Soggy Socks (a.k.a. Gravel Grinder 2014)

gravel GrinderYou’d think that by the time that a person gets to be my age, that somewhere along the way they would have figured out how to be a little more punctual.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case with me.  I very reluctantly coaxed myself out of bed on this cool, grey Saturday morning.  From that point on, everything I did to get out the door took just a little bit longer than it should have.  It was just one of those mornings.  Even though the Gravel Grinder isn’t a race, I got in my psychological race fix as I tried to make up time on my way over from the Kingdom Saturday morning.  Without pushing the posted speed limits (too much), I managed to arrive with about 15 minutes to spare.  Along the way, the rain went from a light mist to a steady shower as I made the trip over to Waterbury.  You really shouldn’t expect too much out of the month of April.  The rain didn’t help as I scrambled to get ready to ride, trying to decide how many layers I’d need.  No matter what I chose, I knew I’d end up soaked one way or another.

This was definitely a day where fenders would rule.  Unfortunately, not everyone got the memo on fenders and there was plenty of tire spray to go around.  On the downhills, getting behind someone without them would result in a generous misting of road silt.  Regardless, that wasn’t even close to enough to put a damper on the day.  Turnout was clearly a little lower than previous years but a decent crowd still showed up to brave the elements.  We had a good mix of ‘cross bikes and mountain bikes.  I think the folks on the fatter MTB tires may have made the better choice in terms of traction.

Rolling out from downtown Waterbury.
Rolling out from downtown Waterbury.

As far as I could recall, the course was identical to last year’s Gravel Grinder – and that’s a good thing.  It has a nice balance of climbing, rolling dirt roads and even some pavement.  We even had a short section of class-4 roads thrown in just for fun.

Everything seemed to be pretty normal on our ride until we hit Waterbury Center.  As we passed through the village, someone’s horse did the jailbreak thing and decided to join our ride.  Feeling the joys of liberation, the horse trotted down the road in front of my little group for at least half a mile.  Everyone on bikes at least had the presence of mind to not buzz past the animal.  We accumulated more bicycles in our group as we all slowed way down and followed Mr. Ed at a reasonably safe distance.  I was starting to get worried as the horse occasionally would run down the opposite lane near blind corners and hills.  I really didn’t want to witness the carnage from a horse-car collision.  Fortunately, a driver coming the other way pulled his pickup across the lane forcing the horse to leave the road.  Another rider, now on foot, managed to guide the horse to the roadside by the harness.  Shortly, his freedom run was brought to an end by securing him to a tree with at ratchet strap.

Mr. Ed and his sidekick micropony (hiding in the background).
Houdini and his little sidekick running around in the background.  The cyclist/horsewhisperer in the blue jacket gets credit for restoring order to the day.

As things were winding down with Mr. Ed, things became a bit more weird:  a very small pony showed up in the road and was running around in circles while others worked on calming the big horse down.  Micro-pony decided he wasn’t having anything of that strap business and couldn’t be corralled under any circumstances.  Eventually, a woman from the area managed to get a rope attached to his harness and walked him off.  I have no idea how she managed it.

Squish, squish, squish....
Squish, squish, squish….

With that behind us, I returned to the road.  Nearly everyone had passed while I stuck by to help with the equestrian roadblock.  Now near that back, I was able to catch up with some friends that I had missed earlier in the ride.   That’s one of the best parts of the Grinder, just simply getting together and riding with friends.  We stopped at the aid station where there was plenty of snacks and other refreshments.  Sadly, there weren’t any Twizzlers to be found.  I can always hold on to hope for next year.

I left the station with Bob and Wil.  As we made the long descent, the temperature dropped fast enough that my glasses fogged up a little.  This was the general trend for the day, although there were some odd variations with elevation.  The dirt roads, likewise, became a little less inviting as they became softer throughout the ride.  I found a perverse joy in the conditions.

Vermonty stuff.
Vermonty stuff.

