Last weekend was my first gravel race, and I jumped right in at the deep end with a 2 day gravel enduro race in the Cambrian mountains.
Grifest (now in its second year) is held just north of Llandovery in mid Wales. It is a two day race which follows an enduro style format with timed sectors and casual riding to link them up. Don’t be fooled though, this is not like an MTB enduro. The sectors are LOOOOOOOOOng, 19km long to be precise for the biggest one of the weekend and there were six in total over the two days. It is only the timed sectors that count toward your race result, the transitions can be ridden at any pace you like.
Having taken the day off work on the Friday for infant sports day, we were able to get away early and arrived at the campsite by 4pm. The sun was shinning, gravel bikers were busy setting up tents and caravans and the bar was open.
After getting our caravan setup, we chilled with a few ciders, a bag of kettle chips and a chilli that I made the night before, as any finely tuned athlete would.
Breakfast the next day was a bowl of shreddies, a slice of wholegrain toast with marmalade, a glass of orange juice and plenty of coffee. A quick bike check and some extra air in my tyres and I was ready for the off.
The mass start was a complete anti climax. Nearly 300 riders lined up wearing their timing chips. The atmosphere was buzzing, but as 10am passed it was clear this was not going to be the type of mass start I was expecting. Every single rider had to file through the start gate one at a time to activate their timing chip for the day. This had rendered the mass start a non event and we might as well of been allowed to choose our own start time and set off when we liked.
At 10:15 I rolled out of the gates of the campsite alongside my riding partner Scott and headed north towards the gravel nirvana that awaited. As soon as we got offroad we hit K2. A mythical climb that we had been warned of before setting off and the rumours of its gravity multiplying gradient were all true. It soon ramped upto 20% plus and a long stream of riders could be seen slowly pushing up. Luckily this steep section was only a few hundred meters and it then flattened out a little and was rideable from there to the top.
The views at the top were worth the effort and the beating sun (the hottest day of the year so far) had riders laying out enjoying the rays while trying to reduce their heart rate to anything lower than maximum. A few km`s of rolling hills followed before we arrived at the start of the first timed sector.
I will be honest, I had no idea how to pace this. The sectors are too long to just go flat out, but at the same time I didn’t want to go too easy. I decided to pace it like a ramp test, starting off steady and gradually increasing my effort so that by the last km I am flat out and finishing as fast as possible. It felt good, and I thought I had done a reasonable time. The first feed station was at the end of this sector. A quick piece of cake and we were on our way to the next sector.
Sector 2 was the beast. 19km long, rolling (which means hilly in wales). I set off with the same strategy as the first sector, treating it a little like a ramp test.
It didn’t work on this monster stage, it was just too long. At half way I was struggling and had to ease back. Luckily the finish was a fast long downhill and I made up some time here (being overweight has its advantages).
Knowing that the last timed sector was mostly downhill meant that after stage 2 it felt like the hard work had been done for the day. I aimed to ride sector 3 flat out leaving it all out on the gravel. If I had to walk back from the finish it wouldn’t matter.
This sector was great, not so long, but not entirely downhill either. The finish descended alongside Lyn Brianne reservoir, then circled the body of water to finish atop the dam itself. The relief and sense of achievement was real and I floated back to the campsite on a cloud of self accomplishment and endorphins.
I actually felt pretty good at the start of day 2. We set off after the same non mass start as day 1 and straight into the first timed sector after just a few km`s warm up consisting mainly of a long climb at a nice steady gradient. I felt surprisingly good given the previous days efforts.
Sector 2 was another long one, ending in one of the best descents of the weekend.
Urrrgghhhhhh……. I am even getting bored writing this…. so apologies if you actually managed to get this far. Its nothing to do with Gritfest, its an awesome event. I have just realised that recounting the events of two days its utterly dull for the reader.
I promise I will try harder to make my content more interesting.