The fifth edition of the Gravel Grinder ran successfully on Sunday, April 22 in Waterbury, VT. Those who have done it before recognize it as an unconventional event, and those new to it soon figure this out for themselves.
Most formal cyclo-centric meetings of the mountain bike world are of the time-based, subjectively measured racing variety with numbers (or dossards), tactics and finish lines. Benefit rides are relatively few and far between and normally the domain of the pavement set. The Gravel Grinder is a little bit of each of these with some its own unique personality thrown in.
The basic idea is to ride the hills that surround Waterbury by way of the steep dirt roads that dominate the area. Usually in mid-April the local trails are still snow covered or wet so this is as close as you can get to mountain biking without driving a few hours south. The course is marked out with a refueling stop or two along the way and the group rolls out en masse from Waterbury Village to tackle a very hilly and deceptively difficult route that takes some effort to finish.
Certainly the riders at the head of the group attack each other and approach the ride like they have numbers pinned to their backs, but by doing that they miss some of the finer points of the Gravel Grinder. Key strategy decisions like “how many whiskey shots can I handle?” and “will eating three pieces of chocolate-covered bacon make me throw up on the next climb?” are never a factor in their experience.
The weather adds another layer of complexity. In the five years the event has run, it’s either 38 degrees and rainy or 65 and sunny — never anything in between. This year’s event was 38 and overcast, which really meant that on any other day I would have stayed in bed. By doing the Grinder I’d achieved more by noon than I would have in a whole day left to my own devices.
Each year the course changes, but the basic experience remains the same: a series of steep, seemingly endless climbs through some semi-remote areas that you would probably never visit otherwise. It’s always tough, but there are people to ride with and the setting is incredible. The distance varies between 25 and 33 miles and it takes an average rider about 2.5 to 3 hours to finish with April fitness.
Somehow, in spite of all the climbs, the mostly downhill finish erases the majority of the pain and fatigue before some cold beers and tacos finish the job. For all of the mid-ride complaining there’s very little griping at the catered post-ride lunch.
Should you think about doing the Gravel Grinder next year? Only if you sign up early and count alcohol resistance intervals as training.