Rasputitsa: Is it a race or is it a ride?

So is it a Race or Is it a Ride? 

It is the question we receive more often than any other when it comes to Rasputitsa. But even after a third consecutive year venturing north the Vermont countryside for the one of the most popular gravel grinders in the country the answer remains as vague as it was for our first foray in 2016 when we failed to so much as examine a course map. However as we officially enter into ‘Rasputitsa veterans’ territory two things are certain: the event continues to grow while raising thousands of dollars for charity and as we wrote about last year Rasputitsa is about so much more than a few hours of Vermont hills, dirt roads and, for this year at least, very deep snow. It is a memorable weekend away from the chaos of New York City with friends and teammates. It is a good excuse to drink some very good Vermont beers. It is a unique cross section of the cycling community coming together in a manner that is completely distinct to traditional USAC racing. It is something special. 

 
 

When Rasputitsa Is a Race

Ultimately, registering to ride in the Rasputitsa Spring Classic earns you a number that you put on your bike. That number has a timing chip, which a computer will use to record your finish time. Those finish times are then ranked. It’s maybe not a race in the sense that trying to navigate a pack of 1,300 people brings reasonable expectations that you’ll do well. But Rasputitsa is a race in the sense that there is a person who will, inevitably, finish first, and people who finish after them. The mentality is simply more marathon than road race. Guys who were riding well — Daghan, Cullen, Ted and myself — wanted to just “be up there.” If that was with “the lead group,” then yeah cool, awesome. Otherwise to “race” Rasputitsa just meant pedaling hard.

Of course, mechanicals happened. Cullen’s shifter broke, forcing him to unexpectedly compete in the single speed category. Ted’s Di2 became unplugged, leaving him the choice between two chainrings. I made the super wise decision to put slick touring tires on my bike, which was fine until the first icy, slushy descent when it was decidedly Not Fine. But it was fine. Sure, not ideal for a course that goes up 4,300 feet in 40 miles. But expected for a route that’s mostly mud and slush and certainly manageable enough to get across the finish line, right?

Well, about that. Although signing up to “race” Rasputitsa can be a bit missing-the-point, it’s safe to say that everyone is going to do some degree of suffering and want to know where that amount of suffering will put them in relation to others. This was sort of complicated by the ending bits of the course. After just cresting a real gut-punch of a climb up Pinkham road, the organizers directed racers onto cross-country ski trail. Initially planned, it was to be nothing more than a mile of deep, late-spring snow. Something to shake things up. For people like myself, who definitely was an idiot and brought the wrong tires, it offered a chance to warm up the feet with a bit of a jog through the snow. For everyone else who was smart and raced on knobbies, it was a chance to pass some folks with sub-par bike handling skills.

Where things went a little south is when the front group of racers happened to miss a left turn onto Dashney road (whether or not a sign was actually there isn’t exactly clear!) and kept trudging through another mile and change of snow. Looking back, we’re all going to look back at Rasputitsa 2018 and laugh at our misfortune. A wrong turn! Lost in the woods! Remember the “Bowie Loop”? But at the time, trudging through fairly deep snow for what seemed to be forever (it was 30 minutes, give or take), it was a bit of a let down. To have had such an amazing day on the bike, only to finish it walking our bikes across the line after many of the chase groups were correctly directed away from the “Bowie Loop” — well, we were a bit bummed wondering what could have been.

But like the snow on those dang trails, sitting with friends around the lunch table, nursing beers and venting our post-race frustrations, it all melted away to what we all really signed up for: having a cool day on the bike with the people we care about. Maybe that’s the result we were all really looking for.

— Steve Rousseau

When Rasputitsa Is Definitely Not a Race

Perhaps it is my long-standing preference for criteriums or my ‘big boned’ body structure talking but I have always found it easy to slide into Rasputitsa with the mindset that it is definitely not a race. This year that recreational mindset was exacerbated by an unexpectedly late night drive to Burke that put me on the start line fueled with too few hours of sleep and far too much Red Bull for breakfast. If I was racing it would have been a recipe for failure. But since Rasputitsa was, in my mind, definitely not a race I wasn’t too worried about what lay ahead. 

Yes, lack of sleep and preparation undoubtedly contributed to some dark moments during Rasputitsa - obviously most of these came when the road titled uphill. But despite a few moments of creeping darkness the 2018 edition of the event also turned out to be my favorite of the past three thanks to a rest stop amenity list that suddenly added “beer and liquor” to the more traditional assortment of bike based nutrition. Joining me in what would became a happy-hour-esque ride through the stunning Vermont countryside was Clay who was riding a demo Diverge as part of Specialized’s growing support of Rasputitsa. Together we were the #chillpals (it's a long story).

When we rolled off the start line and survived the harrowing neutral descent Clay, being the watt goblin that he is, dropped me on the early inclines and rode into the distance as I felt all of the sadz over my lack of sleep and big boned body composition. Some miles later I found Clay casually lounging on the side of the road near a spray painted sign that read ‘cookies and shots.’ Yes, someone had not just baked several dozen cookies for the racers but they also setup a mini-bar in their front yard. And since for the #chillpals Rasputitsa was not a race we quite obviously choose to partake in some liquid refreshment. 

From there we fell into an smooth rhythm that was appropriate to our chosen #chillpals hashtag: Clay would drop me up the inclines again and again but pull wheelies at the top until I slowly caught back on. From there we would bomb the descents at absolutely full, type 2 fun, speeds (Clay really enjoyed doing this on the Diverge). This process would be repeated until we reached a pit stop where we would partake in whatever adult beverages were on offer – a selection that ranged from Woodford Reserve to PBR at the midway point and Fireball pickleback shots in the final miles. 

 

The line of hikers through Cyberia in the middle of the pack was long and densely packed. 

 

This strategy obviously was not conducive to garnering any sort of reasonable finishing time, but then again neither was Clay facetiming with his girlfriend up the final climb or faceplanting in the deep snow just a few hundred meters from the finish line while showboating his amateurishly elite (or is it elite amateur?) bike handling skills. But time and finishing position were the furthest things from our minds when we crossed the finish line tired and slightly tipsy but very stoked on what was an exceedingly memorable ‘not a race’ day on the bike. 

The rest of our time in Vermont was spent with a near perfect mix of adult beverages around a fire pit a top Burke Mountain with a minor assortment of late night video game nonsense at the hotel arcade. Stories were told, laughs were shared and it was the all around pleasant type of fun that comes when you surround yourself with a great group of friends. 

It Doesn’t Matter If It Is A Race

Returning to New York City I’m not sure we have any better sense for how to define Rasputitsa. And perhaps that is the best and most important characteristic of Rasputitsa. For those that want to pedal hard there is the opportunity to do so with/against some of the most recognizable names in this emerging genre of gravel grinders – Ted King, Jeremy Powers, Alison Tetrick, Anthony Clark, and the like. It is a rare chance to learn how you shape up against athletes of that caliber. And for those that want to take rest breaks every fifteen miles to slam a PBR? There is an equally enjoyable opportunity to do so just a handful of minutes back down the road from those racing at the pointy end of the event. 

Want to ride a fat bike? A tandem? A tandem fat bike? There is room for any and all of the above. From riders looking to finish in high in the standings to riders looking to finish in five or six hours with the reward of warm waffles and beer, just about any perspective on cycling fits into the big tent atmosphere that is Rasputitsa. In the end it all gets jumbled together on the steep dirt roads and beautiful countryside of Vermont in what winds up being one heck of a good weekend. 

We're not sure whether we'll be racing or riding but we will certainly see you again next year Rasputitsa. 

— Matthew Vandivort