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Racing: Chase Results or Enjoy the Experience?

cycling gravelcyclist oregontrailgravelgrinder otgg stageracing thepainfreeathlete Aug 08, 2022
Start of stage 5 of the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder race.

After a two-year delay due to Covid-19, my husband and I were excited to finally be on the start line for the 2022 Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder (OTGG). The OTGG is a 5-day stage race in the Cascade mountains. Our trek included nearly 350 miles and more than 30,000 feet of climbing. A bonus of our postponed ride was the addition of my sister, Monica, to our adventure. Monica is an Ironman triathlete and a newbie gravel rider. She’d only been on her new gravel bike a month before jumping into the event!

 

Chase Results or Enjoy the Experience?

With the addition of my sister to the event, this was the question I wrestled with as I considered how I would approach the race. On one hand, I had trained hard, waited two years to compete, and wanted to see what I could do. On the other hand, it was a great opportunity to spend time riding with Monica, something we both enjoy. So, I spoke with Monica before we started. Together, we decided to ride our own race and see how it would go.

 

Stage 1

65.8 miles and 5208 feet of climbing


Off we go! The race began on pavement for the first seven miles. This was a nice way to ease into our first day after driving 13 hours to arrive in Sisters, OR. (No coincidence in the fact that this race started and ended in Sisters! Ha!) Just as we were getting comfortable on the road, the race turned right onto the gravel. Now the fun began! Monica was with me on the pavement, but as soon as we hit the dirt, she bid me farewell, and I sped away. 

Portions of our stage 1 route followed the historic Santiam Wagon Road that had brought settlers and livestock into eastern Oregon and Idaho. This beautiful trail had us riding through miles of sand, huge ruts, and even rocky single track. I loved it! As it turned out, this stage had the most technical terrain of the whole race. Because of this, I was slightly worried about Monica: How would she do on such challenging trails on her first day racing gravel? Thankfully, she did great! However, I wish I could have seen the 180-degree spin she described as she took on the sand and ended up facing the wrong direction. Oops!

After we all made it to our first camp, we showered, washed bikes, stretched, treated our weary bodies to massages, and ate dinner. The food was good and plentiful! Even vegetarian and vegan options were available. Nicely, this would be our basic camp routine every day. 

Results! After an adjustment to the age group for the master’s category from 40+ to 45+, I was on the podium in third. Wow! I didn’t expect that, and honestly, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it. Now I was in the race! And now, I felt a bit pressured to maintain or even improve upon my position.

 

Stage 2

61.6 miles and 5970 feet of climbing


Hello Climbing! We were headed uphill from our first pedal stroke on stage 2. Take a look at the profile above. The climbing didn’t end until mile 18. Ouch! That was a loooong climb. Ken’s face says it all! And, once we finished the initial big hill, we still had more climbs to come and over 40 miles left to ride. The organizers rated this stage, as well as the next, as “moderate.” However, I respectfully--and strongly--disagree. 

Once again, we (Monica, Ken, and I) all rode our own race and did our best. I felt frisky at the start and even passed Ken through a literal cloud of dust. That was short lived, though. He quickly overtook me and was not to be seen again until I reached camp. Fortunately, I found another rider going my pace, and we worked together for many miles. He followed me on the uphills, and I hitched a ride on his wheel on the descents. But as the climb continued on (it took more than two hours), I eventually faded and could no longer keep up with my fellow rider. So, I was on my own . . . except for the huge logging truck that rolled by. Roads remained open during this event, and we were cycling through prime logging country.

Upon reaching the first aid station at the top, I took in as many calories as I could and filled my bottles. As I turned to leave, there she was! The fourth-place rider in my category! Oh no! I jumped on my bike and pointed it downhill. My strength as a cyclist comes from my technical and descending skills, not my cardiovascular engine. Since I knew she would have the advantage on the coming climbs, I pushed the pace on the descent and tried to put as much time as possible between us on the way down.

Sadly, it was a short descent, much shorter than I needed to actually gain much time. On the next rise, there she was again, and this time she passed me–for good. Unbeknownst to me, however, the fifth-place rider in our competition beat us both on the stage. So, I was now in fifth, but only a few minutes back . . . There was still a chance I could stand on the podium at the end of the five days.

 

Stage 3

47.3 miles and 4354 feet of climbing

Stage 3 brought a new format to the event: two time trials. A time trial is an individual race against the clock where you go as fast as possible over the course. As you might notice from the profile above, the stage consisted of one uphill and one downhill time trial. Only a small portion of the 47 miles was timed: 7 miles uphill and 10 miles downhill. Although short in length, these efforts were very intense. 

