'Praxis'

Rasputitsa Pre-ride: We’re all in this together.

“I just realized there’s no snow here.”

February in Vermont. The typically snow-covered I91 dropping south from Stanstead, QC into northern Vermont is devoid of any sign of winter. Bleak in its browns and grays, the highway unfurls in front of Iain Radford and me en route to East Burke for two days of dirt road riding. By ‘dirt road’ I mean just that. Not the ‘snirt‘ of Ottawa and our environs. Dirt….dreamy.

We’ve been invited by the Rasputitsa Gravel Race’s organizers, Heidi Myers and Anthony Moccia to participate in a pre-ride of the 2016 race course around East Burke and the Kingdom Trails with a slew of fantastic movers, shakers, and event supporters. Iain and I have been promoting the April event since its inception, and are more than happy to make the trip down to Mike and Rebecca Lowe’s place near the Kingdom Trails to join them, Mike and Cathy Rowell, and the rest of the crew for the ride.

Anthony and Heidi ran a raffle January that would see four lucky winners be put up in East Burke and join the pre-ride. A brilliant idea, the raffle brought a lot of attention to two great grassroots cycling organizations that would benefit from the proceeds. New to us, 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. The program’s mission is pretty hard not to love:

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.

The other program the pre-ride raffle would benefit was Jam Fund Cycling, labour of love of Jeremy Powers, Alec Donahue, and Mukunda Feldman. I love their tack:

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.

The pre-ride crew.

A photo posted by Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race (@rasputitsagravel) on

We don’t really know who all will be be there on Monday for the pre-ride, but know all of the Jam Fund and Little Bellas folks will, along with Anthony Clark, recently back from the cyclocross world championships in Zolder, Belgium. Iain and I duked it out last year at the Rasputitsa with Anthony, and we’re looking forward to spending some time on and off the bikes to get to know him more. We’ll spend Sunday riding with Mike Lowe and Mike Rowell, then join the raffle winners, organizers and a few other folks for dinner on Sunday night. Heck of a way to spend a couple days in February!

Sunday morning dawns overcast and mild, hovering close to freezing, windy. We’ve brought everything but the kitchen sink, layer upon layer of natural and synthetic fibre, myriad possible combinations to suit whatever conditions we might encounter. On the rolling hills we ride around Ottawa-Gatineau, we don’t tend to get going much faster than 60kph in the winter. With a fair bit of cover where we do find fast descents, they aren’t really long and fast enough to pose issues for our attire.

Vermont is different.

When you climb big climbs, you descend big descents. So moisture control while going up is vital to being able to able to avoid freezing on the way down. Staying dry is the objective, but it’s a fine line! I’m wearing a fishnet base layer with a Craft Windstopper base later over top (to be reviewed soon), covered with my longsleeve team jersey. On the climbs I feel good, but even on the flats the wind is penetrating too much for me to be comfortable. I finally relent and pull over to put my wind jacket one. Perfect! Sometimes you just miss; but it’s always important to have a contingency plan.

The roads have patches of ice that are, quite frankly, scary. Iain and I have taken out extra medical insurance. We’re not accustomed to braking on descents much, but today it’s all about controlling speed while going straight and leaving a bit of wiggle room. Mike Lowe’s chain-ring keeps dropping his chain, and he’s cooked from the previous day’s ride. He splits off toward home after about 2 hours on the road, leaving Mike Rowell, Iain, and me to put in another hour together.

Mr Rowell knows these roads well. The man literally has not missed a day of riding in four years. Outdoors. I’m not even joking. He likes to push it on the climbs, and so do we. I spend 100% more time on the trainer than Mike, but we are on common ground today. It feels amazing to ride hard as the sun starts to poke out form the clouds, almost immediately thawing the exposed roads. Within 30 minutes we start to experience more than a glimpse of rasputitsa conditions: mud.

After three hours of riding and 20 minutes of bike cleaning, we’ve got time to hang out a bit before heading out to meet the others for dinner. Time flies as our common passion for cycling fills the room. We make new friends and allay fears of tomorrow’s ride. We’re all in this together.

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It’s colder this Monday morning. Around -6C, the wind bites at the skin as we unload bikes outside the Kingdom Trails office before heading in for some pre-ride snacks and a pep-talk from Anthony. Mike Rowell and Heidi have been talking about how to route the ride, given the fact the Siberia sector is essentially sheer ice, and it’s cold. In the spirit of keeping things fun, they’ve decided to curtail the planned route a bit and keep it under 40km. Smart.

