I was so excited when I first got wind of this ride on Facebook. As much as I disdain this cultural addiction (mainly MY addiction), time and time again I find myself in wonderful situations that I'd otherwise miss if not for facebook and twitter. Here’s what a friend from the Springs posted from the website:
“The Greenland Gravel Grinder is a free, unsupported gravel bike ride that begins and ends in Monument, CO. You can ride whatever bike you'd like - gravel-specific, mountain bike, or road (you'll be rattled and risk multiple flats with a road bike!). Ride it fast, ride it slow, ride it how you like it. It's your chance to ride something different in the shadows of the Rocky Mountains!”
I was hooked.
Ben Welnak of Mountain Bike Radio was the organizer and promoter of this ride, which fell into the Front Range Gravel Series. According to Ben and many others, “Gravel Rides” are quite popular in the mid-west. But like most things within the cycling realm, I didn’t know what a Gravel race was about until I showed up that day.
When I looked at the course description on the website, I immediately thought I'd ride my road bike with some appropriate tires. Then I read the description a little more closely and thought, "Yeah, if it's bumpy for 50 miles, perhaps my cross bike would be better." And it was decided until I was lucky enough to make a great connection with the Volagi Cycles crew out at Interbike this year. A demo plan was born.
In the midst of a company relocation to Ogden Utah, Brian Bonham and Volagi Cycles sent me a Volagi Viaje XL Shimano 105 via Big Ring Cycles in Golden. The tagline on the Volagi website for this bike says, “Your adventure begins where the pavement ends”. I had no idea how applicable that phrase would be.
There were roughly 85 riders who joined me at the Pikes Peak Brewery in Monument, CO on Saturday, Oct 19th. Ben checked us in by name with a pencil and paper. No licenses, no timing chips. There was no cost, but if you wanted to purchase a raffle ticket to benefit Salvation Army Flood relief you could. There were road bikes, cross bikes, and mountain bikes. All different sizes of tires, ages of participants, kits, clothing, etc. Nine other women started with me. It was the perfect weather. In fact, I chose to ride with no arm or leg warmers. This was a great choice as of mile 3 when it went dowwwwwwwwwwwn.
Ben led us out for a neutral start, over I-25 and onto a very sandy bike trail. I was starting to question my choice of bike at this point. Here I was surrounded by a lot of mtn./cross bikes and I was already slipping around a bit in the sand and even off the edge here and there. Once Ben pulled off, things were still quite mellow. There was deep gravel and snow on the trail. Not to mention people out for a hike and walking dogs. I was hanging back to gauge the skills around me and quickly found myself off the back of the lead pack. Thankfully, I had a wonderful tow from Bill Kellagher of Rocky Mountain Cancer Center Masters Cycling Team. The pace picked up as we worked our way out of town. Soon we came to a gate off the road to our left that led...at first glance to no where. It was a small opening to a prairie.
This was when the Gravel Grinder turned into the opening scene of the HBO mini-series, “Band of Brothers.” I did a clumsy cross dismount as Steve Birnbaum ushered me through the gate, politely screaming, “Go, Katie. Go. Go! GO!” Once I got back on, I remember nothing for the next 10 miles aside from sand flying, people screaming and tumbling and me gripping my Volagi as if my life depended on it. I also think my heart-rate was in the low 300’s. But even still, people were enormously polite, and everyone was having fun. Even amidst the chaos. Sometimes I can’t say the same for sanctioned racing.
Now about the BIKE. I was so impressed with my Volagi bike. Honestly. Yes, I could have ridden my road bike, but I would have had to ride much slower for the first 12 miles or so. There would have been no jumping lines and wash-outs. Yes, I could have ridden my cross bike, but I ride an aluminum Cannondale. It's heavy. HEAVY. It would have taken me a lot longer to complete the 50 miles. I could have ridden a mtn bike...wait. No, I don't believe I could have. While I pined a bit for one on the singletrack and sandy corners, I was thanking my lucky light-weight stars at every hill. And there were so many hills. I'm simply not fit enough to have done that ride on a mtn bike. It would have taken me weeks.
For Gravel Rides/Races in general, I think a lot comes down to your skill set and the course. I had no idea the course would be that technical (particularly at the beginning)--when riding it fast, race pace with a pack. I used all my cross prowess that I had (and for those of you who have seen me race cross, you know this isn’t much) and my mtn. biking repertoire even though I was on a skinny bike. If I was a straight up roadie and tried to get out there on a road bike or the Volagi I would've been obliterated. Mtn. bikes are much more forgiving when it comes to bumps, sand, etc.
All that being said, the endless miles of uphill's on the smooth(ish) roads, the pavement, and even on the singletrack made me so very thankful that I was riding what I was. On the Viaje, I downright soared at some points. Especially when I hooked up with the Gates crew (whom were cracking jokes and staring at birds while I was gasping to keep up).
I urge you to check out Gravel Racing. This ride was gorgeous. Remote, challenging but just short enough that I could handle it without major life-altering plans (Leadville 100). I was pretty much on my own from about 20 miles on. I simply had to keep track of the guy in front of me so I wouldn’t get off course...and pray that he was staying ON course. Ben Welnak has big things in the making with future rides like this. As he said to me on Saturday, “I think so many people would love this type of ride. They just don’t know it yet.” Amen to that. For more info. on riding gravel, check out this very active Riding Gravel Forum. I'm learning tons about stuff I never even thought I cared about. Turns out, I do.
A huge thank you to:
●Jeremy Rickard for spreading the word.
●Ben Welnak of Mountain Bike Radio for creating and organizing such a great event.
●Brian Bonham and Volagi Cycles.
●Big Ring Cycles, Golden, CO.
●Bill Kellagher and Steve Birnbaum from Rocky Mtn. Cancer Cycling Team for towing and encouraging.
●That guy on the Giant mtb bike who towed me to…
●The Gates Carbon Drive crew--Jesse and Carlos for entertainment and a draft.
●That guy who led the way on remote country roads about .5 miles up for 25 miles.
●Pikes Peak Brewing Co. Mmmmm. Delicious.
*And finally, I'd like to give mad props to the ZumX racer who rode the last 12 miles or so with ONLY ONE CRANK AND PEDAL and a smile on his face. That was amazing, my friend.