Part One of the inaugural Southern Brewery & Distillery Tour kicked off on October 5, 2019 at the Gator Grind, hosted by the Omaha Brewing Company and promoted by Jo Dirt Racing LLC. Omaha, Georgia, happens to be about 30 miles south of Columbus. Joanne Cogle is the head honcho at Jo Dirt, and also manages her tri-minded promotions entity, TriColumbusGA, in addition to holding down a regular 40-hour a week (or more) job.
Yours truly had unknowingly ridden some of the Gator Grind course earlier in the year (the public road sectors) during a ride out of Lumpkin, Georgia to Eufala, Alabama and back again. Unfortunately, I have yet to produce that video. During that ride I was slamming Cervelo’s Aspero gravel bike through its paces in serious mud, and happened upon the brewery in error… by error meaning, I downed two beers mid-ride but didn’t stick around long enough to enjoy them.
On October 5, 2019, that would be rectified, as myself and Rusty of Gravel Cyclist made the trek from our respective parts of Florida, to attend the inaugural edition of Gator Grind. Gator Grind differs from every gravel race I’ve ever ridden, but I’m certain there may be one or two on the calendar that follows this format. Rather than a huge loop to which there is no chance of quitting unless you call 911, your spouse, partner, friend(s), mum, dad, neighbor or some bloke driving past, Gator Grind is all about laps.
Ride as many as you can over a distance of 24.3kms / 15.2 miles in the space of three or six hours, solo. Rusty and I signed up for the six-hour solo variant, but I’ll freely admit to wanting to sign up for the three hour. I was still feeling all of the travel leading up to Gator Grind, which peaked at a gravel camp the week before with Roval Components followed by Grinduro in California. No rest for the weary!
Some first-year events are big and some are small, and Gator Grind fell into the latter category. However, if you build it they will come, as Joanne has found out with her triathlon promotions company. Regardless, Jo Dirt and Gator Grind are the epitomai of grassroots bicycle racing and you should be here in 2020.
Seven O’Clock in October means darkness prevails, but that didn’t stop anyone in the six-hour race from rolling out of bed early, and rolling out of the Omaha Brewery Parking lot for the first lap. Rusty and I went to the head of the field on the paved road that would soon lead to 23.7ish kilometres of dirty roads. Unknown to us at the time, we were joined by a gent whose name I forget (sorry), who was in the two-person team relay event. He went straight to the front and laid down a tempo that I thought was unsustainable for one lap, let alone five or six. Naturally, thinking he was in the same category as us, we globbed onto his wheel expecting him to crack and slow down. It didn’t happen.
Our trio was now leading the race on a course that was effectively two distinct loops with an out-and-back leading to the brewery. The first loop was arguably the toughest. The first half mile was a clay surface with gravel smattered atop.
This lead to a sector that traversed private property (seriously, do not ride this course unless you’re attending this race), that featured a track cut into the brush with a variety of surfaces.
Sandy spots, gravel, loose gravel and a lot of grass. If you missed it, riding grass is a known leg killer. At least one hill on this sector ramped up steeply enough to see me riding my 33 x 33 low gear, whilst the rest was quite rough, demanding a rider’s full attention.
Following the rough stuff, riders dropped into a sandpit at the corner of Grass Creek Road. It hadn’t rained for weeks in this area, and good skills in the four or five sandy spots were paramount. Take the next right onto Wall Road and another sandpit. All the while, our relay companion was hammering out a tough pace and causing duress to my legs.
In the image above, the course intersects itself again, and this intersection serves as the hub of the two loops that make up part of each lap. The promoter had done a fab job with the aid station located at this spot. In addition to food, drink and sundry supplies, Joanne had a treasure chest of sorts on-hand to entertain riders.
Think a suitcase filled with random clothing best suited to a Halloween costume party, and you get my drift. Riders were encouraged to stop, play dress up, catch a photo or two, or simply keep on riding. Rusty and I were focused… I was focused on the wheel ahead of me, and not on the potential fun at the aid station.
Our trio passed through the aid station and began the second loop (again on private property) which was a much less technical affair. However, the lower half of this loop featured several sandy spots which caused many an issue. Rusty and yours truly have much experience in riding through the sandy spots, and at this early juncture, we had energy to burn.
Onto pavement briefly, then a right turn into a private road, to complete the second loop. The course headed north and back on itself again, following Wall Road until pavement, and the right turn to the brewery.
A mile of undulating, bumpy and rough riding followed, taking us behind the brewery elsewhere on their expansive property. Rusty and yours truly had an inter-team coming together when I braked last minute to take a sharp left turn, resulting in a touch of wheels and Rusty hitting the deck (no footage, sorry).
It was a soft landing, and Rusty and the bike were just fine, but not the sort of happening you need so early into a race. We regrouped and rode together to cross the start / finish line and begin the next lap. Positioned just around the corner from the start / finish line was my car, with a cooler inside packed to the gills with goodies. For this lap, no stop needed.
Our companion from earlier had stopped and dismounted at the start / finish line, prompting me to think my assumption about his pace had lead to a premature fail. In reality, his relay lap was complete, and his relay partner was about to get rolling. In our reality, we didn’t know any of this and figured we needed to put as much time and distance between this gent as possible.
And thus began the Gravel Cyclist two-person chasing / running away from a phantom time trial that went as follows:
- Lap 2 – Riding fab pace, the Strava segment indicates a ride time of 59:57 for the lap. Included a stop for a bottle swap at my car, chug 1 x Coke.
- Lap 3 – Wheels starting to fall off for me as the heat of the day sets in. Stop for bottle swap at my car, chug another Coke, bubbly water, anti-cramp tabs and 1 x Larabar.
- Lap 4 – Wheels completely fallen off, cracked by my own teammate. At some point on this lap, I entered my “dark place”, which is a time I generally avoid conversation. Rusty had heard of this phenomenon via our wily teammate, K-Dogg, and to not be offended. I politely (or impolitely?) told Rusty to keep going, it was time for me to ride my own tempo.
I caught Rusty at the end of lap four at the start / finish line, just as he was completing his own bottle swap.
Lap five was an utter purgatory. I was totally cracked, the grassy section was a crawl-fest and I felt every tiny nuance of elevation along the course.
The Strava lap times (see link at bottom) are an indication of how badly I had cracked, but judging from the facial expressions of some of my fellow competitors on the course, I wasn’t alone.
I completed my fifth and final lap and promptly collapsed into a comfy lawn chair adjacent to the start / finish line. As for Rusty, he may have won the inaugural Gator Grind, but he’s not a man to rest on his laurels. He thought it a good idea to ride another lap of the course as cool down. Meanwhile, I was riding the lawn chair with rehydration and later, beer on the menu.
In summary, riding laps of a challenging gravel course may sound easy, but there is the temptation of abandoning the race at your car and going home. For once, my willpower stuck around and that didn’t happen. The 2020 dates haven’t been announced yet, but add Gator Grind to your ride list if you’re in the Southeastern USA… and do visit the Omaha Brewery if you find yourself closeby.
Thank you for reading, there will be a race video soon…
Parts Two and Three of the Southern Brewery & Distillery Tour continue at Red Clay Highway Gravel Grinder on November, 23, 2019 and Swamp Ass Gravel Grinder, December 14. 2019. Don’t you just love these names… 🙂
Link to my Strava workout from Gator Grind – Remember, much of this loop was held on private property, do not try to ride those parts of the course.
Jayson aka JOM