Written by Eric Olds Monday, 03 October 2016 00:00
I bought a pair of Schwalbe G-One gravel tires back in the spring in anticipation of this race, the Northwoods Gravel Grind, which starts and finishes in Rangeley, Maine. I raced it the first year when it was just a 35-mile race, but since then, a 68-mile option was added that drastically extends the amount of gravel. This was the third annual running of the event, and it turns out it almost didn’t happen. Luckily, when the original promoter had to step away, Chris Riley was able to step in and take over. This is an amazing event and it would be sorely missed if it ceased to exist. Hopefully, it will continue to grow.
The coolest, and most unique thing about the race is that most of the gravel roads it uses are logging roads that are closed to all two-wheel traffic except for this one event. And, if you’re not familiar with Rangeley, it’s in the very north west corner of the state, with the course coming within 10 miles or so of the Canadian border at one point. There are a few sections where you encounter vehicle traffic, but a lot of it feels very remote.
The course starts off with a big climb up the main road that goes through town. As I expected, this is where I lost the main group and ended up in a group of about four riders until we hit the first dirt section a couple miles later where I pulled away. This was a horseshoe shaped section of gravel known as the Dodge Pond loop. Two years ago it was pretty rough, but had been improved since then, except for one section of loose sharp rocks before it goes back to pavement where I came across teammate Rick Nelson fixing a flat. Within minutes, he went flying past me again, on his way to a third place finish.
The course then joined the main road for a few miles before hitting the dirt again for almost the entire remainder of the 68 miles. After a short stretch of maintained dirt road the course joined an old roadbed partially overgrown with grass except for two wheel tracks. A couple of downed trees on this section forced me to dismount. Jumping back on the bike the second time, my calf muscle cramped up hard. Less than 20 miles into a 68-mile race, I wasn’t feeling too optimistic at this point.
At the end of the rail bed, the 68-mile course diverges from the 35 mile course and follows maintained gravel road until briefly joining pavement for 100 yards or less before hitting the dirt again. This was the longest stretch of uninterrupted dirt and included rougher logging roads, some sketchy wooden bridges, a short section of completely unmaintained woods road, and a very long, grueling climb around Snow Mountain at the northern extent of the course on the Cupsuptic Tote Road.
At the bottom of the first descent after the long climb, two riders, Eric Larson and Bruce Schwab who had stopped at the aid station, caught up with me. I figured they would go right by me, but I was able to hang with them. This helped a lot. Up until that point I had been riding all alone, occasionally catching glimpses of riders gaining on me and then losing them again. It’s always much less painful to ride in a group. This next section of the course was mostly down and we ticked off some miles in a hurry. At one point it went between two ponds on a narrow causeway near some camps for one of the prettiest views of the day.
The course had one more long gravel climb that seemed to go on forever, with several false peaks. Then another long descent. This one was pretty rough the last time I did the race, with washed out culverts that came out of nowhere. But, those had been fixed due to some recent logging activity in the area.
I lost Eric and Bruce here when my chain came off and wrapped around my crank arm. I fixed this only to find that my shifter had jammed, leaving me stuck in the big ring. I undid the cable from the derailleur to let out the cable to get into the small ring and hammered to make up time. After one last paved climb up to the airport, the course ended with a long downhill into town, a quick right onto the main drag and back to the finish. I ended up in 11th with a time of 4:35.
The Schwalbe G-Ones were fantastic on this varied surface. They are nice and wide to help float through the loose stuff, but still roll well on pavement. I had mine pumped up to 45-50 psi with the harder packed and paved sections in mind. They can be set up tubeless, but even with tubes they maintained a supple feel and soaked up the bumps.
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