Shenanigans, right off the bat.
We rolled up to the Rock Cobbler race venue, and the barrel race kicked off not long after. While Paige Onweller and I waited in line to be served a pasta dinner (sadly, all of the free beer had been drunk by then), riders of all skill levels took on pro off-road racers Lance Haidet and Chris Blevins for a shot at an actual cash prize, which the main “race” event did not offer. Well, there were cash prizes on offer during the Cobbler: for a randomly selected winner of the tire toss (at the mile 35 aid station, riders were given one chance to toss an inner tube onto a set of bulls horns), and for a randomly selected winner of the push-up challenge (at the mile 47 aid station, riders could do 30 push-ups and get a shot at the prize).
At the barrel race, Lance was handicapped with a cowboy hat and a pair of cowboy boots (while everyone else wore clipless cycling shoes).
No matter, he smoked the competition anyway, beating even Chris Blevins by more than 1.5 seconds during his 17-seconds of sprinting across grass between skidding u-turns around three barrels in a field.
That night, spirits were high at our humble AirBnB rental, ten of us prepping our bikes, checking out each other's new custom Voler gear, and shooting the breeze, giddy with the anticipation of the first race of the year. Some of us were more “in the zone” in terms of race mindset than others, who were happy just to be surrounded by like-minded bike racers doing what we love most.
Fresh ripe oranges off the tree in the backyard made everything even better, as we got ready to bed down for the night in one of the most agriculturally fertile and productive valleys in the world.
Come 8am the next day, the competition was shaping up to be fierce, with Lifetime Grand Prix contestants Onweller, Haidet, Anna Yamauchi, Ian Lopez de San Ramón, and myself lining up alongside Blevins, pro roadies Tyler Williams and Alex Hoehn, and local hitters and fellow Voler athletes Anna Hicks, Brad Wiggs, Devin DeBruhl, and Blake Anton, among many other able-bodied and willing victims, ready for the punishment of the insane “race” course ahead.
The pace started off mellow enough on an extended section of flat bike path, but things really heated up once we had to hop a curb to start the first dirt section.
Bang! A huge crash went down behind me as Lance and Tyler pushed the pace on the bumpy trail ahead. Oh boy, this was going to be a long day.
It didn’t take long for things to go downhill for me. After chewing on my stem for all of 6 minutes, hanging on for dear life over the punchy ascents, I lost my front wheel as the trail dove away from me. Some minor skin damage was no big deal, but my shifting had come completely undone. After fighting my derailleur for over an hour, clinking and clunking my way over the rough terrain, my wheels locked up with mud, and I threw in the towel.
Once I stopped trying to “race” the Rock Cobbler, I truly started to enjoy myself. High above the valley in the Sierra Nevada foothills, with brooding clouds clinging to their rocky summits, I found myself painstakingly digging mud out of my fork and chain stays with my finger.
I looked around and realized how cool it was to be able to ride these unique ranch trails, normally closed to the public, on such a beautiful day, the hills alive with chlorophyll induced by all the recent rain.
I stood up, stretched my sore lower back, and watched people slip and slide their way down either the muddy truck track or the grass beside it. I took my time re-tuning my rear derailleur and set off again down the wild and rowdy course, frolicking through the cow pies.
There would be no podium at this race, and even if there would have been, I would have already missed my shot at standing on it anyway. So at the next aid station, I took my turn at the tire toss, ate my entry fee’s worth of twix bars, and bantered with the volunteers. My day had turned around, from a frustrating slog through punishing terrain to a ridiculous romp through a magical forest of flowy trails and precipitous ranch roads. I got to ride with some wonderful folks throughout the day, but the highlight was heckling Blake Anton mercilessly as I hiked behind him up yet another impossibly steep, unrideable hill.
Thankfully, I didn’t feel any pressure to race for a podium result today, and as a result I got to enjoy the true “Spirit of Gravel” experience, which is alive and well at the Cobbler.
But, next month, after another few weeks of putting my head down and banging out some serious training, it’ll be time to gas up the jet and go for broke, leaving nothing on the table, no time for mid-race pushup challenges or peeling fresh local oranges.
Images by: Taylor Chase