Rob and I had such a fun time at the Belgian Waffle Ride we decided to keep the fun going and entered last minute into a gravel grinder race in Alberta, the Ghost of the Gravel. We really enjoyed training for the BWR because we were able to ride almost entirely on the city bike paths since we didn’t need long straight roads to get into aero like for triathlon. And because we needed to practice on trails we could dip onto the dirt whenever we saw it then back on the bike paths. Too many cyclists are getting hit and injured or killed by cars these days. My FaceBook feed is filled almost daily with stories of cyclists’ encounters with cars and I’ve had my fair share as well. It’s almost becoming not worth it to ride outside anymore. But as I said, training for these gravel or off-road road races has been a super option this year.
The third edition of the Ghost of the Gravel is put on by Shawn Bunnin of Deadgoat Racing. It starts and finishes in Water Valley, Alberta, about 1hr northwest of Calgary. There were two distances this year, the out-and-back Friendly Ghost 78km and the big loop Scary Ghost 118km. As I’m a sucker for punishment I naturally signed up for the big Scary Ghost.
In contrast to the BWR which is primarily a road race which is why I was fine on my road bike, The Ghost is almost entirely a gravel race. Less than 10km of the entire race is on paved roads. Therefore I didn’t have much choice but to ride my cx bike. I ride a Kona Jake the Snake and it’s been great for cx races since they usually last about 1 hour. However it starts to hurt my back over 1 hr so I made some changes to try to improve my comfort by adding a new saddle and a longer stem. I think the changes worked because my back was not really an issue. Tire choice is again a big deal. We decided to go with Continental Gatorskins 32mm. They were awesome! No flats again, so that’s 2 for 2 in off-road races with Gatorskins. I’m a big fan!
My goal was to keep up with Rob’s friend Kendra, who is a previous winner of this race and an awesome cyclist, for as long as I could. Spoiler: I made it about 83km before I got chewed up and spit out and I was left in Kendra’s dust!
This ended up being a pretty massive ride. 118km. 5hr 13min. 6200ft ascent. And the gravel makes it *that* much harder. The first 40km or so was pretty smooth, hard pack gravel. After that, the road surface kind of went to hell and got much more bumpy and difficult. But nothing was technical, I was never scared of it, compared to the BWR where I was scared to death on pretty much every off-road section. Overall both races offered up a big dose of suffering but for me the BWR was a lot harder because of the technical off-road sections, even though the Ghost had about 1000ft more ascent for a similar distance.
Very little of the Ghost is flat. You’re pretty much either going up or going down. I am still a pretty poor climber, I get dropped quickly on any sort of incline, so these races are hard for me and just give me something to improve upon!
Early on we were in a big group of mostly girls. Total girl power. It was awesome. Those girls are so strong. I think gravel grinders bring out the more “hard core” people compared to a typical road race (I am NOT calling myself hard core!) so maybe the calibre of riders is stronger. Well before 20km we were cruising along, I was already feeling like I was riding as hard as I could and on an incline of course, the girls pressed hard and I got dropped like a bad habit. I wasn’t too worried, I couldn’t imagine them continuing at that pace for over 100km more so I said to myself I’ll catch them later. I never did. Wow *face palm*. I have lots of work to do on the bike!
I had a fun time descending gravel roads. It wasn’t scary to me, although I probably should have been scared. I think I’m a little wacky with what I find frightening and beyond my capabilities and what other people think.
I had two big problems that day. The first was my bike pretty much stopped shifting. It has never been a problem in cx races because I never get out of my small chain ring (ha!). But here, I needed to be shifting quite often with the varying terrain, and I think the bumpy roads bumped around the cabling too much causing too much friction and the front derailleur was almost impossible to move. It was really difficult to try to hold on going over bumps while at the same time using all the strength in my left arm to shift. Something for Rob to look at and fix!
The other big problem was all the 5th wheel campers racing by us. We were literally in the middle of nowhere and it felt like the Deerfoot. Every redneck Albertan with a 5th wheel and a quad was out, I suppose looking for a place to camp and shoot things, and blasting by us. Like every 5 minutes. And in their wake, spraying us with huge dust clouds. I have enough dust in my lungs to last a lifetime and I was actually cleaning dirt out of my ears after the race. It was incredibly irritating. I definitely lost my shit for far too long over those damn 5th wheels.
I had a great time, I definitely was in the pain cave for a while which is always a fun place to be! I highly recommend trying a gravel grinder for a new experience in cycling, and in particular for Albertans, the Ghost of the Gravel was an awesome race!
Thanks to Rob for the rad riding photos! He was risking life and limb to take photos while riding sketchy gravel roads! This also means we weren’t riding fast enough for him because he was able to take photos and talk the entire time!