The Gravel Grovel

With the Zionsville Harvest 50 Race  (and 25 Challenge Ride) coming up soon on October 29 and The Gravel Grovel on November 26, I thought I would post my essay on the 2015 Gravel Grovel. Weirdly wonderful day it was!

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The Gravel Grovel — 100 km. Race
November 28, 2015
Hoosier National Forest near Story, Indiana
Wet, cold and challenging – the conditions for the November 2015 Gravel Grovel were the worst ever – 43 degrees and light rain all day – after constant rain for 24 yours beforehand. This 100 km. race in the Hoosier National Forest is held annually the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The race always rewards those who have a basket-full of cycling skill sets: endurance, climbing prowess, descending gumption and skill, general road savvy (including wheel sucking), mountain biking grooviness, comfort with mud and water, cold weather gear aficionados, and those with solid nutritional knowledge. There is always a mix of mountain bikes, cyclocross bikes, and gravel bikes out there. For 2015 the mix favored MTBs for the first time ever with the lousy conditions. The course is a mix of forest gravel road, singletrack, unmaintained dirt road, and a bit of asphalt. And the included 4500 feet of climbing hills in southern Indiana may not seem like much, but I swear that every ascent is 15 degrees or more of slope. Without MTB gearing, you might be able to muscle up the first few, but after about the tenth steep one-to-four minute climb, you find your legs blown to bits.
Over 270 riders registered for the race. About 200 started, and about 100 completed the full course. The winners were crazy fast pro cyclocrossers, Drew Dillman and Ryan Knapp, who finished together. Both chose cross bikes, but over half of the top 20 were on MTBs. I can’t describe how fast and world-beating awesome the top racers were!
My Salsa Warbird gravel bike again was manna for my old legs. After blowing up last year, I replaced the small 36-tooth ring with a 34-tooth ring, and with my super-light SRAM Red gruppo and a 12-32 tooth domed cassette, I used ALL of my gears and was able to keep pedaling on all the climbs. I seem to like mud – or after finding myself at mile 12 standing in a knee deep creek – I didn’t give a sh** and flew through every deep puddle and creek. Damn the torpedoes and finish before the bottom bracket bearings seize up!
The trails were sublime. Trying to keep my 40 mm Kenda Happy Medium tires spinning on the uphills – the file tread was slippery but the 28 psi tubeless set-up helped – and the corner knobs – really let me attack gravel road and trail downhills. The roads weren’t terrible – a little soupy here and there – a little soft. After about 5 miles staying with the leading pack, I was relieved to back off, ride alone and avoid the muddy spray.
Did I say the gravel road descents were a blast!? Really the surface was tackier than loose gravel permitting you to rail aggressively. And for the 3rd year in a row, my SRAM Red hydraulic brakes gave me perfect control and (over?) confidence.
More gear drivel – Castelli Gabba (rainproof but breathable) jersey/jackets were the ticket. I had this nailed and was just fine with my Gabba short-sleever over two light short-sleeved layers combined with Castelli water-proof NanoFlex arm and knee warmers. But I did not nail it with my wind-proof, medium weight gloves, which over the course of the day got soaked. During the last five miles (mostly descending), I had to use two hands to shift from my small into large chainring as I was losing feeling in my achy cold left fingers. Some sort of layering on the hands might have worked better.
I wasn’t in the best shape this year. I was excited and prepared for this event though. I had only completed 50 of the 60 miles in 2014 when my legs died of hilltopping. But this year, I competed in the Death March in March over much of this terrain and raced well in the Dirty Kanza 100 gravel road race in late May in the Flint Hills of Kansas. And I had been down to the area on four of the six previous weekends riding the hills and trails – though mostly for fun and not heavy-duty training. I am a little embarrassed to say, then, that I took masochistic delight over the first 30 miles in witnessing the carnage of dozens of riders KO’d with flats, mechanicals, soaked in mud and water, and steeped in the shear misery of the cold and wet. I made sure with my Garmin Edge 1000 that my heart rate stayed in high Zone 3/Low Zone 4. I just kept pedaling, watching, moving, turning and jumping along – and slurping Hammer Perpetuum and gels along the way.

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You have to be prepared to embrace being alone in an event like this. And by about mile 20 near the Nebo Ridge trail, I was pretty much alone in the middle of nowhere. I saw only two others for the next 20 miles – one a teammate who rode with me up the longest hill of the day just south of Houston, Indiana, before he took off on the relative mud-free roads in this section of the race (he had been having traction problems on the muddy trails). At mile 50, near the Hickory Ridge fire tower overlooking the Deam Wilderness Area, I was caught by a former teammate and good friend from West Lafayette. It was a break from the slog and great to talk a bit, and then we turned a corner at the Hickory Grove Backcountry Church and I knew it was five miles mostly downhill to the finish. I was going to make it! Put the pedal to the metal, baby! I still had some legs, so I could put the ticker up into zone 4 and fly to the finish.
I finished mid-pack – about 50th of 100 finishers – but a good placing. I was not great at any of the disciplines in this event – but I also had no major weaknesses. And most gratifying to me was just finishing and holding up mentally in truly bad-to-terrible conditions. I will hold on to my muddy number plate on this one.

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