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Through the Ringer: the Castell Grind

April 16, 2014

The Castell Grind held earlier this month was billed as a “gravel grinder race in the Texas hill country.” And while not everyone raced the event, some taking the time to enjoy the remarkable scenery and peaceful dirt lanes, there were those riders that decided to test their mettle over either the 100k (62 mile) or 50k (31 mile) courses. Regardless of planned pace, everyone there was unsure of what to expect, even if they had the experience of the Holey Roller under their belt.

The appeal of a gravel grinder is that there’s a little something for everyone. For those that want to get after it a bit, it’s a race, while for others it’s a ride. For racers, it eschews the formalities of a sanctioned event, with a “winner take all” approach for the men’s and women’s fields (there are no categories or age groups). For riders it presents unique challenges in that courses are generally unmarked and there are no rest stops or course support to speak of. It’s a road ride, but on dirt. It’s a cyclocross race, but longer and without barriers, it’s a mountain bike race, but without any single track. In short, it’s bike riding and racing.

Along with a couple of other Bicycle Sport Shop Cyclocross Club members, I was there in Castell, TX to put some early 2014 fitness to the test and see if I couldn’t ride my way into the top 5 of those taking on the “Full Grind.” Joey Machado came along with me, and relative newcomer to cyclocross and bike racing in general, Dan Pedroza, was tackling the “Half Grind.” Here’s our report.

Castell, TX played host to the first annual Castell Grind earlier this month.

Castell, TX played host to the first annual Castell Grind earlier this month.

“Going in I knew I had what I like to call the ‘minimal amount of training’ to be competitive. I had no idea what the pace would be like for the start, much less the entire 100k race,” noted Joey. From the gun the front of the race was quick, covering the first 10 or so miles in a single file line of riders at an average of about 20 mph. Mind you, the course was probably in the neighborhood of 90% dirt/loose gravel/washboard farm roads. Knowing the wind and terrain would separate the group at some point, I tried to ride as close to the front as possible.

At about mile 9 I slid out of the front and rolled back to Joey and mentioned that up to that point, the race had been “no joke” to which Joey responded, “Daniel is this a dirt crit, or what?” Neither of expected the race to be that fast out of the gate for such an extended period of time, nor could we talk much more. We both thought the pace would let up some, but it turned out it never did.

Me and Joey at the pre-race meeting.

Me and Joey at the pre-race meeting. Photo courtesy of our buddy Chad.

Unbeknownst to us, Dan was in our front group to early on too. “While the Holey Roller was labeled just a ‘ride’ for all levels of cyclists, the Castell Grind is basically considered a race. I didn’t know this until the morning of the event when Daniel said his plan was to win the 100k. Win? Win what? A few tacos and a beer?  Then the morning riders meeting confirmed that for those interested in ‘going for it’ it was a race,” said Dan.

“Since I didn’t have a riding buddy,” Dan continued, “I had already planned on riding as hard as I could for as long as I could. A lesson I learned from cyclocross is that the start is everything. Lose touch with the front runners and you’ll never catch them. So I moved to the front group at the start and planned to stay with them as long as possible. Right off the bat the top riders were trying to drop weaker cyclists, just like I’ve heard folks talk about at the Driveway. I fell off the pack twice forcing me to sprint out of the saddle to regain contact. The third time I fell back around mile 10-12 was it. We descended a small hill into a creek bed then immediately took a left turn up a hill where I found myself in the wrong gear. By the time I downshifted the pack was gone. I was upset for making such a dumb mistake because I still felt like I could stay with them at least for a few more miles but no such luck. At this point I thought I was on my own.”

Like Dan, that creek bed did me in a bit too. Coming towards it was a slight downhill followed by a left across a mostly dry, but still with some water and a patch of mud creek, and the other side presented a short, steep pitch. As the front of the group came into the creek I had a Ziploc bag of cookies in my teeth, one hand on the bars, and the other in a pocket looking for a Thunderbird bar I had opened before the start. Needless to say I too was fumbling about on my shifters drifting towards the back of the group as riders went around me. Luckily I was able to hang on—and get that much needed snack.

Joey and I hid in the draft of the front riders for a handful miles after the creek bed. At mile 12 or so we were a group of about 50 and just 3 miles later we were a group of about 22 out front and guys were coming off the pace pretty quick. I just knew the top 5 riders would come from the front this group. But despite what happened to us both at about mile 18, I didn’t know that both Joey and I would still have a chance to be in there, and we still didn’t know Dan was having the ride of his short, new racing career.

For Joey, mile 18 was a misjudged line. “At mile 18 I came off the front by choosing a bad line, which caused me to sink in some thick quicksand-like dirt. Before I could downshift and roll out a gap had opened. I got moving and held my pace until I and another rider came to a short section of asphalt. We hit the turn to the pavement at crit speed and sprinted out of it taking turns pulling to get across. Luckily the lead group had just eased up so we were able to make contact in less than a mile but as soon as we latched on us 11 riders total turned onto the dirt again and it seemed the group picked up the pace just enough to make it hurt–again.”

For me mile 18 was a lost bottle. Not the disaster it could have been—I saw some riders eject both of theirs and have to stop to get them, but with one lost bottle I figured “well, I’ll refill at the half way point at the mandatory check-in.” Still I was coming off the pace some, less confident than some of the experienced MTB racers on the faster downhill sections across the loose terrain. So I was dangling off the back put passing those that were struggling more than me. I could see Joey, up ahead, just off the very front group and then they were all out of sight as the made the turn onto the short pavement stretch. And I too had a rider that I was sharing the chase workload with, but unlike Joey, we couldn’t get pack to those front 11. At this point, we were 12th and 13th on the road with Joey looking to be in about 11th.

