Written by Mike Benson Monday, 24 April 2017 00:00
My journey to do my first gravel race started back in September when I met Anthony Moccia while waiting to be staged for a cyclocross race at White Park. Learning that registration fills up quickly, I registered days after it opened. Thankfully I did because it closed within a week with all 1000 spots taken. As the days approached to the event, my focus turned to the weather. Having skied the weekend before not far from Burke Mountain, along with spring rains, I knew that race day was going to be a slog in wet, muddy, cold, and rainy conditions. But this is why I signed up. If it was going to be easy it wouldn’t be fun.
On race day, I rolled into the parking lot at 7am for the scheduled 9am start. Anthony was standing at the parking lot entrance greeting everyone as they came in and directing people where to park. After I registered, I sat by one of the bonfires that were already burning. The vibe was already pretty cool and laid back. After about 15-20 minutes of warming up on hills around the parking lots and ski condo’s I rolled up to the start line about 50 people back. As I waited for the gun, I took stock in what people were racing on today. The masses were on cyclocross or gravel specific bikes. There were some mountain bikes as well as fat bikes too. I would be riding my Kona Major Jake. Most people were either riding on some form or file tread or gravel specific tire. I chose to ride on Challenge Chicanes which turned out to be a great option as they roll fast on hard pack but have side knobs for the greasy twist and turns when making high speed descents.
When the whistle blew, the huge pack of riders rolled down the main road leading to the ski area. It was a neutral start but there were a few people using this time to squeeze their way forward so they could be with the first break when we took our first right hand turn onto dirt roads. As expected, everyone hit the gas up the first steep hill. This was a tough effort only moments into the race. I spent the first 15 minutes between 380 and 460 watts. The first thing that went through my head at this point is that there was no way I could keep up with this pace and finish the race strong. I drifted back a bit into the second group and settled in. Once we hit Siberia we were able to ride up a good portion of the Class IV road until we hit the snow pack. From there, it was a foot race to the summit. We were greeted by volunteers who offered us maple shots in ice glasses that could be thrown on the ground without the worry for littering. From here, we sped down a steep, muddy, rutty descent which was much needed because my legs were screaming.
At the bottom of the first big descent, I found myself gathering up riders to form a pace line to try to catch the large group in front of us. We started with 5 or 6 guys taking turns at the front. Then we shelled one, then two, then three, and I was by myself. Not wanting to burn the rest of my matches bridging to the next group solo, I slowed and waited for the last strong rider to work with. As we hit the next huge climb, we were catching riders that were being shelled off the group ahead. As we climbed, two fat bikers caught up to us. They were number 2 and 3 in the race for that category. As we climbed and chatted a bit, I wished that I didn’t take my 40 tooth front chainring off in exchange for a 44. The 44 was not the right gearing, even with an 11x32 rear cassette. It was nice to have the extra gears for the flats and descents but with almost 4300 feet of climbing in 37 miles, I would have been better suited with an 11x36 paired with my 40 tooth chainring.
As we neared the end of the race, I knew that we would face one final challenge. This would be a muddy, steep cx course set up on the slopes of Burke Mountain. There was one super-fast final descent that led to the CX course. As I sped down the road, I quickly realized at the first big turn that I was going too fast and almost slid off the road over the banking. This is where my Chicanes shined. The outside tread hooked up with the road and I was able to stay in control. At the bottom of the road, we were ushered through a muddy bog-like cart road that required everyone to submerge their feet in very cold water and mud (this sucked) as we trudged towards the finish. As we neared the end of the cart road, I could see course tape and it was game on. The cyclocross course featured big climbs, stairs, barriers, a death spiral, and part of a downhill mountain bike course to the finish line. I finished 81st overall out of 750 riders (26th in the 40-49 age group). Not only were my feet soaked and frozen, but it was very hard on my legs, probably the hardest race I’ve ever done in terms of hill climbing. My normalized power for the day was 304. I wish I could look at the power files of the race winners. Those guys crushed it.
After the race, our hosts had a great meal waiting for us inside the lodge. My wife and kids joined me for a beer as we watched finishers continue to roll in as the hours ticked by. Looking back on the day, I would definitely do the race again. For next year, I intend on having Gore-Tex shoes, better gearing, and more training specific to fast and long climbs. If you are racing for a place in this race, all of the big efforts happened on the climbs.
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