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Groad Trip: Positivity overpowers pessimism by coming together at BWR

I couldn't win on the climb — uh-oh! — but I was able to find a way in the technical singletrack.

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The strongest rider didn’t win the Cedar City addition of the BWR this year, but the race was nonetheless exciting and its contenders honorable.

Coming into Cedar City, my head was not in a great space due to the recent events surrounding the UCI’s announced entry into gravel. It’s newsworthy stuff, and my time online all week had been inundated with trolls, memes, and requests for quotes. The negativity permeated into my time on the bike and training rides felt like work, like it was just a task to check off my list.

I needed to get to an event, in person, to feel the stoke of the gravel family that transforms the suffering of training and racing into my dream job. Sure enough, as soon as I touched down in Cedar City and rolled around the venue, I felt better. Talking to people in person, the fun and the positivity overpowered the pessimism. We collectively chose to celebrate what we were about to get into together.

Racing BWR Utah

The masochistic organizing team behind BWR made some alterations to the route from year one. They’d found more chunky sections, cut out more pavement, and added a new final that encompassed more rock gardens, and another short sandy climb; all good moves in my opinion. Cedar City had received a lot of rain recently. In places that were extremely sandy and loose last year, the surface was hard packed this year leading to a lot more rough, bumpy, race-ending rocks. Though the sand was still extreme in spots, this is Southern Utah in the fall after all.

We started hard. The neutral was fast to keep us warm in the dawn light, and it kicked into overdrive as soon as the flag dropped. Dangerous contenders started throwing Hail Marys in the first miles. John Borstelmann (Abus), Freddy Ovett (L39ion of Los Angeles), and Brennan Wertz (Mike’s Bikes) were particularly active, forcing the rest of us to collaborate to mount a defense from the onset. By the time we reached the first climb there were maybe only 50 riders left where there were nearly 300 last year.

(Photo: JPOV Photo/Jake Orness)

I charged the hilly and technical sections attempting to pare the group down further. Over the next few hours every slight drag, sand bog or technical two-track someone would try to capitalize and the group became 30, then 15, then 10. Upon entering the final 50 miles just 6 of us remained.

Out of the group, I took particular note of two major threats. Griffin Easter is a strong rider who beat both Colin Strickland and myself at Rebecca’s Private Idaho 100 miler. He was clearly on some fine fall form. The other was Paul Voss, a German who was in the World Tour a number of the same seasons as I. He’s found gravel adventures to his liking abroad and occasionally comes over the the USA for some. Both are riders I immensely respect, as they race with honor and panache. All day they had been my partners in whittling down the group and making the race hard. No shady wheel sucking between us.

Although further from the finish this year, the crux of the race comes in the form of a steep final climb, followed by a fast descent and entry into a 4-mile trail best ridden on a full-suspension MTB, not a gravel bike. Last year I made my move on the final climb and lost it in the single track as Keegan Swenson caught and outsprinted me.

I pushed the pace uphill and put in a few digs, but Griffin held strong. I was at my limit and he was glued to my wheel. In my preferred terrain I couldn’t shake him. Shit. I could tell by his body language that he was better than me this day, and I can’t sprint well.

We had distanced the others and continued to work together into the dastardly Tolweg singletrack. I made sure to lead into it so I could dictate the pace. I pushed it, hard enough to make it tricky but just slow enough to protect my tires. My only hope was he would make a mistake behind me. Two-thirds through, just that happened. I heard the whoosh of air leaving his tire and I could tell from the hiss that it wasn’t going to be a fast plug.

Upon exiting the section I looked back a few times; if he was nearby I’d have waited and then commenced the battle. But he was nowhere to be seen. This is one of the unspoken “code of conducts” happening in gravel at the moment: Should one puncture on a dirt road earlier in the day, we generally ease off and allow them to rejoin if they can fix it quickly. However, in the worst part of the course, the part everyone had been talking about, the race is defined by not puncturing.It’s all fair game and proper racing to charge on from there.

(Photo: JPOV Photo/Jake Orness)

Thus, I was able to solo in for the win and reverse the result from one year ago. This was a different win for me as I wasn’t the strongest on a hill, a tactic I’ve been privileged to benefit from often this season. I was lucky and I protected my bike above all else, a lesson I’ve learned the hard way, and one of the most important in gravel. Experience counts, especially as more and more strong riders continue to enter gravel. The next generation is only getting faster and hungrier!

We were both all smiles at the finish and I’m sure Griffin’s redemption will come soon enough. I reckon if he chooses to enter more gravel, he’ll be one of the annual contenders. He’s a strong rider with a good attitude and would be an asset to the current scene. Paul Voss scorched the singletrack and landed the final podium spot. I was proud to share the steps with these fellas.

Up next: The Barry Roubaix. I finally get to immerse myself in a new-to-me part of the country with 4,000 other fine folks in Michigan. Side bonus: It’s sponsored by the legendary Founder’s Brewery.

As always, I had the support of my mechanic, Big Tall Wayne. (Photo: JPOV Photo/Jake Orness)