Grinduro!

I can still smell the wood smoke on my hoodie. It’s been two weeks and I refuse to wash it, lest the smell and the memories disappear. I’ve heard people talk about race weekend hangovers along with the associated depression from having to go back to the real world and thought it was a joke. Yet here I sit, in a legitimate funk because the next event is 54 eternally long weeks away. Sorry cyclo-cross, you’ve been usurped. There’s something bigger. Better. More fun than you.  And it’s called Grinduro.

 

It’s no secret that the gravel scene is chipping away steadily at cross’s domination of the market.  Once there are enough people doing it, the natural progression is for those people to want to compete against each other for the right to claim they’re faster or stronger. Eventually the powers-at-be will sort out the sanctioning of gravel racing. But until then, there’s this.  A magical playground in the remote California mountains where you ride a lot and race a little. The place where the cool kids go to show off their sweet new rides,  the hot new gear and all the cutting edge bits and pieces hot off the Interbike assembly line. It’s more of an event than a race, though you can push yourself as hard as you like and there are actual awards up for grabs for those with the gumption. Most participants simply want to pin on their number and be a part of something special. Grinduro is part summer camp and social club, part music festival and bike show, part food truck and beer garden.  If gravel is your cup of tea, then this is the best damn cup you’ve ever had.

Grinduro is a strange brew. It’s a 62-mile concoction of all the wonderful ways we love to ride our bikes these days. There’s dirt, lots and lots of dirt. A dash of pavement. Not too much, just the right amount. Double-track descending (left lane for passing, right lane for brake dragging) and to stir things up there’s a generous helping of some sweet single track. Pointed entirely downhill, of course, because one can’t be expected to go uphill all the time. But there’s plenty of that too, around 8000 feet worth. The first helping of throat burning, leg wrenching ascending is aptly named Mt. Hough and Puff, while seconds is a tricky little bump on the topo map called China Grade. The icing on this party cake is the format. It isn’t 62 miles of racing from the gun. It is four timed segments, one at each of the tricky spots. A timed section here, a timed section there. Designed to test your abilities, highlight your strengths and spotlight your weaknesses, but only for the length of that short segment. The rest of the ride, you spin the pedals at a pace agreeable to frolicking, beer drinking, nature breaks and ogling the incredible scenery. This is the Sierras after all, complete with postcard mountain vistas, dense pines, babbling streams and wildlife. (No bear sightings for me this time but I did get to kiss Bigfoot on the mouth.) Plus, the event provided breakfast, a very European 2-hour lunch (courtesy of the local café Pangaea), espresso (from the Rapha crew), a beer tent (cheers to Sierra Nevada), live music, camping, flushing toilets (Plumas County Fairgrounds rocks), fire pits, a buffet-style dinner spread, free swag, incredible handmade prizes, smiling volunteers (thank you x one million), a swimming hole (with love from Mother Nature) and a spectacular awards ceremony with thrones and faux-pyrotechnics.

My race day could not have gone better. I could have gone faster, maybe, but not at the expense of finishing the day with a grin on my dust smeared face to be captured later in the free photo tent by the official Grinduro photographer. The morning broke cold but clear and would eventually settle into a comfortable seventy degrees with the soft autumn sun bright in the blue sky. Well caffeinated and full of free burrito, staging was called and nearly 600 cyclists crept towards the start banner. This was the easiest, least stress inducing race start of my life. This is the only racing I ever want to do again. Soft roll out, burn a match or two when it counts, back down and enjoy the scenery, burn another match, roll off the throttle again, stop for a beer, burn one more, laugh some, go for a swim and head on home. But I left out a few bits, so let me back up. Off we go, me and 600 of my new friends. We leave the Fairgrounds and spend a few easy but chilly miles getting to the first challenge of the morning. The only anxiety I’m feeling is sorting out a clear line once the road starts to point uphill. I should mention that I’m riding a single speed, so climbing is already tricky without the addition of being surrounded by other riders who are spinning happily away with their xylophone of gears while I’m bouncing along on my one-note pony. I might get up the hill slightly faster than them in fits and starts, but only by necessity not by design. And each rotation of the cranks is sapping three times the power from my barely warm legs. On the bright side, my fingers start to unthaw by the third or fourth switchback up a near-16 mile gravel climb. The switchbacks keep coming and coming, but not unpleasantly so, and I’m distracted by the laughter and joking and glee and no shortage of “way-to-go-single-speed!!!” shout outs.  Ahead is the first timed section. Half the field chooses to push down on the accelerator, the other to stop right before the start line to refuel and get organized. The stage was short, 1.2 miles, but impossibly steep. My plan was to turn myself inside out, to get to the top standing and cranking. Nope. I stopped halfway. I couldn’t help it. My body was on strike. Hunched over the bars with horrid dizziness, my entire approach to the day shifted. Stop racing and start riding. Back into the saddle, breathing now steadyish, the rest of the stage went by in slow motion. Which I’m grateful for now. It made the day last. I got to spend all day on my bike, surrounded by great people, on a mountain, in the moment.

