Rasputitsa and Vermont Overland have become revered races to me. They embody everything that I love about cycling and racing. Challenging courses, large fields, friendly folk, and a focus on the journey. They are events where people take the ride seriously, but not. A perfect blend of respecting the race, but also respecting cycling’s place in life. Also, I am pretty decent at these gravel grinder things, and that really makes the lenses rosy.
This year’s race was more stacked than ever before. It was also bigger than ever, 1300 riders. I got starry eyed when looking at the start list with names like Jeremy Powers, Anthony Clark, Ted King, Ansel Dickey, Jeremy Martin, Mike Barton, and Derrick St. John. Add in super juniors like Gaelen Kilburn and Magnus Sheffield and even a top 10 seemed out of reach.
But forget the top 10. Just getting to the start line was my biggest hurdle. Long story short, my wife is just about 9 months pregnant. A due date of Cinco de Mayo, but in the week preceding the race my wife went into labor twice. Twice? Well, apparently you can go into labor and have it stop, multiple times. The doctor said it could go on for weeks. So we had a couple trips to the hospital, one overnight stay, and I am now an expert at reading a cervical effacement and dilatation chart.
All week we talked about whether I should race. Which was really just my way of grieving not being able to race. Once we had our baby it would be easy, because having a baby is awesome! But no baby and no race is sad. The night before the race I finally decided not to go and I was at peace with that. At 4am the day of the race however, my wife woke me up and said “I have slept like shit all night so you can do this race, you need to get up and go. I am not having any symptoms.”
For my few readers, I know your facial expression right now. I saw it on everyone I told this story to. It is a mix of judgement on my character as a husband and father, and disbelief in how incredibly supportive and awesome my wife is. Totally fair thoughts, especially the latter of the two.
So I ended up at the start line with 1300 other people to go ride in one of my favorite races of the year. I had worked hard with my coach to get as fit as possible, I even lost some weight which I had previously vowed to never worry about again. I really wanted to do well. But for every improvement I made, there were 3 more super talented and hard working new racers to join the race. Gravel is growing from the top to the bottom.
The start is basically a free-for -all to see who can swarm the Vermont Overland lead car and not hit cones or oncoming cars. With the size of the field there are lots of people whose race is to skid mark the bumper of the Land Rover in the first 5 miles and then explode for a 35 mile death march. Its great…
No major climbs, just rollers to start so even though we were moving along, the field was only stretching out. First major selection came after a double roller and a fast bumpy dirt road decent with some hearty pot holes. They were also hungry pot holes. Hungry for flesh and water bottles. The Sarlacc pit of dirt roads. So there was a big crash. I don’t know who went down but it was scary and unsettling and in the mayhem I lost both my water bottles. If you want some free water bottles Sarlacc Road in East Burke has a stock pile. A friend in the race said when he went through he saw at least 50 water bottles strewn across road.
By now we had a group of 20-30 and we continued to hit rollers on dirt roads that started to get more snowy. Some dude in white with chiseled calves went for a flier and hung out in front of us a couple hundred feet. I don’t know who it was but whenever someone does that I figure it is Cameron Cogburn returning to racing. The wind was strong and the road turned to full snow, then ice, and then it turned to double track snow and ice and our group of 20-30 started to splinter. I realized we were about to hit Cyberia and my shitty positioning at the back was going to be a problem.
I moved up picking my lines but trying to ride mistake free. I watched Matt Surch get sucked into a deep tire rut and clip a pedal and was thankful not to be behind him. It was going to be really hard to make up for any mistakes here. We hit Cyberia which was a point in the road when the snow got deep and riding was out of question. I knew it was about a half mile long, uphill, and it was supposed to take eight minutes. Six if you ran hard. Strava says we did it in 3:55. I came into it a bit gapped from my bad position and had to close on the front line of runners. As I got there last year’s winner Jeremy Martin started to fall off the pace ahead and I needed to pass him, which was really tough when there is only a single set of packed foot prints and the guy in front is carrying a bike on his back. So I lost some more time before I got by and at the end of the section I was about 10 seconds off the back of the front group.
I put my head down and tried to close on the group of about 7. As I was closing I saw Not-Cogburn just yard sale it on an icy rut. Note-to-self: Road is icy AF. I got back on as we started the next climb. I knew there was a hard climb after Cyberia and I also knew my race was over if I couldn’t stay on here. Thankfully no one attacked hard and was able to stay on over the top. Looking back there was no one. This was the race. Some serious bike studs just got shelled. Mike Barton, Matt Curbeau, Matt Surch, and Jeremy Martin were all gone. Whether it was a mechanical, bad luck, bad legs, or poor position, Rasputitsa didn’t care, the race was going on without them, the race just got serious.
The front group was a total of 9. Ted, Gaelen, Magnus, Derrick, Not-Cogburn, Anthony Clark, Ansel, Ian Clarke, and me. I don’t know Ian very well and have only seen him at a few training races at Catamount when he was burned out from the season. So when I saw him there I was like “Woah, I had no idea you were legit”. Turns out he is. I mean that as a compliment.
