Groad Trip: Bulls, ball pits, and bucket lists at the Rock Cobbler
I’d heard tall tales of the Rock Cobbler for years. It did not disappoint.
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Groad Trip is Pete Stetina’s column on graveling and traveling. In 2021, he won 15 gravel races — more than any other rider.
By now most of the world has seen the video of the rider encountering the bull, but there is a lot more to Rock Cobbler than cattle, and that’s why it should go on your bucket list.
I’d heard tales of the Rock Cobbler for years: An absurdity of a bike event in Bakersfield, California, that didn’t fit the template of most gravel events. A course routed through someone’s home on a carpet, ball pits, crazy run-ups, costumed route leaders, and generally taking bike racing less seriously than is the norm.
I got to know the race promoter Sam Ames last year, as he is also the guy providing all the food at the Belgian Waffle Rides. Indeed, he lives and breathes good times on two wheels, and I’d promised him his personal event was high on my to-do list.
So I went, and it did not disappoint.
I won’t dwell on the bull-rider situation too much, except to say that when signing up for the event, we riders were told that we have the privilege to pass through seven different private ranch lands. We’re told to respect the owners, and sign the waivers. Encountering animals here is a reality and it was only after everyone came away OK, were we able to collectively take a sigh of relief and laugh about it.
Even without that bull, though, all participants knew they were signing up for an unexpected adventure…
The Rock Cobbler scene
The host venue is the Kern County Museum, an homage to comforting Americana of years gone by. Anytime an iconic establishment goes out of business, the museum buys up the memorabilia and has slowly turned their ground into a neon playground of nostalgia. Come sunset during registration, the lights turn on and riders are treated to Coors Banquet beers and bottled juices during packet pickup.
I’d convinced Ashton Lambie to come out and sample some California Gravel. His midwestern roots have him going really fast on pedally stuff (and he’s okay on the track) but he’s a newbie at singletrack. With the lure of a good time, tacos, and technical-skills practice, we linked up for the weekend.
Sam makes it clear from the pre-race announcements that the course is hard, very hard, and there are a lot of unknowns out there. It’s OK to walk and to even cut the course, the only caveat being that if you do, let them know so you don’t mess with the results that others do care about. It’s just about having your funnest day on the bike. There is a race factor but it’s an afterthought; there is no podium ceremony, and the winner gets a random trophy.
Well, how can I best describe the Cobbler experience? In one word, kooky. We found ourself grinding along massive ridge lines only to make random turns down livestock paths and sandy washes, dodging cow patties and rocks.
Chris Blevins was in attendance and was on his full-suspension mountain bike with gravel tires. He dropped us on every downhill with his impressive bike handling. At the bottom he would be waiting — and wheelie-ing — as we continually chased back on.
The law of attrition slowly applied itself and eventually it was just Chris, John Borstelmann, Brennan Wertz and myself in the lead. We all rode hard and laughed at the randomness of the route, at no point it time did the course feel straightforward.
I finally sampled my first ever WhiteClaw hard seltzer after only 30 miles from a costumed hand-up. One big gulp was enough for me, though; I’ll stick with my beers from now on!
I was spending precious bullets in my battle with Chris, continually chasing while he caught his breath. So, on the biggest climb of the day I went all in to try and put him on the back foot. I was expecting another ludicrous descent afterwards where he’d catch me and we’d be on the same terms. To my surprise the descent was paved, so I put it in the big ring and continued to pour it on, knowing he was limited by his smaller MTB gears. It was a long way to go but I was running scared.
I encountered all the classic Rock Cobbler shenanigans on my way home: The 30 percent run-ups, the rollercoaster MTB trail, and the ball pit — which was actually a saving grace as the cool water eased my cramping feet. I was able to solo in for the victory. John, Chris, and Brennan would regroup and sprint it out together, finishing in that order.
Beers and storytelling at the venue ensued. The tale of the angry bull on course was unveiled to the shock of all and, true to his word, Sam gave me my “you’re not special” winner’s prize: A beach chair and towel. Super useful for landlocked Bakersfield, I know.
Ashton enjoyed his first taste of technical gravel as he prepares for the coming Life Time Grand Prix events and we capped our night around a fire pit with some good whiskey. I’ll return for the 10th anniversary of the Rock Cobbler in 2023, and I suggest you do as well.