Vermont is beautiful, quirky and addictive. Unlike more dramatic outdoor locations (think: the Oregon coast, Colorado’s continental divide, or Alaska’s Valdez mountains) that cut jagged holes into an adventurer’s consciousness, Vermont is more diligent. It seeps in and not just with its beautiful parts, its covered bridges, or its wholesome pastures. The ugly misshapen parts of Vermont wear their way into a believer in things outdoors. Spend enough time in the Green Mountain State and frost heaves, the soggy mud season, and the fickle spring winds start to be…unpleasantly appealing. Because of this, it is no surprise, that in its first year, the Rasputitsa, a gravel focused bike race in Newport, Vermont, with a gritty feel and challenging course was a success.
A bit of context first if you’re not into riding. Gravel rides are steamrolling cycling culture of late. Bike manufacturers are racing to build drop bar, disc brake equipped bikes with wider tires ready for the flavors of pavement that might not have rated ride-worthy a decade ago. Forgotten dirt two-tracks are the new, old paths to happy adventure. Hence a small, removed town in a state that boasts 9000 miles of gravel road is a perfect place for hosting an inhospitable bike race on trend in cycling right now.
Rasputitsa is a borrowed Russian name that means “Quagmire Season” and a fitting description of the thoroughly soaked roads that comprised the course. These were roads wet enough to pool small in-line puddles with my cross tires when I rolled over their bloated gravel. While this would be novel if it were summer and say, 65 degrees, it was a bit mocking in the 45-degree morning complete with light rain that greeted riders. Needless to say, I wore wool.
A lengthy pre-race talk that was almost gleeful in its celebration of the terrible course conditions kicked off as riders, mostly on gravel and cyclocross bikes stood shivering near the row of porto-johns. Once rolling, the business end of the race was sharp with three actual professionals and no shortage of folks who take pedaling seriously driving the pace. But the story was less about the personalities pedaling and more the nature of the course. After a casual fifteen miles of gravel climbs and rocky descents, the race toured through a section known as “Cyberia” which as a climb wasn’t terrible, but as a road left much to be desired. Roughly two kilometers of packed snow and ice remained undeterred by any spring weather in Newport. It was not easily ridden and made more difficult by the lead-in to it, a lengthy washed out section that looked like a stream bed rather than a cycling venue. No one rode through this section. Once over the signature stretch (complete with costumed Yeti shouting encouragement and a maple syrup feed station), the course continued on unceremoniously through gusting headwind of the shape-shifting variety, wind that never seems to have a firm direction, a Vermont specialty. The course also followed freshly graded roads that made pedaling softer and uglier than normal. It was exactly what the race organizers had touted and what had drawn folks from all over the country. Mercifully, the last few miles were pavement before the finish.
I lament not snapping a photo of my long sleeve jersey or the sleeveless Woolies baselayer under it, both of which kicked off small clouds of dried Vermont road dust when I put it in the washing machine later. I don’t have a good souvenir from the event other than a creak in my headset, likely the result of a crash I sustained when trying to ride sections of Cyberia that were not meant to be ridden. What I do have is a begrudging respect for the event. There are harder races, more challenging courses, more dramatic rides that cut quicker into a rider’s consciousness, but like Vermont, the Rasputitsa seeps in slowly, with a quirky feel that beckons one to return to the scene, if only to take glee in the unpleasant.