So it goes. Pedaling and climbing. Stopping at the well-stocked aid stations, appreciating the rounds of applause at the stage finishes. They didn’t care who was first or last and it felt great to hear their hollers of encouragement. The second stage was the most difficult for me. I love going fast downhill, even in the gravel, but riding a single speed is about making negotiations. In order to keep the pedals turning uphill (for miles at a time) you may have to sacrifice the ability to go fast when the road flattens out or points downhill. You learn to ride at a higher cadence but eventually spin out. Truth be told, I doubt my brain could have handled any more speed. It was challenging enough to stay out of the way of faster riders, dodge rocks and dodge the riders changing flats because they didn’t dodge the rocks. Running tubeless didn’t guarantee a flat-free experience for some. I gambled and it payed off. Ignoring the warnings, I went with my standby set-up. Handmade Challenge tires with lightweight tubes and slightly more pressure than is really necessary. Bumpy yes, but zero flats. I certainly appreciated the extra pressure during the rolling road “time trial” stage. Not having a group to tuck in behind, it was a solo effort over the gentle rises and dips of the perfectly paved road. I could hear the hard-charging groups coming up behind and smiled as they whizzed past not failing to shout encouragement. I can’t repeat this enough times, how easily smiles appeared on faces or how often positive vibes were expressed. It’s a huge part of what makes this event successful and the ease with which most of the competitors tackle such an enormous course is truly palpable.

At the end of the TT stage was lunch. A shady spot under the pines, picnic tables filled with easy conversation and a hard earned rest. Back out on the pavement for a brief spin before the right hand turn to the infamous and wildly unpopular China Grade. Unless you are my husband, who waxes poetic about how well he climbed it and how long he had to wait for me to get to the top. Fine. He can have that one. I’m hoping next year, the organizers find some other un-rideable form of torture so I never have to see this climb again. Mostly because I hate pushing my bike up a hill, which is exactly what I found myself doing for most of the 8 miles up this dreadful pile of rocks. Maybe I’m over-reacting. Maybe next year I’ll ride a bike with proper gears and find the climb perfectly pleasing. But I doubt it. At least I had company on my hike and we entertained each other with good natured, self-deprecating banter over our inability to ride the steep grade. It’s a relief to be able to laugh at yourself. How often do you get to do that during a race? A lot of us forget that it’s ok to do just that.

Suddenly, I’m at the top and all that’s left is down. Not just any old down but the single track variety. The kind of single track that on any other day, you’d be riding on a fully suspended bike of the mountain variety. Steep, twisting, loose, slick, rough, rutted and thick with dust. So fast, so frightening and so intensely fun. Narrow and perilously close to the edge of the mountain, a big enough mistake could send you plunging over the bars in a heap. That happened to some; they had the bloodied elbows to prove it. I just held on for life and limb and hoped to not get in anyone’s way. Faster riders passed gently and were thankful for the clear line. I was thankful to finally pass through the end of the stage markers and the opportunity to let go of the brake levers. And exhale. I had made it.

