Utah Gravel Grinder: The 2018 Wild Horse

I originally wrote this piece as a recap of my one and only attempt at the Wild Horse Gravel Race in Utah’s Cedar Mountains, at the request of the promoter Chris Magerl, who was going to submit it to Cycling Utah, or whatever they call themselves these days. I don’t think it ever got published*, so I thought I might as well post it here, in case anyone is looking for beta on that ride. Here goes:

May 8, 2018:

Although this was my first Wild Horse, it had always been on my radar as a ride I wanted to do. I would say it delivered on my expectations of being bumpy, sandy, windy, and at times lonely, which means it was a perfect gravel experience! The views on the backside were pretty spectacular, and I had good company in my riding partner, Mark Currie, as we made our way around the Cedar Mountains. Ironically, we rode together for almost 4 hours, but probably only chatted for a total of 4 minutes. The pace we were riding wasn’t a real chatty pace.

As far as how the race unfolded, the first few miles seemed a little nervous in the group, as everyone was bouncing around looking for the smoothest line. This is often the challenge in gravel racing; wanting to be near the front but not on the front. It’s a trade between the road racing mentality of being glued to someone else’s wheel to catch a draft, versus not being able to see the sharp rocks that might quickly end the day. After a few miles, it seemed like riding side by side with Mark at the front was the best deal, and we half wheeled each other into a pretty big gap at the base of the first climb. That was the last time I saw another rider until we started catching some of the Little Wild Horse riders on the way back.

Our riding styles complemented each other fairly well. I drifted ahead on the climbs, mistakenly thinking I was going hard enough to challenge for the KOM (turns out I didn’t go quite hard enough). Mark was much better on the downhill and turny segments, the net result was a pace that kept us in front. We made a really quick stop at the 2nd feed, barely enough time to slam back a half of a Coke and fill a water bottle. Both of us had hydration packs, so we didn’t linger more than a minute before we were back on course. As confident as I was on the climbs, the last climb at about mile 65 was where the lights went out for me. I went from having a small lead that I thought I could stretch out to the finish to getting passed by Mark’s steady pace all the way to the top, and then watching him recede into the horizon while it seemed I was going backwards. The last 3 miles for me seemed like a bad dream as I hemorrhaged time and motivation and the only thing that kept me going was the old mantra of “the slower you go, the longer it takes.”

As far as equipment goes, I rode the same rig I rode in last year’s Dirty Kanza 200 (206, actually), Crusher, and RPI: an Open UPPER with a single front chainring. A little bird who raced last year, who may or may not be named Jamey Driscoll told me to run my 650b wheels with fat tires, which was good advice that I ignored. Instead, I rode Gravel King 700c x 43c tires with waaaaay too much pressure. I should have stopped to let some out, but I doubt the winner would have waited for me!

*Correction: apparently it did get published, but I still can’t find the link!

Thomas Cooke riding an OPEN U.P.P.P.E.R. during the 2018 Wild Horse gravel bike race in Utah's West Desert.
Photo by Pete Vordenberg, who was the only person standing at the top of KOM 1.

Crusher in the Tushar Diary: Lucky 7, or Hateful 8?

“If man is five, if man is five, if man is five
Then the devil is six, then the devil is six
The devil is six, the devil is six and if the devil is six
Then God is seven , then God is seven, the God is seven”
–The Pixies

I’ve spent the last 7 years obsessing over the perfect tires for the Col De Crush descent. I have 7 pair of Incredisocks with the Crusher mountain goat logo, to get mixed up in my sock drawer so I never have a matching pair. I have 7 different event t-shirts with signature Crusher themed artwork (The “Rush” logo is still my fave). They say 7 is a lucky number, so I was feeling good about my form and experience, and was hoping to better my PR time of 4 hours and 38 minutes from 2015. 2016 was a rather unlucky year for me, having flatted a front tubular that just wouldn’t seal up with sealant and CO2. Then again, some people think 13 is an unlucky number, and I camped in Little Cottonwood campsite number 13. Little Cottonwood campground is, you guessed it, 7 miles up canyon from the starting line in downtown Beaver. I obsess over the numbers, sometimes looking for meaning where there is none.

While we are on the topic of numbers, here are some straight-up numbers relative to the bike that I rode for year number 7. I rode an Assos Limited Edition Open UPPER, almost exactly the setup I used at my first DK200 this year, where I finished 13th.

40: number of teeth on Easton EC90 SL front chainring
9: number of teeth on bottom cog of the e*thirteen cogset
11: number of cogs on e*thirteen rear cassette
46: number of teeth on largest cog
0: number of times I planned on using the largest cog
175: length in mm of the Easton EC90 carbon cranks
70: capacity in ounces of Cotopaxi hydration pack I wore
27.5: diameter of DT Spline wheels
2.1: width of Schwalbe Racing Ralph tires, front and rear
24: pressure in psi, front and rear
16.5: weight in pounds of bike as described with Crank Bros Candy 11 pedals, but without seat pack and bottles.

Pre-ride up to Kents Lake the night before the Crusher. Calm.
Pre-ride up to Kents Lake the night before the Crusher. Calm.

