A Gravel Skeptic Gets Dusty
It’s been a few weeks since the Chino Grinder and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my first gravel race (and heal from my wounds).
I was never interested in doing a gravel event before a friend introduced me to Craig Swetel, the mastermind and mad man behind the Chino Grinder. I was skeptical of the “gravel” movement, seeing it as a marketing ploy to sell more bikes. After all, I’d done plenty of rides and road races featuring dirt roads, such as Boulder Roubaix and the Colorado Koppenburg, on a standard road bike. However, the praise I kept hearing for both Craig and his race got my attention.
I now count myself lucky to know Craig and his wife Minnie – two of the most giving individuals I know. The first time I met them in person, Craig lent me one of his bikes and Minnie drove sag for a gravel training ride. This wasn’t some bare bones sag either. Minnie had a roving spread that rivaled what you’d find at high-dollar gran fondos -- complete with post-ride beer on ice. I felt spoiled. To top it off, the route they planned was physically challenging and visually spectacular. The experience left me wanting more.
Fast forward to the Chino Grinder and one of the first things I noticed the morning of the race was the relaxed atmosphere. It felt more like a mountain bike festival than a road race – a big positive for me. While there were certainly riders whose focus was to win or podium, the majority seemed more interested in getting out and overcoming the challenging course. Attitudes and egos were at a minimum. There was everything from beginner mountain bikers to seasoned road racers, as well as those who never previously participated in a bike race.
I witnessed a unique interaction during the race that illustrated the wide range of backgrounds. While rotating through the paceline, one rider asked another if he had been in the Cat 5 field with himself at a recent race. The other rider, initially insulted that someone would consider him a beginner, stated that he was a Cat 1 and therefore was not. For those not familiar with racing categories, category 1 (elite) riders never ride with category 5 (beginner) riders in normal road cycling events. Yet, here they were competing against one another. This particular Cat 5 rider appeared to have a mountain biking background and handled himself well in the group.
My own aspirations took a hit and I fell out of the lead group after a rock got kicked up and smashed into my right knee. I never saw the rock, but it felt like someone took a hammer to my patella tendon. The initial pain didn’t seem to limit my performance, but the subsequent swelling must have caused me to subconsciously alter my pedaling form and resulted in my right hip and low back locking up. As I limped into the aid station at the highest point on the course, I was full of frustration and not looking forward to dropping out of the race.
Thankfully, a stranger offered Ibuprofen as I attempted to loosen my hip and back with deep stretching. To my surprise, the anti-inflammatory and stretching worked well enough to where I thought I might be able to at least ride the rest of the course for training. As I readied myself to head back on course, one of my Arizona training partners, Julie Lyon, rolled into the aid station as the second woman on course. The thought of riding the remaining 70-80 miles was much more appealing with a friendly face, so I waited and rolled out with her. Had this been a typical road race this wouldn’t have been an option since riders in different categories are not allowed to ride with or draft one another. I’m glad this wasn’t the case and I was able to overcome a little adversity and have a good day on the bike.
While my own race didn’t go as hoped, I was impressed with the people, organization, and course and have already committed to supporting the Chino Grinder again in 2019. If you like riding dirt roads through scenic landscapes, I encourage you to join us May 4th, 2019 for this fantastic event. Follow AZ Gravel Rides at http://chinogrinder.azgravelrides.com/ for updates and organized training rides.