The Gowdy Grinder – all the good things about Mountain Biking

The Grinder is held at Curt Gowdy state park in southern Wyoming. The park sits halfway between the towns of Laramie and Cheyenne in a small lump of hills known as the Laramie Mountains. As you drive north from Colorado, the ground slowly rises upwards in a constant slope, taking you from the front range at 1500m to the southern Wyoming plateau at 2000m. I’ve never seen the plains so green before – the constant rains and high groundwater from the flood have left the meadows dancing with life.

Windmills fill the horizon on the grassy plains of southern wyoming. Photo from Bryan Alders
Windmills fill the horizon on the grassy plains of southern wyoming. Photo from Bryan Alders

The race is a fundraiser for the excellent trails in the state park. Someone realised that the huge populace of mountain bikers down in Colorado would probably boost the revenue to this little corner of quietness, and set about making some of the most fun trails in the Rockies. They have little elevation to play with, and instead twist through Aspen meadows and over granite outcrops on well built routes. It’s really fun riding. Bryan, Blake and I went on a little adventure up there a couple of years ago, so I knew going into the race it would be worth the trip, and worth the hype that everyone in Boulder had placed on this small race.

Sam and I are both getting familiar with our new bikes. The DW link suspension on the turner was great for the trails at Gowdy

It’s funny that such a small event attracts a strong field. They haven’t marketed it to anyone, but word spread quickly about its ‘grassroots’ feel and cheap entry. $20 gets you a two hour race, a burger and a beer. We drove up on Sunday morning, and parked in a field with about 50 other cars. Slowly friends started to mingle around until we had 10 boulderites ready to ride. We set out on course for a warm up. It was like any other group ride, with the exception of the numbers attached to the front of our bikes. I quickly realised the race was going to be a challenge: heading into the first technical ‘rock garden’, Brady Kappius casually launched himself off a small 4 foot ledge, followed closely by Mike Friedberg. A little too closely it turns out. As Mike slowed to avoid hitting the back of Brady’s bike, he lost all momentum and sailed head first into the ground below. Artfully rolling at the bottom and getting to his feet, I think I was left more shaken than he was, as I got the front row seat!

We assembled in a somewhat orderly line to hear the race instructions. As is typical, the promotor told us to be nice people, don’t do anything silly, and pick up all our ‘trash’. I looked around at the start – I could find at least 20 good friends in the field. The group of riders weren’t concentrating on the racing yet; everyone was simply catching up, chatting and laughing. It felt like the perfect atmosphere to start the race with.

The whistle blew and we sprinted through the cattle corrals and up the steep and rutted dirt road climb towards the trails. It was 3 minutes of suffering to spread out the riders. I went straight to the front and embraced the headwind. With so many hard trails to ride, I didn’t want to be caught off guard by getting stuck behind someone. It worked in spreading out the field. I could see Bryan behind me slowly bridging the early gap I’d made. Coming around for lap two, we set off on a bigger loop. At this point I had about 20-30 seconds lead and I wanted to extend it. Unfortunately, some other park visitors had a different idea, and had chosen to rearrange some course markings. Luckily for me, they sent me down a dead end trail, so after just a minute I realised the error and pedalled back up to see everyone else following me off course. Back to the racing at hand – the quick shuffle of the pack after our detour had put Bryan up ahead, just out of sight with a small advantage. I was pretty annoyed at this point, and dug in with the aim of catching him as soon as I could. He was pedalling hard ahead with no idea that we’d got lost. I eventually caught up to him at the end of lap two. Coming through the start/finish before heading out onto the last lap, I put in a big hard effort, trying to distance Bryan before the singletrack started again. Mountain Biking has a huge second wheel advantage – that is, the person in second benefits greatly from seeing the lines taken and the speed of the person in front. Just the general direction of the trail can be enough to jog the second riders memory, and allow them to save energy through tricky features. At gowdy, where constant four-foot step ups and drops are common, I really wanted to avoid having Bryan on my wheel. I’ve ridden with him enough to know that his smooth riding style suited the trails perfectly, and he’d be a lot calmer than me towards the end of the race.

Podiums are great. Theyre even better when they're shared with two of my closest friends
Podiums are great. Theyre even better when they’re shared with two of my closest friends

My tactics paid off. I rode the last lap alone, cresting the top of the final climb just as huge crack of thunder clapped overhead. My run in to the finish was accompanied by flashes of lightening, and I crossed the line with arms aloft. The arms aloft part quickly brought me down to earth though, as I released the significance of my win; people were mainly looking the other way, talking in small groups, and finding cover from the imminent rain about to pour down. I think one person may have noticed that I’d crossed the line though, and they said well done. Generally it was a much needed reality check, to remind me that I may have won the 2014 gowdy grinder, but outside of my small pocket of mountain bike friends, the result means nothing. The race and the event were the important part. I’m really happy to have won against good friends who I ride with often. It added to the great atmosphere, and ensured that I’ll be back to defend the ‘title’ next year.

