For the moment, I am fine: How to ride Lost & Found's gravel grinder
On June 1st, the city of Portola, CA filled with riders from across the United States to test their spirits and each other for the annual Lost and Found gravel race. Armed with our Swiss Cross and more than a few granola bars, we went to see just what the fuss was all about.
Thankfully, most of the climbing was done. Somewhere on the descent I lost my phone bunny-hopping a ditch formed by the winter run off, only realizing it was gone when I found myself in front a picturesque golden meadow of mustard and clover. It was only a mile and half back, up the climb I just dropped down with joy. I should have been relieved to find the damn thing, but all I could think about was how much time I was losing on everyone who passed me on my way back up. I tried to keep the faith, like I said, thankfully most of the climbing was done, only another 80 miles of Lost and Found’s mixed and dubious terrain to navigate. For the moment, I am fine.
Lost and Found began about seven years ago and takes place over the loosley maintained service roads of the Plumas National Forest. It's a race, a ride and celebration of sorts organized by and held in benefit of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship; an outfit that builds and maintains trails in the area. The timing never seemed to be right for me to participate until this year. A lack of road racing on the Nor Cal calendar meant I was free to ride my brains out at elevation without the burden of cell service for a few days. Beginning and ending in the small town of Portola, CA, Lost and Found offers three different distances to choose. Whether 35, 60 or 100 miles, each boasts a seemingly never-ending network of roads and trails. Armed with the new , I opted for the latter and caught a ride North for the weekend.
The Sierra Buttes of Northern California have attracted me more and more over the last decade. Maybe the draw is genetic; my maternal great-great-grandfather came to this mountain range in the early 1800's in search of the same shock of gold coursing like veins through the state - like everyone else did back then. Records of him paint a colorful picture, to say the least. His way West from Ireland via Ellis Island was paved in a series of prize fights and handshake deals that finally landed him in this beautiful, gravely quiet, lush, yet financially useless forest. Much like him, at least once per year I bang my head against these mountains riding its aggravating steep climbs in search of my own golden moment of glory on the bike.
The day began with onboarding as many calories as I could without feeling bloated. Fruity granola and almond milk seem to do that trick just fine. I’ve done enough long dumb rides at this point to know what works for me. Eating early and often and tapering off solids to gels or blocks in for the last 20 or so miles keeps the body processing food and providing energy to starving muscles for the long haul. I’m sure there’s more science to this than I’m letting on. If we were talking about a crit, this would be a different story. Literally.
Race day formalities are the same across the board. They look like this, in order: wake, poop, coffee, breakfast, coffee, poop, coffee, kit, then hit the bathroom again just in case. By then, if I’m not ready to line up, something is really wrong. Lost and Found was no different, and everything was formulaic. At the line, I took my place third row back and sat side saddle on my top tube - a trick I learned from 'cross to give me a bit of room in case of a crowded chaotic start. I ended up next to eventual race winner and local CX phenom, Tobin Ortenblad, who I traded pleasantries with ahead of a liberal harmonica rendition of the national anthem. Tobin would finish over an hour ahead of me, and I was fine with that. Soon, with the fan fare an 8am roll out deserves, we were moving in a large nervous bunch. The start was jittery and reminiscent of Highway 101 traffic - fast, full of brake checks and not without its share of WTFs. After a few sketchy miles, we made a non-descript right onto a generic dirt road, and suddenly we were racing.
I have no shame in admitting how poor of a climber I am. While it’s something I enjoy on a “type 2” level, in a race format I despise it. My ego bruised bit as total freds and weekend warriors appeared to sling by me despite my humble tempo. As long as I could catch my breath and keep the pace, I knew after the descent in the rollers I’d shine. And for the moment, I was fine.
Here’s where tactics come into play of a race ride like this. One can opt for a few strategies regarding food. One being carry as much as you can, and never stop unless needed. Another is hit every aid station and treat it like a Sizzler on your dad’s credit card. I opted for something in between. I had a couple granola bars on me just in case, plus my guilty pleasure of sugary gummie shapes. At each aid station I grabbed a few provided bars, gulped half a bottle of water and rolled, stuffing my mouth on the exit. Blasting through an aid station can save a lot of time in the long run, this allowed me to catch most of the riders ahead of me. *Pro-tip: take advantage of the terrain when you eat. Got a long descent coming? Scarf a bar without the worry of choking on it because you're breathign heavy.* The stations were so frequent I could count on them to be my intervals for knowing when to eat - approximately every 45-60 minutes. Eating in the first part of a ride like this was way more important than the later half. Rule of thumb: eat for later, not now.
