“So, what are your goals for SBT GRVL?” my wife asks.
“Well, I’d love to make it ten minutes into the race without a catastrophic failure that leaves me immediately 10 minutes behind the leaders.”
The first four miles into Unbound 200, my saddle bag ripped free and fell into my rear rotor. During BWR California, my chain fell off 3 miles in when everyone was going 30 mph.
What did I want out of SBT GRVL? I wanted a completely unspectacular, mediocre, but smooth start without falt, a dropped chain, or a crash, and I got it until I endoed over a tree root.
How much do you trust your memories? If that answer is a lot, I hate to break it to you, but you’re probably lying to yourself. The funny thing about memory is that whenever you retrieve a memory, your present state modifies what happened in the past, so it’s congruent with what you want that memory to mean now. So whenever you recall a memory, you change it slightly, and over time it becomes less and less accurate to what was.
Through the lens of gravel racing, I’ve realized the narrative I’ve told myself about my bike racing history is heavily modified fiction. I liked road racing, specifically hard, long road races, more than any type of bike racing for a simple reason – it was the most accessible format for which I could apply a nordic skiing engine with some success without bothering to learn how to steer or position myself.
Sure, gravel racing is hard, it’s long and favors all the physiological elements I’d like to think are in my wheelhouse, but to do well in a gravel race, you have to be able to freaking handle your bike.
The problem with getting better at handling your bike is that you’re fighting against a voice inside yourself that sincerely doesn’t want you to die.
I agree. Three days before the race, after getting over a cold, I went out for a shake-out ride and attacked a gravel corner with real venom. I put all my weight into my outside food so that my ass hovered slightly over the seat. I looked where I wanted to go, not where I was going. I pulled with my inside arm, and as soon as I get the gravel, my back wheel swept out, and I hit face first and dragged across the gravel.
When I opened the door to my house, my wife greeted me like usual, but upon seeing my face, she stepped back. My lip was swollen like I’d been punched. Blood curdled above my mustache and my chin. My ass and hands were shredded.
“How can I help?” she asked. I told her she couldn’t and then cried.
Sure, I was in pain. But more than anything, I was pissed that I sucked at handling my bike. I was tired of braking, tired of my fear, tired of being a bitch, and the moment I gave that fear the middle finger, the universe gave me immediate feedback in the form of my face dragging across a gravel road at 25 mph.
That’s what’s such a bitch about getting technically better. That adds up and makes an enormous difference if you gradually gain a couple of seconds here and there. Let me put it this way – if every time you encounter a downhill or technical trail, you lose 20 seconds per mile, and there are roughly 80 miles of that in a gravel race, that means you’re going to lose approximately 30 minutes throughout the race to fear. Not because you’re not strong, just because you’re spending so much time canceling all the speed you earned.
But here’s the thing – speed is a simple risk-reward equation. Sure, if you go faster, you can gain some time. But if you go fast and you make a mistake? Well, minimally, you’re staring at really uncomfortable showers. At worst? Dead. It happens, seriously.
So after wrecking three days before SBT GRVL and entering the race with lacerated hands, ass cheeks, and a ripped-up face, I wasn’t feeling bullish even by my standards. Lord knows, then, why I chose a tire width and tread pattern more befitting a downhill mountain biker than a hapless roadie.
Early this year, I rode Steamboat Roubaix, which featured some of the same roads. I did that on 25 mm tires, which was a bold move. But it was spring, and Steamboat had a lot of moisture, and even if I was puckered at the time, I survived and pulled down a decent result.
But now? Jesus Christ. The drought in the west is real, and most of these gravel roads were a loosely packed nightmare of washboard gravel. Every gravel downhill, I felt less like I was riding a bike and more like I was surfing on some kind of hell wave where if my concentration wavered even slightly, the consequence wasn’t that I was falling into the water, but gravel at 25 mph.
That could have been fine for 50 miles, but 140? As the race progressed, my anxiety grew. Every time I hit another extended screaming downhill of washed-out gravel, my panic increased. I kept replaying my crash over and over. My forearms burned from grabbing brakes when I didn’t need to. I puckered so long my pucker got tired.
I tried to be daring. I did. But then my front tire would bolt underneath me like a wild animal, and I felt the sickening shift of my gravity start to slide toward oblivion only to catch myself barely. My nerves shredded, and I contemplated pulling, but two things saved me.
First, I randomly found myself in a group with Andy Johnson. Andy knew me from my younger days when I barely knew how to inflate my tires. Still, he took me onto his team anyway and watched me inexplicably power my considerable nordic bulk over climbs and rise swiftly through the early categories of road racing. I hadn’t talked to him in ages.
