Hell Hole Gravel Grind Stage Race Report: by Dr. Pain

Where the Hell is Hell Hole? It’s in South Carolina, in the Francis Marion National Forest, near Charleston, and very close to nowhere. The race is a 2 or 3 stage race that was held September 18-20. I say 2 or 3 because the Friday night prologue time trial was optional. There was some sort of multivariate statistics applied to compensate for those who opted not to do the time trial, but I didn’t pay much attention to that since I really don’t like TT’s. I sort of figured that I could lose more time actually riding the TT than taking the averaged handicap based on those who did ride it. In the long run, I was sure it wouldn’t matter. I was right.

The following stages were each 74 miles. There was also a one day 74 mile race and a 42 mile race on Saturday, with separate podiums.

The Gravel Cyclist crew was represented by Pfaff Daddy, Pfaff Junior (part time Gravel Cyclist team member), Dr. Pain, and Jimbo. Jimbo’s wife agreed to interrupt their mountain vacation so that he could ride the Sunday race as a one-day event. One of them is special. I know Jimbo better, so I figure it must be his wife who is special.

The G.C. crew likes to pre-ride a bit of the course whenever possible to get a tiny bit of tribal knowledge and to shake out the legs from our inevitably long car drive from Florida. Our pre-ride was brilliant. Unknowingly, we managed to ride part of both the Saturday and Sunday courses. Or you could say we were lost, confused, or otherwise Garmin and road marking challenged. But if you said that, you would be less kind. Most notable from this pre-ride were:

  1. The stuff called “singletrack” was a hiking trail, full of holes, roots and other MTB stuff. Noted.
  2. The gravel roads were lovely, in between the one million potholes and craters. Noted.
Pre-ride - before the insanity of race day broke out.
Pre-ride – before the insanity of race day broke out.

Saturday Morning

We arrived from Moncks Corner and lined up for some fun. During the pre-race preparations we were serenaded by another racer with an orange plastic horn. I don’t think it was a flugelhorn, but I do think he had ingested too much caffeine. A nice chap who accompanied Pfaff Daddy and myself for the second half of Sunday’s race… more on that later.

Having pre-ridden the course(s) the night before, the G.C. crew was now thoroughly confused about what happened when on the course. Things like “When is the first singletrack?” were a bit muddled. So, stay to the front, to get through that pinch point. So, Dr. Pain positioned himself about 5 riders from the front. That became 5 riders from the back when we rode past the turn. My first match was burned getting back to the group, then to the front. The next 20 miles of road racing was characterized by shouts of “hole”, “big hole”, “hole left”, “hole right”, “go right”, “go left”, “stay middle”, “call out the damn holes”.

There was also a cacophony of sounds from chains slapping carbon, aluminum, titanium, and steel. There were also loud cracks, as handlebars twisted in stems. I don’t have a word for that sound as rims impact the sides of craters, but I heard that a lot. From the cockpit, it felt like a lot of “dodge left”, “dodge right”, “bunny hop”, CLANG, DAMN. From each of these your legs took a hit, your arms took a hit, and your hands got tired.

Dr. Pain in a mudhole.
Dr. Pain in a mudhole. Photo by Brian Fancher Photography.

When I could look at my Garmin I saw all sorts of speeds from the ‘teens to brief bursts of 30mph. The bursts of speed came from responses to the fast folk at the front who were attacking each other, and from the chases to get back on after getting stuck behind the numerous crashes. After coming to crash stop #4 (aided by slamming into some poor chaps thigh… sorry, mate), I took great interest in team mate Pfaff Daddy’s flat front tire. I was, and continue to be absolutely certain that he desperately needed my assistance. So, I stopped to help. As “we” put air in his tire, we looked up the road a few meters to see a mass pileup and conflagration at the mudhole. As we got there we saw why. Neither of us made it through without “touching” a foot into foot deep mud. It’s rumored that the event moto crashed there on a recon mission earlier. Young Pfaff sailed across it, but he has 19-year old DNA, so he doesn’t count.

Pfaff Daddy in a mudhole. Photo by Brian Fancher Photography.

Now that we were on our own Gran Fondo, Pfaff Daddy and I set what tempo we could. We were later passed by 4 other chaps as we stopped to actually fix Pfaff Daddy’s tire by putting a tube in it. Sometime later, we chased them down and spent most of the rest of the race with Michael, Angry Bastard Ale, and another gent we caught with a just a few miles to go. At about 5 miles to go, Pfaff Daddy “sat up”, “decided to ride his own pace”, and concluded that “he didn’t want to go my pace”. What followed was a series of non-attacks, that looked like attacks, but were later explained to be interludes between cramps by Michael. Oops, they looked like attacks to me, so I led out the last of my companions for a non-win at least 3 days behind the winners.

Pfaff Junior tucked in at second wheel.
Pfaff Junior tucked in at second wheel. Photo by Brian Fancher Photography.
L to R: Andrew Crater, Justin Lowe and Pfaff Junior.
Men’s Open Podium, L to R: Andrew Crater, Justin Lowe and Pfaff Junior.

Pfaff Junior took an impressive and well-deserved 2nd place behind Justin Lowe and ahead of Andrew Crater.

To borrow a term from my Aussie friend JOM, we were all knackered.



I shouldn’t have looked at Facebook. The new post welcomed us to the Sunday course that had more “singletrack” and an extra mudhole. Those were not my favorite parts of the day before. I considered just doing the Gran Fondo from the start, but Jimbo had arrived and he was all full of ignorance-induced enthusiasm, so I felt like I had to attempt to race again.

