The prospect of riding a gravel grinder has increasingly intrigued both cycling road racers and mountain bike riders for a few years now. So when the posting for the Northwoods Gravel Grinder to be held in Rangeley, Maine during the late September foliage season popped up on Bikereg.com, a bunch of us decided now is the time to give it a try.
Rangeley is the last outpost of civilization in the northwest corner of Maine and features gobs of lakes, mountains and forests. It also features an extensive network of logging roads and private camp roads leading to secluded lakes and excellent fishing spots. Drew Hufnagel, who organized the event, and his crew did an amazing job of piecing together a 35 mile route and a 79 mile route that took advantage of the wilderness setting and served up a full gamut of bike riding challenges.
Spencer Nietmann, Troy Barry and I (Hank Pfeifle) of Downeast Racing joined 40 or so others who were evenly split between the two routes offered. Not a huge turnout but a new event has to start somewhere and maybe this post will entice more to give it a go next year. Now I must admit to being an old dog roadie with limited mountain bike experience, whereas Troy (former USA 2-man x 12 hour national mountain bike champ + pro CX licence) and most others on the starting line had a mountain bike heritage. Cyclocross bikes predominated the mode of transport selection with 33mm wide, mini diamond tread centers and slight knobby edge tires as the tire choice. Tire pressure ranged from 45 lbs to 80 lbs depending on one's estimate of the road surface conditions (no preview of the course was possible as the route was on normally closed private property).
We rolled out of town on Route 16 but soon turned onto the dirt road that goes around Dodge Pond. Upon hitting the dirt, the "go" switch went on and the pace quickened. Ah, this surface is fine - just a few potholes. Mr. Hufnagel had informed us to follow the signs, arrows on the roads and florescent green tree ribbons. A mile into the perfectly fine Dodge Pond dirt road the route markers all pointed towards a .. what? .. a stream bed? Why, whats wrong with this dirt road we're on? Off we go onto this stream bed (actually it WAS a road) and Troy really turns up the heat. Time to dwindle the herd. One thing I have learned during my limited time on a mountain bike is that, if you don't know what you are doing, follow someone who does. That fraction of a second of learning where the good line is through the mayhem of rocks, holes and tree limbs can make all the difference between sticking around or going backwards. Onto the back wheel of Matt Reynolds I went and a couple miles later six of us emerged intact onto the next road. Phew! And that's how the whole ride went - good roads, stony roads (ugh), wash boardy roads (ugh x 2), long gradual uphills (nice), long speedy downhills (nice x 2), crazy fast rutty downhills interspersed with humped culverts (yikes!!), big rocks, grassy centered roads (is this really a road??), questionable bridges over streams - everything you could think of to test your skills.
Uphills, flat tires and just plain craziness eventually shattered all semblances of people riding together which means, a) being able to take care of yourself in the middle of nowhere, and b) being able to solo TT for 60 miles are good & necessary skills to have. Mountain bike descending skills are a prerequisite as you need to be comfortable on the speedy and always tricky downhills. Steve Edwards of PVC incorporated the full package of gravel grind experience, bike handling skills, climbing ability and a mechanically clean negotiation of the route to earn the well deserved win. Troy Barry used all his considerable skills (he hit 45 on one of the gravelly, rutty downhills - don't tell his wife) to overcome two flats to nab 2nd. Matt Reynolds rode an error free ride for 3rd and, after fixing a flat of my own (with tube assistance from Ron Dunn - thanks), I managed a 4th place with John Liston hot on my heels (that guy can fly downhill - fun to watch hard to overcome).
Experienced gravel grinders opined that the Rangeley route was mid-level on the gravel grind extreme scale based on the many Northeast options out there. Dang. In other words, practice up and be ready for everything when you enter these events. Fast or slow you'll have a memorable time.