Old Man Winter and the Search for the Holy Gravel
Winter can be a hard time to get motivated to venture outdoors for a bicycle ride, let alone a hundred kilometer race. Feeling like you have just recovered from the post holiday hangover, and faced with challenges such as freezing temperatures, snow, ice, and limited daylight are all motivation sponges for sure. Add in alternative options like skiing and zwifting, and it can be a hard sell to want to ride outside. Fortunately events like the Old Man Winter Rally exist to get us off the couch, out of our comfort zone, onto the saddle and into the cold!
Started in 2015, the Old Man Winter Rally has a variety of options to choose from, including a 10k run, a 50K or 100K bike race, and a run/bike combo event. Being a sucker for suffering, I signed up for the 100K bike race, which is about 63 miles, and features just over 5,000 feet of elevation gain. The morning of the race was cold and clear, and the initial roll out of 305 participants was fast. Most people were riding some configuration of all-road or gravel bikes, but there were definitely quite a few mountain bikes as well. I chose to ride my custom Atlas, which has clearance for 33mm tires, pretty much a road racing bike, with disc brakes and clearance for knobby tires. I elected to run a pair of 45North Xerxes 30mm studded tires, that feature some decent tread. Not the fastest rolling tires, but I felt the combination of the medium tread and studs would get me through the worst sections with the rubber side down.
The race quickly left the pavement about 5 miles in, and this gravel was a lovely combination of hard packed snow, ice, and, at least for me hanging on to the rear of the front group, quickly getting muddy from the warming temps and many tires.
A few people wiped out in corners and lost bottles in the washboard sections, making everyone nervous, cautious, and excited. The course soon hit a few small hills, and spread everyone out, which was a bit of a relief. I saw a few other riders on Alchemy's, and tried to strike up a quick conversation before getting dropped.
"Hey, sweet bike!"
"Hey, thanks, oh, cool, nice bike yourself!"
The race route soon crossed highway 93, and headed west up Lefthand Canyon Drive. This segment was a grind, about 10 miles long with a 2,000 foot elevation gain! I settled into a rhythm, watched out for ice in the shaded corners, and watched rider after rider zip past me up around the numerous bends, enjoying the steady effort and the lovely scenery. After what seemed like a long time, the course turned hard left onto the infamous Rowena segment!
I had never been up this side of Rowena, under any circumstances. As a newbie to the north side of Rowena, it really could not have been less rideable. To be perfectly fair, the race organizers made no secret of how hard this section would be, and it was equally as hard for everybody racing. A two mile hike a bike, uphill, in a foot of fresh snow, unrideable for any form of transport other than two feet or a snowmobile, was generally unpleasant. It sucked. Sure, it was beautiful being in the trees, some riders made jokes or attempted to pedal the few flat sections, comically I might add, but what purpose did this serve in a bicycle race? The forty-five minute hike, pushing the bike next to me in the snow, gave me plenty of time to question what seemed like a fool's errand. Eventually the trail opened up at Sunshine Saddle, featuring a beautiful panoramic view and an icy and treacherous descent. Thanks to modern amenities like disc brakes and the aforementioned studded tires, this was a fully rideable icy and treacherous descent. From there the road connected to Sunshine Canyon, which is a fast and scary descent in the best of conditions, downhill to Boulder.
Once in town, the route crisscrossed through some neighborhoods I was not previously familiar too, including the climb up Linden Drive, which was hellaciously steep! My Garmin was showing an average grade of 11%, and thanks to all the previous mud, snow, and grime, my bike would not shift into the lowest gear on the cassette, which proved to be quite the mental struggle, knowing an easier gear was available to me, only not so. I stopped in a random driveway and emptied half the contents of a full water bottle on my rear derailleur and chain, only to still not be able to access my easiest gear, and be down half a bottle of precious, cramp alleviating water. No pain, no gain, right?
Mentally I was pretty close to defeat at this point, but since my car was at the finish line, I really had no choice but to keep going. A chilly descent back down Lefthand Canyon Drive, across Route 93, and I'm, pretty sure the course doubled back on itselft to finish the same way it started. An aid station in a field around mile 50 gave me back some much needed water, as well as some snacks and some life saving hot chocolate! I have not had a hot chocolate in, well, I can not remember, but what a game changer! Fueled by the warm sugary mix, I slogged the last few miles of icy and muddy gravel in a pack of one, and suffered the headwinds on the paved road for the last 5 miles into town alone, passing two separate hardy souls on hardtaill mountain bikes.
People were still lining the finishing chute, cheering, clapping, and offering congratulations a full two hours after the race leaders had finished. The race winners, Alex Howes and Ruth Winder, are current and former world tour professional riders, respectively. No surprise there!
I fumbled around the after party zone, managing to get a post ride beer without my wristband, which I had left in my car. The person in charge of the beers took one look at my muddy dishelviousness and said "You sure look like you need one of these, wrist band or not". I drank the beer, heard rumours of a bike wash, and found it behind the bathroom pavilion. What an amazing addition to a race known to be a muddy mess! I hosed my steed off, finished my beer, and slowly pedaled back to my car, mind at ease and starting to appreciate just how successful I had been in my search to find some holy gravel...
Follow along the Alchemy Journal with us as our search for the Holy Gravel continues, including some special one off custom race bikes that will be coming soon!