Racing the Grand Loop

When I did the Grand Loop in ’07 it was a completely consuming affair.  Everything about it was so new, so foreign, so promising, so freightening…I was green to multi-day self-supported racing (still am, really).  Having that first one in the books removed much of the unknown about the event this time.

By far, Grand Loop ’09 was all about the internal struggle of multi-day racing.  I knew that at the start, yet still got more than I expected in that department!

I had goals and expectations.  First and foremost was simply to finish on the SS.  The second was to do it faster than I did the first time around and set a new record mark for the route.  Little did I know that Jefe would be hitting the route with similar aspirations putting in a record ride on his SS…  The more time I spend on a SS the more I realize that, especially for longer events, they can be faster even though they seem to be such a disadvantage at times.  Goal #2 was tied in with this theory. 

All shiny and new for the start.  I got as much on the bike (and not on my back) as possible.  This turned out to be a great strategy for the most part as pack weight never turned into a sore back – a concern with all the standing required.  As for the gear, I stressed over that a lot…of course…and had pretty much settled on a 33.22 (29er).  The day before the start I felt so friggin good I changed and went with a 33.21.  The nice thing about leaving the start is you don’t have to think about gear choice anymore.  Ride, eat, sleep if ya gotta, repeat.  Ah, the simple life.

This is the year for everyone to do the “race” on their own terms.  Scott and Chad did the route backwards (actually a consistent theme for Scott this year), while others started at various times.  I chose to start at Westwater.  It was closer to  home, it would split the desert section of the KT – and since it was cooler in general an early morning start meant starting without being sleep deprived, something all but Jefe, Jim and Matt took advantage of.  The conditions this year were anything but traditional.

I was moving faster this year than in ’07 – by a lot most of the time.  It’s hard to wrap my head around, actually.  Cool temps, big wheels, experience, I just don’t really know.  After the ’07 ride I knew it could be done faster cause I stopped a lot to make coffee…but when I was riding I was riding fast, or so I thought.  Doing the mulit-rider playback analysis in topofusion with the ’07 and ’09 files is eye-popping.  If it wasn’t muddy I was just faster this year.

I tossed on 2.35 rampages front and rear with the idea that going with super low pressure in the rear would maintain traction up sandy climbs.  This worked great and I only walked in 2 short steep bits on the shandies, and very little on the way to N Beaver.  I hit the Paradox (from Dewey) about 1 hour 50 min faster than in ’07!  I didn’t know at the time, only after the topofusion analysis.

This view from Yellow Jacket on the KT always gets a wow.

What remains of Dewey.

Looking over to the Unc from the Shandies.

You know where  this is!  Weather started brilliant but quickly deteriorated.  Cool temps were great – but came with lots of moisture.  It was a mixed bag for sure.

Sure enough, high in the La Sals the storms hit in earnest.  Fast riding turned to unrideable muck.  So much for that shiny new bike.  Suddenly those 2.35 rampages with minimal clearance became a liability.  Ugh.

The only way to get through this area was meadow hopping.  Lots of boulders and sagebrush to dodge, I look up and OMG there are two cyclists coming towards me doing the same!!  No way, it couldn’t be…sure enough, Hollywood and Mr. Topofusion were doing the same, looking rather soggy too!  It was surreal to be surrounded by my own breathing and thoughts for several hours and then run into a pair doing the same.  Chad and I had a moment up there, and I gotta say he looked fresh and froggy.  Lookout, this new kid on the block is on the rise!

Working through those meadows took forever.  There was one last big nasty muddy climb, more meadow hopping, before things improved.  Several hours later I ran into Marshal out on his birthday ride.  He seemed unfazed by the weather and fully prepared.  In fact I was doing a lot of walking where it looked like he was riding mud.  He’s got muck super powers ;)

We rode together a little, shared a few tales.  Then he says “well looks like no records this year eh?”  That was a big blow.  It was on my mind, but I wasn’t willing to face that.  The muck event took a lot out of me, I can’t lie, and this was a low point of the ride.  Shortly thereafter, I couldn’t figure out a turn and lost another 15 minutes – GPS track and all.  Meh.

Some time later rolling through the Paradox valley I was becoming aware of some voice inside that was telling me not to be discouraged, some underlying optimism that a good ride was still to be had.  The phone at the Bedrock store was out of service – another big blow (hey I ain’t single these days!)  – but that just served as a launch pad to attack this route with everything.  I was starting to feel a little crazy and wanting to get jiggy with it.  So, I unleashed my secret weapon:  Java juice and m&ms.  Stoveless this time, the caffeine fix came from these little packets of heaven.  Better than GU hands down!  Chasing copious amounts of M&Ms, well that was the kick the turbo needed.  Bedrock to Pinto Mesa took all of 6 hours, the hardest section of the Paradox, in the witching hours.  It was such a blast.  Lot’s of hike a bike, at times run a bike – that Java Juice is strong stuff and at times I had to conciously pull in the reigns.  3:40 AM just below Pinto it was time for a couple hours shuteye, the first thus far.  I’d been pushing for about 22 hours at this point.

