The Rock Cobbler is described by the Race Director as a “stupidly hard ride bordering on a race” they go, on, “it is very hard but will be sickeningly fun”.
Well it lived up to it name and it also lived up the billing.
And with that said on with the show. Becca and I headed out to Bakersfield Saturday afternoon with a view to checking into the hotel and heading over to packet pick up and dinner pretty early so we could get that ever sought after early night before race day.
We made it to Bakersfield and checked in. I tooled around the parking lot on my bike making sure that there were no problems with the last minute change of tires only to discover that the bike had developed some kind of shimmy, I wondered if there was a problem with the tires or if I had overstretched the chain with new 12-36 cassette? We had a quick look on google and found a local bike shop only a few miles away and made a quick drive. Five minutes in their rack and they assured me that there was no problem but they did say it could be a result of the pre-sealed tires sitting and some of it pooling at the bottom. Becca has had this with her tubeless tire too so with that said we dropped the bike back of the hotel and went to packet pick up.
The race directors had organized packet pick up at the Pyrenees Café and were offering a dinner ticket too. When we arrived we found stray dogs, parked Harleys and gravel riders with some pretty technical facial hair hanging around a door with a neon sign above it! A pull down metal door sheltered a live band. It seemed a sensible choice for a dinner and so after getting my number we sat down.
The meal was Basque style family; plate after plate of food came out loosely built around courses, there were bottles of red or white wine on the table, Becca and I washed it all down with 805, a local brew. We were sat opposite a couple who were running the third checkpoint on race day and told us that I was going to have a lot of fun…they had planned something special! <insert evil laugh!>. The food was great and the company made for a relaxed atmosphere. Becca nailed saying it felt like the ultra-running community with more facial hair and carbon fiber. The meal wrapped up and we then headed over Dewar’s another local landmark for Ice Cream!
Our bellies full there was nothing left but to get to bed.
We arrived nice and early at the start which was at Lengthwise Brewery and grabbed some breakfast; croissants, bacon, fruit and coffee. The atmosphere had that race day tension and was cold. The forecast was a high in the early 70’s but I had forgotten to look at the start time temperature which was in the early 40s! Foolishly I had left my vest in the hotel and only had sleeves. I kept my puffy jacket on till the last minute. In the end I was cold for an hour and thanks to my dentist and oral hygiene regimen the shivering didn’t shake my teeth out!
There was a race briefing and some tomfoolery, more coffee, a line up, a horn, we were off.
Two turns in I caught a red light and fell off the back…bugger! Some nice guys in a SUV let me draft off of them for a mile or so till I caught the main group and settled in.
So now seems like a good time to talk about that nothing new on race day. New things on race day; Tire change, pump mount, Bento Box, cassette, handlebars, stem, bar tape, seat post and seat….and a rattle!
I spent 30 minutes trying to identify what was rattling. I finally narrowed it down to the frame mount for the pump which I had put on the bike to get the weigh out of my pocket, that 40g carbon fiber pump! I pulled it off the mount and put the pump in my pocket!
The first 13 miles were a neutral roll out along a bike path. The peloton ebbed and flowed as we were funneled through bridges and along the side of a dried river bed. We rounded a corner and had a blast of air siren which marked the end of neutrality and the start of hostility. I was nowhere near the pointy end. Not even close! A V for victory wave at the siren blaster and I was off!
For brevity I will break the ride down in into the sections between Aid Stations. From the siren we followed the road along and made a sharp right turn up a climb. No problems here, a sharp left at the top and a nice quick descent took us to our first off road section. Some easy rolling dirt and then a sand berm! I saw riders on the top regrouping, dropped a gear took the best line I could avoid and couple of wash off gullies and pushed up to the top. No biggie I wasn’t the only one!
From here were followed the bread crumb trail of red cones out of town. I have tried to find a name of this area on several maps but there isn’t one! Best described and green and rolling there were downs and ups, not so much hills but more like large bomb craters and areas that had been attached by a giant ice cream scope! Plenty of fun, just rolling down and pedaling hard back up the other side. My confidence building in the bike and realizing just how much I could ride up with the low gearing. Fun Fun Fun!!! Here is some video;
This went on for 12-13 miles and the finally we dropped down and followed Kern River to the first Aid Station. My plan was to meet up with Becca here and swap bottles and refill on food. She wasn’t there, I gave her a quick call and she told me she was struggling with accessing the location. Best estimate was 15 minutes away. I said not to worry I was doing fine. Well something like that, (love you babe!). I refilled and moved on. The next section of trail was a winding single track along the edge of the river. At one point I thought I had missed a turning, the track narrowed and one false move would had put me in the river! I rounded a corner and even though I wasn’t traveling very fast I came across, well I will let you watch the video!
The ride had officially become an obstacle course! Luckily this was this only one of these! After remounting we were led a merry dance through citrus orchards, nothing too taxing. During one section we had to ride up a small valley that had concrete rain gutters each side, the easy way to ride up the gutter, it was concrete and this was the smoothest route!
There were plenty of small out and backs. I could see other riders ahead of me as we passed by each other on the opposite side of field but I could never catch them. We hit a small residential section which was the first checkpoint. Here we were given a rock and if we dropped it in a bucket we got 5 minutes off our time! Success!! I asked if I could spend an hour doing this to improve my time, they laughed…I was serious!