For the next hour we rode pretty hard. Surging on the climbs, surging on the icy downhills, and shutting the door on the cross winds. I was very uncomfortable. Lots of closing gaps because my 44-11 wasn’t big enough, because I coasted/braked before ice caked turns, because guys like Magnus, Ansel, and Anthony are punchy AF on short climbs. Any section that could cause a split had someone to test the group. There was no sitting in as we covered 20 miles in an hour on roads that were snowy, icy, muddy, and undulating.
At this point in the race we had 3 things left. There was a descent that I had heard about that had new gravel on it, but like the big rocks gravel. AKA shitty for bikes. Next was the finish climb and finally the “surprise” finish.
At the gravel descent the pace was pushed and risks were taken. By the end of that section Not-Cogburn was gapped off, Gaelen broke his chain, and Magnus dropped his chain. We didn’t attack after that, but we kept riding. The fact that Magnus got it fixed and made it back to the group was impressive. Magnus goes to private school near me. I remember his name tearing up the CX races all over the nation last season. This year he had already won the Pomona uphill TT in the juniors with a time that was good enough to almost win the pro race and was faster than a red hot Blevins. So that’s legit. He also just won the Ossian Gravel Grinder last weekend. That’s some scary talent because he is a first year 17-18 junior.
As we turned onto the finish climb we were 7 lead riders. Last year I got dropped here with Matt Surch and Tim Johnson. To watt nerd out, I did 380 watts for 8 minutes last year and lost about 45sec to the leaders. Going into this year’s race a little lighter and hopefully a little fitter my best case scenario goal was 400-420 watts. That would be enough right?
Nope. Ansel attacked so hard. Magnus went with him and Ted bridged up. Derrick, Clark(e) x 2, and myself came off. As the climb raged on Anthony made it across, Derrick tried and failed, and Legit Ian and I continued to steadily get dropped. As we got to the top I was on the fence of being dropped for good, or maybe bridging back on. But after that effort what hope was there? My final stats were 436 watts for 7:15. I was 30+ second faster than last year but I still lost 15 sec to the leaders. I stalked Ted King’s Strava and I saw why. 477 watts for 7 minutes. He is retired. F’ing retired and does that. Jesus.
Now it gets crazy. As we crested the climb I see Anthony Moccia, one half of the race directors, standing in the road pointing us off into the woods. Surprise! It’s a xc-ski trail! At this point anything is possible. No idea how long it goes for, or what it will be like. It is also the one thing technically I am kinda good at, riding on packed snow. I can see Ted King down the trail and I have passed Derrick and Ian. Ted looks to be having no fun at all battling the snow with a combination of running and riding. Which is how I looked when he was destroying his power meter on the climb. I get by him and keep riding/running as smooth as I can. No indecision about riding or running, never losing momentum, finding the best packed snow to ride on and dodging the soft stuff.
I see Ansel up the trail. As I come up to him we cross a road and continue down the xc-ski trail. I pass him and he says “I think we missed a turn”. I look down the trail and can see Anthony Clark and 2 sets of tire tracks. So I say something of the effect “I’m just following these guys”. I catch Anthony and I can see Magnus up the trail. Magnus is at a trail junction and there is no sign. He looks back and asks what to do. Anthony has his GPS and points in the best direction.
To even get to this point was a huge convergence of fate and luck. My wife could have slept well and I could have never made it to the start line. I could have been on Matt Surch’s wheel in Cyberia and never made the front group. I could have stopped running/riding hard and lost focus when Ansel said we missed a turn. Anthony Clark could have pointed in a different direction and we would still be lost in the woods (and over half of the racers to follow!). But in that moment Anthony picked the trail that looped back to the road where the race should have turned if not for a course marker that was lost or stolen. In that moment I decided that the last 2 hours of dick punching each other was not for nothing and that this journey was not yet complete. Even if we never saw the finish, or if those behind went the right way and got ahead, this adventure had meaning and I was going to see it through. I pressed on running and and riding mistake free and started to pull away. I made it to the road and saw where we had crossed on the xc-ski trail and thought to myself, this has to be the way. Down a few bends I saw a course marker confirming we were back on course. I looked back and saw no one in sight. I was winning Rasputitsa, I think.
I popped out below the base road and I knew all that was left was to climb up to the ski lodge. I kept on the pedals and my legs felt good. I could see the base lodge and then an arrow and spectators pointed me off and up another dirt road. That road kicked into another ski trail that I knew headed to the finish line. All I had to do was ride it smoothly and I had this thing. Coming onto the ski trail the snow got soft and deep and I had to dismount. I could now see the finish line 200 yards away. I ran across the line looking around asking if I had won. Turns out most of the people behind me also went the wrong way and I was the first to finish. I just won Rasputitsa.
I looked at the Strava file and I made a segment for our extra adventure. It was 1.6 miles and took me almost 14 minutes. But everyone else took longer. I was not the best or strongest rider today. Had the race been a regular road ride with a hill climb finish I would have been toasted by better riders. But Rasputitsa is going to Rasputitsa and lady luck struck for me. I also have to say Anthony Clark and Magnus Sheffield were absolute class at the finish. Both had their race turned upside down by us getting lost but they did not huff and puff, swear or demean anyone’s effort. They embraced the spirit of the race and looked to be better people for it, I know I am.