'Praxis'

How the Race was Won: Rasputitsa 2016

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Photo: Rasputitsa

 

This is so nuts I know its nuts. I’m on the front wheel for the longest 30 feet of my existence, feeble arms fighting to push the front end forward, hips back. 

My back wheel is down! I slam my feet back onto, then into the pedals. I breathe. 

I’ve just gotten away with murder. Whatever happens from here is a gift. I’m a fugitive.

The Rasputitsa Gravel Road race, just three years old, is already a mainstay in the Vermont cycling scene, a cult classic in the making. For those unaware, Rasputitsa is a dirt road race. Rasputitsa is Russian for ‘mud-season,’ which is a time of year most road riders won’t be particularly cognizant of. But if you live in the North-East Kingdom, you know it well. With far more dirt roads than paved across the state, when the frost comes out of the roads each spring, the moisture forms a slurry that can be impassable. Bikes tend to fare better than cars and trucks, but the going can get incredibly slow.

That’s how Anthony Moccia and Heidi Myers like it for their race: hard. Why? Because that’s what the riders want! Rather than saying, ‘Hey, come do our race, our dirt roads are really nice, and our weather is usually sweet!’ they say, ‘Hey, come do our race, our dirt roads will probably be nasty and gnarly, and it will likely be cold and raining!’ And you know what? Over 600 people come.

This year Anthony and Heidi chose two New England not-for-profit cycling development programs to receive funding from the race. Little Bellas is a fantastic program run by Sabra and Lea Davison, the latter of whom some may know from her recent exploits at the top of women’s professional cross country mountain bike racing. “Little Bellas is a mountain bike organization whose goal is to help young women realize their potential through cycling. We aim to create a community that will empower girls through the sport, emphasize the importance of goal-setting, promote healthy life styles and recognize the positive effects of strong female bonds. While this program is centered around creating camaraderie for girls on bikes, it is most importantly about having fun in a constructive environment.” Awesome!

The other program the pre-ride raffle would benefit was Jam Fund Cycling, labour of love of Jeremy Powers, Alec Donahue, and Mukunda Feldman. “JAM Fund is a comprehensive year-round program with a mission to lower the financial barriers within the sport of cycling and to develop athletes who are cycling’s true ambassadors. As a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, our activities are made possible through corporate sponsorships and individual donor support. Each year we issue grants including financial and technical resources and professional training to aspiring cyclists who show enthusiasm and determination to do their best.” Fantastic!

Iain Radford, Jim McGuire and I drove down to East Burke Friday morning. Iain and I are very familiar with the race and it’s clan, as you might know, but for Jim, not only was it the first time down, but his first time riding hard outside just 5 weeks after separating his shoulder in his first BMX race weekend of the season. See, we don’t call him ‘BMX Jim’ for nothing. The big man throws it down on the little bike like a boss.

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Friday afternoon saw us arrive at our homeboy Mike Lowe’s place for some guidance on how to recon the Cyberia sector of the race route. In 2015, Cyberia was snow-covered and demanded a long run up followed by a sketchy descent down. The three of us pieced together a beautiful ride up to the sector from Mike’s place, and were able to ride up and over it in reverse direction, then forwards. It was soft and wet, but riding at full pin down the backside was not a problem. We were mainly concerned that we’d be forced to switch from our Compass tires to file treads in order to handle the descent, but since none of the mud was slick, there wasn’t any real turning to do, and there wasn’t really anything to dig knobs into, we happily decided to stick with what we had mounted. Iain and I were on the 35mm Bon Jons (latex and tubeless, respectively), and Jim rode the 38mm version with latex tubes. I was on about 50lbs rear, 47 front, and liked the way the tires handled everything we rode. All set for race day, just a little bike cleaning to do before bed.

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Race ready. Steelwool Truffle Pig / Woven Precision Handbuilts 55mm wheels, tubeless / Compass Bon Jon Extralight 35mm tires / 34/50 x 11-28 gearing / Silca NFS chain sauce

Race Day

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Photo: Rasputitsa

There’s a lot of fresh competition on the line this time around. Ansel Dickey (Astellas Pro Cycling) is back, after winning in 2014, and we’ve got Jake Wells (Stan’s NoTubes Cyclocross Team), a few Garneau guys, including Marc-Andre Daigle (Louis Garnea), Jean-Francois Blais (Trek-GPL) and a bunch of his team-mates, and Alec Donahue (Jam Fund) with a crew of Jam Fund riders, including their new recruit, Ellen Noble. Mike and Rebecca Lowe are on their singlespeeds flying the Rasputitsa colours, ready to spin like trackies on double espressos.

