Words and photos by
Nicole Davison of Veloville USA
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.