I race gravel, enjoy XC, and miss the roads (maybe)

Kowtown Gravel (July 1, 2023)

Kowtown wasn’t supposed to be my first-ever gravel experience. I ordered my Fezzari Shafer back in May 2023, and when it was finally built and shipped in the middle of June, FedEx gave me an estimated delivery of Friday night. And I was stoked enough to do something as foolish as to assemble the machine before midnight while registration for Pony Xpress Gravel is still open, then pay the dues, and in the early morning head over to Pueblo for a proper field test. Perhaps it’s for the better that the purple-orange truck didn’t show up that evening. The mind-blowing experience that I’ve ended up having in Kremmling could have been instead an endless miserable bike fitting session in the wilderness (hence the above picture of a brand new but half-ready bike, these handlebars alone would've cost me a major pain in the lower-lower back).

The reason I felt so insanely adventurous (besides from a new bike day adrenaline infusion) was that I had Silver Rush 50 and Leadville 100 coming right up, and they were important enough to put a gravel bike on hold (except for long and easy weekend rides) until I’m done with the main course. But then I decided to get some help from the professional coach (not sure that experience deserves more than a brief summary, which is “absolutely pointless”), and he suggested doing a C-race in the Rockies before SR50 to get a feel of altitudes and whatnot. As if SR50 in itself wasn’t meant to be the playground for exactly that. Anyways. Some part of me, the one that always asks for more, took that rather as an excuse to go to one more cycling event. Which one though?

I’m a big fan of The Ride with Ben Delaney. Not that he just gives practically useful tech reviews, but his approach of putting those in a context of a particular time and place makes it always entertaining to watch. In one of the recent videos, he was pre-riding the course of the inaugural “Kowtown Gravel” race in Kremmling, Colorado. I got the impression that it should be a sweet ride. Of course, I said: I won’t go all out, I’ll essentially treat it as a gran fondo, I would never jeopardize my main races. All that BS which I truly believed in up until the gun went off.

But before it did, I studied the course and came up with the following strategy for the day: “I’ll figure it out”. That’s the Spirit of Gravel, is it not? And in hindsight, I have a feeling it was the best one I could have possibly had. Zero expectations plus maximum readiness to absorb whatever is going to be thrown at me. And at the end of the day, it was a little bit of everything.

The Fog

Left the house at 5ish in the morning. I-70 still felt like home after so many early rides to Loveland Pass in winter. I’m writing this in October, so I don’t remember if there were still any snow patches at the top of the Loveland Ski Area, but I want to think there were a few. Good times! This season we’ll be discovering new places, but I have a feeling that once or twice we’ll come back to Loveland. Should feel like visiting a good old friend.

Another stunning piece of road on the way to Kremmling is Highway 9 when it hits the Great Mountain Reservoir. For a moment I thought I was on CA Highway 1 going through the coastline of Big Sur. Hey, don’t take that as an insult on one of the most scenic highways in the world (and certainly the most breathtaking I’ve ever been to), but when you haven’t seen one for a year, this does count as “resembling”. As suddenly as this cliff-side road brings back the soothing memories, it abruptly ends into a void. The morning fog in the basin of Blue River is as dense as the milk of the cows from the local pastures. Perhaps for good, as it prolongs the nostalgia.

And finally, we’re in the parking lot of West Grand High School, where the race starts. As always, the starting corridor is surrounded by the tents of big sponsors, where you can get a free bike check, or get your tire sealant replenished if you forgot to do that the night before… Kidding, there’s nothing but a few volunteers giving out race numbers, and a few police officers ready to lead a neutral rollout. Very low-key, grassroots setup. I dig the ones like that for sure, and I know for a fact that many others do too. What we do have all around us is still that fog. And chilly temperatures around 6C (42F).

