By Kirk Kardashian
Ask a Russian what rasputitsa means and they’ll tell you it’s the time of the year when the dirt roads thaw, giving way to a quagmire of mud the consistency of peanut butter. We just call it mud season. For New Englander cyclists, though, that ominous Russian word is associated with a dirt road bike race that took place April 16 in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. Naturally, there’s often a lot of mud.
The inaugural race in 2014 set the tone. Envision power sapping sludge, snowed-over Jeep roads, and cold temperatures. Same deal in 2015. Undaunted, this year, 670 riders from 21 states and Canada showed up in East Burke, home of the famed Kingdom Trails mountain bike network, to race 40 unsanctioned miles with more than 4,000-feet of elevation gain.
Heidi Myers and Anthony Moccia founded the event as an expression of their love for community, cycling, and charity, and over three years they’ve fostered the kind of warm, laid-back vibe that’s become a hallmark of gravel races. All varieties of cyclists were represented, from kids and fat-bikers to elite amateurs and professionals. Part of every entry fee went to supporting Little Bellas, the girls’ mountain bike mentoring program founded by Lea and Sabra Davison, and JAM Fund Cycling, another non-profit developing junior and elite-level cyclists.
A mild winter, followed by four days of bright sun and dry air before this year’s race made for unusual conditions for northern Vermont: The roads were littered with the sharp stones deposited by town graders, but they were also relatively dry. As the pack bounced over the washboard sections at upwards of 40 miles per hour, water bottles ejected from bikes and brakes squealed.
After about 40 minutes, the climb pushed me back in the pack and I found myself in a group of six riders 30 seconds behind the lead group of four. We climbed through a notch on the northern shoulder of Burke Mountain, and descended into the remote town of Gallup Mills. Out there, the terrain changed from wooded hills and farms to a lone dirt road through a massive bog. My group traded pulls in a quick pace line and nearly caught the leaders at Victory Road, but then the road tilted up again and it was every man for himself. Soon after, I hit the most famous section of the course, Cyberia, a two-mile Jeep road that’s usually impassable during mud season. This time it was rideable all the way through, albeit with menacing, partially frozen 12-inch-deep ruts on the descent.
I rode alone the next 10 miles to the finish; appreciating stunning views of Burke and Willoughby Gap as I cruised downhill into East Burke. People cheered along the roads, providing that extra bit of motivation to finish strong.
As I gorged myself on poutine and chili at the finish, I recalled what Moccia, with a grin, had said to the riders at the start: “Enjoy these conditions, because it will never be this nice again.” He’s probably right—and I’ll probably be back anyway.