My First Gravel Grinder: by Kit Plummer

The Chino Grinder, 5/2/15

Digging Deep
Digging Deep

Written & Experienced by Kit Plummer


## So It Begins

I’ve spent quite a few races this year sitting on the sidelines (or at the start/finish) cheering on my son, Caiden, as he continues to progress as a mountain racer.  It has been a nice respite from racing, and more-so the demands racing has on training time.  It has also been a nice time to just enjoy the scene, my friends and to meet so many new people all over the west coast.  But…while I have enjoyed this time I have missed the thrill of racing, and the challenges within.  All this combined with a singlespeed bike build (which is so much fun) at the end of last year I decided that I’d race this new steed at a few, select, races through spring.  Then, while at this year’s 24-Hour of the Old Pueblo race, where I just coached, I left thinking I needed a big new, bold challenge.  I’d made up my mind that I was going to race the 2016 24-HOP race solo-singlespeed.  Once I started to rationalize the decision I new the biggest factor would be getting the training in between now and then – just the pure saddle time.  So why not make a few endurance races part of that plan.  Since I have some great friends in the Prescott/Chino Valley area, the Chino Grinder seemed like a natural target.  And that’s it, game on.

## Best Laid Plans

I originally decided to race the Chino Grinder on my singlespeed mountain bike.  This decision was solely based on the need to spend time on that bike.  The plan was to fit the bike with a big-ring/cog combo that would hopefully find some middle ground on the hilly Chino Grinder course (that had 7500+ feet of climbing).  I bought a few different ratio set ups, and once I started trying to fit the big chainring on the bike I knew it wasn’t going to work.  I was going to have to fit spacers in to push the chainring away from the frame, which created an offset with the cog. It just wasn’t going to run smooth on my singlespeed frame.  Fortunately, I have a sweet Specialized Crux – that provided me with an alternative ride option.  While I was kind of bummed, I was glad to know that I’d still be able to make a go of the 106-miler.

## Training?

I knew that the Chino Grinder was going to have my butt in the saddle for longer than I’d ever been before.  I was thinking sub-7 hours would be my goal.  I did a 5-hour ride, on gravel, the Saturday before the Grinder – as well as my normal weekly rides that I can squeeze in.  That’s about it.  The tires on my CX were a little too aggressive for what I thought the course was going to be, so I slipped on the new tires I’d bought for my singlespeed set up, and just got in a couple of short rides with them.  But, I definitely felt like they were an improvement.

The only issue I had on my 5-hour ride was my feet.  At about 3 hours they begin to hurt, the bottoms of both feet – right on the balls – began to tingle and feel numb.  Loosening my shoes didn’t make much of a difference, and created some uncomfortable rubbing elsewhere so I tightened them back to normal.  The pain began to get a bit worse, making it really difficult to keep putting pressure on the pedals when having to climb, or attack a wind.

I figured the problem was just the shallow foam pad that comes in the shoes, so I marched may way to New Balance and bought a super nice set of orthotics with great gel support and padding.  Within 30 minutes of my first ride with the new insoles my feet were killing me – just in general.  The extra padding just took all the room in the shoe.  I decided I was going go back to the stock insole and tough it out.

With the 5-hour ride and some legs that felt pretty good, I figured that was it.  If nothing else the Grinder would be a training ride, in my long-term plan.

## What is a Gravel Grinder

Well, I think it is summed up as a bike race on remote gravel roads. 🙂  Really, that’s it.  There’s not a big set of rules – just bring a bike and pedal.  I saw just about all kinds of set ups.  There were road bikes with cyclocross/gravel tires, cyclocross bikes, adventure bikes, mountain bikes and more.  This particular event had multiple distance and team options – and to my surprise the 106-mile version was a bit more racey than fun ride.  It was good I suppose, or the crew and volunteers would’ve been out there still, while I write this the day after. There were time cut-offs at certain points too.  I imagine that the event’s shorter distances will entice more casual riders out in the future.

The course started at a park, and immediately turned out on to a short pavement section – before spending a good amount of time on fairly well-maintained wide gravel roads that rolled constantly.  There were a couple of loose and washboard sections, enough to rattle me senseless.  After the gravel, we rolled out on to a 14-mile pavement climb, to a ski hill in Williams, AZ.  The last two miles to the top, was a red-dirt, in the trees, climb for bacon.  Fun.  That’s it…nothing special.  From a race perspective it probably lends itself more to a road-race than a mountain-bike race with tactics of the former being prevalent.  It definitely paid to not be alone.

## My Race

It was a typical early morning start, completely beautiful and cool.  I got there early, and got my bike ready to go.  I still wasn’t quite sure what tire pressure to run, so I took a quick run up to the gravel.  Within about 10 seconds I blew out my front tube – at the valve.  I rushed back to the car, to swap the tube and replenish the stock in my jersey.  But, my doubts about tire pressure grew.  I felt like I had way too much pressure (65 pounds), so I went to 45 which felt really good.  I rolled around a bit, and it was much more comfortable, and all the little rocks didn’t rattle my hands at all.  I’d made the decision, but still wasn’t sure if that was the right choice.