The group of riders who have towed the line at every Crusher since the first gets smaller every year. I am sure it will be shrink again, as we approach the Hateful 8, but I’m also pretty sure I’ll be part of that group.

Photo by my main moto man Chris See. This was on the first climb, before I started sucking.
Photo by my main moto man Chris See. This was on the first climb, before I started sucking.

2017 Dirty Kanza Journal

I’ve done dumber things on a whim, but this one might take the cake for the dumbest thing I’ve done on a dare put forth by someone else. I’m talking about the Dirty Kanza 200. When one of my longtime riding buddies, Steve Briley, said “I’ll sign up for it if you sign up for it,” this is precisely the sort of behavior we often lecture our kids about NOT doing. Caving in to peer pressure. Remember, kids: friends don’t encourage friends to sign up for 206 mile gravel races.

But at our ages, we’re not peers so much as a couple of underpaid, overtrained, old farts. Still, on a Saturday morning in early February of 2017, I found myself saddled up to the computer, logged in to the registration site, with my credit card propped up so I could speed-read the digits, expiration date, and CVV code, ready to see if I could finish at the front of the pack of the thousands of others who would be vying for an entry. How many times had I thought about “forgetting” this appointment didn’t really matter, since Briley texted me a reminder the night the before, and bright and early the morning of. It’s GO TIME, Peckerwood. We’re actually going to do this. Well, shit no. Once I had a coveted entry to the Dirty Kanza 200, there would still be months of excuse making, as well as a sanctioned exchange to sell off and transfer my entry to someone who actually wanted to do this. I was committed to nothing. There would be so many “outs.”

That all changed when I was offered a spot on a “Gravel Team” being put together by Assos and Open Cycles. While the details of this adventure took a while to come together, I eventually was outfitted with a new limited edition Assos-branded Open U.P.P.E.R. and top shelf component build, and after some confidence-inspired testing of the bike with 27.5 wheels and 2.1 width mountain bike tires, I felt emboldened to give the DK a real effort. But there was still that issue of the training.

This was the setup, with 27.5 wheels and 2.1 Schwalbe RR tires.
This was the setup, with 27.5 wheels and 2.1 Schwalbe RR tires.

Let the Strava record reflect the fact that I did not actually put in more time riding than last year as preparation for DK. An easy explanation for this: the winter of 2016 was a mild one, and I started riding my bike outside much earlier and with more consistency than in 2017. In 2017, we had a much better snow year, so the nordic skiing lasted longer into the spring. Even with volume down a bit, the difference in 2017 was definitely in the kinds of rides I did to prep for DK200. Rides like doing the White Rim through Canyonlands National Park in a day on a mountain bike. I did that only once, and prior to the actual DK race, it was one of my longest days in the saddle, 100 miles in just under 8 hours. My Strava profile doesn’t lie: before we packed up Steve-O’s truck full of bikes, and bags, and coolers, and a whole bunch of bike gypsy crap, I was actually behind last year’s pace for accumulating my yearly mileage total, which has been the same for the last few years, a little over 6,000 miles for the calendar year.

Starbucks run before hitting the road from Park City to Emporia.
Starbucks run before hitting the road from Park City to Emporia.

The day before the longest day I have ever spent on a bicycle was pretty routine, except we were in Emporia, Kansas, staying in the house of a local family who had welcomed us into their home in a way that I have not seen previously in over 30 years of traveling around the country racing bikes. They literally gave us the keys and left. They stocked the fridge with local “Dirty Kanza” commemorative beer. That morning I woke up and straightened the Spider Man bedspread I had been sleeping on. I drank coffee. I ate breakfast. I was in a stranger’s home in a strange town, contemplating how I was going to get through the very strangest act of racing a bicycle for over 10 hours, navigating via a GPS file on a little handlebar-mounted Garmin that may or may not have enough battery strength to make it through the whole thing.

Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.”–Mike Tyson

I believe the original quote was everyone has a plan until they get punched in the fucking mouth.
I believe the original quote was everyone has a plan until they get punched in the fucking mouth.

Despite the words of Iron Mike being fresh in my head, the truth is I never had a plan. Seriously. I had an understanding of what everyone else’s plan was, and by learning what their plans were, I had a loose set of viable solutions to problems that had not happened yet. It is in my personality to do a series of small mathematical equations over and over in my head, and we are talking about 3rd or 4th grade level mathematical equations here, as a substitute for actual planning. Let me give you some examples: a package of GU is one serving and has about 100 calories. So therefore, a 15 serving screw top bulk pouch of GU has 15 servings, or about 1,500 calories without all the messy packets, but they are too large to fit in a pocket. A refillable soft GU squeeze bottle solves this problem and allegedly holds (5) servings. I’ve been using these for awhile in races like Crusher in the Tushar, and Rebecca’s Private Idaho. The math is not so complicated, should be able to fill (3) of them and start with one in my pocket, and put the other 2 in drop bags for Checkpoints 2 and 3. I fill the first one, and can barely fill the second one by absolutely flatting the 15 serving pack out and manhandling it until it is just a flat flap of foil. The math is wrong. I still have an empty 5 serving soft bottle with nothing in it. Trust me, it keeps me up at night. I still haven’t reconciled this equation.

