Gravel Climbs

I’m still new at gravel and have a lot to learn, but one thing I have discovered is that there are really three things that set it apart from the rest of the cycling world.  One is the people.  There’s a certain spirit that infuses the gravel scene that I just haven’t found elsewhere. I like gravel people a lot.  They know how tough this is.   Everyone who lines up to give it a go is already a winner.  I like that.

There’s also the road surface.  Your rolling resistance on gravel just isn’t the same as what it is on pavement and so every mile is more work, all things being equal.

Iowa’s Loess Hills…gravel heaven.

But all things aren’t equal. Gravel is hilly.   Wait…gravel is more than hilly.  Gravel is a non-stop climb fest.  That’s difference number three.  The two gravel courses I’ve raced on were completely different than the citizen roadie courses I’ve completed in this respect.  Even Tour of the Moon, an event built around a massive climb, was relatively easy in comparison to gravel.

Take SWIGG (Southwest Iowa Gravel Grinder).  This was my first taste of gravel racing and it didn’t take me long to figure out that this was uncharted territory.  By not long, I mean 10 miles.  That’s when I began to understand what I had gotten myself into.   This course wasn’t mostly flat with a hill thrown in here or there to keep riders honest, but rather the exact opposite…almost entirely hills with an occasional short, flat section because (apparently) there were no more hills available.

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SWIGG. Welcome to gravel.

SWIGG was an amazing experience.   It was my first taste (literally) of gravel and I won’t ever forget it.  The course not only had a lot of climbing, but also a lot of MMR (minimum maintenance roads) or B roads.  If you’re not familiar with this terminology, think of a forest service road or maybe even a mountain biking double track.  Some were a single set of tire tracks with grass growing down the middle.  Some were all grass.  They were generally steeper than other roads.  They were also deeply rutted in spots.  You had to be 100% aware 100% of the time.   There was no resting at SWIGG…none at all.   In hindsight, it was the perfect hybrid between a road and a mountain biking course.

Bohemian Sto Mil, on the other hand, was more like a road race on gravel.  There were three or four sections of MMR, but they didn’t stand out to me like they did at SWIGG.  They felt almost tame by comparison, though there were two partially collapsed bridges that you had to carry your bike over.  That was different.  That was fun.

Bohemian Sto Mil actually featured more climbing than SWIGG.  The rollers just kept coming all day long.  It was very difficult for me to get into any kind of a rhythm.  Every short, hard climb would be followed by a short hard downhill.  You don’t get to rest on gravel downhills.  I’d go 8 mph up and 30 mph down…all day long.  Have a look.

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Bohemian Sto Mil.  100 miles, 6,000+ feet of climbing.

And that brings me to Steamboat Springs.  Two gravel races, or 155 miles, is the sum total of my experience as I prepare to line up and go 140 miles at altitude.  What in heaven’s name was I thinking when I signed up for this?  Too late to worry about that now.  It’s show time.  I bought my ticket.  Now it’s time to take the ride.  At least I kind of know what to expect.  I expect to climb.  I expect to climb more than I thought was possible.  That’s what I signed up for, whether I knew it or not.  Climbing is what makes gravel special.  Climbing is what I am going to get.  Now I understand.

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SBT GRVL -2019 Black Course

That said, it looks like this is going to be a different kind of climbing.  Instead of non stop rollers, SBT GRVL has some serious sustained climbs.   There are two in particular that look really formidable.  The first is relatively early.  It starts at about mile 22 and gains approximately 1,200 feet over 10 miles.  That’s 120 feet per mile, or roughly twice the average at SWIGG and Bohemian Sto Mil.   They call it King/Queen of the Mountain #1.  There are two more.

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The second major climb (KOM/QOM #2) at Steamboat is up Trout Creek from mile 84 to 103.  This is a really interesting looking climb.  The first stretch from mile 84 to 94 appears to be manageable at a 2-3% grade.  Then there’s a short downhill before the real work begins in earnest.  From mile 94 to 103, we gain about 1,250 feet, topping out at an elevation of 8,500′ above msl.  Coming where it does late in the race, this will be a real test.  I suspect it will be a make or break moment for a lot of riders, myself included.

There are also two significant climbs between mile 103 and the finish line.  The first of these is a punchy 400′ climb on pavement around mile 110 and the second (KOM/QOM #3) is a really ugly two headed monster on gravel at around mile 125.   As I suspect the Trout Creek climb will seriously test my resolve and maybe even my will to live, those last two climbs are may end up being the toughest of all.

On the plus side, SBT GRVL offers some seriously good recovery sections as well.  There’s a fabulous nine mile downhill on pavement that starts at about mile 40 that should give my legs a break from that first climb.  There’s also a really nice sustained downhill from about mile 62-75.  SWIGG and Bohemian Sto Mil did not have these recovery sections and so it will be interesting to see what sort of impact they have on Old Man Gravel.

Another plus is road quality.  Of the 140.8 mile total, close to 38 miles are on pavement vs. just three at SWIGG and two at Bohemian Sto Mil.  Pavement gives the body a chance to recover.  If you’ve ever done this, you know how good it feels when you get to it.  It’s like being on a magic carpet.

With regard to the other 102 miles, it sounds like there are only two sections of MMR, one a short stretch of silt and sandy loam at about mile 16, the other a sustained descent through the Cow Creek drainage at about mile 130.    The remaining 90 miles or so is prime gravel.  I’ve read the comments of people who have ridden it and many are suggesting you could do it on a road bike with 700c x 28 tires.  I wouldn’t have wanted to try that at SWIGG or even Bohemian Sto Mil.

Overall, I really like this course.  One thing the organizers did that I think is deserving of recognition is including an escape route for riders who discover for whatever reason that this just isn’t their day.  There are actually three courses at Steamboat.  If you signed up for the black (140 mile) course but just aren’t feeling it when you get to mile 84, you can choose to take the blue course cutoff and finish the 100 mile blue course instead.  From a health and safety perspective, I think this is really first class and thoughtful.  Kudos to the women and men of SBT GRVL for giving people a second chance to win.

It will be interesting to see how Sunday unfolds.   More soon…




    • Thank you DI! So happy to have you here on the blog, and I’m still looking forward to heading down your way and riding with you someday…soon, I hope!


    • You may be right, Cory. Since I posted this, I’ve noticed it on a couple of other courses as well. 🙂 That said, it sure felt like more in that heat!


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