Last weekend (September 28, 2019) I rode in the third annual Gravel Growler, a gravel cycling event that naturally, starts and ends at Winterlong Brewing.
The agenda: Waffles, bacon, coffee, dirt, rocks, mud, bikes and beer. Sounds like an excellent way to spend a sunny autumn Saturday.
It was only three hours before the start of the Growler that I decided to enter. The event had been on my mind for weeks prior but I had never participated before and didn't think it would happen. With my wife's encouragement, I went for it.
I don't have a proper gravel bike, so I chose the next best thing – my Cove rigid 26" wheeled commuter bike with its fast-rolling but durable wheels – and did a quick once-over. I generally neglect the Cove – c'mon, it's a commuter – but after tightening some bolts, adjusting brakes and lubing the chain, it seemed good enough.
The course came in two flavours: A shorter 40 km version and a longer 65 km. I picked the 65 based on whose names I saw in the registration sheet. Many of these same people I ride road with on Saturday mornings and I can usually keep up with them. 34 registered in total.
I dropped my $5 worth of coins into the bowl, signed the waiver and went to get ready. Ten minutes before the start, the organizers got everyone together to discuss the course, rules and other information.
The Gravel Growler is a low-key event so there was to be no official at the half-way point to confirm you got there. Instead, everyone in the 65 km course got a small plastic container that you had to fill up with water from Fish Lake and pour into a beer growler when you finished. Legit.
The start of the race was neutralized for about a kilometer. Afterwards the pace started to quicken. I stayed with the fast group on the initial uphill portions, but as soon as the course began to repeatedly descend, I got dropped.
Everyone in the fast group was on a gravel or cyclocross bike, so their gearing was much bigger than mine and I could do nothing except sit, spin and watch them pull away. This happened only about 5 km into the 65 km, so after that I was on my own.
The way the course was set up, the return from Fish Lake meant that I could see the lead riders on their way back down the mountain. I felt good climbing the repeated hills to the lake. I was wishing I had been able to stick with the fast group rather than ride by myself most of the way.
The course featured different terrain. Gravel roads, cross-country ski double-track (laden with beautiful yellow leaves), rooty singletrack, rocky corridors and even a short section of stinky swamp. I enjoyed the variety of the course and the challenge of riding it all on my old bike.
The Cove is a simple, capable machine that at this point isn't particularly great at one thing, but good at just being something I can ride everywhere. Its retro style and eclectic mix of components also make it a spark for conversation, most often starting with the sticker on its top tube.
I finished the Gravel Growler in about 3 hours and 20 minutes. The fastest competitors did it in around 2 hours and 30 minutes. I feel I could easily knock 20-30 minutes off my time. After all, I stopped more than once to change gear, eat a snack and simply enjoy the opportunity of being out there. As it wasn't a race, I didn't treat it as such.
After this experience, I'd like to do more gravel events. The characteristics of them appeal to me as I get older. Road cycling terrain and tactics mixed with the mellower side of mountain biking. Bike handling skills required, but less potential for injury.
To me, the whole gravel scene looks and feels like mountain bike racing in the early 90s. The courses aren't particularly technical and the competition isn't as serious as at a road race (at least mid-pack). Also, as it turns out you can get by on a 26" wheel mountain bike just fine.
I'll mark VeloNorth's 2019 edition of the Gravel Growler down as a success. Thanks VeloNorth!