A Brief Tale of Gravel Racing - 2019
(he's, still, no one trick pony)
This report will cover the outcome and recall of 2 races I did within a 7 day stretch. It will have highs, lows, twists, and turns…however I want to begin with what gear I chose to handle these events because if I learned anything during these experiences it is that gravel racing is a true “anything goes” when it comes to gear selection.
I decided that since I want to return to mountain bike racing, a couple of 60+ mile races on my hardtail would be a good whip up into shape. However, I thought that an out of the box mountain bike set up may need some tweaks to be more suited to gravel racing. The first modification was to use a 36 tooth chain ring opposed to the usual 32 tooth. This was all thanks to Mr. Zukas who so graciously let me borrow his ring of speed! After getting gearing a little more situated I changed attention towards tires. I doubted that 2+ inch mountain bike tires would be the ideal choice so instead grabbed a set of 700x42c Specialized Pathfinder tires. They seemed pretty neat with a slick center section and some knobs on the exterior. Folks that was it! Changed up some gears and tires and otherwise was racing my normal MTB!
The first of my two race stretch, Scratch Ankle, was in northwest Florida inside the perimeter of Blackwater State Forest. This event caught my eye a while back because as a kid I used to camp and canoe in this forest with my family! This is as close to a “home” off road race as I have ever found so it was game on. A good friend of mine, Chris, did this race last year and had all positive accounts of the event. His only insights were to be prepared for lots of sand and to use a mountain bike because there was a 3-4 mile stretch of singletrack towards the end. Race day conditions were roughly 90 degrees with a wind advisory….steady 21 mph with gusts of 27+….lovely!
Our field was about 70 people combining distances and age groups. We started down a few easy dirt sections and pavement without any real drama. I began to recall the feelings of peloton road racing. Roughly 8 miles in we turned onto some double track and real attacks began. It wasn’t long before I saw 4 guys up ahead including my friend Chris, who I forgot to mention won last year, as well as the guy who came in second from last year’s event. My mind thought surely this was a move to go with so I bridged across burning tons of energy! Not long after this gap was closed down, the larger group caught us before a normal dirt road stretch. After a few more miles, we hit another double track section and the same guys lit up the pace again. Again I was caught blocked in and had to bridge over the gap to a group of 6 total. I tried to hang on to their wheels but kept getting yo-yo’d off the back side. As we came to a kicker of a hill, Chris began to be dislodged, turned to me and said words I never thought I would here from him…”I just can’t do this today.” My mind started to go to dark places…my heart rate was at 189 bpm, I was dying, and my stud of a fast friend was also in damage control mode…what was happening here?! I’ll tell you what was happening…I was getting dropped for the second time early into the race!
As the double track progressed, it was 3 guys leading from the split and I joined a group of 4 others to try and do damage control. Once we hit the pavement, another guy and I split turns and we began to gain on the leaders again! Eventually, the 2 of us separated and did bridge onto the lead group of 3 just as a dirt road hit. I clung on for dear life until we hit our first true glimpse of sand for the day and if you are keeping count…this will mark the 3rd time I got dropped by the same guys! What was impressive this time was their tire selection. I heard that in year 1 most people showed up on CX bikes for this event but 1st and 2nd place went to guys riding mountain bikes. This year almost everyone was on a mountain bike or at least had 2+ inch wide slick tires. Watching from behind the lead group…these tires seemed to allow guys to float over the loose sand. When my front tire hit the same terrain…I felt as if I smashed into a brick wall! Fortunately, the guy who helped bridge with me also fell off so we worked with each other until mile 27 when he stopped at the first sag. For a short while I was riding solo along a far stretch of rolling pavement. If you recall the wind speeds…guess which way the wind was blowing…straight in your face! Being already beat down, I looked back and saw a group of 5 guys was coming so I soft pedaled and waited. It turns out Chris was in this group and he too was in the hurt locker trying to sit in a draft. I did the same for a couple of miles. Once we hit the next dirt road I took a pull up until a left hand turn which then turned into a very long stretch of sand! Once again if you are keeping count, this marks my 4th time being dropped on the day! With all the resilience I had left, I clawed by onto the group only to be dropped for a 5th and final time at mile 35.
What came after was hell. I rode 30 miles solo to the finish. I wanted to quit, I hated everything, I was frustrated, I was confused, I was also pretty bummed that I stepped away from a family visit to get destroyed in this race! However, I do believe the mental struggles through these times are half the beauty so I made it to the finish somewhere around 10th place.