In a paceline, he sat behind me. I overheard him talking to his teammates.
“See that guy?”
“Yeah, that guy. He’s a horse, a goddaamn stallion.”
I took a pull with him behind me. As I pulled off, he said, “Dude, you are a freaking ox.”
Look – this year has been challenging. So was last year. But safe to say, between COVID and racing Nationally, my confidence has taken a beating. I’ve worked hard, but I haven’t been that fast. I’ve forgotten that I am pretty strong. And as much as I’d like to pretend that doesn’t hurt, it freaking cuts me. I don’t want people dismissing me out of hand, and lately, I’ve started every race feeling that I may as well check myself out before I began.
Andy shocked me out of that narrative with a few words. I remembered I could turn a pedal if I have to. He punctured something toxic and degrading, and I instantly felt lifted, like a prisoner suddenly exposed to free air.
Second, I’m Norwegian, which means I’m not evolved for temperatures above 32F. In every long race I’ve done to eternity, I’ve always cramped, and my gut has backed up, rendering me a shell of my real strength.
So, I read a book. It turns out if you take down a shit load of sodium the night before, 90 minutes before, and during the race, it helps – a lot.
On Saturday night, I downed a Pedialyte, which is something you give to dehydrated infants and drunks to rehydrate. An hour and a half before the race, I drank another. Before the third hour, I took down another 3,000 mg of sodium. After that, I smashed a sleeve of electrolyte tablets, and something crazy happened.
After I changed my hydration protocol from drinking to thirst to down enough sodium to kill a baby elephant, I felt something I haven’t felt in a race for a long, long time. I never cramped. I never felt nauseous. Instead, I felt something I haven’t felt forever – endless, inexhaustible strength. I felt like a goddamn Gravel God.
This is what racers live for, unchained from minding training zones, the pressures of their jobs and lives, just them and their bike locked in a feral trance, riding against their limits, finally free.
About 85 miles in, I started overtaking people with superior technical ability, positioning, or fresh power. They were dying, and I was rising. I knew that because I’ve been there. As I passed them, most of them didn’t even bother to respond but watched me go, sometimes saying something encouraging.
Others did try to jump on my wheel. If they did, I exploded out of the saddle and never bothered to look back. Soon I couldn’t hear their breathing.
Some battles became more pitched, a fascinating match of their technical superiority versus my inexhaustible watts.
I had a beautiful exchange with one guy in yellow jersey who I passed on one climb. After a long, sustained, washed-out gravel downhill, he effortlessly passed me into a flat where I quickly ate up his advantage and came upon his side. I looked back on a chasing pack and bade him hop on my wheel to work together. I put in a pull, and he said, ‘Jesus, I don’t have that man!”
So I rode away, only for another sustained downhill to bring us together again. As he passed me in a technical corner, he looked at me and said, “You know, if you can ever figure out how to descend, you’d be pretty good.”
I laughed, and then the road turned into a long asphalt climb, and I tasted blood and left him for the last time.
Beyond feeling like no matter how hard I went, I could not die, the best feeling was catching people who no doubt marked me for dead hours ago. They’d passed me 15 miles in, taking shitty lines, braking for no reason and filed me away as a hapless loser. How do I know that? Because I’ve thought the same thing.
But that’s the beauty of gravel racing. No matter who you pass in hour two in a moment of hubris, if you want to stay ahead of them, you still have to back it up in hours three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and if you’re doing Unbound 200, probably hour 13+.
Now, I was paying it back. This nobody in a red Rio Grande jersey came upon them with fury, so close to the end. Their reserves drained low, this impossible mass of bloated Norwegian rage mercilessly surging past them in the boiling high country.
There are many ways to bike race, but what gravel racing gets right, and I always loved, is that it exposes the gritty, ugly heart of endurance itself. Other types of bike racing are mathematic or won by guile alone.
Gravel racing? There’s nowhere to hide. I don’t care how good you are at conserving your energy or drafting – eventually, the course will test you. It’s just too long to fake it.
You finish on your knees, bloodstained, cramped, bloodshot eyes, depleted, shell-shocked, desperate. The compounding forces of distance, gravity, heat, and wind reduce strip you down to simple elements you hope to conquer. In that fragile husk, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to feel was that I could respond with more than defeat.
In the dying kilometers of the race, the full heat of the summer lashing down, I retraced the familiar markers I’d seen the now-defunct Steamboat Stage Race. I came upon yet another person that had left me for dead and a guy in jorts who were exchanging pulls. I latched on, they looked back, and sensing their hesitation, I exploded past them.
