A couple of weeks following completion of BWR North Carolina, a finisher’s email came out with the usual message of thanking the riders, sharing some photo galleries, and - hold up! - that Whitney was leading the BWR Triple Crown of Gravel for the women! Granted, she was apparently the only woman to have completed both San Diego and the North Carolina races, but that meant that she just had to finish the Cedar City race to win the Triple Crown! Little did we know just how hard that seemingly simple task would be…
Fast-forward a few weeks, and we are on the road to Cedar City! Well, almost on the road. Our grocery delivery came Friday morning, so we didn’t end up leaving until 9:15 for the 6.5 hour drive. Registration closed at 5:30 pm, and we lost an hour over the state line… It was going to be close, but Google Maps said we would arrive at 5:03, which left a bit of buffer to account for my walnut-sized bladder. Unfortunately, that buffer was not enough to accommodate both my need to pee every 90 minutes and the Jeep overheating on every hill over 2 minutes long like an Alabama MAMIL on the first day of summer. I also may have passed out in some bushes, but I think that was because of running out of the car a little too fast at altitude (our apartment in Socal is at a whopping 700 ft of elevation). Regardless, I messaged the race director Michael, and he kindly told us we could register in the morning.
We arrived at the hotel - the truly lovely Americas Inn, just 1.3 miles from the Expo - a little before 6 pm and park next to a guy who appeared to be trying to set up his front tire tubeless in the parking lot. After chatting for a bit while we unload the car and seeing the tiny air canister he was using to try and seat the bead of his tire, I offer him my Specialized air booster thingy for a bit more oomf and tell him that I usually pump it up to 120-140 psi. We take a load of luggage into the room, and all of a sudden I hear a massive “POW!!!” just outside the window. I walk outside and much to my chagrin, see one rim without a tire, one tire without a rim, and one slightly disgruntled guy with sealant all over him. Whoopsie. I guess 120 was a bit too much for that tire… He returned my air canister; I apologize and finish unpacking the car. Pretty sure I saw the guy the next day during the race, so I think he got it fixed.
With the car unpacked and Whit done with her work for the day, we finally get out on our bikes at around 7pm. Because of who we are as a couple, the rule is “Always bring lights.” We rode the start of the course to recon for the morning pinch point; for those of you unfamiliar, BWR Cedar City begins with approximately 5 miles of road, a sharp right turn through a narrow tunnel, and then sharp left turn into the first gravel sector. You wouldn’t win the race here, but you could definitely put yourself on the back foot. By the light of our headlamps, we ride through the tunnel and the first few miles of the first sector before doing a little opener effort at race pace over the gravel. (FYI, BWR would be WAY gnarlier if it started at 7pm instead of 7am… You don’t need to see more than 10 ft in front of you, right?)
Upon getting back to the hotel, the first order of business was food. Specifically, Chipotle. That double-wrapped veggie burrito is the perfect on-the-road carbo-load! I then waited in the McDonalds drive-thru for at least 20 minutes because Whit wanted fries. Oh the things we do for love… Anyway, we then get back, shower, and thankfully, pass out.
5:00am. BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!
Where did I put the damn grocery bag again?
Water cup doesn’t fit in the microwave. No one needs that rotating plate anyway.
Hand grind. Too much upper body.
Grab the glass. ToO hOt! Use a washcloth to hold it.
F*ck! Spill a little bit of boiling water on my hand.
Pour grinds and water into Aeropress.
Wait. Wait. Waaaaaiiiittttttt.
Ok, finally. And plunge. Ahhhh….. Sweet, sweet bean water.
With proper caffeination, we eat breakfast, drive over to the expo, pick up our packets, drink a bit more coffee, and then head back. The goal was to be on the bikes by 7am to warmup for the race, but we get out the door around 7:12. 3 minutes of warmup is enough, right? Regardless, we roll over and arrive just before the announcer calls all Waffle Men to stage. I line up in the fourth or fifth row and then wait patiently while trying not to shiver. “Man, I’ve gotten soft in Socal.” Thankfully, the announcer said we would have a neutral rollout and before too long, counted us down. (The announcer was good, but wasn’t quite as good as Dave Towle. No one else is, except maybe Matt Stephens…) Anyway, we roll out along the road. I chat with Dylan Johnson for a bit about how I need to get an actual gravel bike (more on this later). I console Peter Stetina on the cancellation of Paydirt 2021. I ask the Alpecin-Fenix rider if he ever touched MVDP’s butt. (He hasn’t, sadly.)
