I'm a fairweather rider. I have no problem going out if it’s below-freezing, but if you threaten me with a drop of moisture, I’ll scurry inside like a frightened cat and ride the trainer instead. This is one of the reasons I enter bike races — to grow as a rider. Races often force you out of your comfort zone.
The Old Man Winter Rally in Lyons, CO is the perfect race for building your all-condition gravel chops. It happens in early February, so there’s always a chance you’ll end up racing in some snow and mud.
When the first edition ran 10 years ago, I remember thinking it was too crazy for me. Two years ago, when my wife Becky was just getting into gravel cycling, she thought the same thing. My, how things have changed.
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Brace Yourselves, Winter is Coming
Race day featured both sunshine and fog.
Old Man Winter is our biggest local gravel race, and we even hosted packet pick-up at our retail store in Louisville. Of all the races we’ll be attending this year, Old Man Winter has the most TPC representation. Besides me and my wife, four more TPC employees raced the full 100K event:
- Seth Holmes, Category Purchasing Manager
- Karsten Mengel, Line Technician
- Ethan Martin, Product Manager
- Chase Robertson, Consumables Coordinator
I’ve done Old Man Winter four times before. Only once (in 2017) have I been blessed with a dry and sunny race. So why not move it later in the year so that wintery weather doesn’t affect the race? Because that’s not the point. It’s called “Old Man Winter.” You got to deliver on that name. This year, rain and snow were forecast to hit the course just before race day. Perfect.
Seth and Chase looking clean and ready at the start (left). Becky and I chose to start at the back (right).
My wife Becky wanted to race with me this year because she’s getting more invested in gravel racing. Last year, she did the Unbound Gravel 100. While I DNF’d after the infamous mud pit, she marched through and finished the 100 in 10 hours. While this was a great result, it was well below what she expected of herself. In her words, navigating the harsh conditions felt “traumatic.”
She wants to take on the full-distance Unbound Gravel 200 someday, but she wants to build up her riding skills and tolerance for stress and bad conditions first. Old Man Winter was the ideal place to start.
The race wouldn't go into the mountains this year.
Unfortunately, due to the amount of snow (one of the wettest winter storms on record!), the 100K course was shortened to 74K (~46 miles), removing several steep climbs and descents in the foothills, as well as Rowena, the toughest section which is rarely fully rideable when covered in snow. While we wouldn’t visit the hardest parts of the course, there were plenty of challenges on race day.
How Did Our Race Go?
Seth, Ethan, Karsten, and Chase were all here to race hard, but since I was sticking with my wife, my goals were different. My only mission was to give Becky a tow on fast sections, dive into sketchy-looking corners first, and take lots of pictures.
During the paved start, we watched the front of the race immediately pull away while we hung out at the back, easing our way into things. Gravel races are always fun because the back half of the field is usually a lot more chill. People are more chatty and inclined to stick together. Once we went off the pavement and into the snow and mud though, things naturally blew apart.
A sample of the varying road conditions throughout the course.
Thankfully, the gravel roads here in Boulder County aren’t like the gravel roads in Unbound. After getting hit with several inches of snow, the roads were soft and sloppy, but completely rideable. The mud here doesn’t stick to your tires like peanut butter or force you to get off the bike and hike.
Only one section of the course still had a significant amount of snow on it, and it was packed down well enough that it was actually easier to ride than the mud.
Old Man Winter provided one aid station at the 30-mile mark that had plenty of food and beverages, a mechanic, bathrooms, and even a fire to warm yourself. The best part of was the hot chocolate.
The party at the start and finish had a great vibe, with a live band, hot food from La Mariposa, a bike wash, and more fires.
Overall, I thought the conditions were bad, but not that bad. With mud like this, the only thing you can really do is embrace the filth and keep pedaling. A lot of riders brought fenders, but nothing was going to stop mud like this from spraying everywhere. We all had some epic-looking mud masks by the end!
Chase at the finish.
Among the TPC team, Chase beat us all, finishing in 24th among the men with a time of 2:34:25. He worked hard to hang on to YouTuber Ben Delaney, who finished just ahead of him. Seth came in 10 minutes later, Ethan 7 minutes after that, then Karsten finished just under 3:05. I brought up the rear.
Becky’s biggest goal of the day was to stay upright through all the snow and mud and build up some confidence. We finished in just under 4 hours and Becky was one of only 13 women to finish the “100K.”
She felt deservedly proud of herself and said that pushing through the doubt she had about the conditions gave her a lot of confidence for some of our upcoming off-road races. I’d say that’s mission accomplished.
The lead group after lapping us (left). Seeing the messy state of racers who sat on wheels was a lot of fun (right).
One cool upside of the last-minute course reroute was that the front of the race lapped us during the first southern loop. The front group contained Life Time Grand Prix racer Alexey Vermeulen, and I instantly recognized his voice saying, “Great job, guys!” as he passed. Everyone supports everyone in these events, and I love it.
Fresh 50K racers charging by us (left). Jens at the finish! (right).
The rerouted course meant we also got to see the 50K riders charging towards us during the start of their race. It was fun to see how clean they looked compared to us and the look of dread on their faces when they saw all of us 100K riders looking nice and brown.
