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

RAD Anteloop (September 30, 2023)

My second gravel race is in the books now, and it only gets better! Love it, want more of it. And here’s my recap.

The picture in the header is what I would call perfect. Look, it hits all the boxes: made by a professional photographer on a camera almost as expensive as my bike; it captures the details that are event-specific; it's relatable to me because it has my finishing time on the clock (I was right there a second before); and there's no unphotogenic me in it to screw up the perfect shot. What's not to like.

Preparation

Training

I didn’t do anything special to prepare for this race. Just normal two high-intensity workouts per week (one VO2max, one Threshold), and all kinds of outdoor riding in-between: trail quickies on the workday nights, longer gravely stuff on the weekends. Nothing outstanding. The only minor change to my training routine, that I made in September, was to skip a few group rides in favor of structured indoor work (guys, if you’re reading this, and I hope you are – I’m sorry 🙂). Not that it made me faster on such a short stretch of time, but it helped tremendously to keep the overall fatigue under control. That’s definitely something I failed to do earlier this year in July/August.

There was one long ride though in this training block that stands out for me. Two weeks before the race I drove south to Pueblo to do a 100mi route on a mostly flat terrain. Just didn’t feel like climbing that day. I also had no specific pace in mind. Usually, I would be all obsessed about the numbers, even on an easy spin, but that day it was all about enjoying the ride. It was until it wasn’t. Deeper and deeper into the wide-open prairies of Southern Colorado, I felt better and better. I was pushing my pace ever so slightly and still didn’t feel like I was anywhere close to even smelling the exhaustion. So, why would I slow down now. Let’s keep it rolling, and see how that ends.

Pacing strategy

The reason the ride in Pueblo is worth mentioning in the context of the race is that on that day I’ve learned that I can go harder than I thought I could on such a long distance, without blowing myself out. And this very observation defined the entire pacing strategy for the race: flat out from the start, and never slow down. If you “die”, then so be it. Basically, that’s how all the gravel courses are being raced nowadays at the high level, but I never felt like I was ready to replicate that. And now I’ve acquired confidence that I might be able to do it like the big boys do, or at least I had no fear of taking that shot.

Nutrition, gear, etc

The race was supposed to take about 4+ hours, which means 4L of Tailwind nutrition drink mix is all I need (2x1L bottles, plus 2L hydration pack, 100g/L CHO), and I didn’t even bother checking where the aid stations were. I knew they were out there if I desperately needed them (fortunately, that didn’t happen).

But the weather in the high desert is hard to predict, so I figured I want a little bit of flexibility in how much water I’m taking in along with my carbs. So, one of the bottles instead of the drink mix was filled with only electrolytes (LMNT watermelon is the best), and 5 gels (Precision Fuel 30c) were stuffed into the top tube bag ready to be sucked in at any moment, except for the last hour when the 30mph side wind was trying to blow me off the road. I did the same thing when I was doing Lake City Alpine 50 a month ago, and it worked great back then. It didn’t disappoint this time either.

Race course in numbers

The full RAD Dirt course, called the Stubborn Dolores, is 112 miles long. I have another event coming in just 2 weeks which is about the same distance, so I picked a medium-long Anteloop course instead — only 70 miles (112 km) and 5500 feet (1700 m) of elevation gain. Sweet spot for a hard but fully enjoyable day in the saddle.

Execution

Go time

The neutral rollout through the city wasn’t very long, I don’t even know where it ended. It gets narrow very fast, stretching the field, so it’s hard to say if I ever even had the leading group in sight or not. The group that I was close to at the time when we exited the bike path and hit the wider gravel road was going crazy fast. And, sticking to the plan, I didn’t hold myself back whatsoever. I was ready to do an all-out sprint if that would get me back on their wheels, but I didn’t see that happening. So, I kept going hard and steady, hoping that some of them wouldn’t be able to keep it up for long. I’ve also “let” a few riders to pass me in the first ~20 miles, but none of them got away with that 😈

Burro Canyon (out)

Burro Canyon is probably the only segment of this course (and the Reilly Canyon Rd to a certain point) where drafting and working in a group were feasible. It’s 8.5 miles (14 km) long, false flat (<2% grade), silky gravel road. Sadly, there were no established groups around to join, and none of the only few riders around were willing to stay together at a steady pace. Some would blast by me only to hit the next “bump” of the undulating road, where I would easily catch them back. Some were able to establish a bigger gap on me, but not for long. Because the fun has not begun yet.

