'Praxis'

Rasputitsa 2018: Reframing Signs

Really? We’re here already? Recon…insufficient.

What’s this; I’m dropped, now? F@#% me.

Really?

Ya, really.

The steepest pitch of Schoolhouse Road is behind us, as is the attack I laid down inside the first 5km of the race, hoping to work with the guys up the road, Bobby Bailey (1K2Go) plus one. They didn’t follow, so I was off the front, hoping to lure some of the other ‘big guys’ out in advance of Cyberia, the snow-crux of this year’s Raspustitsa parcours. Instead I wasted energy.

I have one option: diesel. Bio-diesel, specifically. Fifteen 0r so guys are up the road, and this is, well, unacceptable. This can’t, won’t be my story: ‘I got dropped before Cyberia.’ One thing alone has to happen here: reconnect.

My chicken wing of an elbow flick goes unanswered. I can only tell there’s one guy on my wheel, who knows how many more. Does it matter? Well, yeah, it’s windy enough that some respite would help. If he, they, aren’t coming through it’s probably because they can’t, not won’t. 

The perhaps-impossible shifts into the possible.

I can see the group ahead sitting up a bit, so I know this is happening now. Making contact, I see we’re getting awfully close to the entry into Cyberia, which we rode/walked yesterday. I barely have any time to recover, so my best shot to stay in the mix will be to move up and enter at the front.

This is my speed, that’s it, there’s no ‘more’ option to work with if I want to get off the bike ahead and have a hope of running fast enough on the snow. I’ve done way too much in this race already to set myself up for success here; it’s abundantly clear my move earlier was folly. There’s no point dwelling on it, all there is to do from here is, well, all I can do.

Perhaps 8 guys rode through me before we hit the run, I let two more by on foot. Whatever, I’m not sure where they are planning to go. I kinda wish I could up my pace too…. Can I? Do I really know? Not really, this is more of an educated guess than anything. I don’t know whether my suffer-ceiling is very well calibrated on foot. Maybe I can  run faster, and I just don’t believe I can. Maybe I can be better at this, but I’ve not allowed myself to push enough to find out. Maybe I’m getting in my own way here, constraining my performance with a lack of self-confidence and self-belief? Maybe not.  There’s one way to ‘find out.’ Train spazzy running with the bike over the summer and fall, and see if it goes better next time.

There’s no reattaching. I didn’t realize before that this new parcours is actually HARDER than last year. Yup. Frigg. Harder because there’s no real recovery after coming out of Cyberia. Last year I got dropped there and was able to use the considerable descent to claw myself back onto the front group. This time: nope. It’s just rolling, slow-rolling soggy dirt without anywhere to really get a rhythm going and/or use my time-trial mojo to close the gap to the leaders.

It’s carnage out here, bodies strewn across, up and down the road, the grind being the unifying element that binds us. The grind; relentless, in/sufferable, interminable.

And so it goes. Straight up, this race is all about how much we can suffer, there’s just so little respite. Alec Donahue and Geoffrey Dussault have caught me as I churn away in my attempt to catch the chase group of 5 or so. A third dude joins us, visibly strong-as; why was he back there?

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We’ve worked together, Alec having encouraged me to stay on it through a low moment (thanks man!), bringing Osmond Bakker and Mike Barton within range. A fast-rolling descent, one of very few, poses an opportunity to catch, and punchy-fast-dude-I-don’t-know is primed to work with me to relay each other, driving faster and faster toward the two ahead, away from Alec and Geoffrey.

So damned close now, metres! I actually believe we’ll connect. It’s half true…. He’s on, I’m not, they’ve seen us and turned on the nitro, and I don’t have the pop to close fast enough. Odd man out, son of a….

Closing in on the final kilometres, I’ve got a gap on Alex I intend to keep. Blazing the fresh gravel (is it weird that I love this chunky shit?) descent feels good, appropriately risky given I still have a chance of catching those dudes. Pinkam Road, is upon me, or rather, the inverse; I knew it was coming, but feel ready for the effort. It’ll take me close to the line, then we’ll cut onto the ski hill and descend to the finish.

Alec is visible in the distance behind, I’m staying on my limit up this brute. If I’m riding as hard as I can he can’t make ground, right? Right. Ok, well, just keep doing this.

The gap is solid, but what about the guys ahead? Shit happens, don’t slow down! A marshal ahead is pointing me into the woods, we should be pretty close to the ski hill now, I’m at 60k of 62. It’s snow-covered trail, and a mix of rideable and not. It’s feeling pretty good, momentum is consistent, I’m transitioning on and off the bike fast. Maybe I’ll catch someone in here?

Yessss! I’ve passed the punchy dude, stopped for some sort of issue! See, it’s worth it to keep driving hard!