Ryan (of MTBVT fame) and I rode the final miles together.  I think we both were seriously looking forward to the meal waiting for us.  The last section of pavement was fast but also really cold.  My feet became fully soaked and even my wool socks weren’t enough to finally hold in my body heat.  I had stayed quite comfortable for the entire ride, so I was okay with a few miles of soggy feet.  We rolled back into Waterbury in a light rain.  After changing into some dry clothes, I got some good food and visited for a while.  Since I first got talked into doing the Gravel Grinder a few years ago, I’ve looked forward to it as my personal, unofficial start to the non-winter cycling season.  While it’s not mountain biking, it’s at least mostly on dirt and the funds raised benefit the maintenance of the trails on Perry Hill in Waterbury.  Once again, the Stowe Mountain Bike Club did a great job with this event.

Last mile
Last mile

Some photos from the day can be see here.

The Dirty 40

[Also posted at MTBVT.com]

Okay, it’s not mountain biking, but it did involve riding on a lot of dirt.  It was pretty cool, too.  This weekend was the first running of the Dirty 40.  I had registered earlier this summer and was planning on using my single-speed mountain bike set up with a rigid fork.  With 40 miles of dirt roads and another 20 of pavement, that probably would not have been my best choice.  I ended up taking my Jamis ‘cross bike, which worked quite well.  This might have been a road event, but I did not fit the mold at all:  fenders, tail light, hydration pack, unshaved legs and baggy shorts.  There were quite a few others who, likewise, were on commuter bikes or, even better, mountain bikes, although, the majority of the nearly 400 riders were on cyclocross or road bikes.

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As we rolled out, I was still debating whether I was going to run this as a race or just enjoy it as a ride.  We had a “neutral start” for the first couple of miles leading out of Derby.  I’d forgotten how uncomfortable riding in a big pack makes me.  One of my gripes about road racing has always been that you can be doing everything right and some other knuckle-head can make a bad decision and bring you down.  Not only do you go down, but you get to be run over by dozens or more riders immediately following you.  Thankfully, my fears were baseless and nothing resembling that scenario actually happened.

The weather for the day started out nearly perfect.  It was a little humid, which after a few miles on the road had me dripping sweat onto my stem and top tube.  Due to the numerous climbs in the first portion of the race, I was a little concerned about taking in enough water.  I settled into a bit of groove which was neither full-on racing, nor was it a leisurely ride.  I connected with a few other guys I know which made for good conversation as well as a nice pace.  We worked.

After a few more miles of climbing, the field was stretched out into numerous small groups.  It was really fun motoring along in a pack on the gravel roads.  The small group I was with started to pick up more and more riders somewhere after the 30 mile mark.  We grew to well over 30 riders and the speed really cranked up.  There was a small group of women racers that were generally up front and pushed the pace at times. When we hit the final aid station, our big pack splintered.  I stopped to get some more water and took a minute to eat something.

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I was told that we were pretty close to the 44 mile point by someone at the station.  After a few minutes of adjustment, I hit the gravel again with no pack to ride with.  In fact, I managed to put myself out on the road completely alone.  I figured I’d be able to catch up with someone or have a faster group pick me up so I would have some other riders to work with.  That never materialized and I rode all of the remaining 16 miles entirely solo. Riding solo wasn’t so bad, and I was able to keep up a strong pace.  I would occasionally catch a glimpse of some riders ahead of me but was never able to reel them in.

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Things were going well as I made my way over the final miles through Newport.  Well, until we hit the final dirt road section which was, without question, the steepest climb of the day.  As I rode up, I noticed many footprints from riders who had walked the hill with their bike shoes.  Not fun.  Shortly after the hill were markers along the route giving us a countdown of the remaining distance in 1km intervals.  It was nice to have a little sense that the end was in sight.

I was spent, but not suffering as I rolled my way in to the finish at 3:35.  After recovering for a few minutes, I was on the quest for some food.  Quite a few people were hitting the ice cream shop in front of the area where we started.  There was an apres-velo party down the road a few miles later that afternoon.  I decided in favor of a burger and  hot shower, which felt great after an awesome day of riding.  They folks that put on this race did an amazing job.  It’s pretty impressive to get the kind of turnout they did for the first time hosting a race.  As I understand it, they raised several thousand dollars for the Halo foundation.  Congratulations on a job well done.

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