The rest of the day was a lovely blur. A beer at the swimming hole. A soft pedal towards the finish line. A few bonus miles after missing the last turn home. A tired smile for the camera. Another beer for tired legs. Change into jeans and a hoody. A nice plate of food. Swapping stories with strangers. Turning into jello in front of the fire. The podium presentations. A surprise podium for me, the only single speed female finisher. My face hurts from smiling. I am eternally grateful for the generosity of the promotors for my prize. Those don’t come free and to share one with me means a lot. I make a mental note to encourage other women to ride single speed next year. The band starts to play and I feel content and the evening fades into a dream. I wake up and pack my trusty bike and prepare to leave Quincy, already looking forward to next October. I can still smell the wood smoke on my hoodie. I have no desire to wash it, lest the smell and the memories of Grinduro disappear.

Cat 5, Party of 1: How to survive your first season of CX

Cross is coming. For some, cross is already here. Heck, there are places where cross never leaves. If you are reading this, you probably already know what cross is all about or at least understand the theory behind all that barrier hopping and flying mud. Maybe you’ve been thinking about trying a race but are not sure how to begin. What are the rules? What do I ride? What do I wear? How do I even sign up?

The Narwhal says YOU CAN DO IT!

The Narwhal says YOU CAN DO IT!

Many have made the mental commitment to try a cyclo-cross race but now the season is upon us and it’s time to roll up to the start line. If you’ve joined a team or race club, you’re likely to already have plenty of support from fellow beginners or seasoned upper category racers. The rest of us, whether through circumstance or by choice, race as a team of 1. This is especially true for the first season, which can make learning a new sport that much harder. I recently held a women’s basic cx skills clinic and during the Q&A session, the same basic concerns came up again and again. So, here are a few quick tips for surviving your first year of cross, especially if you decide to tackle it solo:

Step 1: Find a bike shop who knows cyclo-cross. Notice I didn’t say “a shop who sells cyclo-cross bikes”. It’s hard to find a shop that doesn’t sell cx bikes, but make sure someone there knows what it’s like to race them. As a shop owner, of course I hope to be the place my customers buy their bikes but I can’t possibly offer every bike in the market in every size and at every budget. Instead, we can offer a first-hand knowledge of the sport. So you might not be able to buy a bike there, but you should at least find a shop where, in exchange for buying your race season consumables (tubes, cables, pedals, nutrition, bike wash,  etcetera) you get ask for racing tips, course insight, tire pressure advice and current news about your local scene. Plus, you’ll have a shop that can service your race bike and keep it in tip top shape all season. You get the chance to get to know them and the next time you shop for a new bike, you’ll already have a solid relationship with a shop you trust.

Step 2: Find a bike…that fits! FIT is way more important than FANCY. What I mean is, don’t sweat it if you find a bike that is a few seasons old or is brand new with entry level components. Bikes and drive trains are upgradeable. Don’t buy a “sweet bike from a friend-of-a-friend because it is a killer deal and has carbon tubulars” and blow off the fact that it is a size too big. You will be miserable. Most shops offer a free fitting with new bike purchase, so take advantage of that service. If you are buying used on the private market, invest in a professional fitting from a reputable shop (see Step 1). That way, you know what size works for you and what doesn’t. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be cognizant of the functionality of your components. If you buy used, take the bike to your local shop for a performance evaluation. A good question to ask them is “will this bike’s mechanical parts perform properly for a season of racing?” They won’t have a crystal ball and can’t guarantee that you won’t rip a rear derailleur off in the mud, but can and should tell you if your bike’s parts are in good working order for the job at hand. Also, talk to them about whether your bike and/or your gear is appropriate for racing cross. Yes, you can race a mountain bike. No, you can’t even race your road bike if it has discs. (I’ve heard this question more than once). Yes, you can race in flat pedals. No, you shouldn’t race with toe clips even though they did it in the 1980’s. (You’d be surprised).

