Gold Rush Gravel Grinder 2015 Race Report: by James Pettit

About the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder

From the event website – The Gold Rush Gravel Grinder is a gravel road race / ride / tour through the black hills of South Dakota. The 2015 edition was held on Saturday, June 6. The event features three courses of varying length; 70, 110 and 210 miles (The Mother Lode).

This report is about the 110 mile event, also known as the Long Course. It is a single-loop route that takes you through the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. This area is rich in history and was once a big part of the great Dakota Boom and Gold Rush in the Black Hills. The event is intended to be a fun, yet challenging endurance gravel road race / ride that will use public-access gravel and dirt roads, through the Black Hills National forest and into Wyoming!  The course consists mostly of gravel, some dirt, possible mud, a bit of pavement, open prairies, beautiful canyons with flowing creeks, the deep forest, and climbing to several spectacular vistas.

 

James Pettit’s Race Report

After finding cyclocross riding the past winter, the appeal of the gravel grinder really called to me. Being someone who until recently had only experienced road cycling, I found enjoyment during long rides off the beaten track, exploring various canyons and mountains. The taste of the dirt remained with me, so I decided to do something about it. After watching the 2014 ride video of the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder from Gravel Cyclist (note from JOM – this video was made before Gravel Cyclist was founded), I was very interested in riding the Black Hills of South Dakota. Throw in the added bonus of starting in Spearfish, South Dakota, which is where many of my friends reside, and the opportunity would double as a vacation!

I arrived in Spearfish on the afternoon of Monday, June 1st, for the opportunity to scout the course and acclimatize to the altitude.  Being from the coast of California, the starting elevation of 3,648′ doesn’t sound like much, but I knew I needed time at this altitude in order to perform at my best. The entire week had threatened wet weather, with thunderstorms rolling in at night, shaking the houses with thunder, which I loved every second of! Thankfully, the weather cleared for race day, and we were blessed with sunshine for almost the entire race. After pre-riding a few segments of the course, I felt the race would split in the first few miles, courtesy of several short, punchy climbs right out of the gate.

 

Race Day

At the line, I assessed the situation around me. I saw James Meyer, the winner of the 2014 Gold Rush Gravel Grinder. My friend Jason Siegle had come straight from Dirty Kanza, where he finished 10th overall (could have been higher if not for mechanical problems). There was at least a dozen or so people that looked to be serious contenders for the win.

At 7am, the race began promptly, led out by race promoter Perry Jewett. After a neutral rollout through town, we hit the gravel hard. As predicted, the first punchy climb splintered the group. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the split, and ended up in a chase group of nine riders, chasing the leading group of 20. Despite our attempts to organize a chase, it became very apparent we wouldn’t see the lead group again. We settled into a steady tempo, which I found taxing. The early grades were only around 2% – 3%, but combined with the speed of the group, everyone began to tire.

James Pettit at left. Photo by Les Heiserman.
James Pettit at left. Photo by Les Heiserman.

Around mile 39, we encountered a tough climb, approximately 10% and half a mile long. I began falling off the back, my legs fighting me the whole way. I was confused, I’d been eating right thus far, so why were my legs failing me so early into the ride? Near the summit I was solo, and had no energy to chase back to the group. I entered into a 15 mile purgatory, trying to coax my legs into working for me. About this time, I figured out why my legs were feeling terrible. Leading to the event, all of my training had been for my time trials, which consisted of workouts approximately two hours or less in length. I’m three hours into a long race, with next to no energy.

Amazing scenery. Photo by Les Heiserman.
Amazing scenery. Photo by Les Heiserman.

My prayers were answered when I came across a rider on the side of the road. Unfortunately, he was a bit bloodied and disheveled. He had crashed descending one of the switchback gravel descents through the middle of an active logging operation. His arm and leg were scraped, but he was fine to continue. T.J. Loftus (a dentist from Sturgis) and I rode together towards the first checkpoint at Trailshead Lodge, about 12 miles up the road. Along the way, my legs began feeling better. After arriving at the checkpoint, I bid farewell to T.J. (I don’t believe he finished the event), refilled my bottles, and got back on the road.

Photo by Les Heiserman.
Photo by Les Heiserman.

This next portion of the course (Rifle Pit Road) was amazing. After connecting with a few more guys, we rolled down a slightly downhill grade towards the monster of the day, Cement Ridge (a 2 mile climb with sections pitching up to 18%). The challenge with Rifle Pit Road lay in it’s submergence over the past couple of days. Sufficient drying time had passed, but there were plenty of ruts in the road. I took to the front of the group and began picking the smoothest lines I could find, a difficult task at 20+mph. By the time Rifle Pit Road ended, our group of five had whittled down to myself and Nick Ybarra of North Dakota. We worked well together, and made our way towards Cement Ridge, and the checkpoint at the top.

Rifle Pit Road. Photo by Les Heiserman.
Rifle Pit Road. Photo by Les Heiserman.

Once we began the climb, I settled into my lowest gear (36 x 32) and began to grind it out. Thankfully, my legs felt great, and I set one of the faster times up the climb (according to Strava). Nick distanced me a bit towards the summit, and gapped me even more on the descent, which was a little precarious; imagine a steep, rocky ATV trail.

Potato Station atop Cement Ridge. Photo by Les Heiserman.
Potato Station atop Cement Ridge. Photo by Les Heiserman.

I took it easy down the descent (didn’t want a flat this close to the end), and made my way to the last sector of dirt. After Cement Ridge, the route is mostly downhill, which was a godsend. I caught Nick before getting onto Spearfish Canyon proper, the last 13 miles of the 110 mile course which were downhill and paved. Here, my time trial training kicked into high gear, and I motored down the canyon at 30 – 32mph, into a headwind.

Photo by Les Heiserman.
Photo by Les Heiserman.

I crossed the finish line in a time of 7:08, which was good enough for 19th overall, and 11th in the 39 and under category.

My buddy Jason Siegle had ridden away with one other rider and was technically tied for the overall win. Promoter Perry Jewett had the brilliant idea to decide the winner by a pushup contest! Jason ended up taking the win. Regardless, the duo broke the course record BY AN HOUR, rolling in at 5:48!

Overall, the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder is an amazing race, with great roads and scenery. I’ll definitely return for 2016!

James’ Strava ride from the Gold Rush Gravel Grinder.

One thought on “Gold Rush Gravel Grinder 2015 Race Report: by James Pettit

  1. Nice report. This is a now in my must do file.
    Note to self: do not tie a mountain biker who will certainly have bigger arms than avian former roadies like me.
    K-Dogg

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