Dan took to the Castel Grind on a 2014 trek Boone from the shop's rental department.

Dan took to the Castel Grind on a 2014 trek Boone from the shop’s rental department.

For Dan, the Castell Grind was a redemption ride of sorts. “When I first learned about the Holey Roller in February, I thought, ‘Fun!  Riding on gravel and dirt! A cyclocross ride!’ I was mistaken. It was the most difficult ride I ever finished. I managed to make it extra hard by riding a loose saddle that slowly slid all the way back on its rails over the first 25 miles. By the time I figured out why my back was on fire I still had another 25 miles to ride. So I chose to sign up for Castell because I still had fun riding on gravel roads. I also felt I had to redeem myself from such a miserable performance that was based on a simple mistake that I made. The course didn’t beat me, I beat myself, and I had to fix that.”

Staying focused, Dan did better than make up for his Holey Roller ride. “This is not a ride, it’s a race,” remembered Dan–perhaps inspired by my pre-race comment that I was planning to win.  “Maintaining speed was my goal,” noted Dan. “At the point I lost the front group my Garmin read that my average speed was 20.3 mph, a pace I’ve never maintained for that long even on asphalt. And while I completely expected it to drop, my goal was to keep it as high as possible for as long as I could. After a slight touch of wheels with riders that I didn’t even know were behind me, we trudged on, working together, sharing the workload for the next 10 miles.”

As Dan closed in on the end of the Half Grind, Joey and I were looking at another 50k. “The washboard sections were making me feel like I was being bucked and forced me hold my bars with a death grip. The constant effort cost me falling off the back of the top-10 group and repeatedly having to surge back. They were just ahead of me when I made it to the halfway point check-in station but given the bottle-neck there, I was able to re-connect.”

The awards ceremony awaited the riders.

The awards ceremony awaited the riders.

Joey and the leaders couldn’t have been too far ahead of me and the rider I was with since as we rolled in someone shouted “they just left!” With only one bottle I had to stop and top it off and that meant that my chase partner and I had company in the form of riders coming up from behind quick—eight other guys plus the lead woman rider. But we eleven weren’t going to be chasing the front eleven for long.

Joey’s mistake, in hindsight of course, was burring himself to stay in that lead group. “As we rolled onto the second loop, two guys surged ahead and soon we all took an ill-fated wrong turn.  About a half-mile in we all stopped and shouted to the two leaders but they were too far up and could not hear us. As we turned around and headed back the pace picked up. I was able to hang maybe 4 or 5 miles as I need to munch on some food. But after I became detached I got into a comfortable solo pace.”

Of course, my group didn’t know the front group made a wrong turn and that we were actually the leaders on the road. Us eleven quickly became eight as we rode a steady pace surging only occasionally. A couple of times on the second, North Loop I came off the bike in loose sand as the bike got out from under me. Mistakes no doubt caused by tiredness, hunger knock, and just plain inattentiveness. On one of those occurrences I came off my group and was riding solo, trying to maintain an even, comfortable pace. At that point, with those seven riders leaving me behind, and what I figured was Joey’s group of eleven up front I figured I was 19th or so on the road—top 20 was still possible with about 10 miles to go.

Joey and I then had similar experiences albeit a few miles apart. “The two leaders who were the first to make the wrong turn caught me and were kind enough to let me tag along as they were trying to make up for lost time. I was able to pull on and off with them until mile 51 or so then I just settled into a comfortable pace to the finish, noted Joey.” For me, those two riders had caught one between Joey and I and were actually three riders—and I sat on them, unable to take any pulls, for about a mile before coming unhitched and watching them ride off in pursuit of my former group at about mile 54. It was talking to them before they dropped me that I learned about the wrong turn and that I had, in fact, been in the lead group. Dang it. I would go on to finish 11th overall and Joey rolled in shortly thereafter in 13th.

Dan, the guy that didn’t know it was a race, had a different end to his day. “With five miles to go the washboard roads along with the deep sand made handling the bike extremely difficult,” for Dan. “At two miles to the finish it was a slight incline on slightly cobbled roads. I just kept pushing as hard as I could. No more drafting, it was just me, the cows, and the finish line. I finally reached the last quarter mile, which was actual smooth highway pavement. I sprinted toward the finish trying to keep up my average mph. When I came through the checkpoint/finish they told me that I was the first 50k finisher. How did that happen? Surely there were some 50k riders in the first lead group? Nope.”

Dan continued, “I was happy with myself for working as hard as I could for almost two hours.  While I obviously couldn’t maintain my 20.3 mph pace, I did manage 17 mph for the ride, which is actually a personal best. I can’t even recall a road ride that I’ve averaged that high, and I only managed about 14 mph at the Holey Roller!  I attribute this to two major factors. First, the lead group was my rabbit. Without their initial pace I never would have pushed as hard as I did. Second, the Trek Boone, which I had rented from Bicycle Sport Shop just for the Castell Grind, was magnificent. And I brought home my first cycling trophy ever, which to me means the world.”

To the victor, goes the spoils. Dan took first in the 50k Half Grind!

To the victor, goes the spoils. Dan took first in the 50k Half Grind!

“In the end I realized I gave this race everything I had,” said Joey. “And I was very happy that I was able to ride at that pace and distance on a Texas tough course! Kudos to those who kept on course and finished ahead. After all, navigating is a part of the gravel grinder experience! My body felt destroyed afterward, but I had a huge smile on my face all weekend.” Like Joey, I was pleased with the effort and content with the result and wondering a bit about what might have been.

Each of us had unique, memorable experiences that will have us back in Castell, TX—which played the part of host wonderfully—in 2015. Hope to see you there.

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