Step 3: Learn the basics…and the rules. Even if it’s a casual meeting at a park with friends, find a way to practice skills.  I never attended a race clinic before I pinned on a number for the first time, but was lucky enough to have a husband and some co-workers who had raced. They were invaluable in showing me the ropes and answering all my questions. They helped me set up water bottles and twigs to mock up barriers and were around to untangle me when I forgot to unclip during a dismount and landed in a heap. If you are able, attend a clinic. Whether it is a free clinic put on by a shop (See Step 1) or a paid clinic put on by a professional, clinics help solidify the basic skills needed to be successful at a race. You can never have too much practice and having someone on the ground to help you nail your remount is essential. The most rad thing about cyclo-cross is that it has the lowest barrier of entry of any form of bicycle racing. Almost anyone can participate, if they can conquer these basics: Dismount/Remount/Portaging/Barriers/Cornering.  If you don’t have friends or family or a partner to help you practice, you can at the very least get your hands on a how-to book for cyclo-cross. There are many good ones out there. Don’t let all the super technical chapters overwhelm you. Just stick to the bare essentials. You’ll learn a little each time you practice and a lot each time you race. If you are motivated enough to race a whole season, usually lasting September to December, you’ll be amazed at what a difference a few races make. Lastly, take some time to learn the rules. Your local race organization should have a list of rules online. There is also the national organization, USAC, who outlines the rules for every discipline of bicycle racing offered in the US. You can also email the individual race organizers or ask your local bike shop (See Step 1). Rules may vary from local races to national events so familiarize yourself with them before you race. Some rules are punishable by disqualification, though most races and race officials will help you avoid those mistakes, especially as a beginner. Don’t be surprised if you get friendly, but valuable race-day input from your fellow racers if they see you committing an official or un-official faux pas. Cyclo-cross is a very supportive discipline and folks will always be willing to lend a hand.

Step 4: Fitness. Get some, even if it is a little, but don’t stress about needing to be “race” fit. Be realistic about your approach. For those of you looking to have fun, then just go out and have fun. If you want to win, you need to be fit and well-practiced. If podiums are your goal, then figure out a fitness plan that works for you. There are myriad approaches to getting fit, from books to online training plans to hiring a professional coach. I had specific goals a few seasons ago that I knew I couldn’t meet without the help of a coach. Not only did they keep me motivated but they helped me learn how to be a racer, not just do work-outs. Cyclo-cross is hard. Even if you go “slow” and enjoy hanging out at the back of the pack (some of the best racing action and the most fun happens there) it is still 30-60 minutes of effort and you might find it a more enjoyable experience if you aren’t gasping like a codfish. You don’t have to do intervals, you don’t need to have base miles and you don’t need to warm up on a trainer. You can do all these things if you want and they each have their benefits, but you should be more focused on being competent with your basic skills and comfortable enough on the bike to ride (and maybe some running) for the length of your race at your desired speed. It is also possible to “race into shape”, gaining fitness along the way just as you gain ability and improve your skills. There will always be someone faster than you just there will always be someone slower, so don’t worry about where you finish your first season. Podiums are a bonus.

 

Of course, the more serious you get about racing, the more there is to learn and I’ve barely scratched the surface here. But there’s plenty of time for that. The first race should be about exploring a new sport and a new scene. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Lastly, remember that racing doesn’t have to just mean you against everyone else. Race against the course. Race against yourself. Or just pin on your number and enjoy riding your bike around a fun and challenging course with dozens of your new friends. Either way, take a breath and get ready for the whistle. Once it blows, start pedaling and remember to smile. After you cross the finish line, high-five a fellow racer and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

 

Tour de Force - Part Deux

How do you retell the story of two thousand miles? 2,210 miles to be exact.  How does one describe each mountain top? 56 of them, plus countless uncategorized others. How do I share every foot climbed skyward? All 148,393 ascended. Nothing I write can come close. There’s just no way to relive it. There are too many kilometers, too much discomfort, too much happiness, too many tears, too much joy and far too many pedal strokes. It was painful. It was incredible. It was the Tour de France.

It wasn’t the race but an attempt to replicate the entire course, mile for mile, just like the professionals. We started a full week before the peloton, on a Saturday from Mont Saint Michel. 21 stages in 23 consecutive days.  Clearly, as amateur enthusiasts, the pace was a fair amount slower. Not that it made things easier on the chamois but it did improve conditions slightly for the legs. Plus, we had rest stops, up to four a day. We started the morning with a light breakfast, stop 1 and 2 provided nutrient dense snacks, stop 3 was a proper lunch and stop 4 was calorically positioned to limp us to the finish. We peeled ourselves off the bike, mechanical issues addressed, aches attended to, showers taken, dinner scarfed, instructions for tomorrow’s stage doled out. Finally, tucking into another ingloriously uncomfortable hotel bed barely rested enough to do it all over again.