Garneau sets things off, Geoffroy Dussault launching a sharp attack on a shallow climb. I chase him down, looking back for Iain and Jim to see if they will come up. I don’t want to go off with just one, nor does Dussault. The pack catches on, Daigle counters. I follow and get on, again looking back for the guys. I feel ok, and can ride harder, but don’t want them dropped already. Ansel is further back, evidently not concerned, which I should probably be concerned about. The pack is deeper than last year; it’s going to be harder to form a break.

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Photo: Rasputitsa
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Photo: Rasputitsa
Matt Surch, Iain Radford Rasputitsa 2016
© Peter Kraiker | Kraiker.Photography
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Photo: Rasputitsa

I’m staying on the front, trying to avoid having to deal with repeated attacks when Mike Rowell takes the reins into a descending sweeper; it’s go time! We string out the front end of the pack, breaking it into pieces as the road rolls up and down.

It’s only been a few  minutes now, but that’s it, we’re separated: Daigle, Dickey, Wells, Butler Case (Jam Fund), and me. Iain told me just before this all happened that he didn’t have legs, so that’s that. Jim will do what he can.

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Photo: Rasputitsa
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Photo: Rasputitsa

We’ve been rolling this break pretty well now for a while. The wet stretches of dirt road make it undesirable to follow directly behind each other, so we’re not the most efficient train one could imagine. But we’re working fairly smoothly. Ansel is breathing hard on my right; is he having a bad day? Is it possible he’s not the guy I need to worry about the most? I’ll have to observe.

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Photo: Rasputitsa

Apparently the chase is only about 14 seconds off as we head up Victory road, the long climb before the Cyberia sector. I’ve been trying to determine how my legs are going to be once we hit the actual Cyberia portion of the long climb. It’s not very steep – none of this is – and I’m rolling at a solid tempo. It hurts, there’s been lots of that already today, but it’s sustainable. I want to keep the pace as high as I can sustain at the front so Ansel and the other two can’t attack too hard. Two? Case is gone.

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Photo: Rasputitsa

The guys trail slightly as I pull into the beginning of the Cyberia sector. #Wattagebazooka! Ansel passes on my right, out of the saddle, full sprint. I react – feebly, I admit – for about 5 seconds to bring my pace up, but not enough to red-line, then settle back into the hardest pace I think I can do. It’s not even that sort of thing, it’s more, ‘this is my speed’. Ansel has a solid gap, a good 30 seconds, and it’s slowly building.

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Photo: Rasputitsa

By the top Wells is beside me, Ansel is 50 seconds up. If Wells and I get out of here together, we can collaborate to chase Ansel. I’m confident he’ll want to. But we’ll have to make time on these descents.

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Photo: Rasputitsa

Did I mention Ansel was an elite downhill ski racer before turning to cycling? He’s fast.

I can’t get my chain into the big ring as we crest, but that’s ok. I’m up to speed, and everything is just like yesterday, I’m just spinning faster.

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Photo: Rasputitsa

Time is like an elastic band. Sometimes is stretches thin, leaving little room for experience, other times it rebounds and attains its utter fullness, jammed full of sensation, emotion, thought….being.

I’m descending at 60kph when I see the ruts ahead. They don’t look right, not like yesterday. Frigg, they’re frozen! Hold on, calm.

I’m getting rocked, ricocheting off frozen mounds of mud my tires cut through 16 hours ago. The rut on the right is insane. Insane. It’s well over 14 inched deep, and I CAN’T do there.

Elastic time compresses as my feet are blown off the pedals by an impact that also pitches my rear wheel into the air. My hands are in the drops, my only other point of contact my shorts, now somewhere on my saddle. I’m riding a nose wheelie, the unwanted bastard child of chance and circumstance. “I’m glad I got the medical insurance. If I land over there it’ll be soooo bad. That stuff is all frozen too.”

This is so nuts I know its nuts. I’m on the front wheel for the longest 30 feet of my existence, feeble arms fighting to push the front end forward, hips back.

My back wheel is down! I slam my feet back onto, then into the pedals. I breathe.

I’ve just gotten away with murder. Whatever happens from here is a gift. I’m a fugitive.

Braking a bit seems like a good idea from here. I’m playing it a ‘safe’; I gotta catch Ansel, not crash! Now out of the sector, I hear, ’30 seconds!’ I’ve gained a bit on Ansel, but there’s more to do!  The next descent is a hair-raiser at about 90kph, but we rode it yesterday, so I know what to expect. And it isn’t different today!

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Photo: Rasputitsa

Ansel is up there, I see him! I don’t have a lot of power to work with, but I know that if I chip away I can get there. Riding as low as, so low, ghost aero; focus on aero, don’t worry so much about power.

I have Ansel at 12 seconds, and there’s plenty of road left. This is possible.

