An Unlikely Transformation: Sprinter to Endurance Gravel Cyclist

The Rocky Road to Rebecca’s Private Idaho

As 2017 passes like a speeding train and 2018 looms ahead with the bright light of hope: I reflect upon a seriously transformational year as a cyclist. At some point in the Spring of 2017 I realized that there was this event called Rebecca’s Private Idaho. RPI is 100 miles of gravel grinding goodness with 5,299 feet of climbing starting from Ketchum Idaho (elevation 5,853’ above sea level). Having missed the sign up for the Dirty Kanza (Thank God) with its demanding 200 miles of gravel grinding, I was determined to set my sights on something challenging.

I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into.

Gravel Suffering

You see: I’m a Sprinter by nature, heart and soul. I LOVE to sprint. I LOVE intervals until you gasp for breath and see spots. I’m a little weird like that. Another quirk of my nature is that I was a short endurance cyclist. Historically I have not done well over the long haul. You can chalk that up to being chronically hypoglycemic (low blood sugar). Even the best tasting Gels and standard bike food can’t sustain you for 100 miles on gravel. Eat too much, you suffer. Eat too little, you suffer. Eat the wrong thing – you suffer. Yay me.

I had no idea how I was going to transform from a Sprinter into an Endurance cyclist. Not just any endurance cycling: gravel grinding. Considering the sheer physics involved; I would not only have to sustain my nutrition-starved body for a hundred miles, I would also have to put out ~20-30% more power output than road cycling. Part of mind was having a hissy fit. I shut that part out, ignored my fear and started to train.

Learning the Hard Way

If you think the Cycling Fairy will just show up one day and give you more endurance, that’s not going to happen. There was only one way that I could make this transformation happen: go gravel grinding! I didn’t even know if I would ever complete RPI or not and I didn’t care how fast I did it. It would be a feat just to complete it. RPI was a huge goal that I had no idea if I could manage. Bugger the time. I just had to finish.

 

Grinch Adventures 1
The ‘Grinch’

My husband and I had recently bought matching Diamondback Haanjo gravel bikes. They are the knock-off Swiss Army Knife of gravel bikes. I say knock-off because they weren’t very expensive and, while they are good bikes, you won’t be winning any races on them. They were kitted out with 27.5 wheels and 2” tires on a go-anywhere carbon fiber frame that took bike touring racks (front and rear) with a dagger cheap low-end Shimano drivetrain. It didn’t take me long to learn a LOT about Gravel Grinding and realize that I was in trouble.

 

  1. Tire size matters.
  2. Not all carbon frames are made equal.
  3. Mechanical disk brakes suck.
  4. A triple is good for touring, bad for racing.
  5. Good wheels can make all the difference!

Race Fantasies

Why racing? Well, it wasn’t long after our new bike purchase that I found gravel racing. The problem with Gravel racing is: there aren’t many races under 100 miles. Crazy, right?! Gravel Grinding is the quintessential ‘tough mans’ sport. I wanted to sign up to race the few sub-100 races. But, I didn’t want to race on my big green machine (aka: The Grinch) because I would still be out there! The Grinch is a comfy bike but slow as frozen molasses. People think I’m joking, but the Diamondback bikes are not made for speed. They are great at absorbing bumps and your power.

On the flip side, while I floundered around trying to find a gravel race-capable frame that wouldn’t cost me a kidney: I got lots of hard miles in on the Grinch. I got dropped. A lot. I also did quite a bit of training on some of the ugliest gravel in Texas. You can tell how much money a county has by what they put on their gravel roads. I now have a whole new vocabulary of gravel types. I did rides that I call ‘bouldering’ which is riding on gravel/dirt roads lined loosely with large river rock. We also did a bike packing trip from Washington DC to Pittsburg for 376 miles.

The Flight of the Chicken

Unwittingly, riding on insanely unfriendly gravel with a power-sucking bike was probably one of the best things I could have done. While I wasn’t getting the miles in that I needed – I was getting the endurance. My first rides on gravel were followed by days of rest because I couldn’t move. I still felt slow, still was getting dropped and I had no idea how far I’d come until one day I discovered the Space Chicken!

 

spc chkn first ride
The ‘Space Chicken’

No, I didn’t mentally launch into outer space. The Space Chicken is an actual bike built overseas by On-One, a UK bike company. Thanks to a chance conversation about my gravel bike frustrations, a friend suggested the Space Chicken, a cheaper and more available option to my troubles (Thanks, TJ!). I liked it instantly just because of the name. Admit it: you’ve bought beer or wine just because of the label. Apparently the same applies to bikes.

 

New bike day arrived and I was extremely anxious to get the Space Chicken race worthy. Although I already had a set of fantastic Cantu Cycling Wheels, in hindsight, I should have bought the bike with the drivetrain. We spent a third more money and twice as much hassle just because the UK’s spec on some hydraulic braking systems are different than the US. Regardless of the birthing pains: the Space Chicken made its debut on a local gravel ride and it felt like I was flying!

Fried Chicken

The Big Day was approaching fast (RPI takes place on September 3rd) and the Texas summer was in full swing. If you aren’t from South Texas, I can tell you that it gets HOT. Hot enough that you don’t want to go outside. You can cook eggs on the hood of your car by 11:00 am. The grand finale of local Gravel Racing is the Texas Gravel Championship race in mid-August. The heat index was projected to be 114 degrees by 2:00 pm. The race was 100 miles and my very first endurance Gravel Race.

