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Grinduro: Gravel racing, enduro style

What is the Grinduro? Kristen Legan explores a new hybrid of off-road racing that has something to offer riders of all persuasions.

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QUINCY, California (VN) — As we move into the fall season of cyclocross racing and weekend mountain bike rides, a new kind of racing that combines elements of gravel grinding and mountain bike enduros could change what we’ve come to expect from off-road racing. Giro’s Grinduro — gravel GRINDer + mountain enDURO — took over the quaint logging town of Quincy, California in early October and served up a challenging day on the bike with steep mountain climbs, ripping singletrack descents, gourmet food stops, and gorgeous views of the Sierras.

The Grinduro’s unique race format offered a little bit of everything to a diverse crowd of racers. The 62-mile course consisted primarily of dirt and gravel mountain roads and included a healthy dose of climbing — 8,000 feet in elevation gain to be exact. However, unlike most gravel races, organizers did not time the race from start to finish. Instead, the new format borrowed from enduro mountain bike racing, timing shorter segments and then combining these times at the end of the day to determine the overall winners. Some gran fondos offer this kind of racing on the road as well.

U.S. editor of Enduro Mountainbike Magazine and former pro racer, Joe Parkin, dreamt up this new gravel race format and convinced Giro and the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship to help make the event reality. The Grinduro course is due north of Downieville, sharing the same mountain range with similar terrain as the iconic trails that have long defined this area of California.

The event weekend — which resembled the 1990s mountain bike scene with camping, fairgrounds, fires, beer, and spirited stories — brought together an assortment of racers from all ends of the cycling spectrum. Mountain bikers, gravel riders, roadies, and cross racers toed the line on their steeds of choice. With four timed segments as diverse as the crowd who showed up to battle, the race was anyone’s to win.

The first of the four segments was a short and steep dirt road climb that quickly warmed up the legs after a brisk early morning start. The second timed segment was a blazing fast 6.6-mile fire road descent. The corners through this section were loose and the speeds were high, so picking the right line was imperative if you didn’t want to go flailing into the forest.

The third section gave all the roadies something to fight for with 6.1 miles of rolling pavement that was perfect for team time trialing. Unlike enduro races, the Grinduro didn’t have staggered starts at each segment, so riders could start together and work as a group on this flat and fast section.

After rolling through the finish of the third segment, the race came to a pause while riders enjoyed food from Gourmet Century chef, Chris Diminno. The elaborate roadside spread included fresh kale salads, delicious sandwiches, and well-stocked coolers with drinks to satisfy the most persnickety of cyclists.

After loading up on eats and drinks, and resisting an afternoon nap in the warm mountain sun, the Grinduro sent riders off in the direction of a little hill called China Grade. Whispers of this climb circulated the campsite the night before with stories of precipitous pitches and endless switchbacks that climbed into the sky. What better way to tackle this fabled climb than with a belly full of food and legs stiff from a leisurely lunch?

With an average grade hovering around 10 percent and several sections kicking up to over 20 percent, the four-mile China Grade climb was indeed challenging. However, with the summit of this grueling climb came the promise of the fourth and final timed segment, a 3.2-mile section of fast and flowy singletrack that would drop riders back into camp. The smooth berms, loose rocky sections, steep hairpins turns, and scary cliff drop-offs made for an exciting end to the race. Skirting the line between totally out of control and barely hanging on for life, the segment flew by but was the highlight of the day.

Awaiting our arrival back at camp was more gourmet food by Dimmino, plentiful beer, artisan coffee, and a wild night of music and dancing. The Grinduro’s unique race format encouraged conversation and engagement out on course and gave racers the chance to get to know one another, ride with friends of varying speeds, and appreciate the gorgeous surroundings. This community aspect, fostered by the race format, extended into the after-party and brought riders together that might not intermix otherwise. Whether you rode a mountain bike, cross bike, gravel rig, or even a road bike with 28mm tires, the Grinduro was a race for everyone.

My ride for the Grinduro was a Giant TCX Advanced Pro 1 ‘cross bike with a few minor modifications. I swapped the bike’s stock Maxxis Mud Wrestler tires for a set of Clement’s new tubeless ready X’plor MSO 36mm tires. The MSO gravel-inspired tread gripped well on loose corners and rolled smoothly on the flat and fast sections of the course. Tubeless was the only choice for this rugged route, and those who rode clinchers with tubes paid the price with flat after flat throughout the day.

Looking for a smaller gear than that offered by the TCX’s stock 40-tooth single chainring and 11/28 cassette, I swapped the Ultegra Di2 rear derailleur for an XTR derailleur. This allowed me to run an 11-40 cassette while keeping the front single chainring setup which gave me an even smaller gear than that of standard ‘cross bike gearing with 46/36 chainrings up front and an 11-28 cassette.

Flying down the final singletrack segment of the day, braking hard into rocky sections and skidding around sharp corners, it was clear that I’d brought a knife to the Grinduro gun show. We’re still arguing about the best bike for the course, but I’d say a lightweight hardtail mountain bike was the way to go. That’s the beauty of the Grinduro, everyone can race a different bike and still end up within seconds of each other in the final standings.

With gravel racing and enduro mountain bike events on the rise, the Grinduro race platform is prime for a sudden burst into mainstream cycling. For racers who crave competition but want to actually enjoy the day of riding, the Grinduro offers the best of both worlds. I hope to see more events take on this style of racing next season, but if not, we at least have the Grinduro and its unforgiving course to look forward to. I know I will be on the start line next year, ready to throw down on each segment and relax and enjoy the gorgeous miles in between.