Rasputitsa 2017: Fifty Shades of Grit

“Dave, can I ask you a professional question?”

“Of course.”

“What’s the downside to inducing vomiting right now?”

“Nothing, really.”

“Ok, thanks. See you in a few minutes.”

Dave’s an ER doctor. It’s Friday night, the eve of the fourth annual Rasputitsa Spring Classic, a dirt road race that has been drawing Iain Radford, a smattering of team-mates, and me to northern Vermont since 2013. Today Scott Emery and I drove up and over Hazen’s Notch Road (Closed Winters) after I failed to navigate us to Hwy 10 before crossing the CAN/US border, distracted by our conversation about the phenomenology of time. Scott held his shit perfectly as we navigated his Saab, shod with all-season tires, up and over the dirt road that degraded into deep ruts that could easily bottom the car to full-blown packed snow and ice at the top. We drove as a team, auto trials style, slow and deliberate; we had a bike race to get to.

Once that ordeal was surmounted, Scott and I connected with Dave Gruber, Iain Radford, and Ian Loney at the Air B&B we’d rented in Lyndonville, VT, close to Burke Mountain, where Saturday’s race would begin and end. Standing in the kitchen at 8 P.M., having eaten plenty of food to restore ourselves from the 2 hour recon ride we did in steady rain at 4 degrees Celcius (yes, it sucked, completely), I’d just checked the Vega drink powder packaging from the mix I’d just consumed. See, I’d received some samples from Vega recently, and assumed the orange packets were orange electrolyte mix. After consuming a glass of the stuff, one sleep away from the race I really, really want to win, it occurred to me that it didn’t taste ‘normal.’ Why? I’d in fact taken down a packet of their ENERGIZER forumla! Hence: time to induce vomiting.

Did it work? Well, if by ‘it’ you interpret: ‘learning to induce vomiting,’ yes, it worked. I now know how. Did I get the energizer out? Hell no. Barely anything came out. Those who know me have come to learn that all sorts of things give me insomnia. There’s no reason to put ENERGIZER on that list, it’s so obviously a cause. Talk about a major f-up.

Saturday, April 22, 2017 – Race Day

05:59 – I’m up. I was never really ‘down,’ but I don’t have that horrid pain in my chest insomnia has produced before. I’ve probably slept for short bouts after trying to wear down my brain as much as possible by reading The Exile, by Allan Folsom, found on a shelf downstairs. It seems pretty good, I’ll probably pick it up at the library to continue it sometime; it’ll be hard to forget ‘the incident.’

06:30 – Up and eating breakfast, my usual Vega Sport Protein smoothie bowl, I feel ok. The insomnia isn’t on my mind, I’m thinking forward: what am I going to wear? Better out than yesterday for sure, it’s still cold, 3 Celcius, and it’s misting out there. I’ve know what I’m doing on the bottom, but up top….game-time decision.

08:00 – We’re here, Burke Mountain, it was just a short drive over. It’s raining, Jim McGuire and his boys are already here, Mike and Rebecca Lowe are here, ready to rock the one cog, Brian Robitaille’s here too, our Tekne rider who can do the most push-ups, just coming off a knee surgery.  Registration is a breeze, though I feel for the volunteers standing in the rain. Riders mill about on their bikes; staying warm until the last possible moment is on my mind.

08:30 – Finalizing my attire for the day, I feel calm and confident in my choices. Yesterday was bad. My core was warm in my Biemme Jampa jacket, but my feet were leaden, and my hands were uncomfortably cold. Today will be different, because I’ve pulled out all the stops. All the horrid conditions I’ve ridden and raced in culminate in today’s ensemble: Giro Empire VR90 mtb shoes; SealSkinz medium-weight waterproof socks, duct taped to my legs to seal them; Biemme Jampa leg warmers (waterproofish); my normal team bibs; Mad Alchemy greaseless embrocation on legs, glutes, lower back; Brynje fishnet polypro base layer; Ibex medium weight base layer; Biemme Jampa jacket; team lite fleece full-sleeve jersey; Mad Alchemy neck thingy; Giro Ambient Skull Cap; Giro Synthe helmet; Smith glasses; and finally, Glacier neoprene gloves duct taped to my arms. In my pockets: one Challenge latex tube with Silca valve extender; one Silca CO2 cartridge and Genuine Innovations pump/CO2 blaster; Lezyne multi tool, two FRUIT2 bars; and one double shot of Brix maple syrup. On the bike, one bottle, just water. I’m warm, and I think I’ll stay that way.

