Days of Thunder #1

A week's worth of rain and a sprinkling of snow had created almost ideal late-season 'cross conditions at Western Speedway; enough mud to make things sloppy, but not so much so that riders would be forced to slog through it all on foot. Day 1 started off chilly and drizzly for the early races, but soon turned into full-on snow/sleet just in time for Masters and Elites that had people whispering comparisons to the 2016 Provincials in Squamish between chattering teeth.

Thank goodness for weather-resistant camera gear.

Want more? Check out Day #2.

Grinduro 2017.

There I was, sitting in the back of a car on the way back from a spectacular failure at the Oregon Gravel Epic. On top of feeling bummed because that event didn't go the way I had wanted it to, I was also feeling the anxiety of being in the middle of nowhere, relying on somewhat spotty cellular data coverage to try and register for one of the most-anticipated events of the upcoming year. Given the sheer volume of hype in the coverage of last year's Grinduro, I was expecting it to sell out pretty much instantly. I was able to snag a spot, although was somewhat surprised that it took about a week before the number of entries dried up.

For those who haven't heard about the event, it's a 100km gravel ride with about 2,500m of elevation gain. The difference between it and most other gravel grinds is that it uses the enduro format, with four timed sections (1.9km gravel climb, 10km gravel descent, 10km rolling pavement TT, and finally a 5km singletrack descent) sprinkled throughout, allowing riders to participate in a rolling party ride for most of the day with the option to fire up the afterburners should they so choose. 

Fast forward five months...

I flew into SFO on Thursday morning, fit in a short ride in the evening, and then drove the four hours (more like six in traffic) to the event venue in Quincy to set up camp with a small contingent of other riders from Vancouver, unload the gear, and check in for my swag bag. Friday night was pretty uneventful, so I'll spare you the details about drinking beer, cramming food into my face, and climbing into my sleeping bag. Actually, those were all the details...

Fast forward eight hours...

Shit. it's 6:00AM. My alarm hasn't gone off yet, but I can hear people in the camp area around me beginning to stir in their tents. I have a very urgent need to pee, but am loathe to emerge from my warm, downy, cocoon and face the dark of day. "Can I squeeze in another 30 minutes in bed without wetting myself?" runs through my head. I decide to chance it, but the pressure on my bladder is preventing me from actually dozing off again so I decide I might as well get it over with and start the day.

Food trucks were on-site the entire weekend, and all meals were provided to riders on event day. Off to find myself a breakfast burrito and coffee generously provided by Verve Roasters out of Santa Cruz before heading back to the tent to try and figure out how to dress for the start of the day. Did I mention that it was cold? The morning started with temps in the low single digits, but would warm up with the combination of the sun rising and the first climb. The debate came down to how cold you were willing to be and for how long. The organizers did promise us a clothing drop at the top of the climb, but given my history of forgetting things at events, I didn't want to repeat past mistakes. Besides, this is exactly why I bought a bar bag for events like this! Like the majority of riders, I started with arm and knee warmers and a vest and my normal full-fingered gloves. Even as the effort ramped up, I couldn't feel my hands until about an hour in. That's fine. Who needs fine motor control anyway?

The first timed segment came about a third of the way up the opening climb. I definitely under-estimated how long the section would bewent out harder than I should have and faded a bit towards the end. Do your course recon, kids!  I kind of wish this first segment was either a little bit longer to be a sustained 15-20min threshold climb, or shorter to be true vo2max effort. Our group of Vancouverites had wanted to stick together as much as possible, but the difference in climbing paces meant that the group ended up splitting up after Segment 1. After a brief stop at an aid station, my group continued climbing. And climbing. And climbing. And climbing. Ad nauseum.

Fast forward two hours...

Boy, that was a long climb. Garmin says my longest to date. It wasn't particularly steep, nor was it technical, but it kept going. I was running a 38x36 low gear and that was more than enough to keep me turning over a decent cadence in a Z2/3 pace. The toughest obstacle was the clouds of dust being kicked up by the hundreds of riders. Sure, it made for really pretty sunbeams, but my lungs don't really care about that. You know what would have been really handy? That bandana that was so kindly included in the swag bag that I didn't bother exploring until after the ride. Or the bandana that I snagged from the SRAM booth in the gear expo. Womp womp.

What comes up must eventually come down, so the timed descent was next up. I've been riding my current Cannondale SuperX for three seasons now on various adventures, so I know how it behaves on this kind of terrain. The new variable was the new wheels I'd picked up this season from Woven Precision, based out of Ottawa. I'd grown tired of denting aluminum rims on rides like this and wanted something that would hopefully be more impact-resistant. I've had the wheels for about a month and have been riding them tubeless in local races, but this would be my first extended ride out in the wild with them. I had intended on swapping out the 35mm WTB Cross Boss with 38mm Panaracer Gravel King SKs, but knew that I was going to switching to mud treads for the remainder of the CX race season when I got back and didn't want to bother having to deal with yet another tire switch and sealant mess. Long story short: I am a tubeless convert, especially when it comes to this kind of application. I was probably running pressures a bit on the high side at 32/35 PSI, but better safe than sorry. The setup was faultless the entire day, including some pretty gnarly singletrack at the end. No burps, no punctures, and there was never a lack of traction when I needed it. There were plenty of other riders at the side of the trail, especially after the downhill segments or any time there was shale involved. With some challenging light conditions and the dust, I did hit a few square edges at inadvisable velocities, but the wheels didn't implode under me and I rolled along after hits that would have guaranteed pinch flats.

