So many ups and downs...
With overseas gravel races booming, it was awesome to have our very own Gravel Nationals pop into the calendar this year courtesy of Dynamo Events. It’s wonderfully unclear whether the “Nationals” part is ironic or not, but that duality is what gravel’s all about - not serious, but serious. It was a pleasure to wander the carpark in the rain checking out the vast variety of bikes before the race. There were aero road bikes maxed out with 30mm tyres, a few singlespeeds, some old cx bikes and a slew of recent gravel bikes. Some were prepped for hardcore racing, others were festooned with bar and frame bags for a more civilised lap of the course.
And the course was a doozy: 2.3k of climbing over 115k is brutal - and even more so on gravel.
Around 85 took to the line for the mass start, with the Rush Velo cycling team fresh off the Tour of Southland ominously at the front.
Unfortunately in the last minute re-setting of the start line I found myself in the back quarter as we rolled out on the fast sealed lead-in to the first climb.
Before we hit the climb, we had a quick stoppage and regroup when a few cows got on the road - classic stuff. With riders already spat out the back just 10k in, the cows joined the gruppetto.
Thanks to Phil Brown for the video
I knew I had to move up before the first climb hit at 12k. But with such a large group there was only room to move up when the pace was on: bloody hard work. I was still out of position and already in the red when we hit the climb. Very quickly it was survival mode: just hold the wheel, just make it to that next corner, just don’t let the gap open. The first 90 minutes of the race were brutal. When we weren’t climbing, we were exposed to a strong headwind on the open ridges and descents. Saving energy was near impossible. Small groups were changing composition with every ebb and flow of the parcourse.
When I rounded a bend near the top of the biggest climb the photographers were out. Considering it a win I was on the front in that fleeting moment I rasped to my teammate Sherp, “that’s my job done”.
I had been holding wheels through will-power alone, and that couldn’t last forever. I finally cracked and accepted my fate. Looking back there was no-one. There’s no lower feeling than being dropped and alone. Feeling bad for myself, a rider caught me, then disappeared on a descent which I didn't have the will or skill to put up a fight. The race felt over and I contemplated taking the shortcut to the finish. I took a selfie to have a memento of my despair:
But on the other hand, the rain had stopped, the sun was out and my old mate Peter Tuck caught up. It’s amazing what a companion (and a tailwind) can do for morale!
After an hour our relaxed pace allowed a small group to catch us just in time for the only flat 10k of the entire course - and with a tailwind! My legs and spirits were rejuvenated and I took to the front to test the diesel. Morale was further improved when I spotted Sherp ahead on a climb. I had my carrot.
But disaster! Just as I approached I heard a strange thunk followed a few seconds later by massive front brake drag. I stopped on the climb and discovered my front thru-axle had somehow popped out. After quickly hand-tightening it I dug deep to catch Sherp and tow him to my group. I made it clear to him he had no choice but to follow my wheel, however he was fully poked, bonked and a shell of the man who’d dropped me 90 minutes earlier.
Finally within the last hour of racing I was feeling (relatively) strong and pushed the pace as much as I could. My competitive side was rewarded on another climb when my other teammate Andy came into view: “I’ve been cramping for the last hour” he whinged as we came alongside.
(One more quick stop on a climb to tighten my thru-axle)
The closer we got to the finish the more I was enjoying the feeling of racing again. Catching some of the riders who’d dropped me earlier felt good. Maybe my endurance training was paying off after all? We even had some pretend team tactics as I attacked the group on a twisty headwind section, and only Andy could bridge up to me. And thankfully shared his water as I had run out.
It’s obviously pretty hard to take photos during a race, but here’s a shot of Andy barreling into the final downhill headwind section.
As we turned onto the finishing straight with 2k to go he opened a civil discussion on how we’d approach the finish. I answered with my legs, testing him with a sprint up the very last pinch climb. Fortunately he assumed I was just going ahead to sort my dodgy thru-axle. By the time he realized otherwise it was too late. The race for 40th place was on!
Kudos to every single person who turned up to challenge themselves. It was a beast of a course, and brilliantly run by Dynamo Events.