August 19, 2017 – Red Clay Ramble – a 56 mile (the full monty course) gravel race held near the town of Milledgeville, Georgia, but in reality centered around the community of Eatonton. With a claimed elevation of approximately 2,300 feet over the length of the course, it doesn’t appear to be the hardest race on paper, but that is all relative to:
- Who else shows up to race?
- How willing are you to hurt yourself and hang in the front group as long as possible?
- How fast you’re willing to ride if you “sit up” / are dropped?
- How do you feel on race day?
These and other questions will be answered later…
My last appearance at the Red Clay Ramble was in 2014. The field wasn’t overly huge but the race was a successful one for me, taking 3rd place overall / 3rd in my age group. Good friend Brian Rogers topped the podium, while Shey Lindner took the second spot.
More remarkable that year was the destruction of teammate K-Dogg’s chance at winning his age category. Before I was dropped out of the winning move some 15 – 20 miles from the finish, K-Dogg made the fatal error of tempting fate… “you know, it’s nice knowing you’ve got the race wrapped up just by being here”. Just a few miles later, K-Dogg suffered four flat tyres in quick succession – those were the days before he recognized the virtues of tubeless tyres. Consequently, he abandoned, throwing away a race win. D’oh!
2017 marks the fifth running of the Red Clay Ramble. It was markedly different from my appearance in 2014, in that it had grown considerably both in size and reputation. The field was markedly bigger, particularly those racing the full monty edition, and the race was now organized by Chain Buster Racing, a professionally run outfit normally associated with mountain bike racing in the Southeastern USA. Partnering with Chain Buster Racing for 2017 was Bike Walk Baldwin and Old Capital Racing.
Teammate K-Dogg was leading the Ultra Masters category (60+) for the 2017 Southeastern Gravel Cup series – Red Clay Ramble was the final race. Consequently, he was keen to finish on a high note and wrap up the series win. My other teammate, Dr. Pain, was there with no real aspirations other than to race and enjoy the experience; pretty much my mantra when it comes to gravel racing.
Race Day, Saturday, August 19, 2017
The Red Clay Ramble was scheduled to start at 9am, which is a departure from the 6am – 8am race starts we’ve become accustomed to. We ambled casually to the race venue, parked Dr. Pain’s mommamobile (aka the minivan) and set about preparing for the race.
For me, that means collecting race numbers, thinking about more visits to the bathroom / toilet / bog, mass socializing and capturing video here and there.
One notable person I spoke to was Jeff Hopkins. An expatriate Aussie like yours truly, Jeff is originally from Sydney and possibly best remembered for his days as a professional cyclist, riding for outfits like the Jittery Joe’s Cycling Team. Jeff administered the Dick Lane velodrome for a period after his retirement but nowadays runs Service Course Auto with business partner Jason Jones.
No matter Jeff’s current state of fitness, one thing cannot be denied. Pro level riders have amazing genetics, even when they’re not in shape. Thus, add Jeff to the list of people who would be kicking my arse once the race got underway.
Not so important note: Jeff’s accent is classic Sydneyite, whereas mine is uber classy Adelaideian / South Aussie… there is a difference people!
Racers lined up in an orderly manner for the 9am start. I milked the privileges of media, meaning I filmed the front row (although the footage seems to have gone walkabout), then slotted myself in a primo spot at the front. Remember people, I’m there mostly to film. Typically I slip behind to my usual place in the group / peloton once things get rolling… mid-pack to towards the back. No delusions of grandeur around here! Regardless, filming gave me good opportunity to gauge the level of talent at the race.
Much of the front row was represented by former or present Category 1 type roadies, including the notable presence of one Mr Michael Sencenbaugh. If you haven’t suffered at the Dirty Kanza 200 race, you may not recognize Michael’s name. Michael finished second overall at the 2015 and 2016 editions, which in itself is an amazing accomplishment. I don’t like to remind Michael of this – he would have won the 2015 Dirty Kanza 200 mud edition had he not gone off course multiple times and squandered his massive lead (he was new to Garmin navigation at the time), only to be caught and outsprinted at the line by the eventual winner, Yuri Hauswald. Moving on… sorry Michael.
Eddie the race promoter counted us down, and the race was off! Flat out! No time for warm up or conversation. I went from front row to 20th in about 20 seconds. D’oh! 2014’s more casual rollout would have been welcomed about this time, but no time to reminisce. Hold that wheel ahead of me, but don’t keep a death grip on the handlebars! These Georgia red clay roads were covered in a smattering of loose gravel – if you didn’t pay attention, you could easily lose your front wheel and take a dive.
My race pre-ride reconnaissance was limited to rolling up the road about a mile and back to the start. This turned out to be a wise move, as the first left-hand turn was sharp, leading into a short and punchy climb.
I was positioned well for the turn and took the appropriate line to remain with the lead group. The elevation of the race dropped down a little from this point, so riders who were in difficulty early had a chance to find their way back. The pace remained high, all the way until the end of this gravel sector, and the first brief sector of pavement.
Michael Sencenbaugh and collaborators were at the front, keeping the speed such that there was no chance of an attack, but at a speed that was putting a lot of riders into difficulty, including yours truly. I’m a bit of a slacker when it comes to training and don’t exactly put in enough high-end intensity intervals… mostly because I don’t like doing them.
At that moment in time, I was having some regrets about that, and my ever present lack of sleep – a side effect of working a regular job, running Gravel Cyclist (my second job), trying to see my girlfriend, travel, maintaining a house, and lately, a majorly annoying f’n root canal. Remember, all cyclists have an equally good set of excuses
The brief paved sector gave me a chance to take a few deep breaths and recover. My legs were feeling the effort but slowly warming up, yet I dare not look at my heart rate statistics.
