The Bright Side of Suffering

Gravel grinder season kicks off

By Sarah Hansing

SuperPro Racing’s Christon DeWan lives the dream at the Tainthammer (SuperPro Racing/Ted Ketai).

SuperPro Racing’s Christon DeWan lives the dream at the Tainthammer (SuperPro Racing/Ted Ketai).

Well, the holiday season is officially over. It was a glorious time of joyous celebrations and gratitude, festivities and feasts, family and … well, family.

Which is to say, togetherness. The type of togetherness that can – at times – make you want to end your lineage. Because family celebrations in real life somehow never quite follow the storyline of those heartwarming holiday specials that no one can collectively agree on watching as a family.

It goes something like this: Someone gets the short straw on hosting the meal. Extended family – who are absent the rest of the year – come together like flocks of politically, morally, and dietarily disagreeing birds. Due to the close quarters and possibly because of some minor incident that happened (perhaps involving Uncle Dave and his now ex-wife) cause a rift, which leads to an INCREDIBLY uncomfortable family dinner, which leads to the consumption of A LOT more eggnog, then wine, then vodka, then total dismay that the liquor cabinet is now empty, the stores are closed and it’s not even Christmas Eve yet.

But it’s all over now. So let us take a deep breath and admire our capacity for suffering. Which does come in handy on the bike.

It’s back to real life and back to bike riding; time to work through built up frustrations, survivor’s guilt (after all, YOU aren’t the one who agreed to host next year’s get-together) and finally, tactical holiday survival over-indulgences.   

So grab your bike, put your cycling kit on (don’t worry, everyone “dried their kit for too long and shrunk it” this time of year) … and start training. Because gravel grinder season is upon us.

In a tour de suffering that is distinct from any other type of event, gravel grinders are the latest way to test your mettle. Put your legs and mental fortitude where your miles are, and go for the latest (and possibly most sadistic) type of race series cycling has to offer.

These long distance sufferfests have become a favorite of mountain and road cyclists alike, and as a result these once unsanctioned events have been slowly creeping to the spotlight. No longer a “Hey! I have a terrible (-ly AWESOME) idea! Let’s go find a 70-110 mile bike route with the most elevation, the most remote locations, and the absolute WORST road conditions possible … and go ride it all in one day!”   

Gravel grinders have caught the attention of some of the best race promoters and the strongest mountain, road, and cyclocross racers in the country, and the discipline is rapidly on the rise in California (see sidebar).

Though it does take no small amount of bravery to register for a gravel grinder and no small amount of determination and endurance to finish it, this style of racing actually IS for every kind of rider. That’s one of the coolest things about it, really.

This isn’t cross-country racing where mountain bike technical skills and fast recovery are paramount, or enduro racing which requires both a bike and a rider that can conquer a gnarly downhill course, or 24hr racing which focuses on skills in sleep deprivation, pacing, and planning.   

Nope, gravel grinding is its own breed. The unpredictable outcomes of these events are a refreshing change of pace from the race-for-fourth-place that is so common in skill-set specific racing.

These unpredictably diverse courses are the great equalizer between cycling disciplines. They require a well-rounded cyclist to win – a rider can not exclusively be just a strong climber, a technical descender, or a fast sprinter and expect to be successful. Race leaders change based on the section of the race, and due to the long miles and continuously varying course conditions, it’s anyone’s race to win or lose, and the mechanicals and flats that can (and do) happen because of the rough pavement, dirt roads, and rocky sections add an extra element of the unpredictable.

With all of the fresh offerings for new sights, suffering, riding styles, and locations that the gravel grinder has to offer, it has breathed new life and brought a new level of enthusiasm into the cycling world. Who knew that so much pain could bring so much pleasure?

Racers take on a grueling 18-mile climb before a sweeping 30-mile descent on the Grinduro course (SBTS/John Watson).

Racers take on a grueling 18-mile climb before a sweeping 30-mile descent on the Grinduro course (SBTS/John Watson).

Inspiring views of the Lost Sierra surround Grinduro competitors (SBTS/John Watson).

Seeing double on the Tainthammer course (SuperPro Racing/Ted Ketai).