Yessss! I’ve passed Sjaan, who was not just up with the lead group earlier, but off the front! His back is killing him, he tells me, which sucks. But the effort I’m making is paying off, and I think I’ve cracked back into the top-ten.

There seem to be just 4-5 tracks ahead of me, which is probably wrong. But it’s encouraging and motivating to believe it might be right. On and off the bike, it feels like all the core work at the gym over the winter is definitely helping, since I’m not seeing my form degrade.

Still in here, this is still going. WTF? It’s been ages since entering this forest sector, and it just feels like cruel and unusual punishment at this point; so much running…. The tracks ahead still seem few, which is good, and my strategy of looking for footprints alongside tracks has been working well to clue me into whether sections of snow are rideable and not. Now this….friggin climb. I’ve yet to break stride and walk, but this is just too much now. I’m walking this beatch. It doesn’t feel like anyone is anywhere near me, in either direction. Walking is ok, right? Whatever, I have to.

Barely able to pedal now up top, my legs are destroyed. But the end of this torture is in sight, the exit to the road. Yessss!

What?

The tracks point to the right, yet there are no signs here indicating a bike race should be coming through here. It’s just me, the trees, dirt and snow. It’s immediately clear that I’m not where I’m supposed to be, this feels 100% wrong. What? How? I followed the tracks, I didn’t see any sign anywhere in there. Was there one? What do I do, I have no idea where I am?

Alec comes out as I look for answers, equally bemused, followed by Sjaan. I head back into the trail to look around, find nothing of use. Alec has rolled down the hill, Sjaan and I have agreed our race is over, and all we can do it try to find our way to the finish; how long might that take? No idea.

Rolling down the hill, which feels 100% wrong, as we crossed this road then looped back to it, we see other riders streaming across to continue on trail, as we did. For all we know, there’s a turn in there that’ll take them where they’re supposed to go.

The photographers along the side of the road 200m lower confirm the unexpected: this is the race course! I tell them about the non-signed intersection up the road, hoping they’ll cover it. Sjaan and I roll on, asking each other, ‘Was there a sign there we missed?’ We’re not racing, our race was over 10 minutes ago. Sjaan doesn’t even want to cross the line, but I convince him to join me through the final section of ski hill and across, where we’re handed ciders, very much welcome.

There’s no hiding my disappointment. It seems all of us from the front of the race, now mixed with riders who didn’t ride the extra section, are sullen. I’m trying to be a good sport about it, but I’m far from happy. A second cider doesn’t change that.

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Photo: Katie Busick

It would take some time, a few hours, to reset and shift my focus to positive aspects of my experience. The race went sideways for all of us, and the guys at the pointy end managed to race to the end anyhow. I didn’t. The first step to moving forward is understanding what happened. Simply, there was no sign at the dirt road crossing, where we continued straight instead of turning downhill. There was no way the lead riders could have known to turn, because the section was not shared beforehand, but reserved as a ‘secret surprise’ for race-day. So there was nothing to study. I followed the tracks, as did others behind me, the obvious thing to do. There was no sign.

It was hard to know how to process the feeling of disappointment. Was it ok to care about the outcome, when I did what I did in the race, I stacked up where I stacked up, regardless of the results sheet? Did feeling upset about it make me a dick? Should I just let it go, laugh it off? It took a couple days to work it out.

I landed on the following conclusion: I don’t need to feel bad about being disappointed. Yeah, it’s ‘just bike racing,’ and it’s not my job. But racing is my passion, and I strive for excellence and continuous improvement in this sport.

If we’re going to adopt a Maslow’s hierarchy of needs perspective on all human activity, very few things ‘really matter.’ But at this stage in our species’ evolution, many of us are fortunate to have the luxury of pursuing creative and athletic expression for the sake of itself, which renders countless pursuits meaningful, regardless of whether they are coupled with economic productivity. Bike racing is a pursuit of passion that we commit ourselves to, and invest our emotions in. This investment is precisely what drives us to push into the recesses of our limits, to not give up when that voice in our mind is saying: ‘Just stop, it’s fine, it’s just a bike race, it doesn’t matter where you finish.’

Well, it does matter, that’s why we call it a race. If we wanted a pleasant experience on the bike, through and through, we wouldn’t enter races for that experience. We’d go out for party rides with our friends. I love doing that, and I will continue to do that. But I didn’t drive down to Vermont for a party ride. Rasputitsa would be over really tough terrain with a bunch of guys who were 100% ready and willing to go way harder than ‘fast is fun’ pace for 2.5 hours, and I was there to do the same. That was the deal, and I worked harder over winter than any other in hopes of being well prepared for this challenge. The field would be and was deeper than ever (you ever hear of Ted King?), and I’d need to pull out a peak performance to have a shot at the podium.

