Written by Eric Olds Monday, 02 October 2017 00:00
Only in its fourth year, the Northwoods Gravel Grind has become one of my favorite events of the year. It offers three distances. The long course covers 68 miles of mostly gravel logging roads, many of which are closed to two-wheeled traffic except for this race. There’s some pavement in the beginning and end, leaving and entering the town of Rangeley, but otherwise it’s just mile after mile of uninterrupted gravel, free from power lines or other signs of civilization. Also, coincidentally (or not) the long course looks like a moose with an oversized rack! The short, 35 mile course and the 50 mile fondo course just cut off the outer limits of the long course and rejoin it again for the finish.
Last year the conditions were decidedly more fall-like, with temperatures never getting out of the 40’s all day. This year, it warmed up to around 85 by the end of the race! It was still in the low 50’s, though, as we headed up the first big climb on the pavement heading west out of town. There was a $100 prime for the first one to the top of this opening climb, so that motivated the fast guys to disappear out of sight even earlier than in the past (there was also a $100 prize for the first rider to produce a photo or video of a moose on course). By the start of the first gravel section, a couple miles in, I was well situated in the “chase” group. This group consisted of some strong looking riders, including former Bikeman rider Mike Robinson, so I felt like I could do pretty well if I stuck with them.
The first section of gravel, the horseshoe shaped Dodge Pond section has a short stretch of semi overgrown, sharp shale that always seems to cause a few flats. This year it really took a toll, though. I counted four riders fixing flats, some of which were race-ending slashed sidewalls. A rider further behind me in the 35 mile group said he counted 15 riders fixing flats before the day was done. So, tire choice and pressure are crucial to having a successful ride. I went with my trusty 40mm Schwalbe G-Ones with about 40 psi and had no problems, despite hitting some rocks pretty hard at high speed. I think the tubeless easy version is the way to go, even if you plan to run tubes (like me) because of the extra sidewall thickness.
After the Dodge Pond section, the course returns to the road. In the past this has felt longer than I would have liked, but pacing in this group we made pretty short work of it before hitting the dirt again for a long level straightway. I had a couple of “oh $#!%” moments here as I found myself heading into huge, deep potholes at high speed, but luckily my mountain bike skills paid off. By the end of this stretch I could tell that I wasn’t going to be able to stay with this group all race. I could feel my legs filling up with lactic acid, and sure enough, as soon as we got to the first big climb I was dropped. At first I thought I had a flat tire, but no, it was just my legs.
I rode with Matt Reynolds of BMB (who was having a bad day) for a little while, but the rest of my race was pretty much a solo effort. I kept the hammer down the whole time though, hoping to at least not get caught by anybody else (I wasn’t) and ended up catching and passing a rider who had passed me at the halfway point aid station. I modified the drive train of my Kona Jake the Snake to give me lower gearing for the long climbs. Strava showed me slower on the climbs than in the past two races, but I think it paid off in less fatigue for the rest of the course since I beat my time from last year by around 10 minutes. I finished near the back of the expert category, as expected, but 14th out of 36 finishers overall (45 started).
Anybody looking for an end of season, long ride that’s out of the ordinary should definitely try this race next year. This year it was capped at 100 riders, but next year the cap will be raised to 200 and there are plans for more of an organized after party.
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