The love of the ride, found through a little mud and a lot of adversity
Back in May of 2015, a friend and fellow-cyclist named Russell invited me to a self-supported gravel ride in the hills around Elbe and Eatonville put on by local frame builder, David Tollefson. The ride was in its second year, and looked like it would be a fun chance to explore some places that I had never been on a bike.
I was primarily riding road at the time, but I had recently been up to the Snoqualmie Tunnel on my new Crosscheck and was looking for more unpaved adventures. I figured that forty-ish miles with 4k of vertical would be hard, but well within my ability.
(I was wrong of course.. but we’ll get to that in a bit)
I arrived at the start point at 8:30am and realized pretty quickly that I was embarking on a ride where everyone was faster and more experienced than I was. Plus, it was raining and the temperatures were only hovering in the mid-fifties.
The ride departed and a pace was set, which wasn’t necessarily my preferred pace. The first ten miles were on pavement, and I found myself doing everything I could to hang on to the back of the group as the road spray slowly seeped its way into my shoe covers, down my socks, and into my shoes. Before I knew it, my feet were sloshing into water with every pedal stroke. I was completely soaked and panting as we approached the first turn off. I was so thankful to see the pavement end so the ride would slow down… and this is where I immediately understood the error of those hopes.
The “gravel” wasn’t anything like the nicely graded and groomed hard-pack I had seen at the tunnel . It was just mile after mile of muddy, potholed, rutted forest road… and it appeared to only go up. I was almost immediately dropped off the back. I watched in shock as everyone pulled away up the hill and I suddenly found myself riding alone in the rain, soaked and sweating, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into.
I was already in my lowest gear (34-30) as I rounded the second bend, and I looked up to see that it only got steeper. It was going to be a long day.
The rain transitioned to a light sprinkle halfway up the first climb, and I stopped to strip off my coat and arm warmers while I reassessed what I was doing. With the rain gone, I just enjoyed the view, and got my head back into the ride.
All summits have a descent, and that first descent was where I became keenly aware of how under-equipped my bike was. The Cross Check doesn’t have a tapered head tube, and the geometry creates a pretty high head stack. Add in some cantilever brakes and you have a perfect storm for brake fade, fork wobble, and numb hands.
The only good equipment choice I had made were my tires, and even then, I found a few steeper sections where 40c WTB Nanos were lacking in traction.
Mile by mile, my hands cramped from braking on the descents, and my legs ached as I was under-geared on every climb. I was absolutely thrilled to see the route turn back onto pavement.
As the day wore on I began the final climb and I was feeling okay about things. I was beginning to dry out a bit, my legs didn’t feel horrible, and I was just past the halfway of the route. I knew that this climb was about ten miles long, and I knew that at some point, the pavement would end. I also knew that the steepest section of the climb was the last three miles, but I’d be rewarded with a (mostly paved) six mile descent back to the car.
This is where everything went wrong.
The pavement did indeed end, but this section of forest road was significantly worse than the first. This road had been battered by jeeps and trucks, making the surface super rutted. I had to slowly pick my line through muddy ruts and potholes, weaving past fist-sized rocks and through mud-filled tire treads. I couldn’t seem to find a clean line to ride, and it was quickly getting steeper.
I came around a bend, out of the saddle, grinding up the incline, when suddenly, my feet gave way as if there were no pedals. I fell over into the wet dirt and rocks, trying to figure out what had happened. I sat up, looking back down at my bike and noticed my chain lying in the loose rocks a few feet away.
Thankfully, I was prepared and had brought a spare quicklink with me. I broke off the damaged links and re-installed my chain. Stopping had an undesired effect, I had been sweating, and stopping to fix my chain had made the cold really seep in to my body. I was starting to shiver.
I looked up at the road as it rose above me, got back on my bike and started pedaling once again. I had to remember that my chain was shorter now, and shifting into the big/big combo would undoubtedly destroy my rear derailleur.
I was sweating again in no time as the road continued to rise to uncomfortable levels. My Garmin was showing grades of seventeen percent as I continued to climb, and as I came around a bend I was absolutely horrified to see what appeared to be a wall in front of me.
I gave it all I had, and half way up that climb as my Garmin said twenty percent, my right thigh decided to cramp up and seize. I shouted, gritted my teeth and finally gave up. I unclipped from my pedals and as I swung my cramping leg over my bike, my left thigh also cramped up and seized.
I collapsed into the muddy gravel on the side of a forest road, and sat, looking at my bike, wondering what the fuck I was doing out here.
You learn a lot about yourself when you are sitting alone, covered in mud, miles from your car, with no phone service. There isn’t anyone to impress. There isn’t even anyone who cares. It’s just you. I suppose that different people react in different ways to such a situation.
I came to terms with the truth that I was in over my head, but as angry as I was at my legs, I also knew that there was no other way out of here. I had gotten myself into this, and only I could get myself out of it.
I drank some water, ate a snack, and spent about fifteen minutes stretching and rubbing my legs. Eventually, I picked up my bike and started walking up the final stretch. I knew this was the steepest section and the final descent was awaiting me after the summit.
It was one of the most painful miles I’ve ever walked, for my legs as well as my ego.
As I approached the summit, I started smiling. I’m not sure why, it just happened. I stood at the top and looked back to what I had just come up and laughed. I picked up a rock and threw it down the hill in defiance. Victory is bittersweet, and while that road may have battered me, it had not won.
I turned and looked ahead. It was all downhill from here. I got on my bike and pushed off, quickly picking up speed.
The descent was everything I had hoped it would be. My knuckles went white as I bombed down that wet and rutted forest road at full speed. I was so tired. It was one of those perfect descents that you don’t remember because your brain is giving full concentration to maintain control and not crash.
Adrenaline coursed through me, numbing my legs, and I began pedaling faster, shifting into my biggest gear. I picked a line without even thinking about it, dodging rocks and potholes, clearing ruts and puddles. It was glorious.
As the road brought me lower and lower, I saw a ribbon of pavement ahead. I remember that at the time, that pavement felt like the smoothest surface I had ever ridden. I got down in the drops, caught the tailwind, and pedaled back to the starting line.
As I joined everyone in the local Bar and Grill, I realized that even though I was last, it didn’t matter. I was greeted and congratulated on my finish and asked about my ride. Everyone had faced their own challenge that day at their own level, and that’s all that mattered.
I went home and drank a beer in the shower, knowing full-well how sore I was about to be, and yet, all I could think about was doing it again.
That’s what I love about gravel. It’s difficult to explain, but there’s a feeling and a culture there. Everyone is on a different journey and it’s never easy. Friends are made through the sweat and the grit. Celebrations are had for a finish, regardless of when you finish, because your personal victory is what’s important. First, last, everyone suffers… and there’s usually beer afterwards.
I went back the following year and beat my time by seven minutes. The third year I finished even ten minutes faster, and I made it all the way up that final climb without stopping.
David Tollefson still puts this ride on. You can ride it with the group in May. You can also just download the route here and go suffer with your friends in the woods, although David is a super nice guy and you won’t regret joining him with the group.
I didn’t realize how pretty the route really is until my third year, when it was actually sunny. This route can be a nightmare if it’s raining, but on a sunny spring day, there are plenty of impressive views to keep you seeking more.