Almost immediately after getting to the bottom of the descent was the start of the rolling TT segment. There were six of us together at this point and we were all eager to get to the lunch spot afterwards. There was a bit of confusion as we rolled through the timing mat, resulting in the group almost immediately splitting in two with one rider, unbeknownst to the three of us in the front group, desperately trying to bridge the gap. We made some impressive time considering the wind in the valley, getting caught by Team Rock Lobster who started behind us, about 500m from the finish line/lunch stop. 

At this point, I should probably mention that Grinduro is incredibly well supported with water and/or aid stations after every major section of the course and mechanical aid in the form of either supplies like tubes, sealant, tires, or neutral mechanical service. Given the availability of Clif product and other snacks at the aid stations, I probably didn't need to stop for as long as I did and it would have made it a lot easier to get rolling again. The plate of pasta salad probably wasn't the greatest idea, but it was better than the roast beef wrap I briefly tried to consume. Thankfully, the mechanic who was touching up my shifting was hungry and was happy to claim it for his own.

I wish I could tell you that the Coke I had loaded into one of my bottles worked as jet fuel, or that after 70km in the saddle that I was still feeling fresh enough to dance up the final climb, but I'd be lying. A little piece of me shrivelled up somewhere on that slope, but I had plenty of company. I rode what I could, but was never too proud to get off and push my damned bike uphill when I had to.

Fast forward an hour and change...

One segment left and I was cutting it kind of close to the final time cut off to make it to the timed section, but first, I had to make it down the first bit of singletrack. it was some of the gnarliest terrain I've ever been on: the majority of it being loose sand over hardpack, interspersed with wheel-crushing ruts and jutting rocks, made even more challenging by the ever-present dust being kicked up by riders who either had more skill or less regard for their bodies than I did. Oh, did I mention the super-contrasty light that went from overhead shade to full-on sunlight making it almost impossible to see anything more than a foot in front of me? At one point, I ended up with my wheel in the soft shale on the left edge of the track, looking down at a sheer drop off the mountain and needing to take a moment to compose myself after facing my own mortality. I finished pretty low in the standings for that segment, but I finished without breaking anything on my bike or my body, so I still consider it a win. 

All in all, a super fun event with the right mix of camaraderie and party vibes with the opportunity to indulge your competitive nature if you wanted to, which sounds more appealing to me than slogging it out for 12+ hours at something like Dirty Kanza where overall time for the entire route is the key factor.

 Some miscellaneous closing thoughts:

  • The travel to get to Quincy, CA from Vancouver isn't great. You're either in for a really long drive, or you can fly down, rent a van to fit your bike(s), and still be stuck behind the wheel for a number of hours. The good news is that both WestJet and Alaska recently revamped their luggage policies so that bikes simply count as checked baggage instead of incurring a special equipment surcharge, so that will save you quite a few bucks in travel costs.
     
  • You can never have a gear low enough. I had an 11-42 MTB cassette, but SRAM is having supply issues with their long-cage RDs, so I wasn't able to mount it for this ride. Having a 0.905 gear ratio would have come in handy on that last ascent up Mt. Hough. I've come to realize that the larger steps between gears don't really matter much on these types of adventures since most of my time is spent either climbing or descending where I don't really care about finding the perfect cadence down towards the small end of the cassette. I'll probably throw the wide cassette on after 'cross season is over and leave it on until next year's race season comes around again.
     
  • Party vibes at the rest stops were cool, but maybe encouraged me to stick around for too long. Gotta maintain a shorter stop times so my body doesn't get used to not being in the saddle.
     
  • Can't decide whether more pit stop beers would have made the experience more or less enjoyable. Those watermelon wedges at the final stop before the singletrack were clutch, though.
     
  • Definitely need to work on my singletrack skillz.
     
  • Mo' rubber, mo' better. You definitely want more cushion for the pushin' on those descents. 
     
  • When we checked in at SFO for our return flight, we received an upgrade to WestJet Plus. Score! As a pretty compact person, I've never had an issue with leg room on economy flights and my usual flight home to Toronto is short enough that don't really care, but being among the first to board and deplane was pretty sweet and the complimentary booze after a long weekend of driving was a nice way to cap everything off. When you factor in the two complimentary checked bags (one of which would be my bike anyway), this may become the desired option on future vacations like this. Treat yo'self., I say.
     
  • Would I do it again? Definitely maybe. There are areas where I know I could improve upon were I to come back, but I also tend to consider events like these more like one-and done. There are a slew of other rides out there that I'd love to experience for the first time before coming back to this one. That said, if you haven't experienced this before and are able to either jump on registration when it opens for next year or grab a transfer closer to the date, I'd highly recommend it. 
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