Saturday, December 20, 2014

Surviving your First Gravel Grinder


Exploration is in the DNA of all human beings. It is the reason we braved the oceans, crossed the plains and climbed every mountain. It has been the pedestal for great men & women throughout the centuries. So the need to explore is within you but in modern America you don't need to risk life and limb to enjoy its benefits. You simply have to remember what it was like to let yourself get lost.

When I was in 3rd grade my parents moved to an apartment in Taunton, Massachusetts. Due to my age and unfamiliarity with the city, I wasn't supposed to travel far from home. Luckily, my parents had three younger kids to worry about so I was the one who often slipped away. One day while riding my BMX I found a trail that disappeared into a patch of woods. It curved down a hill into the gravel fields of a construction company. I was in heaven.

Surrounded by huge piles of rock and dirt of various kinds all I could picture was how fun it would be to ride them. I started pushing my bike up the nearest mound when a thunderous sound roared all around me. My young mind imagined a mechanical monster, a metal dinosaur living on the construction grounds like a junkyard dog protecting its home from intruders. Slowly I crept down the hill when a huge yellow payloader came rolling around the corner. It was raining dust as its giant bucket raised high in the air in a threatening manner.


I was too scared to scream but I didn't need to, a different instinct had kicked in. I jumped on the bike and pedaled like a demon. Swerving around the piles and sliding in the sand I was certain it was gaining on me. Then I saw an opening in the fence and squeezed through to the street outside. I had escaped the monster. While I might have been temporarily safe, now I had a whole new problem. For the first time in my young life, I was lost. At only 8 years old my ability to distinguish directions had not yet been formed. My house might only have been a mile away as the crow flies but I simply didn't know how to get there.

On that day I struggled with many lessons. I learned that time slows down when you are excited. I was certain that my parents were freaking out. I imagined them calling the police and organizing search parties but in reality the whole adventure only lasted an hour. They didn't even know I was gone. Secondly was that I had enjoyed the thrill of losing my way, exploring an unfamiliar place and then eventually finding my way home. It emboldened me with confidence, a sense of independence and new survival skills. After that day, getting lost in the woods became something of a hobby.


Many years later I would try the sport of mountain biking only to discover that my desire for exploration was still very much intact. Most mountain bike races focus on physical fitness but there is one type that focuses on the journey. Endurance races are fast becoming trendy in the cycling community for some of the same reasons that we used to wander as kids. It is a chance to scout new trails, to be adrift in the wild but with that knowledge that we are not truly alone. They are intentional sufferfests that take place over long distances but can be done at your own pace.

 Sure you might win a trophy or get an event t-shirt but bonding with your fellow riders is the real reward. These off-road events, often referred to as Gravel Grinders, have the benefit of being placed deep in the beautiful nestle of nature. This is especially true for a local yearly race that I have come to love known as Piggy's Revenge.


Started in 2011, Piggy's Revenge was originally a large group ride meant to introduce people to the little known beauty of the T. Mabry Carlton Reserve park in Venice, Florida. The reserve was being visited for hiking and bird watching but it was believed that it could be an ideal locale for building mountain bike trails. The Piggy's Revenge event was key to raising money and gathering support for such propositions.

Trail building began in 2012 with over 6 miles of flowing singletrack completed within 18 months. Attendance to the park quadrupled as people drove from miles around to visit the only dedicated mountain bike trails in Sarasota county. Success at the Carlton Reserve led other organizations to request that SCORR (Sarasota County Off Road Riders) build similar trails in their parks as well. As a result there is also 5 miles of singletrack in Myakka State Forrest.


Back to the grind. While the why is most important, the how will make for a more enjoyable adventure. Step 1: Sign up. You might think that you need special instructions or training or many miles on the bike but not in this case. With a little money at stake and a deadline looming you will be well motivated to get on that bike and ride. Gravel grinders are great learning experiences, this one has 20, 40 and 60 mile routes so there is a distance for everyone.

Step 2: Show up. Make sure to checklist all your gear - bike, helmet, gloves, shoes, food, water, appropriate clothing and emergency gear. Visit the registration desk to grab a map and pick up your event t-shirt (Proof that you competed). Once the gun fires, pedal at a moderate rate. On long rides you don't want to start too fast. Eat every 30 to 40 minutes. Make sure you have enough water for such a long time on the bike, at least 2 bottles. Bring a spare tube, a tire repair kit and a cell phone. You might get lost but remember, getting lost can be part of the fun.

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Now for the psychological steps. 1. Adjust your expectations. Chances are that a professional rider will win the race so don't blow yourself up trying to keep pace. 2. Embrace the pain. This might be the single hardest physical exertion that you ever face. 3. Distract yourself. Bring an iPod, take in the scenery or better yet ride with a friend. 4. Relish the journey. You are in the wild exploring nature in a very visceral way. Out in the woods there are no bosses or employees, there are no car horns or alarm clocks, no blaring televisions or crying babies. It is all about you, your bike and the trail. Enjoy the serenity of exploring nature like you were meant to.

Piggy's Revenge is a yearly event but don't wait to sign up. This is not something that you can watch from the sidelines, it is something you must experience.

Are you ready for an Adventure?
Piggy's Revenge 2015



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