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Hail, Rain, Sun, and Snow at the California Grinduro

by Derek Yarra |

Weather Underground,Dark Sky, AccuWeather. Quincy, California. Refresh, refresh, refresh.
Weather Underground,Dark Sky, AccuWeather. Quincy, California. Refresh, refresh, refresh.

If you like to ride bikes in the dirt and you like to party in the mountains, you probably followed this cadence repeatedly over the final week of September, leading up to Grinduro, California. Over the last four years, riders have enjoyed hot and dusty conditions at the now legendary “gravel” event. This time around though, the weather apps were all showing snowflake icons next to 09/28 in the days leading up to the “race.”

Grinduro! banner

I use  “gravel” and “race” loosely, as both of those terms are fairly questionable ways to describe the event. The route itself resembles more of a marathon cross-country mountain bike race than a gravel grinder, and the race format encourages more whiskey shots than sprinting. But that’s the beauty of Grinduro. The run-what-you-brung-and-have-a-good-time ethos is what’s drawn a cult following of attendees from around the globe to come out, and filled them all with enough stoke to still want to camp out and brave the projected elements. Myself included. With my fingers crossed that the weather would hold out, I packed my gear and made the four hour drive from San Francisco to the Plumas National Forest.

A bit of a brief on the “race.” For those unfamiliar, it uses an enduro style format, meaning it’s a mass start ride with a series of timed segments, separated by non timed transfer segments. Racers are then ranked by their cumulative time over the timed segments, and can take as long as they want to make it through the transfers. Along the way are countless rest stops with snacks, booze, bacon wrapped pickles, and even a full on lunch spread at the mid point of the day. Due to a recent forest fire, the organizers were forced to come up with a last minute reroute. While the reason for the change is obviously a tragedy, the new course was praised by many. Sixty miles, 9,000 feet of vertical, and all of it on dirt. Sounds like a recipe for a good time, right?

Grinduro overland world headquarters

Pulling up to the venue the day ahead of the race, the warm temps and clear skies left us all praying the conditions would maintain to race day. After staking out our campsite, some friends and I figured we ought to kit up and spin out the legs. Next thing you know, our quick spin turned into climbing to the highest point of the course and scouting the new singletrack downhill stage. Three hours, two flat tires, and one crash later, we’d made it back to camp a good hour after the sun had gone down. After a quick shower (thank God for races with on-site showers), I cooked up some dinner and went to bed.

grinduro preride

Waking up at the crack of dawn, I got out of bed and joined friends for breakfast. It was cold, but the skies were clear. For a moment I thought we might just be in the clear, but of course common wisdom was to leave prepared. I geared up with my beloved Hybrid-Que jersey and gloves, a vest and legwarmers, and borrowed a friend’s lightweight packable shell for good measure. Without a second to spare, I hopped on my trusty Mosaic GT-1 and got off to the start line.

Rolling out of town and up the mountain, it was as beautiful of a morning as you could imagine. Crisp air, a glowing sun poking through the trees, and nearly 1000 riders eager to take on the day. A few miles up the hill and it time for stage one, a 1.2 mile fire road climb. If you’ve read any of my previous recaps, you know how much I love going anaerobic at altitude. I wouldn’t say it went well,  but I was happy to get the worst stage of the day out of the way. Huffing and puffing at the end of the climb, it was only fitting that the rain would now show its face.

grinduro rollout

After finishing a hill climb stage, you would think it’d be time for some down hill, but it was quite the opposite. We’d hardly even made it halfway up the mountain. We still had another 2,500 ft of vertical and it was only getting colder. The climb slogged on, endlessly it seemed, while the rain went back and forth between misting and showering, and the temperature dropped to the low 30s. We passed through an aid station with whisky on hand to warm people up, but it was a bit of false hope as we were still a ways from the top. My gloves had fully soaked through, doing little to keep my long and bony fingers protected from the chill. Finally, we crossed the summit and just a few meters ahead was the start to stage two, a 6.3 mile twisty fire road bomb.

grinduro cold rain

Things got a little tricky here. When dropping into a bumpy high speed descent, it’s usually nice to have dexterity in your fingers for things like, I don’t know, braking control. There was a pick up truck parked just before the start with a space heater off the tailgate. I tried to get some feeling back in the fingers, but the heat was basically doing nothing and the longer I stood there, the colder the rest of my body got. I figured it best to do a couple of sprints back up the hill to get a little bit of a warm up and hit the segment with running start.

