“My god mate, how many meals are you eating?” the Kiwi said.

We’re at the Walnut cafe in Boulder doing our best to show visitors a good time, proving we’re not basic suburbanites who have forgotten how to have fun since we started changing diapers as a full-time job.

We hiked Sanitas, which was enough to build a hunger in our visitors unused to the bracing heat and reluctant air pressure of Colorado, but their hunger was kiddie pool level compared to my ambition.

“I’ll have Billy’s Avocado toast, an omelet with an extra side of toast, and let’s get one of those face-sized cinnamon rolls for the table to share.”

By share, I mean that I would strategically position the cinnamon roll in front of me and make sure to divide it in such as way that the biggest pieces happened to fall in my direction, incidentally also landing in the deepest part of the vat of frosting that overflowed the serving plate.

I was racing Ned Gravel tomorrow, and it was time to let the fat kid off the leash. Beyond practicing taking an interest in others and asking specific, sometimes borderline inappropriate questions about the kiwis’ lives, I also kept checking my phone, not to scroll, but to view the trajectory of my blood glucose. That’s right – I’m now running a CGM on my arm FOR SCIENCE!

The Cinnamon roll sent my blood sugar to the moon, but I wasn’t done. I chased that sugar high with mounds of gluten-free toast, massive slices of avocado, and an omelet dripping in bubbling cheddar cheese. By the end of my feast, my dignity was gone, and my CGM was blaring a warning that I should get up and move; otherwise, I would go into cardiac arrest.

I was padding my glycogen stores so enthusiastically because I have recently taken to listening to a Colby Pearce podcast about fueling for Unbound Gravel that he made traveling back from the race. Colby is a Boulder legend, an Olympian turned coaching and bike fitting guru who never stays in his lane and injects all his podcasts with unmistakable militant hippie swagger. The bias isn’t subtle, nor is it easy to stop listening.

Something he said caught my ear, “You should turn up to the start of a race heavy.”

Most cyclists are neurotic about their weight because weight is speed, and if you weigh less, you go faster. Thus, many cyclists do everything in their power to eat in a way that forces their bodies to catabolize most of their flesh so they have all the gravitational resistance of an angel and have a superior power-to-weight ratio. 

In theory, that’s a great strategy. In practice, it leads to most cyclists privileging weight over glycogen stores and chronically underfueling during training and racing. 

As Colby pointed out, every gram of carbohydrate requires 4 grams of water to metabolize, so a cyclist who has properly topped up on their glycogen stores before a race can expect to weigh 2-4 pounds over their normal weight, and that’s not even considering preloading sodium. 

Anyway, I’m not small to begin with – no stranger has ever bought me a sandwich out of pity – so I adopted Colby’s advice enthusiastically, maybe too enthusiastically, because as I rolled up to the line, my bibs were visibly distressed, trying to keep my stomach from falling out. 

As disgusting and unfit as I felt to move, much less race, as the hours ticked by during Ned Gravel, I felt something only the genie from Aladdin has ever felt – Indomitable, Cosmic POWER!

I never felt like bonking. I could push hard, right under my threshold for long periods, well beyond where I usually would explode, and start looking behind me nervously to see who would murder me as I faded. 

That’s right – I did something right. Doing things right makes shit comedy, but I’m a coach, not a clown, and I have a deep interest in my athletes succeeding using what they learn from my failures or successes!

So the first lesson you can take from Ned Gravel is: Show up to the line heavy. You don’t need to be on the verge of needing to be rolled there, but if you want to do well in a gravel race, you need the energy to make dem watts, and you’re a human, not a tree – you have to eat enough before and during your race. 

And yeah, I’m not going to pretend I coasted on Walnut Cafés cinnamon rolls for four hours – every hour on the hour, I knocked out a 90-gram gel. Yes, 90 grams of smooth-swallowing sugar with a citrusy aftertaste. You gotta mainline to redline. 

I say all this, but many of you have clicked away or thought, ‘I already do this.”

You don’t. I’m willing to be 90% of racers do not eat enough when they race to fuel correctly. Here’s a challenge – at a gravel race you don’t care about that much, overdo it. Show up to the line a little bloated. Push yourself to eat AT LEAST 90 grams an hour of carbohydrates. Really make your gut work for its supper and see what happens. 

