Words and Photography by Tayler Rae Dubé
The term Rasputitsa refers to the spring season when unpaved roads become virtually impossible traverse in Eastern Europe. In Russia, these seasons were so intense, they were used as a defense during wartime. The dirt and gravel roads of Vermont share this spirit with their Eastern European counterparts. They suffer from the melting of mass piles of snow. Dirt turns to mud and becomes riddled with potholes. In a perfectly sadomasochistic twist, someone decided it’d be a great idea to put on a bike race on these roads, and call it the Rasputitsa. The race would cover 45 miles of this frozen gravel slurry in some of the most cold and barren landscapes of New England.
Rasputitsa began for me in February. I had been thinking about good places to go ride dirt roads when my friend, Nate, told me he was planning on trekking up to Vermont for the race in April. Excited that I wasn’t the only crazy New Yorker who wanted to go ride dirt in the midst of road season, I agreed that I would race too.
Terrified I would freeze, it took me two trips Nate’s place in Harlem to pack the car with all the things I brought. Sleeping bag? Check. Kit? Check. Embro? Check. Snacks? Check. It was mostly necessities, but I might have gone a little overboard with three pairs of gloves and four base layers. After a half hour of playing a game of car packing Tetris and making sure all the bikes were secure on the roof, we were on our way.
The drive up was a long one. We made a few stops for food and took a two-mile detour to a closed gas station that looked like it hadn’t been updated since the 1950s. Finally, around 12:30am, we arrived and Burke, VT where we would car camp for the night.
Cars are not hotels. One thing they lack that most buildings offer in spades is insulation. And so the car we were trying to sleep fitfully in slowly got colder and colder through out the night. I woke up many times to put on more layers and shift the blankets around. I don’t think I got much sleep, but the view of the mountains standing in front of me as I rolled out of the car in the morning left me feeling refreshed.
At registration, as we grabbed our numbers and started changing into our kits, it began to snow. Normally, seeing the white flakes rain down would bite away at my excitement, but here, in the middle of the mountains and pine trees, it seemed fitting. Sitting in the car drinking coffee, I tried to mentally prepare for what was to come. I hadn’t really studied the course, so I was crossing my fingers that everything would be well marked.
Nate and I had already agreed to split up, since he intended to win and I saw the race more as an opportunity to enjoy the scenery of rural New England. In the start area, he headed toward the front while I lined up in back. I looked around at my competitors. People on cross bikes (that makes sense), mountain bikes (okay), fat bikes (I hope that isn’t a sign), and road bikes (huh…?). I had my new Specialized Diverge. A bike perfectly suited (hopefully) to the mix of road conditions to come. On the whistle, five hundred cyclists rolled off in a wave.
After the initial start on mud, the first couple miles of the race were on pavement heading up to the top of Darling Hill. The race began entirely uphill, hitting 12% grade at some points, but my tires were gripping well and my legs were fresh so I barely noticed.
The road vacillated between dirt and sticky mud, littered with potholes that threatened to swallow wheels and, at times, took a lot of maneuvering to get around. I had to ride slower than I would have liked, but was happy the roads weren’t covered in snow and ice. I met a girl in a bright yellow vest, named Lucy, from Maine. We were riding at a fairly even pace, me passing her on the climbs and her passing me in the mud. The conversationalist in me wanted to chat with her about what it’s like living and riding in Maine during the winter, but the racer in me deemed her my nemesis and pushed myself to drop her.
About 13 miles in we turned on Victory Road. For the next three miles we slowly climbed. The hill was long and steep, hitting 21% grade at one point. People were zig-zagging, some being forced off to walk their bikes. I clenched my teeth and sang the same Kendrick Lamar song that had been stuck in my head since the drive up. It wasn’t until the top of the climb and a maple syrup hand up in the feed zone that I would realize how ridiculous that song seemed with a Vermont landscape in view.
After some quick descending and more pushing through mud, I reached another feed zone. Someone handed me an oatmeal raisin cookie and as I took a bite the marshall announced a “one mile long climb before Cyberia!” I put my remaining cookie down and started up the hill. I thought that the climb was hard, but that was before encountering “Cyberia;” an almost 3-mile uphill hike covered in about 4 inches of snow. I started off confidently running, but soon broke down to a slow walk. I was completely drained. People were passing me left and right so quickly that I thought maybe there had been some “bring snowshoes” memo that I had never received. I started swearing a lot in my head. I was sure my nemesis would pass me at any moment. I gave up a little. Then, like a beacon of light, I saw Marty from Geekhouse Bikes up ahead. We would spend the next mile hiking together and commiserating before reaching the top. We stopped for a moment to regain our breath. A person in a unicorn mask handed me a jelly donut. I think that donut saved my life.
The next mile was downhill in the same snow. I was able to ride sections of it, but ultimately had to walk the majority. Exhausted by the bottom of the hill, I didn’t even stop to answer the nice woman who offered me a dry pair of socks.
With only 7 miles left until the finish, I felt a new surge of energy. I passed a few people on a steep hill before that surge of energy fizzled out, and I started dying again. Mercifully, about then a “1k to go” sign appeared, and a marshall pointed me toward what looked like a driveway and then a steep snowy downhill trail. It was exactly what it looked like. I rode down the first few feet and then dismounted and tried not to fall down the rest. At the bottom a toddler in a snowsuit congratulated me and I rolled through the finish.
Tired but happy, I was greeted by familiar and similarly fatigued faces. We laughed for a bit and traded war stories Cyberia, then I headed to the car to change. Nate was already finished and back at the car, visually exhausted. “What the fuck just happened?” “I don’t even know,” I responded. Warm clothes never felt so good, followed by a veggie burger and fries. Nate asked; “Would you do it again?”
Yes. But next time I’m bringing snowshoes.