In the basin just North of Lake Davis, the roads became long and rolling; a profile I could ride just above tempo and make up for the lost time from looking for my damned dropped phone. Riders who flew by me on the initial climbs were popping in the flats, and picking them off felt energizing. Around mile 60, I began doing the math on my ride time and average speed based on distance covered. Sure I have a computer for that, but these types of games keep my mind off how much everything hurt. My race soon became a negotiation my brain made with my body on how much farther it could propel my bike, if we just go a little faster, we’ll be done sooner. It only hurts if you let it. Push. Push. Push.
Tire choice was a topic of great discussion ahead of the race on my social feed and within my sphere of acquaintances. Widths, tread pattern, tire pressure, thread pitch, and flavor of sealant - the works! Frankly, I find it boring. Usually I engage in this brand of banter only to pass the time, I have my favorites and know what they’re for. On the day, I rolled the for the volume, robust casing and cornering. Also, they were already mounted up on my wheels, so malaise played a crucial role in my tire choice. Lucky me, they stood up to more than a few rim bashing, rocky creek bed crossings. At least twice I heard my rim let out a painful donk in protest of my poor line choice on a descent. Worse for wear, I made it back in once piece.
Soon I had a little group of popped riders hanging on my wheel as if I were the engine of a freighter pushing across the great divide. I changed lines, flicked elbows, even ran sloppy lines to pop off the wheel suckers, but road etiquette didn’t seem to work. So I picked up the tempo, misery loves company, right? For the better part of seven miles, I dragged this ragged group at a pace I could barely stand to the next aid station. I hardly dismounted my bike to grab another bar before remounting and leaving the group to suss out food and water.
With 25 miles to go, I felt myself finally cracking with the displeasure of one final sustained three-mile climb dragging on longer than I cared for. But as I crested the top, there opened up a long valley with a smooth dirt road tracing the boarder of lush green idyllic farm fields and old growth pine. I was within the last 15 miles of the ride, and all the deals I had made with my body were coming back to be paid. I was flying, it felt like. At mile 10 I hit pavement and dropped to my forearms on the bars and pushed the biggest gear I could. Having skipped the last aid station, I was motivated by a decent meal and a cold beer. I wish I could say something special happened at the finish, but I had just ridden 100+ miles by myself in a loosely meditative state. Crossing the line to the end of the ride felt paramount to opening the door to my apartment. Maybe not that mundane, but my mind was too fried to take in the accomplishment of the day.
In the glow of the post ride, we shared stories about the course, pit falls, follies and just about anything as if to say, “Don’t forget this moment, or it will soon be lost.” I was elated in endorphins that kept my cramping muscles from fully firing. Surely there would be a next time with more painful miles to endure, but at the moment I was fine.
Here are a few essentials, bike choice aside, that will get you through your next gravel ride with relative ease.
- Lightweight Summer Jersey: There are many customizable kits out there, like my road team's Jakroo kit. The weight of a jersey, paired with base layer and arm warmers helps regulate body temperature, especially when doing elevaton and going in and out of tree cover.
- Stiff Shoes: Unlike CX where you're on and off the bike, gravel races you're almost never off the bike and having pure power output is crucial. I would have opted for road shoes, but instead went with these Bont Riots because of the threat of crossing snow lines.
- Wind Vest: Layerable and packable clothes are clutch. Again, it's about regulating body temp. In the case of this Ornot wind vest, it keeps the body protected from cold descents when you're drenched in sweat from that 3000ft climb.
- FOOD: Easily consumable food is absolutely a must. Figure about 200 calories an hour, if you're really jammin', and a bottle of water just as often. Remember to eat for later, not now. Also, don't throw trash on the ground. Nothing pisses me off more than seeing bar and gel wrappers on the ground at these events.
- Accessories: Helmet, glasses and cap are crucial. A cap is nice to have for keeping sun out of your eyes, while glasses are great for the glare. Making sure your glasses can fit in the vents of your helmet is not only so pro and easy access, it frees up pockets for snacks and unneeded layers.