Back in mid-March, in what I can only assume was an uncharacteristic streak of blind optimism, I signed up for three gravel races in less than two days. The first one on the calendar was Ned Gravel whose goal was to build one of the most challenging gravel races in the world. And last weekend, I did that race.
The night before there was a thunderstorm and there was every indication that another storm would occur during the race with possible flooding happening in the canyons. As we drove up to Nederland in a steady rain, we discussed possible bail out points if the conditions deteriorated. We parked at Eldora Ski Resort, organized ourselves, and biked the 5 miles downhill (in the rain) to the starting line.
And then, a miracle. Barely 10 minutes before the race started, the rain magically stopped. And for another five hours, not a single drop of rain fell.
Since we're in the middle of training for Rebecca’s Private Idaho Queen’s Stage Race in Sept, we treated Ned Gravel as a "B" race–a way to test our fitness and preparation but not drop the hammer and go all out. Based on our scouting of the course and my knowledge of the conditions, my goal was to finish in roughly 5.5 hours. Oh, sweet, foolish summer child.
Given we were not intending to push crazy hard, we put ourselves in the back of the pack in the start corral; in fact I was the 147th person to cross the start line. It was a neutral roll out, so I just cruised with Tina up the first hill until out of the blue she asked if my back tire looked a little low. And it did. I popped off my bike at the top of that first hill and did a quick look for a puncture. Nothing. So I jumped back on and quickly caught up to her assuming it was just the low tire pressure of the wider gravel tires I was using.
With the wet but not muddy gravel roads, the course felt fast. The first gravel section was fairly non-technical and it was a hoot to get caught up in the race energy. Tina and I stayed mostly together but once we got onto Sugarloaf Rd, my tire definitely looked even lower. I waited until I was at the top of a hill before jumping off and discovering that my valve had worked itself open. Shit. Closed it tight and figured my tire pressure was fine until I reached an aid station.
Tina was now a couple minutes ahead of me and while I caught glances of her for the next hour, I never caught up. After zooming down Switzerland Trail at a speed that previously would have felt a bit insane, I reached the aid station. And they did not have pump. I had CO2 in my saddle bag but I decided the tire was not low enough to justify losing the time required to pull it out and add 5 psi. So, on I went.
Next we went up the north part of Switzerland Trail. While I had been passing people regularly up to this point, this is where I felt my training really allowed me to just keep moving up and have the oomph to quickly skirt around people on the rocky terrain. The descent down Lefthand Canyon came in no time at all and based on my original plan, I was already 30 minutes ahead of schedule.
On the 12 minute descent, I crammed as much food and drink into my mouth as I could. Finally, I reached the dreaded Lickskillet and there was not a single other biker to be seen. I started up and made it to the first sharp turn before I saw someone ahead walking his bike up. I kept pedaling for another two minutes before I realized I was straining my legs but losing ground to the person ahead. Popped off my bike and started pushing the bike uphill–sweating like no one's business the entire time.
When I reached a point with a long view uphill, I saw Tina's helmet ahead and she was still on her bike. Ever the climber. During this section I got passed by two bikers who were still pedaling but ultimately I think I made the right choice by walking. Sure I probably could have ridden up it a minute faster but only by expending a great deal of effort. Knowing how much riding was left, I conserved my energy.
At the top I jumped back on my bike, skipped the water station with a friendly wave, and zoomed down Gold Run Rd nearly two minutes faster than I had ever done it before. The power of racing energy.
And then began the long, gradual climb up Four Mile Rd before the race continued up south Switzerland Trail to Peak to Peak highway. Nearly 15 miles and 2450' of climbing total, more than half on rough trail. I stopped at the aid station at the bottom of Switzerland and filled up a water bottle, scarfed down food and electrolyters, took a deep breath...and biked about 3 minutes further uphill to find a place to pee while a four wheeler went around me.
And then I started up Switzerland Trail in earnest. At this point, I was definitely feeling the race. Despite the cooler weather, I had been sweating profusely and in just three hours had probably burnt over 2300 calories. And there was still a third of the race left with challenging terrain ahead. Time to dig deep.
Halfway up Switzerland Trail, you could see that the distant sky was darkening and could feel a bit of extra weight in the air. Another storm was definitely on the way. Around this point, I met up with another rider and we traded places back and forth for the next 30 minutes or so. This was the first time in the race I really worked with another rider to keep going and had an actual conversation. Definitely helped keep me motivated, but I could have used another gel as we were cruising.
As Switzerland turned from rocky trail into a potholed gravel road, the other biker flagged and I passed him. I was out of food at this point and did not know how much water was left in my hydration pack, so I stopped at the last aid station for a water bottle and a gel. Still 10 miles left in the race but with half of it downhill. A second gel might have been smart, but I was the proverbial horse smelling the barn and I zoomed off.
The next 4 miles flew. Zooming down gravel roads was a hoot after all of that climbing. You get back on Peak to Peak highway for a short while and then there is one last climb before you start heading back towards Nederland. I saw three different bikers walking up that climb, nearly spent. At the top you get on an easy dirt road, then at a junction the rest of the route is downhill. More zooming. My legs loved this recovery and I pushed pretty hard downhill doing 28-30mph.
Finally, you reach the pavement again and you enter Nederland. This is where it got a bit messy. Nederland is not large but is popular on a Saturday in summer, even without a race. I had to maneuver around numerous cars before I could take the turn leading to the finish. Tina had reached the finish ten minutes before me and was taking photos/video, so as I cross the finish line I did a little bunny hop for the camera. Fin.
15 minutes later, it started sprinkling and within 45 minutes it was full on raining. We stuck around for the awards ceremony (Tina got 1st place in her age group) and then drove home still pumped from the race. According to the tracker, my race time was 4:44. The night before I had planned to be out for 5:30, so the race went significantly faster than planned. The combination of rain before the race and the cool temperatures during meant the course was super-fast.
I am rather pleased, especially since I only took two days easy before the race, ended the race with energy left over, and was still able to do my planned 4 hour endurance workout the next day. Seems all this training has been incredibly effective at raising my fitness. And the course is great. Just that perfect blend of scenic, challenging, and thrilling. I highly recommend it. If I am around next year and keep on training (maybe get some more climbing power and technical gravel skills), I would like to treat it as an “A” race and see if I could knock 30-40 minutes off my time.