09:00 – Starting from the front line with notables like Lyne Besette, Tim Johnson, Jeremy Martin, Anthony Clark, Marc-Andre Daigle, Kevin Bouchard-Hall, and Ansel Dickie makes the neutralized descent from Burke Mountain resort to town of East Burke a lot more pleasant than it could have been. The organizers, Anthony Moccia and Heidi Myers, changed the start at the last minute, perhaps having realized that sending us down, then immediately up a steep climb would lead to carnage in the first turn. Instead, we’ll ride about 15km west, reversing parts of the former race route, ascending to what used to be the backside of Cyberia. My elevation profile is rendered somewhat useless, as there’s no way I’ll be able to do math once we’re racing.

09:15 It’s hard already. There are more strong riders in the race than ever before, and it’s showing. An enigmatic rider in a floppy yellow rain coat (the kind you take on a fishing trawler) has ridden off the front on his road bike, conspicuous on skinny tires and rim brakes. 20 seconds up the road, he doffs the jacket and hands it through the window of the Land Rover lead vehicle. “Who’s that?” I ask Ansel Dickie. “My team-mate from my road team,” he replies. Oh.

09:20 An attack goes off the right, and Dave Gruber follows without hesitation, separating, catching on, and quickly progressing toward Ansel’s team-mate ahead. Nice! Iain is up here near the front, Jim’s close, Todd’s close; we’re doing pretty well. It’s been harder so far than I’d have liked, but am hopeful the steep climb to come feels ok.

09:27 –  Dave and his accomplice have been brought back, road guy crashed himself out, the peloton hits the steep climb of Cyberia that will transition to muddy Class-4 road higher up. My gameplan is to ride the hardest pace I can and see where I wind up atop this nasty brute of a climb. At the pointy end, it’s a grind, simple.

09:38 – Cresting the steep chunk, it’s time to turn left into Cyberia proper. In unison, the hitters swarm around me, plowing into the soft road at a pace I know I can’t match. My plan is simple: do the max power I can sustain, try not to waste energy spinning my tire in the mud and on the snow.

09:43 – Why couldn’t I have felt like vomiting this way last night? I’m crunched up, contorting my body in an extended effort to extract traction from my rear tire, which has proven to be a poor choice. It’s spinning where others are gripping. My slick Compass tires were not appropriate at all, and the Steilacoom would have been too much tread most of the time….I think. The Bontrager CX0 I’m using is pretty bald in the middle, and not really working at all. I’m trudging through the snow as Steve Proulx powers by, Tim Johnson already having passed. I won’t know until later, but Iain is metres behind as I crest, the top arriving sooner than yesterday’s recon would have suggested (did a tonne of snow melt overnight?).

09:48 – The ground points down, I shift to my 50-tooth big chanting, sur la plaque; I need to rip this 5k descent as fast as possible if I’m to catch the front group. I don’t accept the thought that I might be out of this race already. No. Way.

09:55 – I’ve pedaled full blast for minutes now, and I see two riders ahead trying to make contact with the rest of the front pack. Close enough now to go into full tuck, sitting on my top-tube, the grade will take me to them. YES! Connected, it’s all about recovery now, they’re going to try to snap as many as possible off on the next climb; it’s longer than the first!

10:22 – Separated again! This time I help Steve and another dude, from QC, chase back on, and it doesn’t take long. Tim Johnson has been pretty hilarious all morning, first taking a selfie from the front of the pack, then goading others to attack on River Road, the one flat section of the route. Mike Barton, the strongman from New Hampshire who puts out some pretty massive watts, is up the road solo….again. It looks like Ansel and co will aim to reel him in on the last big climb, Pinkham Road, which will take us to a few rollers, then the final cycolcross course on Burke Mountain. Yes, I’m serious.