There were bright yellow arrows to show us the way. There were vans to transfer the luggage and buses to shuttle us to the next start line. There was staff to organize room keys and count heads. We just had to pedal. And eat. Pedal and eat. During week 1 the eating was easy and the pedaling hard. Week 2 was easier to pedal and harder to eat. By week 3, we finally got the hang of both. The human body is an incredible machine. It may take a while to learn a new task, but when repeated long enough; stops complaining and gets to work. Properly rested and sufficiently fueled, it is capable of amazing feats of endurance. It is also susceptible to a dizzying array of discomfort. By day two, I hurt in the usual places. By day five, in places I didn’t know could actually ache, rub or burn.  By day nine, those were all replaced by new annoyances and by day twelve, had forgotten that anything hurt at all.

I’ve been asked mostly about the weather. Was it hot? Yes. Was it windy? Yes. Did you get to make it to the top of Ventoux? Why, yes. If there was ever a day I had wished for a bit of wind, that was the one. Unlike the pros, who endured catastrophic blusters, we experienced the phenomenon known as the “oven”. No movement of air, not even a puff. Heat so stifling, we risked riding on the wrong side of the road for what little shade the trees on that side were casting. Here’s me mumbling a tiny prayer to the Beast of Provence to grant me a breeze and I swear that mighty mountain answered. Not much, but enough to keep my wheel from melting into the tarmac. Some stages witnessed headwinds so fierce; it was like 10 hours on the rollers with an industrial fan blowing in our faces. As such, I shall never complain about the wind again. I will, however, always complain about being wet and cold. I banked on being soggy at least a few days out of the 21. What I didn’t expect was being soaked for most of Normandy and the Limousin and again in the Pyrenees. I hear they are beautiful. I can only speculate, as I ascended most of the Tourmalet with 4 feet of visibility in front of my wheel. Actually, climbing mountains in the rain and fog is quite magical and an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. I would trade the bout of hypothermia in the Alps, which is a rather unpleasant experience. Though I was rewarded for the trouble by two days of perfectly clear, cool skies with an unimpeded view of Mont Blanc and friends, an experience I was told was exceptionally rare for the season. The Tour gives you nothing for free. To experience the thrill of the decent, you must first drag yourself up the climb. If you want perfect temperatures and a postcard view, you must first suffer the extremes. You relent to these mysteries early on. Soggy chamois notwithstanding.

The Tour is also a rolling slideshow of spectacular scenery.  I started watching it on television 15 years ago just to get glimpses of all the perfect French villages. I somehow expected riding it to be the same…a continuous display of medieval architecture amidst picturesque landscape. I certainly saw my fair share of those, along with hundreds of church spires and crumbling farm houses. We passed countless fields of wheat and barley and corn and carrots and potatoes and sunflowers and grapes and herbs. I also greeted roughly 9,000 brown-eyed French cattle with “bonjour vache”! What I didn’t work out beforehand was the vastness of the French interior. We constantly romanticize the mountain stages and when we discuss the Tour, it’s their names that roll of the tongue. I’m eternally grateful for the firsthand views from the summit of cycling’s greatest climbs. They really are as spectacular as you hope them to be. Bigger, grander and more lovely because they were finally made real and not just an image on the screen. Though, I’m just as thankful for the humble landscape that connected those revered peaks. The thousand miles of rolling farmland dotted with bright gold rolls of wheat straw. The sulfurous rows of ancient vines bearing their infant grapes. The countless streams and glittering rivers whose names I recognize but can’t place. The people waving from their windows above the village square.  Snarling traffic and temperamental drivers during rush hour, nonplussed with us clogging up their commute. Like I said before; to get the quiet country lanes, you must ride a few congested miles.

By the bye, on the subject of congestion, Paris is no cake-walk. Not even on a Sunday. Although it wasn’t the worst offender on the scariest-places –to-ride-a-bicycle top ten (that honor is shared equally between Montpellier’s roundabouts and Switzerland’s tunnels), it was just terrifying enough to only ever do once in my life. Two laps around the Arc De Triomphe by bicycle were plenty, thanks. We even managed an impromptu photo shoot without being side-swiped by a moped. As risky as it now seems, it was worth it. The experience would just not have been the same. There would have been no closure. Sure, we have Strava to prove we made it but without the harrowing journey across the cobbles, in the shadow of that great hunk of marble, the very symbol of triumph itself, it would have just been another 2,210 mile ride.

