I was absolutely wrecked at the finish this year.
At Steamboat Gravel this year, my co-worker Adam and I were hoping to improve on our 2022 results (Adam - 8:23, Bruce - 8:58). If things went extremely well, we were even hoping to finish in under 8 hours. So how did we do? Here are our 2023 SBT GRVL finish times:
- Adam - 9:12:17
- Bruce - 9:26:01
Needless to say, we missed our stretch goal, and we didn't even PR. In fact, we both went MUCH slower than we did the previous year. So what happened? Let’s take a look back at our day.
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2023 SBT GRVL Recap
Adam and I formulated a plan to maximize our chances of succeeding on race day. There were two key elements:
- Reduce aid station stops to a single stop at Aid 4 (mile 95)
- Pace as evenly as possible to average ~18 mph over the whole course
Overall, it was a pretty simple plan. With Adam’s fitness, it was probably doable for him. For me, it was more of a stretch. Climbing is my biggest weakness, and SBT GRVL features over 10,000 ft of elevation gain. Averaging 18 mph is no problem if you can stay in a fast-moving group, but the problem is holding on to a fast group over the course’s big climbs and doing so for 142 miles. I was willing to give it a shot though! Reducing stops would help, since I spent around 30 minutes total stopped last year, taking my time to eat, refill bottles, and relax.
The start was FAST. I’d upsized to a 44t chainring this year to avoid spinning out, but I spun out immediately just trying to stay in the main bunch. Some riders were going super hard to try and move up, but I just watched my power and tried to stay out of trouble. Groups started to form after the first few rollers. Adam was already way up the road, so I latched on to a good group moving past me at a decent pace and tried to hang on.
A Small Crash
About 10 miles in, there’s a steep and twisty descent after a small climb. The surface here is loose and bumpy and there was a minefield of ejected bottles in the middle of the road. I was going too fast and completely overcooked the first turn, so I went straight off into the grass, dropped my front wheel into a ditch, and I had to bail by jumping over my handlebars. It was pretty embarrassing, but I came out of it without a scratch and didn’t lose much time.
I do want to mention that I saw more ejected bottles on this course than I have ever seen anywhere. To me, ejected bottles are the worst kind of race litter. If you don’t have bottle cages that hold your bottles securely, it’s relatively cheap and easy to fix!
The First Big Climb
Dropped and holding a "chill" pace. You always meet nice people in big races like this.
The first major climb starts around mile 25. When the group I was riding with hit the first steep pitch, I purposely dropped right off the back. It was pretty scary letting so many riders just disappear ahead of me, but I was sticking to a more conservative pacing plan and didn't want to go into the red.
The previous year, I chased hard on this climb, and I paid the price by blowing up around mile 50. By going slower here, I hoped to stay stronger through the rolling terrain in the middle of the course. I found a group on the descent and managed to reconnect later with several of the riders who dropped me on the climb. It seemed like everything was going to plan.
Around mile 60, I saw a rider on the side of the road fiddling with a grey Trek Checkpoint. I rolled past and it took a few minutes before my brain was able to process what I had just seen. It was Adam. He had suffered a bad puncture in his rear tire and was trying to plug it.
This was the beginning of a very tough day for Adam. His first tire plug didn’t hold so he had to stop and add a second plug. When that wasn’t enough, he had to stop again to throw in a tube. Adam ended up having to stop a total of 4 times to deal with his leaky rear tire. In the end, he ran out of spare tubes and had to borrow a tube from a generous racer who stopped to help when he flagged him down (these selfless racers are the most amazing people).
The Wheels Start Coming Off
I was stuck to my group and moving too fast to stop and help Adam. Even worse, I was moving too fast for my body to keep up. I hit the halfway point (71 miles) in pretty much exactly 4 hours. I was stoked about this but I was starting to struggle. With several very tough climbs still to come, it was pretty clear at this point that I wasn’t going to hit my 8-hour goal.
Even worse, the heat was getting serious. The high for the day was 90° F, and by 10 AM, I felt like I was cooking in the sun. My power was dropping and I had to go into the red just to stay with the group I was riding with. Finally, at mile 85, I completely came apart. My group dropped me on a small kicker and I was alone in no man’s land.
