Gravel Road Racing: Officially AWESOME.

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Yep. At least 35 miles of it anyway. We'll see how I feel about it after 100+ miles next weekend.  

Barry-Roubaix this past weekend.  What a way to start the season. I was really looking forward to this for a couple of reasons.  First, it would be my dad's first bike race ever (Yes, he chose something with the word 'killer' in the subtitle as his first race. I am obviously his son.)  Second, it would be a good shakedown cruise for my upcoming 100 mile gravel grinders.  Oh, and third- I managed to line up the sale of my trusty Trek 1500 road bike. This was going to pad out my recreation fund enough to get me a new bike for this year.  I also wanted to sneak a little singletrack in and maybe camp out on this trip.  Somehow, I fit all the crap I needed into my car.   

Managed to get the Trek to it's new owner. Excuse me while I get a little misty eyed over parting with this bike.  It's the bike that launched all this insanity in the first place.  Purchased almost entirely on impulse from Cross Country Sports almost exactly 3 years ago.  I really liked the paint job.  I dropped about 50-60 pounds riding that bike around. I grew to really love the superlight wheelset (well, compared to everything else I have), and the Ultegra 3x9 drivetrain setup is, without a doubt, the pinnacle of drop bar drivetrains in my opinion.  Only problem is, I can't seem to ride by a dirt road these days without wanting to go down it, and that just wasn't the bike for it.  I'm glad it's going to a friend who will use it to further his fitness goals as well. I hope it serves him well.  

Anyway, now that that's out of the way. Let me bitch about chain lube for a while.  You should just fast forward through this part. It's purely the ravings of a crazy man.  So I beat my folks to Team Bialas HQ in Grand Rapids by an hour or two, which was good as I had some maintenance to do on my bikes.  Mainly due to poor choice in chain lube.  For 3 years, I've had great luck using whatever I happened to buy off the shelf or get for free at a bike race.  I assumed this trend would continue.  Not so. Apparently, there is actually a difference besides price in all this stuff.  With all my spring gravel road riding, I had some seriously gunked up chains to deal with before my folks got there.  I got things mostly cleaned up and went a little lighter on the lube this time around and figured I was set for tomorrow's race.  

Over carbo-loading that night, I gave my dad a quick intro to Wheelsucking 101: "Pick a dude slightly faster than you and stay right behind him the whole way! NEVER pass him until the end!".   Other than that, we mostly exchanged a lot of stories beginning or ending with "It seemed like a good idea at the time..."

I got down to the race early and prerode the first couple miles of the course. I'm glad I did.  There was a fairly technical two track a couple miles in.  You basically had three options.  Try and stay on the rocky center, slog out in the sand filled ruts, or hop up on the shoulder.  If there were lots of people, this was going to get fun.  

And now, the start...  Oh man.... See, this is only the second year for the race. In this time, it has grown from 200something people last year to over 700, making it the third largest bike race in Michigan.  The start procedure might need a little tweaking. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I can see how some people would get pissed.  The idea was we'd do a nuetral rollout, staying within our respective waves until the actual start. Well, the rollout was S...L...O...W... So much so that we were packed up like sardines and people were pushing their way into the more advanced waves ahead.  Didn't take a cat 1 to see what was going to happen here.  

Sure enough, no more than 50 yards after the very first turn and the first chunk of gravel...



It looks like some people might have gotten hurt, and I kind of feel bad for them but geez... way to go geniuses.  The winter wasn't that long, did you all completely forget how to ride a bike?  

Ah, but it wasn't even close to over yet. We were still all packed up heading into that two track. Total. Fucking. Melee.  Roadies who couldn't do dirt. Mountain bikers who couldn't ride in a group. Jackasses who were going to win the race right then and there.  I'm proud to say I managed to keep it upright through all this and emerge unscathed.  You learn a thing or two in UPCROSS.  

After that, things kind of started to sort themselves out. Faster riders were zooming up from the back. Slower riders were falling off the front.  It made it really hard to settle into a suitable pack. I probably spent way more time riding alone than I should have.  

Somewhere in there, I had a host of mechanical issues.  First the nozzle on my camelback broke off- requiring that I drench myself every time I wanted a drink.  Then my front derailer went way out of whack, but not so much that it wasn't functional. And then I realized I went a little too light on the lube when my rear derailer started making a nasty squealing noise.  Oh, and my front fender was rattling like hell.  I was a little distracted.  

It took me a couple miles to get my head back into 'race mode' and try to settle in with a group of riders.  The course was actually pretty tough. Lots and lots of hills- no real killer death climbs, but quite a few I couldn't sprint up. That, combined with everybody around me being on all different kinds of bikes and all kinds of different abilities made it really tough to hold a group together.  Plus, there were so many people strung out along the course, you could kind of sprint from one person to the next and recover as needed.  

The last climb at the end was a tough one. Long and gradual.  Any groups we had going into that were just totally broken up on that hill.   As such, we were all pretty spaced out by the finish, so no crazy sprinting fun took place.  I never saw my dad once we rejoined the beginner course, so I figured he was having a good day and beat me to the finish line or chucked his bike into the woods and said to hell with this bike racing crap.  

Sure enough, he beat me by like 3 minutes and had a good time during the race. Although he seemed to enjoy it, his bike racing season is now officially over as golf season has begun.  

I managed to hang on for a respectable and not totally embarrassing finish in the Expert class.  As usual, I found myself just at the end of the smaller gaps with a 2:09 finish. I think I had a shot at a sub 2 hour finish, but perhaps next year. I was very, very happy to note that this might be the first time I've ever completed a race without just wanting to curl up and die after it was done.  Maybe I didn't push as hard as I could have, maybe I'm getting stronger, maybe it's something in the nature of gravel road racing, but damn- it's nice to be able to eat after a race.  

Awesome, awesome race in all. I think they might improve the start procedure which will take a little excitement out of it, but I hope to be back next year anyway.  It's good to get into race mode early like this.  I wasn't feeling this good on the bike until sometime in July last year.   

I've got to dial in a few things this weekend before the Ragnarok 105, but I'm feeling pretty confident about that.  I know I won't win, but I'm sure I can manage a respectable and not totally embarrassing finish there too.  The lottery approach to these races keeps me honest. Knowing that lots of fast people who train hard can't race because I lucked out and got a spot keeps me motivated in my training. I want to make sure I can add to the competition next weekend instead of just fighting for survival.   

Oh, and my new Kona Kahuna should be here Monday.  

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