Just two weeks ago, I told several friends that even though I now owned a gravel bike, that I was not planning on doing any gravel races.
On Saturday, I did a gravel race.
The 2020 Southern Cross Gravel Grinder was initially explained to me as a gravel race better suited for mountain bikes. Located in Dahlonega, Georgia, the race advertised 55 miles of gravel roads and singletrack with approximately 6,000 feet of climbing. A perfect season-opener.
I planned to ride my 2020 Specialized Epic Hardtail, not having even purchased a gravel bike until mid-February, and having heard from several sources that several of the descents and the singletrack portion of the race were much faster on a mountain bike. That is, until the early spring rains hit. On Thursday, less than 36 hours before the race, the race director sent out an e-mail to let participants know that the race would no longer contain any singletrack due to the weather conditions. With just four rides on my new Specialized Diverge, I made a last-minute call to Tim, the mechanic who typically gives my bikes a pre-race check at Summit City Bicycles & Fitness, and asked him to go over my bike Thursday evening before I left for Georgia on Friday. He graciously complied, and I adjusted my packing list slightly to prepare for my first ever gravel race.
After some unplanned chaos over the few days prior to leaving to the race, I left Fort Wayne early Friday afternoon and drove the 10-ish hours down to Dahlonega. Upon arriving around midnight, I opted to sleep in the backseat of my car rather than take the time to put up my tent in the dark. It was MUCH colder than I had anticipated, reaching a low of about 28F overnight. In the morning, I noticed that some fellow campers had brought a portable fire pit and were gathering around a fire and I took the opportunity to make some new friends and warm up next to the fire before preparing for the race.
With some coffee, a PB&J, several hardboiled eggs, and a banana as breakfast, I braved the cold and changed into my Team Neighborlink skinsuit for the first time this season. There’s something special about having a race kit that I only wear for racing: it conveys a special sense of urgency and importance about that day’s riding. I’d like to say it makes me faster, but that might be stretching it. I kept my jacket on during my warm up, but then at about 9:25 a.m., ditched it in my car, made some final adjustments to the Osprey race vest that I was wearing for the first time ever, had a last swig of coffee, and joined the pre-race meeting. Go time.
The race started at 10 a.m. with me towards the back of nearly 300 riders. Admittedly, I was a bit nervous. It’s been awhile since I’ve done a mass-start event, and being in the middle of a huge pack of riders is a bit unsettling. Nonetheless, I made the best of my positioning and started moving up as soon as everyone started rolling out. I never managed to catch the lead group, but did make several big efforts to get close before the neutral lead-out ended.
The course itself is stunning. Consisting almost entirely of gravel roads, the course winds through the Chattahoochee National Forest. With two long climbs that wind up the side of the mountains then drop into ripping descents back down to the rhododendron-filled valleys, it was a perfect route to test the limits of the winter’s training. The gravel varied from smooth hardpack to rocky, rutted-out dirt roads to coarse freshly-poured limestone chunks.
As a whole, I was extremely happy with my choice to bring the Diverge. Really, I’ve been extremely happy with that bike every since purchasing it almost a month ago. It climbs like a fast road bike, absorbs an impressive amount of road and gravel chatter, and is all-around a fun ride. I was a bit nervous about the descents with so little experience with how a drop bar “skinny” tire bike handles on loose gravel turns, but the bike was a champ. I hit the downhills in true mountain-biker fashion and the bike stuck with me the whole way.
I did end up flatting twice (about a mile apart) on the final long descent as I was going full-send over rough rock and large washboard bumps. I initially thought I had burped my tires, but after careful inspection, while washing my bike the next day, realized I had a 1/4 inch slice in my tire right along the rim. Impressively, the tire sealed up both times when I put CO2 in it (thanks Orange Seal!), though it re-opened the slice anytime I hit a large bump, thus why I flatted the second time. Still, by looking at the slice, its a miracle I wasn’t walking the last 4 miles…or at least taking the time to put a tube in.
In the end, I finished 12th (out of 23) in Open/Elite Women. Without the flats, I would likely have been top ten, but that is a part of racing. I’m more than happy with how I rode this weekend, and stoked at setting 20, 60, and 90 minute power PRs during the race. 2020 is off to a good start!
I’ve got a few days to rest and recover, and then its back to training for the next big event: the 2020 Epic Rides Whiskey 50 Race in Prescott, Arizona (April 24-26).