This weekend, gravel riders have descended on northern Vermont for the inaugural Rooted Vermont hosted by Laura and Ted King, but last weekend, there was another, dare we say, more cheeky gravel ride based out of Cochran’s Ski Area that was likely a bit tougher to finish.
The Irreverent Road Ride 8.0 celebrated its latest reboot with 137 miles of gravel and dirt roads and 15,000 feet (!) of total climbing. “I would now classify it as ‘The country’s single most challenging dirt road ride,’ race director Adam St. Germain said.
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The Irreverent Road Ride did not necessarily start as an ultra-challenging slog. Vermont is known for its unpaved roads, so dirt and gravel were inevitably on weekly group ride routes. “We started to get a little adventurous on where we went, hitting some local dirt roads, then some off-shoot trails, some mountain bike trails and just linking together different areas in uncommon ways. We were laughing, riding silly stuff, walking some stuff and just having a blast.”
Vermont’s famed Class IV unmaintained roads first made an appearance this gravel season during Rasputitsa, where they inevitably turned into the icy, muddy mess known as Cyberia. Those roads are still gnarly in late July, but perhaps a bit less Cyberia-y. When St. Germain and his friends discovered their first Class IV road, the Irreverent Road Ride was almost inevitable.
“I rode a little Class IV called Leavensworth Road in Hinesburg and started thinking that there were other fun off-the-map-style roads in the area and started exploring and looking at maps. A lot of time has been spent poring over maps,” St. Germain explained.
The group rides eventually turned into the first IRR 1.0 in 2012. That ride was a 110-mile ride that participants expected to “get weird,” and then it grew to have a formal registration process in Year 3. “There was no original intention of making it this far, but here we are,” St. Germain admitted.
In a gravel landscape where we have seen rides such as Iowa Wind and Rock, the DKXL and The Crusher, why can the Irreverent Road Ride make a claim as one of most challenging out there? That definition is certainly subjective, but St. Germain said he strives to push the limits each year.
“I pour every ounce of energy into making the route as exciting, rewarding and demanding as possible,” he said. “As riders continue to finish the route, it will get harder every year, which is a subjective assessment on my behalf. I stand by the fact that it’s the single most challenging ride in the country.”
There are no prizes for finishing the IRR, but it has gained enough cred about the gravel crowd that finishing is a sign of badassedry among those in the know. With an emphasis on those in the know. “No results, but everyone’s a winner,” St. Germain said. “There are no rewards for finishing, other than being able to claim you finished IRR, which in some circles is a pretty big deal—but in others they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The Irreverent Road Ride is called a road ride, but as St. Germain explained, “road ride” means something a bit different in Vermont. He views the ride route as a sampling of the ground transportation routes Vermont has to offer.
“For those not familiar with what we have going on in Vermont, the route always includes—smooth pavement, older cracked pavement, smooth, well-traveled dirt roads (we don’t truly have gravel roads in VT), single-lane, lightly traveled dirt roads, doubletrack, singletrack and finally Class IV roads. The Class IV sections are the wild card, some people will call them Vermont Pavé, but the truth is, it completely depends,” he explained.
With the event in Year 8, the Irreverent Road Ride has been around for the full evolution of gravel in the U.S. The event started as a group of friends going for a ride before turning into an organized thing, and it has observed the changes in what a “gravel bike” is. Road bikes were the bikes of choice in the first editions, but over the years, more and more wide-tire bikes have been making appearances, with gravel-gravel bikes now the popular choice.
“I like to tell people that every bike is the wrong bike. And, I feel like that is mostly true,” St. Germain said. “The most important thing is that it has low gearing and you’ll be comfortable being on it for 8-plus hours.”
However, perhaps in a sign of how challenging the IRR is, there has been a noticeable trend toward even more squish and more volume in recent years. “These last couple of years more folks have opted for a mountain bike. There was a crew of 3 or 4 guys this year all riding steel fully rigid mountain bikes, a couple full suspension mountain bikes and another guy on a fully rigid carbon 29er but with narrow tires.”
This year’s self-supported IRR 8.0 took place on Saturday, July 27. Roughly 80 brave souls toed the start line with a goal of finishing the 137-mile route by midnight that evening. Twenty-five or so of the starters finished that task, earning them the only prize the IRR offers. “I tell riders there is a dusty notebook in my basement where I pencil in the finishers each year,” St. Germain said with a smile.
With this year’s route certifiably finishable, there is little doubt next year’s Irreverent Road Ride 9.0 will be even tougher. Although the route is challenging, St. Germain thinks the most important part of the process is just getting to the start line and believing you can take on such a challenge.
“Everyone is welcome, and I aim to as inclusive and supportive of everyone that shows up, all you have to do is show up,” he said. “No one cares if you finish or not, but it’s really important to just show up.”