Finally we entered a valley it was green and lush and uphill. There was a sign that said to stay on the fire road for four miles until reaching blacktop. Some was ridden some was hiked most was cursed at. This was the bulk of the climbing to Breckenridge, 4 miles, 1500’ roughly, about an hour! No biggie just set you jaw and dig in. By this time the battey on my Virb was dead.
At the top there was a water cooler and a couple of volunteers who said the next Aid Station was 10 miles away so I said my thanks and just rolled on by. It was a nice downhill on the road, some of which had some wash out from last week’s rain, no problems here and just an easy roll down no need to take any risks and do anything foolish.
At Aid Station 2 around Mile 55 I met up with Becca and I swapped out bottles and food. Told the tales of the prior 25 miles and saddled up. I headed back out on the rolling section, a little less rolling and a little more scenic with discarded hot tubs, car seats, TVs and the like!
Much the same as the first section we rode along finally popping out on to a road. From here there was 3-4 miles of blacktop and we were back in the dirt. This was the “mess with your head section” short sharp ups and downs, technical dirty trails. One section on Starva is actually called “Bastard Hill Climb (30% grade), it lived up to its name!
All this fun ended in a downhill chute that would have had me pause on my full suspension mountain bike but I actually found it easier to hang onto the drops, stick my ass out backward and roll down the hill. Left and right swoops to the bottom to a short flat section. Of course what goes down has to go up and it was hike a bike section. Pick it up and walk to the top, according to my Garmin 46%! At the top I was given instructions to do 10 pushups which I duly did and I was given my second checkpoint pass. This was mile 68!
All downhill back to town I asked, yeah except for the 6 hills I was told, so 26 hills of the 34 in total complete!
For the next 20 miles I wound my way back into town, there were more ups and downs on the dirt and I encountered the one place that was the sketchiest when my back wheel started slipping out but I just released the brakes and rolled it out. The last section was along the bike path well except that they took you into the dirt as much as possible and several times in the sand and even the dried river bed! Bastards!
Then without fanfare I finished, I wasn’t sure how long the ride was going to be but I crossed the finished line with 85 miles on the clock in just over 8 hours and 7070’ of gain! A solid day in the office! Becca was there to capture it all!
From the finish line which was strangely in the middle of nowhere I followed a group of riders back to the starting point to round up the mileage to 89.7…ok it’s not very round at all!
I changed and racked my bike and Becca and I tucked into some awesome finish line food with plenty of BBQ and beer…ok I had the beer, she was driving! We hung out for the raffle and picked up a great finisher’s Apron!
So a couple of thoughts and takeaways:
- The bike; fundamentally the bike handled everything I threw at it, changing all the bits at the last minute not such a good idea. That said most everything worked
- The tires; I changed out the Clement MSOs 40x700 for Clement PDXs 33x700 as I was worried about mud clearance on the chain-stays. These tire barely slipped even when standing climbing, pretty good rolling resistance on the road too. I was probably running them too hard at 70 PSI but I wasn’t going to mess about with them any more on race day. I would really like to try a tubeless set up but well you know I am not sponsored!
- The 12x36 cassette; this worked wonders I was able to ride up many climbs that others were walking up and riding is always faster than walking
- Nutrition and Hydration; I was using Skratch Labs and a mix of BASE Amino Acids, I have found this just sustains my energy level through the day. Lara Bars, Skratch Chews and real food at the Aid Stations, I have developed a real taste for Satsuma’s!
- The 3T ErgoTerra bars; these are CX specific and the compact drop and reach provides more control over technical terrain. They are actually rewally comfortable but I have slightly over rotated them, that’s an easy fix
- The Lyzene Bottle holders; they held the bottles but the side entry is a pain and the insulated bottles are almost too big to put in them
- The Revelate Gas Tank; this bag is huge. I didn’t use it and went with a much smaller XLab Rocket Pocket, it did the job but is a bit small. Back to the drawing board
- SRAM grouppo; the whole SRAM DoubleTap is new to me. I am contemplating replacing the entire grouppo with Shimano which is what I am used. I struggled to shift several times. Undecided as yet but looking at options
Despite me making me sound like a complete suckfest I can’t stress enough how much fun this was. This was my first gravel ride. Yes riding your bike for roughly 8 hours at roughly 10-11mph is really actually fun. It reminds me of being a kid when you got your road bike; other than a Chopper or a Grifter there was no other type!
You took it to the park to show your mates at the swings, yes you bumped around for a bit but then you found your groove, you figured it out and it was fun! Due to the nature of the terrain this really does fall between road and MTB riding but removes some of the outright speed needed for the road and some of the technical prowess needed for the trails.
So in summary I can’t recommend this race enough. What started as a home grown event only 3 years ago has grown in numbers by nearly 300% but it still retains its local roots. Sam the RD and his team pour 100% into making this as good as it could possibly be. It’s challenging, well organized, safe, supported by the community, reasonably local and well priced. Pretty much everything you could want! It was also reassuring to see Amanda Nauman there, last year’s winner of the DK200!
Don’t get me wrong in part’s it does live up to its billing of stupidly hard but it’s also stupidly fun!
So the first Gravel Race is in the bag, up next Strada Rosso in March!
Thanks for reading, now go get a beer you’ve earned it!