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Gravel

The resurrection of Rasputitsa

Vermont's gravel spring classic comes back to life this weekend with its characteristic irreverence and more meaning than ever.

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At this point, most gravel races have had their comeback. Many, especially the ones that take place during the heart of summer into early fall, made it onto the 2021 calendar. The Mid South returned in March.

Rasputitsa, Vermont’s ‘spring classic,’ is just coming up with this year’s daffodils — the race returns from a two year hiatus next Saturday, April 30. 

In many ways, Anthony Moccia and Heidi Myers, Rasputitsa’s co-founders, are staging their own comeback this spring. Moccia was diagnosed with tonsil cancer around the beginning of the pandemic and has been undergoing treatment since then. 

Myers just had brain surgery to address the debilitating symptoms of Young Onset Parkinson’s disease.

While neither of them would likely call attention to their own return to the race that has become, in Myers’ words, “an addiction,” the fact that they’re hosting the event again after pandemic and  personal challenge is a testament to just how embedded they are in the event, and the event in them.

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Moccia and Myers, in purple. (Photo: Meg McMahon)

While the race itself — 40, 70, or 100k of often muddy and snowy Vermont backroads — was the original reason for Rasputitsa, so much has sprung up adjacent to the spring event that it’s become a yearlong affair, on and off the bike.

Myers and Moccia have traveled to other gravel events to host aid stations, they’ve offered fly fishing clinics in Vermont, they’ve fomented strong relationships with local farmers, beer brewers, and makers, and spent thousands of dollars giving to non-profits like Little Bellas.

Additionally, Myers has been open about her health condition, which has spawned a whole other thread of connection.

As most event promoters do, Myers and Moccia conduct frequent weather checks with each other over the years to assess the barometer of their engagement with the event. One thing has continued to stand out.

Myers recalled one evening when she and Anthony were driving home from a post-Rasputitsa weekend dinner and she posed the question to him —  “what’s your goal for this, and where do you see this going?”

“And he said, “Really I’m just happy with all the friendships we’ve made and all the people we’ve gotten to know,'” Myers said. “And it’s true — the countless people I’m now friends with that reach out at 5 a.m. that say ‘hey, I’m struggling with depression can you talk?’ That’s our profit margin.”

“If I produced that type of event now I’d be out of business”

The first edition of Rasputitsa in 2013 was, in Myers’ words, “a shitshow.”

“Luckily gravel was new, and people were very accommodating,” she added.

A longtime fan of pro cycling’s spring classics, Myers thought a similar spectacle could be made of a bike race during Vermont’s unstable spring season. She and Moccia had staged a race — the Dirty 40 — during the fall of 2013 and decided to push the event into spring and give it a new name (rasputitsa is a Russian term for impassable roads due to mud and snow).

“The challenge was really — can we really market mud and really horrible conditions?” Myers said.

(Photo: Meg McMahon)

Of course, other challenges sprung up along the way, like when Myers went out to pre-ride the course that they’d mapped on Strava to find that a road they’d included in the route was not actually a road.

“I got to this one section and called Anthony and was like, ‘dude there’s no road there.’ And he’s like, ‘I’m on my computer, I can see the road.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m right here and there’s no fucking road.'”

In the end, they decided to keep the road-not-road section which is now known as “Cyberia.” To add insult to injury, they encouraged people to dress up as Yeti and hang out in Cyberia dishing out shots of maple syrup.

That section and those shots have become lore.

“I can remember being at the finish and one gentleman came through and said to his wife, shivering, ‘I saw a Yeti,'” Myers recalled. “And she’s like, ‘Oh, you’re just being hypothermic,’ and I said, ‘no, he really saw a Yeti.'”

The first event, despite being a shitshow, was also a success. Not only were Myers and Moccia able to market the horrible weather, they embraced it. And so too have participants. In fact, even with the addition of a 100k option (thanks to Alison Tetrick, who said that the course wasn’t long enough), many people are still willing to travel to Vermont during mud season to ride 40 kilometers. Chalk it up to the Yetis slinging syrup shots, AC/DC cover band, free pre-race manicures, and onsite farmer’s market, as well.

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(Photo: Meg McMahon)

Poking the bear

During a time when the gravel ecosystem is diverse enough to support large corporate-owned events and tiny grassroots ones as well, Rasputitsa has chosen irreverence as its hallmark. For someone who hasn’t been to the event however, and only follows it peripherally on social media, a different tone comes across, something more edgy.