Before too long the figurative flag is waved and the race is on! I am near the front, head down, prepared to fight for the next mile or so for the hole-shot into the tunnel when I hear Stetina announce that we’re at his favorite pee spot. He then proceeds to pull to the side, reach down his bibs, and begin to pee almost instantly. Never mind the confidence it takes in his fitness to fall to the back of the back while the rest of us are racing like we’re headed into the Forest of Arenberg, just being able to summon a steady stream that quickly is damned impressive. No wonder he was a World Tour pro.
With my preferred wheel to suck gone, I hop behind some big guy in green. He then attacks out of the group and I follow. He tries to flick me through, but I ain’t about to start burning matches. We get caught and accelerate again just in time to make it into the tunnel top 10 or 15 wheels. We make it through without any hiccups, and on the first gravel sector, two guys eventually go off the front: Freddy Ovett and some guy in an Abus kit. Wanting to keep the speed up, I pull at the front for a bit but when I flick my elbow, no one rolls through. “So this is how we’re playing it,” I think as we slow down and the gap goes out. Eventually, some other sucker pulls and I sit behind fellow reformed NorCal roadie, Brennan Wertz. He then asks me to push him while he also takes a piss, and I agree, Honestly, considering our size difference (5’9” vs 8’10”) I was impressed that I managed to push him without falling back too far. Maybe the group was just chilling, but I take what I can get. We continue at coffee pace for most of the next road segment and only accelerate again when we hit the second dirt sector.
The speed goes up, but we all stay together until Brendog and another guy go off the front. Some people start pulling turns to chase. I was hanging back admiring Stetina’s mustache, and told myself that as long as he wasn’t pulling, I wouldn’t either. It’s not until we hit the pavement again that we all start taking turns and pull in everyone who was up the road. With the impetus to chase gone, we sit up and I take the chance to eat a gel. Our reprieve was short though, as one rider begins to accelerate and then the group snaps like a taut rubber band. “We must be close to the next gravel sector,” I think and follow someone up the right hand side to the front. I recall this sector started as a net downhill with many alternating wide, somewhat loose right and left hand turns separated by only 100 to 200m of straight. The guys who stayed near the front were able to hold a somewhat steady speed, but a bit farther back, it was a sprint out of each corner followed by a hard brake into the next one with a bit of shoulder rubbing thrown in there for good measure. Eventually, the path started to turn uphill for I believe the first KOM.
It’s at this point I’d like to discuss my bike choice. Or rather, the lack of choice I had. For the prior two BWR events, I raced my 2020 Roubaix with mechanical Ultegra and hydraulic disc brakes. While the Futureshock provides 20mm of travel and the seat post is nice and flexy, it can only clear about 36mm as-measured tires, so I was running the same set of WTB Byway’s with CushCore inserts (tubeless, obviously) that I had run at BWR North Carolina. These tires had a slick center with progressively knobbier treads towards the outside. This WAS NOT the setup for this race, unless you have both the skills to gracefully navigate the 80+ miles of off-road and the fitness to make up for how much slower you will be through loose corners and over rocky ledges. Not to mention the fact that in the week leading up to the race, the front shifter stopped working, the FutureShock cartridge completely broke, and then the front shifter quite literally snapped in half. (Thank you Rock n’ Road for getting me a replacement FutureShock and thank you FB Marketplace for having a spare shifter.) If anyone is selling a Diverge, a Grizl, or something comparable in a size 52-52 or Medium, hit me up. Also looking for a therapist, for my psyche and my taint.