Being cold, and having a group of about 25, it’s not as easy as it could be to keep everyone together, but we try. The climbs are welcome, the descents less so, given the massive difference in wind speed. The Davison sisters demonstrate their riding skills by riding safely on 25mm tires on their road bikes, odd patch of ice and all. Each time we pass by one such spot at the front I feel anxious, dreading the sound of crashing bodies and bikes behind me. It never comes to pass.

“I haven’t been punched in the face in three years!” – Anthony Clark

As if out of time, the miles pass underwheel, conversations flowing with ease. I have the pleasure of speaking at length with Jeremy Powers, Peter Vollers and Anthony Clark. Jeremy and I speak about his experience at the World Championships a week prior, and my respect deepens as he speaks with genuine honesty about how things went, and why. A lot of people seem to focus on Jeremy’s intensity and ‘ADD’-ness. When we talk that side doesn’t come across at all. I see in Jeremy a thoughtful, dedicated, truly passionate person and cyclist with a big heart.

Peter Vollers and I seem to resonate. Peter organizes two fantastic events – The VO Maple Adventure Ride and Vermont Overland – that are right up my alley. But more than that, when we talk about travelling to races and non-competitive events with my family, Peter gets it. More than that, he sees the value in broadening the scope of cycling beyond the individual, the type-A, the chase. For us, it’s about living cycling, tapping into the vast opportunities the sport and lifestyle open to us as individuals, as parents, as friends. Events like his and the Rasputitsa take racing and expand it into something bigger: adventure, experience, locality. These events are about the where AND the how. I feel good about helping grow this aspect of cycling in our little corner of the world.

Anthony and I talk polar bears, Quebec culture and geography. Anthony will be the first to tell you cycling turned his life around. The man is driven to improve himself through dedicated hard work, and he takes nothing for granted. It really is a pleasure to get to know him a little more each time we cross paths, and I know Iain and I are rooting for him; except when we’re racing together!

The bonfire Heidi’s father has prepared is unrivalled. Anthony’s down to his t-shirt at 12 feet away while the rest of us are layered up, sipping coffee and/or beer. Heidi and Anthony have gone to town preparing the scene, having build a shed to accommodate various paraphernalia associated with the race, along with Little Bellas and Jam Fund stuff. There’s a bit of talk about Siberia, which most feel certain will be much more rideable in April than last year. Fingers crossed VT doesn’t get any huge dumps of snow between now and then, or if they do, it melts in time!

Jam Fund and Little Bellas graciously accept cheques for $1k each and hand out a slew of great prizes to the raffle winners. Iain and I spend time speaking with the Davison sisters about their organization, which is frankly, awesome. If you have have or know girls who might be interested in attending mountain bike camp with Little Bellas in Vermont this season, I encourage you to visit their site and speak with them about the camps being planned. Give them and Jam Fund a follow on FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter to stay up to date on what they’re up to.

Speaking of which, Jeremy Powers and I also spoke at length about Jam Fund’s Gran Fundo, July 16 from South Hampton, Mass. It really came across that Jeremy loves this event for it’s non-raciness and community vibe. Consumed by the pressures of racing most of the year, the Gran Fundo is very much like our Ride of the Damned (May 29) in it’s focus on the joy of riding, either comfortably, or in a manner that is very demanding.

We have three great rides all starting at 9:30 a.m. from the Black Birch Vineyards. The rides are fully supported with multiple rest stops, our famous ice cream truck, SRAM support vehicles and a sag wagon to pick up stragglers. The route has spectacular views and plenty of gravel sections. Immediately after the Fundo, stick around for the pig roast and raffle where you can win awesome prizes. All registered riders will get swag to remember this special day. And your participation supports JAM Fund. Save the date!

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The event’s three options range from 63km to 135km, climbing from 965m to 2580m climbing. Sounds good, eh?! My family and I plan to attend this summer, so if you can’t make it we’ll be sure to share our experience here and through Danielle’s lens (www.hippieindisguise.com) in hopes of inspiring you to make the trip in 2017!

In sum, we couldn’t have spend our Monday any better way. Iain and I would like to thank Heidi and Anthony for welcoming us into the Rasputitsa family, and Little Bellas and Jam Fund for their hard work at the grassroots level in support of cycling development in New England. While we are separated by a border, it often feels like us Canadians and New Englanders share a certain frontier-like existence from a continental and global perspective. At the same time, we seem to be somewhat avant-garde in pushing into new terrain, new kinds of events, new ways of living cycling. We’re all in this together, and it feels good.

This is what we are all about. Cycling. Community. Charity. It's been such an honor to invite riders to our…

Posted by Rasputitsa Gravel Road Race on Monday, March 14, 2016

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