Less than a light year away, and more enjoyable than a quick jaunt across the galaxy in the Tardis the time has come to head south, deep into wintery weather to brave the race they call Rasputitsa.
For the humble store racers, we three Martin Swiss amigos, leave the relative comfort of Montreal cocooned in Tom’s Suburu – bikes and gear on board Friday afternoon, rolling out of town just ahead of the rush hour traffic.
It’s an open road ahead to the border and once there we find a pleasant officer who tells us we’re about the 30th vehicle heading to the race. We like this.
It’s a quick run to the motel, we check in with equal mirth and some unmentionable flirting on someone else’s part. Uncovering the wonders of our motel, one glorious square foot after another is a special pleasure.
I draw the short straw, get the kiddie-cot (aka the floor with a mattress) – which turns out to be the coolest part of the room at night – booyaa – and get our bikes stacked up, our gear stowed and good Canadian organization prevails.
Chores done, we head, in high spirits, to the mountain to register. Some pre-race training is observed on the way. Snow reports come minute-by-minute. Fog is everywhere. We pull a rock-star move and park at the front of the hotel, avoiding the hoi-polloi and riff-raff and head in to get us some race plates.
A full-on bike party is in swing. A great David Bowie impersonating act is in high gear. Some cool Specialized gear begs some attention. A charity for promoting girl’s riding calls out my money to buy an over-priced bidon. It’s a worthy cause, I pay gladly. We take pictures, we register (clearly the A-C line has the advantage) and we feel anticipation washing over us, until hunger takes over. Cyclists are always hungry.
Getting dinner is not so smooth. The restaurant, sadly, is an hour’s wait, so we drive down to a hipster restro-bar in town, which is also an hour’s wait, and so move once more to a great family restaurant where the beers and the food come fast and friendly. No garlic and red wine – but beer and lasagna and wings and burgers ensure midnight munchies stay gone.
We bunk down pdq and I sleep well through the night, the others a bit less so. I have my secret weapon of youtube rainfall, but wake a couple of times when the very flakey wifi cuts out, forcing me back to Josh Wink techno, turned down low to sleep to. Works better than a hot water bottle – go figure.
The morning is – can I get a witness – amen-tastic. Clear blue skies, barely below zero. Halelelubliana! Just 24 hours earlier I was a fixed gear wreck on a mountain side of apprehension – weather calling for minus eight and snow. My resolve was very low, my choice of bike dithering. But now in the morning light it all feels correct, and it’s hammer down to pack, prep and get breakfast. Cue the Bronski Beat.
Tom finds us a great little breakfast spot – organic everything. We fuel well, chat about clothing choices and one of us gets lucky with a fine local lady chatting him up. No names :).
Once we get breakfast sorted, we take the short drive up to the parking lot where there is already a small rock of age’s crowd gathering. We still score decent parking, and set about the business of preparing for the race. Good time to say hi to and check out the competition. It’s fun seeing who is out there to challenge our clear supremacy for the 80-110 spot range. Gonna be some fierce battling out there for sure.
The weather is a bit cool at the start, but clear, thanks very much Weather Gods. Kind of ideal for me, because as you know, I’m not a big fan of hot days in the saddle. It’s important not to overdress for the start line, because after a couple miles at race pace you’ll be peeling off like a banana.
Yes, a taller pump would be a good idea!
Fully kitted and prepped we head out for a short warm-up – just a couple k’s – up a short hill and back down again. It’s good to get the legs moving. When we get back to the parking lot, there is a huge line-up already, but sticking to my tried and true formula slide it right at the front.
The vague plan is for the three of us to work together as much as possible at the start, and sure enough once rolling we manage to group up for a few k’s. The start is the usual nonsense – someone has placed cones on the center of the road to prevent riders crossing into oncoming traffic, but of course a stampede of 1200 riders can’t make sense of this. Cones are flying around, brakes are jamming. The front group stays way too close to the pace car, so there’s even more jamming and brake slamming. Hey guys, we’re still in a neutral zone!
Soon enough it’s game on and the front pack, already split a bit; slowly and apparently without much effort shatters the first 100 riders or so into a droopy string of pearls. Groups of 20-30 seem the norm, and we’re off. Some hills further smash the group sizes and I’m with the third or fourth group, with Tom, when the hills kick up and I say adios to him for the rest of the day. Behind that is.
Still, not to worry, I am connected with a good sized pack and keeping a good pace. Patrick is with me and we crank up and over the miles. The terrain is almost all gravel roads, double lane, some single lane, and the ground is mostly hard and firm, some frost but no snow. There are some sections where it gets a bit sloppy and sandy; then there’s a huge energy sink as you battle to keep up watts or pace.
Regardless the scenery is pretty cool – at least what little I see through misty eyes. We come around a couple of fast corners and into a rutted section which looks like it’s covered with 50 bottles bounced out of loose cages. I hear later some dude went over his bars here – you have to stay super soft on the pedals and the saddle and be ready for the unexpected here. Mountain biking is clearly great training for CX or gravel racing.
