Grassroots Gravel (October 14, 2023)

Grassroots Gravel is a new event on the calendar. It's a successor of Gravel Locos, a well-known bike race that took place in Pueblo, Colorado in years prior to 2023. They share many of the roads, yet an offspring is not the same old candy in a fresh wrapper. As the old Russian saying goes, “What's good for a Russian equals death for a German”. No offense to German people, though, as the saying comes from ancient times when the term “Germans” was used to refer to all foreigners. What I'm saying is that the passing of Gravel Locos, whose paramount desire to attract professional riders of the highest level was unachievable anymore at this time of the year, emptied the room for a cozy gathering of homies on a chilly Saturday morning.

Don't get me wrong, being out there on the same day and on the same course with the cream of the crop is what creates such a unique experience of off-road bike races in the US. It’s like you’re killing two birds with one stone: you can cheer and witness as a spectator, but at the same time, and most importantly, you are also a participant. Fans at TDF are cool? Absolutely, but this is next level, isn’t it? And I do believe that all of us together, amateurs and pros, would not have made it this far without benefiting each other in the most coherent setting.

But there's also time and place for us mere mortals not to serve as a decoration. And I’m not even talking about the competitive aspect. It’s rather those little moments like when you’re about to cross the finish line in sight, sprinting as hard as you can, and the race staff slows you down with only 100 meters to go to send you through a three-foot “wide” cone-fenced corridor on the side of the street, just because the pros will be here in about 5 minutes from now. It’s not a hypothetical scenario, it literally happened to me when I was finishing my Rad Dirt 70 miles course, and the LT Grand Prix riders were coming into town at the end of their 110ish miles of racing. A gentle reminder of who is paying the bills here. Oh, wait…

Enough with the whining about the big guys stealing the stage from a mediocre MAMIL. I was committed to having a fabulous day on a bike here in Pueblo. But with no big money BS to ruin the moment, I took those matters into my own hands to keep it spicy. Oh boy, I tried…

Friday night

Unlike with Kowtown Gravel, where the decision to go was made only four days before the event, I had all the time in the world to prepare for this one. Guess when I started. Around 7:30 (if you think a.m., you couldn't be mistaken more), I opened the squeaking door into the pantry only to find out that I had no drink mix left. That’s a good start. No way I can get a bag of Tailwind at such short notice, but Skratch will do just fine. No drama, Scheels is open until 9, and they always have my back! 10 min drive, use the east side entrance, turn right, walk straight to the shelf in the corner of a bike department, get a panic attack. They are out of Skratch High Carb. Took what Skratch calls a “hydration mix”, which is alright for a short training session, but not as good for a longer day on the bike.

Sure enough, while driving back home I came up with a new plan. Gels! (Genius, right?) I don’t dislike gels. I just prefer not to use them. But I always have a bunch of Precision Fuel 30g stashed for a moment when I need them the most. Wake up, boys, and get into the snack-bag, your day has come!

The rest of the game plan remained the same. I was still going to wear a hydration pack (which I became a big fan of), and I was aiming to do a single pit stop in the middle of the course (at about 60 mi / 95 km mark).

Friday morning

One more thing though. I actually did something else earlier that day. Because over the last few rides, the bike has developed an annoying creaking sound. I mean, we all understand that “a few rides” actually means “it’s been at least a month since it started”, but who would voluntarily embarrass himself by admitting that, right?

I knew it was not the cassette/freehub (because I just swapped the entire wheelset and deep-cleaned everything that came from the old one). So, the day before the race I finally cleaned the crankset. On my XC bike, I can take apart the Shimano SLX and put it all back eyes closed. But it was my first time with SRAM, and that’s why I procrastinated for so long. And sure enough, I didn’t take a bike for a spin afterward. Smart move, right? I know, doing my best to make something to write about.

Finally, Saturday morning

1°C (and that’s a plus, haha!), or 34° on a scale perhaps created to remain “positive” even in the lowest temps. That’s the only piece of sense about Fahrenheit I can think of. Who’s the only guy at the starting line wearing nothing but a short-sleeve? A pleasant side-effect: quite a few people approached me with a little chat. Because I basically handed them an ice-breaker (pun intended, of course), didn’t I?

