Dirty 40 Race: Flying too close to the sun


On Saturday, September 5, 2015, the Dirty 40 Race launched its third and final edition from Derby, Vermont. After introducing the Rasputitsa race in April, 2014, organizers Anthony Moccia and Heidi Myers have decided to move forward from here with a focus on the spring race that was an immediate success. Many will miss the Dirty 40, but we were all fortunate to be able to ride if while it lasted, and I’m sure everyone respects and supports Anthony and Heidi’s desire to maintain some balance in their lives rather than burn out. Well, I’m sure the organizers among us respect and support this decision, anyhow.

We had a good squad of riders down to ride the event this year, including Chris Simmons, Brian Robitaille, Mike Lowe, Iain Radford, Todd Fairhead and yours truly. Some of us would shoot for the podium, others a solid time. Ultimately, Brian and Chris would put in good rides, the former riding with Mike’s wife, Rebecca to her 3rd overall finish in the women’s category. Mike would ride a stellar ride to win the men’s singlespeed category, and 22nd overall.

This time I can’t really report ‘how the race was won.’ Things didn’t go to plan; I don’t have a great story of triumph. Instead, a cautionary tale.


There is a certain swagger one can develop after a string of good equipment decisions in bike racing. Starting in March, I got it right every race. Sure, at Nationals I flatted, but I was unequivocally on the best bike I had for the job, with the best tires I could use: the same ones I always use on that bike. Bigger? Not an option with the clearance I have to work with. Tires were spot on through all the spring races, or at least close to ideal. Vermont Overland felt like a win in terms of tires too, our last-minute swap worked out perfectly. So what went wrong at the Dirty 40? Iain Radford and I, like Icarus, looked to our past accomplishments to decide our bike, and thus, tire choices, rather than looking at what reality was presenting us: a fantastic, ‘true’ dirt road race course that favoured fast, high volume tires and low gears. Both of which fit on our cyclocross bikes.

Instead, we brought our aero road bikes with 25mm and 27mm tires.

How does one come to commit such a crime against the gods? Well, going back to 2014, the Dirty 40 race course was (according to recollection) exquisitely smooth, with just one turn of loose dirt I could recall. Uphill. Who cares, we could deal with that, right? After successfully racing my Cervelo with 25mm tires at the Clarence-Rockland Classic, which featured a bunch of chunky gravel, I figured: “D40 won’t be as rough, it’s worth the gamble.” After all, the last 10k or so was paved, we’d likely be in a small break (read, aero would matter more than in a big pack). Will Letendre would be there again (read, we’d have a tough job hanging on the longest climb), and then we learned three of the Louis Garneau guys would be there. That’d mean we’d have to go hard really early, really hard, and hold it. So, take a risk, use the most aero, lightest bike I’ve got and see what happens.

Clustering illusion: “The clustering illusion is the tendency to erroneously consider the inevitable “streaks” or “clusters” arising in small samples from random distributions to be non-random. The illusion is caused by a human tendency to underpredict the amount of variability likely to appear in a small sample of random or semi-random data.[1]” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clustering_illusion)

Taking a hard look at my decision process, I see that I succumbed to wishful thinking more than calculated risk-taking. Rather than consider all the flats I’ve had on my road bike this year (plenty, including a couple pinches on small rocks), I instead focused on three data points: 1) Clarence-Rockland Classic – no flat; 2) 2014 D40, pretty smooth; 3) Iain rode his road bike and 27s in 2014. What about the actual surface conditions for 2015? No idea, but I HOPED they’d be smoothish. Riiiight. What about the fact that my perception of the smoothness of the 2014 has a lot to do with the fact I rode 32mm Compass Extra Leger tires? I didn’t pay any attention to that. How about the fact that the descents of the D40 would put me around 80kph, while Clarence-Rockland has no such descents? Oops, didn’t consider that. And the fact that my road bike had a 39×28 low gear, while I’d had a 38×36 on my cyclocross bike the previous year? Whatever, I’d be ok with that, because we’d be going fast. Riiiight.

When the topic of tires came up amongst our club members, I divulged what I’d ride, and expressly stated I did not recommend it. I knew I was taking a risk; but how did I evaluate the odds? Honestly, I figured the only thing to actually worry about was crashing, and I felt like I could handle that side fine. Flat? Maybe, but I was willing to let fate decide.

My logic was crap; I created an illusion of my past and future. The thing was, even if it was rough, and I didn’t flat, my set-up would be slower than with bigger tires. All that bouncing would equate to lost energy, and greater fatique. Smart? No. So how did it go down?