L to R: Pfaff Junior, Dr. Pain (face hidden to protect the innocent), Pfaff Daddy (not in the correct kit!), Jimbo.
L to R: Pfaff Junior, Dr. Pain (from Parts Unknown), Pfaff Daddy (not in G.C. kit!), Jimbo.

So, get to the front early, the single track starts at mile 1.5. Check. I actually worked this time, and the pace was pretty mellow. A few miles later, I moved up to get ready for the next singletrack section, where I was sure I blunder along and stay in contact by keeping everyone blocked behind me. Unbelievably, we missed the turn again. So, from front to back in about 5 seconds.

Sure, my wheel bearings are just fine. Photo by Brian Fancher Photography.
Sure, these wheel bearings are just fine. Photo by Brian Fancher Photography.

Burned another scarce match getting back to the front group, who was fortunately not drilling it. The next several miles was a blur of pain for the good Dr. Pain. Though I was able to withstand the first 4 or 5 accelerations, I finally did a JOM and “sat up”.

Pfaff Daddy came by in his TT position, and I dragged myself to his wheel. He single-handedly dragged 6 of us back to the front group. Shocked to still be there, I moved up to the front in preparation of the next singletrack. This section was simply brutal. I freely confess that I have absolutely no MTB skills. I don’t know what “technique” might have been used by others, but I could only apply maximum torque and plow through, lurch over, and careen around what ever it was that I couldn’t seen in the deep forest underbrush. I heard a lot of futile calls of “hole” etc. but that was just useless information.

Pfaff Daddy in the thick of a mudhole.
Pfaff Daddy in the thick of a mudhole. Photo by Brian Fancher Photography.

By some complete miracle, I managed to stay about 25 meters behind the front riders. By as firm a reality as the miracle, I was completely gassed and unable to close that 25 meters once we got back to the road. Shortly after I “sat up” for the second time (now at mile 20), Jimbo sailed passed me yelling “let’s go” or “hop on” or something. I responded with an unprintable “XXXX, I’m done”. Did I mention that this was about mile 20 of a 74 mile race, in a maze of forest roads and trails, 2 states from my home?

I was convinced that Pfaff Daddy must have had a mechanical and most certainly needed my help again. I should wait for him. I did. I rode along enjoying the scenery at about 12 mph for some time. Nobody in sight. Finally, he came along, looking worse than I have seen him for some time. His handlebars had suffered that loud cracking sound, and slipped again. I quickly offered my assistance to fix his bars. I mean, I wouldn’t want him to be uncomfortable for the next 50 miles! What good team mate would let him ride like that? We stopped, discussed torque values, carbon friction paste, the weather, bear scat, and decided to begin our 2-man Gran Fondo.

Disc brake caliper after mudhole dousing.
Disc brake caliper after mudhole dousing.

It was the Gran Gran Fondo. We were certain we were dead last at this point… and having less fun by the minute. We got to the aid station at about mile 35 and Pfaff Daddy just sat down in the gravel. It was a bit shocking, since he usually rides me into the ground and has completed a lot of very hard events… in front of me. As I consumed about everything offered, Pfaff Daddy had to be coaxed to eat, or move, or even respond. I finally convinced him he could just sit on my wheel. Two other chaps came along to join our Gran Fondo. These included the horn playing chap, and another chap who (from the Porta Potty) besieged us not to leave without him.

What followed is known as the “Dr. Pain Train”. It wasn’t a bullet train, or anything like that. It was just a slow steady, “smell the barn”, “get us home” sort of train. Pfaff Daddy pulled a couple of times to spell me, but he was getting seriously dehydrated or something, so as a good team mate I just kept chugging along.

Then we started hearing the strangest sounds from one of our accompanying riders (Porta Potty guy). He seemed a very likable, very enthusiastic young man, but he was prone to sudden, loud, whoops, squeals, sighs, and indescribable vocalizations. These began to increase in frequency as we neared the finish. With about 4 miles to go, we exited the last single track, and I started to hear some wild animal sounds coming from our companion. Sometimes, there was some English thrown in. The only bit I caught was “I can’t get anything to come up.” It was this point, that Pfaff Daddy was heard to say “No offense, but I’m moving around you. I don’t want to get puked on!” He made it. Chapeau to him for what was clearly a very hard, gritty race.

So, we wobbled across the line 45 minutes slower than the day before, and yet even more knackered. More from the fact that more than half the field DNF’d, Pfaff Daddy and I were 10th and 11th… about a day behind the winners.

Conclusion: This race was unexpectedly hard. The G.C. crew has done longer gravel races, races with lots of mountains, races with unbelievable levels of mud, lots of hot, humid races, freezing cold races. All of them had excellent competitors. So, why was this one so bloody hard? Potholes. They suck the life out of you. Hiking trails. They beat the life out of you. Congratulations to all of the marvelously friendly folk that competed, and the organizers who put on a well-run event. I’m knackered from it.



The only shining success was my choice of equipment. American Classic 29’er Race wheels handled every pothole, and my lack of single track skills without a single hitch, and rolled faster than I could make them go. True as new. Specialized Renegade 1.8’s suffered no punctures, or traction loss. The Quiring stainless steel frame was perfect. My new Ultegra Di2 system never missed a shift, as long as I pressed the right button.

Thank you for reading!


  1. K-Dogg K-Dogg

    Erudite tome my good Doctor Pain.
    It emulates Dante’s Inferno and the nine levels of hell.
    Well, three levels anyway.
    I feel for all those DNF lost souls.
    Glad I’m not one of them.

  2. Avatar Ned Hettinger

    What a great account of the race. You managed to put to paper many of the thoughts I had. Thanks for helping me relive some of what it was like!

  3. Avatar Neil Myers

    Thanks for the lead out !

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