Anyway, back to the race. We are heading up this incline. The path is pretty rough, so I am having to navigate around obstacles instead of just plowing over them. After a couple minutes, I realize this hill keeps going for a bit, and I have to dial it back or risk absolutely exploding. Definitely just the altitude, not my lack of fitness or all the Sidecar donuts… I start sliding back and allowing guys to pass me one by one. By the time I crest the hill, a small gap has opened to the back of the front group, but I fall in with a few other guys and we start chasing pretty hard. The sector was double track but with quite a few 90+ degree turns, so the field couldn’t take it that much faster than us. Just as we get towards the end of the sector and are rolling down a hill into the first feed zone, I take a turn a bit wide and hit something.
My front tire goes from 40 psi to 0 psi in 0.73 seconds. I lean back as far as I can and come to a stop; even with the CushCore, I didn’t want to ride on the rim any more than I had to (#notsponsored). I jog with the bike over to the bikestand at the feed zone and start trying to pump it up. The tire is leaking from two big holes near the sidewall and after a couple of minutes, I give up. Despite how much I didn’t want to throw a tube in there, that tire wasn’t sealing. There goes my “race.” Not that I really had a chance of staying with the front group for long if we even managed to catch them, but to have my chances dashed by a mechanical is frustrating nonetheless. I pump the tire up to the maximum pressure listed on the sidewall, give the CushCore insert to a volunteer, grab a Smuckers Uncrustable, and then head out on my own.
The next hour or so is a bit of a blur, except for the fact that I put that Uncrustable in my mouth and couldn’t swallow. I felt bad wasting it, but I literally got a little nauseous with it just in my mouth. Other than that, I remember some beautiful views of the Utah countryside, a LOT of bumpy double-track and a lot of time to myself, stuck in no man’s land, faster than the riders behind but not fast enough to catch the group ahead of me. Eventually, I make it to the second feed zone, top off on water, and continue along. All I can remember between the second and third feed zones were the long stretches of false flat uphill and downhill. I could see the small groups ahead of me, would slowly reel them in, and after a couple of minutes of sitting on, get impatient at how slowly they were riding on the tarmac and I’d ride away in pursuit of the next few dots up the road.
Eventually, I caught up to a group that was working decently well, and had what I later learned to be the second place woman on the road, Lindsay Goldman. Annoyingly, a number of the guys in the group didn’t want to contribute to her chase, so they would either soft pull or not pull at all. At some point, Lindsay took a hard pull and the rider behind her let a gap open up. “F*ck these guys,” I thought and surged across. We then work together for a few miles through the fourth feed zone and into the next gravel sector. A few minutes into it though, I feel my front tire getting squishy, pull over, and watch Lindsay disappear up the trail. “Godspeed,” I say under my breath. I use a CO2 on my leaking tire and turn around to head back towards the road. The group we had dropped passes the other direction with a few more pickups from the feed zone, I guess. I make it out to the road and a woman standing outside of a van asked me if I needed help. I tell her my predicament, and she graciously offers me a tube and a floor pump. Unfortunately, the only tube she has is a short valve stem without a removable valve core, so I had to press the stem down and use the last CO2 cartridge to inflate the tube as much as possible. It felt a bit squishy, but not wanting to backtrack even farther, I thank the woman for her kindness (I am sorry I don’t remember your name!) and headed back out on the trail.
Had I known just how long and gnarly this next sector was, I may have played things a bit differently, but hindsight is 20/20. After maybe 15 or 20 minutes of navigating sand, rocks, and ridges as gingerly as possible, I hit a rock square-on during a downhill and felt the gradual-squish-to-sudden-clunk as the rim bottomed out. Two corners later, my tire is completely flat and I have to unclip to avoid going down. “FFFFFF*********CCCCCCKKKKKKK!” I had a hand pump, but no tube. Unaware of how much farther this sector was, I began to walk, trying not to put too much weight on my front wheel. After 5 or 10 minutes, a pair of riders stop, and one of them graciously gives me a tube from his saddlebag. “You guys are my heroes. Thank you so much.” is all I had to offer them in return before they continued on. This tube also had a short valve stem, but a removable core, so I fit an extender and began pumping. Despite hundreds of hours of riding my bike in all sorts of conditions, none of it had prepared my body for bending over my wheel, holding the pump head onto the valve, and using my other hand to pump. Truly, that right there should be a Cross-fit Workout of the Day; arm, hand, back, and hamstring workout right there. Just make sure you alternate to work both sides evenly.