Predictably, Garneau attacks on the first climb about 3km in, which falls immediately after the neutral lead-out ends. Knowing these guys can just ride away and stay away, I’m not going to sit and watch. I chase him down, pull up alongside, and ride his pace to the top. The counter comes shortly, which I follow, and this is how it goes for a while. Mathieu Boudier-Revéret offers some help, but it seems most are content to let me do the chasing and see what shakes out.

Two Garneaus and I get some separation around 20km in, and I’m on the ropes. There might be one more with us, I can only guess now. I lead down a fast dirt descent, set my turn, and feel my front rim push through my tire. Flat. I straighten out, ride to the side of the road safely, and watch the others, then the chasing group of 5 or so, including Iain, stream by. And they keep streaming by the whole time I change my tube.

Well, away I go, might as well try to reel in riders all the way to the finish. Just 80k to go…. I turn a corner after riding 40 seconds to see Iain fixing a flat. Lovely. We agree to ride a good tempo and try to work up as far as we can. He’s not feeling as good as I am on the climbs, so we take a little edge off to stay smooth. Man, the roads are rough this time, and the climbs don’t stop coming! ‘Good thing’ I have good legs today….

We catch up to Jean-Francois Blais, who’d flatted as well, and form a strong trio with a shared objective: keep moving up. We pass a Garneau guy who seems to be in rough shape. We’d learn later he attacked the chase group into the longest climb, augured his front wheel in a loose turn, and cartwheeled a couple times. He must have been pretty banged up.

15k or so to go, after what feels like an awful lot of grinding climbs, I puncture again. This time, my rear tire has a cut through it in the centre, and my tube has exploded through. I patch it at a leisurely pace, and we roll on, stopping for an apple off a tree along the roadside for much needed juice, out of water.

We roll in at 3:20:00. Todd has already arrived, himself having a couple incidents. Though he was riding what I’d consider a sensible tire, the tubeless Hutchinson Sector 28, he pierced it. His spare was a latex tube (not advisable), which he didn’t quite get all the way under the bead. Miraculously, it inflated the tire, sealed it, then the tube exploded out the side! And the air stayed in the tire! I’ve never heard of such a thing happening, as the valves of tubes would not normally seal to the rim. Nuts. I’m not sure how, but Todd also crashed, taking some skin off his lower leg. Thus, though he was able to ride in on his slowly deflating tire, he could have been happier. 27th.

Naturally, everyone I spoke to was shocked I rode such a stupid bike set-up. They all rode larder tires, and they didn’t flat. They had a great time. After processing it all, what seemed like a reasoned decision now seems like sheer stupidity. However, there are always lessons to be learned, rules to be created. In this case, I’ve decided I will never use a tire smaller than 28mm for any event that has more than a small amount of dirt/gravel. 28 will be the bare minimum, 32 the typical go-to. This means I could really use an aero ‘gravel bike,’ so if any of you industry folks out there have one you need a pilot for, send me a note ;). By the way, my 45mm Woven Precision Handbuilts carbon wheels did not even require truing after two flats and all that abuse. Impressive.

The food waiting for us at the finish was fantastic, an offering of more options than any of us could fully sample. The make-your-own burritos were a huge hit; I probably wasn’t the only one who LOVES burritos after rides. It was all a terrific cap to the day. Italian ice from the ice-cream shack went down pretty nice too! Despite our misfortunes, it was easy to have fun with the gang, not least because Mike and Rebecca put in astounding rides, probably personal bests. In fact, Mike experienced numb arms for the first time ever on the first climb, which means he might have pushed harder than ever before; milestone!

Oh yeah, Bruno Langlois and Olivier Brisebois of Louis Garneau stayed away to go 1-2 at 2:48:54, with Will Letendre rounding out the podium at 2:55:06. Leslie Robinson took the top step for the women, at 3:21:48, followed by Danielle Ruane at 3:26:04 and Rebecca Lowe at 3:33:32.

Many thanks to Anthony, Heidi, and Cassie for all their hard work, and for throwing a really good race and after-party. It’s incredible how much they accomplished in three years. Not least, the Dirty 40 and Rasputitsa have played an important role in moving dirt road racing forward. It’s clear that the genre is in demand, and all it needs to grow into maturity is more races for people to ride. The future looks bright for dirt road lovers!

Next up: Criterium Nationale in Montreal on Saturday, then it’s Rigaud to commence cyclocross season!


Photos on Flickr

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