10:40 – The first pitch of Pinkham is the steepest, and Dickie and Clark use it to whip up a pace out of the saddle that blowing up our group. I stand for about 5 seconds to keep the instagap to a ‘minimum,’ then sit back down to get to the business of grinding out the most power I can sustain for the next 19 minutes of ascent. Yep, this is a long climb. Martin has joined Dickie and Clark as they connect with Barton, Johnson and Bouchard-Hall snapped off, Proulx, me, Daigle, and our other companion, Frederick Francouer making up Team Canada. The four of us are playing leap-frog as we churn away, the other 6 growing their gap.

10:49 – Did that sign say 5k to go? I’m confused, because I know the organizers added a bunch of road to the front end of the race, and I’m expecting it to finish longer than the original distance, 55k.

10:51 – The sign on my right clearly reads 4k to go. “4k, guys, we gotta go hard now!” Upping my pace, Johnson and Bouchard-Hall ahead in the fog, I pull away from my companions, 100% committed to bridge.

10:55 – Descending snaking turns through chalets on the backsideof Burke, I’m running out of road. Approaching the transition to the off-road sector atop Burke, I see I’m about to plunge through a muddy ditch in pursuit of 5th place. Transitioning to flat ground, a muddy expanse unfolds in front of my, Bouchard-Hall 20 metres ahead, digging hard to churn forward. I veer right, spotting a leafy verge of the broad track that might offer firmer ground. Yes, it’s decent, I’m getting closer!

10:56 – Contact! traversing the ski hill, Johnson and Bouchard-Hall bank left, cutting down the ski hill, opening the opportunity to pass the latter and place myself between the two. I’ve been chasing hard, but this is no time for pacing. I have to follow Johnson and try to pass whenever I can. Rolling into a taped spiral section on level ground, I feel comfortable (enough), following Johnson’s wheel. Shoop! F@#k. My front tire has pushed out, putting me onto the ground. Scrambling to get up and back on, Bouchard-Hall is held up, not keen. I wouldn’t be either! Rolling again, back on pedals, Johnson has a gap, and we’re rounding a wall in the parking lot; stairs, two flights! “Two at a time, two, two, two….ok, one….” Gassed barely covers the feeling.

Photo: Pete Hurt

11:00 – I knew this was coming, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. We’ve run a triple set of barriers, and I’m leading into the final climb, a brute of a slope back up the ski hill that will set us up to loop back down to the finish line. Johnson is still ahead and out of reach, Bouchard-Hall is feet behind me. There will be one speed up this thing: ‘all I’ve got.’ Bouchard-Hall passes on my right, I can only persist as I am; this is it. This moment in bike racing is actually pretty fascinating, I think; the moment you realized, you know, your fate is sealed. It’s a fleeting feeling, one of acceptance: this is my place; this is where I’m at. Barring a crash, I am powerless to change my position now. Rolling down the hill I am so hypoxic I’m not sure I’m still on the course. So uncertain I am, I actually dismount and consider passing passing under the white tape to put myself back into the green tape section to my right. Thankfully, the pause affords me the ability to discern that I am still on the course, so I remount and continue on to cross the line below.

The men’s race had an epic finish. 🔨🔨🔨 @woodchuckcider served as podium champagne.

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11:01 – I’m mangled enough to have a hard time knowing whether I’m 6th or 7th, even though I know who all finished ahead of me. I feel good about being safe -this is always top of mind – and I feel like I’ve done just about everything ‘right,’ barring the late mistake, which might not have really changed anything anyhow. Todd, Iain, Jim, Ian, Dave stream in, Todd having taken our next best result, 13th. We’ve all ridden hard, we’re all happy to be safe, we all have at least something we’d do differently.

