Some problems have multiple solutions. Three months ago, Levi talked me into signing up for the Gold Rush Bike Rally. It’s a wildly-varying course with lots of climbing, some pavement and smooth dirt road, some loose gravel and sand, more dirt, steep descents, more pavement, and even some “moderate singletrack”. So what kind of bike would be best, hmmm? My road bike would clearly be the wrong answer here and my mountain bike would be drastic overkill for most of it. Accordingly, I got to work and built a middle-of-the-range gravel grinder bike specifically for this race (and other subsequent fun); modest off-road capabilities while still having decent efficiency on the smooth stuff. Low gearing for the climbs and the best brakes I could reasonably put on there for the descents. Would it be the right answer for this truly all-terrain race? Only one way to find out…
Other people’s solutions varied wildly covering pretty much the entire spectrum of bikes. Milling about at the start on Sunday morning in North Boulder, mostly I saw cyclecross-type bikes which looked a lot like mine (though were undoubtedly fancier and pricier) with a heavy sprinkling of mountain bikes. However, there were a cadre of big, puffy fat bikes (drastic overkill?) and even a couple people on tri bikes (aerobars!). My bed was made, time to go lay in it. Heck, it’s only 35 miles and 4500’ of gain. Shouldn’t take more than a morning. What’s the worst that can happen?
The climbing started immediately. Cycling muscles are definitely not the same as running muscles and my decent uphill-on-foot fitness didn’t translate to pedal mashing prowess. I’d vowed not to shift into my bottom “ninja” gear until I’d at least gotten onto dirt, but the climb up Sunshine Canyon past the familiar Mt. Sanitas trails was pretty steep. Good morning, legs!
Things changed gears with a left turn onto Poormans Road (dirt) and a quick descent (10%) down into Fourmile Canyon. I’m a huge chicken when it comes to descending even under the best of circumstances. Poorman was steep enough with just enough loose gravel that I was riding the brakes pretty hard and creeping along in the low-teens as braver souls went flying past. But it was less than a mile before I was back on pavement and back in the low gears. People who had flown past before got caught up to and passed on the three miles of pavement up to the Junction.
When I’d been here a month ago on a shake-down cruise, the gradual six miles on dirt past Wall Street up to Sunset was a slog and I found myself down in the ninja gear about half the time. Somehow I found it a lot easier this time and kept it on the middle chainring the whole way.
13 miles in about 1:37 and now it was time for the real climbing to begin! I made a hard right onto the Switzerland Trail and immediately started to find the limits of what my bike could handle. Switzerland is an old narrow-gauge rail grade, so it’s never very steep (4%), but it’s a narrow with a lot of loose sand, loose gravel, and occasional rocks of the 6” variety to navigate. With the low gears, the Blue Meanie climbs well, but it’s big and likes to go in a straight line. This technical difficulty was compounded by the long-course race leaders coming tearing down in varying degrees of control. Those on mountain bikes came floating down the rubble like a breeze, but there were plenty of people on skinny tires who were, somehow, making it look good. I fell in with a group of about five guys and we made good progress up Switzerland enjoying conversation and an increasingly-impressive view (4.5 miles, 3.6% grade).
The aid station at the top of the climb was a great relief and we all dug in with gusto to fuel ourselves for the second half of the race. Randall and I started off on the Gold Hill Road (good dirt), but he quickly dropped me on the way into town. A brief pause at the center of Gold Hill to gird my loins, and I tackled the main worry of the day; the descent of Lickskillet Road.
Lickskillet is billed as Colorado’s Steepest Road. I don’t know how accurate this is, but there’s no doubt that it’s worthy of major respect. It drops about 800’ in about a mile at an average grade of 15%. It’s dirt, straight, and terrifying. Like standing at the top of that ski run which looked a lot more mellow from the lift than standing committed at the top, I realized I had no real option. I gritted my teeth and poked my way down at about 10 mph stopping every quarter mile to regain my nerve and let my smoking rims cool off. Meanwhile, other riders came bombing past at break-neck speeds, shedding waterbottles and gravel on the ruts, and whooping with glee. Glee was the last thing on my mind as I gripped my brakes levers in terror imagining blown tires, melted pads, and what driveways I could potentially use as runaway bike ramps should the need arise.
Even with my glacial pace and the time dilation that comes with intensely terrifying experiences, the descent didn’t last long. Soon, blissfully, I was out on the smooth pavement of Lefthand Canyon enjoying the mellow, smooth, paved descent of… oh crap, they’re doing roadwork and everything’s been ground up (ridges covered in loose gravel). Again, braver or more skilled cyclists went tearing past as I cautiously rode. I’m only a little ashamed to admit that, technically, I was passed on the downhill by a fat bike on pavement. No ego on this.
It was almost a relief to hit the next segment, a quick 2 miles of single track connecting Rowena in Lefthand Canyon with Sunshine Saddle up on the ridge. The under-construction steep pavement descent was replaced by cool forest single track on smooth, sandy trail and pine needles, occasional views and… surprise! rock gardens! My bike handling skills are not great on this kind of terrain and by this point I didn’t have the power left in my legs to negotiate the mildly technical rocks on a slight uphill grade (3%?). I’m not proud. I don’t mind doing a little bike carrying. Still, at mile 25 and hour three of the race, I was getting pretty ready to be done. Once again, the long-course race leaders came past; those on mountain bikes floated effortlessly through the rock gardens and those on skinny tires not having much more trouble.
All things must end and I finally found the water stop at Sunshine Saddle. Mostly downhill from here, but more importantly, all on good dirt or pavement! At this point, what would have terrified me earlier in the day seemed pretty reasonable. Either I was in a take-no-prisoners, end-of-race mood or my gauge of what makes for a scary descent had been recallibrated on Lickskillet. In any case, I managed some respectable speeds on the 6 miles of 6% grade down to Boulder and didn’t get passed by too many people.
Done! 34 miles and 4400’ of climbing (and more interestingly, 4400’ of descending) all in 3:45. Overall, the Blue Meanie and I did pretty well and I’m pretty pleased with my handiwork and fitness. It climbs like a dream and having the really low gear let me tackle the technical terrain on Switzerland at a pretty high cadence. Slightly knobbier or wider tires might have been a plus, but my touring tires (32 mm with minimal tread pattern) were okay. Loss of traction wasn’t really a problem. Brakes, were the weak point; my cantilevers were barely adequate for the really steep stuff. Despite my best efforts, I was never without some front fork shudder. Disks would probably be better and I noticed most of the CX big boys (and girls) had disk brakes and knobbier CX tires. But that’s not something that fit my build. Maybe V-brakes on the front or something? Perhaps larger brake pads? Hmmm. In retrospect, I don’t think it would have mattered what bike I had for the Rowena singletrack. My legs were done by that point. For what it’s worth, I believe all the fat bikes beat me, so perhaps that wasn’t such a ridiculous solution after all. I don’t know about the tri bikes.
The after-race party made for a nice end cap of the day. Oskar Blues and CycleHops were dishing out beer and tacos, respectively. Prizes were awarded and the “gold nugget” I’d found along the second half of the course turned into a nice backpack from Keen. Good weather, good fun, and a nice excursion slightly outside my comfort zone. It’s really too bad you all missed it 😉