Maybe you’ll yak. Perhaps you’ll have to call in an emergency portapotty. Or, maybe you’ll have bottomless energy and have God Legs all day. Only one way to find out…

On the first climb out of Ned, everyone was pinning it; I thought my heart would explode, that I would get dropped immediately, and, probably, I should quit the sport.

Gravel is always like this. It doesn’t matter if it’s 200 miles long – the start is always raced like the last laps of a criterium.

While I heaved my glycogen-loaded limbs up the climbs, another ride dressed all in black came up beside me. My brain flickered recognition, but I couldn’t quite place him. He had hairy legs, veiny arms and contorted his face in a signature grimace that finally drew his name from my memory – Michael Burleigh.

Michael Burleigh is a fucking legend. You don’t know him – he was never nationally famous, but he was locally famous because for about two to three years, Burleigh, or the ‘sheriff’ as he was called then, was the fastest road cyclist in the front range at least so long as random world tour riders didn’t interrupt their training to mob on a local race, and even then he sometimes beat them.

Burleigh used to be a doughy lawyer who liked riding mountain bikes and dabbled in road racing riding for Denver University. He quickly rose through the ranks and became famous for his imperious riding style.

Burleigh wasn’t like other cyclists. He didn’t buy rice cakes, seize up around women, fuss over his bike, or race apologetically. Despite his relative stature, he imposed himself on races with Napoleonic menace. He’d float near the front all race, patrolling the front, daring anyone to attack, swearing at you if you fed with his wheel, and then, when the split came, usually up a horrendous climb or through some technical absurdity, he’d dance away from everyone.

Burleigh taught me that talent is real. Through a combination of training and diet, his legs became a front-range institution. You knew if he turned up to the race, that in all likelihood, your ambitions should resign themself to second place at best.

It wasn’t just about his legs; he had this ferocity about him, this native aggression, this clinical assuredness that made him tough to race against, and the uncanny ability to meet a moment and ride above his level. That’s talent. I was there. I saw it while it was happening.

Burleigh knows me. We both came up at the same time and for a brief moment in 2013, I was near his level. I remember doing the Salida Omnium Road Race, a famously high altitude twisty circuit through a subdivision with a punchy climb and a screaming downhill into a gravel 90-degree turn. Towards the end of the race into that turn, I did not navigate it well, grabbing fistfuls of brake.

“What the fuck, Rowe!” Burleigh said.
“What was that?”
“I’m not so good at turning.”
“No shit! You’re going to crash us all out.”

We never got close, but we’d always exchanged small talk. I could tell he never respected me because he knew he could always beat me, and frankly, I don’t resent him for that – it’s the nature of the sport.

But since 2017, he has retired. Got married. He had a kid, maybe two, then moved to Estes Park and laid low, only popping up now and then to curb stomp Old Man Winter, proving that even as a Dad and not training much, he still can turn a pedal.

As the group broke up as we entered the Switzerland trail, he and another small group at the sharp end of the race road away from me. I’d expected that. I haven’t made the necessary sacrifices to get light this year, so I’ve entered every race with gravity against me.

After the old railroad grade leveled off into pocked, rutted ruins, I fell into a rhythm behind another dropped rider that clearly had some cyclocross or mountain bike background and wasn’t babying his racing lines but turning a big gear and rolling through all the nonsense.

Fast forward an hour, and he and another guy dropped me on Rowena, a bullshit goat track up the side of a mountain I have always found unrideable but isn’t. Normally, hope would have faded, but it’s hard to feel down when you’re pumping 90 grams of carbohydrates into your bloodstream every hour, so as the race turned onto the gravel ramps of Sunshine Canyon, I lit the turbo and went hunting.

At first, I caught the guy I had been working with on the Swtizerland trail. Then another guy. And then, towards the top, I spotted a small figure with hairy legs laboring through the switchbacks. It was Burleigh.

I never thought I would see him again. A few switchbacks later, I was on him. I ground up to him, then slowly passed.

“Matti!” Burleigh said.
“Huh,” I feigned ignorance, then did a double take, finally saying, “Burleigh! What’s up?”
“I’m dying.” He said.
“You still got it!”
“Not anymore.”

And then I rode away from him and never saw him again.

