So I am sliding down this steep ravine and can’t unclip my road shoe from my power pedal and for some reason I am wondering to myself if THIS is rock bottom, or if it is going to get, like, WAY WORSE from here on out? Fortunately I was able to grab some roots and with the help of another racer pull myself and my bike back up to the rocky double track which was absolutely NOT appropriate for road shoes or road pedals or really anything having to do with a road. As I struggled to clip back in, my fellow racer got as far away as quickly as possible, probably and accurately afraid I was going to pull him back into the pits of dumbfuck cyclist hell with me.
The silver lining, of course, was this was TOTALLY NOT ROCK BOTTOM.
Back in January this all seemed like a good idea. Gravel Race Up Spruce Knob is an up and coming gravel race out in the paradise of the West Virginia wilderness. For people like me it checks all the boxes: Gravel, Friends, Beer, Camping, Views. The race itself is great too, and the “Epic” route travels about 75 miles with a smidge over 100 feet of climbing per mile. I did it last year, finishing 20th overall and was agonizingly close to the single speed podium (6th).
The race founder, Travis Olson, made it even more interesting this year by offering a 2-day bikepacking option that covered 158 miles. Somehow, that option HELLSPAWNED a one day full-pull option for which (of course) I signed up immediately. After all, what’s better than riding and camping and taking in the sights? Well I think riding to exhaustion and being too destroyed to enjoy the scenery for 10+ hours is even more fun. Obviously.
The best (?) part was that the full pull (aka the GRUSK Grande Loco) was scheduled to take place one day BEFORE the main GRUSK race. Ostensibly, one could sign up for both the Grande Loco AND the Epic race. Travis, who is evil, basically took the decision out of my hands by offering free registration for day two to anyone who did Grande Loco. I quickly signed up for my free day two and like any poorly parented teen, immediately disavowed responsibility for my poor decision.
To say I was confident going into the race was probably an understatement. Since last year I had procured a new GRAVEL SPECIFIC bike. For the lay person, that means the bike was designed with gravel in mind. It has THREE FUCKING WATER BOTTLE HOLDERS. You literally CANNOT run out of water! It’s light (yes, it’s all crabon harvested from a crabon farm in Taiwan, most likely) with big ass (40mm) gravel-specific tires! I’ve never had tires this big! I was running over kids in my neighborhood (aka my own children) for sport and honestly couldn’t tell you how many I mowed down because I couldn’t FEEL anything! Also I had my nutrition dialed the fuck in, which in this particular instance, meant I heavily researched the Hammer Nutrition website and bought a bunch of stuff. Gel, Perpetuem (don’t ask), and something that was probably re-packaged Pedialyte but cost $25 a bottle.
New bike, advanced nutrition, can’t lose (as the saying goes). I even got a killer home cooked meal from Cyndi and Pete the night before (pro tip: always set up next to Cyndi and Pete when you are camping).
Anyway, the morning of the GRUSK GRANDE? Gorgeous. Cyndi and Pete (who were sensibly racing the two day option), whipped up and shared a hearty breakfast. Everyone’s feeling good, plenty of time until the start. No rush. I go to get ready.
I left my kit at home. I LEFT MY KIT AT HOME.
Just two months ago, my friend, the legend, Matt Holmes, left HIS kit at home and had to ride a 200 mile gravel ride through the mountains of Pennsylvania in just a tank top and golf shorts. He did it. He is also a goddamn MARINE. I am not, and I cannot emphasize this enough, a Marine. I am fragile and soft. I would not survive a long gravel ride in a pair of shorts and tank top.
Cyndi offered to loan me one of her kits, but she wears a woman’s size XS and while I am extra many things, small is not one of them (okay my forearms are tiny). I was out of options though and was basically distraught so I took her up on it. Fortunately this kit was just a women’s small and was super stretchy and actually fit me, kind of. Shout out, Cafe du Cycliste. You make some amazing unisex cycling clothes. Also shout out to Cyndi who is the greatest kind of friend imaginable because taking her kit meant she had to ride in the same clothes both days of her race. I will never be able to fully repay her.
Disaster averted. We headed over to the start with around 25 other cyclists, 16 of whom were going to race the Grande Loco. There were some strong, fast racers in that group who I either knew (Ken Ray, Ellen Tarquino) or whose names I recognized (Justin Markunas) and I just assumed everyone else was probably fast too. Mentally I thought about my plan – just hang with the leaders as long as I could and then grind out a finish in the top half of the group. Easy!
Holy shit people tore out of there. I said my good-byes and good lucks to Cyndi and Pete and latched on to the front group. I was hanging on! I felt great! I am going to win this thing!
After about 15 miles I got dropped.
It was weird. My energy level was terrible, I felt like I had mono or something. I hit a 20 mile rail-trail section with thick grass for long stretches and I felt like I was riding in quicksand. The paved sections were slow. The gravel was slow. Eventually a thunderstorm hit and there was rain and lightning strikes all around. I trudged on.
I was caught by two more racers by the time we hit Alpena. Not only was I out of water already, but I had managed to lose one of my bottles. Fortunately for me, the mom of one of the racers was waiting for him and mercifully filled my bottles for me. I pedaled on until we hit Canaan Loop Road and that’s where things got incredibly shitty.
There I was, semi-destroyed, in road shoes, on road pedals. Why would I ride road pedals you ask? Because my road pedals are also snazzy power meters that ACCORDING TO THE WEBSITE you can switch between bikes and plus I thought it would be cool to have a power meter to show me how hard I was working! Besides, last year the terrain was such that I never even had to unclip.
