On Saturday, Old School (Jason), Blair, and I rode the Chino Grinder, a 108-mile gravel race out and back from Chino to the Elk Ridge Ski Area near Williams. We attempted this race once before and ended up in the SAG wagon after getting our asses handed to us. At the time we chalked it up to lack of training and poor choice of bike for the terrain. Two years later, we thought… what the hell, let’s give it another shot! For some, age bestows wisdom. And then there’s the rest of us.
I should say that we learned an important lesson last time about bringing a knife to a gunfight. Instead of trying to drag a couple of hardtail MTBs and a tired old Ibis road bike up the mountain again, we built up three amazing Niner RLT 9 Steel gravel bikes this time. The “Chicken Hawk” is now easily my favorite ride with a great ability to chew up pavement, gravel, or dirt, and even a little single-track. I knew this time that at least the bikes would be up to the challenge.
We drove up Friday night from Phoenix and camped out in a field next to the local Community Center. Many of our fellow racers were doing the same thing, so we were fairly surrounded by campers, motor homes and tents. The weather was reasonable so we just slept out in the grass. We made a nice camp dinner, drank a few beers, and hit our bags by 11 PM.
The next morning, we woke up early, ate breakfast and rolled up to the start line just in time for the National Anthem and a couple of pictures. This race attracts a lot of fast riders from around the country so there was plenty of talent clustered up near the front. We had no more ambition than simply finishing this ride so we hung around in the back. 7:30 AM arrived, the gun went off and we headed out.
The first mile was a neutral start, so all of the fast guys had to stay behind a lead motorcycle. Of course, that was the last time we’d see any of them until the turnaround. The course took us east on Perkinsville Road with the first short section on asphalt. As we eased into gravel around 3+ miles, I found a comfortable pace and watched Old School and Blair slowly pull ahead. They’re both stronger riders than I am so I’m used to it. For me to try to keep up, or for them to hold back, would have been foolish. On a ride like this, you have to find your own rhythm or get crushed. I told myself that I was NOT ending up with my bike on a truck this time. Slow and steady. Ride smarter not harder.
On any other ride like this I would’ve stopped to take a few pictures but I figured I’d have plenty of chances to take breaks on the way back. I have a GoPro camera and keep telling myself that I need to strap it to the bike but never do. Unfortunately, this time I missed an amazing shot as an enormous jackrabbit dashed across the road right in front of me. This thing looked as large as a German Shepherd and took maybe two leaps to get from one side of the road to the other. Damn, I wish I had that video to share!
We climbed steadily for 10+ miles then enjoyed a great fast descent for the next 12. The RLT performs really well in those situations, even with a lot of washboard gravel. I passed quite a few people as we all hurried down to the Verde River. That part of the ride was a lot of fun, tempered only by the dread that we’d have to climb back up all of it at the end of the day. I pulled into the first aid station feeling pretty good. The guys were waiting there, supposedly only a couple minutes ahead of me. We topped off water, ate a few pretzels, then mounted up to start the big climb.
Once you hit the river, the Chino Grinder becomes a real ass-kicker. The weather was supposed to turn windy by late morning but thankfully we hadn’t really seen any up to that point. We knew it was coming; the only question was when. The first 8 miles after the river continue on gravel. You climb a bit, level out, then climb some more. There’s another aid station before the road turns back to asphalt and then the BIG climbing starts. I got to this point feeling better than I had two years ago. I was getting tired but still felt positive. The next aid station arrived. I regrouped with the guys at the aid station and we headed up the monster to Elk Ridge.
Unfortunately, this is when I really slowed down and started to get worried. I was pedaling ok but as the elevation crept up my confidence started to erode a bit. I started taking breaks, which helped, but I felt myself losing resolve. The focus for me at that point was that no matter how far I went, I still had to turn around and make it back. And while turning around meant heading downhill, the wind was now starting to blow which meant it was not going to be easy. That little voice in the back of my head started to join the chorus of chirping coming from my legs. The breaks started to come more often and I was staring down a decision. I turned off the road, pulled a turkey sandwich out of my back pocket and pondered my circumstances.