 

 

Tour de Force - Part One

“One day, this will be pleasing to remember” says the quote firmly stickered to the top of my stem. Wise words indeed, if I can remember why I put them there – neck deep in lactic acid, kilometers clicking by, drawing steamy summer air through what feels like a straw, atop some faraway mountain, several stages already into what might prove to be the collective hardest thing I’ve ever attempted. The above being a worst-case scenario, along with saddle sores, chamois woes, torched tendons, dehydration and utter despair a close second. That’s what the fear and magnitude monsters want me to believe. What I expect to experience…no, what I demand of the experience, is a slow moving landscape,  rolling friendships, toothy grins and the occasional secretly shed tear.  “Are you ready?” is the question of the day from customers and friends, every hour of the day for the last few at least. How can you ever be ready? Does one ever head to France ready? That’s right, France. A great big bike ride. The biggest (one could claim) or at least the most recognizable. Six months ago I got the hair brained idea to ride the entire Tour de France route. It wasn’t entirely my fault. I saw a random re-Tweet announcing dwindling availability to ride the 2016 tour with a charitable organization from the UK called Tour de Force. In exchange for the privilege of a fully supported adventure, participants agree to a fundraising minimum per stage. That sounded fair. So off-the-cuff I mentioned to my husband (and co-conspirator of Veloville USA, our bicycle and coffee shop in Virginia) that I was going to leave him in charge for the summer and go on an adventure. To which he replied, “You go, I go.” Swiftly moving thumbs and two confirmation e-mails later, our fate was sealed.

Turns out, riding is going to be the easy part. Fundraising is hard. It’s the most uncomfortable thing, asking people for their hard-earned money so that you can ride your bike. The tricky part was separating the act from the purpose so donors felt they were supporting an actual cause. I’ve made missteps in selling the story, the raison d'etre of it all. Maybe I didn’t work hard enough to explain why it matters, why supporting a charity in the UK versus the USA was important. On the most basic level, Tour de Force exists solely to raise money to support the William Wates Memorial Trust. The Trust, to be incredibly succinct, supports disadvantaged and underprivileged youth by funding  surprisingly relevant projects. Art, culture, education, sports. And of course, bicycles. For example, they just finished building a BMX track in the UK to provide an outlet for community youth to engage in a positive, fulfilling pastime. In essence, they are providing an option…this (bicycles) or that (shenanigans). In a world that currently feels very raw and frighteningly vulnerable, supporting this kind of organization made sense to us. We are all connected. Bicycles have done so much to change my life. It felt like a very small thing to hope that bicycles could change someone else’s life too, and by changing their life, thereby collectively change the world.

 

Even before the first pedal stroke, this trip has been life changing. It feels cliché to say, “I’ve learned so much”, but to say anything else would be wasting words. I’ve felt every emotion known to humankind, sometimes an overwhelming mixture of them all. Mostly anxiety and not a small amount of fear. But that’s all I’m going to say about it because the fact is, this ride is going to be hard. It’s going to hurt physically and emotionally. I’m going to cry and curse and probably yell at my husband for no good reason. I’ll want to throw my bike off some annoyingly beautiful post-card mountain pass that totally just made me get off and walk and which completely bruised my delicate pride (anyone posting it on Instagram will be unfriended for life).  And so enters my self-appointed mantra, “one day, this will be pleasing to remember”. Because it will. Each moment, each turn of the cranks, each labored breath, each bite of food, each morning I wake up with tired legs and a battered ego will be a cherished fraction of time that I feel very fortunate to have. I’ve finally learned to let go of the urge to burn through my book of matches. This isn’t a Strava segment and neither is it a race. I’ve got nothing to prove, except to myself, and all I care to do is finish under my own power on my own bike with my best riding buddy by my side. From kilometer 0.1 to the red kite in Paris, I just want to remember the world as it goes by…slowly… and on two wheels.

www.tourdeforce.org.uk  (Ride Organizers)

www.wwmt.org (Charity)