The greatest of all bicycle debates rages on in the Gold Country of California.
If you love an endless back-and-forth over tire size, gear ratios or everything tire-pressure, then next year you have to make the pilgrimage to the western edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, and to the event known as Grinduro.
For it’s there where the most faithful followers of all things gravel, mountain, adventure, and dirt come to debate the pros and cons of everything from tubeless tires to shaved legs and beard care products. This is deep in the weeds nerdiness. Peak bike-geek. And I love it, for these are my people.
Perhaps part of the reason that everyone here is so enthusiastic is because this is not an easy event to get to. First of all, there’s the fact that it sells out quicker than local legend Carl Decker descends single-track (and that is truly fast). Secondly, you have to make the trek to Plumas County to the town of Quincy, which is at least five hours from everywhere. And finally, you have to come prepared to be prepared. There are some facilities – a few food trucks and some delicious Verve Coffee, but all things bicycle, sleep and living comforts are pretty much left up to you.
So it was with much glee, and a tiny bit of apprehension, that we loaded every piece of camping gear, bike stuff and personal hygiene paraphernalia into the team car and headed north-ish/east-ish into the Sierra Nevadas, on a steep learning curve towards an unforgettable experience.
We played it pretty mellow Friday night, rolling into town, unpacking the sled, swapping out some pedals, airing up some tires and setting up our abodes for the weekend ahead.
For my own comfort, I’d gotten hold of a Mountain Hardwear Shifter 4 tent. And, like a true outdoorsman, I declined to read the instructions or erect it during daylight hours. With the darkness fast approaching, I grew a little concerned … until I realise that the Shifter 4 only uses two poles and clips, practically building itself. Yet again, I was saved from my own stupidity by someone else’s hard work and ingenuity, and my buddy didn’t have to freeze to death on account of me. Although it might have been better to have four in the tent for the crisp nights ahead, we found the tent to be smartly designed and the vestibule to be plenty vast for what one could only call over-packed packing.
On that point, I have to give a big, warm round of applause to the Osprey Transporter. This thing is amazing, part duffel bag, part backpack, it’s designed so well that it kept me at least partially organized throughout the whole affair.
Chilly doesn’t really begin to describe how cold it was the two nights we spent sleeping in our frost-covered tent. And to make it worse, I unselfishly loaned my North Face Blue Kazoo sleeping bag to my tent-mate – having thought that it was so lovely during the day it was going to be a balmy fall evening. So giving the extra long bag to my tall, fast friend seemed like a no brainer. If only his effusive thanks for getting him toasty were enough to warm my bitterly cold toes.
After the first questionable night’s sleep, we rose at the ass-crack of dawn to join almost 900 other riders at the start line. Staring down the barrel of a course covering a little under 8000 feet of vertical in just over 60 miles, this is the point that normally leaves me like a nervous wreck, the jockeying-for-position and the testosterone-fueled, sick-to-your-stomach electricity.
But as the countdown began, it was obvious that Grinduro is a little different. What would normally be a living hell for me was actually a surprisingly relaxed and enjoyable moment. This is because the format is completely different from any other bicycle event on the planet. Instead of timing you from the gun, the Grinduro geniuses have set up four timed sections, leaving the rest of the course to be ridden at whatever pace you desire. They claim this stops the event from being a sufferfest, but I can attest for just about everyone on the course, suffering ensues even if you are not interested in “winning.”
The first timed section is an uphill dirt climb, followed by a downhill fire-road ripper, a paved time trial and finally a glorious stretch of ripping fast single track. And that’s where all the discussion, debate and nail biting about bicycle selection, tire pressure and gear inches come into play.
The perfect bike for this event is what, exactly? A road bike would have come in handy for the pavement. I could only dream how fun the single track section would have been on a dialed, big hit dual suspension mountain bike. And with all the dirt climbing in-between, you realize pretty quickly how horrible both of these ideas are for a day in the woods.
So what bike did the Grinduro masses choose for this adventure? They apparently didn’t call each other, because I don’t believe I saw two bikes with the exact same setup. There were cyclocross bikes and single speeds and hardtail mountain bikes and all manner of custom made goodness. I spotted Rock Lobsters and Sycips and Breadwinners and Calfees and a VYNL. Tire choice was almost as varied as the whip selection, with gum walls and fatties and slicks and semi-slicks were spread out across the mountain.
Which brings us to our next lesson. Never, and I repeat never, borrow a bicycle from a “friend” the night before attempting to “ride” an event like Grinduro. Or any event for that matter. As it turns out, that said friend is both fitter and less mechanically inclined than I (which is astonishing, btw).
I realized about 10 minutes into the first climb I was geared for a ride across Kansas and not the hills of California. As if this were not enough, I came to learn part way up the (epic) second climb of the day not only was my front disc rubbing like a teenage boy at the Homecoming Dance, but my drive-side crank arm was trying to exit stage right.
The thing is, if I ever do the Grinder again, I would be happy to do it on the exact same bike. The Cannondale Slate is part road bike, part hardtail mountain bike and part gravel gobbler. Only next time I would probably make sure it is looked over by a “proper” mechanic before throwing a leg over it myself.
The only thing which kept me moving forward was the realization everyone else was suffering on the hike, yes hike, up the second climb and no one, and I mean no one was complaining. As a matter of fact everyone I met was shockingly pleasant. Even on the timed sections everyone was cordial, communicative and encouraging. As it was pointed out to me by one of my riding companions, this is what it was like in the early days of mountain biking. Everyone enjoying themselves, encouraging those around them and generally making a grueling experience as pleasant as possible. It turns out racing bicycles is fun.
After rolling back into town we showered, drank Untapped maple cocktails, ate tri-tip chili, watched the awards ceremony, hung out with some locals looking for free booze and crashed hard in our tent where we still froze, but cared a little less. In the morning, we crammed all our crap into the back of the car and bolted for home, in the hopes we would soon forget the pain in our knees, backs and quads and remember, with fondness, our time grinding out the duro.
Only time will tell.