With the queen stage (hardest stage of the race) coming up the next day, which would have some grueling climbs (see stage 4 profile), I knew I had to gain some time today and move up in the standings if I had any chance of a podium spot. So, I climbed strong, descended fast, and gave it everything I had. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Although I did improve my position and moved back up into fourth, I had lost four more minutes to the third-place finisher and was over six minutes off the podium. A top three finish was slipping away.

 

Stage 4

88 Miles and 9200 feet of climbing

Stage 4–the queen stage of the race! This was the longest stage. It had nearly 3000 more feet of climbing than any other stage. As if that wasn’t enough, we also had to deal with snow, mud, and huge “ponds,” as the race organizer called them, that completely covered the road from edge to edge.

This was the day everything changed. I was exhausted. Though my mind was ready to go and push hard, my body was having none of it. It was done. There was no power left in my legs. From the start, I was rapidly going backwards through the peloton (group of cyclists). Suddenly, not far behind me, I heard Monica’s voice. She had noticed my rearward trajectory and was trying to catch me. But since I felt so fatigued, I wasn’t even sure I could keep up with her strong pace.

Monica was excited to finally be riding together, and I was thrilled I could stay with her. Over the preceding days, she had found a solid group to ride with. So at this point, I tagged on the back of their group. Again, the ride went uphill from the start for about 20 miles. And, again, as the climb continued, I grew weary. Eventually, I was dropped from the group. Hot and tired, I focused on pushing the pedals over again and again. I told myself that with every push, I was getting closer to the top. I was even singing the lyrics to the Beatles song “The Long and Winding Road” to myself in my misery. 

To add to my agony, sciatica in my left leg flared from my hip to my calf. Every revolution of the pedals hurt. Uh oh! I hadn’t felt anything like this at all during any of my training. Fortunately, I had enough self-awareness to realize that in my distressed state, my normally good cycling posture had utterly collapsed. My pelvis was askew. My sits bones were unevenly hitting the saddle. My core was completely disengaged, my breathing was shallow, and my shoulders were overly hunched and twisted. Basically, I was a mess. Further, my right leg had decided it was done working and would no longer push. In order to counter all of this, I corrected my position and gave my right leg a pep talk. Eventually, my symptoms faded and then disappeared, never to return. 

Finally, I reached the top of the climb. YEAH! On the long, 10-mile downhill, who did I see and pass? Monica! We regrouped at the aid station and rode the remaining 50+ miles together. We also made a new friend, Jon, founder of the Gravel Cyclist. The Gravel Cyclist is an awesome website with loads of info about gravel riding, including a newbie’s corner with lots of excellent advice if you are just starting the sport, gravel routes to check out, an international calendar of events, and entertaining videos. Monica and I rode with Jon quite a bit on stage 4. Please enjoy his video of our adventure. You’ll see the snow, mud, and the “ponds” we encountered on our ride. You can check out his videos of all the stages on the Gravel Cyclist YouTube channel.

 

Stage 5

80.9 miles 5844 feet of climbing


Let’s finish this! Another long, hard day of riding awaited us on stage 5. This stage took us to the highest point of the entire route near the volcano, Broken Top. These climbs were very steep, as you can see in the profile, from approximately mile 53 to 63.  

At the start of the stage, I was still in fourth. But, I would have to make up an hour to reclaim the podium. Monica said, “You are good, but not that good.”  I laughed. Here is some of our banter from that morning. And, just for the record. Monica didn’t beat me by a second as she jokes in the video. We crossed the line with our hands held high and clasped together.

Having given up the podium chase, I was free to enjoy the experience of riding the last day with my sister. We had a great time on our bikes together. Fortunately, I was feeling better than on stage 4. As we rode, Monica was a bit faster on the uphills, while I took the downhills with a bit more speed. And during this ride, I gave Monica a few tips for the descents since she was new to gravel riding. Needless to say, she improved a lot over the five days!

 

Race Reflections

Jessica

I have no regrets about how I approached the race. I went for it, and I was able to test my strength and abilities. In the end, I was off the podium. But looking back at the event, what would I remember more? Standing on the bottom of the podium and chasing a result? Or enjoying the experience of riding side by side with my sis? I will definitely remember the latter. We shared laughs (usually at my expense), suffered from fatigue, and sometimes felt the despair and hopelessness that comes with these long efforts. As Monica had said during a prior ride, “How many sisters could ride together like this?” We are fortunate that we can do this type of event together. Many of the people out there in the race were alone. We had each other for support. It is a memory I will look back on fondly and smile.

 

Monica

During an “easy” 8000’ training ride with my sister in San Diego, she mentioned a five-day gravel cycling race she and Ken were doing in June. I perked up with interest. I could do that! I’ve ridden two seven-day road cycling stage races in France - and loved them! I was eager to know more and asked, how technical is it? Confidently, my older sister by seven years said I could do it. 

