, and it’s about as close to the Canadian border as you can get!