The start of SBT GRVL is a festival of pain.

I saw people dump their entire matchbook on the first riser out of town. Wheels crossed and bodies flipped on the first uphills. People ripped hero lines through the single track and took out three people to gain one second. Floyd Landis, on his tandem, shredded twenty-person pelotons. A 16-year-old kid voluntarily entered the 144 and clung to the back of the top six for one hundred miles. My teammate recovered from being sick for about twenty minutes and decided to send it. Guys with thighs the size of Christmas hams did pulls on the flats to rival a freight train.

And the women. Jesus, the women. Hats off. We are not worthy. The lead women are complete aliens, marvelously technically, lungs on legs, never overheating, never stopping, just slowly grinding group after group into dust. Many, many men would benefit from trying to hang onto their wheels for five minutes and realize just how good they are.

Me? I chilled, ish.

I cannot ball. When the gun went off, I missed my clip-in and lost about fifty places. As we swung out into the generous Boulevards that led out of Steamboat Springs into the wastes North of town, I fear-fingered my way to the back of the hissing, nervy mass of hundreds jockeying for pole position into the dirt roads and managed to remain in the top 200 as we descended into dust.

I will never get into the top 20 of a gravel race like this, not even if I get a heart transplant with a horse and get the bone structure of a Kenyan marathoner. No one says this, but one of the hardest parts of bike racing isn’t that everyone has the VO2 max of a sled dog team and weighs less than a pack of hummingbirds; it’s that being at the front of a bike race with hundreds of people is like base-jumping off a cliff with a 30/70 chance your parachute won’t deploy.

With the risk appetite of a corpse, you end up instantly positioned so far back that you may as well have started fifteen minutes later. And where does that leave you?

In the Panic Pack.

What’s the Panic Pack? The Panic Pack is a group of gravel cyclists that lack the technical ability, nerve, or luck to force themselves through the initial throng after the gun goes off and get toward the front of the race so they’re not caught out when the first moves go.

What’s wrong with being in the Panic Pack?

Well, nothing. I mean, it instantly disqualifies a top 20 result, but that doesn’t mean someone in the panic pack can’t recover and have a dece result.

The cardinal sin of the Panic Pack is everyone in the Panic Pack is, well, panicking. Panic is a great strategy if you’re on the beach during a tsunami, but when you’re riding for 140 miles at 8000ft in the heat and climbing 9,000ft, panic doesn’t serve you. Panic manic manifests in many ways – riding like a dick, chopping people, yelling at strangers – but its worst manifestation is riding way, way, way, way too hard, because, falsely, everyone in the panic pack thinks they deserve to be in the lead group and if they just go hard enough right now, they’ll catch them and earn a result worthy of their fitness.

What actually happens? Almost without exception, everyone in the Panic Pack blows up and finishes far worse than they would have otherwise.

The fireworks in the Panic Pack at SBT make the Fourth of July look like amateur hour. I’m not being smug – people’s fitness absolutely floored me. Everyone climbed like angels, descended like demons, and took pulls so hard that if I stuck my face out of the draft, my sunnies almost ripped off.

Me? I hid behind the innumerable mutants ripping hero pulls into the yawning gap between the lead group and us.

Why? First and foremost – I’m elderly. I don’t have the raw dumb in my legs that I once did; my body is taking on the form of a pear rather than a Grecian statue, and I didn’t want to blow up and miss my favorite Fox News Program later that night.

Second, I was just inducted as an honorary member of the Panic Pack in my last gravel race at Foco Fondo. The result of all that extra effort was one compliment from a fellow racer and a long, miserable pedal of shame back to the finish when I blew up at the worst possible place on the course.

So, I hid and ate, shielding my geriatric legs from the fury of the Panic Pack pulling at marvelous speed over champagne gravel in the cool high country morning. I had great fun – when I had to pull, they were brief and apologetic, and I only allowed myself to let 350 appear on my Garmin for a minute at a time before pulling off the front dramatically and making loud wheezing noises and stumbling back into the end of the peloton.

Hiding is easy when it’s rolling and flat, but bike races usually include terrain you can’t hide on – hills. Hills render drafting useless. Hills make pedaling hard. Hills make you regret every trying ice cream and beer.

As we hit the first proper hill, I sunk to the back pulled out a rope, and attached it to everyone around me. I wheezed and choked on a miniature cinnamon roll and tried to hang onto furious, surging women in CINCH jerseys and monstrous men with violin calves. The Panic Pack stretched, and I was the last person, clinging to the back, breathing like a dying moose not breathing that hard.

That’s right – I wasn’t pinned; I was holding back. Some other riders noticed – I could feel them staring at me as their breath came in ragged bursts, their effort slamming against their threshold.