As it was, I was sweating profusely in the heat and humidity, adorned in a healthy glow… or as teammate Dr. Pain put it, “you were showering me in sweat”. Yum.
Onto the next sector of gravel and a dip down towards a small concrete bridge, followed by a short but steep little climb. The rumbling of tyres on gravel was disturbed by a noise no cyclist likes to hear – the sound of a crash at around 32mph / 51km/hr. I flinched and paused my pedaling momentarily. As the crash happened on the descent towards the bridge I just mentioned, it was quickly far behind and out of view with a sizable gap between chasing riders. The cameras of the Gravel Cyclist crew captured the entire incident, which we will show in full in the pending race video. Much as we don’t like crashes, they are a part of reality and the gravel cycling experience.
In brief, Hardwick Gregg struck a rock, causing loss of control and ultimately, a crash. Unfortunately, his bike wandered to the left side of the road, taking out Greg Casteel in the process. Cal Till? was very fortunate to miss the wandering bike. From what information I have gathered, Hardwick has a wrecked bike and abrasions from the gravel road. Greg may have several fractured ribs. On the positive, these injuries could have been much worse, and I wish both lads a rapid and trouble-free recovery.
The race at the front didn’t stop and I was gapped on the climb that followed the bridge. At about six miles into the course, this would be the last I would see of the front group. Ouch went my legs. I resigned myself to riding steady tempo, and ideally riding with whomever else was popped from the front group, or missed the crash.
Soon I was joined by teammate Dr. Pain and other lads, all of whom were delayed by the crash. We set about riding together, sharing the workload as evenly as possible. K-Dogg, also held up by the crash, soon joined our group.
The ever increasing numbers in the group were welcome, but not everyone was pulling the same tempo on the climbs, and it took a while before that message was circulated. At our most cohesive, I learned we were approximately one minute and 30 seconds in arrears of the leading group.
Meanwhile, I was feeling a bit shoddy. Mentioned earlier, sweat was pouring from my pores. I was hydrating with my well-proven Gu Roctane mix, carried in two by two litre Zefal Magnum bottles aboard the Lynskey PRO GR review bike. Despite this and the two Gu gels and a package of Gu Energy chews I’d consumed, it was likely I was a wee bit calorie deficient. Sometimes, I cannot stomach much in the way of food during a hard effort, which is never helpful for one’s athletic performance.
I found myself hanging out towards the rear end of our sizeable group, effectively the second group of riders along the course. On the flatter roads and descents, no worries. But, the endless climbs were putting me into serious trouble. I wasn’t forced onto my bailout gear of 34 x 32, but I was becoming well acquainted with the small chainring and the middle of my cassette.
Eventually, at around mile 32 / km 51, the pace was increased by someone I temporarily didn’t like very much, just as the group ascended another of the course’s endless hills. I was unceremoniously ejected from the back of the group in the company of a few other riders.
By the time I’d crested this berg (Aussie speak for a decent hill), I found myself in the company of the Women’s 40+ leader, Jean Miller. We took it upon ourselves to cut our losses and work together.
Close to the third aid station along the course, we were joined by three fellows who’d chased us down, also victims of the earlier mentioned acceleration. We worked well together until one of the riders, a bloke I refer to as riding in “Business Casual” attire – aka wearing MTB type shorts and a white t-shirt, split for the aid station.
Our quartet pressed on towards the finish. Jean was riding for the win in her category, while the rest of us were happy to be there.
My legs were growing more and more unhappy with each pedal stroke, and on another of the course’s half-decent climbs, I was forced to stand out of the saddle to address an ..almost.. hamstring leg cramp. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cramped in a bike race – once – this would make ..almost.. number two. I resisted a full-on cramp but waved bye bye to my companions.
Approximately 15 miles / 24kms remained to the finish line. I was running low on fluids, but had to coax enough performance out of myself to avoid a full-on leg cramp and ideally finish in a somewhat respectable time. What followed was riding as fast as possible on the flatter roads and descents, and babying my legs on my 34 x 32 bailout gear anytime the road tilted upward. A brief stop came at the final aid station along the course for a top up of water, before crawling across the finish line a few miles later.
No records were set by yours truly at this race. 15th spot in the Men’s Masters 40 – 49 category at 3:08:30 – and, I was completely and utterly shagged / knackered / smashed / cracked.
Much as I seldom upload to Strava, you can check out my ride / suffer data HERE. At an average heart rate of 172bpm for the race, it wasn’t like I was completely slacking off. Not a good day for my personal performance (chalk it up to a bad day), but a great one for my humble teammates.
K-Dogg won his race and the Southeastern Gravel Cup series, Dr. Pain scored a 3rd in the Grand Masters category (50 – 59yo) and everyone else who attended the event had a fab time!
After the race, much socializing followed, including food provided by Eddie the promoter and his extraordinary crew of volunteers. All good stuff and why I am a Gravel Cyclist. For me, racing isn’t always about a placing or amazing performance, but more about the experience, camaraderie and friendships I make at these races – and gravel events.
Thanks so much to Chain Buster Racing, the fabulous team of volunteers, my fellow gravel cyclists and everyone who stopped to say hello. Congratulations also to the winners and podium getters of each respective category.
Special mention to Michael Sencenbaugh – Michael won the Men’s Open category and broke the course record at 2:41:58. Yikes!
Coming soon, the Red Clay Ramble race video!
Thanks for reading…