The adrenaline of trying to blindly ride a “skinny” tired bike as fast as possible down this new fire road course quickly overtook any thoughts of frozen extremities, and I carried on passing a number of riders. The track wasn’t as loose as in years prior, making it a little more welcoming to push the envelope harder, but an acceleration over an especially bumpy washboarded section threw my chain off the bike. I was able to shift and get it back on without getting off the bike, but it tweaked my front derailleur, resulting in a few more dropped chains. Those mechanicals hampered my hopes of a competitive time, but the new stage was fun nonetheless! At the end of the run, there was a fire pit burning and riders huddled around. After sufficiently thawing out, I carried on with the mild transfer to stage three, all while the sun began to show its face again.

 

grinduro fireroad

Historically, stage three was a flat time trial on the road, benefiting those who could group up with fast riders and work together. This year, things were different. Instead, we got a 4.6 mile rolling gravel fire road. Thinking the team tactics might still be of benefit, I partnered up with a friend and we attacked the stage. Very quickly, we realized that the opening section was way too rough to try and navigate wheel to wheel. We tried to stick together on the climby bits, but I eventually realized I was better off attacking the rest alone.  I took off, hammered out the final kilometer, plowed into a rock garden, amazed I didn't detonate a rim, and finished the stage. Fully gassed, I was happy to have made it to the lunch stop.

grinduro lunch stop 

The lunch stop was pretty impressive. Gourmet meals, a coffee truck, beers, snacks... it was basically a food truck pop up halfway up the mountain. As great as it was to rest and enjoy the now full on fun, I didn't want to linger too long and cool down as the most brutal climb of the day was still ahead.

Leaving lunch, it was an entirely vertical transfer up to the final down hill stage... scaling from 3,200ft to 7,300ft of elevation over the next eight miles. It started as a mellow fire road grade with some seriously incredible sweeping views of the valley, but things changed dramatically once we turned onto single track. As the trail tightened, it got steeper too. Traffic clogged up and passing riders was a challenge. The single track then turned to a double track jeep trail, that, with every turn got steeper and steeper. Most people took to pushing their bikes up. The last couple of miles, while far less steep, turned back to technical single track before finally hitting the final aid station. For some extra credit, it was worth pushing up a little bit further to the actual summit to get the view of the lake on the other side.

grinduro climb up mt hough

grinduro mt hough

Finally, the stage I'd been looking forward to all day, the single descent down from the summit. Pre riding it the day before paid dividends, as a rigid gravel bike with a fixed seat post doesn't give a lot of room for error when bombing a mountain bike trail. The trail was well groomed but with a fair share of bumps, g-outs, and rocks sprinkled throughout, all keeping you on your toes to avoid a flat tire. The biggest challenge though, was trying to politely navigate around slower riders. It was here I realized that leaving lunch with a little more urgency would have really paid off to get a cleaner run. Finally I crossed the line and popped out of the trees, emerging upon the final hang out spot with a fire pit roaring and beer keg tapped.

 grinduro single track descent

Photo: John Watson/The Radavist

grinduro fire pit beer keg

Recapping with friends around the fire, I finished a beer just as snow began to fall from the sky. The race might have been over, but we still had two-thirds of the mountain to descend to get back into town. It was single track all the way home, and it was pretty surreal to be dropping through the light dusting of snowfall. Finally back to camp, it was time to clean up, eat, and relax while we waited for the results to come in. According to my Wahoo, I had logged 60 miles and 9,000ft of elevation, all over 5 hours and 51 minutes. What a day it was! 

 grinduro post ride

So how did I do? That's  something everyone is left clueless about throughout the race. A unique thing about Gridnuro is  you really don't know where you stand until the officials to tally up all the segment times at the end of the day. My cumulative time came in at 50:31 minutes, putting me at 25th in the pro field. While it was far from an impressive finish, it will forever be recorded that I beat Taylor Phinney in a bicycle race. 

grinduro results i beat phinney

If I'm being honest, I'd say I was bit under-gunned riding a gravel bike. Stage three was provably the only one what wouldn't have been faster on a hardtail mountain bike. All things considered though, my Mosaic GT-1 took it all in stride and handled everything the day threw at it. I would have appreciated bigger tires, but the Vittoria 40c Terreno Mix tires on Enve G23 wheels handled great and made it through without a single issue.

grinduro finish line portrait

The course was rigorous, and the conditions made it even more so. But despite the challenge, the stoke seemed unanimous for all. The crew behind Grinduro have clearly figured out how to do a bike race right and capture the adoration of cyclists from nearly every niche of the sport. I know I'm already counting down the days (and scheming my bike set up) until we get to do it again next year.

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