Prepping the Bike

Should I bring 1 tube or 2? CO2 cartridges or pump? Both? This one was tough. I had planned on bringing (2) tubes minimum based on what I had heard previously about people flatting, for example, Ted King flatting 3 times and still pulling off the win in 2016. But when I chose to ride the 27.5 mountain bike tires, the decision was made for me since I only brought (1) 27.5 tube. I also figured a pump would be slower, but could generate as much air as my little twigs could pump, whereas CO2 cartridges don’t refill themselves once the gas leaves the cylinder.

What about lights? I brought a light. You are supposed to have lights (I think…as I said, I didn’t have a plan, and I sure as shit didn’t read the racer’s handbook). But I don’t want to carry the extra weight if I’m not going to need it. Here’s the deal, if I am going to need a light, I am not going to be very happy about it. Instead I did something that makes no sense at all. I put the light mount on my handlebars, but left the light back at the house. I’m doing this damn thing before the sun goes down.

What should I put in my drop bags for the feed zones? Like many of the participants in DK200, we signed up for the local support crew, which was very organized. My plan (wait…I thought you said you didn’t have a plan?) was to roll through Check Point 1 without really stopping, so I only put together two drop bags; 1 for CP#2 at 100 miles, and 1 for CP#3 at about 160 miles. I will give some advice here if you ever do the DK. Go to Trader Joe’s insulated shopping bags, about $15 each. Shamy nailed this, and had me wishing I had a few of them. The cooler bags are perfect as DK drop bags. You can fit a few bottles, food, write your name on them with a Sharpie. Super smart. I think skipping a drop bag for CP#1 was a huge rookie error on my part.

The Night Before

What should I eat for dinner? Going with the flow and playing off the planning of others had served me well in this regard. We all enjoyed an excellent home-cooked pasta dinner by Chef Shamy (that’s a composite of Shane and Amy), and while I had nothing to do with it except for buttering some bread and jamming out to some tunes while doing dishes, it was delicious and my belly was full with healthy food.

How many beers am I going to drink? This is a mathematical equation that no 3rd or 4th grader should ever be doing in their head, so I just went by feel. I lost track after 1, but it was probably less than 3.

How do I keep myself from fiddling with my bike in the garage, not actually figuring anything definitive out, just fiddling? Failed on this one. Can’t win them all. I must have reconfigured my saddlebag 100 times. One thing that I forgot to bring with me was one of my trusty Black Diamond rubber ski straps which are absolutely the best straps to hold saddle bags under your saddle on bumpy rides. Buy a couple of these and throw them in your toolkit. Trust me.

The Morning Routine

What time should we get up in the morning? I set my alarm for 4:30 AM, but never heard it. I probably got up and started the business of getting ready at about 4:45 AM.

What should I eat? Shamy had a big container of white rice that was cooked in chicken broth from a previous night’s meal. I was able to scramble up a big batch of eggs to mix with the rice, and there was plenty to go around for myself, Steve, and a few of the others. Still, I wasn’t able to eat any more than I would normally eat before a 30 mile ride. I wasn’t exactly confident this pre-race meal was going to offer much in the way of substance for later on down the road.

How many cups of coffee should I have? As many as possible, which given the time, was about a cup and a half. Weak.

What if we get to the start late and the start area is all filled up with racers who got their before us? At the DK, everyone lines up at the same time. There are volunteers holding big signs for “12hrs” or “13hrs” etc. Basically you find the sign which represents how many hours you think or hope it is going to take you to finish, which means pretty much everyone crams up front at the 12hr sign. True story: Christoph and I squeezed in a few rows back from the front of the 12hr sign, and some guy comes up and asks us if he could go in front of us, “because he won his age group the year before, and he thought he was going to get a call-up with the likes of Neil Shirley, Yuri Hauswald, etc.” We moved our bikes, me slightly annoyed, but whatever. He didn’t get a call-up. After the gun went off, I never saw him again.

Pretty much EVERYBODY thinks they'll do it in 12 hours.
Pretty much EVERYBODY thinks they’ll do it in 12 hours.

What if, because I got up too early in order to mitigate the problem above, I don’t get a chance to take a proper dump before leaving the house, and nature calls while I am holding my spot on the start line? What happens if I have my Assos bib shorts down around my ankles, trapped in a polyethylene prison cell made for one when the starter’s gun goes off?

This almost happened to Christoph. At about 5:45am, we were standing together in the 12 hour queue, and he abruptly asked me to hold his bike. This created somewhat of a potential problem for both of us if he wasn’t going to make it back before the starting gun. I think he must have operated with Swiss precision, because he was back with a few minutes to spare, and we were both able to start without that blocked up feeling.

So what then? What the actual hell happens when the gun goes off? Should I stay at the front and risk getting caught up in going too hard too soon, or just ride my own pace no matter what?

These are just a few of those scenarios that occupied the mind before we even rolled out of Emporia at 6:00 AM, on the morning of Saturday, June 3rd. You’ll have to wait for the next installment to see how things unfolded…and to see how many times I got punched in the mouth.