The Ride

First goes the wave of riders who are doing the full course. Then off we go who opted out of the Grouse Mountain dessert, and now looking forward to 65 miles (105 km) of undulating roads. The neutral rollout quickly gets you out of town and ends as soon as we hit the gravel. Very soon I concluded that the riders I ended up with from the start are not the ones I need to be with. Here begins the chasing part that lasted for the first 90 minutes of the race. And for the most part, it looked like this: chase that group or a rider in front of you, stay on their wheel to catch a breath, rinse, and repeat. For a while, it’s been a solo endeavor, until some other strong dude caught up with me and we were ready to work together. At some point, we joined a big strong group where many riders were willing to do the work to hopefully reduce the gap from the leaders. The group effort totally paid off for a few of us, because many riders up ahead were eventually dropped and we were right there to sweep them off the road :–) Remember, I said, to myself included, that I’ll take it easy. It was already nothing like an easy ride, but a jam-packed racing experience. And there was more to come as the race unfolded.

Once we left Highway 40 and turned onto the sandy service road, the group got scattered and never fully reassembled. Here the game of cats and mice has begun. At least in my head, there’s a good chance no one else had a clue that we were “playing” (let’s be honest, that was definitely the case). I pushed somewhat harder on a few climbs to see if anyone responds. My idea was to establish a breakaway but I didn’t want to be in it all alone. That didn’t work out, and every time I had to ease up eventually and drop back to the remainder of the group, which now was a small pack of only 5-7 riders. More or less in one piece, we all came to the bottom of the main climb of the day. And long story short, only three of us came out on top and continued fighting each other to the finish line: yours truly, Alisha and Derik. I was behind them right out of the summit and was pushing hard to get back into the game. To my pleasant surprise, they both decided to stop quickly for water at the last aid station, and I still had barely enough in my bottle to finish the race. So, in an outrageous violation of the unwritten, unspoken, and unheard rules of Gravel I “attacked”. But they never lost sight of me, so the hard work ought to be continued to remain in current position.

Being behind other people has its own benefits. Besides drafting, you don’t need to stress about navigation. Sure, they can screw it up too, but somehow I trust others more than myself in that regard, and rightfully so. Here was the first time of the day I had to start paying attention to the way I was going. And it turned out I was totally unprepared for that. Course markings were extremely sparse, and I had no navigation on my head unit. For a while, there was a guy in red far ahead of me who served well as a guiding star, but at some point, I lost sight of him and was completely lost in the open. As it turned out I was going the right way, but wasn’t sure if I took the right turn. I stopped briefly, was immediately caught by Alisha, and then followed her. At least I wasn’t lost anymore, and I passed her back soon. But the lesson has been learned and I swore to the cows grazing around that never again I show up for a gravel race without a route on my computer.

The navigational struggle didn’t end there, because as soon as I got back to town I had doubts again if I was going the right way. Slowing down at every crossroad did cost me a bunch of extra seconds to my chip time, and as a result, two positions in overall rankings. But at the end of the day, I didn’t stress much about it. Who am I kidding, hell I did, I just don’t want to admit it.

Race finishes at the nice park downtown Kremmling, which you could finally see and enjoy, as the fog thankfully dissipated while we were out on the course. Was fun to chat with my fellow rivals of the day Alisha and Derik, even though it wasn’t easy to stop devouring pastry from the local bakery (buckwheat cherry was the best of all).

The Spirit

So, what’s so special about gravel, that everyone loves and talks about so much (now with one another fresh adept joining the camp)? I could just say the Spirit of Gravel, but everyone’s definition of that may vary dramatically. What’s in it for me is what other people may refer to as camaraderie, but I would use the word mindset instead. It’s the mindset of people who first and foremost enjoy outdoors for what it’s worth, for being out there and having a good time on our bikes together. And if on top of that, we can put a whipped cream of friendly banter in the form of racing, then how do you like them apples?

And what’s so special about Kowtown? It was the Kremmling community’s first shot at it, and I think they nailed it right to the point. Keep it simple, keep it safe. Police did an outstanding job blocking the roads just enough to let riders navigate safely through the tough spots. And that’s what I care about, and certainly not about a shit ton of swag or stupid finisher medals, which would usually go straight into the garbage bin anyways. Guess what, there was none of that crap. Nicely done!

Am I coming back next year? Almost certainly yes.