2014 Gowdy Grinder results

The little things

Life at a slower pace. Two wheels come at a price; a price I am happy to pay over and over again on any day of the week, but sometimes an enforced break is the exact remedy you didn’t know you were looking for.

The fee for riding bikes is missing out on the little things that move slowly. The things that need to be admired rather than just glanced at. Spending some time admiring and moving at the pace of the trees and the birds brings rewards beyond any singletrack buzz. I won’t be hanging up the freewheel just yet, but a change in pace has to be savoured when you get the chance.

I’m not a horticulturist, so these descriptions will vary from ‘abstract’ to ‘crude’, but at least they’ll be flowery.

These little white delicacies were growing everywhere the trees weren’t, and everywhere water was. Snuggled beside baltic lakes completely exposed to the wind, I’m sure that stem has weather many a storm to gain its modest height.

Aspens and sunlight are a perfect pair. Add in a gentle evening breeze and the trees come alive with shimmering leaves. The high altitude combined with early summer means these Aspens were only just completing their transition from silver to green. This spring colour change is normally overlooked in favour of the autumnal majesty of orange, but its subtly is what makes it most special.

I don’t know what you are, but your blue trumpets poking just above the shrubs are magnificent. Anything which grows at 12,000 feet is magnificent.

14 years since the pine beetle epidemic hit the Rocky Mountains. Its devastating fury leaving swathes of hillside devoid of life. this isolated pine sitting in a bowl out of the wind seemed to be flaunting its deathly colour to great effect. It may be dead, but it made me take notice. don’t avert your eyes when you see those decimated trees. Look further and think of a solution.

This bough was reaching its way out over the lake. Its stretching tentacles begging for the nutrients just out of its reach. At sunset, the trees own life paled in comparison to the screeching and squawking life of everything contained within its canopy.

You’ll probably never go to Saratoga, WY. Why would you? Its not on the road to anywhere you’ll go either. But this little diner takes precedence over main street, and also prides itself it appearance too.

When you dont have stature on your side, go for colour instead. This is atop Union Pass, a slight dip in the run of mountains slicing their way across North West Wyoming.

Water water everywhere

Water water everywhere, but not in the right places. It’s strange driving through a dense fog of smoke so thick that you can’t even see the markings on the road. It was a new experience to me, and one I would rather not go through again. Fort Collins isn’t my town, but driving under the heavy weight of the smoke bearing down on the town was saddening all the same. It could happen in Boulder too, and I’m sure it will in the not too distant future. The last few weeks have brought some much needed precipitation to the front range, and the topic of the impending fire danger seems to have been forgotten from daily conversation, but the danger is still there. As I look up at the huge black clouds unleashing lightening onto the foothills, its obvious that the 10 minutes of hard rain that will follow is never going to be enough to douse the spark that really wants to spread.

Whilst traveling through the mountains, camping in tinderboxes ready to light, caution was always on our mind. After living in such precarious situations, the lakes always seemed like an anomaly; all this water just sitting there. Useless to help the dire situation of its yang, the woodland that surrounds it.

I’ve seen some fantastic lakes. Here is a selection of my favourites:

Lookout lake – Snowy range, Wyoming.

With one of the driest winters on record, I was surprised to find this run of ice making its way across the surface of the lake. In the shadow of medicine bow peak, the touch test confirmed that this water wasn’t much above freezing. The baltic wind was also blowing small ice chunks across the surface like little rubber ducks. Fantastic.

Lake Marie, Snowy range, Wyoming

The peak in the background is Medicine Bow peak, a mere 12,000 feet high. In colorado it wouldn’t even register as worth naming. But its the namesake of the medicine bow national forest, and sticks its head a long way above the grassy plains of south eastern wyoming. This is Lake Marie, named after one of the most influential ladies Wyoming has even seen. As I was taking this photo the wind was buffeting the water so hard I wondered how it managed to stay in the lake.

Green River Lake, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

The green river isn’t widely known, but it tracks a large course through the southwest of the US, from its headwaters here in the Wind Rivers, through the empty sage of Southern Wyoming, and finally meandering ever more slowly into Utah before dumping into the Colorado river just outside of Moab. Having filled cars with petrol in both Green Rivers (there are two towns called Green River – one in Utah and one in Wyoming), I never imagined its origins to be so grand. With squaretop peak in the background, and nestled on the pacific side of the continental divide, it could hardly be more majestic. I’m going to state right here that I will one day look down Green River lake from the top of that peak.