At that point, I was at 40 miles and 3,700 feet of climbing. I was pretty sure I could make it to Elk Point, another 14 miles up the road, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to feel like after that. As I ate my turkey sandwich, I started asking myself which was more important… Making it up to the top or making it back? There was a cut-off time at the top and after doing some quick math with my current pace and available time left, I wasn’t so sure I was going to make it. I had purposely conserved my effort to this point but that had cost me valuable time. I could very well achieve the summit, high-fives all around, then get asked to leave the course. Or I could choose my own destiny and ride as far as I could before falling over.
So I turned around. I pointed my valiant steed down the hill (and into the wind) to see if I had left enough in the tank to get home. If not, this was going to be a repeat of two years ago.
The ride back down the hill was “fun.” The wind tried to blow me over a couple times but I managed to keep things between the navigational beacons. By this point, the leaders started to come back down the hill, moving a lot faster than I was. Most of the top guys were riding in groups of two or three which allowed them to work together in the wind. I was by myself which made it a lot harder but I eventually made it down County Road 73, back to the gravel.
When I pulled into the aid station, all the volunteers thought I was crazy for stopping (“You’re in the Top 10!”). While that was flattering to hear, I explained what had really happened, they called in my number, and I rolled away. I suppose I should have felt more self-conscious at that point but I didn’t. I knew I made the right choice for me.
Unfortunately, the next 8 miles down to the river brought another factor into the equation… leg cramps. Slowly, ever slowly, my legs started twitching when I’d pedal too hard (or not enough). Wonderful. I hurried down to the river, hoping I could find something salty to eat. There I was, racing against the clock after all. I made it back to the Verde, parked the bike and reached for as many electrolytes as I could find.
I sat down for a moment, which felt great, but one of the volunteers there took one look at me and said, “If you’re cramping, you better not stay long. Even if you have to slow pedal that bike, get your ass back on it and get up that hill. Now!” I’m pretty sure he used the “P” word at the end of speech but even if he hadn’t, I got the message. I took another swig of Coke, ate one of Blair’s apricot cashew bars and took off. I paused at the river to take a picture of the bridge, texted the guys where I was and dug my spurs into the Chicken Hawk.
And up the hill we went. I was still in the middle of all the fast racers so I had plenty of momentary company as they rushed by in groups of two, three and four. Most were very encouraging (“Nice work! Keep it up!”) although I’m sure they wondered what the hell I was doing there. Everyone else in my skill range was 2 hours back or had dropped out already. I felt like a bit of a unicorn out there, plodding along, stopping at random to stretch my legs or walk a few steps. All the while, enjoying All. That. Wind. Slowly but surely I made it up the 12-mile climb and turned back to town.
The last 10 miles were effectively downhill but it didn’t matter with the wind swirling and gusting up to 50 mph. I’m pretty sure I inhaled about 3 pounds of dirt as I moved along, watching every 0.1 click by on the bike computer. I was over 6,000 feet of climbing at that point, so my legs had no oomph left in them. All I could was pedal on. Quitting was completely out of the question at this point. Finally, blissfully, I saw the Community Center up ahead. I actually made it back! I crossed the finish line and looked down to see I had 79.9 miles. Damn! As OCD as I am, I turned the computer back on and rode through the parking lot until I had a full 80 miles. It’s the little things after all.
Two hours later, Old School and Blair made their triumphant return as well. They made it all the way to Elk Ridge and back to finish in a blaze of glory. 110 miles in 10:48. They were DFL but happy as hell to have survived. Me too. Technically I’m a DNF (or a DQ since I actually cut the course) but not at all unhappy. I gave that race all I had and finished on my own terms. Proud I am.
We were so tired after the day that I completely forgot to get pictures of our post-race beers. As a make-up, here’s our breakfast beers at the Toasted Owl in Flagstaff the next day. Wanderlust Brewing’s 928 Saison.