The Encierro Velo 100k Gravel Grinder
By Bruce Lin
Photos by Chris Motta
The Encierro Velo 100k gravel grinder was, for me, one of this spring’s most pleasant surprises. We heard about it through a friend who invited us to ride on Facebook. The entry fees were surprisingly reasonable, and the race looked like it would provide a new bit of adventure that we were missing riding the same old dirt roads week after week here in Boulder.
The three intrepid Pro’s Closet members who decided to take on Encierro Velo were David Ansel, Seth Holmes, and me. This race was going to be the first test of the year, and we all wanted to beat each other. Here, we would see who had been training hard all winter, and who had been eating Oreos on the couch (I’d done a bit of both).
The day of the race arrived, and we all met early Saturday morning at the high school running track in Elbert. The air was dry, and you could tell that the day was going to be hot. We were all surprised by the turnout. The parking lot was full, and during the rider’s meeting, the bleachers were packed. Race organizer, Phil Schwizer, seemed genuinely bowled over that so many had turned up to his humble gravel grinder.
Great credit goes to Phil and his small team. Encierro Velo lacks the resources and polish of bigger races, but it wasn’t lacking in charm. The event felt like one of Phil’s passion projects, something he was eager to share with other passionate cyclists. It’s just pure grassroots racing, laid-back and simple, and at times played off the cuff.
We warmed up, attended the rider's meeting, and then the field lined up just after 9 am.
Phil waved us off when the road was clear and we rolled out onto the main street, cutting straight through the small town of Elbert. The pace at the beginning was brisk but manageable. Everyone was feeling good and the group stayed together. But this all changed very soon.
Attacks began the moment the group turned off the main road onto the dirt. Riders began fighting to get up to the front, and it was soon a battle just to simply hang on. I was caught off guard by how hard the climbs would be at race pace. Within the first 5 miles, I was already thrown deep into the pain cave, and a select fast group began to pull away up one of the particularly hard climbs. David sprinted by on my right. He was chasing, so I knew I had to try and follow. If you were racing to stay up front, the next 20 minutes would be absolute suffering.
The road conditions in this section of the race were unlike anything I had ever ridden in Boulder. They were washboard, with a fine layer of sand on top up to an inch or deeper. It sapped your energy as if every watt you put into your pedals only returned half a watt in forward movement. I saw more than a few front wheels dig into to a soft patch of sand and send an unlucky rider squirreling off the back.
My heart rate was out of control, but I managed to bridge to the leading group. Then I immediately fell off. I did this three more times, bridging and falling off until I could do no more. Ten miles into the race I’d popped and started moving backward. Seth eventually passed me. I tried to hold his wheel but by the next rise, he dropped me as well.
The thing with racing on rolling hills is that you have to dig and pedal hard on each one to stay in contact. Then, after the crest, you still don’t get a break. Everyone accelerates down the backside, so you have to as well. Ideally, you try to carry as much of that momentum into the next hill so you can put off starting the cycle of pain over again.
For a while, I soft-pedaled and downed a few gels. After some quality alone time, I miraculously began to feel somewhat recovered. The roads smoothed out into the beautiful brown and red hardpack that encompassed the rest of the course, and suddenly I was able to pedal hard again. I began working my way back up through the field, which had become scattered and spread out over several miles in the wake of the breakaway.
I caught Seth again, and together we continued working our way forward. By the halfway point we had a small group that stayed together and kept moving at a decent pace. Eventually, I saw a lone figure pedaling up the road. We’d reeled in David. He’d just spent the last hour riding alone in the wind and he happily latched onto our group.
The next hour passed in relative silence. Aside from some yelled out directions from our GPS maps to keep the group on course, we mostly entered a stoic state of group suffering that prevented too much chatter
At mile 45 I ran out of water. When I’d felt how hot it was going to be earlier that morning, I’d briefly considered stuffing a third bottle in my jersey but decided against it in an effort to stay light. This would be my greatest regret of the day. My right quad started twitching and I could tell a cramp was coming. Everyone in the group either felt great or had amazing poker faces, so I started keeping my turns on the front shorter and spinning easier gears in an effort to get my quad to quiet down.
One mile from the finish, David jumped. It was all or nothing at this point. I stamped the pedals to stay with him. In the final 300 meters, my quad gave up the ghost and fully cramped, forcing me to soft-pedal across the finish. Not that it would have mattered. David had definitely trained the hardest of the three of us and I don’t know if I would have been able to reel him back in anyway. Kudos, buddy.
After the finish we all collapsed in the grass, our day done. Everywhere around us riders were telling their war stories, excitedly discussing how their race either went right and wrong. Encierro Velo was definitely one of the highlights of my year so far. It’s part of a larger race series with the PX160, a 100-mile gravel grinder in Trinidad, CO to come in May.
Even if you’re not looking to race competitively, entering the race is worth doing just to discover the beautiful rolling countryside that surrounds Elbert, Colorado. That, and the opportunity to get a post-race snack at the Naked Goat Cafe, a wonderful gem in the middle of town with some of the best homemade jams I’ve ever tasted.