CR 47.7 & 51.1

At the end of the Burro Canyon road, we pass the second aid station and a 22-mile mark where my timing chip has been scanned as 59th dude overall on that day. Not bad? Hold my beer. From here the climbs are getting steeper, you can see riders in front of you (starting with those who passed you not so long ago), and the animal instinct wakens up.

And having climb profiles on a head unit helps so, so much! Knowing that it’s only a few hundred meters, followed by a descent, gives you an unopposed green light into the VO2max range. That’s where you want to remind yourself how many times you did those 36 reps by 45 seconds at 125% FTP. Just to reassure your brain and body, that you can do this stuff all day long if necessary. Just give me more people ahead for an extra kick in motivation.

Burro Canyon (in)

Going downhill (even though the grade, as I’ve already mentioned, is less than 2%) at 25 kph is not what you would expect after climbing this same road an hour ago at roughly the same speed. The headwind, obviously. That’s where having a group around would’ve been more than helpful. But at this point in the race, I was riding all alone, and it was intended to stay that way as long as possible. On one side, I was committed to not being caught by the riders behind me, given how much of a gap I’ve been able to establish. On the other, whomever I passed at this point, I felt much stronger than them and why would I let anyone draft on my wheel and beat me at the finish line.

One stupid mistake

There’s a section towards the end of the course with short, steep bumps full of loose rocks. On Strava it’s called a Trinidad Lake Roller Coaster, and it does live up to its name. And I’ve made a stupid mistake (again!) of shifting into the biggest rear cog in the middle of a hard effort where my bike was literally jumping across the terrain. That was a risk, which I had no single reason to take. Just a brief lack of focus after hours of hard efforts, and here goes a whole minute of precious time to put the chain back on to the cassette. Bummer! Given that a guy in front of me finished only 25 seconds ahead, that little inaccuracy probably caused me 1 position in an overall ranking. Not that it matters here, but I hope not to slip again on a day when the stakes are higher.

Almost done and… done

The final stretch before the finish line is amazing. Just about when you start thinking that you’re almost done, you get two or three steep paved climbs perfect for a series of attacks. Too bad so sad I had no one to sprint against to the top of those hills. I almost said to myself “To hell with that” and settled into the easy gear, because what’s the point, but then got myself together and did the last push the way it’s supposed to be done on a race day. Required a little bit of self-motivation, good for me that I still had some.

I mentioned earlier that at a 22-mile mark I was 59th male overall. Finished 33rd. For 2/3rds of the course I was catching and passing other riders, and no single one passed me back. The good old meme says it all.

Post-race expo

Had a good chat with Tailwind nutrition team at their tent. They are on the same page with us riders and runners that Dauwaltermelon must return and stay here for good, because it’s by far the best flavor they’ve ever produced. Fingers crossed.

Cheers to the guy at Best Day Brewing tent, for a refreshing drink and good insights on gravel routes around Cañon City. Gotta find a day to check them out.

And no comments about the food options on that day, because this post is not a place for the bad vibes 😆. The same applies to the award ceremony, which has been delayed for such a long time and was almost ruined by the upcoming storm. Even many of the age group podium finishers gave up and left without their well-deserved prizes.

Some final thoughts

Even though the Rad Dirt Fest is now a part of the Life Time Grand-Prix, it doesn’t really feel like a “big money event”. The whole vibe of the race camp in downtown Trinidad was chill and funky. I certainly see myself coming back next year, partly because there’s not much else happening at this time of the season.