RPI’s Queen Stage Race was THE race we had been waiting for. Our entire training program for the summer had been focused on preparing us for this race. Point of fact, neither of us had originally signed up for this multi-day race and instead had only registered for the Baked Potato, which is the very last stage. But thanks to people dropping out, we both got invited to join the full stage race in mid-July. As rather ambitious individuals, we had both already been following the stage race training plan, so we were more or less on the right track training-wise.
We arrived the afternoon before the first stage and decided that our shakedown ride should be on the Harriman Trail, which made up the second half of the first stage. And we were so glad we did. Our gravel rides around Boulder seem to be evenly split between smoother gravel roads (groad) or more technical off road trails. While we have areas of deeper gravel, they typically are short and mostly on the bends of downhills. The Harriman Trail had some seriously deep pea sized gravel for many miles. It required more focus and careful line choosing than I expected for a mere “path”.
I am not saying I was worried but part of my brain was preoccupied. It is a funny thing the mental aspect of biking. There are days I simply click and enter the smooth flow that makes gravel riding almost effortless. And then there are rides I start off, and for whatever reason (an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato, etc.), I feel just a bit shaky and my brain needs to warm up to the challenges of speedy gravel riding. The Harriman Trail shakeout ride was definitely the latter.
STAGE 1: GALENA & HARRIMAN TRAIL ADVENTURE DAY
After discussing it with people who had raced in previous years, we decided to drive up and park at a pullout near Galena Lodge opposed to taking the shuttles. This gave us a chance to sleep in just a tad longer and have all of our things with us in the car. It ended up being the right choice as we got within a couple hundred meters of Galena and were able to stay warmer while prepping our bikes for the race.
Oh, and it was COLD up there. The car recorded a temperature in the 30s and the sun was behind the mountains, so it was incredibly hard to stay warm in race clothes without having multiple extra layers on. We tried to do a warm up ride 15 minutes before the start, but I honestly think it made me colder as we descended back to the lodge. Next time I think it is worth bringing insulated down pants and a larger drop bag to hold them.
I was unprepared for the start. Let’s put that in writing. When the race started, I somehow did not expect it to be an all out effort on a single lane forest road straight up a rocky hill. It was only a few hundred feet of climbing but the air was cold, my legs were not remotely warmed up, and it was so crowded that choosing a line was nigh impossible. There were a number of people who could not make it up that hill and trying to navigate around them safely was taxing.
And then that first descent was dusty with riders from a full range of abilities going down it, which made it a bit chaotic. I pushed as hard as I could through that first bit, as it was pretty obvious that position was super important. At the bottom of the first hill there was a creek crossing (I jumped off and leapt over the water instead of taking the crowded bridge), followed quickly by the steepest hill I have ever tried to bike. Everyone was off their bikes huffing and puffing up that steep ass trail. Every so often an ambitious individual would try to ride around others, but they ended up usually behaving like a jerk and making things slower when they stumbled off.
Finally we got on the downhill single track and that was exceptionally fun, if a bit unnerving. Broken branches and tree trunks were just off the trail and with the dust, you sometimes only had a couple seconds of visibility for the next bit of trail. At one sharp turn I heard a clanging sound and I thought my saddle bag had flown open or fallen off. I pulled over to find out I had simply hit someone’s dropped spare gear roll. Nuts.
The single track was exhausting, bone rattling, scenic, challenging, painful, and ultimately everything Rebecca said it was. You really could not believe you were doing this kind of terrain, on a gravel bike with 42mm tires, at this speed. I lost my chain on a swoopy bit where I shifted too quickly before it became a steep, punchy uphill. Pulled over and it took a hot minute to untangle it from my pedal to put it back on the crankset. I now have a long area of paint missing from my chainstay. Shortly after this area, on a fun descent among skinny trees with a handful of riders around me, I heard Tina give a whoop right behind me.
You can read about her RPI here, but that is the last time I heard or saw her for the next 1.5 hours. Thanks to other riders and the race course, I got a smidgen ahead and stayed there until I saw her near the turn around on Harriman Trail.
Once out of the single track, we descended to the paved highway and did a water crossing to get onto the Harriman Trail. I biked into the water a short ways, leapt off, and enjoyed the chilly water as it quickly went above my hips; all the while a photographer documented the moment for posterity.
Once back on my bike (and with some severely water logged shoes), I zipped down the Harriman Trail towards the turn around 11 miles away. For the first half of this section I only saw a dozen or so riders. Seems the single track had spread the field out well. One little turn I came up a bit too fast and had to go straight off the trail to avoid sliding out; given the number of other tracks I saw in that spot I am guessing this turn caused a number of racers to have a tiny scare.
The turn around went well, if a bit confusingly since it was a small little path to a tight circle that had a timing mat and then back the way you came in. A different path for riders going out would have been safer and less confusing, me thinks.
