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.
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.
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.
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.