The mud remained on my bike as began to write this post. I edited video all week, trying to wrangle one and half hours of footage from two cameras with little skill on my side. I’ve thought a lot about August 28th’s race, about how I ought to feel about my performance. A few things are certain, at least: I’m relieved to have raced safely; I’m relieved none of my team-mates wound up in the hospital; I’m relieved that I was able to ride a little better than in 2015, even if I dropped two placings. Could I have done more with the form I had? Maybe. Maybe just a little. It’s easy to say I could have. Racing bikes is often more of a psychological battle than a physical one.
The race course was modified this year, as Peter Vollers added a new Class 4 (unmaintained road) sector, dubbed the Oude Kwaremont, and cut out a long dirt road climb. This would mean more steep climbing…perfect for me! Hardly. The truth is, I’ve come into the race heavier than I want to be. I continue to struggle with keeping my weight down to the level I come into the spring with, and, honestly, it’s really frustrating and stressful. After 2015’s race I wanted to be 5lbs lighter for 2016, but I’m not. And it’s not all muscle density! When the climbing is relentless, and especially when it’s steep, one’s power to body weight ratio is massively important. I don’t particularly like looking skinny – I don’t like it at all, in fact – but that’s what it takes for me to hang onto the climbers. I don’t know how to do this better yet, but I hope to learn, or else figure out how to not care about not being able to climb at the front of the race.
08:50 Saturday’s opener ride at the Kingdom Trails was awesome ( I will post later about that, with video). We did some hard efforts up climbs, so should feel ok as we get going in a few minutes. I’m honoured to get a call-up; thank you, Peter Vollers. Iain and I have our new Yi Action cameras mounted to the front of our bikes. The race will be a bit under three hours long, so we’ll have to work out how to best use the 60ish minutes of battery we have.
09:00 The start feels mellow, as expected. The course gently climbs for kilometers before hitting into steeper grades. Mike Reeves, Richard Grieve, Iain Radford and I are all up near the front, while Todd Fairhead, Dave Jones, Dom Fontaine, and Pat Kelly are deeper in the pack. One never can tell from the front, but people are being shed off the group constantly as we ascend. Tim Johnson is on a cx bike instead of a Cannondale Slate this year, while Ansel Dickey and Will Letendre on on Slates with 38mm Schwalbe G-One tires, Ansel’s provided by Drummond Cycles. He’s not bothering to be particularly close to the front; he knows when he’ll need to get there.
09:32 The Koppenberg is coming. Iain has just dropped out of the front group….frigg! There are not many of us, perhaps 12, as we enter the sector, a tough Class 4 road/trail. The lead Land Rover drives right into it; nuts! Those guys can really drive those things!
09:33 Summiting the Koppenberg, I’m chasing to close a small gap. Not a problem, I’m happy to use the descent to catch back on rather than go into the red over the top of the climb. I’ve turned off my camera, just a few minutes ago, as it’ll only be able to record about 60 minutes of riding. I’ll try to catch the last 30.
Over the top of the Koppenberg:
09:55 We’re 8. This is the race now; I can’t see anyone each time I look back. It’s surprising to see Will Letendre hasn’t made it into this group, but Mike Barton, his team-mate, has. Tim Johnson is here, looking better on the climbs than in 2015. Ansel Dickey and his good friend, Brendan Rhim are here, both great climbers. Gaelen Kinburn, the teen I battled at the end of the race in 2015 is here, looking stronger. Kevin Bouchard-Hall is here for the first time, as is Dylan McNicholas.
10:08 Barton just flatted on a paved section. I’m not going to lie, I’m relieved. Barton has been looking like the strongest guy in this group so far. Ansel has been drifting back on the climbs, so it’s been hard to tell whether he doesn’t feel good, or if he’s just holding back. With Barton out, I can do 7th at worst, but a podium is possible. I’m feeling pretty good, I think I can do it. But man, I sure don’t want to have to race anyone down the ski run at the end!
10:23 I’ve just been gapped a bit on North Road, forcing me to chase back on. The descent is short, followed by another bump of a climb…it’s getting harder to chase back now.