I love challenges that take me outside my comfort zone. This race definitely fit that criterion. I had never even ridden a gravel bike and was now considering doing “The Grand Tour of Gravel,” as the OTGG states on its website. I was jumping feet-first into gravel cycling and racing, and it scared the hell out of me. I better get a bike . . .

I decided to postpone my gravel cycling training until after I would finish competing in the Ironman World Championships in St George on May 7, 2022. I reasoned that after that, I would have just over a month to figure out how to ride my new bike on gravel. When I did start training, it was very basic. I was riding on mostly glorified hiking trails that were smooth and dry, with minimal obstacles and only short climbs. By the time the race was about to happen, I felt confident in my fitness levels, and I knew I had enough technical riding skills from years of road and mountain biking to help me along the way. I just needed to have trust in these two things as I ventured into this new style of riding. 

When I looked at the race course maps, distances, and elevation profiles, I was not too worried. I had done that and much more on my road bike. No Biggie!  Oh, was I wrong! Gravel cycling is so much harder than road biking. One mile on gravel feels like three miles on the road. Add to that my worries about the sand and technical sections of the course. The scariest thing for me, though, was going downhill. I am a good descender on a road bike, but I am very tentative when the ground moves underneath me. And the first day of the race, my first true day of gravel riding and racing was the most technical. Great! 

To get myself through that first day, I used positive self-talk. I remembered and repeated the words my sister told me: “Pick a line and commit. The terrain will slow you down. Trust the bike to do what it is supposed to do.” The sand sections of the course came near the end when I was tired. I had to explode through them, putting all the power I could into my pedals. I nearly fell down numerous times. I was so thankful to make it through my first day.

I have raced Ironmans for 10 years and have never had a bike experience like this. Gravel riding and racing is no joke! It makes you a better cyclist. It makes you stronger and more explosive. When I recovered from the five days, which took longer than from an Ironman, I could feel the added fitness I received from the race. I learned so much and am looking forward to doing more gravel races in the future. 

My motivation to compete in this race was to share the experience with my big sis. We are so fortunate to be able to have epic adventures together. We are fortunate to share a love for cycling and challenging ourselves physically and mentally. I thank Ken for sharing his wife with me for the week. Memories I will never forget! I am so happy the three of us shared the experience.

 

Ken

Early on during the first stage, I realized my place in the peloton. After starting near the back of the field (group of riders), I moved up on the neutral (non-racing) pavement section that headed out from Sisters. By the time the racing began, I was near the front, watching an early breakaway go off with no reaction from the field. However, once a small gap formed, one of the pro riders went to the front of our group and pushed the pace, stringing the field out into a single file line of riders. We were almost to the gravel when the pace became too much for me. I slowed and was rapidly being passed by rider after rider. We turned onto the gravel and the riders kept going by me. Finally, I was able to hold my place in the field without being passed when the trail became more technical, traversing sand pits and single track. I passed several riders in this section and started to recover on the descent.

Feeling better, I let myself push hard again as we left the first aid station to begin the second climb. Unfortunately, I suddenly discovered that my rear tire was going flat. A small hole in the sidewall was the culprit. A quick fill with a CO2 cartridge revived the tire, and I was on my way. I caught back up to the group--only to have my tire go flat once again. Another CO2 cartridge fixed the flat, and again I chased back up to the other riders. However, again and again, my tire went soft, and I just kept filling it with a CO2 cartridge. But eventually, I ran out of CO2 cartridges! Fortunately, at this point, it was all downhill to the finish. As my tire went low for the fifth time, I was certain I could make it. The race finished on pavement, and I could see the end at the bottom of the hill. Putting as much weight as possible onto my front wheel, I coasted across the timing mat. I made it! Phew!

After swallowing a cold Coca Cola, a fellow rider offered me a small bottle of tire sealant to get me back to camp. The cold compressed CO2 had dried all the sealant in my tire. His donation was a relief, as we still had another 10 miles to camp. This is what makes the experience of riding point-to-point stage races so memorable. You challenge yourself and your equipment with hundreds of other riders doing the same. Some are racing for the podium, but most are there to ride hard and have a good time. But everyone is ready to help a fellow rider in need since we all know the struggle is shared.

Jessica and I have found sharing this type of experience to be so rewarding in the past that we keep putting ourselves through the challenge. This time, along with meeting new friends, we also got to share the experience with Monica. Although our competitive days may be behind us, I still look forward to the thrill of being in the race, even for just a moment at the start. The shared experience is what makes it all so special: the crazy long training rides it took us to regain our fitness after the crazy lifestyle of COVID . . . the planning and packing for five days on the bike . . . and the satisfaction of toasting a finish, still healthy, and ready for the next with Jessica, and this time Monica, too. Here is to the next one, ladies. Cheers!

 

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