Part of me wanted to celebrate finally beating him, but I didn’t see it that way. He was still way faster than me – there’s a reason I didn’t catch him until the halfway point – the only reason I caught him is that instead of putting in the hours endurance requires, he spent time with his kids. The last part of a gravel race is just a referendum on how much you’ve been training and if you can eat like a fat kid, not whether your VO2 max is 75+ off the couch.

Honestly, dropping him felt heretical, an inversion of the natural order. Darkness took me, and memories of a previous decade broke the surface and made me question what the hell I was doing out here. Every year a new crop of ambitious young guns trains hard, rises, and then either quits or fades away. I’ve seen people come and go for over a decade, and the one constant is that I’m still out there, the class of 2013, well beyond any ambitions of ‘making it,’ but still somehow unable to let go of the pain that wants to beat myself and others.

How strange it is not to fully know why you do what you do so much time doing.

Right on key, my back broke.

Since 2014 I’ve had back pain on the bike. Same spot – bottom lower left – the product of sitting at a desk at office jobs and spending any time outside the office sitting, just on a bike.

If I do enough mobility work, I can send the pain into abeyance, but like so many of my athletes know, consistently doing the little things is hard.

It’s the worst when I’m climbing a lot, especially climbing hard, and, if my Garmin was to be believed, we were climbing 9,000ft in 70 miles, and not on pavement, but blistering, uneven gravel.

As I turned onto the bottom of the day’s final climb through Salina, past Wallstreet, and onto the Switzerland trail, my back screamed at me every pedal stroke. I screamed back. I passed herds of cyclists from a shorter version of Ned Gravel and startled many, some of whom must have thought I was dropping expletives at them.

No, you weren’t in my way. Sometimes you need to yell at yourself, express incredulity that, while the body seems to adapt to anything, somehow my back, despite all the riding I do, gets overloaded, and some muscles just give up and start mewling like a three-year-old.

Like, hey back, we ride a lot. You’re not getting the hint that maybe you should toughen up a little? Why do I have to do dumb, completely unrelated movements to the action of cycling so you don’t throw a fit when we do cycle? Oh, you’re hurting? How about you suck it?

Yelling didn’t help. It got worse, but not so bad that I couldn’t keep Donkey Konging for the rest of the course. I would feel that muscle bitch at me for four days after the race, enough that I started doing mobility exercises again because the cognitive dissonance of telling my athletes, ‘Do mobility work so your back doesn’t fail you when it counts’ was too much to bear.

In the end, hypocrisy is too much to sustain unless you’re a politician.

Road racing is dying. Do you want to get into the reasons why, or should we say we did and not?


Happily, gravel has filled the void. In the Front Range, there’s barely any road racing anymore, much less neat road races that utilize all the roads that make the Boulder area world-class with its flats, rollers, climbs, and gravel.

I can remember years ago when Boulder still hosted a stage race. It was incredible – the final day was a race up Magnolia, an HC foothills road, for god sake!

But, like every other road race, it died. It died because no one showed up, because for all the time road cyclists spend training, most of them are afraid to race uphill because they might get dropped if the race format doesn’t lend itself to drafting behind people for 59 minutes until popping out for a 15-second sprint they screw up and then bore their girlfriend about for the next three days.

But not gravel. Gravel is supposed to be hard, and everyone knows it. But unlike road racing, if you don’t feel like going hard, neat, go slow then. If you don’t feel like being out there all day, double neat, pick a shorter version of the event. If you don’t like a post-race atmosphere filled with stand-offish dbags pretending to be better than you, triple neat, because no one at a gravel race harbors any real ambitions of ‘going pro’ or ‘making it’ because anyone that’s looked into it knows the game is over and unless your name rhymes with ‘Bayson’ or ‘Retina’ no one is paying you for anything.

Consequently, the gravel racing is fun as shit. Ned Gravel, in particular, might be my favorite gravel race (besides Red Granite Grinder). The promoters use some of the finest roads in the foothills, old railway beds, old mining roads, heinous climbs, swooping descents into tiny towns reminiscent of something from a fairy tale, all terminating into a bitchin’ post-race party venue with a live band and vendors in a crazy hippy town next to a lake.

Not that anyone cares, but I finished 8th. Shot the shit with my teammate, disrobed in my car, and left the party early, ripping down Boulder Canyon. I had to watch the kids. Scratch that – I had the opportunity to spend time with my kids while they’re small and unaware I’m an idiot.

Hard to beat days like these.

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