Into every life, a little slowly-unfolding, hilarious disaster must fall.
Such was my 2012 Gravel Grovel experience: a disaster a not-so-epic proportions that began a few weeks ago and will make a great story to tell years from now.
It all began with a crack in the rim of the Mighty Moto’s rear wheel. The Moto has been rolling along with the Ultegra/Mavic Open Pro wheelset that I bought from Tim, a wheelset which I absolutely love. I’m pretty sure that the crack is probably related to some road work they’re doing on one of the roads I use to get in and out of my neighborhood — that is, the one I use most frequently. Anyway, the crack in the rim of the Mighty Moto’s rear wheel was a sign of things to come.
I meant to swap out that wheel and take it up to the shop to have the rim replaced … I really did. However, I was busy and disorganized and failed utterly to do anything of the sort. Um, oops.
A week or so ago, I lost a saddle clamp bolt, again to the horrible road conditions near my house. Unable to find another one, and with a now-stripped saddle clamp (I’d substituted another bolt and somehow wound up stripping the bolt-hole), I ordered another seatpost. It arrived Wednesday. I realized it was too long to use with my Brooks (which adds a couple inches to the overall height of the post-and-saddle combo), but intended to use my Arione for the race anyway.
Meanwhile, when I realized that the time for the intended wheel repair had come and gone, I decided I would simply run the Ultegra/Mavic wheel anyway — but during my pre-race mechanical check, I realized that wasn’t going to be an option. I have canti brakes, and for gravel I want them tight. With the cantis cinched tight enough to grant good, even stopping power (you don’t want a hard front-only stop on gravel — a faceplant in the rough stuff is not on my menu of approved recreational activities), the brakes rubbed like crazy, which would have sapped a lot of energy on the hills. The best I could get out of that wheel was a slow, squishy stop, while the front was keyed up to stop on a dime. Needless to say, that wasn’t going to work.
So I pulled the eight-speed cluster off the rear wheel from my “backup” wheelset — the Alex wheelset that came with the Moto, which is heavy, a little sluggish, and prone to spoke breakage (it is the only wheelset on which I have ever broken a spoke, period; a friend of mine who is taller and more heavily built than I broke tons of spokes on his), popped the nine-speed on (in the midst of having a general fit about everything), transferred the 700×40 Kenda Happy Mediums I’d borrowed from Tim over, and loaded up.
That wheel was the beginning of the end.
When we got to the race on Saturday morning, I hopped on my bike and instantly realized I hadn’t tightened down the cluster well enough. Predictably, it attempted to uncluster right there on the grass. Fortunately, Timothy brought the contents of an entire bike shop in his car, so we were able to get the cluster … clustered again.
However, once that was done, the wheel had managed to seriously un-true itself (it also seems to be dished incorrectly, just to add fuel to the flames). Now, instead of a loose cluster with no rubbing, I had a tight cluster on a wheel that rubbed the frame like crazy.
You see, there’s just barely enough clearance on the Moto for 40mm tires. There is little margin for error. Once the wheel was out of true, the edge of the tire began to rub the chainstay.
At this point, still had nearly two hours to start time. Frustrated (mostly with myself), I wandered in to register and to think about how to solve the problem. While I was registering, Timothy tweaked the wheel a bit to get it back in line. On return I thanked him profusely, thought about swapping out the tire for my spare (a 700×35 Happy Medium), and ultimately decided against it.
After riding the bike around on the grass, things seemed fine … or, at any rate, survivable. You see, I had also forgotten to swap the Brooks and the Arione, so I was effectively pedaling on tiptoe. I wasn’t going to be fast that way, but I figured I could get the job done (for what it’s worth, you lose power if your saddle is too low or too high).
I rolled up to the start line (or, well, to several meters back from the start line, since I was there to enjoy a nice day out with Dave rather than to win) with hope in my heart. If nothing else, I could roll along at an easy pace, enjoy my stupidly-enormous range of gears, and hang out with a bunch of other crazy bike people.
Alas, even that rather-pleasant vision would not come to pass.
As soon as we hit the first climb, I heard it: zang – zang – zang – zang. The moment I attempted to apply any power to the pedals, the relatively-high degree of flex in the Moto’s frame meant that the tire began to rub the chainstay again. At first, I decided I could live with this (though I was already off the back, having essentially no power whatsoever due to the overlong seatpost).
On the upside, my winter bike clothes were working brilliantly. At mile two, I had to stop and yank off my liner gloves because my hands were soaking wet; at mile four, I had to stop and fish out my arm-warmers. At that point, I also managed to pop the bite valve cover off my Camelbak, which then disgorged half its contents all over the road while I searched for the valve cover. Fortunately, Timothy had loaned me a pair of water bottles (one of mine remained waiting on my kitchen counter at home; the other made it as far as the garage, where I also left my helmet … that’s right, my helmet; I had to buy a spare at six in the morning on race day).
I thought about trying to sub in my spare, but discovered that I’d somehow left both my pump and my CO2 cartridge kit back at the car. Brilliant.
The longer I rode, the worse it got (in part, I suppose, because the course was so designed that one works into the longer, steeper climbs incrementally). zang-zang-zang quickly turned into ZANG! ZANG! ZANG!. I apologize to any hunters whose quarry I may have terrified with my Angry Electric Godzilla tire noise.
Off the back, spinning along at a blazing-fast (yes, that’s irony) 10 MPH average, I finally decided at the first turnaround that I needed to keep an eye on whether or not I was still having fun, and consider calling it a day at some point. By the time I’d made it eleven and a half miles — the distance to the road back to the start — I had decided. By then, I was still enjoying my ride, but I didn’t think I’d be enjoying it much longer.
First, the bike was making an increasingly-interesting array of noises. Second, laboring up hills with the tire rubbing was, frankly, frustrating — and while I can embrace pain and suffering, my frustration tolerance isn’t great. Third, I don’t own the tires I was using — I borrowed them from Tim — and I didn’t want to risk damaging them.
Needless to say, I turned off and headed back to the ranch. I finished the day with 20 miles under my belt and two Gravel Grovel t-shirts for my trouble. I also came in 3rd in the “DNF” category
For the record, both Timothy and Dave finished the race. If I’d kept going — assuming my bike didn’t explode — I might have eventually caught up with Dave.
In the end, I was a bit sad that I didn’t finish, but I don’t regret giving it the old college try … and I did learn some things.
Like, make a checklist for race days (I’m pretty sure my favorite racer-who-doesn’t suck, Aki over at Sprinter Della Casa, does) and use it.
Like, get bike problems sorted quicker — even and especially those I can’t fix myself (except for cluster-swapping and minor truing, I don’t do wheels).
Like, consider replacing the Mighty Moto, which is iffy in terms of fit anyway, with something that fits, is disc-capable, and preferably can handle 40mm tires.
Like, gravel is a different animal on 40s running at 50 PSI. A friendly animal. A fun animal! Like, when I feel secure in my floating and stopping power, I handle the gravel descents pretty darned well. Huh.
Like, it’s okay to stop when you’re not having fun anymore, or even when you’ve calculated that you might still be having fun now, but you won’t be an hour from now.
Every race is a learning experience. There’s that old saw, too, about how you learn more from one defeat than from 1,000 victories.
Anyway, look for a couple of gear reviews to follow. I bought a bunch of stuff for this race, and most of it worked brilliantly well (as for the seatpost — it would’ve been perfectly fine if I had only remembered to pop the Arione on).