Moving into the weekdays between races I was still pretty bummed. However, I returned to the grind and did some intervals on Tuesday. On Wednesday I got on the road bike for the local group throw down. I had not yet registered for the 2nd race and wanted to see how my body felt. Unfortunately, I got dropped twice on this ride as well! Everyone has bad days, everyone has struggles, but the hard part is when they keep laying on you back to back. I began wondering if I have over trained, under trained, lost all fitness, am I just tired, you name it! It is fair to say I was full of self-doubt, but I could not give up. So instead of pulling the plug, I decided to register for the second race, roll the dice, and see what happens.
The 2nd race was deemed the “Georgia State of Gravel” race. It was a 60 mile course in the Oconee National Forest. This was the first year the race has been held, but it was promoted by a group that normally does road races and it was located near Athens so the rumor was it would be a “road race on dirt.” Let’s just say that the main promoter for this race personally was our local dragon, Josh. He was epically stoked for this race and without his push, I may have not attended! Being back in Georgia, I believe the roads and gravel were what everyone would expect. The only crappy variable was the weather…a nice wet, grey, cold, windy day was in store for us. You should have heard the discussions about this variable around the parking lot…mayhem!
The race started similar to the last one. There were 75 people doing the 60 mile option and another large contingent of 30 mile riders. We had a steady climb at the beginning and that was a shock to wake up the legs. About 6 miles in, madness ensued down a hill with larger gravel and some water filled holes. People started pulling off left and right with flats…meanwhile a front separation was happening up the hill on the other side of this dip. I sat onto a chase group part of the way until an old friend from Florida started to bridge across. If you want to check into a crazy strong guys results…look up Justin Pfaff from Gainesville. A few weeks back he won the Joe Martin Stage Race Crit. That is a national calendar race…so needless to say, he is a great wheel to follow! The front separation was now a group of 15-20 strong. I was sitting inside the draft doing nothing while 7 or 8 guys rotated pulls. Sadly Justin fell off with a flat tire in this part…he probably would have won otherwise. We stayed in this format for about 5 miles until we started up a climb where the gravel changed to softball size out of nowhere. This was like riding alongside a railroad track!
The natural selection of this terrain change saw 4 very strong leaders separate away. I was behind and in the chaos of trying to not clip anyone’s wheel in the bunch. Once we turned off the hill onto a flat, the 4 leaders had a healthy gap and were organizing to pull away. Our small group of 7 or 8 people started to work together in a chase. Up a slight hill I was second wheel and noticed that the guy in front of me had caused a gap for the 2 of us. I called out to him we were separating and need to go all in to bridge to the 4 leaders. It took us about 10 minutes of fury, but we finally did catch the 4 guys up the road to make the selection of 6. No lie that was one hard effort, but I believe that was the point where I felt redeemed from the previous week. I did not truly care what happened next because I made the front split with what seemed like a group of road cyclist who probably are training twice as much as I am! Let’s also mention I was the only guy on a mountain bike, the only guy with a fender, and the only guy not on some carbon masterpiece machine! Winning!
I worked with these guys up until mile 40 where we turned off a paved road and went up a steep slick hill. These guys were climbing like goats and I was about to blow up going backwards. From that point I decided I had to just sit onto the group, fight up every hill as if it was my personal race, and likely get dropped towards the finish for a 6th place. That outcome seemed fine…this week that past sucked and that would be a respectable finish. A few miles into this section we ended up taking a wrong turn ½ a mile down a hill. A moto bike caught us and told us to turn around so we had the pleasure of climbing that hill back onto the course. We kept riding all out and eventually crossed 2 creeks before what seemed like the longest climb of the day back to the timing checkpoint. Two of the guys in the group came dislodged as the pace increased. I made that split but as the timing station came into sight, the 2 strongest guys launched an attack and dropped me hard! I had no response but figured 4th place is better than 6th so that is a good day.
It turns out that during this attack the 3 guys ahead were riding so cross eyed they did not listen to or see the lady telling them to turn left. Instead these guys crushed going straight. I made the same mistake by 50 yards or so but heard the lady yell and quickly turned around. There was now 10 miles to the finish. I had no idea which direction to trust, but I started down this new side route and decided to bury myself to see if I could in some miraculous turn of weird luck come out with a win! 10 miles of rolling wet roads, 10 miles of peaking over my shoulder, 10 miles trying not to blow up, 10 miles wondering if I was even headed to the finish line!
After 31 minutes solo, I turned back into the parking area and crossed the finish line in first place. Did I earn this result, not really. Was I the strongest racer of the day, not by any stretch. However, did I fight, yes. Did I pull myself together to start a race that I truly loathed the thought of, yes. If there is any take away from this for others it is a simple reminder to always keep pushing forward. Lean on friends when you need a pick me up, fight every urge you have to give in, and keep putting one foot forward…you never know what the next foot may lead to! Also…if you ride in sand…use wider tires…wisdom!