“Overland is like a wedding, but without any of the boring stuff” – Elizabeth Bouchard-Hall
When I think about having a gravel ride in my neck of the woods, I think of the incredible course we could have. What I neglect to think about is the party and community that actually makes an event special. The Overland is a big party that happens to be a bike race, or a wedding where the ceremony is a bike ride. It is a grand collection of friends to celebrate bikes, friendships, adventures, families and being alive. It starts with a pre-ride, food trucks, and camping the day before and it ends with more bikes, more food, and nearly every bike friend you have hanging out. I am not super religious about who I follow on Strava, social media can be exhausting to keep up with, but I had TWENTY-EIGHT people in my Strava feed do Overland.
It is a ride and festival first, but there is a race too. I am still hooked on the racing aspect of it and am fortunate enough to be competitive. I can always count on the Overland to deliver a great racing story. Here is my 2019 race report, which is my third edition because every year has been worth writing about* (to me).
The Overland starts off brutally, or if you are like me, wonderfully. Four steep three to six minute climbs with little respite in between. I like to say “there is no faking it” at the start of The Overland. The race is blown to pieces by the end of those opening climbs and it then becomes a ride for survival for those up front, and a game of pursuit for those behind. It’s a gravel apocalypse set in a wasteland of some of the most beautiful roads and landscapes on Earth.
Last year Ansel Dickey was racing and I don’t know anyone that can punch the Overland climbs like he can. This year he was filming the race from the lead car. So you know, still leading the race. But last year he attacked on the first climb and created the main selection just minutes into the race. I got swarmed at the start, started fairly far back, and had to bury myself to make it to the front. I did not want to do that again this year, so I resolved to start at the front and set the pace. I went into the climb coming off my teammate Jake Hollenbach’s wheel and as the climb started Mike Barton rolled up to my side and we started to watt f*ck. Three dads who first raced together 15 years ago, racing side by side in Vermont. Pretty cool.
Halfway up the climb Curtis White pushed the pace and we drove it over the top and down toward the next climb. We did the same on the next climb, I set the tempo, Curtis pushed the pace, then I pushed over the top into the opening pavé. The Monday prior to the race I drove over to Ascutney after work and did a hot lap of the course before dark. I did a few efforts on the climbs to test my broken rib and bruised forearm as well as check out the pavé for safety. With Stava Live Segments and my Wahoo computer, I can actually track in real-time how I am doing compared to the KOM or my personal best, so going over the top of the second climb I could see that we were 13 seconds down on what I had done earlier in the week. It was empowering to know that I was still in control of the pace. Additionally, Strava tells me we were still 13 seconds faster than last year. I meant to turn the segments off before the race but it was interesting to see nonetheless.
The next section was pavé 2 and the steepest most technical climb in the race. I led the whole descent into the climb with the plan of leading it out. Which I did, for about 30 seconds. There was a guy named Woodall in the race, and perhaps a minion of his attacked me, because a random stick kicked into my rear derailleur and jammed my drive chain. I could immediately feel the stop of my gears and looked down to see the carnage. Thankfully I didn’t rip my derailleur off but my bike was now incapacitated. I jumped off my bike and yanked the stick out, fixed the chain, and jumped back on my bike. But now I was 30ft off the back of the front group. To add to my woes I could see off in the distance Brendan Rhim attacking over the top of Curtis and the eight rider snake of a lead group was shedding skin and ripping apart. By the time I closed the gap to the breaking chain of riders, I was stuck in one of the only single file sections of the whole course. By the time it opened back up Brendan was almost out of sight and I could just see Curtis coming off. I pushed over the top and into the next roller and bridged to Curtis. Brendan was gone.
Together we set off in pursuit of Brendan, not realizing that that ship had fully sailed. All that we would ever see of him again would be literal ruts burned into the gravel from his massive wattage. We traded pulls and Curtis confessed that he never got the course onto his computer and had no idea where to go. So for one small time in a bike race, in the history of the universe, I became the expert over Curtis White. We pushed the climbs, rode the flats fast and coming down the mid race pavement section we were caught. CAUGHT! By a group of five. I thought I had seen Ted King in his white helmet and beautiful Velocio jersey leading the chase, but it turned out to be Sam Noel driving things. It was actually a group of people I didn’t really know at all minus Sam. What a great race. A field of incredible talent and power and the front chase group was mostly new people to me. Bike racing is unpredictable and fantastic.