10:30 It’s only been a 6 minutes since I got back on, and the guys are turning the screw as we continue up North Road. Ansel’s behind me as the other accelerate; I don’t want to chase it. He waits, waits, now there’s a couple seconds gap. Ansel comes around, accelerating hard to try to snap me off, leaving me to ramp up as smoothly as I can, claw my way back on. I’m at 28kph on an 8.6% grade, hitting 171bpm heartrate…this is VERY hard. In cycling parlance, this is what we call ‘burning matches.’ It’s not what I want to be doing with more than an hour to go! I’ve pulled myself back into the group, but it’s now clear that this has now become a bad situation for me. Podium? WTF was I thinking? I don’t really know how much more climbing we’ll have before a big recovery…. The reality, which I’ll come to understand later, is that there is a lot less descending recovery in the second half of the course than the first. The climbs are stacked closer together. It’s f#cking relentless.
10:44 I’m riding as conservatively as I can. We’re heading up Perry road as I’m undone. Riding at my time trial intensity, I simply can’t do more without going above my threshold. There’s too much more climb ahead to do that. This is the sort of situation one finds oneself in during a bike race where the sensations and the unfolding of the race don’t really line up. As the 6 riders ahead pull away from me there are no fireworks of any sort. There’s no big, dramatic attack, attempt to latch on, and failure. It’s just a matter of fact: they slide away and I can’t do anything about it. When already riding at one’s threshold for a while, it tends to feel impossible to transcend the effort level, but to think that doing more is impossible is probably a delusion. It is possible to do more, most of the time. But for how long? That’s the issue: I’ve realized I don’t have it to hang with these guys. It’s a matter of when, not if. If I go ballistic and chase on, I’ll blow up worse later on. My ‘decision’ is more automatic than reasoned: keep the effort like this and try to chase back on the descent. It is now officially time for a steady dose of positive self-talk.
10:49 Peter Vollers has been following me as I ride, gapped off the group, for the last five minutes. He’s urging me on: “C’mon Matt, dig, get back on!” I really appreciate it, but I know. I know what he probably can see, but tries to nudge me beyond: I’m f#cked. I can’t go harder, I don’t have more power to throw at this chase. The group ahead is only 10 seconds up the road, but I just don’t have more. This would be a lot more painful psychologically if I’d crashed, had a mechanical, or missed a turn. But the writing has been on the wall since 25 minutes ago, so there’s no sharp pangs of regret. There is just resolution: they are better, and I need to keep positive and grind away at this thing. I’ll have another hour to go solo.
11:25 Who the hell was that!? Someone just shouted behind me as I climb the final sector, Grassy Lane. I’m going at a comfortable pace, having seen nobody in the distance behind me each time I’ve looked since being dropped. Someone is chasing! F#ck, really?! Upping the tempo immediately, I hear wheels and gears behind me as I crest the climb, then Mike Barton and Will Letendre emerge from my left side, pushing on. Both of them! They ride hard, gapping me a bit, but I can see we’re heading into the descent, which looks iffy, a narrow, grass-covered trail. Barton and Letendre are pinning it, going faster than it looks like we ought to. They’re local, so it must be fine to do their speed. I’m impressed. Phewf, no rocks!
11:36 Grass Lane delivers us to Highway 12, still trending downward as I sit on Letendre’s wheel, Barton pulling. The final climb looms, and I’m focusing on staying positive: “You’re ok, just ride.” An attack is inevitable on the last climb up Gully Road. It’s not that it’s a super hard climb, but that it follows on the heels of so…many…relentless climbs. At 1.4km long, averaging 7% in grade, it’s not nothing. Barton attacks, Letendre follows, I can’t change my pace. As Barton breaks clear, Letendre holds steady 10 seconds up the road, 10 seconds too far. Barring an implosion on his part, I won’t catch him. At least I won’t have to race anyone down the ski hill….
11:42 Holy shit, this part is steeper than I remember, and where did that bridge come from?! I’m in the drops, navigating the right turn over a small bridge heading down Suicide Six. This is old-school downhill mountain bike style, right down a ski run. Riding drop bars down steep hills sucks! Pulling up to keep the front wheel out of the water-bars I’m hitting at 50kph is far from easy, there’s just too much weight on the front of the bike. There’s no point in going ballistic here, I’m not going to catch or be caught.
Ansel Dickey and Branden Rhim battle to the line:
11:43 The end. I’m 9th, two down from 2015. It’s going to take some time to process how this race has gone. Did I do better than 2015? Worse? Was that an honest effort I was dropped, or did I let myself ease up too much? What can I do to race this course smarter, better? Where’s Iain, Rich, Mike? It’s time for some local kombucha and a plate of food.
