The Chino Grinder was our first gravel grinder, and it was also the first race we did simultaneously. It ended up being one epic day in the saddle for all the racers due to some crazy weather, and the race was ultimately called for those reasons. Read bellow for his and hers perspective on the race; I reached the 53 mile mark exactly one hour before Danielle, so it was interesting to compare how different our experiences were based on a mere one hour separating us!
Ryan: Leading up to the race my number one issue was getting my Giant TCX up to snuff. It needed a new set of tires, but more importantly the stock set-up never quite felt right. I went and got a bike fit from Kaolin at the World Famous Flat Tire Bike Shop. A cleat adjustment, seat height change, and a new stem solved that problem. It felt like a new bike and I was much more comfortable and ready for a full day in the saddle. As far as the tires went I picked up a set of Bontrager CX0’s (33mm). I always go to Bontrager tires for my MTBs so figured these wouldn’t let me down. I got them home and attempted to set them up tubeless on the stock wheels, but frustration after frustration lead to a rear tire that was successful, but a front that refused to hold air. I gave up eventually and just threw a tube in it for the race. Heading into and during the race I was wondering if the rear would hold, or if I would get a pinch flat in the front; I worried about it the entire day. The final preparations included cleaning/lubing chains, adjusting brakes, and other minor things for both mine and Danielle’s bike. After that the bikes were loaded up in the car and it was time to head to the race.
Danielle: Leading up to the Chino Grinder, I was excited to do my first race on my new Salsa Cutthroat. I was feeling slightly undertrained since I had spent the majority of the last six months working on bike handling and cyclocross skills. However, I wasn’t too concerned because I was doing Chino as a training race for the upcoming Crusher in the Tushar. Also, up until the night before the race, there was only one other woman registered in my category; so as long as I finished I was guaranteed at least second place. Then, within the last twenty-four hours leading up to the race two very fast and talented women signed up for the race in my category. Great, there goes my spot on the box! Ryan kept telling me that I was strong too, and that anything could happen so I just needed to stay positive. Turns out a lot did happen and it was quite the day on the bike.
Dirt Section Par 1 (Miles 0-10)
Ryan: This was our first race that Danielle and I have done together so I didn’t know how to act. Heading to the start line, a quick kiss, good luck and I love you was exchanged then I lined up at the front and Danielle a few rows back. I kept looking back at her in the staging and giving her the thumbs up. I probably did this four or five times, not sure if it was to mask my nervousness, or to make sure she wasn’t nervous. The canon went off (a second too early) and the race was on. The first ten miles are on a slight uphill and my strategy was to hang on for dear life to the lead group. A terrible strategy as it turns out and I was dropped quicker than a bad habit. A couple other riders and I worked together for a bit, then the second group caught us and I joined in. Eventually out of that group a few took off the front and I followed. The road through this section was primo. The rain the night before kept the dust down and made the road very compact, almost like concrete in a few sections. Of course there were some wash boards here and there, but before I knew it that first gradual climb was over and we were descending down to the Verde River.
Danielle: At the start I decided to line up near the front and figured other riders could just pass me if they needed. This was my first attempt to push myself out of my comfort zone, as I normally line up in the back. I was hoping starting up front would allow me to get into one of the lead pelotons so I wouldn’t have to work so hard trying to catch the group from the back. As soon as we turned onto the dirt (immediately), the lead group sped away, and then the second and third chase groups flew past and I was left in no man’s land. Slowly small groups of riders would come up and pass, I tried catching on to every group that came by, but they were all going really fast. It would have taken more energy to try to stay on the rider’s wheels than just riding at my own pace. Plus, my strategy for the race was to keep a relaxed pace on the way out and then dial-up the intensity for the second half of the race. Every time a group pulled away from me, I felt frustrated and nervous, thinking things like “Why was this so hard already? How is everyone going so fast? How was I going to go 106 miles completely alone and why were my legs aching already?” Despite my already aching legs, I tried to keep a good effort going and pushed hard even on the slight down hills, which were few and far between at this point.