The standard bike corral, and the countdown, and then we were rolling.  I felt like my best way to get going was to get on to the back of the big lead pack and see how things went.  I had to work pretty hard to hang on for the first seven miles, probably more so as I was overly focused on the loose gravel underneath – fearing a washout or something.  There were 6 or 8 of us that began to peel off the main pack, and I decided that was my best bet.  We stuck together for a few miles, then I started to worry about my level of exertion was too high – was definitely above where I wanted to be – but figured it’s a race, so hey let’s go.  At about a quarter of the way, I was caught by a group of strong riders and jump from my pack to theirs.  We worked together all the way to pavement – it was a nice steady, but working pace – and probably still more than I wanted to give.

Once we hit the pavement and started the 14 mile climb I knew I was in trouble.  I got really tight, and couldn’t get my heartrate down.  I had to let the group go – which was defeat I struggled with.  Right after this I started to notice my feet, under the pressure of the climbing load.  I pretty much knew at this point I wasn’t in race mode anymore, and just started thinking about getting to the top, and possibly finishing.  This was a tough moment for me – realizing that I’d bit off more than I could chew, and my lack of real preparation was hitting me.  I’d been staying up with fluids and nutrition so felt pretty good in that sense.  The rest of the climb was brutal and I couldn’t go like I wanted to.

I hung on with a few different folks, and traded spots all the way up to the top. The grinder crowd is definitely more mountain-biker than roadie. This is definitely my tribe – and I appreciate the opportunity to suffer with these peeps.  Even sharing snot-rockets with a lady, Jerry, who was killing the climb and offering encouragement to everyone going by, or coming down.

Once to the top, at the ski hill, I knew I could make it back.  My legs felt pretty good, and I really needed to finish the ride.  I took a quick look around for anyone who I could latch on with and share a bit of the workload heading back, but there wasn’t anyone.  As I started rolling, kapow!, the front tube blew out.  Nobody passed me, coming up or down in the time it took me to change the tube and get rolling again.  I shot the whole 16g CO2 cartridge and it felt way stiff, so again, I let it back down a bit to what I thought was comfy.

From the top, back down to the pavement, I was reminded pretty quickly how tired my hands and arms were.  I wasn’t really prepared for that, that kind of soreness.  Once back to the road I was immediately hit with a headwind and started thinking again how much I wished I wasn’t alone.  I did get caught, and tried desperately to hang on, but couldn’t do anything but apologize for not being able to help.  I just kept waiting for the downhill to begin – and it couldn’t come soon enough.  The ride back to the gravel was great, but would’ve been so much faster as a pair.  By the time I got back on the gravel, I started to feel pretty good, and my feet, heads, arms, and neck were all just noise in the background of my desire to finish.  I knew I was going to stop at the last aid station, refill with water and take my last shot of gel, so was really looking forward to that.  A couple of the guys that had passed me on the climb or coming down were still at the station so I had a burst of energy to get my water and go.  Not 10 seconds after leaving the aid station I blew out the front tube again, this time on a big boulder, which dented my rim a bit.  Every passed me as this tube change took me a while.  I was exhausted physically and mentally.  An aid guy in a side-by-side rolled up and asked if I was OK.  I was so close to throwing in the towel.  But, I just asked for a bottle of water and said I was good.

Again, in a strange desperation I worked hard to catch the guys that passed me while I was fixing my flat. I did, much quicker than I thought.  My feet were killing me, and I knew I had 10 miles of climb to go to the top.  At about mile 90 my legs started to twitch a little bit, so I knew I was going to spin mode.  I caught another guy at about 95 and we rode together before a brief moment, before my legs locked up.  I had to stop and get off the bike.  Suck!  I found that if I just spun with no pressure I was fine and managed that for to the top.  I suppose the thrill of being close to the end took over as I caught another person, and felt pretty good again.  It started to rain a bit, and then the wind picked up.  And there went my legs…cramped hard and back off the bike – and there went the guy.  Back on the bike I just wanted to spin, and see if I could stay close.  A few switchbacks later and I caught him again…and we rode together for a bit, exchanging casual jokes about how much suck we were enduring at that point (love it).  I put a bit of a gap on him and then we got to the final gravel and downhill, and luck have it, a tailwind.  It was a hard push back to the final pavement and we went back and forth. I didn’t have the strength to plow through the loose gravel, and he got away.

chino kit
Finish line in sight!

I finished in 7:11.  I’m honestly disappointed.  Not in the race, but my lack of respect for it and what it takes to do something like that.



It was cool seeing a few of my TeamOVB teammates on the course and as always before and after the event – good to share in the suffering for sure, and the stories that follow.

## Lessons Learned

Tire pressure!  I was way too low.  Too low for the gravel, and defintely too low for the pavement.  I think my feet pain is two-fold.  Need more sole in the shoe, and I need a better saddle.  I found that I was constantly trying to distribute my weight from my butt to my feet.  Will experiment with this a bit.  Also need more saddle time – longer rides.  That’s a given, but I didn’t realize how important that is to the rest of the body, not just the legs.  Aside from the cramping, my legs felt good, and felt great the day after.  My hands and wrists took a beating – need more core strength.

I had a great time, and it is a great event.  The idea of a gravel grinder, especially the grinder part is now well understood.  It’s not meant to be easy.  Like all things cycling…I know it doesn’t get easier either – we just go faster.  So I’m already looking forward to next year, and my next grinding.  And, I’m pretty sure it WILL happen on a singlespeed.


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