My 2019 race season is finished and that means it’s time for me to start over. I officially became a gravel racer on June 29, 2019 when I lined up in the early morning mugginess at SWIGG. It’s hard to believe that was less than two months ago. What a magical period it has been. So much has changed. I’m still buzzing about what I’ve learned and I’m really excited for what comes next.
My focus this season was to ride and finish SBT GRVL. I did it and it feels really good, but as is always the case with this sort of thing it leaves me feeling a little empty. What’s next? Where do I go from here? Do I want to go longer? Faster? Something else?
I think I’ve already mostly sorted this out, but there’s absolutely no pressure to commit to any particular course of action just yet and so it’s back to plain old bike riding time again.
Truth be told, that’s all I really do anyway. Some of you know that I ride every day. Since the beginning of 2018, I’ve averaged 36 miles per day regardless of weather. I haven’t taken any days off. I don’t typically ride all that hard, and so when I come home I might be a little sore but I tend to recover very quickly. I don’t do any of what most serious cyclists would call “training.” I don’t have a coach. I have done zero speed work and no intervals. I didn’t even taper before SWIGG or Bohemian Sto Mil, though I did reduce my miles to about 10-15 day for three or four days before SBT GRVL.
Back when I ran track and cross country, we referred to this type of training as base building. It’s akin to preparing the soil and laying the foundation when you build a house. It’s not very glamorous and to the casual observer it doesn’t appear that much is happening, but that’s not the case at all. I have been able to complete these rigorous gravel events solely on the strength of my base building. I’ve always done this and it has always served me well. I see no reason to stop doing it now.
But the nagging question in the back of my mind is all about speed. I’m really grateful that I was able to finish the three races I entered, but I really think I’d like to finish a little more quickly next year. I don’t compete with others, but I most definitely compete with myself. What can I do to get faster without turning this into a drudgefest? I have no interest in that. My primary goal is to have fun and get better vs. myself. So what can I do to go a little faster in 2020 vs. 2019?
In hindsight, the answers seem obvious. I’ll be turning 60 in two weeks and I’m losing a little more muscle mass with each passing day. I am also a very sloppy eater. By this, I mean that I eat too much garbage. I’m not 25. I can’t get away with this any longer. I need to bring the same discipline to eating that I bring to building base and so that’s my primary focus going forward. It’s nothing fancy. By replacing food covered in plastic with food covered in dirt…real living food…I will naturally fix a lot of what’s wrong here. I’ve already started this and I’ve already seen a difference. It extends into race day nutrition and eating on the bike. I think that if I can dial this in I will sleep better, too. It’s the easiest, most painless way to get faster.
I’ve also discovered that gravel is a very technical discipline. I couldn’t help but notice this as people were blowing me away on the long descents at Steamboat. This was more like downhill skiing than riding a bike. Skill mattered and I didn’t have it. Looking back, I’m much better on gravel now than I was two months ago. I will get better the more I ride it, but I have to recognize that it’s technical and I have to think more in terms of technical proficiency. This is all about studying, learning, practicing and doing. It will take time, and so I plan to focus on this over the coming six months.
Last, but not least, I’m also going to reconsider my equipment. My “accidental” gravel race bike this year was a mostly stock Raleigh Tamland 1. We bought it for my wife but she didn’t really like the feel of it. It’s a nice bike…Reynolds 631 tubing with a carbon fork and a Shimano 105 groupset…not top of the line but certainly serviceable. I ran tubeless 700c x 38 Panaracer Gravel King SKs on stock aluminum Weinmann wheels. There’s clearance for 40s. I replaced the cheap crankset that came with the bike by pulling the old SRAM unit off of my retired Kona Rove. It checks all the boxes and it got me home three times with no drama.
That said, I think the bike is about a half size too small for me. I need to get fitted and will do so soon. If it turns out that the size is good, I’ll upgrade the wheels, bars and seat post with the lightest possible options. If not, I’ll need to find a new frameset and go from there. I’m not going to spend a fortune. A carbon frame might be fun and might translate into a little more speed, but I’m not sure it’s worth the freight to a guy like me. We’ll see.
When it comes to my one big event in 2020, I’ve decided that I absolutely want to go back to Steamboat Springs. I thought about DK200 for a fleeting second and it would certainly be a thrill, but it’s about more than my ego. Steamboat is a lot of fun for my wife and me in a way that Emporia will just never be. Then there’s the thought of slogging through quicksand-like mud in hot and humid temperatures if Mother Nature doesn’t play nice in the days leading up to the race. That’s always a risk in the Flint Hills. The weather in northwestern Colorado is pretty much guaranteed to be perfect in mid-August. This is no small thing in terms of fun.
I’ll also ride some grassroots events in Iowa and eastern Nebraska. I love the Lincoln gravel scene and would like to spend more time over that way. There are plenty of events to choose from, and so we’ll see what appeals as the dates firm up and draw closer.
Bottom line? I’m hooked and all in on gravel. Going into this year, I wanted to do this. Now I have. Now I am a gravel racer. I like the sound of that. I like the way it makes me feel. I know I still have a lot of work to do and I like that, too. I have a project that requires my attention and focus. I like projects. Projects give an old man something to focus on and work towards. I need that at this point in my life. I need to know I can still do this. I’m not ready to retire to a barcalounger or even a fishing boat or a golf course. I much prefer the feeling of being long in the saddle, covered in dirt, totally worn out and thinking “Man, what a ride.”
And so thank you, Gravel, for an amazing summer. I can’t wait to see where we go next together.
You rock. Let’s roll.