On the way back, I saw a few Basecampers I knew and also Tina! The cheers exchanged were a nice motivator to keep going strong. And then, while making a sharp turn on the far side of a wooden bridge, my wheels slid out from under me. I remember having the thought as I went down that, “Oh, this is where I fall.” It was onto my left elbow/knee/ankle on my non-drivetrain side, so I picked myself up, quickly checked that the bike still functioned, and kept on going. According to Training Peaks, the entire event took only 20 seconds but it felt much longer.
That crash took a bit of wind out of my sails. My elbow was supremely sore and I could see a nice patch of dried blood and dirt on it. The last 10 miles were a bit of a sufferfest as I climbed back up to the lodge to the finish. Got passed by a handful of people but did not have the oomph to stick with them. In the end I finished in 3:43:18 and 56th place (out of 141 men). Not too shabby. Learned quite a bit more about racing during that stage, particularly on gnarly terrain and with a cold, crowded start.
STAGE 2: DOLLARHIDE SUMMIT TIME TRIAL
This stage had a 20 mile neutral roll out, a 4.5 mile uphill time trial, and then a leisurely return downhill to Ketchum. Of all the stages, this is the one where I felt I would do the worst relative to other racers. While I have decent power, when you compare it to my weight it is nothing really stellar. So, on climbs I tend to do well but never really excel.
Since this stage started later, we had a more relaxed morning getting ready. The bikes were all prepped the night before and eating breakfast does not really take that long, so I luxuriated in bed for an extra five minutes after the alarm went off. Bliss.
The neutral roll out was definitely neutral, but there were definitely segments towards the end were I was with a group of riders in a paceline and we were pushing a bit harder than necessary. Also, the gravel road was not closed to vehicles, which unfortunately meant that there were trucks and RVs interspersed among the group of riders. I ended up behind one truck for a solid 10 minutes sucking in its exhaust until the road widened enough to pass it safely.
Anyhoo, reached the time trial start in about 90 minutes and Tina magically ended up only five spots behind me. We got a chance to drop our extra gear, take a bathroom break, and fuel up a bit before our turns. About thirty minutes after getting there, I was given my wave and raced up the road to the summit. My legs were no longer warmed up but they seemed to mostly click into place after a minute. My power averaged 285 watts (3.5w/kg) for both the first and second halves, which is about 10 watts below my FTP, which seems just about right after the previous day’s hard effort.
My overall goal was to finish it in under 33 minutes with a crazy dream goal of breaking 30 minutes. Well, I got one of those. Official time of 31:52, giving me 49th place for the TT. As expected: good but not exceptional.
REST DAY: CHAMOIS BUTT’R FUN RIDE
Rebecca’s Private Idaho encompasses four races really. The Queen's Stage Race (196 miles over 3 stages), Baked Potato (102 miles), French Fry (56 miles), and Tater Tot (20 miles). The Queen’s Stage Race is done over three days and its final stage is the same race as the Baked Potato.
So, Sunday is the big day when a mass of riders converge on Ketchum to ride all three courses. That means Saturday is the perfect day to have a fun ride for racers to meet each other and enjoy the expo. For stage racers, Saturday is a day off and the fun ride serves as a way to give their legs an easy spin to facilitate recovery.
It was damn chilly at the start (my hands were repeatedly in my armpits for the first few miles), but once the sun came out the fun ride was just a leisurely lap around the Tater Tot course with old and new friends. We joked around, got free stuff at the end, and ate many a sugary snacks
STAGE 3: BAKED POTATO ROUTE
Well. This one had a rough start. I probably got, at most, two hours of sleep the night before. Not sure what happened, but my body would not fall asleep. My mind was an empty room and I even took a half dose of Zzzquil, but I just laid in bed for hours and hours. When Tina finally woke up, I seriously considered not racing that day. Mentally and physically I was in a poor state. The surest indication that things are not going well for me is when I am just completely silent and will not crack a single joke. That morning my silence was like a dark cloud over everything.
But I arose, finally, and made a STRONG ASS cup of coffee and ate my oatmeal slowly. Afterwards I made a glass of Skratch’s hyper hydration drink mix because I knew I was dehydrated and the Baked Potato course was going to be long, hard, and dry.
By the time we biked over to the start line, I was slowly coming back to life and as we lined up, I felt almost energetic. Once again we began with a neutral rollout, but you could tell by how quickly things spread out that there was a bit of speed up at the front. Once pace car pulled aside and the neutral roll out ended, we started the climb up to Trail Creek Summit. The first part of this climb felt almost relaxed for me. I even spent a hot minute talking to Phil Gaimon, part of which ended up in his video. Once the climbing started in earnest Tina easily pulled away, but according to Strava we were never more than ten minutes apart during the entire race.
