I was standing on top of Grizzly Ridge, waiting for some sort of internal cue to materialize when one of the race volunteers told the rider next to me, “You’re going to roll into the descent and pick up some serious speed and you’re going to want to carry it, but about two miles down there’s a spot that gets really rocky. It’ll be easy to flat there. There’s another one further down. The fastest rider will be the one who doesn’t flat.”
With that, I decided to roll out. I didn’t think I’d learn anything that would be more helpful than that and because section two of the event was downhill, it wasn’t like I needed to fuel up, or recover further. And with that, I rolled past the RFID sensors and began picking up speed.
The surface was hard packed dirt with a thorough dusting of gravel over the top. Except for some braking bumps in the turns, the surface was smooth. Sure enough, just as I’d gotten comfortable with the speed, I rolled out of a turn, began picking up speed again and saw up ahead irregular rocks poking up from the surface. I braked a bit, adjusted my line and rolled through without a problem. And then I started passing riders at the side of the road, pump in hand. ‘Cross tires pumped to 35 psi rolling at 30 mph were no match for those rocks.
Even less than half way into Grinduro, it was clear that this was an event like no other. Grinduro, an event conceived and largely organized by Giro employee Dain Zaffke (with notable input from Joe Parkin), plus significant help from the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (which is responsible for building new trails in the area), was the heretofore unknown intersection point between road bikes and enduro. Four timed segments run over the Butte Mountains above Quincy, in Plumas County, California. I had to look at a map because I’d never even heard of Quincy.
Here are a few other basics about Grinduro: the event was 60 miles and advertised more than 7000 feet of climbing. The four timed sections included a climb, a fire road descent, a flat-ish paved time trial and a singletrack descent. My GPS picked up more like 8400 feet of climbing (but who’s counting?) and that opening climb, though only two miles of which were timed, was a whopping 13.8 miles, rose to 7400 feet and counts as the only hors categorie dirt climb I’ve done in my life.
I’d been warned by superhero Robin Farina (founder of the Women’s Cycling Association) that the climb was not just long, but also cruelly steep. She was planning to ride her mountain bike because she said her ‘cross bike wasn’t geared low enough. When I replied that my monster cross rig had a 34×32 low gear she gave me that nod and head tilt that girlfriends used to give me when they were trying to help me wise up without actually embarrassing me.
After hitting the second set of chip readers the first rest stop was set up. I topped off my bottles, ate a bite and rolled out, even though there was no particular rush. Rolling along the ridge, on one of the many hills, I saw a few familiar faces laughing, pulled over and asked what was up, especially as I didn’t see anyone fixing a flat. They were having a “safety check.” We’ll just say it was a jovial event and the primary ingredient was California’s most popular cash crop.
This was not your typical roadie event.
I met up with a few friends at rest stop two following the descent. Two friends who work in PR, plus three other journalists and we started riding to stage three. As we neared the start we asked around. Was anyone opposed to riding it as a team time trial. There was nothing in the rules that stated we needed to ride separately on stage three, so we decided to do a TTT, only the moment we rolled through the trap the strongest among us went to the front and laid down an acceleration that Porsche engineers would admire. I called “easy on the acceleration” a few times, but it was as effective as court order to a bear. I still had one friend nearby and we settled in for trading pulls. It was the one time where I was honestly curious about my speed; I’d been riding my Seven Airheart with 40mm Clement MSO Xplors pumped to 60 psi; it rolled well on the asphalt.
Less than a kilometer from the timing trap we rolled into lunch. The spread included prosciutto or vegetarian sandwiches on focaccia, potato salad, lentil salad, chips, cookies, Mexican Coke, San Pellegrino sodas and beer. As we munched, the organizers were moving the timing systems from the first two stations to the third and fourth.
Upon leaving lunch we got less than a mile of pavement before we turned off on a fire road that passed between two houses and was easy enough to miss that a score of us rode right by it initially. It looked like a driveway, but it was much, much longer.
I’m going to admit that I pulled over a few times. One was for the photo above and another was to pee, while yet another was to talk to a guy who grew up in my old town of Northampton, Mass. It was such an unlikely detail that we ended up just standing at the edge of the road chatting for a few minutes. Those weren’t the only times I pulled over. The climb was long enough and I was tired enough from the other riding that I pulled over once just because I was too tired to respond to a sudden uptick in pitch.
The Plumas National Forest contains sections of old growth composed of Coast Douglas Firs, White Firs and Ponderosa Pines. From the saddle of my bike, they mostly looked the same, but their ability to stretch skyward meant that I spent very few miles exposed to direct sunlight. Conditions couldn’t have been better, either. We began the day with temperatures in the low 50s, but they rose into the low 80s and were still in the low 70s as many of us rolled back into the finish at the Quincy Fairgrounds.
But before we did that, there was one last challenge, the section that I heard more than one rider say, “I rode all this way just so I could do the singletrack descent.”
I’d gotten to preview the descent the day before and fresh off a shuttle ride up, I rode the trail playfully, catching air where I could and railing bermed turns. This is drought-plagued California, so conditions seemed less dusty than smoky, an odd, brown vapor that rose as if bike tires lit the ground on fire.
The riding was made more difficult by large amounts of decomposing granite.
When I reached the descent for the actual event I was considerably more fatigued. That playfulness of Friday was gone. I found myself braking with my index and middle fingers because I was so tired and didn’t feel as confident on the rougher sections. I also noticed that since nearly 300 riders had gone down the singletrack since the previous day’s visit, conditions turned rockier, with more braking bumps and the occasional blown-out rut.
Despite the organizer’s warning that not running tubeless was bound to end in a long walk, I managed to avoid any flats by sacrificing some speed. The fact that this strategy relegated me to the back third of my category continues not to bother me. Sure, I’d had to pull over on the descent of Mount Hough to let faster riders by from time to time, but the course humbled me in a way having a rider rip by me sans brakes never could.
There was an easy, four-mile spin back to the fairground that gave me time to reflect on the ride and its location. Other than logging, I couldn’t figure what kept the region afloat. I’d been told that tourism was on the rise, but that didn’t explain the nice homes that lined the bottom of the mountains. There were people leading comfortable lives far from any urban center.
The fairgrounds were a flurry of activity. After crossing the finish line I heard the sound check for that evening’s concert. There was a makeshift photo studio set up with people getting portraits shot with friends, their bikes, their beers. Because the majority of us were camping there at the fairgrounds, we weren’t going to have to go far to find the party. Mike Watt and Ray Barbee serenaded the kids and how anyone was able to dance I’ll never know. There was even a dance party after the concert was over that went into hours I thought bike racers didn’t know.
As I hung out with friends, sipping yet another beer, I admitted I was torn. I was having a great time sharing the day’s event with like-minded folks. Also true was the fact that I was watching the sextet of kids pedal around and around the gazebo on the 20-inch bikes with a certain wistfulness for my own family. If they were in attendance, I wouldn’t have been half so drunk, but I’d be sharing an evening of the bike community at its best and most familial.