I wasn’t taking the piss – I was straight-up scared. I didn’t want to Foco Fondo myself so early in the race, make a wild, energetic bet, and then end up in a lawn chair at the aid station at mile 120. I just tried to try hard enough not to lose the group.

As we approached the summit of the climb, I went back and forth with one guy who was climbing like a madman, and he was gradually dropping me. After every increase in the gradient, he’d look back across the few feet he’d gained and then motor harder. I was losing him. I saw a faint smile on his face.

That is, until I noticed some really, really fast people collecting themselves over the top of the climb. I thought, ‘That’s my ticket,’ and suddenly started climbing for real, getting out of the saddle and dumping 550 watts for 40 seconds. I flew past the guy who thought he was dropping me. His face tho.

My match paid off, and I joined another group of roiling hitters. We stayed together for hours. I barely touched the front – everyone was stronger than me, and I knew it. However, this group, like the Panic Pack, wasn’t the front group; they were actually the third group on the road, and half of the riders were a unique species of gravel rider called Surge Addicts.

Surge Addicts? Stay with me…

Surge Addicts are criminally strong riders. If they could ‘ball’ or had better luck, they’d be in the first or second group on the road. They’re unquestionably gifted, know how to eat and drink, technically sound, and even somewhat tactically aware. Their downfall, however, is that they’re addicted to surging.

What Surging?

Pretend you’re in the group with me. You’re feeling strong. You encounter a small hill. The group accordions together and climbs at a steady pace. Momentarily, this feels slow as the group’s momentum dies on the hill. You RIP it, dropping everyone in the group and putting fifty feet into twenty riders by the top, which you crest and dive bomb. You are better. You are faster.

But, there’s no one ahead of you, no group to join up with. You’re alone. You have to break the wind, but there’s nothing to draft, no one to share the workload, and the gravel is undulating, small hills followed by small descents rolling into extended flat sections.

You glance back. The group you dropped is 30 feet behind you. You press yourself into the pedals and squeeze out extra watts, gaining a few feet here and there, but on every downhill, you cede more ground because the slingshotting speed of the group allows them to feed off each other’s draft and go five mph faster than you do using zero energy.

After five miles of threshold-level effort, you are caught on an extended downhill and slot into the back of the group. You have forgotten to eat, so you feel bonky and shove something down. It’s getting hotter, and you’re almost out of water because you didn’t wear a USWE pack because it weighed too much and could mean the difference between getting dropped and staying on.

Your bike computer chirps. You’re at the foot of the next significant climb now, and it says 4 miles and 1,500 feet of climbing. The group surges into the gradient, and the draft disappears. The only thing that keeps you in the group is your legs, and you can feel cramps starting, a sudden drop of energy, and the heat cutting through you like a scythe. Valiantly, you surge and hold on, but four minutes into the effort, your guts boil, your eyes cross, and you have to slow down.

You’re dropped. Only thirty miles to the finish.

I Surged Addicted to Foco Fondo and died a thousand deaths. As we approached the longest climb of the day in SBT GRVL Black, I sagged the climbs and stayed in the group, watching mutant after mutant Surge Addict small rollers and annihilated the group only to get caught shortly after that. I did not feel smarter than anyone as much as I feared the pain of a misplaced energy bet. Pain is the ultimate teacher. 

“So are you saying never to surge?”

No. There are three reasons and three reasons only to surge:

  1. Your tempo pace is faster than the group’s. For example, if Keegan Swenson somehow ended up in our group, he’s so much fitter than each of us that, even combined, he would simply ride away. 
    1. “How do I know if my tempo pace is faster than the groups?” If you have to ask, it’s not
  2. There’s a bridgeable group in front of you. For example, if the second group on the road was less than a minute up the road and you felt strong, it might be worth a shot to bridge to them—a gamble, but a gamble that might pay off.
  3. You’re on a long, sustained climb. Anything that negates the power of drafting for extended periods is an excellent place to surge if you’re feeling good.
  4. Bonus reason: You want a good story/compliment/excuse. If you surge for in all the wrong places, people will:
    1. Compliment you for how strong you are.  
    2. Have the noble excuse that you were trying to catch the lead group but mysteriously exploded. 
    3. Have an absorbing story about the suffering you went through after you cracked. 

Anyway, the rest of the day isn’t even worth talking about. I followed the advice I give every athlete:

  • Ride within yourself.
  • Eat and drink like your life depends on it.
  • Do as little work as possible…until you get close to the end. 

When we reached the bottom of the big climb at mile 95, I mashed the ‘hit send’ button and monster trucked my way to the finish, picking up 30 places and finishing 45th overall. Not bad for Dad. 

