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Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Journey to Gravel Races (part 3) - A Taste of Gravel

About three years ago, my grand plan for a reunion trip to a destination 24 hour mountain bike race is in shreds and I'm hunting for an endurance bike race of some kind.  There is the local 50 mile Dakota Five-O mountain bike race, but the field limit is full.  Besides, that's become a big production and I've already raced it three times on my rigid single speed.  What, then?

For several years, I'd been following TransIowa on the internet, along with a few other gravel grinders like Almanzo and Dirty Kanza.  These are long, solo races on gravel roads, not anything like the short, fast laps on single track trails and the social atmosphere of hanging out with friends and families at a team base camp at the 24 hour mountain bike races.  But without such a relay team in sight, maybe I should consider a different kind of race.

From the Dakota Five-O website, I see that the promoters were getting into the gravel scene with a new race in the Northern Black Hills:  the 110 mile Gold Rush and it's shorter companion, the 70 mile Gold Dust.  The course covers primary USFS gravel roads, rougher secondary roads, some trails and a gentle downhill paved highway to the finish.  The event features some elements of the storied MidWestern gravel grinders, but also carries over many aspects of the Dakota Five-O.  Worth a shot.

We're going where?  A confused Craig and a dapper Shaun look over the course description of the Black Hills Gold Rush.
A few weeks later, I find myself at the Spearfish City Park for the early morning start of the inaugural Black Hills Gold Rush gravel grinder.  The setting is comfortably familiar to the Dakota Five-O, but something is different.  I mill around the parking lot, preparing to race while talking to other racers.  This is a far different collection of folks.

There are mountain bike racers, for sure, and road and cyclocross racers, too.  But also recreational mountain bikers, century road riders, commuters, tourists and even tool-a-rounders.  All kinds of different cyclists, on all kinds of different bikes.  There's a nervous excitement in the air, as folks assess gear, water and food options, while knowing little or nothing about the course.  For that matter, many know nothing about how to approach this type of race.  I certainly don't.

John Sundberg and I sprint for the top of an early climb at the 2013 Gold Rush.
The adventure unfolds.  I enjoy the early miles riding with a variety of others, each out on their own journey of discovery.  Encouraging me at the start, local-fast-guy-moved-to-Idaho Brant Miller returns on his single speed cyclocross bike to pursue a spot on the podium.  On the road, I meet master road racer Roddy Dowell of Missouri, a mutual friend of long time ChristianCycling teammate Rich Pierce and a speedster on his vintage lugged steel road bike.  Later, bikepacker John Sundberg of Spearfish cruises alongside on his Salsa Fargo mountain bike.  What an eclectic mix.

I ride my trusty Torelli cyclocross single speed, set up 42 x 18 for cyclocross.  The miles pass, but that gear turns out to be too tall.  Way too tall.  The long early climbs wear me down and the later, steeper climbs, like up Cement Ridge Lookout, are brutal.  The first 70 miles or so cover good gravel on primary USFS roads, but then the course turns into a muddy, rocky, almost single track hike-a-bike, both up and down.  As exhaustion sets in, I turn onto U.S. Highway 14A, Spearfish Canyon Road, for 14 miles of paved, gentle downhill to the finish.

Finishing the inaugural Black Hills Gold Rush in 2013, 3rd place single speed (ok, there were only three).
Overall, the race is fun and the event vibe is cool, in a Dakota Five-O lite sort of way.  But the folks drawn to the event are what intrigue me.  And the race reports from the MidWestern gravel races make me wonder.  What are those like?

1 comment:

  1. I'll be at this year's Gold Rush, so it was fun looking through your posts and seeing a familiar name...I know Rich Pierce through the St. Louis area bike scene. Enjoying your look back at your gravel beginnings. :)