On November 6th, 2016, the Gravel Cyclist team drove almost six hours North to attend our very first gravel race in Alabama – we had a blast. The venue was just outside of Auburn in the little ghost town of Waverly, just North of Opelika – pronounced “Oh Pa Lie Ka”, I am told. This brand new race was promoted by two unbelievably enthusiastic guys, Colt and Mark in a Cracker shack compound that houses a T-shirt shop and art gallery known as “Standard Deluxe”.
Team Gravel Cyclist agreed our experiences there leaned more toward the “Deluxe”, than the “Standard.” After the pre-race rider meeting, the fifty something rider pack comprising of riders from both distances was gently paced out of town not by a car, but by two guys on bicycles who pulled off to the side once the first bridge was crossed. Eco-friendly escort!
The race was on! Or was it? It was hard to tell. No body jumped or surged. No shoving or high speed jockeying for position at the front. More like a Gran Fondo, we sort of moseyed down the road. Up and down we cruised comfortably over a few hills and a couple of dry creek wooden bridges.
Suddenly somebody stood up and went. A few more followed. The hills got suddenly longer and steeper. The gravel became a dusty red haze with fist sized rocks everywhere. People began to flat. The pace picked up even more.
Within a few minutes K-Dogg and the Belgian Diesel were running caboose behind a pack of 20 engines. I was at the back by choice, of course – filming dusty butts for GravelCyclist.com. Nothing but empty road to film at the very front. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…
Thirty minutes later we hit a flat stretch of pavement and EVERYBODY suddenly threw it into neutral… down to 10 mph!
Snacks were opened. Drinks were drunk. Conversation began.
This is weird I thought… weird but I like it! Must be an Auburn thing. Is this how they play against the Gators?
Soon enough the race pace cranked back up and it started to hurt again. Up and down, left and right. Virtually no flat or straight sections. A few smooth sections but still lots of stones and punctures. The pack whittled down to 15 due to fatigue and flats.
At some point along here, a big guy on a single speed Fatbike (John Schwab) accompanied by our youngest and sometimes teammate, Brian Rogers, rolled up from behind after chasing for several miles.
“Where the heck you been?” I queried. “I told you I was in tourist mode” he said grinning – which made no sense. Apparently, the wife / girlfriend of the dude on the Fatbike felt bad and unclipped his leash to chase back on. How nice is that?!
Along one excessively hilly section, Fatbike guy aka Big Fattie seemed to attack over and over again until we realized that’s just how single speeds have to work their momentum. Dr. Pain and others kept reeling him in but it seemed the gaps kept getting bigger.
“I hope you realize how hard I am working for you K-Dogg!” said Dr. Pain, drifting back to the laughing group. “I thought you did that ’cause it’s safer off the front”, I reminded him. “That’s true but you still owe me!” he said with a twinkle of his eye.
Between you and I it’s also part of Dr Pain’s “fat man fade” technique.
A little later we hit another flat stretch of pavement and it was Deja Vu again… candy and conversation… water and whinging (Oz slang for whining) then eventually back to race speed. Another hour of race pace and K-Dogg needed to pee. Once again the dozen our so lads obliged with no argument and gratefully lined up by the road side. Then once again the pace became uncomfortable until the second aid station (we blew past the first one) and yet another mandatory but grateful group stop for delicious PB & J and Gatorade.
Such a civilized group! At least for a while. And then civilization ended. A series of surges and escape attempts. A series of much steeper and longer hills… or it seemed so anyway. The pack was whittled down to eight or nine grim and grimy racers. JOM had been very active for the team but then experienced a mechanical issue (see his report HERE). He waved us on then climbed aboard the Gran Fondo train home.
The lad’s legs felt like the were literally “Made in Taiwan” – since he just returned from there after suffering a six hour climb from sea level to 10,700 feet! Congrats JOM!
With about two hours left in the race, Dr. Pain and the Belgian Diesel were slowly being reeled in by the mob while I was surfing the back waiting for the planets to align themselves. They did and I went… hard. Cresting a little dirt hill we turned left onto some sweet, sweet pavement. I kept going hard and thanks to the tarmac, also faster.
Soon 31 year old, Cat 1 mountain biker Sam Gwin came around me even harder. Looking back revealed teammates Dr. Pain and the Belgian Diesel, along with Nathan Spence, had latched onto the rear of the runaway train. Behind them lay only open road. The die was cast. Time for a team time trial – we all took pulls to the best of our ability which wasn’t much compared to Sam aka “Sam-I-Am” – cue the Dr. Seuss reference from “Green Eggs and Ham”.
“Will you tow us Sam-I-Am?” I thought. “I will eat your green eggs and ham so please don’t drop us Sam-I-Am!”
Five miles later, us three old codgers were forced to mostly sit on Sam. Nathan began yo-yo-ing and sighing every punchy uphill. Soon he was moaning up every hill. Then he drifted off completely – “looking at his tires but it was his legs that have punctured” as Phil Liggett once said.
With and hour and a half left, Dr. Pain’s legs didn’t exactly puncture but “heard the tapping of the drums.” His slow leaking front tire didn’t help matters any. He too waved us on. At this point we realized neither Diesel nor I had a working GPS and would be hopelessly lost if we fell behind “Sam-I-Am”. Supposedly the course was marked but few admitted to actually seeing a marker. Perhaps they were the size of Sam’s green eggs. “So please don’t drop us, Sam-I-Am!” The lad was raised right and respected his elders as much as possible in a race.
With an hour remaining I started yo-yo-ing myself. Then I shamelessly pulled the age card. “We are really old. We could easily be your father who had kids late in life. You are amazing! Good job! We won’t contest the sprint. We just want the old guy prize”, I groveled.
This smarmy tactic upset the Belgian Diesel so I instead engaged “Sam-I-Am” in idle conversation noticing that he slowed slightly when turning his head to politely answer my tactical, open-ended questions. “What’s it like living in Auburn? How ’bout them Tigers?” I inquired slowing his pace just enough to stay on his wheel a few more miles.
Soon all the Green Eggs and Hambone-ing in the world couldn’t save me as I watch Sam and Diesel slowly grind out of sight. Great! I am dropped and now lost. I pulled out the emergency cue sheet but most of the marked roads weren’t actually marked on the actual road. WTF?! My greatest fear was that I would get caught just before the finish and lose 3rd place. Solo TT time!
But despite a few wrong turns I managed to find my way home cramps and all. “Sam-I-Am” and the Belgian Diesel were happily eating burgers and dogs when I staggered off my bike about 15 minutes after them. Dr. Pain and Big Fattie arrived five minutes later followed shortly by Taiwan JOM. Everybody’s faces were smeared with so much red dust they looked like irradiated Native Americans. But the delicious beer provided by the Good People Brewing Company quickly erased the day’s aches and pains.
1,000 thanks for the promoters, volunteers and riders for a wonderful day of playing with our bikes in the dirt. Team GravelCyclist.com will be back next year… a little older but a little bit smarter. It should be interesting! 🙂