This terrain was much different. Very washed out, very rocky. Semi-steep. The aforementioned ravine features. After my first fall I lasted 10 minutes before losing my balance and falling again (I think this is where I lost half of my extremely cutting edge engineered nutrition). Then I couldn’t even clip in. I couldn’t clip out. I couldn’t clip in. WHAT THE FUCK.
Then it occurred to me that I was so afraid of coming out of my pedals on power climbs back in NoVa, that I had ratcheted up the tension to ridiculous amounts and now, my pedals were essentially trying to murder me. I walked and walked and walked some more, trying to get to a flat spot where I could clip in. More racers passed me.
Then came the hard part.
I wasn’t even on Canaan Loop Road, I was on the CLIMB to Canaan Loop Road. Canaan Loop Road was so fucked that Travis apologized for its condition multiple times after the race. It was muddy and rutty and had massive potholes and puddles. And it had me, with zero bike handling skills and fucking road shoes practically nailed to my power meter road pedals. At one point I rode through a puddle that went over my bottom bracket.
It was at that point my power meter stopped working for some reason. THANK GOD I BROUGHT THEM.
Then, just when it couldn’t get any worse for me, a lame, soft, non-bike-handling roadie, the route basically became a mountain bike course with a couple of rock garden sections that led to full on creek crossings. All basic stuff that any garden variety Bikenetic team member worth her or his salt could ride no problem. Not me.
More walking and braking and also braking WHILE WALKING. Oh and just to up the difficulty factor, I was out of water completely. I was dehydrated. I DRANK FROM A STREAM KNOWING FULL WELL I WAS GOING TO CONTRACT A BEAR STD OR SOMETHING WORSE. I needed a helicopter rescue and I had not even ridden 80 miles. I would not and will not survive the zombie apocalypse under any circumstances.
This was literally rock bottom. Finally.
Then it happened. As I was walking through yet another stream, I saw a bike bottle, lodged up against a few rocks, submerged in the water! Even though I was sure I was hallucinating, I reached down to grab it. It was real! Not only was it real, it was full of liquid. Then I did what any sane human being would do when finding a random water bottle in the middle of the wilderness. I put it to my lips and drank deeply.
IT WAS PINK LEMONADE SPORTS DRINK.
Not only was it the perfect blend of electrolytes, it was perfectly chilled from the mountain stream. God had seen me suffering and had dropped a water bottle full of tasty sports drink from bike heaven into a chilly stream for me to have at that exact moment. All those Sundays at gravel church had paid off! I was saved!
Fifteen minutes later I was in the town of Davis sitting at a gas station and wolfing down pop tarts and anything else I could fit in my body. Apparently I am immune to perfectly engineered nutrition, which makes sense because I identify as a trash panda.
75 more miles to go but the race is basically over for me at this point. Davis is the day one stopping point for the bike campers and they are the only ones who haven’t passed me yet.
I hung out at the gas station for a good 30 minutes, sent some messages, ate some more garbage, and got back on my bike.
I pushed on from Davis and at the point I was pretty sure I was in last (race radio confirms: I was). I kept telling myself to just enjoy the ride but I was still struggling, and where earlier I couldn’t get my hear rate to calm down, now I couldn’t get my heart rate over 100. My bike was pissed and refused to get out of the small chainring and was making all kinds of terrible noises. Then I started yawning which, on long rides, usually leads to me briefly dozing off on my bike and being jarred awake because I have run over something (branch, rut, side of road, etc.). I fought this as hard as I could but still had a split second where I nodded off.
I felt great after my power nap! Unfortunately it was looking less and less like I would finish before 8pm. That was especially embarrassing because I thought it was a lead pipe cinch that I would finish in under 10 hours. I was solidly lantern rouge, confirmed when one of the last riders to pass me on Canaan Loop passed me going the other way on the final ascent of Spruce Knob (which meant I was probably like an hour behind at least). I was touring at this point, stuck in the small ring both literally and metaphorically. Sad and not really profound.
When I got to the top of Spruce Knob I stopped, pulled out my last PBJ and took 5 minutes to absorb the beauty of it all. An underrated advantage of already being last.
As darkness fell, I headed to the finish. I rolled in right around 9pm to scattered cheers from volunteers still milling around after dinner. Pretty sure they cheered because there was a small chance I had met some terrible fate and they were relieved that they didn’t have to deal with some idiot suburbanite dying on their ride.
I was happy to be finished but just couldn’t believe how poorly I had done. I was REALLY embarrassed. I’m still struggling with it a little. Not to get all Instagram-influencer motivational-quotey or anything, but the only way to fight back the creeping self doubt and soul-crushing disappointment in yourself is to get back out there.
So I did.
The next morning my friend Brian Andrade helped get my bike shifting sorted out. My friend Jon Levine brought me fresh kit. The night before my friend Steve Claeys brought me beer. My friend Mir Jones was just super kind to me. So were a lot of others. Friends make everything better and never more, apparently, than when you have poured everything you have into finishing dead fucking last. You realize its just not that big of a deal and in the grand scheme of things your performance in a race doesn’t define you in any way.
I won’t bore you with the details of day two. The highlight was probably crashing on the 2 mile fast grassy descent near the beginning (because I couldn’t unclip fast enough, of course). In general though, the race went great. Not as fast as last year, but I felt reasonably strong most of the time. Don’t ask me why I felt way stronger 13 hours after finishing up a 158 mile death slog, because I don’t have an answer for you.
On the day 2 Epic course, I ended up finishing just out of the top 10 for my category (40+ male) and 55th overall (out of 177). Most importantly, all of the disappointment from the day before was washed away and I was left sitting around at the finish, in a weird warm glow, drinking and eating with friends.
When shit goes bad, just get up and get back out there.
I can’t wait to get out there again.