“This is like riding through peanut butter,” yelled Didi.
He was right. Skippy Super Chunk, to be precise. We were doing a short recon ride Friday night and the Killer Gravel Road Race was looking like it would be a Killer Mud Fest. The truth is, I don’t like mud. Or, more to the point, I don’t know what to do with it. I’ve never done a ‘cross race, never even been on a mountain bike and the one gravel race I did last fall was so dry it might as well have been pavement. Nonetheless, here I was with my newly built ‘cross bike out for her debut race. The course starts out in town but turns to a dirt (i.e. mud,) road about 3 miles into it. Almost immediately you hit three progressively steeper climbs--the Three Sisters. Here we sat atop the Third Sister. My pulse was racing and I was aghast to find it took every gear I had just to get here. This was my first race of my first full season of racing and I wanted it all to start well. Instead, it looked to surely be a disaster.
The morning of the race was colder than forecast--well below freezing--which meant that one could expect little thawing of ice in the early waves. I was lucky (?) enough to be in wave 5 of 16. Each wave was separated by 3 minutes. Still, my age group was huge--144 men age 40-42 and most of them starting in that wave. We launched out of town on the firm pavement for a few miles and I made sure to move up near the front of the pack. If I was going to sink into the mud I wanted to be one of the first to do so.
Then a strange thing happened. We turned off the pavement and on to Yeckley Road and I looked up to see thick, hard-pack dirt. I don’t know if it was groomed over night or the cold just hardened it up but I realized it wasn’t peanut butter any more.
This is different. I can race on this. Game on.
Without hesitation, I opened the throttle into the descent of the first Sister and before I knew it, I was up and over the Third Sister still in mid-cassette. Thank you SLO, and thank you adrenaline! I was passing everybody. While it was a huge field, it was also very spread out and I realized I wouldn’t stay with any one group for the duration. Nonetheless, I thought I should find a buddy to at least share some work. Without any xXx’ers around I found the strongest, most agile rider nearby and followed his wheel. He took good lines--maneuvering through the mess of bone-shaking potholes, icy patches, fallen riders, slower riders and about 1000 dropped water bottles. We traded a few pulls and then he fell off. Again I was on my own but that was OK. I felt strong--really strong--and with the constantly undulating terrain, the downhills would offer me an occasional break. I knew I could keep this up for a while if I had to.
About that terrain: Don’t think that just because the dirt was packed that it was easy. It was not! Parts of it were definitely more chewed up and some sections were very icy. I saw riders going down all around me and had a couple of skids myself but managed to keep it upright. At least twice I got a “nice save” from nearby riders. I guess 25 years of playing the drums have taught me something about balancing on my butt. I kept moving up and getting more confident--about my fitness, about my bike handling, about my choices. Spending a week in SLO did wonders for my climbing but also my shifting. Some of of the rollers were manageable in the big ring but others definitely were not. I didn’t want to fatigue myself in too big a gear. On this day I seemed to be hitting all my shifts perfectly--keeping my cadence right where I wanted it, moving to the big ring as I crested and sometimes “shifting with my legs” to just power up over hills that others were falling back on. On the steepest grades I was hesitant to get out of the saddle too much for fear of skidding but it didn’t seem to matter. Most of the people I was passing now were guys from the earlier waves on mountain bikes and, with the drier roads, I flew past them on the rollers
About 12 miles in I hooked up with a fairly strong rider in an orange kit. He was riding a 'cross bike and pushing an enormous gear. I think it was a compact but might have even been a 52: always down in the cassette and at a very low cadence. We traded pulls on the paved sections but it was uneven. He would ride strong and then fade. He would fall off and then, a few miles down the road, he would show up again. In the dirt we’d hit the rollers and I’d drop him. Then on the flat sections he would appear on my left kicking a steady 70 RPM. Still, I was happy to have a wheel to be on for a bit.
With about 10 miles to go I started to sense I was doing pretty well. The race was chip timed so I couldn’t really gauge it by the pack. Still, my unscientific analysis was that I was passing many, many more people than were passing me. Now I started to think about staying upright--I was one pothole or icy patch away from ruining what was turning out to be pretty good race. Also, was it just me or were my bars rotating down ever so slightly? All of this bumpy terrain had me thinking I should have checked my stem bolts with a torque wrench. I was glad when we hit the final stretch of pavement leading back into town. I wasn’t so happy to see that Orange Kit guy had managed to crawl his way back and was now a bike length in front of me with a little over a mile to go.
Here’s one more thing about Orange Kit Guy: he had enormous legs. The dude just looked like a bike racer. I had no idea what wave he started in or if this was going to end in a sprint but I wagered that with his gearing and his quads he would probably out sprint me. I also new that he would push that big gear until he was tired and decided I would attack when I saw him start to fade about 1 mile from the finish. Sure enough, I got a pretty good gap on him but I had jumped too soon. There was just too much road left and he recovered to pull ahead of me going into the last turn. The finish line was closer to the corner than I had expected but I gave it what I had. I jumped again. Not happening. I saw I wasn’t getting around him. I was pretty exhausted and hoped the chances of us competing in the same age group and wave were relatively remote.
No such luck.
Out of 144 riders in my age group I came in 11th with a time of 1:54:29. Orange Kit was #10 at 1:54:28. However, rather than get down about 1 second, I choose instead to paraphrase that great guitarist/philosopher Nigel Tufnel: while most top 10‘s only go up to 10, mine goes up to 11. It’s one better than 10.
Which is to say, on that icy, technical course and that huge field, I’m extremely happy to start my season with that result!