By Isaac Novak
It was 5am when my alarm went off. I had woken up every hour for the previous 4 hours for some unknown reason, but now I was officially up and getting ready. Ready to ride 100 miles of gravel. It was the morning of SBT GRVL and, to be honest, I was not prepared. For the past 3 years I had trained and raced bikes, but this year, demotivated by a terrible winter I took 6 months off the bike. Only within the last month and a half did I rediscover a love for biking by going out on fun short rides at golden hour to capture well composed photographs on my Olympus 35sp rangefinder film camera. Each week prior I had ridden around 50 miles per week on the bike at a nice leisurely pace and had totaled only about 500 miles for the entire year.
When I was asked by the PeopleForBikes team to go up to Steamboat Springs, CO to gather content around SBT GRVL for their newly released app: Ride Spot, I jumped at the opportunity. I had never been to Steamboat and was excited at the opportunity to go up and capture the moments and experiences from this new event! There had been a ton of buzz around this event as SBT GRVL, in its inaugural year, had sold out in 6 days when registration opened in early December. 1,500 riders from 50 states and 7 nations had signed up to ride or race 140, 100, or 37 miles of gravel around one of the most beautiful places on earth. Further, the SBT GRVL crew pledged to support inclusiveness in the sport by opening up an additional 200 spots specifically to women in February - which sold out in 4 days and doubled the total participation number of females in the event. With a sizable prize purse and equal payout for male and female riders, SBT GRVL garnered a participation of almost 30% female riders and have made it a goal to reach a 50% female participation rate in SBT GRVL’s future. As Amy Charity, SBT GRVL race partner stated in an interview with Velonews, “SBT GRVL exists because we all put on a race that we would want to do, which includes beauty, inclusiveness and challenge… The dream of creating the event and the dream of parity in the event go hand in hand.”
Day one involved an all day expo filled with numerous vendors, a morning group ride, and the most adorable strider race. I spent that day shooting photos, grabbing video, and talking with numerous individuals from all across the globe. As the day went on I was gifted with an incredible opportunity to grab even more content by riding in SBT GRVL’s Blue 100 mile race on top of a Canyon Grail gravel bike.
Doc B, Bernie Doering (SVP, Global Sales and Marketing at Stages Cycling), & Chris Arrenburg at the start of SBT GRVL 2019!
So here we are. August 18. 5 am. I’m up and putting four pumpkin waffles in the toaster as my colleague Jennifer Bouldry (aka Doc B) scrambles some eggs and puts on a pot for coffee and Chris Arrenburg preps the bikes. It’s 46° F outside and I pull on a cerulean blue Colorado crew neck sweater - that I had picked up from Safeway the night before - over a thrifted vintage cotton Nike cycling jersey. I stuff my pockets full of stroopwafels, granola bars, and energy gels, my handlebar bag with my film camera, my DJI Osmo Pocket, two pumpkin waffles slathered with jam, and an assortment of tools in case I flatted or had a mechanical problem. On board my Canyon Grail I also carry two large water bottles and a saddle bag full of tubes and co2 cartridges. As we exit our AirBNB we see large groups of bikers making their way down to Yampa Street. Rolling in, we are sorted into our respective groups. Riders on the black course are out front, blue in the middle, and green in the back. It’s still quite chilly, but standing inside a bustling crowd of riders seems to have warmed the start line up quite a bit. The blue group inches forward as the 140 milers are sent on their way. Minutes pass and with a booming countdown and the clatter of hundreds of shoes clicking into their pedals we are off.
Off the bat, the group has separated into two - with “racers” in the front and more casual (as casual as one can be riding 100 miles of gravel) riders in the back. Having an ultra competitive soul, I bridge the gap from "casuals" to "racers" knowing full well I won’t be able to hang on for long. The gravel turns sandy, my legs start to feel the hurt of trying to hold onto the front group, and I pull back my pace. I remind myself to chill because I still have 90 some miles to go. As we crest over a short forested climb and descend into the Elk River basin, the rising sun hits our backs and golden hour illuminates the viridescent landscape with an aureate glimmer. Awe struck from the beautiful scenery, I have my Osmo pocket in hand recording passing riders, the scenery, the sun, and the hidden gem that is Steamboat Springs.
Stopping to take pictures at the first aid station.
The gravel, now smooth and pavement like, speeds up the peloton and causes us to soar past ranch homes, prairie grass, and farm equipment with ease. When the climbs start, they’re gradual and moderate in length (a contrast from the punchy gravel routes of Minnesota which I am so used to) which allows the legs to recover a bit more on the longer descents. However, forgetting my lack of training, I quickly go into a rhythm of riding a casual pace with Doc B and Chris, accelerating ahead, stoping to grab pictures, and then rejoining Doc B and Chris as they pass by. This pattern of riding repeated till around mile 50 when this long interval session took its toll and hit my right leg with a spastic cramp after I'm a few miles outside of the second aid station. Pulling off to the side of the road, I stop and try to massage my leg muscles - as if rolling my thumb around my calf is going to relieve 50 miles of lactic acid build up. Taking large swigs of water, slurping back energy gels, and eating one of my pumpkin waffles, I tell myself to calm down and continue at a more even pace. This seems to help and I find my body recovering a bit better.