While slogging through the ‘Bowie loop,’ (which lasted 19 minutes, on top of the prior snow section I was supposed to ride) I struggled to stay positive and maintain the will to keep driving forward. I wanted to give up so bad, it felt pointless. I talked myself into persisting because I’d already struggled so much during the race, maintained a positive, focused frame of mind until this point, and I owed it to myself to follow through. Sure, my early attack didn’t work out, but from that point on I rode as well as I was capable, and I can’t imagine myself having ridden and run all the snow better.

The root of the disappointment was what felt like a schism of reality. In one moment, every body movement, every thought, matters; everything is for one purpose: move forward as fast as possible. The pain doesn’t matter, there is purpose. Then: nothing. Not, ‘Bam!’ an explosive turn of plot, but as if the opposite, a sudden emptying of meaning, and an immediate flood of confusion and questioning.

When one finishes a race, most questions are generally answered. But the moment I realize I’m not in a bike race anymore it feels like none are; only the matter of how to navigate back to the venue remains.

In a nutshell, the disappointment emanates from the feeling of being totally emotionally and physically invested in completing a slog that feels utterly stupid if not racing, then realizing that I’m not actually racing, and what I just did was in an instant rendered utterly pointless. That’s the rub: there was in one moment a point, and in the next no point. If I wanted to ride ‘just for fun,’ what I just did would not qualify.

Understanding why I felt how I felt, why I was unable to shake it off immediately, helped me reframe my perspective, and identify what I was happy about. Like I said, I actually rode a really strong race. I can look at my early attack in hindsight and say it was stupid, but in the moment it made sense, and I like to go with my intuition in races. This is what makes it fun, and I’m fine with getting moves wrong as long as I get some right too. I could have studied the start to Cyberia closer to better understand when the snow would come up; that caught me by surprise. It’s within my power to do this better next time, and for every race. That’s a lesson, or at least a valuable reminder.

The one thing we can’t change on race-day is our preparation. We’re often looking to confirm whether our training, which tends to include experimentation, worked. Rasputitsa, being the hardest race of my spring season, would help me answer that question. To parse out form from how the race was ridden is no simple task, but I feel good about what I brought to the race, and do feel I made the improvement I was looking for over winter. I did one – yes, one – interval session all winter, a conscious decision made to avoid illness, and left the sharp efforts to the first race, the Steaming Nostril. I was healthy for both these races, and I often remind myself that this is a victory in itself in April.

And as I reframe my disappointment, I can see that my preparation was good enough to put me in the position to be truly invested in my race performance; I was in the race. Because I was physically able to commit 100% to the effort, I was likewise prone to giving a shit about the outcome. Being upset by how things went, for a time, was healthy. Reframing what happened and moving forward is healthy too. The signs suggest that the means I’m employing in pursuit of my ends are working; this is something to be thankful for.

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Iain Radford’s 45m Woven Precision Handbuilt wheels, wrapped in Scott Emery’s Schwalbe G1 35mm tires were ideal. G1s grip well on snow and roll fast everywhere.

 

My bike worked flawlessly, which is a win of sorts too, given the demands of the course. I brought a whack of tire set-ups and feel I nailed it with the Schwalbe G1 in 35mm. Thanks go to Scott Emery for lending me his pair to use, and Iain Radford for lending me a pair of his 45mm Woven wheels to go with them, as my other three sets of wheels all had different set-ups on them to cover all the bases.

The obvious question: will I go back?

I will. I appreciate what Heidi Myers and Anthony Moccia are doing with the Rasputitsa, and I know it’s hard to get everything right, especially when you’re trying to create a unique, fun experience for a thousand bike riders in April. Bringing people to Vermont in April requires a special formula, and Heidi and Anthony have been incredibly successful in doing so. As long as I continue to do races in the spring I’ll return to Rasputitsa, not least because we always do a fantastic gravel group ride on the Sunday after the race. Rasputitsa gets us down there, we have fun. If the event shifts into being a challenge ride, or perhaps a grinduro, great, we’ll go down, get some great training in, stop for treats at the stations. We’ll see where things go from here.

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Scott Emery: like a boss. Photo: Brandon Pray
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David Gruber – snow master? Photo: Nolan Myers
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This guy was last to finish. He was completely cracked. We encouraged him, he appreciated it, and he finished. Dave Marchessault is the best cheerleader I know.

 

I’d like to thank all the fantastic people and brands that support my racing aspirations and efforts: Woven Precision HandbuiltsCompass tiresAbsolute BlackKogelBrodieHandskeSilcaMad AlchemyVegaRe:Form.

I encourage you to check out their fantastic Instagrammin’:

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Rasputitsa 2017: 50 Shades of Grit

How the Race was Won: Steaming Nostril 2017

How to Decide Whether to Use a Single Chainring for Cyclocross

Training for the Spring Classics: Whatever it Takes

 

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