Last weekend I had the opportunity to race in the 67 mile Gorge Gravel Grinder along with 700+ other riders. With 4 months of inconsistent riding in my legs I wasn't sure this was one of my smartest decisions- 4 months because I broke my ankle in Sept 2021. And inconsistent because of Portland's rainy weather. Was I ready to race? Should I do this? It'd be a new experience (I'd never done a gravel race before), my husband was racing, and I hadn't seen anyone from the race community since Sept 2019 (my last race at the Nut Cracker mountain bike race). I told myself that I could just ride and not race....So, why not?
Two weeks prior to the race we rode the course. Conditions were tough: it was cold and windy. Really windy, like pedaling hard downhill only going 10 m.p.h. kind of wind. It was a long day taking me 5:30 hours to ride the 67 miles and 5800 feet of climbing.
After we pre-rode the course the weather turned nasty. The next morning we woke up to snow. And then more snow. Winter had returned. I wasn't too excited about racing in wintery conditions. But this time of year, spring weather can be very unpredictable. Luckily come race day, conditions were perfect. Warm, not too hot. No wind. Dry roads. Just a few patches of snow at the top of the climbs.
Goals: To finish in 5 hours. To stay focused. To be self-sufficient.
The race is timed using timing chips attached to your bike. There was no mass gun start. Your race starts when you cross the start line and ends when you cross the finish line. Unless you're at the front, it's hard to know where you are positioned in the race. I decided to be self-sufficient on the ride and carry all my food and drink. I used my handle bar bag. Stuffed it with cut-up Macro bars and Skratch bars. 5 in total. And I had 3 large bottles of Skratch on me.
This race course suits me: nothing too steep and a long (1 hour) sustained climb about two thirds into the race. No loose chunky gravel made for fast descents. We rolled at 9am from Dufur Park. There was neutral riding for 3 miles (this means no racing / attacking). After 3 miles we turned onto gravel and crossed the start / timing pad. Race on. It started with a short steep climb. It's hard not to get carried away. I tried to settle in and make sure I was in a good position for the descent. And that really was my strategy for the entire race: not to attack the climbs too hard, to ride a good tempo, to make the most of the downhills, and make sure on the flats I wasn't alone, but could ride in a pace line with others. My fueling goal was: 1 bar an hour and 1 bottle every 75 minutes.
I was with the same 10-15 people (including 3 other women) for the first 40 miles of the race. There was some jostling back and fourth between us. I was being pushed by the women around me. I was definitely in race mode. Not ride mode. Then we hit the long climb of Summit Ridge at mile 42. It's a 10 mile climb. It's settling-in time. This is what I'm good at: riding steady climbing tempo for over an hour. I'm also good at riding beyond my fitness. And my cramping legs were reminding me of that. Years ago - before we became parents - and we'd race a full season, the first few races of the season always saw leg cramping. It isn't a fueling / hydration issue. It's more of a fitness issue and riding at intensities you're not yet conditioned for. After a few races, the legs would come around. I had anticipated some complaints from the legs. I was trying to focus on my breathing. Breathing in through my nose, to activate the parasympathetic side of my nervous system - this tells my body that it's OK and not in danger despite what I was asking it to do. It's almost meditative to breathe in through the nose for 3 short breaths and to match this with my pedal strokes. Then to breathe out through my mouth for 3 pedal strokes. I don't know if it helped the cramping, but it didn't get to the point that I had to stop to stretch. And it helps me get into a flow state.
At the top of the climb was an aid station. It was busy with riders taking a break and re-fueling. I knew that there was about 10 miles to the finish and it was mainly down hill. I decided to not stop and head to the finish. I had food left and about a third of a bottle. I'd be fine. The descent was fast. Not technical. One corner my front wheel started to drift, and I was reminded to keep weight on it. I was tired. My legs were still cramping. They weren't happy with me. I didn't know I had so many muscles in my legs that could cramp at one time! They seemed happy if I stood up, so I descended like I was riding my mountain bike. It worked.
Short road section and then there was the finish. And then a couple mile pedal back into town. That felt like a long 2 miles. Goals accomplished: finish time was 4:12 hours. Once all the riders were in, overall positions were figured out. Second masters 45+.
I loved that this event attracts such a wide variety of riders. Some were riding flat pedals. Others clipped in. Some stopped half way up the long climb to take photos of the mountains. And there were beautiful views of 4 mountains at one point (I'm assuming it was Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens, Mount Adams, and Mount Rainier). Some riders carried back packs or hydro-packs. There were v-brakes and disc brakes. Some bikes with fenders. Skinny tires and fat tires. Some riders were in lycra and some in baggy shorts. I loved the mix.
Lessons: I like challenging myself. I can race beyond my fitness. And if I do this - it will take some time to recover. Would I do it again? Yes. For sure.