Editor’s note: This summer we are covering four big gravel races: Land Run 100, Wild Horse Gravel, Dirty Kanza 200, and SBT GRVL. This coverage is made possible by sponsorship from Canyon Bicycles, Saris bike racks, Pactimo apparel, Stages Cycling, Quarq TireWiz, Vittoria tires, and Zipp wheels.
Wispy pillows of fog floated above the gurgling Yampa River as we pedaled out of downtown Steamboat Springs. The mellow light of dawn had yet to erase the crisp chill of the tranquil morning air.
We, the gathered group of gravel aficionados, hoped for a fine day on the bike: incredible scenery, challenging terrain, fun racing, and heaps of camaraderie.
“Screeeeech!” “Slooooooowing!” “On your left!”
Yeah, that didn’t last long. Gravel racing is, um, racing, and SBT GRVL is a prime example of that.
Nothing could be heard over the pulse of pounding hearts, brake calipers pinching dewy rotors, and tready rubber upon tarmac and dirt. The race was on; moments after the clock struck 6:30 a.m., the energy of 1,500 rabid riders flowed like a tidal wave through Routt County.
This was the first year of SBT GRVL, so not many people outside of the race organizers knew what to expect from the course or the terrain. Sure, there was a race profile that indicated some climbs. We all knew it wouldn’t be at sea level. But what exactly were we in for? Should we be scared, intimidated, or delighted by the prospect of riding 140 miles across endless rolling terrain at altitude? We all hoped for different things. Me? I hoped to do my best impression of Goldilocks: to ride not too fast, and not too slow, but pace it just right, and end the day satisfactorily fatigued. In essence, I hoped not to be shattered.
There are thousands of sensations to take into account during the course of a long, tough bike race. If you want to optimize performance—or pleasure, for that matter—you must consider the physiological demands of the day, and use experience and intuition to predict how fast and how hard you can push at any given time. Some will use the analogy of a matchbook to describe the efforts of the day—you only have so many matches to burn, they say. Others use the idea of a jar to illustrate how much can be poured from one’s body before it’s empty. Some people are large jars with small openings, others are small jars with large openings. It takes time to know which you are. You hope to be the former.
I looked over and saw my new friend Sarah Sturm charging beside me. She looked like she was already burning matches at an alarming rate, gasping, sweating, and… Wait, Sarah, don’t leave me! Clearly she knew more about the number of matches in her matchbook, the size of her jar, and the rate at which she could pour out her bits of energy than me. I was scared, in part because of my history of going out way too hard in long races. This time I wanted to put at least half of my brain to use and race smart for a change. So I backed off and watched Sarah slither away.
Sarah was gone, over a hill and far away. I hoped I’d see her again, somewhere up the road.
“You should keep crushing it,” I said to my friend Nick as he rapidly regained our group, after taking a bit longer than us at the last aid station. If you asked me, it happened a bit too rapidly, given we were already 100 miles into the 140-mile Black Course. I’d been riding with Nick almost all day in one group or another, and now, it seemed, he clearly had some energy left; we could use his engine right about now.
“This is a timed segment, after all. Go get the KOM!”
I was joking, of course. We needed Nick’s strength, right here in this group, to help us all along. This was a weak attempt at reverse psychology; I was befuddled by low glycogen stores. I hoped he’d pull us along.
Nick gave me a wry smile, flicked his right shift lever, and gradually danced away. Well, that backfired, I thought.
Not long after I, too, decided to ramp up the pace, ever so slightly and gradually, and started to pull back rider after rider. Nick still danced up ahead, a carrot on a bike, as we rode this inclined plane higher into the brushy wilds. Catching people, particularly this deep into a long, hard day, gives you fuel.
When is it going to happen? I kept asking myself. My legs still feel okay—how can that be? I must be about to crack, I know it’s gonna happen soon…
I’ve raced Dirty Kanza twice. Both times, I took my training seriously. I rode a lot, I slept a lot, I even wore—huh!—a heart rate monitor. And still, despite my preparation, there was a distinct moment in each race when I began to weep. I cracked. I imploded. I cratered. Call it what you will, the moment, at least for me, was defined by a punishing emotion of sorrow and helplessness.
What’s odd is that when faced with the challenge of racing 140 miles across endless rolling terrain at altitude in Steamboat Springs, I did nothing of the sort for preparation. I predominantly rode my bike to work and back—a whole 10 miles each way. On race day, I believed it would only be a matter of time before my legs, my head, or both, would crumble, and I’d sputter to a crawl along the undulating ranch roads amid some anonymous lush valley sprinkled with cattle and cylinders of hay. But I hoped for the best.
The crying never came. There were no moments of sorrow. I eventually caught Nick, and pranced up beside him on one of the steeper, paved climbs. Wow, my legs don’t have that burn, they don’t seem to be fatiguing… I guess today is just a good day.
We worked together to push harder, because no matter how strong anyone feels on a long day such as this, there comes a point when the horse can smell the barn. These two particular horses were ready for some hay. We super-tucked descents, we took turns smashing the pace along flat, straight stretches of road, and occasionally, when we felt like we were approaching that edge, we telepathically sensed we should cool it. Neither of us fell off the cliff.
We powered home together, into the streets of Steamboat, and gave each other a fist-bump as we crossed the finish line. Damn, that was a good day. I wish every bike race went that well.
Hope springs eternal.