But that outfit wasn’t a product of ignorance. I did my homework and came up with a thought-through plan which on paper looked absolutely impeccable:

  1. Temperatures will only go up throughout the day, hitting about 15-17°C in the early afternoon. And I’ll be done before it begins to decline.
  2. Go hard from the start, get hot, and don’t let yourself cool down until it’s done.
  3. Look cool. Maybe there will be a special prize for that.

As the saying goes, “Trust the weather in Colorado and it will never let you down”. Or something like that. Funnily enough, Colorado weather did hold that day. A few other things didn’t.

Neutral rollout

These rollouts are never neutral. Ever. Go to YouTube and show me one gravel race report where people don’t go 30+ kph in a slipstream of the pace car. There’s no such thing. Or there wasn’t until today. 18-20 kph on a bumper of Pueblo PD’s EV. For about 15 minutes. Shivering like a leaf. Goosebumps forming dimples like on a golf ball, making my hands the unreachable pinnacle of aerodynamics bio-engineering. One wind blow afar from falling dead. Eventually, the upper body got more or less warmed up as soon as the actual race started. But my toes remained dead frozen for the next couple of hours. Perhaps, my plan did have one little flaw — the warmer socks would’ve been beneficial, despite the costs of aero efficiency (totally joking, Silca Aero Tall for the W).

And ANY other day I would only appreciate the start like this. First, it’s a “free” warmup. It’s also an opportunity to depart from downtown without battling the traffic because Pueblo police did a terrific job blocking the streets and navigating us through the traffic, keeping everyone safe and warm. Not to mention that having a Ford Mustang Mach up the road is very much preferred compared to some stinky ATV.

A walk ride of shame

It was so cold that my knees were squeaking at every revolution. And I would rather accept that version than I was willing to publicly admit the fact that I forgot to grease the stupid bushings after cleaning the crankset yesterday. But somehow I immediately knew exactly what makes that sound and why. Not like your modern car that can’t tell shit beyond flashing the “check your engine” light. Instant diagnostics, at your service.

Game on

At the edge of the town, where we hit the gravel and the timing starts, the pace car disappeared into the void, going from 20 kph to the speed of light in a fraction of a second. Mustang commercial IRL, short and convincing. Lead by the example we push the pedals and accelerate to the best abilities of the environment-friendly engines of our own. I survived in the leading group for about 15 minutes, before making my usual wise decision to back off. At least I wasn’t shivering anymore.

At 45 min mark another little thing tried to kick me out of the saddle. Literally and figuratively. I hung on, but my bottles didn’t. First time in my experience when Silca Sicuro (color is Bourbon) lost its fight to a road bump. However, I tend to blame the bottles. Elite Fly MTB were my favorites for a long time, but the new version has an updated surface that to me looks a lot less grippy (and that on top of them never being the grippiest bottles on the market in the first place). Anyways, getting off the bike and walking back up the hill to pick them up wasn’t as bad as finding out that one of the bidons had cracked and lost all the precious liquid. “Splendid”, — I said.

Missing homework assignment and the punishment

In Kremmling, I had no means of navigation on my bike, and full reliance on course markings didn’t quite cut it. This time I managed to slam down the other bucket of that scale. The course was meticulously marked, but there was one problem. For the first few miles, two largest distances are on the same route, until we split. One would be following the orange markings, and the other — the green ones. The question is: which one am I on? Electronics are great, but there’s always a chance of last-minute reroutes and whatnot, and keeping your eyes on the road is always better than staring at a 2-inch screen all day long. Hey, there’s a lady sitting on my wheel, and I have a great opening. Chances like this shall not be wasted, so I asked. Follow the green ones, I’ve been told. Or orange. I don’t remember. Doesn’t matter, the thing is — it was the wrong answer. And a few miles up the road my computer began yelling and blinking at me for going off the route. Two riders even passed me while I was turning around and double-checking with a guy, who I had been riding along with for the past few miles, if I indeed took the wrong turn.

Of course, stalking people on the internet is much more fun than doing homework. Therefore after the race I spent the time I saved beforehand to find out who that kind person was exactly, but of course I’m not going to share the name here. However, next year I’ll have an even better line (the whole story!) up my sleeve. How cool is that.

CO-78 climb

Should the race have taken place on any other day — there wouldn’t be much to talk about here. Just a long, steady, sometimes steep climb. Hard, but nothing to write home about (unless you can take a KOM from Russell Finsterwald, but those who can don’t read the Pulitzer-worth blog of mine).