Gravel racing…Tearing down the walls that divide. #berlinwall #whoneedscat1cat2cat3cat4 #inittogether #adventure 📷: @danjcardon

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People invariably ask, ‘Was it fun?’ Not so much. I wasn’t fast enough on the climbs to call the experience of that 2 hours ‘fun.’ When others dictate your effort, and it stretches your ability to the limit, the experience more about ‘survival’ than enjoyment. There’s no real tactics going on, just managing energy with the aim of hanging onto those who are about to unleash on the next climb. Did I expect the race to be ‘fun;’ was that what I was going for? No. I knew it was going to be really hard, and I wouldn’t be able to inflict my will on others. That’s ok; I’m fine with that. The trick is to figure out how to get the most out of what I have to work with and let the chips fall where they may. That’s what I did, and I feel satisfied and good about fighting from beginning to end, never giving up. And I’ll admit that from the 4k to go sign I felt like I was in the race and it was fun….until the final climb up the ski hill. Was a happy with the race? Yes.

Ultimately, Rasputitsa was a race of grit, on every level. Grit, permeating every inch of clothing. Grit, metaphor, driving every rider, from 1st (very much so) to last place. Grit, that quality the event’s organizers would surely be proud to identify with.

I didn’t need more grit; I had enough. I simply needed to be better than I was.

It’s tempting to It would be too simplistic, too bullshit, to say, ‘Rasputitsa was a pure climber’s course this year, there was nothing more I could have done.” For one, there’s no way of knowing, ever, whether there was nothing we could have done to change an outcome in life, be it ‘real life’ or bike racing. If we narrowly focus on one moment, perhaps a long, steep, climb, ridden and vomit-inducing pace, sure, we might say: “I did everything I could.” In that moment, ok, yeah. But every moment in time follows on the heels of our lifestreams, our series of ‘now-points’ that constitute our being in the world. The way I feel as I climb Victory road, drawing in the entry of today’s Cyberia sector, isn’t just about now. It’s about everything I’ve done since we dropped in from Burke Mountain Resord, everything I’ve done this morning, last night’s non-sleep, the vomit I couldn’t get out before that, yesterday’s 2 hour recon ride in the cold rain that 99.9% sucked, the drive up and over Hayden Notch with Scott that almost stranded us, Tuesday night’s Cascaded Loop I did too hard, the virus I raced into full bloom at the Steaming Nostril, training camp in South Carolina with the guys, the winter of training, inside and out, the weight loss I achieved and didn’t achieve. I’ve done a bunch of stuff right, and I’ve done some stuff wrong. The good stuff I did with the support of others, and the bad stuff I brought on myself. Live, learn, keep on trying.

This is bike racing. On the day, we find out what we’ve got, we make the best decisions we can, we hope for the best, plan for the worst.

What happens in Cyberia. . .

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I’d like to thank the whole Rasputitsa organizing team and supporting volunteers who work so hard to put on this fantastic event. The post-race party stepped up a notch this year, with an expo of local vendors that really added to the vibe, including the great folks from Chilimark Coffee. Check these folks out, Todd (owner) is a fantastic guy who supports New England cycling an a multitude of ways. Watch this space for an interview with Todd in the near future.

Links and more


How to get more grit in your life.

Kate Busick’s SmugMug Album

Tim Johnson’s Rasputitsa video:

The Rasputitsa Spring Classic by Tim Johnson from Mavic on Vimeo.

Roads Less Traveled II – Rasputitsa

Roads Less Traveled Episode II // Rasputitsa from New Atlas on Vimeo.

I truly appreciate all the support my sponsors have given me and our club, all of whom help me strive for peak performances on my bike: GiroWoven Precision HandbuiltsCompass tiresAbsolute BlackKogel, BrodieSilcaMad AlchemyXact Nutrition, VegaRe:Form.

I encourage you to check out their fantastic Instagrammin’:

Jam Fund (@JamFund) and Little Bellas (@littlebellasmtb) are great organizations dedicated to growing cycling in the East. Check them out, and consider taking a look at the Grand FUNdo in July; it’s an awesome dirt road event! If you have a young woman in your life who might be interested in attending a mountain bike camp in New England this summer, check out Little Bellas’ offerings, they are fantastic! #growcycling !

My Instagram account can be found at @cyclosomatic, and our club’s is @teknecycling.

Thank you for reading, and to everyone who took the time to say hi at Rasputitsa, I appreciate it!

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