Friday, June 30, 2023

Ride Report - Gravel Riding in the Rockies


My friend Peter and I don’t race regularly anymore. This doesn’t mean we race oddly, or in a constipated way. I mean we might do a race but only once in a while, just to remind ourselves why we don’t race. And yet, we somehow like to suffer, or maybe do so out of duty. Thus, every year or so we get together for some brutal epic rides. This past week we did a five day stage-non-race we called Death Fest. It was no more deadly than it was a festival, but it was hard. This report details the best/hardest/worst day, representing 113 miles of the 269-mile total.

To make things extra hard this year, both physically and fiscally, we (mostly) eschewed asphalt and tackled dirt and gravel roads, with occasional single-track, on gravel bikes.

Executive summary

My $8,000 rented gravel bike (final use cost: a bit over $2/mile, ouch!) was brilliant other than its saddle, which was designed for a Big & Tall Man who has a keel descending from his bottom, and its handlebars, which were designed for a masochist with small hands. My rented helmet was designed, apparently, for Ernie, from “Sesame Street,” but my head is evidently shaped more like Bert’s, so the helmet slid forward on the bumpy descents, mashing my sunglasses into the bridge of my nose, unless I tightened the bonnet hard enough to threaten a gradual concussion and/or some sanded-off forehead flesh. The CamelBak that I borrowed, due to a dearth of bottle-filling opportunities, malfunctioned (due to user error) and became useless. The weather was hot enough that we’d have complained about it except that the terrain dwarfed its significance. We kept a stiff upper lip, which in my case meant a chapped, sunburnt, almost cracking upper lip since I’m not used to the dry air at this altitude (starting at about 8,500 and topping out at 10,400 feet). We ate like kings, or at least like kings who’d seen what happened to Henry VIII and decided to not eat very much.

Short version

This year, I did something novel: I decided to actually train for this. I knew that the back-to-back days of long rides, the increased rolling resistance of gravel roads, and my advanced age would make this an extra hard week, and I’m not stuppid. (I spelled it that way as a tribute to my brother Geoff, who in his first-grade “My Book About Me” assignment answered the prompt, “Something special about me is …” with “My name is Geoffrey, not Geoff, and I am not stuppid.”) So I went into the week confident, which proved a mistake. Our first ride, the day before this epic one, was only 45 miles, with only 4,340 feet of vertical gain, but it kicked my ass. There were loose dirt climbs with grades reaching 24%, where we’d lose traction and spin the rear wheel despite being in the saddle. By “we” I mean Pete. I had fatter tires, perhaps not as low a gear, and certainly less power, so my incremental progress on these grades was kind of like riding the clutch in an underpowered diesel Volkswagen Dasher. In other words, I wasn’t manly enough to peel out. After that brutal slogfest we dined on commercial (i.e., non-hand-cranked) pasta made with jarred sauce that was sexed up with hot Italian sausage. It hit the spot and would prove to be the only “homemade” meal we would have the energy to prepare during the week.

Breakfast on the big ride day was yogurt and Open Nature granola. This brand might be organic or something but it’s mainly just cloying. (I just fact-checked this and an Amazon reviewer wrote, “Bummer this is not organic. No taste, got mussy quickly.” I didn’t find it mussy, whatever that means, but it was way too sweet.) We ate breakfast merely to appease the ride gods, who might think fasting a cheeky move. During the ride I ate two or three energy bars (and probably expended most of their calories tonguing the bits of nut and flax and assorted shrapnel from my teeth) along with most of a big-ass Coke and my go-to Hostess Cupcakes, chocolate-flavored with polyunsatured sugar-flavored white filling. At the end of the ride I found myself with a leftover Hostess fruit pie, which has never happened before; during the ride, I just didn’t feel I had the mouth strength to eat it, and guessed (accurately) that I could make it home on nothing but fumes.