And by this time the sun is already up, the body’s heat production is at its maximum, and the struggles of the chilly morning have been left far behind. It’s all bright and shiny from here. 80% eclipse, -4°C. Boom. No kidding. Well, that’s something, isn’t it.

Well, this is not a Discovery Channel blog. It’s about me and my impressions of things around me when I’m out there riding my bike. Therefore, I don’t have any pictures of the eclipse for you, I’m sorry. What I do have are my own memories of the event, which I’m happy to share with all the tiniest details I can recover now that I’m writing it a month later. Here they are: I didn’t even notice. Seriously. Had no freaking idea! I didn’t spot the sudden lack of sunlight at 10:30 a.m. I didn’t ask myself a question why is it freezing cold again. I just kept riding up that hill, staring up ahead into every turn, hoping to see the back of one of the two who passed me right at the bottom (because clearly they didn’t deserve to be ahead of me, and the justice must have been served eventually). Yeah, that’s me, the perceptionally challenged nerd.

The Gorgeousness

Now, think about it. For someone who doesn’t give a crap about 80% eclipse happening right above his head, what does it take to make this guy appreciate the beauty of the world around him? If the apocalypse preview didn’t cut it, what will? Here it comes.

After you cross the summit, there’s a long boring paved descent, until you take a left turn into some twisty gravel road, well covered by the trees on both sides of it, as if they’re trying not to spoil the surprise.

And then it hits. Right in your face. The valley that sits between the mountains, wide open for unobstructed appreciation, and screams at you with the full spectrum of fall colors. I’m no Charles Dickens even to try to describe it for you any further. But if it took my breath away — you better watch yours when you see it, might be a life-threatening situation.

When Adam Davidson, the founder of Grassroots Gravel, asked me later how my race was, all I said was: “Who fucking cares? Did you see how beautiful it is out there”? And that’s me saying such things. Wow.

The chase is better than the catch

Okay, enough being a “came here to have a good time” guy, let’s do some racing after all. The aid station is coming right up. As usual, I can’t overstate how awesome the volunteers are and how appreciative we are for their hard work. Folks filled me up with drinks, gels, and a little bit of crucial insights. See, when I got dropped by the big group of leaders, I had no idea how many of them were doing the same distance as me. And sure enough, I expected the worst. However, as it turned out, I was the 15th person overall passing that aid station. Reality happened to be a whole lot better than I had imagined. That was a much-needed boost for the 65ish km (40 miles) to follow. Also, when I was taking off, Bill (it was nice talking to you, sir, on our way back to town) was just coming in, so I knew he was close and a single silly mistake, which I’m so good at making, won’t be forgiven.

Pretty soon, I caught a guy in a COS Racing jersey, and as soon as I got him in my sight, I attacked aggressively enough to make it clear that chasing me back was not worth consideration. After making sure I dropped him for good, I did have a short period of JRA, until I’ve got another dude in the crosshair. Didn’t have a chance to chat with the guy after the ride, but it seemed to me that after he spotted me in the back, he did try to give me a good fight. He made me work really hard for a while until the gap was reduced to only a few seconds. At that moment we approached the last aid station, the guy looked back at me, and I believe I could see it in his body language that he just accepted that this was not his best day on a bike. I mean, even if he ran completely out of water, he could make that stop 5 seconds long and keep fighting, but instead, he dismounted, and we nodded to each other as I passed by. Nice work, both of us.

From here, it was a little bit daunting to keep going. It’s all downhill to the finish. As far as the eye can see, there are no human beings on the bikes, so the chances of catching someone else are anywhere between zero and nothing.

So, naturally, my race did not come down to the sprint, but I want to acknowledge a great spot where the race organizers chose to put the finish line. It's right by the lake, on a wide, straight, silky gravel road. It must have been fun to get there shoulder-to-shoulder with some other rider.

I took the 13th place out of 38 male finishers on the 100-mile distance, and I’m pretty happy about it.

But still, how actually was it?

It was great! All those little things, which at the time when they happened all looked like a total tragedy, didn’t really matter. If anything — they became the content above. The reliance on gels instead of drink mixes was an even better choice on such a cold day when you don’t sweat as much. The squeaking sound eventually went away (or maybe became a white noise for me, I can’t tell). The bottle that I lost — I never really missed it. And as my body thawed, so did my ability and willingness to enjoy every second of the last race of the season.