August 28, 2017 § 30 Comments
Have you ever wanted to do a gravel grinder? Have you ever wanted to know what one is? I did my first one on Saturday and it was different from what I expected. This ride was called the Chatsworth Chain Crusher and it was sponsored by Velofix, the mobile bicycle fixer-uppers. I should have known that anything with the word “crusher” in the title was going to be difficult, but it wasn’t difficult, it was brutal.
“How much dirt is there on this thing?” I asked before we started, sipping on a exceptional cup of covfefe brewed up by Matt Michaels of Gear Grinderz.
“About thirty percent,” said a fellow, thus teaching me a very important lesson about gravel grinders, which is that if you haven’t read, memorized, and Strava-checked the route you are going to be fucked, because when he said “thirty percent” he meant “eighty percent.”
“Everyone here looks pretty hard core for a fun ride,” I commented to another gentleman.
“Nah, it’s just a fun ride,” he said.
“Who is that fellow in the Giant kit riding the Giant bike who appears to be sponsored by Giant?”
“Him? That’s Ryan Steers.”
“Ah, yes. Just a fun ride. Of course.”
The “just a fun ride” split up immediately as the just fun riders pedaled at a very just fun pace that smashed everyone into just fun pulverized bits. After some endless fun climbing we hit some nasty just fun dirt and then I was by myself because even though I am terrible in dirt I can go uphill pretty good and since it was just a fun ride why not murder myself?
On the descent all of the just fun riders I’d dropped came whipping by and I learned something else about off-road riding: Climbing has two parts, an uphill and a downhill, and unlike road riding, they are equally hard. It doesn’t matter how fast you go up if you are a granny with a hip replacement going down.
I rode along on some just fun single track for a long time, hoping that one day I would find the gravel grinder on wide fire roads that was just a fun ride, but instead all I found were technical, twisty, nasty roads whose every inch spelled potential calamity. After a while I encountered my friends Bjorn, Lauren, and Mathieu, who were walking. Bjorn’s right arm was hanging lifelessly at his side while Lauren and Mathieu pushed his bike. We were a thousand miles from anywhere.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I took a header and did something to my shoulder,” said Bjorn.
Another cyclist rode up. “Hey Seth, can you help me pop his arm back into the joint? I’ve seen people do it on TV.”
“Sure,” I said. “What could possibly go wrong? A couple of men pulling hard on a dislocated arm out in a dirt field. You know how to do this? You’ve seen it on TV, right?”
Bjorn shook his head. “I’ll wait for a doctor.”
Since he was in good hands I continued on. My rear disc brake was rubbing, which was annoying until I popped out of the endlessly fun dirt section to find a Velofix van waiting with food and a mechanic.
Jim popped my bike on the stand and fixed the brake while his wife Hilda proffered the world’s finest p.b. and banana sammich quarters, which I scarfed. I got back on my bike and got lost, returned to the van, but everyone had taken off. Jim pointed me onto the trail, which went up a midget Mt. Everest. I could see the riders far away clinging to its side in a cloud of dust like fleas on a white dog’s belly.
I rode just for fun until my guts spilled out my mouth, caught the other fun riders who were having so much fun they were pinned and gasping, passed them, got passed on the short downhill, then passed them all again, just for fun of course. After a long time I was having so much fun that there were only two riders still with me. They dropped me before the next-to-last sag stop. Then I had some more p.b. and rode on by myself, luckily missing the turn to the Millenium trail, which everyone said was the worst and hardest trail of the day.
I got lost some more and ended up doing an entire just fun section of dirt again before finally reaching the finish. I drank a lot of water and ate some delicious, fiery hot tacos that got my bowels quaking in a flash. As people arrived in bits and dribs and tatters and drabs, they all looked as horrible as I felt, but after a few minutes sipping fresh beer from the tap of Hand Brewed Beer, they started to come around.
Now that I’ve done a gravel grinder just for fun, below is a handy guide to this new and exciting type of fun bike ride.
Q: What is a gravel grinder?
A: It is endless pain smothered in dirt and perhaps blood.
Q: Do you need a special bike for a gravel grinder?
A: Yes. And a special brain (to disregard terror such as falling off cliff sides).
Q: When they say it is “just a fun ride” what does that mean?
A: It will be a just fun before the start and after the finish, but in between it will be a full-on race.
