There's a special feeling that comes with leaving the city for the mountains. A magic that hits when the buildings get sparse and the trees grow abundant, when the air gets crisp and phone reception fades away. That feeling came on strong last week when heading out of Truckee into the Plumas County high country, driving from San Francisco to the the Lake Davis area.
There's another kind of feeling that comes with preparing for one of the most masochistic races on the calendar, the 100+ mile Lost and Found gravel grinder put on by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. Certainly a different kind of feeling, with a different kind of excitement, but magic all the same. To me, there's nothing better than a camp out weekend of back-country bike racing and that's exactly what the Lost and Found gravel grinder had on tap to deliver.
Pulling into Portola, the beautiful little town playing host to the race, the stoke started to rise as more and more cars fully loaded up with bikes came into view. There's a unique thing to the camaraderie of bike racing, when total strangers pull up next to each other and exchange a nod and thumbs up, knowing we're all here for the same love of fun and suffering.
The Sierra Trails do a top notch job of putting on events, not only putting together some of the greatest race courses but also making the pre and post ride party a full on festival. This would be my first Lost and Found, but having raced Downieville and Grinduro for years I had a pretty good idea of what to expect. They morphed the Portola City Park into an expo center and at 5 o'clock on Friday the people were trickling in and beers were already flowing.
After checking in at registration, I tried to kit up and spin to open up the legs from the drive. That plan was quickly derailed as I kept running into old friends, including my teammate for the weekend and builder of my new Mosaic race bike, Aaron Barcheck. It's funny how quickly catching up and goofing around can take precedence over race prep but having fun is the point, right?
As the sun dropped over the peaks, it was time to head back to camp, cook up some dinner, and finally get some rest before the big day. Cyclists are an extreme bunch of outdoor gear nerds. Portola opened up all of their parks to racer camping and the town was blanketed with some of the most elaborate camp set ups you've ever seen. The hype of #overlanding is real.
At 5:45 my alarm went off. Does anyone actually sleep well the night before a race? A mixture of excitement and nerves rarely results in a deep rest. The constant sounds of trains passing in the night probably didn't help either. Regardless, it was time to get up and go. The Jetboil went on to get coffee and oatmeal ready stat... the race to the outhouse is just as important as the race itself.
One last bike check before rolling to the start. We profiled my bike
a couple weeks back, the only change being a switch from the WTB Riddler 37s to Vittoria Terreno Dry 40s for that extra bit of cush. Leading up to the race, the weather was constantly in question. The area got loads of rain and even some snow in the weeks before and the forecast for race day was chancing up to the final minute.
Luck and Mother Nature decided to give us a break and the sun was shining over the town. In the final moments, I checked the forecast once more and decided to ditch the arm warmers and vest and rolled to the start in just bibs, a base layer, and a short sleeve jersey with only food loaded up in my pockets.
The scene under the Clif Bar arch was quite the spectacle. 1500 people is a lot of racers, any way you cut it. It's not every day you get world class pros and novice first timers lining up in the same place, but that's part of what makes these gravel races so spectacular. Some racing for glory, some with the simple goal of just making it to the finish line. All are welcome to line up and give it their all, and the Sierra Trials crew were pros at wrangling the crowd and keeping everyone organized. After a live harmonica performance of the national anthem, the whistle blew and we were off.
It started off with a neutral roll out down the highway before making the first turn into the dirt. As we neared the end of the five mile roll out, the pace started to pick up and riders tried to find their positions. We turned off the road to hit the gravel, went under the timing tent, and the gloves came off. The course was front loaded with all the big climbing coming right out the gate with a five mile ascent.
As a life long sea-level native, altitude and I have never gotten along. Even at the modest base of 4,500ft, I was feeling the effects straight away. I've finally hit a point in life of coming to terms with this, and metered my efforts accordingly. As a bike racer, it's never easy to watch the front end ride away, but the last thing I needed to do was blow up in the first 20 miles. I settled into a pace I was comfortable with, knowing I'd (hopefully) reel people in on the descent.