The 50K was also clearly the more popular race distance, with nearly 1,000 participants, compared to ~250 in the 100K. One famous 50K participant you might recognize is the legendary Jens Voigt!
How Did Our Gear Do in All That Snow and Mud?
Our Bikes & Tires:
- Seth - ENVE Mog, 42mm Specialized Pathfinder Pro
- Karsten - Specialized Crux, 47mm Specialized Pathfinder Pro
- Ethan - Specialized Roubaix, 32mm Panaracer GravelKing SS+
- Chase - Specialized Crux, 42mm Specialized Pathfinder Pro
- Becky - Specialized Diverge E5, 45mm Maxxis Rambler
- Me - Lauf Seigla, 45mm Challenge Getaway XP
Old Man Winter is a gravel race, so of course, a gravel bike is the weapon of choice. It’s fast on the paved sections but it can survive the snow and mud too.
Ethan yolo'd it on his Roubaix.
When it’s dry, you could get away with a road bike on this type of smooth gravel. That was Ethan’s plan. But when the snow came, he had to decide between his endurance road bike and hardtail mountain bike (he doesn’t own a gravel bike). I'll give him major props for choosing to run his Specialized Roubaix with 32mm semi-slicks. He said he only had one small crash.
This awesome mountain biker stuck with us until the first fast paved section.
I saw a few riders choose mountain bikes. Becky and I considered it, but gravel bikes were worth it for the extra speed on the fast sections. Becky also said that conquering this terrain on her gravel bike opened her eyes to how much she and her bike are really capable of. That’s super valuable.
The most common mechanical issues I saw during the race were dropped chains and skipping gears. There is an element of luck to this. Chase, Becky, and I suffered no drivetrain issues, while Seth and Karsten suffered multiple chain drops throughout the day.
Karsten (left), Chase (center), and Seth (right) all managed to wear their pads down to bare metal! You should always check brake pads after tough, wet rides!
Brake pads were a biggest casualty of the conditions. Chase, Seth, and Karsten all managed to roach their brake pads over the course of the race. Ethan, Becky, and I will have to replace our pads very soon too. This wasn't necessarily from braking, but from the sheer amount of grit that got jammed into our calipers. If you want your pads to last in these sorts of conditions, I highly recommend using more robust sintered pads (SRAM AXS brakes come stock with organic pads).
In the shop today, Karsten is also replacing his headset and repacking his rear derailleur pulley bearings. Seth will have to service his fancy CeramicSpeed pulleys which stopped spinning. Chase is replacing his bottom bracket. It's the price of having fun, I guess. My bike seems relatively fine otherwise. I just washed it, re-waxed the chain, and I'm ready to go again. It seems the slower you go, the less damage you do!
Chase's drivetrain. We have a lot of chain waxers here at TPC. Do you wax?
One thing I considered doing before the race was switching Becky and my waxed chains over to wet lube. In the end, I decided not to, just because I didn’t want to strip the lube off the chains later to re-wax them. I applied an extra coat of Silca Super Secret the night before, and Becky and I had no major drivetrain issues. Whether you used wet lube or wax though, everyone’s bike sounded like a washing machine full of rocks by the end.
As for our riding kits, I already wrote a post on our essential Old Man Winter riding gear. With the snow, mud, and 30-40 degree temps, Becky and I went to the max:
- Winter jackets
- Heavy thermal baselayers
- Waterproof tights
- Waterproof shoe covers
- Our heaviest gloves and socks
- Thermal caps and buffs
I stayed fairly warm and dry until the very end when my toes started to go numb. When we got home, we hosed all the grit off our kits outside before we threw them in the wash.
What Did We Learn?
Clockwise from top left: Chase, Seth, Karsten, Becky, me.
- After placing better than he did last year, Chase learned that he’s in good form this year (which means he’s probably going to smoke me at Leadville).
- Ethan learned that he needs to finally buy a gravel bike.
- Seth and Karsten learned how to fix dropped chains really quickly (a useful skill).
- Becky learned that mud and snow aren’t that bad as long as you can relax and keep pedaling.
- I learned that races don’t always have to be raced. Sticking with your friends and loved ones is just as rewarding.
Here are a few more tidbits:
- Keep your smartphones secure! I rode over an iPhone buried in the snow that likely ejected from someone’s pocket without them noticing (otherwise they would have gone back for it, right?). I gave it to the Old Man Winter staff. Hopefully, it finds its owner.
- DON’T try to wipe mud specks off your glasses while riding. It turns into a smeary mess and your glasses become useless. I made this mistake and had to ride without my glasses until I could wash them with water at the aid station. I’m still digging dirt out of my eyelids.
- Hot chocolate at aid stations is the best idea ever. Kudos, Old Man Winter aid station team. You’re geniuses.
I will be back to take on Old Man Winter again. Becky wants the full experience with the hard climbs and Rowena section. Hopefully, next time the weather is just a bit better. But we don’t want it to be TOO nice. This race is fun and memorable because it forces you to get dirty and do hard things!
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