My “return” to bike racing can be squarely blamed on The Overland. Last year I had such a great time I decided to just focus on biking again. Admittedly, I won’t pick a discipline, but if there was a more complete scene with races like The Overland, it would be that. I am not ready to be a full time “fundo” guy, I still like racing, but I like racing with people, not against them. Overland is this.
This year however, The Overland made a major change to how they do results. They decided to do a top 3 and then have a clock at the finish for the rest. The goal was to make it so people could feel like they could enjoy the ride and not need to race if they didn’t want to. It made the top 3 spots more valuable but also took away from the hard work and talent that the next 100 finishers would be putting in. I wouldn’t say I am a fan of the change, I actually wish there were more races like how it was and the Rasputitsa. I feel like you can have both a mass start ride for the journey and a race for a place without picking one or the other. But I admit I am biased because I care about results, maybe I shouldn’t as a 35 y/o dude with a family and a job, but it is my passion and I am ultimately in charge in what is important to me. Moral of the story I was hyper motivated for a top 3 because this event maters to me.
The Overland starts on a long dirt road climb after a brief neutral. It descends a bit with some rollers then there is a sustained dirt road climb that funnels into the first Class 4 road sector which is basically a rutted out dirt wall. Last year it went hard from the start and the first sector caused the major split. Some but very little regrouping happened after that. Last year, I suffered to make it over the section and barely caught on after getting gaped, hardest I went all year last year was on that climb. This year I wanted to hit it at the front. No bridging up for me, I hoped.
On the first dirt road climb I rode up to the front and sat shoulder to shoulder with Mike Barton. We went up the first pitch together, riding steadily keeping the cadence high, Mike just ground out some obnoxious gear. On the flat between pitches a teammate of Mike’s, super strongman Will Letendre attacked. He got a gap and a few young guns made some bridge attempts Mike covered. The next pitch started and everything was neutralized by the difficulty with Will maintaining a gap. We were riding steady but not ballistic. Group was not 750 anymore, but the pack was sizable. Following the climb there were some loose gravel turns, some rollers, a short section of pavement, and finally a narrow gravel descent with half the road rutted out with 12″+ gashes in it. I knew this was coming up and yelled to those around me to stay left. But all anyone did was use the right to pass me. Thankfully no one crashed, but in the race behind someone would and my wife Elizabeth would put her ER skills to work to stabilize a C-spine till it was cleared of trauma and perform a concussion screen on a guy that took one of those sections too hot.
After all that the race starts in earnest with a sustained steep gravel climb into the dirt wall and the first pave sector, the one that holds the record for “hardest i went in 2016”. I had gotten gaped after playing it safe on the descent and had to bridge up on the bottom of the climb a little. I then went right to the front and rode hard and steady leaving some gears in the tank to jump if I needed to fight for hole shot. Will Letendre still had a gap on us but it was shrinking. Coming into the wall I kept my spot as first in the group. I upped the tempo to catch Will, jump around him and keep the pressure on. Over the top I still felt fresh and we had a group of 7 and a decent gap. A solid 7 minute effort at 435watts.
The group was Tim Johnson, Mike Barton, Gaelen Kilburn, Ansel Dickey, Will Letendre, Chad Butts and myself. We worked together right away forming a dirt road pace line which is always fun because of pot holes and loose rocks. On one particularly loose descent Tim put the pressure on hoping to force mistakes. In the end it caused Ansel to flat which was a huge game changer. The two time champ and favorite to win was now out of the group.
The next major section was another long class 4 road with some tough rollers and mud at which starts at the top of another hard dirt road climb. Right before that we got word there was a group of 20-30 that were chasing 20-30 seconds back. I couldn’t believe that there would be A) a group that big or B) they would be so close to us. We were rolling well together. It’s a testament to how strong to field at Overland was. There were some powerhouses that missed the first split and now had race favorite Ansel Dickey in it.
