Like all events is snuck up on me and before I knew it, I had a week to go and I had not checked my cyclocross bike or selected my tires. In my mind it was going to be as simple as switching the tires from my rain bike to my cross bike, job done.
Before doing anything, I switched the cross tires for a set or 700x28 continentals and took it for a ride. In my climbing gears I was getting crazy jumping but only under pressure. A-ha, I have been here before with my road bike a guessed correctly that the cassette was worn. A change of cassette (from my rain bike) and no more jumping. Sorted, I thought. Nope, on the next ride I discovered a clicking noise that could only be the wheels or bottom bracket. I opted for a wheel switch first. No dice. I then dropped the chain off in the stand and spun the crank. Yup, you guessed it the bottom bracket was shot.
By now both my rain bike and cross bike are in bits and I have no bike to ride in the event. I rush ordered a WheelsMfg bottom bracket. The whole bottom bracket standard drives me to distraction. I kept my fingers crossed I ordered the right part.
Whilst waiting for the part to arrive I decided to switch the tires. It turns out that if you use your bike, stuff wears out, go figure. On inspection my rear tire had a hole in it and my front tire had so many small cuts it looked like a crazed pixy had stabbed and slashed at it with a tiny knife. Damn pixy, now I needed tires. Having the option of new tires then introduced the dilemma of which ones to get. With 36 miles of gravel, tread would be helpful however it would be a drag on the road. In the end I opted for a set of Tubeless Specialized Roubaix's 700c x30/32 as I enjoyed them during the winter and they stood up well to local gravel paths, until the pixy got at them.
On Saturday, before the ride the next day, the assembly started. With only the minimum number of swear words everything went together as planned. An hour ride confirmed the bike was ready for a Gran Fondo.
An early start of 3:30am is not a time for a person to get out of bed. It is simply the middle of the night. Well that was the time I woke up and reluctantly dragged my protesting body out of bed. The start time for the ride was 8am with registration opening at 6:45am, oh and I am about 2 hours with no traffic from registration. On the upside there was just me and a few insomniacs on the road.
I arrived with plenty of time to get my bike ready, change and catch up with a few friends who were also taking on the challenge. Normally I would have enjoyed riding with them but I wanted to test myself and see what time I could do it in.
After the race briefing at 7:45am we had a neutral roll out behind the organizers truck for the first 3 miles. For some reason I expected the first half of the ride to be pretty mellow, after all the climbs were not until the gravel section and it was not a race. I could not have been more wrong. As the rider in front of me pulled up I started my turn on the front. I kept a respectable pace of 20-21mph but that apparently was not fast enough. Not a minute into my pull and attacks were launched off the front with everyone scrabbling to find a wheel.
I decided to let 10 or so riders go before I jumped on the train. Everyone came back together and the pace was significantly lifted. What the hell I thought, lets see what happens if I just react. It was hard work matching all the surges but eventually it settled down at which point one rider jumped away, never to be seen again, well that is never to be seen by the rest of us. He went on to finish first so I understand.
The gravel is coming, that is 36 miles of it and somewhere in the region of 7000ft of climbing. Now, I had prepared and reviewed the profile but it still did not prepare me for the monster ahead. Fortunately, I did not know what I was getting into before I was fully committed and anyone climbing that thing in a compact double with a 28 on the back should be committed. Wait, I am getting ahead of my self. The transition from road to gravel was a road climb followed by a gravel wall, well it looked like one. I had already decided to pace myself and had subsequently started to fall back when I hit it. To give you an idea of the grade, the rider next to me ran out of gears and keeled over sideways, it would have been funny if I was not fighting to keep my own bike upright.
It levelled out a little and I started to tempo the climb, slowly pulling riders back. What I did not know was the unrelenting grade ahead that took us up 2400ft in 5miles. I quickly found the limit of my gearing and was forced to turn the pedals one stroke at a time. Getting out of the saddle things got even more interesting as my lack of tire tread resulted in wheel spins. It was a simple matter of embracing the pain and chanting to myself "I climbed Tahoe, I can climb this" and I did, catching a good number of riders in the process.
The aid station at the top which I thought was at the top, turns out it was not. A bunch of false summits later a I was finally on a decent. If you have never descended gravel on a cross bike with road tires at high speed I can assure you it is a white knuckle ride. The trick is to keep your weight back, focus on your lines and avoid holes, rocks and loose stuff. Oh and don't overcook the corners or you are in for an impromptu flying lesson without wings or a soft landing, been there and done that, not good :-).
The trail then proceeded to swoop down hill and then into a climb, followed by another down hill, then another a climb. It was hard climbing and descending. My hands and shoulders hurt from controlling the bike on the way down and my back hurt from the climbing. I was embracing the epic adventure that was the day.
At the midway point was the main aid station and I rolled by opting to fill my water bottles from spare foldup containers I was carrying. Bottles filled and my bladder emptied, I was back on the bike. I thought this would be a good time to take on more food as the trail seemed a reasonable grade, that was until I turned the corner with a mouthful of food. The second big climb was not as steep but not far off and it went on and on and on and on and, well you get the picture. With food crammed in my mouth I was not having a great time and was relieved when I finally managed to swallow it all.
I summited the climb with one other rider and we headed into the decent. Now let me ask you, have you ever strayed whilst driving onto the bumpy white line designed to wake you up?. Well to my horror the corners of the trail had turned into massive wake up lines and hitting them at speed had a similar effect to putting your head in a blender whilst simultaneously driving your man bits up behind your ears. If that was not bad enough it numbed your hands and made you see double, and all of this came as a surprise as you hit a racing line through a loose gravel corner at speed.
As the rider in front of me took off down hill it took all of my descending skills to stay in contact and stay upright on the bike, allowing the back wheel a little freedom to break loose and recovering a number of potential front wheel washouts. I was glad I had both MTB and Cross skills in my toolbox I can tell you. We flew down the descent and the level of concentration was insane. I took calculated risks but was not prepared to take stupid ones, opting to stay back in case he went down but not far enough back that I would lose contact. Our decent worked in our favor and we pulled back two riders ahead. It was however only a matter of time before the trail claimed a victim and I discovered at the end of the ride that the first rider we caught then went down hard behind us Fortunately he received flesh wounds and was able to complete the ride. With his shorts torn up and cuts on his arm and leg I knew it was going to hurt later and I felt for the guy. I hope he is recovering quickly.
The end of the decent dropped us out onto the road and it felt wonderful to hit the asphalt. The other good news was that we were now three and we worked together to race to the finish. With all three of us working we were making good time and soon had a lone rider in our sights. It was not long before we pulled him back and invited him to join us. He dug deep and jumped on. Now we were four and heading for home.
I'm going to say it that the organizers have a twisted sense of humor. Why? because the last 3 miles or so of the ride were on gravel, we turned the corner and hit a railway grade trail. "I was not amused". That said, we put our heads down and raced for the finish, to be greeted with congratulations, a finishers patch and time to fist bump and share stories before heading home.
It turns out that unofficially the four of us finished in the top 10, completing 90 miles (36 on gravel) and 8000ft of climbing (most of which was on gravel) in 5hrs 38minutes.
Epic Day and qualifies for Maxing Life Out.
Here is a short video, not much as I was too busy riding and forgot to film
Remember to keep it Rubber Side Down and MaxLifeOut.