Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Gravel Grovel and The Finish of 2013

Racing this fall season has been pretty awesome for me. In addition to doing La Ruta, Iron Cross and Three Peaks, I've been able to do local cyclocross races every weekend in very pleasant racing conditions.  But, even with the good weather and races, I brought an end to my cross season a bit earlier than usual this year with my finish in the ABRA Cyclocross Series the weekend before Thanksgiving.  My body was telling me it was time for a break after starting my racing season in February at the first ultra cross race, Southern Cross, and I decided it would be best for me to rest in December.  I finished the ABRA CX Series with an overall win in the 40+ Masters Class and a second overall in the Singlespeed Class. I was happy with these cross results, since I missed one weekend of doing the series while I was away racing in Costa Rica.  But, even with the end of my cross season coming early this year, I still had one final goal for 2013 and that was to win the final race of the American Ultra Cross Series, the Gravel Grovel in Norman, Indiana.

Since I had already completed the four necessary races to qualify for the American Ultra Cross Series Championship, my finishing position at the Gravel Grovel really did not matter, as long as my friend and fellow singlespeed racing competitor, Dan Rapp, did not win the race.  For that reason, I had to leave home directly after eating Thanksgiving Dinner to protect my series lead. Ironically, I traveled to the Gravel Grovel with the only person who could beat me in the series.  I jumped in Dan's car on Thursday night and we began our travels to Norman, IN.  We left on Thursday because neither of us thought it would be a good idea to drive the entire distance the day before the race and we also wanted to do a pre-ride of some of the course on Friday.  Overall, our trip to Indiana went fine and we had our normal good flow of communication to make the time go by quickly.

With smooth travels, we arrived at the race venue exactly when we had planned, at around 1PM Friday afternoon.  Once at the race venue, we decided to use the cue sheet for the race and attempt to drive some of the course. Well, with the course being unmarked and some of the gravel roads not being named, we were only able to find about the first 7 miles or so of the course.  After getting turned around quite a bit for about an hour, we decided to park the car and jump on our bikes.  Strangely enough, it seemed as if we found the course easier by bike than by car.

Initially, our ride went very well.  We got to ride and learn the first true off road section of the course and open up our legs a bit from the long drive.  I also learned that I would need to select a larger gear if I wanted to do well at the race, so I chose to use a 39x19 instead of the 39x20 I had planned on using with my Specialized Carbon Stumpjumper SS 29er and the 29x2.0 tires I had mounted. Unfortunately, the hour ride we had planned was abandoned when we made a critical error of not just turning around and heading back to the car at a fork in the trail.  Instead, we decided to continue riding in the woods until we came to the next gravel road. We assumed by doing this that we could get back to the car by taking a series of left turns quicker than turning around and heading back from where we came.  This theory would have worked just fine if we would have found a left turn to take; however, we didn't and stubbornly continued riding north.

Eventually, we came to an apparent dead end at a large lake.  The dirt "road" we were on seemed to cross the lake, but we could not tell how deep it was in the middle and with the temperature being only in the mid thirties, neither of us were too excited about trying to cross the lake, but we also did not want to turn around and re-ride the somewhat muddy road we had just traveled.  Additionally, with over an hour of ride time logged, neither of us thought it would be a good idea to ride at least another hour to return to the car.

So, using a half-pedal technique, I rode across the lake in at least 8 inches of water and broke a line through the thin crust of ice to get to the other side.  I thought Dan was right behind me when I did this, but saw that he wasn't when I got to the other side.  I told him it was okay to ride and he followed.  The trail conditions seemed to be muddier than the other side of the lake and I was hoping we would soon find a solid riding surface, which we did after riding for a couple of miles.

Once we were on a solid surface, we took a left turn, like we had planned, and rode up a long gradual climb, which ended at a three-way intersection.  My guess was to turn left again and go south, but I decided to look at my i-phone to see where the left turn would take me because we had now been out for 1.5 hours and I was beginning to slightly worry about getting back to the car at a reasonable time.  Well, when I saw where we were on the map and that there was no quick way back to the car because all the roads ended at the north shore of the lake, my slight worry increased almost immediately.  Not only did we have to find another way around the lake, but we were also dealing with the temperature dropping and the coming of darkness.  Needless to say, things were not looking good, especially after we rode on pavement for another 45 minutes and were not getting much closer to where we needed to be.

Luckily, Dan was able to contact his Toasted Head teammates Jake Wade and Scott Green and arrange for them to pick us up.  After we arranged the pick-up, we continued to ride south for another 45 minutes on paved roads, mostly so we could stay warm, but also because there was no easy way for Jake and Scott to get to where we were.  I can't explain how glad I was to finally see those guys and how grateful I was for the ride they gave us, especially since they had come to get us immediately after completing their non-stop 14 hour drive from home.  In total, Dan and I rode 37 on/off road miles in three hours, which is certainly not a good thing to do before an important race.  Since we both started our pre-race riding adventure with only one bottle of water and did not dress properly for the dropping temperature, we are lucky things worked out like they did. Our misguided Friday ride also completely messed-up all of the plans we had set for preparing for the race, but Dan and I dealt with it fine and agreed that at least we were both in the same situation.

We arrived at the starting line about an hour before the race.  Jake and Scott arrived earlier because of Toasted Head's commitment to supply wine to the podium finishers, which they had to deliver to the race promoter.  Upon our arrival, Jake said that there was a really long line for racer check-in and that it might be better for us to wait, so Dan and I did as much as we could to get ready for the race before deciding to jump in the never-shrinking line.  The delay we experienced in the registration line only left us with about ten minutes to put on our race numbers and do everything else necessary before the race started, which meant we did not get in any type of warm-up ride.  Of course, this all could have been avoided if we would have picked-up our stuff the night before the race like we had initially planned, but decided not to do because of our misguided pre-ride.