That meant Glencoe Bench for the sunrise!  A gorgeous spot, surely made all the better by sleep deprivation and exhaustion.  You can barely make out the La Sals in this pic.  Yep, this route covers some ground.

Up, up, up.  Houser road was pretty tough above 9k on the SS and I did a fair bit of hoofing.  Yet, the TF comparison still says faster than ’07.  I’m tossing all my gears away, they don’t do any good anyway!

The prize for the last 60 miles of climbing?  Nearly unrideable singletrack – downed trees, snow cover – the upper Tab is simply not ready.  I had twinges of guilt riding as it was rideable but muddy, knowing we were not doing the trail any good.

Snow and trees notwithstanding, it didn’t take very long.  It seemed long…but the file says otherwise.  The infamous Roubideaux was next, 16 drainage crossings, much of the ups are hikes, all rubbly, all drop dead gorgeous and teeming with critters of all kinds.  I took a nap under a tree during a shower, but other than that it flowed by magically.  Much easier than I recalled!  The only issue was that my chain was developing a sqeek – my lube escaped from the pack about 120 miles ago, doh!

That is the last pic I snapped.  The camera was bugging me and I was hammering.  It almost didn’t make the trip.

Heading up Love Mesa it looked like I’d hit the top in daylight.  Never having seen the view from up there I was motivated to do so, and when it started to look tight I ramped it up some more, and really hammered the final 45 minutes or so.  And didn’t eat…and just missed the sunset at the top.  Dang it.  It was cold at the top, and I was pretty much bonked with mostly downhill gravel road for the next few hours.  Shit.  Same thing that forced me to stop last time.

I put on warm gear I brought specifically for this section, knowing this could happen.  I was certainly warm, sweating even, but I was toast.  Dominguez was the goal but the few hills before the drop in were killing me.  The legs were done, and when that happens on a SS there is only one thing to do.  Walk.  It was agonizingly slow, I was pissed at how inefficient this was…the eyes couldn’t focus right and I was starting to halucinate…and finally about midnight pulled the bivvy out.  6 hours later I was moving again but the damage was done.  Too tired to get much of anything down the hatch, I woke still pretty bonked out.  A good long while rehydrating and fueling at Dominguez helped but it sure felt like I had slipped into survival mode.

The rest of the day was all about walking as little as possible.  I knew it would hurt but would be faster to keep riding.  I came this year to go fast and I gave it what was left.  Not much, but the Whitewater to LL section was still under 3.5 hours, and the No Mas climb faster than ’07 when I swear I flew up that thing.

But wait – there is more!  Traditional GL racers are done at the LL trailhead, but since I started in Westwater, I got to ride pavement out to Fruita, interstate to Loma, then 40 ish miles of the Kokopelli that I hadn’t yet done.  That meant the Salt Creek  hike a bike was coming soon.  Right about here is when I paused to reconsider the (lack of)wisdom of my start point. 

To prepare, I took advantage of the McDonalds passing in Fruita.  $10 of garbage down the hatch, I (thought I) was fueled and ready.  Trouble is, McDs is nothing like I’d been eating for the last 4 months or so and it tried to escape all the way to WW.  Sore tired legs and bad gut notwithstanding, I knew where I was time-wise – roughly 7 hours ahead of record pace – and just had to get’r done.  The pressure was off and I fully enjoyed the cruise to WW.

An amazing thing happens when you ride your bike for days on end with minimal sleep.  You become one with that machine, the bars, fork, wheels all an extension of your body.  Bike handling becomes so extraordinarily crisp it is almost like an out of body experience.  I loved the techy singletrack leading to Salt Creek.  Anything that didn’t require a lot of power, that is ;)  There are long sections between Rabbit Valley and Bitter Creek with tons of flow, real ripping double track and those were a blast.  The desert was cool this afternoon/evening, and just before WW I actually had to put on my arm warmers.  Go figure!

Right as I rolled up to the railroad overpass near WW – the start and finish of my loop – an Amtrak train sped over, full of onlookers, all cheering my finish.  At least that’s what my addled mind told me.  This can be a lonely sport – solo starts, solo finishes – but meeting up with other riders on route and the Amtrak cheering section were certain highlights ;)

The GPS file tells me these times:  2 days, 12 hours 44 min for the traditional (bedrock) route.  For the complete loop (inluding the typically untimed section from the Tab TH to Loma) it was 2 days 15 hours 39 min.  That’s about 6.5 hours faster than the ’07 record ride and this year’s conditions were questionable at best.  And SS – guess what I think about that??