Cresting the top of the first climb, it was time for me to start making my moves. The next several miles of the course were a mix of descending and rolling hills. You've got to take risks to get rewards, so I laid off the brakes and got the party started. Gradually I started picking people off, railing the corners and doing my best to float over the rocky sections. After getting the big climb over with, my lungs came around and I was feeling good powering up the shorter pitches. The trails were in ripping condition and were perfectly suited for my descending style; I was having a blast finding my flow through the course.
Strategy plays a big role in these races and part of that strategy includes knowing when you can safely pass an aid station. I was feeling solid with my food and hydration levels so I decided to blow by the first big rest stop. Passing a big group of riders, I caught the next group ahead, just in time to settle in and work with for the first big flat stretch. After a long stretch of riding on a solo mission, I made it back in the race–sitting within the top 20 and on track for my goal of a sub six hour finish.
Pack riding on dirt roads is a rather interesting experience. The efficiency of the group is oh so necessary, but with ruts and mud pits abundant, riding wheel to wheel gets sketch pretty quick. These races draw riders from all niches of racing, and people's dirt skills run the gamut. Regardless, I was happy to have the company.
Just before hitting the halfway point, we were faced with one more brutal digger of a climb. Once again, the altitude caught up to me and I couldn't quite stick with the group. Finally, I made it over the top and took back to my strategy of letting it loose on the descent. It was going great as I had the crew in sight, but my precision in steering took a momentary lapse and I clipped a pretty big rock at top speed. The bike was unfazed, but the impact bucked my rear end up and my saddle tagged me in my tail bone, sending a jolt up my back. Not good...
Pushing through the pain, I made it to the mid point aid station to refill my bottles and take a minute to stretch. Hopping back on the bike, I tried to push on, but things went downhill from there. The next 15 miles were all washboard fire road, which did my body no favors. Legs wanted to go, but back would not comply and I was relegated to a slow roll, vacillating between standing and soft pedaling.
Over those next several miles, group by group started passing me by. All the work I'd put in to move up in the field went down the drain. Mentally I started cracking, fearing I might not make it through the next 40 or so miles to the end. Eventually a friend caught up to me on a smoother section of the course and graciously gave me a wheel to stick on. Slowly, my back started to relax and I was able to settle back into riding at tempo and my morale began to rise.
The two of us were in no man's land for quite some time, pulling each other through the flats and up the next gravel climb until we descended down to the final rest stop where we converged with the short course and hit the final section of double track. At that moment, another friend who had flatted earlier on had caught on and was moving at a solid clip. The three of us got into a groove, adrenaline erased the pain my body had been in, and we were flowing the final dirt traverse through the woods and doing our best to politely weave around the short-coursers.
We finally made it out of the woods and hit pavement, where we'd be faced with one more climb before the home stretch back to the finish. The rest of the ride was a blur, as we came off the road, weaved through the campgrounds, and eventually found ourselves downtown with the finishing arc in sight.
Crossing the line, I was cracked like I'd never been in before. Fully depleted, but in too deep of a daze to know what to do with myself–a state I seemed to share with everyone else. My instincts were to lay out on the grass, but I couldn't sit still. I was desperately in need of food, but couldn't figure out how to get myself there. After walking around aimlessly, I finally made it to the the taco line and stuffed my face with the calories I so desperately needed.
At the end of the day, I crossed the line 25th in the pro field with a time of 6h24m. Quite a way off from the time and placing I was hoping for and nearly an hour down from Tobin's winning time, but given the problems I had with my back, I was happy to have just finished the ride. At the end of the day, I could only be happy to have raced in such incredible terrain and make it all the way through without a crash or single mechanical issue.
It's amazing how an experience so torturous can leave you so eager to come back for more, but that's exactly how I felt wrapping up the weekend. Beat, exhausted, but already excited for next year's race to come. Luckily the rest of the Triple Crown has Downieville and Grinduro still on deck. The team at Sierra Trails never disappoint, and once again put on a world class event.
Until next time, Portola...
Photographs courtesy of Patrick Cavender, Ian Matteson, Tyler Nutter, John Watson, and Derek himself.