I think at the end of that race I told myself that I was never going to do another race that required me to put a number plate on my handlebars. Of course, I later bought a mountain bike and decided that maybe number plates weren't so bad.
I've been talking about doing some longer races for a while now, and gravel racing has always been tempting but I've never been completely drawn in. I feel like it combines a whole bunch of things that I like, without too much of the stuff I don't. I get to use my super racer boy roadie tactics when riding in a bunch, but I also get to let my lizard brain take command and just pedal hard for a long time. It combines all the aspects of road races, cross country mountain biking, and cyclocross that I enjoy, without all the four corner parking lot dive bombing.
Red Clay was going to be an adventure for me for a few reasons: it's the last non-cyclocross race of the year for me, and it gave me an opportunity to try out a new bike. I sourced myself a Ridley Blast 29er frame SUPER cheap (shout out to Mark for that one), and between my parts bin, some scavenging off of other bikes, and some help from a few friends, I put together a super rad drop bar mountain bike. It's no Van Dessel WTF, but it was still super fun.
What I liked about this frame, when I found it, was that it had canti posts on the rear stays. That meant that I could build up a crazy monster 'cross bike and still use my current collection of wheels. Finding a tapered, cantilever 29er fork was a bit of a chore though, and getting a set of calipers and wheels to match the fork that I already had was a bit easier, so I went the disc route. Plus, it'll probably become a full-on mountain bike next spring before real MTB racing picks back up.
Once I finished putting the bike together and got ONE RIDE ON IT, it was time to head to Milledgeville and race. I haven't done any sort of gravel racing in three years, and didn't really know what to expect from it. I knew it would be warm, and prepared myself with some extra Nuun and Honey Stinger for the long ride. Aside from that, I didn't really know what to expect from myself, and tried to keep expectations reasonable.
I browsed through the 2015 results, and took a look at who was registered for this year's event. I set the goal of finishing in three hours, and just waiting to see how the results would shake out from there. Not much of one for doing long races, I figured it would be best to pace myself that way, rather than trying to hang with the leaders and blowing sky high.
I figured that I would stay with the lead group for a while, and eventually get popped on one of the rolly hills. After that the plan was to settle into time trial mode and truck in for my goal time. This is where that perfect combination of road and mountain bike racing came into play: riding in a group like a roadie, but then putting my head down to fight the course like an XC bro.
I went into time trial mode a lot quicker than I expected due to a mechanical. I KNEW that I should have put a chain guard on my front chainring since I was runing a 1x10 without a narrow/wide chainring, but I decided not to for a varying number of reasons and excuses. Maybe five minutes into the race, I was on the side of the road putting my chain back on, while the main group rolled away. I chased for a little while, but that gap wasn't coming down any.
I rode by myself for a little while, maintaining a solid tempo that I thought would get me to the finish in a decent amount of time. I bobbed in and out of a group of about a dozen or so riders, but either the bunch just couldn't get organized, or I was being impatient. They would ride up to me, and I would settle into their paceline but it seemed like, after a few turns, the average speed would drop below what I was trying to do, and I would continue on at my own pace. Eventually, this same group swallowed me up, and we fell into a solid routine and rhythm.
Expecting full-on Georgia heat, I packed three bottles for the race but it rained the night before, and there was a pretty solid cloud cover hanging over us at the start, so the temperatures never ramped up to what I was expecting. I finished my first bottle right around an hour into the race, and reached to my seat-mounted bottle cage to retrieve a new one. When I reached back for the fresh bottle, it was gone, likely somewhere on the side of a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. I still had one bottle of plain water on me, but two more hours with one bottle wasn't ideal.
The group rolled on for the remainder of the ride with few interruptions. On pace for my three hour finish, I was ready to start racing when we hit the two hour mark. I knew that I needed to be reasonable with my efforts since I was running low on water, but I wanted to pare down our group and see who else was looking to ramp up for the finish. I kept rolling through my turns on the front, and made efforts to keep pushing over the rollers. I knew that the big moment in the race was going to be at 10k to go, when we hit a section of big, loose, chunky gravel and a gnarly series of climbs going into the finish. I probably could have just continued to ride with the group and made it to the finish close to my goal time, instead of planning to attack what was ostensibly the chase group. As far as I was concerned, though, I was in a race, so I planned on racing.
With about 15k to go we turned onto a loose section of gravel. It wasn't THE section, but it was definitely challenging some of my chase-mates. I made an effort to get to the front of the group, so as not to get behind someone who slipped up in the loose stuff. This is where the mountain bike really came to life. The 2.2 inch tires floated over the loose rocks, while the riders around me were fighting to cut through. At the beginning of the race, I was afraid I brought to much bike; at the end, I was happy I had it.
My move to get to the front of the group turned into me riding away from everyone. I looked behind me to see riders pushing to reconnect, and decided it was time to go. I put my head down and started to pedal like I was riding solo to the finish. I mean, I was riding solo to the finish, I was just doing it a few minutes behind the leaders.
Coming into the last rest stop, volunteers were holding out cups of water. I was having horrifying flashbacks to Louisville's Derby City Cyclocross Cup in 2013 when I took a shot of bourbon mid-race. The volunteer assured me it was simply water, and executed a flawless hand up. Those six ounces of water probably got me through to the finish.
I fought through the last ten kilometers, climbing over the loose stones and fighting to find the most secure line. I counted down kilometers, begging them to go by faster than they were. Every pedal stroke, I was certain that I was going to be caught by the group behind me, and look like a fool for trying to ride away from them. At 5k to go, I could feel the tightness of an oncoming cramp settling into my left leg. I begged it to stay away and simply kept pedaling.
Eventually, I made the right turn onto the finishing road, signifying just over a kilometer to go. There was no one in sight except for a few of the recreational riders who were finishing up their shorter version of the route. I happily rolled across the finish line alone, and set off on a desperate search for a Coke and some shade.
I finished in 2:58:39, just under my goal time of three hours, and FIFTEEN minutes behind the winner. Do I think that I could have stayed with them at that pace? Probably not, but without the mechanical, I definitely would have stayed with them a lot longer than I did.
I was sixth in the open male division, finishing two spots ahead of the series overall winner. While I know that result probably doesn't transfer to the rest of the races in the series and that math doesn't always apply to bike racing, it gives me pretty high hopes for next year.
I'll definitely be targeting the Southeastern Gravel Series next year. With a proper bike and some actual race prep, I'm hoping that this time next year I'll have my eyes on the series winner's jersey.