I rode by myself, into a headwind, for the next 10 miles. This was so demoralizing. The road leading up to the mile 95 aid station is one of the hardest parts of the course. The surface is super loose and slow, and you have to grind up an endless set of 3-7% kickers. My power pretty much evaporated here and I was moving super slow, getting passed by a ton of riders. I kept trying to eat and hydrate, but my legs just felt dead and empty. I knew I was in trouble.
A Brief Reunion
Revived (a bit) after a few cans a Coke and a jersey full of ice.
Adam got his rear tire sorted and managed to catch me just before aid station 4 at mile 95. I'm stoked I was able to actually stick to my single stop plan. I was drinking A LOT all day because of the heat. I had two 1-liter bottles and a 1.5 liter hydration pack, and I made it to the mile 95 aid station not long after I finished the last of my water/carb mix.
When I got there I drank several cups of Coke and ate a banana. Adam ate a bag of chips. We refilled our bottles and hydration packs and poured ice down the backs of our jerseys to cool off.
We only hung around for about 5 minutes. Then we set off to take on the next climb, Oak Creek, which is the longest on the course. Adam had been riding by himself for hours and was excited to reconnect and finally have someone to ride with. Unfortunately, our reunion didn’t last long...
The Death March
Getting dropped on the final gravel climb around mile 130. I couldn't hang on to any wheels at this point.
My left hamstring started cramping right at mile 100. I dropped into an easier gear, scooted back in my saddle, and tried to spin it out. I told Adam to just go on without me and he dropped me like a brick on the climb.
I was able to keep my left hamstring from cramping catastrophically by soft pedaling. But then my right quad started cramping too. So I switched up my position and kept spinning. Then my left adductor started cramping. Then my right calf muscle. Then my left hamstring again. I spent the entire final 40 miles fighting cramps and it was pure suffering. Whenever I felt a cramp coming, I had to ease off or scoot around into a weird position to calm it down.
I hit the 8-hour mark at mile 120 and it became pretty clear that I wasn’t going to set a PR. I didn’t have enough gas to hop onto any groups that passed me. On the last gravel climb, I had to ride comically slow to prevent myself from cramping and I got passed by a ton of riders. The final 20 miles took me nearly an hour and a half to complete.
After I finished, I sat down gingerly on the ground with my eyes closed and didn’t get up again for about 30 minutes. I was completely exhausted.
(Left) Unlike us, our friend Luke Hall had a decent day. He's washed and changed already in this photo because he finished in under 7 hours! (Right) My wife also had a good day on the 100-mile Blue course. She already wants to do it again!
Looking back, this might be the worst I have ever suffered during a race. I have plenty of excuses, but the main problem is that I just wasn’t fit enough to hold my planned pace and I blew up after the halfway point. Unlike the previous year, after I blew up, I never recovered and couldn't finish strong. Maybe I didn't stay on top of my hydration and nutrition well enough. Maybe I should I should have taken time at some earlier aid stations to stop and stretch out. I also definitely didn’t spend enough time acclimating to the heat before the race. The high temps really wrecked me.
Discovering what I’m capable of physically and mentally is the whole reason why I enter big events like SBT GRVL. Just lining up for a race like this is a huge win. Yes, I’m disappointed with my result and I would have loved to at least set a new PR. But I’m also super proud that I pushed through some of the worst the pain I've ever felt on a bike and still finished. Now, I'm sore as hell.
Sometimes (or often), my ambition simply outweighs my talent. I still like having an 8-hour stretch goal, and hopefully, I’ll be able to achieve it someday. Adam will have no problem bouncing back. He's representing the US at the 50k World Championships in November. I, on the other hand, need some time off before I get on a gravel bike again. I‘m definitely motivated to train and come back stronger next year!
Despite all the hardship, SBT GRVL is still my favorite gravel race. The course provides so much variety in terms of terrain, the town of Steamboat and the scenery are just amazing, and the whole vibe is incredibly welcoming and fun. Until next time…
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