I pumped the tire up as hard as I could manage with my puny cyclist/desk job arms, and then headed back out, constantly telling myself, “Slow is smooth. Smooth is not getting another flat and being abandoned on the side of the trail in the middle of nowhere Utah.” Despite some gnarly rock sections and ridge gaps, I make it back to the pavement and begin chasing dots on the horizon again. I catch up to a couple of guys who are willing to push a decent pace and we work together for a bit. I end up on my own again once we hit the gravel, but it was a short and sweet sector that led into the fifth feed zone.
A little over 5 hours in, I am pretty close to cracked, so I shuffle about, fill up my bottles, and use a floor pump to top off my tires. I also eat a fig bar, the only solid food I had all ride, and even that was a bit much. Just as I am about to roll out, I hear “Sweeeeeeettttt!!!” I look back and see the mint jersey of my dearest Whitney rolling into the feed zone. Grateful to see a familiar face, I wait a few minutes and we roll out together, sharing our war stories from the past hundred miles.
Our time together was short though, as we turned onto a dirt road and saw the big climb of the day looming before us: Muur van Kanarraberg. 2.6 miles at an average of 8% doesn’t sound like much, but considering this segment includes the flat lead-in and the flattish turn about halfway up, it was really more like 2 miles at 10% with a little reprieve in the middle. Not to mention topping out at 6600 ft of elevation. And it was loose and rocky.
“I. Will. Ride. This. Damn. Hill. I. Will. Not. Walk!” I yelled in my own head. Despite the searing of my legs and one slip-up where I had to unclip, I made it up on two wheels. After a little break at the top to let my heart rate recover, I begin the 3.8 mile descent, the longest and only real sustained downhill of the entire day. I had heard many words spoken of this descent in our reconnaissance research, and while it was indeed steep and loose through a few corners, taking it completely on my own meant that I could take whatever line at whatever speed I wanted.
A few miles of long open false-flat uphill later, I rolled into the final feed zone. In the previous two BWR events, after the final big climb of the route, you basically have a downhill run into the finish, so with only 20 or so miles to go, I believed I was in the clear and was anxious to get back at it to be done with this ride. Right out of this final feed zone, you enter a section of single-track, of which I had heard whisperings, but in my ignorance, I assumed would be a cheeky 5 or so minutes to spice things up. The next 3.86 miles was literally 25 minutes of navigating around (and inevitably plowing over) rocky outcroppings, torquing over tiny 10% bumps, and taking the loose, narrow switchbacks at 5mph. My thoughts flip-flopped from “Michael, you sadistic son of a b*tch,” to “Oh, sh*t! Don’t hit that rock!” back to “I hate you, Michael,” for the entirety of the single-track.
After what felt like an eternity, we pop out of the trailhead and get back onto pavement at what appears to be the southern edge of Cedar City. “Thank Merckx, we’re almost done,” I think to myself as I check the route on my Wahoo. “18 more miles?!? Are you f*cking kidding me?!?” as the route veers off to the left, away from the city. Like the good little masochist I am, I begrudgingly follow and enter the next sector. It began with a rather lovely, fast downhill that ended all too quickly. Furthermore, it led into a trail the width of road covered in what can only be described as lava rock mini-boulders. “What the actual f*ck?!?” I thought as I rode from rock to rock, taking care to be easy on my front wheel. The route then meandered through what I can only guess to be undeveloped housing land, as it ended at the periphery of a quaint little cookie-cutter neighborhood. Akin to the picturesque houses, a hill, nay a bump, loomed before me that would not have been too intimidating in and of itself if not for the line of riders grinding, weaving, and walking up this hill. After 120 miles, 10% feels cruelly steep, no matter your gearing. Up and over this hill, up another slightly less onerous hill, and it was a bit more wandering through undeveloped land before spitting back onto a road at the edge of town.
7h 45m. 4 miles to go. Though arbitrary, the thought of finishing in under 8 hours (and being able to get off my bike that much sooner) gave my legs their 7th wind.
