With my wife’s departure from the trail running world (due to knee issues) she’s taken a shining to gravel biking. I’ve happily joined her in this since, from outward appearances, gravel biking has a very similar ethos to trail running. In general it feels like sports that are “dirt” oriented are pretty akin to one another.
Given this new venture, we signed up for the Freedhem 46 gravel ride last weekend. I originally signed up for the 76 mile version, but just wasn’t feeling recovered enough for a long effort yet and so dropped down to the more reasonable 46 mile distance. We packed up our bikes early on a Saturday morning and made the trip to the race start, outside of Little Falls, MN. There were a couple hundred riders signed up for the event and so this small intersection in the middle of nowhere was packed with people.
We walked over to the start and got our bibs and swag, as well as did a round in the porta potties. We then headed back to the car to get the bikes ready and line up at the start line. The event is a mass start with all the riders mixed, but we decided to stick towards the back so as not to get in the way of any of the really fast folks. This was our first bike-only event and so we were trying to figure things out as we went. The only other bike races I had participated in were duathlons where the biking was in the middle of two runs, and so this was a much different environment.
A few minutes after 9am the pack headed out and we began a short 1 mile pavement section to let everyone space out a bit. The 76 mile race officially starts at the end of this mile road so I made sure I wasn’t in anyone’s way as I made my way through the crowd. Soon we made the right hand turn onto our first gravel road and the full race was off. My wife had some goals for this event and so she took off and I never saw her again until the finish.
The Freedhem course is pretty mild when it comes to gravel roads. The quality of the gravel was a bit sandy, but overall pretty easy to ride on. There weren’t a lot of really big hills either, which was a nice change from the gravel training route we had ridden in Cannon Falls last month. This all meant that I was able to just lock into an effort and keep going. At a couple different points I thought I saw my wife in the distance, but every time I got close I realized it wasn’t her. I had made a key mistake early on by getting behind some slower riders and so I know I lost some time in the early part of the race. I was OK with this though because I wasn’t here to prove anything. I wanted to enjoy my first gravel race experience and however I did was fine with me.
Things were going pretty well as I turned onto the long straightaway westwards, which marked the mid-way point in our race distance. It was around here that I stopped to pull out a snack and drink some water. I also decided to check on where my wife was and discovered that she was well over a mile ahead of me (we use our cell phones to track each other during big events). That was going to be a tall order to make up over the next 23 miles, but I figured there was nothing to do but to start hitting it. Then I sat back down on the bike…
I have never been a bike rider that’s experienced sit bone pain before, and so I was unprepared for when my butt hit the seat and the shocking pain bolted through me. Apparently I had chosen a chamois that was a bit too thin for the constant vibrations of the gravel and my butt had taken a beating. I gingerly sat down and start pedaling as best I could until the pain subsided. This was going to be a long 23 miles.
Despite the pain I managed to keep up an average pace. My first half of the race had been over 13mph (which is really fast for me), however by the time I managed to deal with the sit bone pain and put down some solid pedal strokes, I was down to around 11mph. As I pedaled I continued to check on how far ahead my wife was and the number just kept growing… 2 miles, 2.5 miles, 3 miles. She was rocking it, and I gave up on any hope of catching her before the end. Instead I just buckled down and did what I could to keep the legs moving despite the discomfort.
At mile 32 I hit the infamous “Sand Trap Road MMR” which is basically an ATV trail consisting of long stretches of beach like sand. I managed to ride down the hills, since I could basically bounce my way through, but as soon as I hit flat ground the sand ground me to a halt. Needless to say, many of us (including my wife) ended up just walking a large part of that road. Thankfully, it was less than a mile and we were back on gravel and pavement for the final push to the end.
I had been leapfrogging with a trio of folks and when we hit a long pavement section I tried my best to stick with them and get a little drafting in. I managed to crank it up to 14-15mph for a while but eventually I just couldn’t keep up and dropped back into my own pace. The final gravel road sections were a little looser and so it was a matter holding my lines as best as I could as the elite front pack of the 76 mile race came blasting past me.
I made the turn onto the final road and could see the finish line a mile ahead of me. Seeing the finish so close gave me a little burst of energy (as well as the gel I had taken a few miles before) and I managed to crank out a 13.5 mph push into the finish. I rode over to where my wife was and proceeded to shower praise on her for crushing her goals (and me in the process LOL), before we grabbed something to drink and get some food.
We recapped the day to each other and then packed up the bikes and started the long drive home. Even though I was in pain for the second half, I still managed a fast 46 mile time for myself. I came in with a time around 3:50, which was much better than I had anticipated. Given my recovery I was fully expecting to come in over 4 hours, and maybe even closer to 4:30. However, when it mattered, I was able to get my body to perform better than I anticipated.
I also know that there’s lots of room for improvement as well. A thicker chamois is a must for long gravel grinds, and I also would like a bike with some bigger tires. I found myself lacking in confidence on some of the gravel descents due to my bike’s tires (with 2500 miles on them) and stability. However, I can’t really complain too hard about how it all went. I had a great day, and this was a perfect introduction to the gravel racing scene. The Freedhem course is incredibly accessible, and so I highly recommend checking it out if you’re “gravel curious”.
For now, it’s back to recovery time and finding more ways to run and bike on dirt over the summer as I can.