Frustratingly, further up Trail Creek the road narrowed and we ran into a line of motorized vehicles going up with an occasional vehicle trying to come down. Add in a few hundred bicyclists and it was extremely tricky to navigate. At times I was completely stuck behind cyclists and cars with no ability to move over or pass anyone. A strong thumb down for this section, especially with the exhaust.
Once over the summit though, it was a quick descent into Big Lost River Basin and the traffic disappeared. I stuffed a bunch of food and liquid into my mouth during the descent, which caused me to choke and spit out a chunk when I hit the washboards a bit too fast. Oops. I was traveling pretty fast here and quickly picked up a few friends who wanted to draft; by the time we got to the first turn, a group of a dozen riders were working together. Real racing, folks!
That fun, fast racing went on for a few miles. We caught new riders, skipped the second aid station, and headed straight into Wildhorse Canyon. This is where things got a bit thorny. I stayed with my group, but there was deeper, loose gravel on this road with lots of dust being kicked up and only a couple good paths to follow. Visibility was important but almost non-existent at times.
At the turn around, our group fell apart as the road got rougher. I tried to keep up with the leaders, but as we pulled out again I was near the back. And then, the rider I was right behind slowed down and I watched as the main group moved slowly away. It took precious minutes for me to find a safe time to pass, but by then the group was 150 meters ahead. I burned a couple matches to catch up and then the same thing happened again. The last rider just slid off the back and I was caught behind them with no ability to pass.
As I turned onto 135 again, the main group was less than a quarter mile ahead. Tantalizingly close. I burned a match and got a bit closer. Took a lot of deep breaths and burned another, got just a smidgen closer. At one point I was only 100 meters behind them. But I could not bridge that gap. And they just kept pulling further and further away. Soon it was just me. I looked behind and saw nothing but empty dirt road. Shit in a handbasket.
There was nothing to do but just keep pedaling. Spent 6 miles by myself, lost in the wilderness. Eventually a large group came up from behind and sucked me in. This is where having a power meter comes in handy as I can compare the before and after. Once I joined that group, my average watts dropped by 30 but my speed increased my nearly 2mph. The power of aerodynamics.
Was doing fine for food and water (yay hydration backpack!), so I skipped the next aid station and kept on going. New groups came and went, chatted a bit with a fellow, and reached a high point where some kind souls were passing out sodas. Decided to zoom down the descent and continue going since I knew the next aid station was where I wanted to resupply. Joined a group of three during this descent, including a fellow Basecamper, and we just flew. 65 miles into the race and I was feeling far better than expected.
At the aid station I took a 4 minute break to loosen a shoe, fill up my water bottles, suck down a couple GU liquid gels, and throw spare gels into my back pocket. And then I was off again. And I swear to god, within moments I was by myself. I passed one rider right after the aid station and another a few minutes after that, but then the nearest rider ahead was about half a mile. I got all the way back to Trail Creek Rd without sharing the ride with a single soul.
Back on Trail Creek Rd, a solid headwind was blowing and I found more cyclists at last. Sadly none of them were matching my pace, so I passed them very slowly and enjoyed the dirt being kicked into my face by the off roaders driving the opposite direction. Finally I made it to El Diablito, which was a rough, slow bit of road that was very much like single track. My body was aching here and I definitely lost ground to a few other riders who had wider tires or more technical skills.
And then the final climb. Oof. This one dragged on. Washboard road, headwind, longish climb, and all after multiple days of racing. I skipped the final aid station (all downhill from here!) and cruised the 1300 feet down to the pavement. Remembering Rebecca’s words that one would not win the race on this part but one could definitely lose it, I took this descent reasonably chill. My body was pretty much through with my shenanigans and that drop off to the right is no joke.
Back on the pavement, the headwind was still being a jerk, so I just kept on pedaling and tried to stay reasonably aero. Half a mile from the official finish, a small group of four caught up to me and we crossed the line more or less together. To my surprise, I earned a bolo tie, having finished as one of the “fast” male racers in the Baked Potato.
After a few photos, I cruised back to the start line where the end of race party had started. Tina was already there having finished 15 minutes before me and I did a couple bunny hops for the crowd as I came through the corral. And that’s pretty much it. Finished 90th in the Baked Potato with a time of 6:28:03.
AND IN CONCLUSION…
Eesh, that was a long weekend.
According to the official results, I finished 42nd in the Queen’s Stage Race. Which is not too bad. All of my times were slightly faster than what I put into my fueling plan and my ranking got better every stage I did, which shows that all of that fatigue resistance training really paid off.
Could I have done better? Probably a little bit. That crash on stage one definitely affected me for days afterwards. Not sleeping before the final stage was less than ideal. And, I probably could have picked up a few minutes and saved some energy if I had not lost my first group in Wildhorse Canyon. But, ultimately, for a 42 year old rider who got his first gravel bike this year, had only done one race prior, and is still new to structured training…I am pleased.