Dirt Section Part 2 (Miles 10-30)
Ryan: The second part of the dirt descends down to the beautiful Verde River and then climbs a bit followed by a few rollers. Along this section of the route you take a left hand turn and the course gets a little rougher from that point on, but still nothing too bad. If I was on my mountain bike it would have been smooth as butter, but on my skinny little 33’s there were a couple of sections that had my eyeballs bouncing around in my skull. The small group I was with spread apart some through the descent and one person pulled off to fix a flat (please let my rear tire hold is what I thought after checking to see if she was ok). I was towards the back of the group after the descent, but was able to catch a few on the climb out of the river bottom. Right after the river crossing you reach the first aid station. The volunteer working it recognized me and gave me some grief for running gears; I appreciated the heckling, and felt guilty with all the shifty bits on my bike.
Danielle: After ten miles my legs were finally feeling warmed up and I got my first reprieve with a rolling downhill segment. I was so happy during this section of the race. The scenery was beautiful, big blue skies, red rocks in the distance and views of the Verde Valley. I couldn’t stop smiling and thinking about how much I love Arizona and this style of riding. I also found a few other cyclists riding around my pace to chat with. We talked for a while and then one rider had to stop because he busted a spoke, and then a while later the other rider suddenly pulled off to the side of the road to check something on her bike. They weren’t the only ones having mechanical issues, I must have passed three or four other riders changing flats or tinkering with their bikes during this section. I very quickly reached the first aid station and decided to keep going; I must have passed ten to twenty riders here as most people had stopped to take a break.
After the aid station, it was already time to start climbing again! I started gaining on a lot of riders in this section, but tried to keep my intensity dialed back, because I knew I had a really long climb ahead of me. This was a big exercise in discipline, because I like chasing people on climbs. To help stay calm, every time the road went slightly downhill I let my legs recover and coasted before spinning back up the next roller. I purposely stayed in the saddle with a high cadence, even though I wanted to mash on the pedals and pass people. In spite of the controlled effort, I was starting to get hot and rolled up my pants and took my gloves off. My spirits were still really high at this point and I was happy with the relaxed pace I was setting. Suddenly with two miles until the pavement the rain clouds rolled in and it started to rain and then hail. I was getting pummeled with hail and freezing cold rain. I fumbled to put my gloves back on my wet hands and keep moving. Then as quickly as it started hailing the dirt road turned into a mud pit full of red clay. I felt like I was swimming through the mud and was getting really scared. Mud was flying everywhere and rapidly accumulating on my bike. My face and sunglasses were so drenched that I couldn’t see, I tried to pull the glasses off a few times, but could hardly take my hands off the bars without veering all over the road. At one point I even closed my eyes, I have no idea what I was doing, I unclipped one foot and almost put it down, but luckily realized that was a bad idea and quickly clipped back in and regained my balance. I was really worried I was going to fall over in the mud or that my rear derailleur would snap. I stopped shifting and tried to spin quick little circles, letting the bike go where it wanted to go while staying light on my hands. It was really nerve wrecking but I knew the pavement was close; I said a short prayer and kept moving, inching closer to the pavement. I was so grateful to be on my Salsa with two-inch tires instead of my cross bike. Somehow I made it and luckily there was another aid station right there. I pulled up and asked the volunteer to help me get some of the mud off my bike. There must have been twenty pounds of mud on my bike, all over my chain, cassette and in every nook and cranny of the frame. The volunteer got out a pressure sprayer and tried to spray off some of the mud, this was very ineffective, like trying to put out a fire with a $0.99 squirt gun. I started grabbing softball sized chunks of clay and throwing them down, while the volunteer got out a pedal wrench and started knocking the mud off. After a couple of minutes I was eager to head back out and other riders were coming in. The volunteer lubed my chain and I was off, safely on the pavement.
