100-Mile Gravel Grinder Nationals: About the Event

This was our second time participating in a US Endurance Gravel Grinder Nationals or Mini G event. Two years ago my husband I endured a 48° day with heavy rain and high winds while participating in the 39-mile Mini G on our beloved gravel roads. Loudoun County’s gravel roads are considered some of the best in the country for both serious grinding and scenic touring. With three distances from which to choose in 2024: 100-Mile Grinder National Championship, 50-Mile Mini G, and 20-Mile Magnifispin, we opted for the 100-Mile Gravel Grinder Nationals, the only race of the three distances (the two others were simply tours). Having never participated in a bike race, and wanting to earn our VeloPigs racing kits, we decided to take the plunge and register.

 

Training for Our First Bike Race

After convincing my husband that we needed to registered for another century, on gravel and timed no less, it was time to start training. Luckily, I’d ridden through the winter so I had somewhat of a base. After a lot of research, I designed a training plan which included long easy rides on the weekend, climbing on Tuesdays, and intervals on Thursdays. I continued with strength training three days a week, and walking whenever time permitted. Unfortunately, we only had time for a ten-week training cycle and did the best we could building up to longer rides with 80 miles being our longest.

 

The Ride in a Nutshell

After wasting needless time checking the longterm weather forecast for Bluemont, Virginia where the race would start and finish, race morning came, unchanged by my constant stalking.  We were treated to nearly perfect weather with the temperature ranging from 48° to 61°. A mostly cloudy sky at the start cleared to blue skies with puffy white clouds before a few droplets indicated impending rain. Several days of rain had knocked down the dust on the 81% gravel race course. The pot holes and washboards appeared no worse than during our training rides on the same course.

Two days before the race, we received an email stating that all three distances would be rolling out together with a neutral 2-mile start behind a pace car. This was good news to us because we had several VeloPig friends riding the 50-mile Mini G so we were able to hang out with them prior to the race start and roll out together.

My husband and I were both sporting our new VeloPig racing jerseys, but it was cold enough that I needed a jacket. I opted to wear my solid black biking shorts which have a chamois designed for longer time in the saddle over the matching VeloPigs kit shorts. Two key items I wore to keep my extremities warm during the early hours of the race were bandless ear warmers and nitrile gloves. Both were easy to remove and didn’t take up a lot of space in my pocket when I no longer needed to wear them.

Rain was predicted to start at 4 PM, shortly after my goal finish time. I was still on the course at 3:54 PM when the first random drops of rain started to fall on my Garmin screen, but the heavy rain held off until I was tucked away in a barn next to the finish line.

I disappointed to finish with an average speed of 11.9 MPH after watching my speed hover at 12.2 MPH for much of the race. I remind myself that it was a mostly gravel course with just shy of 7,500 feet of climbing, and even so, I earned 15 Strava segment PR’s. I finished my ride dead last (even behind the SAG wagon) when my Garmin sent me out for a third loop on the double loop course instead of straight ahead to the finish line, adding on a bonus two miles to my day. Even though I was dead last, I finished second in my age group. Sometimes it’s just about showing up!

 

About the Course

The course started at the Bluemont Station Brewery and Winery in Bluemont, Virginia and wound its way along portions of western Loudoun County’s 265 miles of gravel roads, some of which date back to the 1700’s. With steady rain the day before, the dust was non existent, but small globs of mud occasionally found their way on our clothes. The roads were sprinkled with the typical potholes and washboards of this time of year making for an exciting obstacle course.

The recent rain had washed clean the wildflowers and bright green grass lining the gravel roads rolling along the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Newly leafed trees framed stunning mountain views as we rode past well-manicured farmland framed by rock and rail fences, beautiful barns and an wide assortment of livestock. Wineries and breweries dotted the course as we rode from Bluemont through Trapp, Millsville, Willsville, Unison, St. Louis, Philomont, and Paxson on our way back to Bluemont, twice.

 

Fueling on the Go

New to me was not stopping whenever I needed to refuel, and with riding 100 gravel miles, I had to refuel often to stay ahead of the calories burned. My jersey’s back pockets were stuffed with a peanut butter sandwich, a blueberry bagel, a Quest bar, two Nature Valley biscuits, and two spare bags of Honey Stinger chews (I didn’t eat the biscuits or extra chews). I also grabbed a half of a banana while walking by the food table at two aid stations.