Q: I heard that gravel grinders are done on fire roads, which are unpaved, wide, not technical, and fun.
A: Yes, except the fire roads are disguised as single track that plunges down impossible lines with infinite chances to have a bicycle falling off incident.
Q: I heard that you don’t need a mountain bike or MTB skills to do a gravel grinder. Is this true?
Q: The idea of a chill bike ride with coffee, sag, tacos, and beer sounds great. Isn’t that what gravel grinders are all about?
A: Yes. But in between the coffee and the beer is about five hours of hell.
Q: How does a gravel grinder compare to a ‘cross race?
A: Harder. Longer. More technical. Instead of crashing and limping 200 yards to your team tent you will crash and hike five miles cross country with a broken femur.
Q: Will gravel grinding help my bike handling skills?
A: Yes, if you ride in war zones.
Q: Would you ever do another one?
A. Never again until September.
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PS: Don’t forget the Wanky’s. As if you could.
January 12, 2014 § 16 Comments
I had really been looking forward to the weekend, that’s what I told myself as the whole fucking peloton exploded into wobbling, weaving fragments on the lower part of the Tramway climb, only I didn’t know it was the lower part because I’d never been there before or watched the finale of the Tour of California stage because if I had I would have known that the yellow sign and the modest bump-top I was sprinting for, far from being the top, was four miles from the top, and what was already the most miserable mile I’d ever spent on a bike was about to be most hellish five miles, not just one.
The leaders numbered about fifteen and I could count them, as they were plotted out in high relief against the ugly, featureless desert shitscape that spilled out like bad barf on either side of the roadway. The flailers numbered about sixty, riders who had, like me, thought they were coming to Palm Springs for a fun team bonding training camp, only to find out that as soon as they’d picked up their swag and put on their fancy kits that some sadist had planned the most miserable of afternoons for them in the high desert hell.
Slowly I moved up, latching onto the wheels of the decaying riders who, like me, were coming apart at the seams, but unlike me were coming apart slightly faster. My signature pant-gasp-hack-cough got into their heads along with the depressing reality that flashed across their minds as I sat on their wheels: “If Wankmeister has caught me and can hold my wheel, my fucking season is over. It’s like being caught by an obese child with short legs, only worse.” One by one they pounded as hard as they could, desperately trying to shake the stigma of having me ride them down, then pulled over in defeat as I soldiered on. This terribly painful, wholly unrewarding, ego-crushing climb ended with only a handful of the very best riders ahead of me. I calculated eighth place out of about seventy-five riders, with Chris Johnson, Brian Stack, John Abate, Paul Vaccari, Logan Fiedler, Dave Jaeger, and Taylor Vaccardi ahead of me.
This, of course, was a result so far beyond anything I could have ever imagined that it almost made up for the misery of the climb and the terror of the 60-mph downhill. When we all reconvened at the hotel, the consensus was general: On the very first ride of the very first day of training camp we had all destroyed ourselves so completely that we would spend the next two days sucking our thumbs, curled up in bed popping Advil and wishing we could go home.
What is a training camp?
I wondered this the sleepless night before our Spy-Giant-RIDE Second Annual Training Camp of General Awesomeness and Beer. There didn’t seem to be any tents, sleeping bags, or highjinks with the girl campers on the itinerary, so it clearly wasn’t a camp. And after wrecking all of our legs on Day One (various riders were so destroyed by the dry air and brutal climb that the following day they tucked tail 30 miles into the ride and slinked back to the hotel bar rather than complete the 103-mile death march across the desert), I couldn’t really figure out what it was we were training for, except perhaps for a graveside service.
Mrs. WM and I had in fact begun the whole thing in high spirits. We stopped in San Bernardino on the way out to get gas after the typical husband-wife car conversation, which began like this. “I gotta pee.”
“You’re fuggin’ kidding me. We’ve been in the car less than an hour.”
“I don’ care I gotta pee.”
“You can’t have to pee. There’s no way you have generated enough pee. You’ve drunk nothing. You can’t have to pee.”
“I gotta pee so let’s stop onna pee stop now.”
A few minutes later we were at a gas station. She came back to the car. “Can I get onna magazine?”
“Sure.” This was odd, because in 26 years of marriage she had read, maybe, four magazines. She returned to the car, smiling, with a copy of Cosmo. “What did you get that for? Don’t tell me you’re reading Cosmo for fashion advice?”