Pavement Part 1: The Climb (Miles 30-42)
Ryan: Now with the dirt behind me it was onto the climb. On paper this climb didn’t seem so bad. An easy 3% grade on pavement, how hard could it be? The first bit was actually a bit steeper so right away I was working harder than I had expected. I settled into a good pace right when the rain started. The forecast called for showers throughout the day so I was prepared with my Pactimo Evergreen jacket and warmer cycling gloves. I even had my toe covers on as the temperatures were supposed to be chilly up towards Williams. I continued up the climb and suddenly the rain turned into hail, nothing major, just very small pellets. I liked this better than the rain because it just bounced off of you rather than getting you wet. The road at this point had mellowed out a bit and was closer to that 3% grade I had expected. Looking around the scenery changed from high desert scrub to pines. I could tell we had gained some elevation too because my breathing was becoming more labored. About halfway into the climb the weather changed again and it started snowing. I thought at first, what a cool experience, this should make for a good story. The snow, while a heavy wet snow, was just a light flurry at this point. Then all of a sudden it was a moderate snow fall. My excitement was shifting into damage control mode. It was about this same time I passed another racer who had stopped on the side of the road. He was not dressed for the conditions and eventually jumped in the SAG wagon and called it a day. “Just keep the effort up,” I kept telling myself knowing if I did so my body would stay warm. This worked out pretty well except for my fingers and to a lesser degree my toes. My hands quickly deteriorated to a sharp painful numbness from the wet and cold conditions. My Garmin reset itself at one point along the snowy climb and I thought “Sheesh it is so cold even my Garmin quits.” Thankfully it booted right back up where it shut off and I only lost a few hundred yards of data. The conditions continued to deteriorate and my number plate was now covered in snow along with the road where my tires left nice little tracks in the powder and my hands continued to be painfully numb. I stopped at one point just to shake out my arms and fingers to get some circulation back to them.
At this point the thought of throwing in the towel crossed my mind, but I knew I didn’t want to stop and wait for a SAG wagon or ride back down the hill. I continued to climb knowing that the lodge was only 15 away and I had another jacket and dry socks and gloves in my drop bag which motivated me to keep moving forward. The thought of dry clothes also made me happy that Danielle had chosen to wear her cycling pants and a pair of gloves. I know she doesn’t like them, but it gave me some comfort knowing she wouldn’t be in trouble in this weather. About that time I passed a sign barely visible under the snow that said “Fluid Refill 1 Mile.” I had forgotten about this aid station, but I had plenty of water so I wasn’t planning on stopping anyways. When I got there they said they had coffee and a propane heater in the covered pop up, it was time to stop. On the table was also a bottle of whiskey and I took a long pull hoping to get a bit of warmth from it. I entered the tent and it was crowded with other shivering racers. I removed my gloves and rung them out and warmed my hands around the coffee cup. The morale was low and one girl entered the tent completely in tears from the situation. The aid station had some Park Tool latex gloves of which I took a pair, put my gloves back on and headed back into the elements. I knew if I stayed any longer I would surely DNF…just keep moving. Those latex gloves worked a miracle on my hands by keeping the wind off of them and the feeling started to come back, just as the snow let up and turned back into a light drizzle. Looking back at my Garmin data the temperature recorded right when I got to the aid station was a chilly 28 degrees Fahrenheit. Normally this paved section wouldn’t warrant this lengthy of a report, but the weather made it memorable, and much more difficult than anyone predicted.
Danielle: As I started the giant climb to the next aid station it was still raining and sleeting, but no longer hailing. There were clear blue skies to the west, but unfortunately dark skies in the direction I was headed. I saw the people I was riding with again and chatted for a few minutes, but then my chain started skipping between the gears in the back so I pulled off to double-check on it. Everything was fine so I kept moving. I was getting really cold and after my slow slog through the mud and break to clean my bike I was suddenly not so happy about my pace. It was also taking much more effort than I expected to spin in the easiest gears. I kept watching my speed, which was so slow, sometimes slower than seven miles per hour! I was trying to calculate how long it would take me to get to the turnaround point and thought I might not make the cut off if I didn’t speed it up. This was really upsetting, I kept thinking of all the races I have done and how I have never been at risk of not meeting a cut off, how was this happening?! I knew this was a dangerous place to be mentally; I went through some of my race prayers and mantras and tried to get my mind in the right place. I also thought about Ryan and said some prayers for him. I was also feeling hungry, which could be another reason my mind was going to dark places, so I tried to force some calories down. This was challenging because my fingers were numb and the road was slick. I caught a few people on the long climb, but not as many as I thought I would. I think all the mud I was hauling around was slowing me down, plus the riders with skinny tires now had an advantage.