Here’s the video edit I came up with spanning the race. I’ve included a lot more content than I imagine some will want to see, but this is for the benefit of those looking to research the route and get a sense of what to expect during the first 20 or so minutes. Even sped up you can tell it’s a beautiful region!
Mike crashed at 60kph, taking a bunch of road rash to his side and smashing a few components of his bike. Thankfully he only needed first-aid care on on-site, then a few stitches back in Ottawa. Rich had a great race, realizing in hindsight that he’ll have to settle for the second group in this race and try to ramp up, rather than blow up trying to stay on the front over the first two big climbs. Iain is somewhat mystified by getting snapped off early, but happy to have been riding strong through the second half of the race, hanging onto Barton as he chased. Unfortunately, while chasing onto Barton he was directed the wrong way at a turn by a marshall, and rode 2km before the marshall chased him down in his truck to tell him. That was completely deflating. These things happen, but I can say form experience that it feels really, really shitty to be in the position Iain was in, particularly when you’re riding well.
Dave Jones and Todd Fairhead ride strong races, somewhat aided by the Hot Shot anti-cramp solution (review to follow) I shared with them. Pat likewise puts in a solid ride, while Dom has perhaps his hardest day on the bike, but gets it done. Everyone enjoys the aftermath, sitting in a sliver of shade on a sidehill flanking the finish line, riders steaming in, tired, accomplished, relieved, happy.
There’s no denying Vermont Overland is a crucible. Not one rider had an easy ride over it’s 48 miles; there is no way to ride it ‘easy.’ As a person who is rather focused on racing bikes at the moment, the race presents a formidable and humbling challenge. While being far from ideally suited to my abilities, particularly as it grows and attracts more young riders who climb well, the event holds an undeniable allure. It has everything I want in a cycling event: a fantastic, challenging, scenic, fun course, great support across the route, a solid after-party (though I’d love to see a vegan burger option, Pete!), and not least, an incredible community of riders and volunteers. Wait, let’s not forget the locals along the route, and on the roads going about their business who are both encouraging and respectful of what we’re doing out there. In this event I see well into the future, transitioning out of caring about competing at the front, and simply wanting to have a blast on my bike over an awesome route. On the return drive, the four of us agreed we’d love to simply spend a day riding the route, and then some, taking in all the views, the little towns we pass through, soaking it all in. The event brings us down in the first place, the adventure rides follow. This is one of the things about bike racing I love that I always come back to: it has the potential to bring us places that become part of the tapestry of our lives. Vermont Overland is doing that, not just for me, it’s clear. It’s building attachments to the area, just like the real Koppenberg and Oude Kwaremont do in Belgium. It’s building attachments, a shared history, tradition, lore, a sense of connection. And the course, with all it’s challenge and the pain and suffering solicits is the locus. This is bike racing done right, ATMO, because it’s about the ride. So while I don’t see myself ever winning this race, I can’t see myself not attending for as long as I ride. Who knows, perhaps my son will ride it with me some day; that’d be special indeed.
On behalf of Tekné Cycle Club, I’d like to thank Peter Vollers, his support team, every volunteer, all the local residents who accommodated and were patient with the race, all the sponsors who helped make the event great, and every rider who showed up to make the event a huge success. If you’re reading this from within striking distance of Ottawa, Canada, we invite you to join us in June, 2017 for our gravel event, the Ride of the Damned, which is very much in the same spirit as Overland, minus the competitive component. And it’s ridden in teams!
If you’ve not been the the Overland site, please take a visit and check out the event’s sponsors.
Thanks go out to everyone who supported the event, from volunteers to landowners. We experienced so many good vibes out there on the roads, and encountered so little traffic it was almost unreal; magic! Thank you to all the event’s sponsors for investing in cycling development! And I’d like to thank all my sponsors for helping me afford to get to events like this and enjoy them immensly: Giro, Woven Precision Handbuilts, Mad Alchemy, Vega, Compass tires, Silca, Absolute Black, Re:Form. Their fantastic feeds on Instagram will keep you stoked on riding: @girocycling,@wovenprecision,@madalchemy, @vega_team, @compasscycle, @absouteblack.cc and @silca_velo.