I had pre-riding gravel courses all wrong
...and why the Greek philosopher Heraclitus would have loved Forest Service roads
I’ve had terrible luck in pre-riding gravel race courses. The past two times I’ve ridden a course before a race to get a feel for it, I haven’t been able to finish the actual race. Last year I pre-rode the Standard Deluxe dirt road century twice without a problem but on race day I hit some new, large gravel at the bottom of a descent and bent my front rim. Day over.
This past Saturday I raced the Shake and Brake gravel race in east Alabama’s Talladega National Forest after riding the route two weeks earlier with Bo, Merrill, Rox, and Greg. On that ride, less than six miles in, Merrill flatted, his tire wouldn’t seal, and he had to put in a tube. We finished the beautiful 45 mile course, and I was looking forward to the race.
Two weeks later, the weather is perfect. I’m in the parking area getting ready, and I meet a racer named Kirby, also in the 60+ age group. I asked if he had ridden the course before and he said he did it last year but cut his tire five miles in and couldn’t finish.
We start the race and I’ve got a little sense of dread, recalling how rocky and technical the first six miles are. These are Forest Service roads that range from something you could drive a Camry on to roads so rough they’ll beat the hell out of a four-wheel drive. So I’m taking it relatively easy but trying to let it run on the descents. They say these races are won on the climbs and lost on the descents — and that cuts both ways, either by being too tentative in descending and losing time to competitors or too aggressive and losing more than that.
After the last tricky descent, headed down toward a little one-lane bridge over a creek, I hear my rear wheel hissing and stop. I’ve got a hole that won’t seal. I should have tried to plug it first but for whatever reason I decided to put in a tube. And I bent the valve stem pumping it up. It wouldn’t hold air.
Day over less than five miles in. And no cell service. I’m a little over a mile from a paved road up ahead so I decide not to turn around and head back uphill to the start.
But when I make it to Rabbittown Road I still have no cell service. Another choice: head back six miles to the start or keep walking and gamble that I’ll get a cell signal. I know there’s not one behind me. I keep walking, hoping to get a signal before the course turns back into the forest and more gravel.
I’m walking past an old farmhouse and a dog starts running toward me. His owner is in the yard and yells “don’t worry about him; he’s friendly.” I ask him if he has a cell phone I can borrow. “We don’t have service here,” he says. “Do you have Verizon?” I said yes and he tells me to hold on.
He loads the dog into the bed of his pickup and heads up the driveway to where I’m stopped. “Throw your bike in the back and hop in. We can get service up the road at the top of the hill.” So Mr. Grimes and I head up the hill in search of cell service. He’s 73 and his grandfather bought the farmhouse in 1924 but his family has lived in the area long before that.
We get to the top of the hill and Mr. Grimes has service but I still don’t. And just then another truck pulls over and stops in front of us. It’s a race volunteer sweeping the course, picking up route signs. He saw the truck pulled off to the side of the road with a bike in the bed and figured it was a racer. I’m going to consider that a minor miracle. He gave me a ride back to the start.
We bounced along and I thought about whether I should even bother pre-riding courses. And it occurred to me that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus would have loved gravel. Even if you’ve never heard of him, you’ve heard his ideas, like the only constant in life is change. That’s definitely true of gravel, but he said something else that I think is even more appropriate: you can’t step in the same river twice. Through these pre-rides I’ve learned that like rivers, gravel is constantly changing. The Shake and Brake course was very dusty the first time I rode it, but a recent rain left some muddy spots that had been dry and it firmed up stretches that had been a dustbowl.
The Chambers County roads of the Standard Deluxe changed, too. The large gravel that took me out last year wasn’t even there a few weeks before. And where there had been sections with large gravel before, logging trucks had pressed those deep into the dirt road. You truly can’t ride the same gravel road twice.
So what does that mean for pre-rides? I’m not at the pointy end of the race, so when I was pre-riding Standard Deluxe a couple weeks ago with Clinton and Joseph, they were looking for hills that could create a selection, a place where the race splits. I was just noting where we returned to paved roads so I could take my hands off the bars to get something to eat.
And I realized I had pre-riding all wrong. The value for me isn’t in scoping out the course, which will change, mainly in small ways. The value was in the time in the woods with friends, and without the noise and distractions of a race. And the great thing is that those rides are never boring, no matter how many times you’ve ridden the route. Because you can’t ride the same road twice.