I finally made it to the aid station at the top of the climb, which was like an oasis in the desert, except I was sopping wet and freezing. The volunteers were incredible! They took my bike, racked it and asked me if I wanted any hot coffee. Yes!!! They pointed me towards a tent with a propane heater where tons of riders were huddled around it trying to warm up. Other riders were spilling in and out of the volunteers vans and trucks trying to get dry and warm. The sleet was still coming down, but I was most worried about making it to the turnaround point before the cut off. I had an hour and a half (thirty minutes longer than I thought) and 11 miles to go. I tried to zip my pants back up but my fingers were so numb, I couldn’t grab the zipper. Luckily an amazing volunteer zipped them over my mud caked calves while I sipped hot coffee. The volunteers also helped me take my gloves off and put latex gloves underneath to keep my hands drier; that was a task in itself! Then three volunteers cleaned my bike like I was in a NASCAR pit, they had spray bottles, tools and were ferociously poking and prodding all the mud out. More lube on the chain and then they were ready to push me off, they literally pushed me out, it was awesome, except my chain fell off so I couldn’t pedal. Quick stop and a volunteer put the chain back on for me and then it was take two as he pushed me up the road running a few steps with me and cheering me on. I can’t say enough about how much these volunteers (and the coffee) lifted my spirits. I was still very cold, but happier and able to focus again.
Pavement Part 2: Final Push to the Lodge (Miles 42-53)
Ryan: Right after the aid station the hill was more or less over and there were a couple more rolling hills to conquer before the last short and steep climb to the lodge. These rollers were a struggle for me. Not sure if it was the whiskey, or stopping, or something else, but I never could get my heart rate and effort back up the rest of the day. I pushed on slowly and saw the lead group of three guys headed back from the turn around. I was surprised it took that long to see them and it gave me hope that I wasn’t too far back. I pushed on and eventually reached the turn-off. The section up to the lodge is a short, steep dirt road. I was still struggling to get my effort up, but it was nice to get out of the saddle and mash for a bit, something I am more used too from my mountain biking background. The road was smooth, but a little slippery and puddled from the weather. I arrived at the lodge just as another round of snow flurries began and was informed I was currently 16th overall. I was happy with that considering the conditions we had just braved. To more of my surprise when I entered the lodge I saw two really fast guys warming up by the fire. They hadn’t dressed well for the conditions, but were strong enough to reach the lodge to warm up for a bit. I saw one even shove some cardboard beneath his jersey as they left the lodge for the return trip. I quickly got my drop bag, changed out my socks and gloves for dry ones and put on my extra jacket. It was a lightweight jacket, but anything would help for that chilly descent back down the mountain we just climbed. I snacked on a banana and some coke and quickly topped off my bottles and I was back out on the course.
Danielle: I set out towards the lodge and the climb flattened out a bit so I was able to get it in a bigger gear and get moving. After a few minutes it started snowing, I just laughed to myself; I couldn’t believe it was snowing. Luckily the snow was dry so it wasn’t as cold as the rain, sleet and hail I had already ridden through. As I pedaled on the sun came out and I got to see blue skies again, I took in the beautiful scenery and started watching for Ryan to come back in the opposite direction. I saw a few people I recognized and smiled and waved. Finally I saw Ryan, I had about four miles to go to the turnaround, and I knew I would make it. Ryan turned and rode with me for a minute or two to see how I was doing and told me that most of the girls had dropped out already so I just needed to keep going and I could have a shot at placing. Wow! We wished each other luck and parted ways. I rode the last couple miles to the lodge with Laurel, an amazing rider from Phoenix. We cheered when we arrived in Williams and chatted about all the bikes piled up in the back of the SAG support truck, figuring that a lot of people must have called it a day. We both agreed we would finish the race no matter what. As we turned onto the dirt for a final mile and half climb up to the turnaround I slowed way down and just worked on spinning in an easy gear. As I pulled into the lodge, with a half an hour to spare, I saw a line of riders at a pickup truck getting loaded up with bikes, and was informed this was the end of the road for me. The course was closed due to flooding and dangerous conditions, everyone was getting pulled, and no one would finish the 106 mile course. The race would officially be through 53 miles. I was so disappointed, I had held back all day and conquered the big climb, I was ready for the descent and then to push hard and finish no matter what. Despite my disappointment I was also proud of myself; I had pushed on despite the brutal conditions even when most other riders had given up. I didn’t know it at the time, but I ended up being the only female in my category to make it to the 53 mile mark before the cut-off and was the fourth female in the 106 mile race. I may not always be the fastest or strongest competitor, but I have grit and perseverance and some days that’s what it takes!