Twin Lakes, Wind River range, Wyoming

When you study a  map of the wind rivers, the hike to these lakes looks like a literal walk in the park. So small in fact that you’d hardly consider it a worthy conquest. But on closer analysis, the scale of these peaks becomes clear, and suddenly you realise the quarter of an inch of dotted ink on paper actually equals a solid 14 mile round trip with almost 3,000 of vertical gain. Creeks to be crossed, steeps to scramble up, and multiple downed trees to overcome lead up and over a ridge into a bowl that feels untouched. Encountering no people in either direction made this hike that little bit more special. The small barely submerged walkway between the two lakes is another quirk of geology; it takes a good moment of contemplation to work out in which direction the water is flowing.

Jackson lake, Teton National Park, Wyoming.

The king of all lakes, its majesty almost unconquerable. Sitting at it’s eastern shore and listening to the gentle lapping of water is exactly the place I would like to spend every 7pm. The colours begin to form over the highest peaks in the Tetons, and as the clouds dance above, the water is saturated with its changing  hue. Swimming in the lake makes you feel like the smallest thing alive; I like it.

Taggart Lake, Teton National Park, Wyoming.

This is a little lake by Teton standards. On the map it hardly looks worth visiting, but a dawn-stroll around its shore provides the best view of Grand Teton that I have ever seen. Eagles nosey enough to make a second, and third, bypass over your head just adds to the feeling of being out there.

Minerva Pools, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

I’m not sure this one counts, but it can’t be excluded. It doesn’t flow anywhere, but rather evaporates right off the surface as the near-boiling sulphuric water pours out of the ground. Millennia of calcification has transformed an otherwise normal valley into terraces of the whitest of white rock formations. Looking at the peaks on the other side of the valley which fall into Montana make it even more special.

Lake Yellowstone, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Its big; not much bigger than Jackson lake, but the perspective puts the peaks so much further away on the other side of the water. I would like to go find out what there is on the other side of that water. We rolled up just as a thunderstorm was rolling in. It looks dangerous; not just foreboding, but actually something you wouldn’t want to be involved in.

Lake in the woods, Union Pass, Wyoming.

Compared with the other bodies of water in this list, this little puddle shouldn’t even make a splash. But it does. Perhaps its the solitude; Elk and Deer were scrambling for cover around every corner. Its winning feature for me though are the lilies floating so happily on the surface. Undisturbed like we found them, and like we left them.

Lake Louise, Western Wind rivers, Wyoming.

You can see the carvings the water has made as it furrows its own path in between the scree of volcano which originally shaped this valley. The walk to its closest shore is a mere hour of scrambling up and down seemingly never ending valleys of rubble, but it takes you to another place – looking at the highest point in wyoming that is so close but you know would take another two days to walk there, dont even think about taking a bike!

Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

In contrast to the most solitary parts of Wyoming, Grand Lake is a metropolis. Surrounded on three sides by resort homes, and the third rising sharply to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, its a lake buzzing with Kayaks, boats, swimmers and young energy. Ice creams are being sold on the board walk, next to children digging their feet into the sand. Smoke from nearby fires added a haze to the valley which finished the picture – holiday land.

Hellastone

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write for a long time, like 2 years long time. My first visit to Yellowstone was whirlwind, and without too much opportunity to venture far from the automobile, my enduring memory was the signposts. Everywhere. I fear this story may come off a little too negative, so I am going to add a disclaimer here; this northerly part of Wyoming is like nowhere else on earth. Go visit it, do it soon, and savour everything you can see. It makes you question the ground under your feet, which is rather rare in my geological experience.

So here are some of the more interesting warnings to not break their rules.

Perhaps this sign was neccessary – don’t all those suburbans tearing up the landscape. I was at least happy that the signs appeared hand made – I wonder what kind of person it takes to repeatedly chisel “do not” signs into wood?

It just looked like grass to me….

I always wonder why the human is walking and the dog is sitting still? Am I thinking too much into this one?

Sometimes one would assume common sense would be enough in a situation like this; mere feet from the 380 foot yellowstone falls, I didn’t fancy a swim. Maybe I’m overestimating the intelligence of the general populace.

Unsurprisingly in a place where foot travel is so severely restricted, bicycles might as well be torn from roof racks and crushed upon entry. My over-active mental “hike-to-bike” converter was going crazy on this one…

For all the warnings about bears, they fail to make bears look that scary. I think a big picture of a snarling bear with a small child hanging out of its mouth would do the trick

This signs was ironic – it was nearing 100 degrees F when I took this photo!

Why was this sign scribed in Comic sans? Perhaps finding a 200 pound tourist boiling in a mudpool would have some perverse humour to it?

Just don’t, OK?

So tempting!