For a bunch of different reasons that you probably don't want to hear about, I decided to take a step back from road racing this year to instead focus on having fun with my friends. This was great in theory, but the fear of losing all of the hard-earned fitness from last year meant that I was soon back to doing structured four week training blocks. What can I say? I need structure in my life. The good news is that since I wan't doing Spring Series or any of the early Washington stage races, I was able to take my time getting back into the swing of things and the training paid off.
My "gravel crew" decided back in December that the Gorge Gravel Grinder would be our first target event for the year. 75 miles, 5000 ft. of elevation gain and just under 18 miles of gravel. We decided that we'd stick together and enjoy the ride without any consideration of riding for time or placing.
We arrived in The Dalles on Friday night and spent Saturday morning doing a shakedown ride. Forecast was sunny and mild with no rain in sight. Oh, and ALL THE WIND. We rolled West up to Rowena Crest, a special treat for me since I've been after a shot of the infamous switchback for a few years now. 50km out and back and then it was time to change and hit the breweries, but not too hard. We had a big day ahead of us, after all.
We rolled out on Grinder day with a pretty big group out of the Dalles, but an ill-timed bathroom break in our group meant that we quickly waved goodbye to the main group. Bad news in that we could no longer sit in and suck wheel, but good news in that we could avoid any general sketchiness (of which there was some early on as demonstrated by a random brake-check) and could do our own thing on our own terms. After spending the early part of the ride on pavement, we hit the first sector of gravel, a 12km gradual grind uphill. At that point, we abandoned our neat little paceline and simply got down to the business of crawling uphill through loose, dry, sandy, gravel. We stayed roughly together until one of us pinch-flatted a few hundred meters from the first aid station. Surprisingly, this was our only mechanical incident of the entire weekend.
A few groups left the aid station at roughly the same time and when the gravel and dirt reverted to tarmac, we tried picking a few of them up and getting back into a rotating paceline to get us to the next gravel sector. For the most part, our attempt to organize this was a dismal failure with other riders surging ahead and disrupting the pace, or not being able to maintain the speed we wanted, but we found a diamond in the rough; Brad from Portland who ended up sticking with us for the remainder of the day and doing solid work. Steady, effortless, and smooth. Teamwork makes the dream work.
Little else needs to be said. We rode through some incredible scenery, crammed down calories of both the liquid and solid variety at the aid stations and made it back for beer at the pub. I'd describe the ride as challenging, but not soul-crushingly so. There was apparently a lot of rumbling about the organizers cutting about half the gravel from last year's course, but to be honest, I think I'm OK with that since all of the gravel seemed to be uphill. I enjoyed myself and the company, but I'm not sure I'd consider myself a fully-fledged gravel grinder. Part of me sorely missed the competitive aspect of it and wished that I was doing the actual Gorge Roubaix race, but that would have meant no sweet photos. Speaking of which...