Pavement Part 3: Back down the Hill (Miles 53-77)
Ryan: Back out on the pavement the weather was finally getting better and rays of sunshine even broke through a cloud here and there. I was able to get my pace back up a bit and knew Danielle shouldn’t be too far back and started looking for her. Half way through the rollers I saw her and a big smile spread across my face. I pulled a quick U-turn to see how her race was going and let her know a few of the girls had dropped out and to just keep going no matter what. Right before I headed back in the right direction she mentioned all the mud she had to deal with and the evidence was clear her bike was caked in mud and so was she. After we said our goodbyes I started worrying about what new challenges lay ahead. I hadn’t conquered that hill in the cold snow for nothing so I continued on and got to the descent which was nice. A slight headwind kept the speeds down a bit, but it was nice to finally cover some ground easily. The descent wasn’t as chilly as I thought it would be which a nice surprise was. About two miles left of the pavement section one of the SAG wagons stopped me and informed me the course was closed at the end of pavement. Confused, I finished the final paved miles and arrived to a large group of trucks and people waiting. The weather had turned the dirt road ahead into an impassable clay pit. I thought so what, I can walk it, but later it dawned on me that emergency vehicles wouldn’t be able to navigate the roads and that was the main concern. It is always a good call to side with safety. So a little bummed and more tired we loaded up our bikes into the volunteer’s trucks and headed back to the start (thank you to Janice Dunn who graciously gave us a lift back to the start). I also know the race director doesn’t make a decision like that lightly and know it was a hard call (and the right one) to make. It was still one heck of a race and a great challenge and NO FLATS!
Ryan: We arrived back at the start unloaded the bikes, changed into some dry clothes and joined everyone else for some food and beer. It was nice to make new friends and catch up with some old ones. Then the raffle started and they had a ton great prizes to give away including a new Velocity wheelset. Danielle and I walked away with some Wolf Tooth Components 20t cog (perfect for my SS MTB) and a road link (perfect for my CX bike). That road link will come in handy for Crusher in the Tushar in a few months. A few extra teeth in the back will work miracles. The crowd thinned out, but we hung around having a few more beers and chatting with friends and watching Kaolin keep the energy level high.
Danielle: Considering all the waiting I did at the Lodge and for Ryan back at the after party, I was three beers a few shots of Fireball deep by the end, so… 🙂
Final Thoughts/Lessons Learned
- DO get a bike fit, just maybe not right before a big endurance race. Kaolin said with the adjustments he made to my bike it would engage my glutes (a strong muscle) more and help increase power. Well, my glutes were sore for two days after the race, proof of the fit.
- DO NOT try a tubeless conversion the week before a race, or if you do let a shop do it. Too much added stress leading up to and during the race.
- DO run wider tires. I was envious of my buddy Albert’s 40 mm tires and how plush they looked compared to his skinny little 33 mm. Sadly that’s the only size Bontrager sells so it looks like we will have to find another brand to support our future gravel racing endeavors.
- DO NOT underestimate the weather or the climbs. Thankfully we were relatively prepared for the weather, but underestimated the effort that climb would take.
- DO thank all the volunteers, the race would not have been so awesome without them. The best race support we have ever encountered!
- DO sign up for the Chino Grinder in 2017!