Seeing double on the Tainthammer course (SuperPro Racing/Ted Ketai).

Riders set out to navigate Lake Davis before dropping into Red Clover Valley on the Lost & Found gravel grinder course (SBTS).

Riders set out to navigate Lake Davis before dropping into Red Clover Valley on the Lost & Found gravel grinder course (SBTS).


2016 California  Gravel Grinders

Photo: SuperPro Racing/Murphy Mack

SuperPro Racing’s California Gravel Gauntlet Series
Cycling’s quirkiest event promoter Murphy Mack brings back his popular Gravel Gauntlet Series for the 2016 season, adding two more rounds for a total of five events. These fast and furious gravel rides each rock a different personality, all of which test your skill, strength and endurance – and ultimately determine who’s the king and queen of the California gravel scene.

The 2016 schedule is expected to kick off with the renowned Tainthammer on February 20 in Gustine. The Tainthammer features 110 miles of the worst California Central Valley roads that race organizers could find. Horrible pavement, compressed sand, gravel, washboard, potholes, and headwinds make up this sufferfest.

Also back for 2016 is Menso’s SLO Ride to Hell on March 5 out of Santa Margarita, in which pro racer Menso de Jong takes riders on a journey of self-discovery and introspection. A 75-mile route with massive views, screaming descents, and twists and turns on backcountry mountain tops that will leave you dizzy.

The series wouldn’t be the same without Rumble in the Ranchlands in Mariposa, taking place on March 19 and featuring an 82-mile rolling route through the Sierra foothills not far from Yosemite Valley. You’ll ride up and down scenic dirt roads and double tracks, in and out of steep river valleys, yielding to cows along the way.

Toss in brand new venues Shevock’s Sierra Surprise in Foresthill on March 12 and the series finale in Panoche Desert Hills in Firebaugh on April 2, and you’re looking at one hell of a kick-ass series, sure to please even the most discerning cycling masochist.

Each event will boast SuperPro Racing’s signature support including great food and prizes, fully stocked aid stations and more. Individual event registration is available or snag your Gravel SuperPass for savings on the entire series. The Series SuperPass also gets you a sweet California Gravel Gauntlet full-zip, water resistant jacket, great for those post ride times when your blood sugar is hitting the floor.

For the series schedule, details and registration, visit superproracing.com.

Photo: SBTS/John Watson

Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS) Gravel Events
Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS) – organizer of the wildly popular Downieville Classic cross country and downhill mountain bike races – boasts two gravel grinder events on its fundraising events line-up: the Lost & Found gravel road bicycle race and the Grinduro mountain-bike-enduro-meets-gravel-road race.

Now in its third year, the 100-mile Lost & Found Gravel Grinder is set to take place on Saturday, June 4 at Lake Davis. Riders competing in the full 100-miler tackle over 7000’ of climbing on a route that is 80% gravel. Shorter 60- and 30- mile options are also available. A post event lunch party will be provided for participants after they finish along with awards, raffle and entertainment. Last year 484 intrepid souls lined up to ride a route that looped around Lake Davis, headed north through Red Clover Valley, then dropped into Genesee Valley before climbing back and returning to Lake Davis.

The two-day Grinduro, which debuted last year, takes place October 8 in Quincy. Sponsored by Giro Sport Design with SRAM and Clif Bar, this more-than-just-a-bike race event takes gravel grinding a step further, introducing a festival-type atmosphere with phenomenal post-race food offerings, bands, camping, and even a unique Bike and Art exhibit featuring the works of some of the best local frame builders, artists and photographers the area has to offer. In short, this race offered something for everyone – suffer-seekers and hedonists alike.

Brand new for 2016, SBTS is offering the Lost Sierra Triple Crown, the ultimate challenge of both fitness and bike handling skills, tying together the Lost & Found, the Downieville Classic and Grinduro.

The SBTS races are crucial components of their fundraising efforts. Proceeds go toward trail restoration, maintenance and building efforts. Trail crews are all locally hired, and the organization’s work not only  benefits area trails, but also the region’s economy.

For more information about the SBTS events, visit sierratrails.com.

Photo: SBTS/Dusty Bermshot

Photo: SBTS/Dusty Bermshot

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