My triceps are so fried from all this aero stuff in the drops. I’m on the last descent now, not very fast, trying to relax a bit at 60kph in preparation for the last fairly flat 5 or so kilometers to the finish. I’ll have to go full gas. I’ll rest my arms a bit with my hands on top of my hoods.

CLUNK!! I’ve hit a pothole lurking in the shade (I guess); my hands have blasted off the tops of the hoods and I’m steering with my forearms. Elastic time is stretched thin. I can’t salvage this…. Leaning right, careening, I’m on the ground, sliding on my hand and elbow. My hip doesn’t touch; how? I don’t know, all I’m thinking is, where’s my bike, is it ok, can I ride it?

I can! My bar tape on the right hook is shredded, the brake lever is knocked inward, pulling my rear brake cable tight. I’m on the bike, not in pain, pedaling the chain back on, now reaching back to turn the barrel adjuster on my brake to reduce the cable tension and let the wheel roll without drag. Shifting works, braking works, everything works. I’m not confident I can make up the ground I need, but damn, I’d better hold on for second!

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I needed new bar tape anyway.

A fugitive, looking back, little hope left ahead, I allow myself to back off as I resign to my lot this day. I won’t catch Ansel, but I also won’t be caught (I’d find out after finishing that Jake Wells crashed behind me on the Cyberia descent and broke his collarbone; heal well, Jake!). It’s ok to ease up, take the final descent safely, and enjoy being alive, have most of my skin (presumably), and a bike that doesn’t seem to be broken. I’m happy. I feel good. I tried, it didn’t work out. It also could have gone worse. Way. Iain finishes 7th, 2nd in the 40+ category, and Jim is 19th. I’m proud of the guys, and really, really relieved Jim made it through without damagin his shoulder. On top, he pulled off one of his best performances on skinny tires ever. To be able to climb that well at 185lbs is a big accomplishment. I am so excited to see Jim and Iain continue to improve through the season.

Matt Surch, Rasputitsa 2016
© Peter Kraiker | Kraiker.Photography

Thus ended my 2016 Rasputitsa; 2nd again. The race didn’t play out as I’d imagined or quite as I’d hoped, but looking back, I have a lot to be happy with and thankful for.

I don’t go south to train in the winter, I ride in the basement, to work every day, and on the snirt roads on Sundays. We don’t have much climbing aournd here compared to the North-East Kingdom, so while the Steaming Nostril is a great opener to the season, the question always looms: will I be able to climb well enough.

On Saturday my legs provided the answer: yes. Sure, I couldn’t go with Ansel’s attack, but despite that, I was in a position to challenge him for the win. I screwed up and crashed instead, but nevertheless, I confirmed that my winter’s efforts were effective, and enough to get me where I want to be in April. The formula works, I don’t have to stress about finding more hours next winter. There’s relief in that.

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Photo: Rasputitsa – Ansel Dickey 1, Matt Surch 2, Marc-Andre Daigle 3.
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Men’s 40+ Podium: Alec Donahue 1, Iain Radford 2, Jean-Frnacois Blais 3
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Mike Lowe wins the singlepeed category. Yes, there were others!
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Rebecca Lowe winse the women’s singlespeed category! Yes, there were other! Check out her cheering squad!

Many thanks to Heidi, Anthony, their organizing team, all the volunteers, the photographers, the event’s sponsors, East Burke, and the Kingdom Trails for coming together to put another fantastic edition of the Rasputitsa! This event is a HUGE motivator from us up in Ottawa through the winter, because we know how hard the course is, and that we’ll have to bring our A-game in order to factor in the race. Looking forward to the race and the after-party really helps us get through the cold and dark of winter.

I’d like to thank my sponsors for their continued support; I love everything these folks do; their outstanding products instil me with confidence required to perform to my potential every time I ride and race: Giro, Woven Precision Handbuilts, Mad Alchemy, VegaSilca (check out the video on Silca’s incredible new pocket pump). If you’d like to check them out on Instagram and perhaps give them a follow, they’re here: . Their fantastic feeds on Instagram will keep you stoked on riding: @girocycling, @wovenprecision, @madalchemy, @vega_team, and @silca_velo. My account can be found at @cyclosomatic, and our club’s is @teknecycling.

A couple weeks ago I did an in-depth interview about gravel racing and tires with Jan Heine of Compass tires and Bicycle Quarterly over on Off the Beaten Path. Check it out: Gravel Racing on Compass Tires

I have loaded a whole lot of photos – ours and from the race’s photographers – up on our Flickr page.

Full results from the race can be found here.

To read about this weekend’s race,  Paris-to-Ancaster, and the rest of the events we’ll wrap into our spring classics season, check out this post. For those wondering about our tire choice for this weekend, it’ll be the Clement LAS.

Here’s the race on Strava, though I missed the first 8k or so by forgetting to start my Garmin….

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