I've been lagging putting in base miles this season. A combination of travel, triathlons, bad weather, and house projects confined me to Saturday rides and mid-week intervals on the trainer. As a result, I'm pretty strong and the winter weight is coming off, but I've got no endurance. So, with racing season in full swing next weekend, I decided to do what most half-hearted weekend racers do about now. I tried to cram all my distance into one genuinely insane group ride. I'm stupid.
The Rapture has been put on in May since 2011 by VeloDirt, a Portland based group of gravel road riders, in honor of Harold Camping's failed prediction of the end of the world. It's an unsupported 69 mile dirt and gravel road ride that crosses the coast range twice. There's no signup sheet, no check-in, no number plates. The route has no services, no potable water, no cell reception, and no easy exits for the first 60 miles. It travels over a spider web of logging roads, many of which are gated, so no sag wagon either.
The VeloDirt website summed it up nicely: " If something goes wrong, you’re fucked. "
On the plus side, it was someplace I'd never been, and it's exactly the kind of riding I do around my house - just 30 miles north. I'd actually run in to a couple of VeloDirt guys up on my fire road system a few years ago. I usually do this sort of thing by myself, I figured riding with a crowd of spandex clad social outliers pedaling in the woods would be at least a little safer than my usual training rides.
So, last Saturday I drove out to the Flying M ranch, west of Yamhill, where the ride started and finished and met Donnie, who organized and mapped the route. After about an hour, roughly 50 other riders had pulled in to join in the fun.
I should take a moment to point out that gravel road bike riding or "gravel grinding" is A Thing. And like other Things in the cycling world, it has it's own aesthetics, guidelines, and values that, to many outside of the that world, would seem a tad eccentric. In fact, I would go so far as to say Gravel grinding floats even higher than cyclocross in the stratosphere of odd things to do on a bicycle.
There are no rules to it, but as far as I could interpret the guidelines for doing a gravel ride, the more ill suited your bike was to the task at hand, the better. You start with a road road bike. If your bike was vintage or hand built, that was a bonus. It should be made of metal, not carbon fiber - steel was best. You should have racks. Lots of them. You should use water bottles. If you have water bottle braze-ons on your forks, you are a God. Dress code? Skin tight neon spandex was rare. Understated wool jerseys and shorts were the way to go. Wabi Woolens was one of the ride sponsors. I can't really fault them there. Modern wool bike clothes are wonderful. Nevertheless, as I stood there with my fully suspended Yeti dripping with carbon fiber, my Sappo Hill kit, and a hydration pack, I had the novel sensation of feeling like a fashion victim at an organized bike ride.
But everyone was welcoming. Nobody really cared what I was wearing or riding. There were also two iced kegs of beer waiting for us at the finish which gave us a common goal. And we were all joined in what was going to be a hard day in the saddle. Simply starting out on this monster gave us shared meaning. Despite the strange bikes, people were taking this seriously. People pondered cue sheets, checked GPS computers and made sure they had enough water and food. I have no doubt I totally outgunned them in the preparation department. I had enough food, tools, and survival gear to last for days. My inner Boy Scout was prepared.
I thought a lot about that beer during the day. I was thinking about it during the 10 mile, 2500' climb through a clear cut that started things out. It was already in the 80's and getting warmer. I was also thinking the road bikes so many people were riding were really not the right tool for the job. This road had just been regraded with 1-1/2" rock. They must have been in agony with drop bars and no suspension. They were strong though. They were climbing like veteran single speeders. This wasn't a race and I wasn't going to make it one, so I let them grind ahead and I spun out a comfortable gear and enjoyed the view of miles of cut down trees.
We got to the top and Bail point One (you turn around and go back downhill). Things got tougher, at least for the road bike crowd when the course turned downhill. We had a 4 mile drop down the old Trask Toll Road to the Trask river. Skinny tires tended to puncture, and drop bars are a handful in loose corners. I saw a few banged up knees and a LOT of sidelined riders patching tubes. One of the reassuring parts of this ride was how we would all pull up when someone was stopped to make sure they were alright. but once I knew they were fine, I'd unlock my suspension and fly away. When the route turned upwards, they caught back up to me. When the route would flatten out and they would start going flat again. We passed Bail Point Two on a short stretch of pavement (you basically ride to the PACIFIC OCEAN and try to hitch a ride back to the central valley or call a loved one for a ride, secure in the knowledge that they will hate you forever). Around 35 miles into the ride I gave my patch kit to a guy who was on his last tube and his last patch and that tube had five patches already on it. If I'd had a service revolver, I would have given him that too.
We repeated this pattern until about mile 40 when I started to cramp badly, the result of the heat, the miles, and a wrong turn that sent me half a mile up a 22% grade and burned energy I really needed for the climb back over the coast range. I didn't bonk though. I kept eating. My water was getting low but I still had a couple bottles. The scenery was beautiful. It was shady and there was a bit of a breeze. I stopped pretty frequently, walked off the cramps, ate a little, got back on and before long, the dam for Barney Lake came into view. From there it was easy rolling miles around the lake and a short climb to the crest of the coast range, the last 50' of which was rendered ridiculous by my right leg seizing up completely while I pedaled one-legged the last few precious feet to the top of the ridge and a seven mile descent.
About halfway down the grade I saw Yamhill in the distance. I pulled over and had a drink. I was down to half a bottle. It occurred to me I might have line of sight to a cell tower so I pulled out my phone. I was right! I shot off a bunch of texts to Carolyn to let her know I wasn't dead or lost in the mountains eating my fellow riders. I'd been radio silent since I left the house that morning. She worries, often with good reason. Four other riders pulled up and proceeded to do exactly the same thing, much to the amusement of the odd SUV that drove by.
We hit pavement at the bottom of the grade and I rolled five miles to Bail Point Three, which cut seven miles off the ride and more significantly, 800' of climbing following a lovely, pavement smooth, dirt road along a shady river for five miles back to the start. By now I was out of water and incapable of riding uphill at all with my cramped leg, so I packed it in. 62 miles was plenty. If I had any regrets about cutting the ride a bit short, they were muted by my utter inability to ride up the short 25' grade on the turn to Flying M Ranch road within sight of the finish.
Rehydrated, cleaned up, and cooled off thanks to Joe and Mallory's trick of freezing gallons of water in jugs before a long ride, I cradled my hard earned beer and looked over the human wreckage straggling in on their retro bikes that I'd been questioning all day.
Actually, most of them looked better than I did.
As I sat there in the long shadows of the early evening, I understood the clothes and the bikes and the people a bit better. Lots of them came on road bikes because that's the kind of bike they had. Tom, the guy who parked next to me and rode a pannier-laden touring bike, had never ridden a full suspension mountain bike, but he soldiered through on what he had and did the full course. This wasn't easy for any of us. That was the point. We would have driven it if we wanted comfort. Gravel grinding is a young person's sport. At least someone with a younger back than mine. But they felt good - we all felt good because we did something relatively few people could do and we survived and could laugh about it.
I like these people. They swear like Teamsters, drink like, well, cyclists, don't care what you think of them, and they make bad decisions and are proud of it. I look forward to the next insane ride with them.