Adam Gilberd // Big Epic
The email from Richard was short and sweet. A link to a solo, unsupported gravel ride two months away, called the Bay Area Epic, located in the hills south of San Jose, California. Three portion sizes to pick from, "ranging from hard to super hard." He lobbied for the "Grand" (131 miles, 13,400', 45% gravel), I settled on the "Big" (71 miles, 10,700', 75% gravel). We would ride them separately, and solo.
My race day started at 7:30am Saturday May 2nd. I pulled the car into the parking lot at Rancho Cañada del Oro Open Space Preserve as the sun was just peeking through the tops of the oaks. A large flock of birds greeted me as I shivered in the early light and pulled my Roubaix S-Works off the rack. Having no gravel bike, I relied on my Belgian Waffle Ride setup, with tubeless 30mm Schwalbe One-Speed tires.
In my mind, I played through the first couple hours of trail junctions, having since committed to memory the 70ish turns on the course in the case my Elemnt BOLT abandoned its sense of direction. Getting lost was not in the plan, and was an important lesson from my misadventurous yet vital recon ride a few weeks previously.
The sting of the cold start evaporated quickly as I dug into the first climb up Mayfair Ranch Trail and followed the sun as it ascended over the local mountains. My first literal taste of the dirt came in the early moments when I lost traction on the very first switchback and hit the deck. Good to get that one out of the way, now we were gravel racing!
I passed, separately, two juvenile male deer making their way through the woods of Calero County Park, and tried to manage my early pace, mindful of the seven hours of saddle time I expected ahead.
At the 1.5 hour mark, I arrived at the base of the first of two KOM sections of the day, Country View Drive -- a 1.8 mile climb with several sections of sustained 15%+ grades. I kept things in check, and averaged sub threshold power for the 15 minute ascent. After a selfie at the top (one of five required by race organizers), I began the 12 mile figure eight loop through Santa Teresa County Park. This section was by far the hardest on the day, with numerous short punchy 10%+ climbs, and a rock garden section through Stile Ranch Trail that I mostly ran through with my bike over my shoulder. Overall I spent an hour and 45 minutes navigating this loop, mercifully meeting my goal of not crashing nor flatting through the most technical sections of the day. My road bike thanked me as we moved on, having survived the biggest test of its four year lifespan.
Some four hours into the race, after another water stop at the Hacienda Entrance to Almaden Quicksilver County Park, I set out up Mine Hill Trail fire road and the 9 mile climb to the top of Mount Umunhum in the Santa Cruz Mountains (elevation: 3,500 feet). This was one of my two favorite sections of the course, both scenically as well as historically. The fire roads up the first half of the climb meander through the old abandoned mercury mining operations of the Quicksilver Mining Company, dating back to the Civil War. More wildlife appeared, including two separate snake sightings. Thankfully I was moving too fast to try to identify let alone visit with them. Crossing Hicks Road, I hit the final KOM section of the day, a 1.7 mile stretch of Mount Umunhum Road, averaging 10.3%. Feeling good, I stepped on the gas and spent the next 17 minutes just a few watts under threshold up this very steep segment.
The second half of the climb exits the asphalt road and follows a wonderfully shady, smooth single track hiking and biking trail to the top of Mt "Um." The manageable grade allowed me to recover, and I enjoyed the break from the sun under the canopy of Valley and Coast Live Oaks. Exiting at the top of the summit, I posed for selfie #3 in front of "The Cube," the 8 story concrete building that serves as the most notable remnant of the Almaden Air Force Station -- a radar surveillance station that operated from 1956 through 1980 during the height of the Cold War. Hikers, picnickers and cyclists meandered about the summit, newly opened to the public four years ago. As temps were rising, I longed for a dip in the one-time military swimming pool (alas, since filled in). Conscious of moving, I opted to not take in the 360 degree views from the top that include sweeping vistas of the Diablo range, Santa Clara Valley and Pacific Ocean.
I happily pointed the front wheel down the mountain, now that 60% of the 71 miles and 70% of the 11,000 feet of climbing were now behind me. My hydration, nutrition and pace were all in a holding, and my spirits rose as I made my way down through the meandering, at times loose, 15 miles back down to the Hacienda water stop. I flirted with some bonkiness at the base, and jammed a final SIS gel down. After a quick bottle refill, I jumped into the final dirt section -- another favorite -- back through new sections of Calero County Park.
This segment was highlighted by mostly smooth, rolling and banking pump-like single track among more oak groves and low lying foothills. Endorphins were peaking at this point. I visibly smiled as I hammered ahead along the perimeter of Calero Reservoir. Exiting the last of the dirt onto McKean Road, I hunkered down for another short threshold climb up Cinnabar Hill, and the last couple road miles to the finish.
I returned to the car seven hours and 38 minutes after my start -- including 7:13 of ride time, and an extra 1.2 miles at the beginning that in retrospect appeared to be an error in the course definition. After snapping my fifth and final selfie, I leaned the bike against the car and plopped my body down on an adjacent fence to soak in the day. My senses pulsed as I replayed the sights, sounds and smells of the ride. I savored the sense of accomplishment of a day well spent in the saddle, and all of the training that allowed it to come together.