One of the guys yelled out, “Get it, man, yeah, 5,000th place! YEAHH, get ’em’! You’re SO fast!”
I knew that guy, but he doesn’t know me. He’s Boulder cyclocross royalty who got on a pro team and had been living the dream but lately had left the fold of a continental pro road team and had switched to a gravel racing team. He’s more talented than me, endlessly clever, and I detest him in a way only possible by being in the same spaces for years but never exchanging a word beyond the violence spoken through pedals.
He was wrong. I wasn’t racing for 5,000th place. It was for 68th, and I took it from him, and it felt amazing. For the first time in a gravel race, I crossed the finish line without shame.
68th is not fast, but with an agave wheat in my hand and Steamboats’ deep valued sky above me, I didn’t care. I’ve never been fast, but today, I got faster. I can’t do this forever, but I can now, and in this sweet exhaustion, maybe I’ll find some hedge against feeling nothing.
I call my wife, and Lars is up – when will I be back? I finish my beer and clip in. The road is long, and I am ready.
How to SBT GRVL
SBT GRVL Training Plan
I cruised into this race with a 100+ CTL and LOTS and LOTS of intensity in my legs from other races.
It should be no surprise to anyone that attempts long gravel races like this that you need to be incredibly fit and stable on your bike because the combined demands of the course and well, racing, mean that you can’t get through this day without going to the well.
That last point is important – you will go to the well. To go to the well, you need to be fresh. In technical terms, you want a very, very positive TSB. I’m willing to be a lot of gravel racers put too much emphasis on getting their fitness high and less emphasis on entering the race in a low fatigue state at the expense of fitness.
It’s WAY better to enter the race a little undertrained but fresh than it is a little fitter but buried. If you’re fresher, your body will let you go deeper and SBT GRVL will ask your body some serious questions.
This is a roadie course. Yes, they run you through some single track, a couple of cornfields, and some of the downhills feel more like you’re surfing on pebbles rather than riding, but the majority of the parcour is just Classic Colorado Champagne Gravel – you know, brown-colored pavement.
Still, if you’re a little unwieldy when the course gets gritty, by far the best choice to keep yourself upright and moving well is to just run a wider tire. It won’t be as fast, but it won’t matter because you won’t crash and won’t be puckering as hard when things get spicy.
If you’re an excellent bike handler you’ll do fine on a thinner, faster rolling tire.
For the rest of us, however, choose comfort/grip over speed. The more gravel races I’ve done, the more convinced I am that splitting hairs over 2-5mm of tire width or whether to go treadless or not just isn’t worth it. That’s like fretting over the lightest water bottle holders when you’re 50 pounds overweight. If I had just ran the same setup I did at Unbound 200 I would have been much, much faster despite the additional rotational weight. That weight saving gets canceled out in a hurry when you’re braking and puckering on 30 downhills when other people are confidently sending it.
Mitigating sweat loss contributes just as much to success as fitness or tire choice at SBT GRVL.
No, it’s not humid. No, given that it’s at 7,000ft it doesn’t get as hot as it could.
But you’re going to be out there for at least 7 hours and unless you’re a complete hitter, probably longer, which means that even at that altitude the oven will turn on and you will roast.
Pre-load sodium. Takedown lots of sodium in the first hours. Takedown more than you think you need in the final hours. It’s very hard to overdo it but if you takedown too little your ability to eat will slow and consequently your work rate will drop and finally you’ll start cramping everywhere.
If you want more background on this, hereHow to Hydrate for Gravel Cycling Races you go.
You’re going to have to eat something. The course is 144 miles, you’re at an average altitude of about 7,000 ft, and it features several punishing climbs.
As always, a mixture of real food and pure sugar will probably suit you best, but in all honestly the limiting factor of your small intestine to clear everything you’re gorging on is going to be how well you’re hydrating and pacing yourself.
If you want to place really, really well, you had better join a group.
SBT GRVL is the closest thing to a road race I raced all season. Yes, there are some technical sections, but the majority of the course is supremely draftable gravel where a group of hammerheads is going to cruise along MUCH faster than a solo rider.
Take chances and get in a group above your head. Don’t worry about getting in above your head because there’s so many people in the race that there’s always a group to join.
That said, this race isn’t 30 miles long. If you only see red for the first two hours you’re going to hit a wall. A wise racer will settle into a good group and pace themselves waiting for the 3rd act of SBT GRVL where the foolhardy come to grief and you, who has been diligently eating and drinking, will effortlessly surpass racers pedaling squares and looking up in defeat.