Going into the climb before the Class 4 Tim Johnson lit it up and kept it rolling through the Class 4. Riding everything perfectly smooth. Gaelen, on a franken mountain bike followed easily. Mike and I slipped and dabbed and generally sucked behind them but had enough power to stay close. The road kicks you out onto the pavement which is actually the KOM climb in road race at the Killington Stage Race. By the end of all that we were a group of 4. All 4 of us, Mike, Tim, Gaelen, and myself worked together nicely to keep our gap.
Last year, Brenden Rhim attacked on the rollers after this and Ansel and I jumped and chased hard to catch him just in time to hit the Perry Road climb. That is what cracked me last year. This year, I knew it was coming! I also knew the fastest and most technical descent in the race was a class 4 section after the climb. Last year Tim Johnson jumped there and I basically closed my eyes and blindly followed his wheel. That was that fastest I had ever gone down something like that and I have been having nightmares about it for the past year. This year, I was going to start in front of Tim!
I put my year of anxiety to rest and started the descent first and then used my Cycle-Smart cross camp skills to use to set the Strava KOM on the segment. No big deal.
After this I knew we had some hard dirt road climbs, a super hard class 4 climb then a bunch of stuff I don’t remember and a final climb with a ski hill descent to the finish. At this point my legs didn’t feel amazing anymore. They were tired and no one seemed to be riding that much better than anyone else. Galen was riding smooth, Tim was a total animal, and Mike was surprisingly reserved. I actually went back to Tim and was like “whats up with Mike? He is only pulling like 1 person and not 3 or 4”.
Last year on the famed Oude Kwaremont I had to run because I ran out of gear. Gaelen rode it as did Ansel, but I heard Brenden ran it faster than Ansel rode it (I had been dropped an didn’t see). So this year I pretty much just planned to run it. I also wanted to hit the section first. But the climb up to the climb is also brutal. Tim attacked several times there and I was put on my limit but the legs didn’t crack and I was able to start first on the good line. As soon as the bare rock kicked up I dismounted and shouldered the bike and took off running. Gaelen passed and started to gap me. I assumed Mike and Tim were running behind and/or blocked by me. Only one of those things were true. I was the only jackass running. I was also not faster than Galen. I call for sucks on “Brenden ran it faster than Ansel rode it”.
But it actually felt good to not mash a gear on a climb and run so I used the extra energy to bridge back up to Gaelen. Mike and Tim right behind me. Bunch of rollers followed and there were only 2 things of note. 1. On a class 4 decent I was leading on I picked a high line rut that dropped faster than I thought it would but it also had a tree down across the line about the height of my handle bars. I did some uncharacteristic gymnastic work and hurdled it with my leg, foot over my head, one hand on the bars and managed not to crash, but I did drop my chain. I didn’t panic and I caught back on. BUT, at the Rasputitsa feed zone they had waffles and I missed it. That sucked.
By this time we stopped getting splits and it was clear we had a decent gap on the rest of the race. We basically road together taking turns making each other suffer knowing it would be a “see who still has it on the last climb” sorta finish. When we hit said climb, Mike jumped hard. It was crazy. Gaelen went off in pursuit and Tim and I went into survival mode. Tim would ride almost up to me, I would ride almost up to Gaelen and he would ride almost up to Mike. Almost. Remember the whole “only top 3 get a result”? Well that suddenly was a big deal as one of us was going to be left empty handed after a day long group effort. Last year I got Tim, but at Rasputitsa he blew me up at the finish. I said to myself “Tim is retired, he doesn’t need to do this to himself.” If I divided the number of national championships he has by the number I have, I wouldn’t get a real number. Can’t do that math. I am not getting fourth. So, over the top we all had about a 5sec gap on each other. The descent is down a ski hill with very angry water bars and is all too terrifying at race speed and thus positions didn’t change. Last year I could only manage 330 watts on the final climb. This year I was at 415. Not overly amazing, but considering the day I was happy. The best I could do and Mike and Gaelen were just straight up stronger and Tim is retired, for like years. 4th was 7 minutes back.
It was an epic day with some epic power (357 NP for 2.5 hours) with epic memories shared with my wife, son, and parents. Vermont Overland is amazing.
- All Photos Reese Brown with personal license purchase.