Race Report: Old Man Winter Bike Rally – Boulder County, Colorado – by Bob Cummings

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“The Old Man Winter Bike Rally was created to be THE winter adventure by bike.”

“It is the one and only winter cycling festival that brings Boulder’s best riding to cyclists of all levels. From quiet country roads to scenic mountain canyons, we’ve got the distance and the terrain you’re after. Choose either the short or the long course, and be prepared for an adventure like you’ve never experienced.”

Bob Cummings, team leader of the Panaracer/Stan’s NoTubes p/b Bicycle X-Change Elite gravel cycling team, made the trip from the Flint Hills of Kansas to Boulder County, Colorado, at the 2016 Old Man Winter Bike Rally & Run.

Bob’s Report

I heard about the Old Man Winter Rally from my local gravel training partner, Dexter Pham. He attended the inaugural event in 2015 and returned with a glowing recommendation. Based on Dexter’s feedback, I placed the race on my 2016 event calendar as a must-do ride. Weather for the 2015 event was unseasonably warm and drew over a thousand entrants to the various races offered by the promoters. Those numbers are impressive considering 2015 was the first year of the Old Man Winter Bike Rally.

Any early season gravel race has potential for challenging weather. You can imagine that a race at altitude in Lyons, Colorado near Boulder in early February is always going to offer something unique. This year proved just that as Old Man Winter dumped over a foot of snow on parts of the course the week of the event. Colorado is used to dealing with snow on the paved roads, so they were expected to be clear. However, the sections of course that are not maintained would prove to be a greater challenge.

Dexter gave me the “low down” on the course and event from his experience of the year before.

“The 100km race starts out flat with a neutral start on pavement for a few miles until you leave town. Then follow 15 or so miles of “maintained” gravel roads with a few stretches of pavement that lead to a 10 mile climb up a mountain pass with a little surprise at the top.”

At about mile 23, there is a rugged hiking trail that is a little over two miles long that connects the climbing side of the road to the descending side of the road. Then, you descend into Boulder to face two short but challenging climbs before descending again to flatter roads and the final 20 mile run into town.”

A Little About Me

I am a big (195lbs) Kansas flatlander rider and chose this race to push myself outside of my “comfort” zone. My coach, Grant Harrison of Source Endurance Coaching agreed with my idea. A challenge beyond the rolling terrain I was used to would provide a good indicator of my early season form, and a great training experience for future events that may feature extended periods of climbing.

Photo courtesy of the Old Man Winter Bike Rally.
Photo courtesy of the Old Man Winter Bike Rally.

I began working with Grant in October of 2015. Since that time, I have learned a ton about myself and seen noticeable gains in my riding performance. Grant has me training with a power meter. While I’ve used a power meter over the last few years, I have trained with heart rate and only used the power metrics as something to peruse after the race. Many interval sessions in the basement this winter really taught me a lot about metering efforts over specific amounts of time. I can look at climbs along a course and treat them like an extended interval, while I pace myself appropriately.

Pre-Ride and Course Report

The paved roads were mostly clear with patches of snow and ice, but the gravel descent roads were snow packed and akin to riding your bike down a bobsled run. The two mile hiking trail at the top of the mountain that was rideable the year before was now covered by 12″ – 17″ of snow.

Dexter, my wife Becky and I headed to the event on Friday to try and adjust to the altitude a little. An earlier departure would allow us a full day for course reconnaissance on Saturday, the day before the race. Packed in the car was just about every piece of clothing I owned along with two sets of Stan’s Avion wheels. One set of wheels was fitted with Panaracer’s Gravel King in 32mm and the other with more aggressive Panaracer CGCX tires, again in 32mm. My Felt F1x race bike was set up with 50 / 34 chainrings and an 11 – 32 cassette. These lower gears would prove beneficial on the long climbs of Colorado.

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We visited Boulder on Saturday morning to pre-ride the two short but steep climbs mentioned earlier – to prep our legs and check over our bikes. When we encountered the snow packed gravel downhill sections of the course, I approached them with a little trepidation.

