by Lindsay Westley
She is a freelance writer based in Hinesburg, Vermont. She writes for publications including Bicycling, Dwell, EatingWell and National Geographic, and rides for the NEXT-BMB cycling team.
I’m whizzing down Darling Hill Road—a 20 percent grade—when my first water bottle rattles loose and hits the dirt. Ahead of me, two other riders’ bottles similarly eject as they negotiate the fine balance between speed—wheeee!—and Vermont’s pothole-riddled, semi-frozen dirt roads. At the bottom, a less-fortunate racer collects the remains of a bike yard sale; she looks fine, so I don’t stop. After all, this is the Rasputitsa Spring Classic, a Russian-themed mud- and ice-fest in the wilds of Northeast Vermont in April. As far as I’m concerned, the Cold War is on, and I’m stopping for nothing and no one.
Besides, I still have 35 miles to go… and Cyberia awaits.
Mud Season Punishment
Rasputitsa is Russian for “season of mud,” an apt — if hard to pronounce — description of mid-April in East Burke, Vermont. If you don’t live in northern New England, you might not realize that there are actually five seasons here: spring, summer, fall, winter… and mud season. And Rasputitsa is timed for its peak.
Riding 40 miles through snow/slush/sleet/mud in April isn’t typically on my to-do list. But I’ve been talked into it by Lea and Sabra Davison, co-founders of the Little Bellas, a mentoring-on-mountain-bikes nonprofit that aims to get more girls on bikes. (Lea’s also a two-time Olympian and rides for Specialized’s XC mountain bike team.) Over beers and bowls of soup, Rasputitsa had sounded like a fun early season adventure—Bikes! Friends! Fire pits! Barbecue! Beers!—and the proceeds would benefit the Little Bellas and JAM Fund Cycling, a nonprofit that helps young cyclists make the leap to the pro level. It sounded great. (Sabe and Lea can make anything sound great.) I signed up. And I even wrote a little preview about it for Bicycling, which my editor ominously titled “7 Spring Classics Guaranteed to Make You Suffer.” Gulp.
Warm Weather and Wheel-Sucking Mud
But the 2016 race dawns clear and sunny—and about 35°, with anticipated temps of the low 60s! I was stoked. And then the race starts. And we go up. And up. And up, punctuated by sharp, punchy, water bottle-ejecting downhills.
See, the one thing nobody tells you about Rasputitsa is that you gain more than 4,000 feet of elevation in 40 miles of riding. (Most race veterans are 100 percent focused on warning you about the weather.) I live in Vermont; there are plenty of hills here. But when you combine early-season fitness and a 4,000-foot gain with wheel-sucking mud and the stiff gearing on the cyclocross race machine I’d borrowed from Lea—well, I’m hurting from the get-go.
After grabbing a bottle hand-up from volunteers at mile 12, we start up Victory Road, a 5-mile climb up roads with the consistency of peanut butter. Just for “fun,” the Rasputitsa organizers had marked out a 3.3-mile KOM/QOM challenge. Six weeks post-broken ribs—and trailing some legit rock stars like Olympian Lyne Bessette and JAM Fund’s Ellen Noble—I’m no threat to anyone (but myself) on that hill. But it provides plenty of time to calculate the differences between Olympian-sized watts and mine. (Lea wins that one, hands down.) But there’s a squad of 13-year-old Little Bellas shouting encouragements and handing out food at the top, adding a few happiness watts to my math.
Frigid Flats and… Cyberia
After another wind-whistling descent, I fall in with a couple of women from the State 9 race team. Talk of pastry-making keeps the wheels turning smoothly across the flats until we hit the base of Cyberia (remember: Russian theme here). There are some amazing-looking cookies being handed out at the bottom, but I’m a little worried about the upcoming climb, so I turn the corner and keep going… up.
At this point, potholed dirt suddenly turns into a class IV road—and we’re in Cyberia. In Vermont, “class IV” is code for 4WD-only; it’s kind of a free-for-all. Last year, Cyberia was covered in snow and everyone got off and carried their bikes. This year there’s no snow—but it’s a swamp of oozy, booger-y mud, peppered with fist-sized rocks. Fun. But just as the “road” ratchets up to an unfriendly 13 percent grade and the trees start closing in around me, I hear music. And then a full-sized unicorn jumps out of the woods, followed by a faun that looks straight out of Narnia. Tired, hungry, and probably a little delusional, I start to laugh. This is the top of Cyberia—and it features glugs of maple syrup served in frozen shot glasses… by enthusiastic magical woodland creatures and a yeti. What’s not to love? After quaffing some syrup, I point my wheels into one of the axel-deep ruts made by Vermont Overland 4x4 jeeps and start down the treacherously muddy, slippery back side of Cyberia.
After a couple of slow-mo squelches into the mud on the downhill, I cruise out the last 10 miles to the finish, now enjoying the gorgeous views of Burke Mountain and the high vistas of the Northeast Kingdom. After three hours of riding, the temps have climbed into the 60s, and I don’t even seek out the trademark fire pits that in years previous have warmed riders battling snow, sleet, and more typical April temps.
But sitting in the sunshine with a beer in one hand and a pulled-pork sandwich in the other (the afterparty at Burke Publick House rocks), I totally get why riders sign up for this. Yes, I battled mud—not snow—and I can only imagine what Cyberia looks like under a foot of snow (hint: unrideable). But even in great weather, it’s always going to be a sufferfest. However, it’s also an awesome race on gorgeous back roads that features great food, amazing volunteers, and benefits two super-worthy bike organizations.
Will I be back for 2017? You bet. But this year, I hope there’s snow.