7h 54m. 2 miles to go. I cross a bridge onto a bike path. “This is going to be close,” I think as I ask my legs to give me everything they’ve got left.
7h 58m. 0.6 miles to go. I still have hope as I pass a rider on the last stretch of bike path.
As I pass, he shifts up two gears and stands to accelerate - SNAP!!! “Are you f*cking kidding me???” he asks his poor, dirty bike. I look back at him. He looks up at me and asks, “Could you give me a push?” Though I wanted very much to be done, I thought back to the people who helped me in my times of need earlier that day. “Walk to the top of this hill and I’ll push you the rest of the way.” He smiles and pushes his bike the remaining 100 ft. “You’re my hero, man,” he says. “We’re all in this together,” I respond. At the start of the finishing 50m of grass, he tells me to go on, and I ride across the finishing line. 8h 2m.
As a natural roadie who loves competition of every form, be it criteriums, town-line sprints, and even Zwift races, it felt a bit weird, but what does 2 minutes matter in the grand scheme? I only finished the ride thanks to the kindness of others. This ride only happens thanks to the selflessness of countless volunteers. It was the least I could do to extend that kindness to someone else who needed it. That is what really matters: helping each other to do something epic together. I kinda wish though I had pushed him across the line for an epic finishing photo.
I drop my bike in the grass, stumble over to the results to see how the likes of Stetina, Brendog, and the other fast bois finished, then get a waffle with ice-cream and chocolate sauce to try and bring some life back into me. (If only there had also been some warm peanut butter to go on top…) I then grab a chair and sit by the finish line, waiting for Whitney to finish, hoping she doesn’t feel as sh*t as I do.
20 or so minutes later, Whitney crosses the line, comes to a stop, and drapes herself over her bars. I do what I can to hug her without suffocating her and drape a wet, cold towel across her back. After a few minutes, she is ready to move and we put her and her bike down the grass.
Despite clean clothes and a shower being only 1.3 miles away, we lacked the will to pedal another foot, so there we sat in the grass, cheering on riders as they crossed the line and chatting with others as they passed us by. Eventually, the announcer states that podiums will start. From checking with the results organizer, we knew Whitney was the one and only finisher of all three events this year, but it still felt a bit surreal to hear the announcer call her name as the winner of the Women’s Triple Crown of Gravel. You can imagine our surprise when they handed her a giant check for $3000! Though an actual crown of sorts would have been a nice touch.
After the podium ceremony, we hung about for a while longer, chatting with Michael, some racers we knew, and finally getting Whit to eat some solid food. It wasn’t until the sun had begun to set and people started breaking down their tents that we decided it was time to leave. The thought of taking off our kit and washing off the dirt and grime was appealing, but upsetting, for it marked the end of this epic experience. Could we have stayed throughout the night being together with the people with whom we shared this day, I believe we would have. Alas, all good things must come to an end, but the hot tub at the hotel was a nice conciliation.
If you made it this far, thank you for your perseverance! This recap took about as long to write as the event took to ride, flats included. At the end of my last BWR recap, I had a long list of tips and takeaways. I don’t really have that after this race (unless you were thinking of running anything less than 42’s at next year’s race, in which case, DON’T!!!) What I will leave you with is my lasting takeaway from the event. There has been a lot of talk these last few weeks about the Spirit of Gravel, and while that phrase means something different to everybody, I definitely had a taste of it at this event. In a single event as a lone rider, I got to line up and race with literal professionals, I got to explore a beautiful part of the US I likely never would have visited otherwise, and in my moments of need, I experienced nothing but kindness and generosity from staff and fellow riders. A lot of racing has the mentality of “us vs them,” and while there certainly is a bit of that at the pointy end, the overwhelming sentiment is one of doing something epic together: riders, staff, volunteers, everyone. So no matter what the UCI tries to do with the discipline and no matter what rules are or are not made by organizers, my only hope is that sense of camaraderie and inclusiveness amongst everyone - men and women of all gender identities, professionals and amateurs of all skill levels - persists. As long as that survives, I know I’ll keep coming back.