photos courtesy: March Gasch, Colin Meagher, Dain Zaffke, Dusty Bermshot, Ian Stowe
I’ll be the first to admit skepticism when Grinduro exploded across the pop-cycling blogosphere last year. I viewed the event with a small degree of contempt. It had all the trappings of a doomed-to-fail hype machine (Don’t fault me – one of their site headers even lists “Hype”). But, Grinduro rolled on this year, and when I was offered a last-minute entry, ever the curious skeptic, I obliged. What I came back with was a renewed sense of hope for cycling, and for its competitive aspect, where I feel most at home.
Held in the tiny town of Quincy, California, the race is staged by industry stalwart Giro in a remote region of the state known as the “Lost Sierras”. It’s an area already known with a degree of notoriety to the knobby-tired crowd, thanks to the famed Downieville Classic MTB race 50 miles to the south, and a spiderweb of singletrack constructed by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship. The race itself is 63 miles long, with 8,200ft of elevation gain, consisting of pavement, rutted fire roads, and flowing singletrack. But, there’s a catch to Grinduro: Participants aren’t racing for all of it. Instead, in a nod to enduro mountain bike racing, there are four timed stages, all taking most of the pro fields between seven and 15 minutes each. This is the very crux of what makes Grinduro’s format great: Instead of a mad dash from the gun, the pace of the race is social. Conversational, even. One can roll alongside famed road racers like Dave Zabriskie, Tayler Wiles, or Laurens Ten Dam, or get chatty with World Cup XC and DH mountain bikers like Geoff Kabush, Adam Craig, and Duncan Riffle. It’s accessible, a social, rolling party. Then, the field would hit a start gate, racing was on (for a bit), and eventually regroup at the stage finish for the next leg of the journey. Mr. Zabriskie and I had the semi-brilliant idea of “The Hardest Chiller” award – that is, the person who took the longest between stages, offset by how quickly they rode the stages themselves. Maybe with bonus time for each Coors Light (#sportbeer) downed at aid stations. The format made for an event everyone could get into, from the hammers to the chillers. Coupled with a festival atmosphere around the race and outstanding on-course support, inclusive participation is the absolute rule, not the exception. Grinduro is indeed onto something special, something that could reinvigorate racing from the ground up.
Necessary equipment was fairly loosely defined. Everything from long-travel mountain sleds to almost-road bikes were in attendance. I noticed a solid split between drop and flat bars, with most participants opting for some form of knobby tire. Me? I picked the Open UP all-road weapon, and never once regretted my choice. The massive gearing range from SRAM’s Force single-ring 10-42 group was much appreciated, and the clutched rear derailleur was definitely necessary for chain retention in rougher road sections. A Silca Impero framepump proved itself handy when I burped my tubeless tires in high-speed chatter. Speaking of, the new 700x44mm Snoqualmie Pass tires from Compass were absolutely stellar. Slicks, yes, but their massive volume, light weight, and fast rolling characteristics were invaluable in the dry conditions of the Sierras. Aired to 35-40psi, the huge footprint never faltered in loose singletrack or high-speed dirt road descending. Hardly slower on pavement than tires half their width, the Snoqualmies and Compass’ other smooth-treaded, high-volume tubeless tires might be THE gravel race tires to have in 2016.
The stages themselves, though brief, were not a joke. The FIRST STAGE was a mile-long uphill fire road sprint, testing one’s ability to keep their spleen from exiting their mouth under the force of anaerobic exertion.
HOW BADLY NATE GOT CRUSHED: 45 seconds, at 7:03. Turns out road racers don’t really train for these efforts. Fast twitch? What’s that?
STAGE TWO was a six-mile long downhill fireroad romp, reminiscent of the Kamikaze Downhill at Mammoth. With less steep. And less death-by-pumice rocks. It induced hoots of glee from just about everyone.
HOW BADLY NATE GOT CRUSHED: 1:32. I lied to myself and said I couldn’t win here by riding aggressively, but could lose. I wasn’t aggressive. And I lost anyway.
STAGE THREE was where I thought I would have redemption on everyone who’d brought knobby tires to the party (read: Everyone else. Seriously.) A six-mile flattish road “time trial”, it proffered a bit of a headwind and a searing prologue-length effort. I’d also spent the majority of the the race #chilling with aforementioned Dave Zabriskie, former pro national time trial champion. And Tour de France TT winner. Given the “loose” format, of Grinduro, the stage was essentially a mass-start instead of a true ITT, and I figured a team time trial with Dave would nab us more than a small advantage. Unfortunately, Dave’s misassembled crankset disassembled sometime after stage two, and we had spent more than just a little time lingering around for photos, missing the rest of the pro field’s collective TT across the stage. I set out mostly alone, and my never-renowned prologue-length skills reared their ugly head.
HOW BADLY NATE GOT CRUSHED: 36 seconds at 12:48. Which I guess isn’t so bad when it’s a one-on-30 time trial.
Finally, STAGE FOUR. For some imperceptible reason, I had the impression that this was a steep uphill singletrack climb. It was, in fact, a steep singletrack descent, which I documented with modern technology. Unfortunately, my dirt descending prowess is somewhere between escaped zoo hippopotamus and screaming child on the bunny hill at the local ski slope, as the squealing brakes can attest to as I negotiated the trail on 44mm slick tires.
HOW BADLY NATE GOT CRUSHED: 3:24 down on Duncan’s frighteningly fast 9:21. But I still cackled with joy for most of it. Proof:
At the end of the day, I nabbed 17th overall, some five-plus minutes down on Duncan Riffle. But I, and everyone else suffering defeat didn’t particularly care. Immediately following the finish, racers are directed to a beach party on the Feather River. With blankets. And beer. And margaritas. And watermelon. The afterparty back in Quincy, taking place on the fairgrounds (where racers are encouraged to camp), matched the vibe of the race itself. Friends all around, with competition-driven animosity kept to a stark minimum.
The takeaway here was not the racing itself, which in Grinduro’s current arrangement tilts heavily towards those with enduro/downhill racing or cyclocross fitness, but how accessible and inclusive the event was. Registration numbers at the end of the day were, like most cycling events, still male dominated, but almost 20% of registrants were female – a number most traditional road races and even Gran Fondos don’t come close to, especially when the venue is four hours away from the largest nearest metropolitan area. Is Grinduro’s ingenious format and welcoming vibe a model for grassroots racing? Perhaps. Road racing is terrifying to newcomers, from a skills, belonging, and equipment standpoint. Mountain bike racing a bit less so. Cyclocross revists many of the issues of road racing, while leaving lapped participants to flounder in a sandpit in a city park without much accomplishment. Fondos can be scary, with the fit and skilled going full-gas with the not-so-fit and not-so-skilled. Grinduro conquers most of those barriers to entry with aplomb and grace, while keeping a shit-eating grin on its face the whole time. Can it create a new, sustainable model for racing, one that could change the overall cycling landscape? I’m hoping so, and I’ll be back. And so should you.
Thanks for reading! Questions? Comments? Email Nate.