Doing it all the hard way...

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Grand Gravel Aspirations

 Don't call him Rudy..
The short days of winter provided numerous quiet evenings at the cabin. I spent many of those evenings pouring over electronic and printed maps of Okanogan County.  The results of my study are new gravel routes added to my bucket list. Last summer as my fitness, knowledge and experience increased it allowed me to journey deeper and deeper into the mountains on dirt roads.  My gravel ambitions for this year are grand and I am salivating at the thought of long gravel rides under blue skies.  

When I first began gravel riding last spring my initial forays felt like pioneering efforts. I didn’t quite feel like I should plant a flag and claim the land for the USA, but I certainly didn’t expect to see anyone else on a bike. At that time I had no idea where my riding would take me. As my love of gravel manifest itself I knew I wanted more. Soon the objectives of my April rides had simply become waypoints; passed without fanfare as part of longer rides that went hours beyond the earlier destinations.  The remoteness of my rides necessitated that I cache some water at two distant and obscure crossroads to refill water bottles on my more epic adventures. 
I explored more areas and gained valuable gravel experience. Although I drew upon my background in Cyclocross, mountain biking and road biking; gravel riding is a unique hybrid that has its own set of rules.  My trial and error included both trials and errors.  My trials included cramps, sore muscles and sunburn. My errors included wrong turns, bonking, running out of water and missing my return time by almost two hours. I found good fortune with minimal weather surprises and undeservedly good luck maintaining tire inflation (don’t even say the word!!).

Even with these experiences I can honestly say I didn’t have a bad gravel ride all year. My fun ranged from the Winthrop Fondo to dodging snow on Elbow Coulee with KB in March and finding feathers with Hottie in September.  Starvation Mountain was a true highpoint.  Ironically I was starving (and a bit dehydrated) and it was the highest elevation that I rode a bike in 2014.
The Curtlo will not be denied !!!
Five years ago I would have said that you used a road bike on the road and a mountain bike on the trails and a four wheel drive vehicle on fire roads.  Now I believe that you can gladly take a cross bike on all of those and you smile the whole time.  I smile so much that when I finish a gravel ride both my chain and my teeth are gritty.

One of the aspects that makes gravel riding enjoyable to me is that you are using a single tool for varied situations.  A lightweight road bike with a big cassette is the perfect tool for a paved climb.  A full suspension mountain bike is the right tool to descend a rocky trail. The mix of terrain and the constantly changing surfaces that make up gravel riding means you are always adapting to suboptimal situations.  It is a challenge to rely on skill to get your tool of the day to work in the myriad of circumstances that makes up the ride de jour.

Even the same road can be different on different days.  Depending on the weather the preceding week I have picked my way downhill one week and been able to bomb down it a month later.
"Avoid the rut"
A week after the Winthrop Fondo I found myself riding the same final fifteen miles that I had raced the week prior.  The conditions were totally different.  Instead of the gravel being smooth from the dozens of riders who preceded me in the race it was rough and I had to manage my speed.  Despite having ridden that stretch of gravel a dozen times before the conditions of the day made it new and demanded my full attention.  

It is perhaps the aspect of spending hours in a Zen-like state that I find so intriguing about gravel riding.  Between the scenery, the terrain, the technical riding skills and the physical effort I don’t find my mind wandering far from the here and now.
The Gravel Fondo season starts in March and extends well into the Cyclocross Season.  I am looking forward to further pedal-powered explorations starting next month.   My goals include organized gravel events, riding to the end of assorted Forest Service roads, repeating Starvation, taking back roads from the Columbia to our cabin and riding to Hart’s pass. 

Last weekend I took advantage of the unusually warm days to Fat Bike in the morning with Hottie and then do some road riding in the afternoon.  I made my way up the Chewuch and turned around at eight mile camp due to time constraints more than any issues with the road surface.   My bike took on a Flemish look as the combination of sandy dry roads and wet dirt roads with a sprinkling of snow patches combined to get my bike about as dirty as it can get.
 Snow build up means I am badass !!
My left knee which I injured fifteen months ago started bothering me at the beginning of the month enough that I took a solid week off.  I saw the Jedi Master of Orthopedic surgeons and we had a good visit. His prescribed period of rest and refrain from excessively stupid activities had the desired results.  

                                                       Oh Yeah !!
My rides this weekend started as tentative endeavors.  Will it or won’t it?  Every hint of any type of sensation drew my attention.  As I warmed up and the ride continued everything operated like it should for a forty year old guy who rides a bunch.  Now, those who know me realize I’m not forty anymore but you can have your benchmark and I’ll have mine. 

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