“It had onna cover story called ‘Fantasy Sex.'”
There was a brief silence as I calculated the possibilities. Team training camp was starting to look good.
When we arrived at the Westin Mission Hills Resort and Golf Nirvana our awesome team bosses greeted us with an assembly line of kits, caps, eyewear, and t-shirts. It was brain numbing to think that we, a worthless bunch of prostate-challenged wannabes were being showered with so much pro stuff. Our kits came in plastic bags with our names on them, and the kits themselves had our names on the side panels of the jerseys. We gazed in wonder, not simply at the awesomeness of it, but at the realization that all the other teams would be purple with envy when they saw our rad personalized clothing. Henceforth the pro masters SoCal masters cycling circuit would, unquestionably, be demanding personalized kits even as they gnawed their livers at not having thought of it first.
After returning from our horrific Day One training ride, I realized many things, and chief among them was this: Just because I have a fancy kit doesn’t mean I’m any good. This was really depressing, as I’d been hoping, deep down, that by wearing the nicest kit I would somehow be a better rider.
SPY had reserved a giant room with a bar, restaurant, and conference area for the afternoon presentations. We began with the most important one, from SPY Optic, called “Why You Are Here.” This was important because from the moment we were showered with swag and set up for the amazing weekend, each of us wondered the same thing: “What’s a wanker like me doing to deserve all this?”
To the relief of many, the answer was NOT “Go forth and win bike races.”
Instead, the answer was something entirely different. It was, “Go forth and live a good life, and a happy one. If you win bike races as a result, good for you. If you win nothing at all, you’ve still won everything possible.” In shorthand that every bike racer can understand, we were treated to the SPY motto, “HTFU.” Yeah. Happy the Fuck Up.
A few of the new recruits may have been puzzled, but I wasn’t. Anyone who thinks that winning bike races, or winning any kind of race, is the key to a good life well lived, hasn’t read the fine print that comes Life. Crushing the souls of your competitors, or marking up their FB wall with boasts about how you’ll destroy their hopes in the Aged People With Prostate Issues Category is important, and fun, and, perhaps, fulfilling in some strange way. But the key to getting your foot onto the next stepping stone in life isn’t “winning.” It’s being the kind of person who is kind, and it’s happily accepting happiness as a completely self-fulfilling way of doing the journey.
Of course none of us bought that bullshit for even a nanosecond, and all we could think about was training harder, racing smarter, and beating the snot out of the guys and women we race against, hopefully humiliating them in front of their small children, but at a minimum making fun of them for cherry-picking crits and avoiding anything with a hill in it.
How the team was fitted
The next morning we staggered into breakfast, inhaled everything on the buffet line, and sat down to a presentation from Harmony Bars, a San Diego company that makes what is unquestionably the tastiest in-your-jersey-pocket-treat ever created. However, no one in the room was able to concentrate on the caloric and nutritive aspects of the presentation, since it was being done by Jess Cerra in a pair of mesh white tights. We had all spent the previous day having Jess ride us off our her wheel on the Tramway climb, not terribly different from the times she had ridden us off her wheel on the Swami’s Ride, on the SPY Holiday Ride, on the Belgian Waffle Ride, or, frankly, every other ride we’d ever accompanied her on.
Jess’s strength and unrelenting power on the bike, and her unparalleled ability to litter the roadside with smashed male egos, was equaled only by her presentation in the white tights. Every man in the room died a little bit that day, heaping jealousy and hatred on the shoulders of John Abate as we watchd, er, listened, to Jess’s presentation. The Harmony Bar story can be summed up thus: This shit tastes good, is locally made, and was designed by people who crush on the bike. Okay?
Next we heard from our StageOne sponsors, the dudes who designed and manufactured our kits. Joe Yule and Jon Davy had a glazed look in their eyes, and it was clear they’d put together their presentation after a detailed sketch on the back of a napkin. Davy’s every third word was “Uh,” and with good reason: StageOne had designed, manufactured, delivered, bagged, and tagged the entire team kit in less than ninety days. This had involved multiple designs and product tests, trips to the manufacturing plant in Holland, and an eye for detail and execution that no one but Davy could have ever delivered. Joe Yule’s lifelong mission to beautify the highways of California had come, yet again, to fruition, as our SPY-Giant-RIDE kit was so beautiful that grown men wept while taking selfies of themselves in the mirror and posting them to their mothers’ FB pages.
