What: The Crippler gravel race
When: September 30, 2018
Where: Canon City CO
Why: That’s a really good question…
Ok, compete isn’t exactly what happened, but I did pay my entry fee, put the number plate on my bike and theoretically “could” have competed in the truest sense of bicycle racing. Instead, and what was really expected, the only competition that I posed that day was within myself and the quit-demons.
My introduction to gravel came from a number of events in the North and Central Texas areas beginning in 2015 but I moved from Fort Worth to El Paso in 2017 and began exploring other gravel rides and races in the western states. Checking the race calendar on the best gravel cycling website in the world, Gravel Cyclist (note from JOM – we didn’t pay James to say this!), I saw the listing for The Crippler and thought “that looks like fun!” No, that’s not really what I thought, but it did sound challenging (like in epic-ride category) and I did like the location since it’s only a 9-hour drive from El Paso and the date would work with my schedule. In March I, made the decision to put this on the calendar and make it happen. My wife was able to schedule vacation time around this as well so we took off for a week-long road trip through northern Arizona and southern Colorado, ending up in Canon City in time for the race.
2018 Crippler Gravel Grinder Race Video
Being a middle-aged man who got back on three years ago after a 23-year hiatus from cycling, I knew this was going to be a serious challenge. I ride road and gravel bikes and have done several gravel events before but had no real experience with a course such as The Crippler. So I began a 13-week intensive training program to help me prepare for the event. Prior to the event, the longest climbs I’d done have been on the order of 2,800’ vertical over 16-18 miles, up to elevation 8,200’ and those have been on pavement. The longest gravel climb I’d done was three weeks before the event and was 2,200’ vertical over 14 miles, topping out at 9,000’. What I’ve learned from all of those rides is that when I get above 7,800’ my ability to press hard on the pedals goes away very quickly. Looking at the course map for The Crippler, approximately 1/3 of the climb is above 7,800’ – this is going to hurt. The training program was very effective and I went into the race in the best cycling form I’ve had in 30 years so I set a target goal of completing the climb in 3.5 hours and keeping my efforts in check on the early part of the climb.
We started our road trip on September 23 and my bike had been on the back of the truck for the entire trip except for a couple of short rides I did in the Kaibab National Forest and around Southfork, Colorado and had been exposed to a LOT of fine dust from the Forest Service roads we explored. During the ride around Southfork, I noticed a strange noise coming from the rear hub and even though I had some tools with me, I wasn’t able to isolate the cause. So I’m heading to the event with a failure waiting to happen – or so it seemed. Passing through Salida, Colorado we found a great local shop – Absolute Bikes. A quick dash into the shop and the mechanic graciously took apart the I9 hub and cassette body, cleaned, re-oiled, reassembled and sent me on my way in less than 20 minutes. THANK YOU!!!!
We arrived in Canon City on Saturday afternoon, checked into the hotel and I went for a quick shakedown ride. Everything was working fine, no noise from the hub and I felt good. A light dinner, early bed-time and a good nights’ sleep should be just the ticket for a good ride on Sunday. Before starting the trip, I tried to think of everything I could possibly need on the course and packed every pocket of the travel bag full of kit, cold / wet weather gear, tools, food, etc. Before bedtime, I spent an hour or so going through my checklist of pre-ride preparations; food, bottles, tools, co2, etc. All packed and ready to go!
Sunday morning started at 5:30am for me, although I kept waking up every two hours because I didn’t want to be late! Breakfast and race check-in were done by 7:30am and a nice easy warmup ride before the line-up. The weather was absolutely perfect, starting off in the mid-50’s warming to low 80’s, bright sunny day and not much wind. The safety / pre-race brief was right on time and at 9am we started with a police escort out of town. Knowing that I’m not going to be in contention for the race, I lined up mid-way back and found a nice group to ride with for the first few miles.
Once we got to the gravel of Phantom Canyon road and had about an hour of riding in I decided to back off the pace and save my matches for the latter part of the climb. The scenery along the climb was simply amazing, especially to a flatlander who doesn’t get to see mountains and canyons like this every day. The road surface was some of the best gravel I’ve ridden on and the gradient wasn’t overly steep, especially in the first few miles of the climb. I was keeping my effort to high tempo / sub threshold and felt pretty good for the first 17 miles where the first aid station was. A quick stop for water, help out another rider who needed some air, and off I go again. At this point I’ve climbed 1,800’ and have an average of 10 mph – I’m ok with this but realize that if we’re going to climb 4,400’ in a total of 33 miles, things are going to get harder. And they did – quickly.
The next five miles to the second aid station had a gain of 940’ and my average speed for this section dropped to 6.4 mph; not good. By now my elapsed time is 2:27 so I’m beginning to realize that the goal of 3.5 hours may not be attainable and I’m getting worried about what the last section is going to be like. The last eight miles of the climb had a gain of 1,482’ and my average speed for this section dropped to 5.5 mph and this took another 1:27 to complete. I fought through cramps in both legs, refusing to stop to let the cramps relax, knowing that if I stopped, that would probably be the end of the ride for me. I kept watching the elevation reading on my Garmin, knowing that we were going to top out around 9,600’. As long as I kept the bike moving forward and the elevation kept increasing, I was OK. Not good, but still moving forward. All I have to do is make it to the turnoff at the third aid station and it’s all downhill from there! Ah, but that’s where the fun starts….
By the time I crest the climb and make it to the last water station, I’ve been on the bike for four hours, am seriously fatigued, on the verge of cramping badly, and just want an easy downhill run. But Shelf Road is not the place for that! Shelf Road was described as “bumpy” and that it was. And then some! Serious washboard, exposed rocks, loose gravel, steep gradients, sharp corners with drop-offs and boulders to greet you if you mess up along with a constant procession of cars coming from a “Mad-Max” family outing made the descent a slow and painful one for me. Obviously, from the speeds that the top finishers carried through this descent, it wasn’t that hard for everyone, but for me, I decided to just stay upright and not knock any teeth loose. Once off the initial steep descent, the road flattened out and hugged the side of the canyon in a beautiful and graceful form and was really enjoyable to ride, even with the washboard. The last few miles of the run into town were on asphalt and were very enjoyable with a nice -2% grade and an occasional roller climb to keep your legs interested.
Eventually, I finished the ride with an elapsed time of 6:49:31, and a ride time of 6:09:20. The top 15 finishers were complete with the course before I even made it to the top of the climb! This was by far the slowest I’ve ever ridden a 64 mile course, and yet, I’m OK with that! Given the fact that I’d never climbed 4,400’ in one continuous stretch before, had never ridden above 9,000’ elevation, and never attempted a descent like that on my gravel bike I was happy to finish upright and intact. I survived the course, shut down the “quit now and it won’t hurt anymore” demons that have plagued me in the past, and generally enjoyed the suffering because of the amazing scenery!
Congratulations to the podium finishers: you racers are what I aspire to be. Kudos to all the finishers: this wasn’t easy for anyone. And a huge THANK YOU to Journey Racing for putting on a truly enjoyable event!
For the record:
Bike: Lynskey ProGR with Lynskey Carbon Gravel Pro fork.
Groupset: Force 1x, Wolftooth 38t oval ring, 11-36 cassette.
Wheels: Light Bicycle carbon on I9 hubs.
Tires: Front – Maxxis Ravager 40mm, 28 psi; Rear – WTB Nano 40mm, 30 psi
More Photos from The Crippler
Many thanks to James Peel for his contribution!
Thank you to the Promoter for the photographs.
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