“Like poking the bear?” Myers offers.

No one knows the event’s vibe and tone better than Myers — she is the one who runs Rasputitsa’s marketing and social media, namely its Instagram account. She is the first to admit that the account isn’t G-rated, nor does it seek to conform to any particular standard. In fact, she said, there are two decades of baggage behind it.

“It comes from 20 plus years working in cycling industry, a very male-dominated space,” she said. “When I started going to Interbike 20 yrs ago there were paid girls at the SRAM booth that were scantily clad. The market has changed, but I still feel like it needs to change more. I guess over time we just haven’t been afraid to speak our minds knowing that not everyone will agree with us and that we’re gonna lose some followers. There’s been no strategy behind us, it’s been ‘let’s just let’s be honest in who we are.'”

rasputitsa
(Photo: Meg McMahon)

Over the years, Myers has posted freely on Instagram, not just about Rasputitsa but about larger issues in cycling, and in society. She has weighed in on topics including, but not limited to, how the media — including this outlet — disproportionately covers women in cycling, how the scene is increasingly focused on pro cyclists, and even how other events are sabotaging the spirit of gravel.

Myers is quick to point out that her intent is never to hurt individuals.

“We’ve never called one person out by name,” she said. “We’ve called out organizations and entities but never directly this person or that. And we’ve done it hoping for positive change not negative. We’re not a meme account, right? We’ve done it very well knowingly that, if this isn’t for you, that’s OK.” 

While it can come off as such, Rasputitsa’s social media posts are not part of a larger branding strategy. While Myers has worked in marketing for decades, she said that the Rasputitsa Instagram account is more her, drinking a cup of coffee in the morning, and sharing what’s on her mind.

It makes sense then that lately, the account has taken on a slightly different tone.

In February, Myers had a Deep Brain Stimulator implanted in her head. Consider it a pacemaker for the brain. The DBS sends electronic pulses to the parts of the brain that are misfiring and causing some of the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s — for Myers those were stiffness, tremors, and depression. She noticed nearly immediate physiologic and psychologic results.

“Someone asked how the surgery made me feel,” she said, “and it’s like I’ve been standing outside looking at the world and not being able to be a part of that.”

So, while Myers’ extreme depression may have cast a shadow on how she expressed herself through Rasputitsa’s social media, it also contributed to her outsized sense of empathy towards other people who might be struggling.

“I think we’re just really human,” she said. “And I think being human means that we shoot from the heart. It’s not strategized. It’s just really who we are.”

Lately, she’s been putting less of herself into the account, and letting the Rasputitsa riders speak for themselves. She’ll often post a question and then share the kaleidoscope of answer that come in. That feels like an important thing to do at this moment.

“Because that shapes the community as well,” she said. “We don’t always agree but we share everything. It also gives us a pulse as to what people are feeling and thinking, which we all should be listening to.”

Myers’ own 30,000-foot view of gravel is that it’s at a crossroads. Some events are selling out in minutes, while others let the entries trickle in. There is prize money about, and new race series are upping the ante. Most race organizers are trying to figure out how to attract more women and how to make riders who don’t identify with one gender feel welcome. Affordability has been one of Rasputitsa’s own head scratchers, and Myers says that it has to be an industry-wide conversation.

Nevertheless, the word the comes up most for Myers when talking about Rasputitsa and its far-reaching impact on her life is community — the same word that gravel organizers big and small, from Kansas to California to Oklahoma to Florida, also use, ad nauseam, to describe their events.

It’s a word whose definition continues to evolve for Myers, more this year than ever before.

“I don’t think I truly knew the meaning of community until this year,” she said. “We were so scared to pull the trigger because of Covid, we didn’t decide until January. Then all this stuff really showed up. From local communities, we have our largest farmers market ever on Friday night. People like Bobby from Mid South, saying ‘we want to be there.’ And, just the riders — it’s funny, we gave the opportunity for people to switch courses yesterday and it’s amazing how many people are like, ‘I was signed up for the 100 but my fitness level is at the 40.’ People are traveling for hours to race their bikes for 40k, that signifies to me that the community is strong. And I feel like we’ve tapped into that community more than ever.”