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Getting my Feet Wet in Gravel by Jumping Head First into a 140 Mile Grinder

by Above Category Collaborator |

As a recovering triathlete married to a road cyclist, most of the chatter I’ve heard around gravel racing is skeptical. You often hear things like “gravel is for Instagram” or when you get dropped in a gravel race, you can just say you were there to “have fun”...among other things. But, I never really believed it. I remained curious, especially as I could feel my interest in triathlon waning. Then I stumbled upon SBT GRVL, bought an Open UP, and sold my TT bike. It was on. 

caroline goes gravel
For some race prep, we signed up for the Jackson Forest Grasshopper - 75mi, 8100ft of climbing - as my first real dirt ride. The AC team  got me set up on a demo bike, and we were off to the “race”. I hung in there with a few of the top ladies until I realized that I was in fact, more brave than skilled on gravel descents. As I was trying to hang with one studly lady on a cross bike (most people were on hard tails), I overcooked a turn, hit a soft spot and went down - for the first time. Then, a few hours later, I got jumbled up with another less experienced rider on a super chunky, technical section and I was down again. This time with a lot more bruises and a banged up bike. I hobbled into the last aid station, drank an IPA while the nicest mechanic ever made my bike rideable again, and I soft pedaled back to my car - 30 miles away. It was a painful entry into gravel - but I was ready for more.

I registered for SBT GRVL only a few weeks before the event. It was technically sold out, but I knew Amy Charity and team were making a concerted effort to support more female participation, so I sent a hail Mary Instagram message to their handle, and 2 days later I was signed up for my first official gravel race - a 140mi course, with 9,200ft of climbing, all at 6k ft elevation. All I needed was a bike, more fitness, and some skills.

steamboat springs gravel race course map
Peter Lucas and team went back to work on building out my Open UP. We decked it out with Enve, including G23 wheels, Di2, CeramicSpeed, and we painted it a cool crisp fog color - an ode to #karlthefog that follows us all through the beautiful roads and trails around San Francisco. AC worked miracles and managed to have the bike ready to go a few days before my flight to Denver. I arrived a week early so I could watch my husband Chris race masters crit nationals (he got 2nd!) in Colorado Springs, and then we played bikes all around the Rockies until race day - it was spectacular. The terrain options for a gravel bike in CO seem endless - perfect asphalt, pristine gravel roads, chunky fire roads, and technical single track if you’re brave enough (!). As a Colorado native, I still feel like I am only scratching the surface.

The truth is, I had lost much of my nerve on descents after my double crash at Grasshopper. So my focus for our pre-race rides in CO was to find it again and show up to SBT yip-free. It was touch and go all week… I’d be comfortable on a descent, but if I felt a tire even slightly spin out, I would lock up, my heart rate would spike and I’d feel nauseous. I honestly thought about dropping out of the race altogether. I knew some of the best gravel (and road!) racers in the world would be there, and frankly didn’t think I had any business showing up. But, I had decent fitness, and people kept reminding me that I need to relax, there is no pressure, I don’t have to “race” it, and I should just enjoy the day…

…turns out. I like to race. And that’s exactly what I did, with 400 other people.

steamboat springs gravel race start line

It was 32 degrees (F) at the start line, with standard pre-race nervous energy, but something about it was different. I think all the racers felt a certain sense of pride about showing up for such an epic inaugural event. While the race organizers did an incredible job with course recon videos, GPS maps, and detailed descriptions, you still never know how it will all come together until you actually race it. We were all there to create the benchmark - and that was pretty damn cool. I already had a ton of respect for the people next to me in the corral.

steam boat springs gravel mid race

The gun went off (PSA: like any real race, results are based on gun time, not chip time….so it’s important to be near the front! I did not know this, rookie mistake), and we rolled through town before turning onto the first dirt road - and that’s when it got aggressive. As the sun came up, we were flying through Steamboat, knowing we were all riding way too hard, gearing ourselves up for some huge blowups, and we just kept going. I fought hard to hold wheels, stay in fast groups, and keep some of the speedy ladies I knew in sight. The first ~5hrs of the race were my highest normalized power ever - we were truly racing. I was with a solid group for the first 75mi or so, occasionally getting dropped on longer descents, then fighting like hell to chase back. I caught the first women’s chase group and hung in there for a while with a few of the top women doing the 100mi course, until a long descent that was just too sketchy for me to hang with the group at such high speeds. So again, I was dropped but found my new squad of locals who let me hop on and we towed each other around for the last 50mi…still riding hard, but as a team. 

The most technical part of the race comes around mile 120, which meant my gap to a few ladies grew wider and I was in no man’s land for the last several miles - until a couple guys on single speeds (yes, single speeds!) caught me and we rode the last couple miles together. They won, I was 13th female, and accidentally photo bombed their finish line dabs.

steamboat springs gravel race crossing the line

All things said, put SBT GRVL on your race calendar. It’s a great race for roadies dipping their toes into dirt, and it was definitely my hardest day on a bike. And maybe one of my favorites. Time is warped when you’re racing gravel. You cannot lose focus for one second, your body fatigues faster from all the rattling, and you inevitably go so much harder than you ever expected to. It’s a beautiful thing that I haven’t been able to replicate in any other sport. 

Gravel is here to stay, and I am here for it.

steam boat springs gravel finish line

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