Prior to the race, I had opened four bags of Honey Stingers and dumped those 40 chews in a ziplock bag placed in the tank bag attached to my top tube. My plan was to reach in and grab 3-4 chews every hour to supplement my other foods. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to open the bag and roll its sides down prior to the race start and had to use my teeth to get the bag open the first time I wanted to dig in. Unwrapping my sandwich, bagel, and Quest bar proved equally difficult, but I managed and ate all of my food without needing to stop. Aid stops were reserved for a trip to the porta potty and refilling water bottles.

My husband had gotten me an extra water bottle holder for under my down tube so I was able to carry two 2o-ounce bottles and one 16-ounce bottle. One bottle included a sports drink and the other two had water mixed with D-ribose powder.

 

Packet Pickup

Even though packet pickup was available the morning of the event, we opted to make the 27-mile trip the night before so we wouldn’t be rushed on race morning. We arrived shortly after 5 PM at the start of pickup and as early birds, each received electric shoe dryers to use after those soggy wet rides. In addition to our bibs, race packets also included a shirt (free for registering before March 31st). Shirts were gender specific and free of advertising with this year’s logo on the front and the Grinder Nationals logo on the back.

 

Ride Overview
  • • Ride With GPS Name: Gravel Grinder Nationals 2024
  • • Ride with GPS: Link to turn-by-turn navigation cue sheet
  • • Location: Loudoun County, Virginia
  • • Start/Finish: Bluemont Station Brewery and Winery
  • • Course Type: Double Dog-shaped Loop
  • • Course Surface: Mostly gravel with minimal paved
  • • Bike: Salsa Warbird
  • • Distance: 102.73 miles
  • • Moving Time: 8:36:32
  • • Net time: 9:04:36
  • • Average Speed: 11.9 MPH
  • • Maximum Speed: 29.2 MPH
  • • Elevation Gain: 7,497 feet
  • • Elevation Range: 318 to 770 feet
  • • Temperature Range: 48° and cloudy, climbing to 61° and partly sunny, dropping to 54° and raining
  • • Course Map:

100-Mile Gravel Grinder Nationals

 

Ready to Ride

Once we had our gear (including our race bibs) on our bikes, I rode over to use the porta potty and arrived just in time before a long line formed.

 

My husband and I saw some VeloPigs friends early on, but missed the group picture.

 

We placed ourselves near the back of the starting chute, but several people filed in behind us, all with green or white bibs indicating they were riding shorter distances.

 

After the national anthem was played and a short prayer said, we were off! We followed a lead car for a two-mile neutral rollout at a casual pace before being released to take on the gravel roads of Loudoun County.

 

Lap 1: Mile 0 to 50

With a 7:30 AM start, we were on the roads early enough that there weren’t a lot of cars fighting us for road space. Cyclists spread out quickly so that when cars came up behind us, they could easily get around without getting frustrated.

I am always slower to warmup than my husband, so whenever he pulled very far ahead, he would pull over and wait for me to catch up. Conversely, I have greater endurance and do better on the back half of longer events, often waiting for him.

The first aid station was 30 miles into the ride and a welcome sight to use the porta potty and stretch out my shoulders. I quickly switched out my gloves and after refilling one of my water bottles and grabbing a banana, we got on the road again, this time with our friend Juan who rode with us a while before he and our Dawn Patrol friend Dave pulled ahead.

 

Our friend Dave was waiting to take pictures of us as we turned left to start our second loop before he rode straight ahead to the Mini G finish line (he’s taking the picture with his back to the finish line direction). This, by the way, is the site of where I made the wrong turn on my second lap when I turned left again rather than riding straight toward the camera, and in one mile, the finish line.

 

Lap 2: Mile 50 to 100 (102 for me)

Overall, the race was well organized; however, the signage seemed lacking at places as compared to other cycling events I’ve done. Hard stops were marked with bright yellow signs at dangerous intersections, but other than a few right or left turn arrows there wasn’t a lot of signage. There’s always the risk of signs getting stolen or moved overnight so it’s important to have the route on your phone or bike computer. And as I learned, on a double loop course, there’s the risk of your bike computer getting confused on which lap you’re on…

 

We made a very quick stop at the 51.8-mile aid station where the Maverick Bikes & Cafe mechanic was stationed. While my husband chatted with Merlyn, I refilled two water bottles and used the porta potty.