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Our 32mm Panaracer Gravel King tires were never designed to perform in the snow! However, their tight, short knobs and soft rubber compound seemed to made for the conditions. They reminded me of how a vehicle snow tire is designed and gave me plenty of confidence.

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I tested the limits of the Gravel King’s traction by riding up steep and snowy driveways. Surprisingly, I was able to ride in the tracks and deeper snow in the middle. With this knowledge and knowing how well these tires perform on loose pavement and gravel, I never brought out the backup wheelset. We headed back to Boulder and jumped in the car to check out the rest of the course. Upon arrival at the top of the mountain, location of the hiking trail, conditions were as expected. No matter the bike or tire you would ride on race day, nobody would be riding this section of the course; a grueling two mile uphill hike-a-bike laid in wait

To test some theories, I wore my road shoes during a short test run up the trail. I figured if booties were worn over my road shoes, they would be more advantageous over heavier MTB shoes, which would not offer any additional traction.

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It turned out the Look cleats on my road shoes acted as spikes and helped to improve running through the show. I decided upon this setup, headed back to town for dinner, a little preparation for the next morning’s race and sleep.

Race Day

OldManWinterBobC2016-6The morning was cold but not unbearably so with temperatures in the 20’s Fahrenheit. I made my kit selection and jumped onto the bike to begin my warmup. When I arrived at the line with 15 minutes in hand before race start, I made a last minute wardrobe change. The sun was shining meaning items like a full coverage balaclava would result in overheating on the climbs. Lighter gloves and a beanie for my head would suffice.

Tensions and nervous energy was high on the start line due to the serious depth of talent in both the men’s and women’s divisions. Several of these big names and podiums finishers from the year before were called up to the front. Despite originally lining up on the front row, I now found myself about 20 places behind. Because of my experience starting road races in packed Pro / 1 fields, I was confident I could move up before the first gravel sector was encountered.

The “Neutral” rollout was less than neutral as speeds hovered around 30mph while the group motorpaced within inches of the lead Police car. I thought this was unnecessarily dangerous and cautiously rode one to two bikes back and to the outside of the Police car. If the Police Officer so much as lifted his foot off the accelerator pedal, there would have been a massive pile up!

As the group approached the right hand turn onto the first gravel section, the Police car sped ahead indicating that the race was on. I made a strong move on the right side and was the first one through the turn to give myself a clean line and ensure I wasn’t caught behind a potential crash. The gravel roads were super sketchy; a combination of snow pack, icy ruts, sloppy gravel and other hazards could take one down at any moment.

My plan was to test the field and see if they would allow me to roll away solo. Sometimes a race can be timid starting out in the cold, especially knowing there is a big climb 13 miles into the course. I was hoping to make a gap, and ascend at least half of the climb before being caught by the leaders. The group was having none of it. It was perfectly clear the field was content with allowing someone to dangle off the front, but they weren’t letting anything out of their sight. On the positive, riding a little off the front gave me a perfect line through the treacherous roads and avoided the certainty of crashing – which did happen to some of those behind me.

Holding a small gap ahead of the group worked out perfectly. The timing of my capture by the group was near impeccable, just a few miles before the major climb began. I dialed back my pace to recover and dropped in around 10th wheel. Fireworks were expected once the ascending began, and I hoped to be somewhat rested.

We began the climb and the pace was hard – not attack speed hard, but hard enough to see a stream of riders cascading off the back. I hoped to stay attached to the rear of the lead group, following wheels and saving energy. I was handling the pace well and able to maneuver around riders going out the back of the group. I was in good position until we came around a corner with a line of cones set up about three feet from the inside edge of the corner. Unfortunately, a race volunteer at that spot forced the entire field into the narrow section of cones.

Some people hit cones and others went sideways. I narrowly avoiding crashing myself. Chaos reigned as gaps opened everywhere with nowhere to go around. By the time we exited the cone area, there were two distinct and sizable groups on the road ahead of me. I was in no man’s land. At that moment I knew I’d have to set my own pace and probably lose the leaders. I did the best I could in the headwind that blew down the climb, and caught everyone between the second group and me. While the lead group was out of sight, I spotted the second group not far from the dreaded hike-a-bike trail.