Ignoring common sense, I signed up determined to do my best with the Space Chicken. These were some of the last gravel long miles we’d see before I hit the road to Idaho.

In the furious dusty washboard fighting for the best line, I was quickly dropped from the lead group. At mile 40-something, I ran out of water. By the next rest stop, I was already starting to feel sick and overheated. My husband pulled me from the race at mile 76. I was dehydrated and had heat exhaustion. It wasn’t easy to DNF a race, but I couldn’t have logically continued. The heat was brutal. I don’t remember how hot it was when I was pulled. I was fried, dusted and ground. While the race was a failure for me, it was also a very good lesson in hydration, fueling, and tactics.

Escaping the Apocalypse

bobcat passWe narrowly avoided being flooded into Houston with Hurricane Harvey hard on our heels as we escaped northwest to New Mexico and Colorado. It was incredibly difficult to be away from our friends and watch from afar as people suffered. My husband and I channeled our pent-up frustration into overcoming serious challenges at altitude. We conquered the Enchanted Circle out of Taos, NM with 8,000’ of climbing, 2 mountain passes, and 87 miles. If I never see Bobcat Pass again it will be too soon.

On to Silverton, CO to stay in one of the highest towns in North America and try our abilities on 4×4 trail roads with our bikes. We rode from Silverton to Animas Forks and I was wishing for larger tires and front suspension. It was worth every minute in the saddle – the view was spectacular! I will say this: if you can ride your gravel bike on that kind of road – everything else looks easy. From there: we headed to Ketchum, Idaho for the Big Event.

The Art of Letting Go

Fear is the mind-killer. Letting go of fear, particularly fear of failure, may be one of the most liberating things you can do as a person. It took me a very long time and many unfortunate years to get over my fear of failure. There are so many races I didn’t even sign up for because I was afraid to fail. I didn’t allow myself to try because I was convinced that I wouldn’t succeed. Well, I was right. I didn’t succeed because I didn’t try.

 

GR_animas forks ride
Road to Animas Forks

Looking back I see so much growth, not only as an athlete but as a person. I didn’t overthink RPI, I just went for it. Part of me knew, based on my issues with overheating, that the Texas State Championship Gravel Race was a bad idea. I didn’t care, I tried anyway. I failed, but I learned a lot! That’s arguably more important than winning. Two years ago, I wouldn’t have attempted the Enchanted Circle because I had no faith in myself and I was too proud to look like a fool. I did it and I didn’t have to walk up the pass like I’d feared. Last year you couldn’t have paid me to bike from Silverton to Animas Forks in the peaks of the San Juans! I looked at those gnarly rocks and said: “No promises, but let’s see how far we can go”. On I went!

 

Most of this journey is not just about training and dedication. It’s about letting go of fear and being open to possibilities. Being open to the possibility that I just might make it. If you try hard enough – you can do it! Cycling truly is a mental game and you need to figure how to outwit your inner critic.

The BIG DAY: Rebecca’s Private Idaho

Race day dawned chilly and clear. The weather forecast was warm but after the Texas heat, I wasn’t worried about warm temps, I was more concerned about the climbing. From the word “GO!” the race was uphill for 12 miles. In those miles, we would climb around 3,000’ and drop into the mountain valley that would witness most of our exertions.

Lactic acid from the pre-ride with Rebecca Rush haunted me for the first half of the climb. I didn’t warm up until halfway up the slope. While most of the event went well and I made the cut off for the 100-mile course, true suffering didn’t kick in until mile 70 something. As I turned to climb out of the valley, the headwind started to set in. My inner critic started jabbering away and I had to focus on keeping myself going. The closer I got to the final ascent, the winder it got. It took everything I had to fight the onset of cramping, nausea, and exhaustion to make that final climb to the last rest stop.

Descending wasn’t a piece of cake either since people were being shuttled off the course and vehicles were kicking up dust. The last 12 miles was all downhill but it wasn’t an easy grade with loose large rocks, no guardrail, and passing cars. I didn’t want to overcook a corner to end up as a hood ornament. I gritted my teeth and got on with it but I was so glad to see the finish. I would have been more elated if I wasn’t so tired I could barely walk.

GR_RPI finish Erin

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The Unlikely Transition

It’s still surreal that I am capable of completing something like RPI with only 6 months or less of real training. Maybe I could have gone faster or made a better time given a more rigorous training schedule or more time. It doesn’t matter. I made it and that was my goal. Riding and completing RPI is something that I never thought I would be able to do. Not too many weeks later, I made the podium at the Lockheart Breaker. I went into that race with an open mind and I surprised myself.

The problem is, we allow our inner critic to drag us down too often. Not every day is a good day, but it helps to understand that success is a process. There will be good days and bad days. Learning from the times we feel like we underperform is the key.

While I’m not sure I’ll do RPI as an event again, I would like to ride part of the course. It’s genuinely beautiful out there. I’ve set my sights on more gravel races for 2018 and, hopefully, Dirty Kanza (fingers crossed!). I don’t know how I’ll do and I’m not completely sure I care. Obsessing about your time or where you rank is for the Pros. I’m fighting my own battles and being able to compete in an endurance event is huge for me. Embracing possibilities and being ok with whatever the outcome brings is a big step. I’m happy with what I’ve been able to do so far.

When you think you can’t do something, let go of the fear and be open to possibilities. You never know and you won’t find out if you don’t try. If you want it – go for it!

gg with Venny Aug3a

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