In order not to be pulled from the course we needed to be at this aid station by 12:30 PM, and we arrived at 11:42 with plenty of time to spare.

 

When we got to Millville Road I couldn’t resist pulling my phone out for a few shots of the beautiful blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds.

 

I pulled my camera out again as we rode up Willisville Road and past this beautiful farm with Mount Weather in the distance.

 

We arrived at the 79.5 mile aid station at 2:24 with 36 minutes to spare before the 3 PM cutoff – any stragglers coming in after 3 PM would not be allowed to continue in the race. We learned from the volunteers that we were the last two on the course. As you can see, some of the volunteers were wasting no time in starting to dismantle the canopy in preparation to pack up the station.

After grabbing a banana and making a quick trip into the porta potty, we rolled out of our final aid station.

 

I should have learned from my husband and waited for him whenever I pulled ahead during the last twenty miles of the race. I surged ahead, confident that I wouldn’t lose my way with my route playing out before me on my Garmin screen.

 

I noticed when I started climb 14/16 it showed up as 6/16 and even though I realized that Garmin was confused and suddenly thought I was on the first lap, the consequences of it having me on the wrong lap didn’t affect me until the last mile of the race.

I made my last stop to wait for my husband at the top of this hill and after he caught up, I turned to take a picture of the SAG wagon stopped behind us. Behind the SAG wagon were other aid station vehicles and EMS trucks, all patiently waiting for us to resume riding.

 

As I pulled ahead, I felt relatively strong considering I was about 85 miles into the race. I continued to pull farther ahead until I was out of my husband’s sight. Once back at the intersection where I should have gone straight to the finish line, I followed Garmin’s directions to turn left and bombed down Yellow Schoolhouse Road. About a mile later when I got to Foggy Bottom Road I knew I wasn’t headed to the finish line. I stopped and called my husband, but couldn’t reach him, so I called the race hotline. No answer. I retraced my tracks knowing that I should have gone straight where I’d turned left.

In the meantime, my husband and the SAG wagon had correctly stayed on the race course and were in front of me. Once my husband finished, he called to see where I was, thinking I’d gone into the brewery. I told him what had happened and he said to hurry up because they were taking everything down.

Once I hung up I started crying, and pedaling even faster. If I had ridden over 102 miles only to have a DNF (did not finish), I would be devastated. The red, white, and blue flags had been taken down, but luckily, the timing mat was still in place as I rode across with my husband taking pictures.

 

Once I crossed the finish line, the sky opened up and heavy rain began to fall. I heard Troy, one of the race organizers tell the finish line people to send me his way which we happily did to get out of the rain. Suprisingly, I had not only finished dead last, but I had placed second in my age group. I was also the oldest female participating in any of the Grinder Nationals events that day.

100-Mile Gravel Grinder Nationals

 

Garmin Stats

Post-ride Garmin

 

Garmin map and elevation graph…

 

Final Thoughts on the Ride

US Endurance did a great job with the event. The communication leading up to the day of the ride was great, the course was beautiful, and the volunteers were very friendly. We had everything we needed from start to finish.

This seemed like a large undertaking for our first bike race, but there just aren’t a lot of shorter bike races out there. For the race my goal was simply to finish with a good experience and hopefully in around eight hours, but I also had a secret goal of placing in my age group. Meeting two out of three goals isn’t bad for a first race!

My husband and I finished with huge smiles on our faces and for the most part, had a blast. As we drove home we swore we’d never do the 100-mile race again, but would happily do the 50-mile Mini G. Now suddenly, my husband is musing over what we could do differently with our training to have a better performance next year.

 

Questions:
  • • Do you prefer organized rides/tours or just heading out and seeing where your bike takes you? ~ I like a little of each
  • • Do you use the Garmin course feature, and if so has it ever lead you astray? ~ this was a first for me
  • • Do you stop and relax occasionally to fuel or take pictures, or barrel on through when on a long run or ride? ~ I didn’t take as many pictures during this race as I usually do, but that’s because I was racing.

 

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