Luckily, the race did not start too fast and I was able to get my legs warmed-up on the mostly flat five miles leading up to the first major climb.  I shot up the climb and made contact with the lead group, as we turned onto the gravel roads on top of the ridge.  From there, the pace really picked-up and I was unable to match the speed being set on the fast gravel downhill portions of the course with my singlespeed.  I ended-up a few groups back from the leaders with a couple of geared guys and two singlespeeders, but D-Rapp was not in the mix with me in this group.  Once we left the pavement and went into the woods, about 10 miles into the race, Dan came up from behind and caught us.  He immediately went to the front and continued his fast pace up the second major climb of the day.  I was able to climb with him, but the other two singlespeeders lost contact on the last steep portion of the climb.

From that point, there was a long gradual descent through the woods that lead to some fast and flat paved and gravel roads.  After a couple miles, Dan and I ended-up in the second group of racers on the road about a minute behind the overall leaders at the turn around in the town of Story.  One time before this turn in Story and another time after it, Dan had a slight lead over me because riders in front of me allowed a gap to form in the paceline. Fortunately, I was able to bridge back up to Dan and the group each time this happened.  After the fast road section, the course turned left into some awesome single track trails and I went to the front of the group to see if I could get a gap on Dan.  He hung right with me through the single track, but everyone else in the group was gone.

From that point, Dan and I pretty much rode together until around mile 45 or so.  We rode a pretty conservative pace and basically kept our eyes on one another.  With Dan needing to win the Gravel Grovel to take the overall series win from me, I decided it would be best for me to sit back and watch him rather than continually pushing the pace hard.  I would then increase my pace on every section of the course where I thought I'd have an advantage, like in the trails and on the climbs.  But, Dan hung with me each time the speed was increased and I began to wonder if the race might come down to a sprint finish between us.  I'm not much of a sprinter, though, so this is not the end I wanted to have.  And, with no other singlespeed racers in our view to finish ahead of us, I could not let Dan finish in front of me to take the race and series win.

In situations like this, any small problem can cost a race win.  I knew riding smart and conservatively was the best thing to do, but I also knew that some type of action was necessary to create a gap between us.  One action I took could have cost me the race.  I decided to bomb a downhill trail portion on the course, but crashed in a muddy rut when doing this and landed on my side.  I was not injured, but my stem and handlebars twisted to the left quite a bit from their usual straight ahead position.  Dan briefly stopped and asked if I was okay when I was on the ground.  I said yes, but made no indication to him that my handlebars were messed-up.  Once we were out on the road again, I thought about stopping to correct my bar position because it was not very comfortable for riding, but knew Dan would get a time gap on me if I did.  So rather than correcting the problem, I decided to ignore my off-center handlebar position and continue riding with Dan.

It didn't seem like I was going to be able to put the time gap over Dan that I wanted to do before the finish, but I continued to attack up every climb there was, even the smaller ones.  On one smaller climb, at about mile 45 or so, I was able to get a small 10 foot gap on Dan before the climb became more of a false flat gravel climb. When I looked back and saw the gap, I realized it was pretty insignificant, but decided to continue riding hard anyway to make Dan work harder to catch me.  The next time I looked back the gap had increased, so I decided to go into full-on time trail mode.  A short while later Dan was out of sight and I knew the race was mine to win if I could just maintain my fast pace to the finish.

Keeping my pace high was pretty easy to do even though I was all alone because I was certain that Dan was probably working with a couple of geared riders to catch me.  When I got away from Dan, Garth Prosser was not far behind us and I caught and passed Dan's teammate, Jake Wade, about 15 minutes later.  The thought in my head of the three of them working together to catch me definitely made me push myself to stay ahead.  But, I later learned that Dan was only able to ride with Garth for a short period of time before Garth lost contact with him and that he never did catch Jake.  By the end of the race, I took the win by about five minutes over Dan, which also secured my overall series win.

The Gravel Grovel course was a blast to race.  It had a bit of everything and a lot of gravel, like an ultra cross race should have.  Of the five ultra cross series races I did this year, three were done on a cross bike and two on a mountain bike.  Interestingly enough, the two races I won (the Hilly Billy and the Gravel Grovel) were on a mountain bike.  It's a lot of fun, and a completely different experience, to do these races on a cross bike, but I do think mountain bikes are faster and safer to use overall.  For this reason, I think doing these things with a mountain bike instead of a cross bike is the best choice.  But, if a rule was put in place for the mandatory usage of a cross bike in all series races, then I'd be completely fine with using one because the playing field would be equal between all riders.  These ultra cross events, and gravel racing in general, are become very popular, so I doubt that instituting such a rule would decrease the registration numbers by very much. I am quite certain, however, that it would make the races a  lot more interesting.

D-Rapp, me and Scott on the overall ultra cross podium. 
Well, that's a wrap on my season and this ultra long blog post.  It has been a blast racing this year and I'm already excited about the 2014 season and the adventures to come.  I'm very pleased with how my racing went in 2013, especially considering all the changes that occurred in my life this year, like buying a new home, switching teams and changing positions at work.  Having less change in 2014 should make next year a bit easier, but with the number of fast singlespeed riders always increasing (like my fast SS friend, D-Rapp, joining the SS ranks), I'll still have my work cut out for me.  Speaking of change, if you haven't heard, Team CF will be racing under new colors and will now be called Team Rare Disease.  See you all in 2014!

Happy Holidays....  Gerry