Hydration was achieved via one bottle of Gatorade, three bottles of water, plus whatever amount of water I was able to absorb through my skin after a freak CamelBak accident. For details you’ll have to read the long version of this report.

Dinner was at this little dive Mexican joint in or near Winter Park. It’s the first restaurant I’ve eaten at since COVID hit that’s not brutally expensive; I think my three-item combination plate was like $12. The menu even said, “First basket of chips is on us!” If I had a sharpie I’d have added, “Second basket is a really bad idea … think of your health, for god’s sake!” (If you’re a polytheist, feel free to move that last apostrophe.) The beef enchilada was generous, and the pork tamale had the right ratio of meat to cornmeal (sometimes a tamale is like 99% corn), and the chile relleno was made with won ton wrappers, which is fun. (I haven’t had such a Mexican/Chinese fusion relleno since The Original Mexican Café in Denver folded.) We ran out of salsa, and I didn’t have the energy or patience to summon the waiter, so for my handcrafted burritos (a side of tortillas was only fifty cents!) I just shook hundreds of drops of Tapatio hot sauce on there, which I almost couldn’t even taste. The food was all good, but the flavor was a bit metallic, which is surely on me. I might nevertheless post a one-star review: “My friend and I rode 113 miles and were parched and undergoing some kind of complicated fat-burning process involving ketones, so the food tasted odd, and the waiter didn’t have enough background in organic chemistry to understand, so I’m absolutely livid and will never eat here again. Oh, and you have to pay for your second, third, and fourth baskets of chips!”

Long version

We got a kind of late start, almost 10 a.m., but we’d wisely planned this ride for the longest day of the year so we wouldn’t be racing nightfall like last time. We started on some single-track which for me was kind of a (literally) rocky introduction to the gravel bike. Then we had asphalt for a mile or two through town until we reached a proper dirt road. Being off the main roads, away from cars, is of course the main joy of gravel riding (or “groading,” in MAMIL/hipster parlance). The scenery was particularly good all day, because Colorado (like northern California) had the wettest winter and spring on record (-ish). Very green hills and all the distant peaks were snow-covered. The first climb came almost right away but it wasn’t all that hard.

The scenery at the summit was brilliant. (This might have actually been the second summit … the ride was over a week ago, which already seems like the distant past.)

We turned at some point onto a paved highway and had to deal with cars and the rumble strip. We also had a pretty stiff headwind, and I sucked Pete’s wheel shamelessly. Serves him right for being a better cyclist (and frankly a better person).

There would be only one place to get water (etc.) the entire ride, so Pete had loaned me a CamelBak. I use a similar pack for mountain biking but without the bladder. The hose was whipping around all over unless I tucked it under some D-ring that seemed ill suited to the purpose, and on the first big descent it popped loose and started dribbling on me. (Looking back, I wonder if this was due to the increase in barometric pressure?) Pete had advised me that if this happens, you can blow a bit into the hose. This didn’t really work, so I tried something really stuppid. Have you ever seen a motorist losing traction in the snow when trying to get rolling, and he floors it and just spins the wheels uselessly, polishing the ice under the tires, making things worse? What I did was even stuppider: I blew really hard into the hose. This inflated the bladder so the water started to gush out. When I opened my mouth to cuss, the little valve blew off under the pressure and was lost, and I had a full-open hose on my hands. By the time I got the bike to a stop on the road shoulder, I was pretty wet and really pissed. It was a warm day but (as lamented here) that can change fast in the high mountains. Plus, I’d lost most of my water. I topped up my bottles from the bladder and drank the rest. (Note to self: quit cycling—Dad was right, I’m too stuppid for this.)

We passed a dam that was absolutely roaring with water.

We took a small detour to hit the only town of the entire route, the small and somewhat sparse burgh called Kremmling. On what I took to be the main drag we encountered a Dollar General, a Family Dollar, and a Down To Your Last Dollar. (Okay, I made up that last one.) We stopped at the Kum & Go (fondly known as the Jizz & Go among the locals, surely) where we got the requisite bottled tap water, cold Cokes, and cupcakes. Pete favors gummy bears for some reason; it’s probably just a flex, showing off how he has the jaw strength to chew the damn things even sixty miles into a gravel ride.