Don’t worry, I am not going to narrate every minute of the race. The miles tick off faster now as the story is told. For the next 10 miles things are mostly tame and we gradually shed a couple riders to fatigue or mechanicals. Also, it should be noted there was a dude on a full suspension mountain bike who was trading pulls like a champ at 27-30mph. Hero.
The last 20 miles are even more brutal than the first 20, and I say brutal lovingly. It’s the type of challenge that makes you proud to complete. Climbs, pavé, the fatigue of time. Things you overcome that warm the cockles of your heart. As the road tilted upwards I started to size everyone up. I felt good, confident, but I wasn’t sure where everyone else was. I began to make a plan. I had a few ideas. The first was we needed to drop MTB guy before the hardest pavé section, he was going to crush that. Second was I knew I wasn’t punchy enough to drop anyone or out sprint anyone so I was going to need to just make it hard, but without doing more work than anyone else. Lastly I needed to not crack or get caught by what I assumed was a group of terminator athletes like Ted King, Mike Barton, and Matt Curbeau that I know would ride hard to the line and were only getting faster as the race went on.
There were two longer climbs back to back and I wanted to jump the end of the second long climb but as we got there, I saw too much pop in the three other riders that remained: Sam Noel, Ryan Woodall, and Curtis White. To podium I needed to beat one of these guys. Curtis is the Pan-Am CX champion and I think he has a 75% win rate of any bike race he enters. He is a bike racer of bike racers. Sam Noel looked the strongest, he was still looking punchy, can ride circles around me technically, and is a really nice guy who I excitedly root for throughout the year. Ryan Woodall is a guy of podcast legend. A cycling “comedy” podcast I listen to has fawned over this Ryan Woodall guy as a Florida cycling strongman for years. Honestly, he is pretty tiny and terrifying on the climbs.
Plan 1: Attack over the top of the last double long climb.
- What happened: I tested with a crappy surge after I found myself uncomfortable and I didn’t get a gap nor did anyone seem to be faltering.
- Plan assessment: Fail.
Plan 2: Lead the hardest and longest pavé section and hit the climbs coming out of it hard.
- What happened: Knowing the lines from my pre-ride I got a small gap on Sam, a slightly bigger gap on Woodall, and I put Curtis out of sight (Curtis is about to start his pro CX season and I doubt he was willing to take any risks which is the mature and confident thing to do). Coming out of the open descent that followed, Woodall, Sam, and I regrouped.
- Plan assessment: Incomplete.
Plan 3: On the last long and dragging climb drive the pace and try to grind everyone off of my wheel.
- What happened: I rode hard and steady, didn’t look back, didn’t relent. One by one I popped Sam and then Ryan off my wheel.
- Plan assessment: Success!
Once I had my gap, I rode hard and scared. I had 10 miles to go and I was terrified the resilient Mike Barton, who came back from the dead on Cemetery Hill Road last year (seriously, that’s what it is called). I pushed through the last pavé sections and even set the fastest time of the day on the final climb. In fact, I mostly held Brendan even in the last 15 miles and I am really proud of that (even though I had help for some of it). Brendan has had a hell of a year. Recently getting 2nd at a stage in the Tour of Utah and winning the Tour de Beauce. Those are phenomenal results. He is one of the best US road racers right now and it was an honor to see what someone of his talent can do on the Overland course.
I crossed the line in second place, over 3 minutes down to Brendan, to see my family waiting for me. As I went to them, both my hamstrings cramped harder than they ever have in my life and we shared a special moment. I do my best to make my training invisible to my family, I say that all the time, but I really do. But it isn’t completely. They support me so much throughout the year and I am so thankful they understand that as meaningless as bike racing is in the grand scheme of things, it is part of a passion that makes me a better person, a happy person, and person part of a community. Overland is the perfect embodiment of the cycling community that I love and want my family to be a part of.
Thank You Peter Vollers and all of your staff and volunteers that makes this a highlight of the year.
Bike Dork Stuff:
Nutrition: Untapped Maple, Coffee with electrolytes and ribose, 2 water bottles.