Grabbing fuel to keep the body running and the bike rolling!
By this time, I had removed my Safeway sweater, handed it off to a volunteer at the second aid station, and was now riding with my retro cotton nike jersey; taking my time, and enjoying the prepossessing views of Steamboat’s ranch lands. The whole organization of this race was truly incredible. The route’s signage was impeccable, the aid stations were efficiently run, and there were even Mavic Neutral Service Motorbikes on the course incase someone needed help fixing a flat or repairing a mechanical. Sponsor’s of the race had even put up tents - mini aid stations - around the course to assist riders with refilling on water, energy drinks, gels, bars, etc. I’ve ridden in quite a few gravel races, but this has been, by far, the best organized gravel ride I have ever taken part in.
Cruising into the third aid station I scarf down a pickle wedge, two bananas, and my last pumpkin waffle. Endurance race nutrition is so weird. You’re kind of just eating as much as you can to refill your carb, sugar, protein, and electrolyte levels and replenishing the thousands of calories burned. I’m sure there’s more of a science to this, but heck when you are 70 miles in, exhausted, sweaty, and have consumed quite a bit of dirt that’s been either kicked up into your face by drafting on riders or stuck to the nozzle of your water bottle - anything that is cold, sweet, or salty is absolutely delicious and somehow keeps the legs turning. Refilling my water bottles, I exit the aid station much more swiftly then the previous two.
Chris and Doc B powering it up the climbs!
The views continue to be astounding and as I round down the twisting gravel roads that hug the side of steep dry grassy bluffs, I soon see the turn off sign for riders on the blue course. Squinting ahead to this long curved climb I see a pair of riders - one of which is wearing a distinguishable red helmet. “That must be Chris and Doc B!” I exert a little more energy and by the time I reach the peak point on the hill, I’ve made the connection to the two. I ride alongside Doc B until we hit the final aid station. I blow right past, thinking that I’m at mile 90, when all reality I have over 20 miles to go. This is where having a little computer onboard to tell me the mileage could have come in handy.
Still smiling 80 miles in with cramping legs and a very sore bum.
Around mile 85, the road ramps up for the final long climb on the course. Three quarters of the way up my legs start to get that pre-spaz feeling. I slow my pace down (as much as one can on an 8% gravel ramp), slurp down a gel, and chug water in-between gasps for air. Reaching the summit, the descent is greatly appreciated though the smooth gravel only last a short while. A mile down with a gradual left turn and I’m now on “Cow Creek” Road. This gnarly, rocky, mountain-bike-would-be-better road sends you ricocheting over puncher-nerve-racking terrain. Honestly though, I had a blast. There’s a sense of exhilaration that fills the body when you really push the limits of a bike. After 4 miles the cobbling path ends at an intersection to a paved road which marks the end of gravel. The final 7 miles are all on pavement and I’m just trying to slog my broken body to the finish line. Coming into the finishing straight, the announcer roars my name and I throw my hands up (with the vigor of winning a stage in the Tour de France) in celebration of finishing this truly amazing ride! Only a few seconds pass and Ted King rockets on by to take the win for the 140 mile black course. While he may ridden an extra 40 miles with 3000 ft of climbing, I can still jokingly say that I finished in front of him. Coming behind Ted is Doc B and Chris. With cold iKOR towels draped around our necks, we hand our bikes off to volunteers who hang them onto nearby racks. We then sorely shuffle our way over to grab beers and burgers and then sit down under the shade of Mountain Tap’s outdoor table umbrellas. Exhausted and wanting just to lay down, I find a bit of energy to share stories on the ride with surrounding finishers.
After showering and taking a power nap, we finish the night on the rooftop of Salt and Lime - a local Mexican eatery - sipping margaritas and eating an assortment of delectable tacos. As the sun sets, and the final riders cross the line, SBT GRVL comes to a close. From golden hour mornings, to “hero” gravel roads, and from an amazingly organized set of aid stations to gorgeous jaw-dropping scenery, SBT GRVL crafted a truly incredible event that I look forward to attending next year. Thank you to the crew who helped organize, the volunteers, Canyon (for giving me the opportunity to ride such an amazing bike), and to everyone else who helped make SBT GRVL into such an amazing experience. If you are going to choose one event to participate in for 2020, make it be SBT GRVL. I truly had an amazing time and I’m sure, no matter what skill level you may be at, you will too!