Surprisingly, the best part of the day started after I finished. 

I met people I raced with all day. I chatted with my coworker, who savaged me on his second gravel race (damn you!). I ran into friend after friend as I walked through the post-race party toward the food tent such that I finally had to cut conversations short so I didn’t pass out. 

All of this took me off guard because:

  1. I was raised roadie, and we don’t talk to each other. 
  2. I’m shy and don’t talk to people. 
  3. The people were fantastic. 

“Gravel racing has great community’ headlines read. I always thought that was funny. Gravel racing is bike racing, and bike racing always seemed filled with hyper-competitive peacocks obsessed with the narcissism of small differences rather than making new friends. 

But, on August 20th, 2023, in the post-race festival of SBT, I can honestly say there were vibes and vibes were…good, the sort of vibes that will keep you coming back year after year and give you another reason to deepen your love and commitment to pedaling a lot. I’m still surprised. 


Hours later, I returned to the finish to find my teammate, Henry York. He had come up on a whim at the last minute after ‘Not feeling any symptoms in the last few minutes’ and deciding a 140-mile gravel race was just what his body needed to recover from a cold. 

When he crossed the line, he found a tree, collapsed underneath it, and then jammed some CheezeIts. This immediately put his stomach into cardiac arrest and forced him to prostrate himself on the ground, moaning incoherently. We left him. Henry has been on dates in Ecuador at night in the red light district during a civil war – what’s the worst that could happen in downtown Steamboat?

An hour later, I found him sitting, staring blankly into the distance under a rando’s tent, ashen. 

I rushed back to my illegal park job, loaded him up, and drove him back to our Airbnb while listening to his daring fueling gambit of consuming only liquid calories for the first four hours of the race and enduring his judgment when he discovered I own a gravel bike AND a cyclocross bike, which is apparently a capital offense in some states. 

The afternoon melted into the early evening, and I had said goodbye to the boys. I couldn’t get a hug out of any of them because that makes everyone uncomfortable, including me, but I know how this game works, and there’s no telling if I’ll ever see them again, if ever. 

They’re in their mid to late 20s now and have figured out that there might be a lot more to life than pedaling a bike fast, something I still don’t understand. Chaz showed me a video of river surfing he does down in Salida. 

“More fun than training,” he said. 

“Everything is more fun than training,” I lied. 

I was off, over Rabbit Ears, the Subaru carrying me back home to my family, yearning for the miles to pass. I gripped the steering wheel while some songs hit, and an Alan Watt’s line hammered my brain stem: 

“Someday, I’ll get the Golden Goody at the end of the line. There is that feeling that there is this great Golden Goody. But that Golden Goody isn’t at the end of the line. You’re in it. 

The purpose of life is not in the future. If you think it is, you’ll go on and on looking for it there, but the future fades out just as the past fades out. 

The Golden Goody was never there, and you may feel vaguely cheated because you felt you had something coming that never arrived. But you’ve been sitting in the Golden Goody the entire time.”

I put together a result. I met people. I got to ride my bike in the high country in the height of June. I felt healthy. I wasn’t driving home to an empty closet apartment; I was racing to arrive before my kid’s bedtime. 

I’m in the gold. 

Quotes of the Weekend

“Matti, don’t zip-tie your race number plate to the front. It’s minutes slower. MINUTES MATTI”
~Chaz, encouraging controversial race plate attaching.

“I put down the stank on the climb.”
~Ethan, my teammate, describing his pacing strategy in the lead group.

“Henry, your goal is to start this gravel race without any mechanical emergencies.”
(Fast forward to us riding to the start the following morning. Henry turns back suddenly).
“Where are you going, Henry?”
“I’m going back to the house. I forgot my tire lever.”

A Guy in our group misses an illegal water bottle hand up from his buddy standing on the side of the road and yells back, “It’s OK. You can hand it to me in a few miles!”
~Zach Allison to a rule-breaking dude in our group halfway through the course. ❤️

“Is your teammate OK?”
“He’s fine. He’s always like this after gravel races.”
~Chaz’s friend observes Henry under a tree, trying to puke.

“Matti, you’re doing it all wrong. You’re an old Dad now. You have to switch to the single-speed category. Far greater chance of being on the podium and zero mechanical issues.”
~Lucas Clarke

“Dub dub dub dub dub”
~Me, ‘Diesel Daddy,’ making diesel engine noises as I finally catch up to Chaz (a straight baller) at mile 100.

“I’m from Las Vegas, New Mexico.”
~Michael Palmer. I’ve always wanted to meet someone from Las Vegas, NM, the real (and best) Las Vegas. Palmer also descends like a devil and puts on a clinic in the third group on the road all day.

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