I started 2019 with the crazy idea that at fifty nine years of age I was going to become a gravel bicycle racer. I’d been thinking about what I could do to top last year’s Seattle to Portland double century and an advertisement popped onto my Facebook page for a new gravel race in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. “Wanna go back to Steamboat?” I asked Jan. It had been decades since our last visit. Of course she did, and so I entered the credit card number into the web-based form and $200 later I was an official entrant. That is literally how it started.
It seems so long ago now. In hindsight, it’s embarrassing to realize just how naive I was about all of this. I’ve learned so much over the course of the last nine months. Just about everything I believe about cycling, aging, competing and persevering has been challenged and put to the test. The people who do this are so incredibly talented, strong and good. To go twenty miles per hour or faster on gravel for 6, 8 or 10 hours as they do completely blows my mind. It’s not just the men, either…nor the young. I marvel at what these folks accomplish out on the rocks. I admire and deeply respect what they are made of. I want to be one of them. I guess I am now.
One thing I’ve learned is that gravel is a technical discipline and to succeed in anything technical, you have to develop certain proficiency when it comes to the necessary skills. I really struggle vs. other riders on the flats and downhills. The truth of it is that they blow me away. I am riding too cautiously and it’s because my skills aren’t adequately developed. Going uphill, I generally can hold my own with all but the fastest riders. If I want to go faster, I need to develop that technical proficiency.
Equipment matters, too. In hindsight, I probably competed this season on a bike that was a little too small for me. I kind of suspected this was the case but as I look at the pictures I’m now convinced. I’ve heard riding gravel described as akin to working with a jackhammer. It’s hard on your body when everything fits just right. When it doesn’t, well, problems tend to be magnified. My legs are generally strong at the finish. My back and shoulders, not so much. Size matters, and so for the first time in my life I think I’m going to get fitted and do things the right way.
I’ve written before about the gravel community but I think the points were driven home listening to the panel of professionals at Steamboat. One of the women talked about how as a pro road cyclist she never interacted with the other competitors. They’d all race and go straight back to the hotel to sulk or stew or celebrate alone. It was psychological warfare before, during and after races. “Gravel people” she said “hang around and drink beer with one another after the race is over.”
These people are winners, one and all. They compete as hard as any other people anywhere, but I think what’s different is that they don’t take themselves quite as seriously. To finish hours behind and have them there cheering you in is incredibly humbling. Many of these people ride bikes everywhere…just like me. It has occurred to me more than once over the summer that this is the way it’s supposed to be.Work hard. Play hard. Have fun. Laugh. Focus on what’s right instead of what’s wrong. Seek joy instead of misery. It’s good for the soul.
With that as a backdrop, it’s not really all that surprising that gravel has caught a wave and is the fastest growing segment of cycling. I don’t see this ending any time soon. Next summer there will be more races to choose from. That’s good.
As for me, I want more. I don’t know what it looks like or where it will take me just yet, but I am absolutely certain that I am not done with it. I’m glad that the folks from Steamboat ran that Facebook ad last December. I’m equally glad I answered it and paid the freight. It has changed my life. It has given me a hope and optimism that so many people my age have lost. I will do this as long as my body allows. It’s not about winning or even going fast. It’s about something much deeper, much more important. I feel very fortunate to understand this. It has been one hell of a ride. I can’t wait to see what comes next.