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Thursday, June 14, 2018

A Single Speed Gold Rush

Great. I got that "excited/scared" feeling. Like 98% excited, 2% scared. Or maybe it's more - it could be 2 - it could be 98% scared, 2% excited. But that's what makes it so intense. It's so - confused. I can't really figure it out. 
Oscar Choi. Armageddon (1998).

Nothing like having a legendary professional capture the moment at the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder.
Thanks, Randy! (photo by Randy Ericksen)
It's a mixed up mess of racing thoughts and swinging emotions when staring into the face of the start of something that stretches beyond one's preparation, ability or ambition. Whether school, work, athletics, kids, family, friends or whatever, it just goes round and round:

You're not ready. You know how to do this.

It's too much. Break it down.

You can't do this. You've done harder.

You should take it easy. And then what?

This is nuts. You got this.

No, really, this is nuts. Too late, it's started. Now I'm going to finish.

No! Go!

Gold Rush Race Directors Kristi and Perry Jewett, photo bombed by the irrepressible Jay Petervary.
At the early morning start of the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder, I lean over the top tube of my Black Mountain Cycles monster cross bike, for some reason set up single speed, while the reality of this race sinks in. 110 miles. Over 7,000 feet of elevation gain. So many variables. So much uncertainty. But one thing I know. I can't shift to an easier gear. Not ever. Pedal the one gear, or walk.

What was I thinking? I haven't ridden single speed on a long gravel race since 2013. This is nuts.

Friendly voices, some familiar and some new, break through the internal clutter and redirect my thoughts. Hey! Hi! At the start of such an endeavor, it's always great fun to reconnect with friends and to reach out to friends you're just meeting. This morning, it's downright therapeutic. By the start of the race, I'm ready to enjoy whatever the day brings. Just ride.

Old school Roddy Dowell from Missouri at the start, about to learn them young-uns a lesson!
My mind now may be ready but my bike is not. On the first little downhill, hitting the first little bump, I launch a stream of gels and bars out of an unzipped bag all over the road. By the time I collect the scattered pieces, the "neutral rollout" has long disappeared from view. That's a bit deflating. Though I've been dead no-foolin' last in the past, it's been at the end of a long, grueling race after much of the field dropped out. Now, I'm last before the racing has officially started.

So, this is what the day is bringing. OK. Well, I know enough to take my medicine and settle into a manageable pace. It's going to be a 10-12 hour day, mostly spent climbing nearly 70 miles up to O'Neil Pass and then shorter, but much steeper pitches up to Cement Ridge Lookout. The weather is perfect in the mid-sixties, with little wind and clear skies. The roads are hard packed and dry. I know the route well. It doesn't take much imagination to see that this can be a good day. Let it be one.

The long, lonely day of an event volunteer taking pictures of passing riders.
I believe this is renowned photographer and artist Les Heiserman.
After a few early rollers, the race turns south onto Sand Creek Road for miles and miles of gradual uphill through a shaded valley along a mountain stream. This idyllic remote road creates a sweet beginning to the long climb up to O'Neil Pass. At just a tad under 3 hours, I pull into the water stop at mile 36, where the 70 mile and 110 mile courses diverge. I enjoy the drinks and chocolate chip cookies offered by the energetic volunteers. For me, it's a solid start.

A couple of steeper pitches on Moskee Road reward with a welcomed descent before turning south again, now onto Grand Canyon Road. The meat of the climb starts now. Ahead lies almost 20 miles uphill without a break. Almost all the way to the O'Neil Pass Checkpoint. Well, alrighty then.

Gold Rush Gravel Grinder winding its way along Moskee Road. (photo by Les Heiserman)
Finding a rhythm on the steady, gradual grade, I feel strong.  It's a long climb for everyone and I occasionally pass another. The late morning heat can really build on this climb, particularly as it steepens at about mile 60 and the sparse shade all but disappears. But not today. Today, the temperatures stay moderate and, while warming up, the climb does not overcook. Nutrition and hydration are spot on, the legs feel good, and the one gear still feels right. I hit the 70 mile O'Neil Pass Checkpoint at just over 6 hours. That's a strong climb for me.

I check in at the Trail's Head Lodge, a supporter of the Gold Rush since its beginning. Off to the side in a dimly lit dining room quietly sit a couple of racers nursing cold drinks and a couple others nibbling at hamburgers. All that sounds good, but I'm not all that thirsty or hungry. I'm normal tired, for such a time, but ready to roll after filling a couple of water bottles.

Instead, I decide to support the Lodge by at least buying a Snickers bar and sit down for a minute to enjoy it. Almost immediately the other racers strike up a conversation, which not surprisingly is both engaging and encouraging. The burger monsters are Kurt Letellier and Dusty Oedenkoven of Pierre, taking a well deserved break and sorting out a plan to get to the finish line. They're strong, and determined, and they'll make it. I just love the gravel clan.

Calamity Jane and Potato Johnny energizing all at the Potato Station Check Point atop Cement Ridge.
Potatoes, potato chips, Hammer Nutrition products, water. Maybe a shot of moonshine.
But mostly, it's Calamity Jane and Potato Johnny! Thanks for brightening the day!
Eventually, I roll out for the 40 mile return to Spearfish, starting with a nasty little pitch to pop over a ridge and then a long descent on lumpy Rifle Pit Road. But the climbing isn't over until Calamity Jane and Potato Johnny say it's over. That means powering up another steep to the top of Cement Ridge Lookout Tower for the Check Point 2, aka The Potato Station. It's hard. It's hot. It's worth it.

Now it's downhill on School House Gulch Road, then the touristy Roughlock Falls Road and finally paved Spearfish Canyon Highway. I'm spun out on much of these last 20+ miles, so I casually coast and contemplate the day.

Heading home, on the long descent of Roughlock Falls Road, ready to flip the final page of cue sheets.
It's good. Everything about the day. It's all good. Well, except this gentle downhill, when I cannot go faster than 20 mph on this suddenly too easy gear. That's not all that good. But it's better than standing to grind 6 mph uphill. So, I guess it is good, after all.

I finally finish right at 10 hours, which translates to just over 11 miles/hour total time and almost 12.5 miles/hour riding time. That's a strong ride for me on a single speed on this course, and almost an hour and a half faster than I rode in 2013. It also gets me to the party at the park in time for the buffet and awards ceremony. It's a good day.

Why a single speed Gold Rush? Gotta do it, every now and then.

Stopping to smell the flowers before dropping off Cement Ridge.
Single Speed Geek Addendum
One of the many variables in preparing for such an event is choosing a gear. I kept the analysis simple by sticking to what's worked for me over the years. It goes like this. 42x16 for fixed/single speed commuting in town. 42x18 for cyclocross. 42x20 for long, hilly gravel.

At the inaugural Gold Rush in 2013, I pushed that cyclocross 42x18 gear and paid dearly. Afterward, I switched to a 42x20 to finish the hot and hilly 2013 Gravel Worlds and to finish second place (out of four single speeders) at the 2013 Odin's Revenge. Since then, I've ridden gravel geared. For a simple single speed conversion for this year's Gold Rush, I left on a compact double crankset and set up a 34x16 single speed, which is essentially the same gear ratio as a 42x20. That worked great for me.

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