A short while later we were back on the dirt and making our way along a rolling bit towards our final climb. My hands hurt more than my back so the transition to sitting up—ouch!—was worth it.

There was a lake. I can’t be bothered to know the name. In fact, although I’d forwarded the route map to my wife via email before we set out (in case we went missing), I didn’t even look at it. I didn’t want to know any more than it would be a hella long ride with three big climbs. I mean, if vacation isn’t about giving up entirely on logistics, what is it for? I wanted to pedal dumbly for hours with no conception of navigation, expectation, execution, or anything else. I wanted to do this ride from the neck down.

We began to climb. I came to realize that my phone had made some noise at some point. The home screen indicated a work colleague had texted me. Wasn’t he paying attention? Didn’t I just say I didn’t want to think during this vacation? I tried to unlock my phone. The screen was too grubby for the fingerprint scanner to work. Over and over I tried to manually enter my passcode, until the phone indicated that it was getting ready to “brick” itself (i.e., wipe all data in case it had fallen into the hands of a thief or a moron). I took a little break from trying to unlock it, and a few miles later it dawned on me that I was so brain-dead, I’d been leaving out the first digit of the passcode. I finally unlocked the phone, answered the query, and resolved to stop thinking entirely for the rest of the day.

The road tilted up and clouds gathered, apparently conspiring to dump on us.

It was a long climb, something like 13 miles, and it was so scenic I felt it inappropriate to whine about how totally knackered I was, etc.

Damn, the climb just went on and on, and the pain in my body grew and radiated everywhere. Of course my legs hurt, and not just the standard lactic acid burn, but a strange combo of ache and poke, like they were injured. My hands were tired and painful and cross. All my toes felt broken. My neck and shoulders hurt. My ass hurt because the bike saddle, though overstuffed like an armchair, also felt like a two-by-four. The helmet was digging into my head and my sunglasses into my face. My eyes stung like they’d been scrubbed with powdered glass. My breathless panting, as we approached and passed the 10,000-foot mark, was completely out of touch with my relatively low heart rate (i.e., 120s), as though my legs and lungs were too overwhelmed to make the heart work hard. The climb was just a pure beat-down. At one point I felt overcome with despair, like I could not continue, but I ignored that little voice and recalled having felt this way before without it meaning anything, and within minutes I was back to pedaling away brainlessly, largely emotionlessly, like an automaton, which is to say riding (and suffering) properly. And eventually we crested the summit, at about 10,400 feet above sea level, with no fanfare. I don’t know what I’d been expecting—a ticker-tape parade? a sniper? a kiosk with some dumbass telling us to turn around?—but the big moment felt anticlimactic.

For some reason (in accordance with the willful ignorance mentioned above) I thought we had a short, maybe 8-mile descent, back to the condo, but that doesn’t make any sense as we were still in the middle of nowhere. In reality we had over 20 (albeit mostly downhill) miles to go. I love a good descent, but this is perhaps where gravel bikes shine the least: it’s not the smooth, swift rocketing around you get on a road bike, nor the joyous bashing along you get on a proper mountain bike with its plush suspension. You sort of get hammered, which can get old (particularly when your crappy helmet is trying its level best to collapse into your face). Eventually we made it back to the condo and—get this—we were so destroyed we didn’t even feel like drinking beer. The humanity!

Ride stats

  • 113.16 miles
  • 8:37:32 ride time (a full 15 seconds faster than last year’s slogfest!
  • 13.11 mph avg (actually not that bad for groading)
  • 8,051 feet vertical gain (from Pete’s more expensive and presumably more accurate bike computer)
  • 112 bpm average heart rate
  • 157 bpm max heart rate
  • 3,488 kilocalories burned (supposedly)
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