Having said that it’s feeling much better in the drops and tucked into an aero position. Now I’ve ridden carbon wheels on my road bike for the last week it’s safe to say that they would be a very welcome addition for this kind of event. I’m riding tubeless, and it was a sort of wasted after-thought to lug along a spare tube.
Patrick and I stick together through much of the ridgeline single track snow trudge, which I really wanted to take a picture of, but really didn’t want to drop places to capture. GoPro is the way to go for this event for sure next time. Or a drone. Or your own photographer. Anyway we start to hear down the back-side of the course, slowly turning around out of the brutal head and side-winds of the first half and get a good taste of down-wind running. Coupled with actual downhill it makes for some very fast miles. I pass a couple of riders who have also crashed hard, medical attention hard. Sucks, totally feel their pain. Have to be so careful on this course because the roads are very rutted and pot-holed. One second of inattention and you are going down.
We start some more climbing out of the first feed station, which we half showboat, half hard sprint through ignoring all offerings. It feels good to feel strong, and slowly we pick up the pace. More hills, and I lose Patrick and pick up with some other riders as we head into the final 10 miles or so. Last I saw had just handed him half a bottle – not sure now if I only drank 1.5 bottles for the whole 40 miles. I think so.
Am super grateful for the route profile taped to my top tube the night before. I can see the major hills on the map just well enough to know when to crank it and when to conserve it.
I may be slow up the big climbs, but I’m not losing much ground as we go into the final big climb. I would have lost even less if I had the bigger rear cassette I wanted. I’m stuck on about 34, would love a 42 for this race. Seems like all the American guys are going with this bigger cogset. Makes sense to me.
I stay disciplined with my eating – dropping the gels steadily every 20-30 mins or so and load up with Kendlemint Cake for the final climb and go all in. Towards the top of the last climb, I’m up and slow-sprinting after a rider who starts nervously looking over his shoulder at me closing. Yes I see you!
Well you see, I think we’re done, the finish is at the parking lot, or just above – but oh no. We’ve climbed back up to where we’d warmed up before the race and start climbing up that road again. Panic sort of sets in – I remember 40 mins of climbing up this road in the fall at the start of Circumburke and don’t relish the idea of pushing pretty cooked legs much further up. This isn’t on my map!!
Fortunately we only go up about 100 meters, then take a hard right into the woods. I expect a brisk connector to a cool finish line vibe and a pat on the back, but oh no. Relief turns back to anxiety which escalates pretty quickly to anger. Welcome biker to a super snowy, super shitty trail. The minutes turn into endless doubt filled eons and suffering – what is this hell!
Now I’m all for a bit of fun, but this sector is frankly fucking ridiculous. The snow is wet, heavy corn snow and impossible to ride. Doesn’t stop many trying so it’s a fool’s playground of spinning out, falling, sliding, and crashing into each other. Only it’s not fun. It’s really annoying. I start losing places quickly; I figure 40-50 places by the time the carnage is over.
It is very frustrating to close the race in the top 100 on actual racing merit and lose it this way. I figure I slipped back just 3-4 minutes but that was all it took to drop 50 places. Not cool. Memo to organizers – keep this bit short next time – it’s so not appreciated. Even worse news for Tom and some other closer to the front runners who are mis-directed in the woods and end up walking for a full bonus mile. It’s the only sore spot in an otherwise flawless organization.
Anyway, I cross the finish in a bemused state – at least happy to finish strong overall and regardless to the hiking. The atmosphere at the finish is top notch – bike party at a spring ski resort vibe. The wood fires are going, the heaters are on, and the deck is set up so you can watch the finishers. I chug my beer, chat to some new friends and wait for the guys to arrive. After 20 minutes waiting I get hungry, get food, and eat. The meal is totally great, and so not like some bad bike food we’ve seen elsewhere.
I eventually go down to the car and find the guys changing and cleaning up (wow, who does that first before eating and drinking I wonder – is this a roadie thing?). MTBers eat and drink for hours before even wiping their faces clean!
They get food while I change and then go back to settle in for beers in the Adirondack chairs. The good sport of heckling finishers ensues and we have fun inventing creative encouragements for the finishers – fat bike, tandems, single-speeds, hard and soft tail MTB’s – you name it. It’s a full on bike party and we’re laughing like idiots, or was that just me?
Amazing to watch 2 hours after I finished just how many other riders are pouring in. It’s a fondo-sized field!
Finally it’s time to hit the road giving thanks for our designated driver’s sobriety and back on the highway for the quick drive home. Well, fast for me because I slept through most of it. Needless to say I’m hungry after waking up and I start dreaming about BBQ number two.
So all in all, it was a pretty great bike overnighter adventure – we all rode hard and finished strong. Anytime you can finish respectably close to US National champion is a good day. For a first CX race I can’t think of a better place to be led out in style.
Appendix – other links:
Many more words have been written about this race. I won’t repeat them, but I will link them.
Their race/no race thing is a bit Vulcanesque for my taste, but I did see a few To Be Determined riders out there most certainly racing and not not-racing. I will say their site is awesome and their kit is likewise, super-cool. Respect!
The race also raises money for a bike organization which promotes cycling to girls and young women, I gladly chipped in 15$ for a cool Specialized bidon.