The event this year saw lots of action.  There were so many tire tracks out there I couldn’t keep them all straight!  Monday morning I got online in Fruita and saw that Jefe was about to finish and he was hauling the mail, due to finish well  under the previous record.  Instead of heading  home, I drove back to GJ and the Tab TH to meet him – Cat Morrison and Zack were already there and Jefe was onroute to eating a whole chicken and then some…simply awesome to chat with the 3 of them in the perfect temps of the midday desert.  He put in a phenomenal ride, also on a SS!  His energy and enthusiasm for the experience was contagious, I swear he did  not just finish the GL ;)

As for my recovery…I was completely shelled post event.  After finishing I headed straight for Fruita, the super 8 was calling  loudly and the WW mosquitoes were way too hungry.  The mirror there told the story of my race.  I did not see a 44 year old dude I knew 3 days ago, what I saw was an ageless dude with not enough layers to hide a single piece of muscle fiber or vein.  Indeed when I got home the tanita told me bodyfat was at 2.4%.  It is rising quickly but that pace I don’t think was sustainable for much longer.  It really makes me think about strategies for longer events like CTR…

I’d be remiss if I didn’t show some appreciation here.  Mike Curiak has long provided the inspiration to do this sort of event, in fact this exact event.  On top of that, he has built bulletproof wheels on which to do them, and even helped me quickly acquire the Lenz Milk Money (which he had a large role in designing) which turned out to be the ideal bike for this difficult route.  Scott Morris’ Topofusion and have become enormous contributions to the endurance racing scene.  Saving the best for last, Lynda is an inspiration on many levels.  One is simply to keep up with the gal, the second is sweet things to daydream about on long suffery climbs.  The entire endurance MTB crowd is super group of folks I’m happy to consider as family.

20 replies on “Racing the Grand Loop”

  1. Nice work and a killer ride. The ultra family has had quite the year already and you, Jefe and Chad held it down out there SS! Really wish I could have joined but alas, my fish is thawing and getting ready to fry in a week.

    Loved the report, nice to know you suffer like the rest of us out there ;)


  2. Amazing ride, super star. It felt so much more vivid to me because I have now seen a small part of that route (Kokopelli). Thanks for taking the time to type it out.

    So what’s next? CTR and Trans-Utah?

  3. I think I saw your lost oil bottle, somewhere on the rough part of the Paradox, before Pinto. As I rolled by it my brain finally processed the following, Hey I bet that was someone’s chain oil, hey Dave is probably the only guy in front of me right now, Funny, didn’t he also lose his chain oil in 07??

    Great ride Dave, & nice seeing you on the trail…………

  4. Hey there skinny,
    Wow. Given how fast you went in 07, with much better conditions, I am in awe of your ride this year. Did you carry more or less gear on the bike this time? Thanks for taking the time to share it with the rest of us.

  5. Hey Marshall,
    You’re right! I found his bottle in ’07. I have it framed and on the wall. It will be a collectors item in a few years.:)

  6. Damn… That route seems like it’d be insanely hard even on a fully geared bike. I can’t even imagine whipping it out in the time you did on an SS. Good job!!

  7. LOL I did lose lube in ’07! At least I had some olive oil that year, no such luck this time. Another good thing about the SS, it’s quite resilent to muck.

    DB – you sweet talking me again? More gear on the bike this time, less in the pack. Overall pretty similar load. No stove this time, but warmer clothes (and I used every piece of gear I brought).

    Jill: KMC200 in (gulp) 9 days, then a week of bikepacking with the other half of 2-epic (on much of the TU route), then CTR. Might even squeeze in a prominent regional lapper or two in the fall. I’m not sure TU will fit in there this fall, but we’ll see…

    Thanks for all the kind comments y’all.

  8. Congrats on the journey, Dave – sounds like you had a bit of everything thrown at you…including the McDonalds crap at the end. Who knew that McDonalds would be tougher than Roubideaux? ;-)

    Great write-up and awesome story – I hope someone gives you guys the opportunity to write a magazine article on this.

  9. yiipie!yippie!yippie!!! and a little skippy!skippy!!!! HAPPYDANCE! HAPPYDANCE!

    Way to go, and thanks SO MUCH for such an awesome write up of your time and experience!


  10. Thanks for taking the time to share all of this, Daveypants. What you (and Jefe) did this year goes beyond impressive. ‘Chapeau’ to both of you.

    Can’t wait to hear the elaborations (and embellishments!) of these tales and spend some downtime campin’ (AFTER riding) this weekend. Bring a spoon!


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