Things are usually pretty quiet in Kirby, Vt., in April, not to mention most other times of the year. With just about a mile of paved road, the Northeast Kingdom town of 490 rarely sees much traffic.
But on April 27, about 1,400 bicyclists will briefly thunder through town, part of a five-year-old tradition called Rasputitsa that takes racers from around the country along 46 miles of dirt roads in the rural Vermont towns of Burke, Kirby and Newark.
Rasputitsa (which translates to “muddy road” in Russian) is the project of two friends from Newport, Vt. — cyclists who are part of a growing movement that has professional bicyclists leaving the pavement behind in favor of gravel roads.
Founders Heidi Myers and Anthony Moccia worked together for years at the cycling apparel manufacturer Louis Garneau USA in Derby before starting their race in 2013 with a route through the Northeast Kingdom towns of Derby, Holland and Morgan. While gravel racing wasn’t new, capitalizing on the variable mud season in the Northeast Kingdom with a bicycle race was, Myers said.
“We wanted something we could use to differentiate ourselves from other bicycle races out there,” Myers said. “Spring in Vermont is pretty epically bad, with bad roads that even cars that don’t want to travel on. To put 1,400 cyclists on them is gnarly.”
Myers and Moccia also put on a race called the Redemption Gravel Stage race over Labor Day weekend, a more typical time of year for a gravel race, and one at which reasonably dry road conditions can be expected.
But despite the rigors of racing in mud season, Rasputitsa has grown to a weekend event that sells out quickly. This year, the Prince-themed weekend starts with a pub crawl in Burke on Friday night, and continues with a Prince cover band and a farmers market with 15 New England food artisans. Professional cyclists will be on hand at the race headquarters in Burke to talk to the amateurs, who Myers said range in age from 15 to 70 and hail from 18 states and four Canadian provinces. Sunday will feature a breakfast for women cyclists, who make up 21 percent of the field this year.
Vermont dirt roads in April can offer a variety of conditions: snow, bone-rattling washboard ruts, deep tire-sucking mud or frozen potholes. Every once in a while April offers up a spell of summer-like warmth, with roads that are pleasantly dry and smooth. Racers won’t really know what to expect, or exactly what equipment they need, until just a few days before the race.
While the mileage stays around the same, the routes vary each year, although they always include a dramatic change in elevation. They also always feature some time on nearly unmaintained Class 4 roads, Myers said. That means cyclists will likely end up carrying their bikes for at least a stretch.
“The key thing about our race is, April in Vermont is 100 percent unpredictable,” Myers said.
That’s what sets the Rasputitsa apart from the other gravel races that have sprung up in recent years, said two-time winner Ansel Dickey, a professional cyclist who lives in Woodstock.
“It’s a pretty unique race in that it happens in April in Vermont,” said Dickey, who also owns a digital marketing agency. “If you did this course in August or something, it would be any other gravel race with a Class 4 road.” The mud, he said, “adds technical skill.”
Gravel riding is taking off. All the major bicycle manufacturers are now making bikes for gravel riding, and races are just one component of the movement. Many of the events are gravel rides open to riders with an array of abilities, said Jim Sweitzer, a bicyclist who is co-owner of West Hill Shop in Putney. Sweitzer said he barely sells road bikes anymore.
“We sell a lot of gravel bikes,” he said. “It all shifted for us probably three, four years ago.”
The appeal for Sweitzer is that dirt roads usually have less traffic on them and are typically more scenic than paved roads. For experienced riders, Vermont’s Class 4 roads also present a welcome challenge, he said.
Rasputitsa is a shot in the arm for the Burke area in the shoulder season, when skiing is over and mountain biking hasn’t started yet. It fills the area’s hotels and vacation rentals and shows visitors, many from Massachusetts, around an area that many might not have visited before. Myers and Moccia have turned mud season into an asset, said Katherine Sims of the Northeast Kingdom Collaborative.
“Sometimes mud season is viewed as a pain in the butt or a challenge; it’s not the most attractive thing,” said Sims, whose group works to promote the Northeast Kingdom and spur economic development. “It turns out there are a whole bunch of people who want to get out in the mud.”
Rasputitsa raises money for charity; last year it gave $20,000 to Little Bellas, a Williston nonprofit that encourages young girls to take up cycling. The winner gets no prize purse, just bragging rights, and Myers said the race, which has several corporate sponsors, doesn’t make money for its founders.
The fastest riders will start crossing the Rasputitsa’s finish line about two and a half hours after the start. Myers saves her most lavish praise for the last-place finishers.
“The real sufferers are the people who took six or seven hours,” she said.