I've always thought of gravel grinding as a Midwestern style of riding. For one, our 'gravel' roads out west are dirt and washboard; or if you're in Arizona, mix in bits of sand and shale. Generally, they are roads suitable for mountain bikes. Gravel rides are what my friends in Minnesota do to add a little more 'epic' into their already long rides. Gravel grinding is simply emphasizing, celebrating and/or attacking the dirt road portion of your, otherwise, boring road ride. Before two days ago, I had never done a gravel grinder. Now that I finished the Chino Grinder, I must qualify as an expert.
Mid-westerners gave the chamois-clad masses Fat Biking and Gravel Grinding. I'm not ready to be fully appreciative but I do admire their enthusiasm for these creative ways to suffer on bikes (for the record, I have yet to pedal a Fatbike). Embracing and celebrating the likes of a Minnesotan winter on a bike or a jaw-chattering washboard road on an 50+ mile ride is just a little bit crazy. But, as usual, they are onto something.
This year, gravel grinding came to Arizona in the form of the Chino Grinder. I signed up for two reasons, 1) the race started just a mere 30 minutes away from my front door and I love local events, and 2) the course traversed the upper Verde River watershed which The Nature Conservancy of Arizona has worked hard to protect. Sightseeing is something I enjoy on my bike and I'm usually eager to see some new country. The race course, a mere 106 miles (!>#*%) is an out-and-back from the edge of Chino Valley, AZ to Williams, AZ. The course takes an almost straight-shot north with a small detour near the Verde River. We ride through the Big Chino Valley grasslands, some chaparral alongside the Mingus Mountains, across the Verde River (a river that flows!) and then up up up into Pinon and Ponderosa Pine forests. Then you turn-around and ride all the way back to Chino.
My experience at the Chino Grinder fits into two completely different segments. First, the race. Then the grind to the finish line. The race was a mass-start with all of the 150 riders competing in the 100+ mile event. It's fun to start such a long race with company and the women's race looked to be competitive with both Nicole Duke and Caroline Mani racing. As we descended as a group towards the Verde River, Nicole pulled off with her first flat tire of the day. I maintained position towards the front of the group doing my best to hang onto TJ's wheel. By riding with the guys, you catch a bit of a 'free ride' as you can draft and no one expects you to take a pull at the front--and when you do, the guys just pull harder. As we started the 32 mile ascent to Williams, TJ started setting tempo on the front...and no one else wanted to go that hard. He was just one of two in the front group on a mountain bike and so when he opened up some daylight, no one reacted. Before anyone knew what was happening, TJ wound up a couple minutes up the road and out of sight--solo. He stayed away the entire day and went on to finish 2nd overall on his Niner Air 9 RDO. That's tough.
I hung onto the lead group of guys until they started racing around mile 47. Just after I eased up, realizing I still had to make it back to Chino Valley, Jamey Driscoll attacked the group to bridge up the TJ. At that point, the entire pack splintered. From then on, it was simply a grind to the finish line. I was already pretty worn out at the turnaround point in Williams, AZ.
My finishing strategy was all about fueling, hydrating and resting. I ate lunch on my bike coasting on the long paved descent from Williams. I hardly bothered pedaling at all on the descent, in fact. I stopped and refilled my bottles at the aid stations and chatted with the race volunteers for a couple minutes. If it weren't for these mini 'breaks' I doubt I'd have been able to finish.
Here's a glimpse of what I ate on my bike for the Chino Grinder. The homemade 'bar' is Calrose rice packed with bacon, cashews, scrambled egg, salt and raisins. I ate 3 of them and I considered this my 'lunch.' It was the tastiest sounding thing I found in The Feed Zone Cookbook the nigh before racing. In addition, I ate 3 Clif Shot gels and 2 packs of Clif Bloks. I started off with Clif Shot Electrolyte drink mix in two giant Polar Bottles and filled up at every aid station. The heat added another challenging element as temperatures soared to over 85 degrees towards the end.
At the final aid station, I was seriously considering abandoning the race and hitching a ride back to Chino Valley. Temperatures were soaring and we had a strong headwind for the final 20 miles. Additionally, there was a good 14 miles of climbing left and it was looking like I'd be pedaling solo. At this point, I ate everything left in my pockets, snacked on a banana at the aid station and grabbed a few ice cubes for my helmet. Some local friends, Chris and Janice Dunn pulled up to deliver water and looked a little confused that I was just hanging out. They reminded me that I was winning the race (thank you!) and gave me the encouragement I needed to get rolling once and for all. I believe I made some sarcastic comments at the time and Janice joked with me later that I only needed at attitude adjustment at that aid station. She was right. After six hours of pedaling, the only comments I could make were either 1) heavily sarcastic or 2) unfiltered and brutally honest. Was I having fun at that point? Absolutely not.
Sometimes you just have to be honest with yourself. Once I acknowledged I wasn't having fun, things actually got better. I was expecting to cramp on the last bit of climbing but I was plugging away at an easy tempo pace cramp-free. I started to watch the miles tick away on my Garmin and even got a little excited as they topped 90. I've only ridden 100 miles twice before and they were both on road group rides in Tucson--so pretty flat and fast. This was going to be an accomplishment and I was going to finish.
While on a particularly brutal incline into a headwind, a vulture flew right in front of me and landed on a dead calf beside the road. Perfect. I figured they'd be picking up some racers before too long. I stopped and snapped a picture. You can make out the red rocks of Sedona in the distance. After 6: hrs and 55 minutes, I finally crossed the finish line: 1st for the women and 20th overall.
When asked at the finish line if I'd come back next year, I was thinking, "are you nuts?". Now that a few days have passed and I'm finally recovered, I might actually consider another go at it. After all, it takes an event like the Chino Grinder to push you a little further than you thought you could go. I finished and that's an accomplishment.
Thanks to Mike Melley and everyone working and volunteering at the event. The event was run very professionally. Congrats to all the finishers too!