Vermont is gorgeous. My first race trip to New England took me to Derby, VT – so close to Canada I got a global roaming alert on my phone. Vibrant green rolling hills, welcoming mountains thick with dark green trees, small towns with old wooden houses. The area is truly magical. Sparse traffic, no billboards on the highway make even driving a meditative experience.
Derby’s Dirty 40, the 5th race of seven in this year’s American Ultracross Championship Series, leads riders through 70 miles of rolling dirt roads. There’s one extended climb, a lot of smaller kickers, a few fun fast descents, and around 5,600 feet of climbing. The roads are hard packed and smooth with occasional sand in the corners and small gravel here and there.
At the Dirty 40, riders have different ideas on the best tool for the job. This year, about 25% of racers chose road bikes, the rest cyclocross bikes with a few mountain bikes thrown in. Tires ranged from 25mm road tires to some medium sized mountain bike tires. I rode my Specialized Crux carbon disc cyclocross bike with 40mm Clement Xplors, which have a beefy file tread. In retrospect, 35mm tires with a minimal file pattern might have been more appropriate.
And on to the race:
400 starters, including 40 women, are led out neutral two miles by a very slow tractor. When the race begins, it’s fast and single file within the first half mile. The first ten miles are a blur, as I hang on to the rider in front of me. Over the following ten miles, the life blood is sucked out of me.
I get dropped from my group, chase back on into the wind, riders in front surge, I’m dropped again, sandy riser and I catch back on as riders with road tires walk. Another surge, dropped, catch back on a downhill as riders on road bikes descend tentatively. Repeat for ten miles: fall off, fight back on, dangle on like a tooth that’s about to fall out. Because I expected the pack to settle in. Eventually. But they do not.
Boom. 20 miles into a 70-miles race my legs give out. I soft pedal. Riders pass me, I try to jump on, legs are jelly. Eventually, a small group with one woman pass me and I grab on.
I hang by a thread for the next 50 miles. Had dug myself into a hole in the first part of the race, hit bedrock, and there was no climbing out. Meanwhile, the woman who had caught me, Julie Wright (Ride Studio Cafe Expedition Team) pedals along like she is on a comfortable touring ride.
Thank goodness for drafting – I hide from the wind like it is poison gas. Meanwhile, Julie and other riders lead a chase that gobbles up riders until we are about 15 strong. Thank goodness for my high-volume tires. Just when I am at a point of profound weakness, a sandy descent allows me to point my bike downhill, gain ground on Julie (who is riding 25mm road tires) and soft pedal until she catches back.
With about 20 miles to go, my spirits lift as I see friend Brian Rogers (who had sat up from the lead group, recovering from 12 days solid gravel riding). He’s content to cruise along with us in the last part of the race. And then along comes Hilly Billy Roubaix race companion Scott Bond, catching us from behind. Scott Bond had paced me to the finish in the last 20 miles of the Hilly Billy Roubaix last June. Two allies! Nevertheless, my legs are still incapable of putting pressure on the pedals.
About 60 miles in, on a steady climb, I get separated from our medium-sized group of riders. Thankfully, Julie is also back from the group. Brian and Scott drop back to urge me on. Brian leads me down a descent and we gain significant distance on Julie. She is out of sight. Brian and Scott say it’s go-time. But my legs fail me yet again. …And then a yellow helmet appears in the distance. Julie is catching us. We drop her downhill three times (due to our high volume tires on sandy roads, compared to her road tires), yet three times she fights her way back. Was she not getting tired yet?!
On a short, steep climb three miles from the finish, I drop my chain. Rider error completely. Julie powers away. Scott says, “If you have any sprint left, now would be when to use it!” Standing up on my pedals, my legs crumble beneath me. Julie is out of sight. A descent into town, then a short riser. One last burst? It feels like squeezing a tube of toothpaste you should have thrown away days ago. (Nothing left.) Crossed the line 39 seconds back from Julie. Neither of us knew it at the time, but we were racing for the win.
The Dirty 40 was hard to race, and harder to lose! It’s easy to ask “What if I hadn’t gone out so hard? Or dropped my chain?” but Julie was the stronger rider of the day. I only made it as far as I did by hiding, drafting, and descending well. After getting decisively dropped on raging gravel descents by friendly rival Ruth Sherman, both days at the Dirty Double gravel stage race last May – I have to celebrate my improvement. I’m hoping the confidence I picked up on the descents at the Dirty 40 will help me on the loose gravel at the next stop on the Ultracross Series – Iron Cross on October 4th!
* Congratulations to RDC teammate Mary Boone who finished 19th in the open women category. Also, big thanks and congratulations to our Vermont hosts Rebecca and George Michael Lowe, who were 1st and 3rd in their respective single speed categories.
End Note: The Dirty 40 was named to describe the original course, which was 60 miles long, 40 miles on dirt roads. For 2014, the race was 70 miles, 55 miles on dirt.