To make matters more intense, StageOne replaces SPY-Giant-RIDE’s previous kit manufacturer Squadra, and riders are nothing if not bitchy little pricks about their kits. Whatever concerns people had about leaving the top-line kits of Squadra for the as-yet-untried-new-kids-on-the-block-StageOne were dispelled after our first team pedal. Sporting innovations that include a zipper garage, back grippers on the jersey, and farmer-john straps for comfort when you’re not wearing a base layer, the StageOne design and production received rave reviews, which is good, because if anyone had dared complain they’d have had a 210-lb. Jon Davy to deal with.
Following the StageOne presentation we heard from Giant, our bike sponsor. I wish I could explain to you in detail why the new Giant Propel is the most awesome bike since someone decided to make a bicycle with a chain … but I can’t. The Giant presentation explained lots of details about the Propel and about the concept of aero road frames and about how it improved on what most already considered the most perfect bike ever made, the Giant TCR, but it was all in one ear and out the other for me as I was still stuck on the Harmony Bars and the white tights. One of the problems that Giant has with its bikes is that each new model improves on an already incredible model, and the people like me who are completely in love with the current model can’t imagine something better than what they’ve already got. But the situation appears pretty simple, in that the Propel will propel you faster.
Let my people go
Once the presentations finished we saddled up for a leisurely 103-mile ride in the desert. It was going to be a friendly, two-by-two affair until we hit a nasty sidewind going up a long grade and the young punks turned on the gas and shredded the field. Suddenly our 75-person peloton was split into multiple groups of desperately pedaling flailers who broke up into echelons as they tried to avoid getting further behind. The young punks pulled away as I sat back in the second group watching the end of the day happen at about mile twenty, because there was no way the leaders were coming back. As we toiled into the most miserable of howling sidewinds, the guy in front of me exploded into pieces and I lunged ahead in a last-ditch effort to bridge.
Leaving entrails, my soul, and copious quantities of spit and snot on the road, I somehow made it across. The only rider to go with me was, of course, Jess, who then went straight to the front and took a pull even as I hung on the back and prayed for a land mine. Happily, Andy Schmidt flatted at Dillon Road and we all stopped, giving the broken, dropped, crushed, and defeated remainder of the group time to catch up to us. People looked so ill and sad and sick and unhappy that it was clear to me the training camp was a total success.
For the remainder of the ride we rotated, hammer-tated, flail-tated, and generally gasped our way back to the hotel. Massive beerdration ensued for those of us who had not had enough water, and after an even more massive pizza feast we sat down and listened to another slew of evening presentations. The one that impressed me the most was MRI Endurance, our team’s presenting sponsor who is a manufacturer of training supplements. They impressed me not because of the presentation — I was too drunk to understand any of it and kept falling asleep on F-1 Jim’s shoulder, awakening only to wipe off the drool — but because of the following day when MRI handed out the team product.
Have you ever seen a shark feeding frenzy? People were practically gnawing each others’ arms off to get their share of the special supplements. Eyes were gouged, crotches were kneed, and medullas were rabbit-punched in the melee. Judging from the enthusiasm of the riders, this stuff works wonders.
Ending on a high note
On Sunday morning, we were so trashed from the beer, the riding, and the presentations of the night before that a few shameless wankers left early (after collecting all their swag, of course). Those who stuck around got to enjoy yet another morning of great food, camaraderie, and a series of excellent presentations from Skins, RIDE Cyclery, SRAM/Zipp, Lake cycling shoes, Razer keyboards & mice, and Clearwater Partners. Skins provided a detailed scientific review of the benefits of their full line of compression gear, but Mrs. WM had only one question: “If you compress onna chin-chin, it’s gonna make it bigger?”
I didn’t know what to say, or even what product to order. The compression tube sock, maybe, in size XXXXS?
The other sponsors helped us better understand the benefits of working with an awesome local bike shop, of racing on SRAM components and ZIPP wheels, of using Lake shoes and the Boa locking system, and of investing all of our money with Clearwater so we can retire early and race our bikes full time like true SoCal masters professionals.
We took a fine group picture and called it a day. My 2014 season is officially a success, thanks to the excellent job I did riding around the resort looking splendid in my new outfit and (barely) beating Jess up the Tramway climb. Looking forward to lots of great racing in 2015.