I’ve incorporated run training into my program this year and was confident I could make inroads to the second group. On the trail, I shouldered my bike cyclocross style and set out to make up for lost time. I quickly caught and passed the second group, hoping to catch sight of the leading group ahead. Unfortunately, they were nowhere to be seen. Even though I have run training in my legs, it is impossible to plan for running through a foot of snow in road shoes. The problem was not my feet sliding fore to aft, it was my feet sliding side to side.

Soon I found myself slowing dramatically on the trail. I ran the first mile far too hard, and was soon caught by the group I had passed earlier. Now, I was doing all I could to keep pace. Thankfully, the misery of the trail ended, and I was only trailing a few of the riders in the second group. I refueled and happily jumped back onto the bike. After a few more miles of climbing snow packed icy gravel roads, I reached the summit and began the long paved descent into Boulder. The descent was a welcome rush! I caught those riders who had dropped me on the trail run, sometimes hitting speeds of 50 mph.

Just before the tough climb out of Boulder, I caught a rider who had been shelled from the front group. Normally I would attack, but rather I was happy to have him on my wheel as I conserved energy for the remaining climbs on the course. We were soon joined by a rider I had passed on the long descent. I shifted position and sat at second wheel as the lead rider set the tempo on the climb out of Boulder.

The latest edition to our group came around myself and the lead rider in an attacking fashion. While this move completely disrupted our tempo, I was not about about to try and cover something over my head. Now, my companion in our two man group was doing his best to drop me. He ended up destroying his legs, making it easy for me to come around and focus on my chase of the attacking rider. The training instilled by my coach began to pay dividends; I knew exactly what I was capable of and pushed myself to catch and drop the attacking rider.

Now riding alone, I set out to pick off as many places as possible. In past races, I have ridden myself up to breakaway or solo riders only to have them slow down the pace and begin looking around. I decided I would push myself to the limit all the way to the finish line.

Photo courtesy of the Old Man Winter Bike Rally.
Photo courtesy of the Old Man Winter Bike Rally.

The gravel descent after the paved climb out of Boulder was amazing. Covered in packed snow, the descent was both scary and thrilling. To make the corners safely, I would unclip the inside foot from the pedal, hug the top tube with my knees and drift each corner. Right foot out, change direction, left foot out, repeat!

Ahead, there were plenty of single riders who had been dropped from the front group. I caught the last rider in sight before the last big climb began. I pushed hard, aiming to make it to the summit by myself. I wasn’t about to relinquish my lead over those behind me on the descent back into Boulder.

The final 20 miles of the course were mostly flat. I knew I could hammer the final miles home and preferred to ride solo, knowing it was unlikely I’d receive any help from other riders. Somewhere along this point of the course we merged with riders doing the shorter distance race. There were plenty of riders ahead of me but I had no idea if any of them were in my race. Regardless, I got low and pushed as hard as I could, hoping to catch a group from my race.

The frozen gravel sections we rode out on in the morning were now a sloppy mess! I was glad to be riding solo as I could pick my line, and not worry about having to follow anybody in the slick mess. While I was feeling good, my chain and gears were making plenty of noise, requiring a soft touch with gear changes for the remainder of the race.

On the final section of pavement, it was smooth sailing. I could see the town finish turn approaching, and there were one or two riders in sight. One of them kept looking over his shoulder repeatedly; I figured he had to be in my race, so I negotiated the last few turns on the run in to the finish line like it was the finish of a criterium. I passed him only a few meters before the finish line. I did say I was going to race all the way to the line! 🙂

Summary

In the end, I lost far too much time in the snow hike-a-bike. I finished some 24 minutes behind the lead group who had been working together most of the day. I finished 17th out of 173 riders in the men’s open. Considering I was solo for much of the race, I was pleased with my effort and very happy with my result!

My equipment performed flawlessly and was the perfect set up for the event. I experienced an amazing day with like-minded people. – it doesn’t get much better than that!

Link to Old Man Winter Rally Race Results

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