Gravel Locos - "La Loca"
Perhaps among the most appropriately named gravel events, La Loca is a 155-mile gravel race with approximately 8,000 ft. of climbing that takes off and ends in historic Hico, Texas. All 1,100 starters became masters of weather forecasting in the weeks leading up to the event. Rain, rain, and oh look, more rain. Unsurprisingly, the weather deterred many from traveling to and starting the free event. Not ones to let a little condensation get in the way of a good time, my close friend Katie Kantzes and I decided to travel to the event and see what the weekend had in store for us.
On Friday, we pre-rode the first 8 miles of the course to get a good look at the first notorious creek crossing of the day. Knee high water, with a current just light enough to allow riders to walk across, but fast enough to make it unrideable. Noted. Katie and I rolled back to the start and began strategizing. Because the first 8 miles featured an average downhill gradient, a slight headwind predicted for race day, and a number of 90 degree turns, we decided it would be safest to stay towards the front of the bunch. With those conditions, we predicted the group would stay together and it’s never a bad idea to be at the pointy end of the race start to avoid getting caught up in inevitable messes. We anticipated the creek crossing would cause a bottleneck and attacks would start to fly on the ascent right afterwards. With these notes in mind, we headed to our unbelievably adorable Airbnb, the “Chillax Inn”, and wound down for the night.
My alarm startled me bright and early at 5:15am. I personally believe that waking up before the sunrise should be illegal, but that’s just me. Katie came to the rescue with cold brew concentrate and that helped wake up my groggy mind and body. Some granola, peanut butter, and almond milk down the gullet and we were ready to head to the start. We arrived at 7am with plenty of time to become acquainted with the portapotties, as all cyclists do before any race they care about, and braced ourselves for an epic day.
By some stroke of luck, the first 8 miles of the race were neutralized. The carnage I had envisioned the day before dissipated but I still lined up on the front row at the start right next to Katie. The Gravel Locos crew allowed the professional racers to start right behind the lead car, in front of the tape which the regular joe’s were corralled behind. Pre-race announcements came and went.
It was 8:00am on the dot and the tape was still up, keeping us trapped in the start corral.
It became apparent that us average joe’s had been forgotten, and a rider next to me desperately started to tear the tape with his hands as the countdown for the race start began.
3… the tape stretched thin
2… the tape stretched thinner still
1… a micro-tear appeared
GO! Just in time, the tape ripped… but remained slightly airborne as cleats clicked into pedals and hundreds of racers pressed forward.
Katie and I cleared the tape and swiftly rode up behind the pros for the neutral roll out. Not everyone was so lucky. When I glanced over to make sure Katie had ridden safely over the flapping tape, I saw the tape wrap around, around, around somebody’s cassette. He immediately stopped to try to fix it and lost his position. What a way to start the day.
I settled in, surfing wheels within the top 15 to 20 riders in the bunch. I eventually found myself on Colin Strickland’s wheel and thought to myself that I was quite pleased to be there. I trust his wheel. Colin is an exceptional gravel racer and in a chaotic start, it is important to find the “calm”, such as a rider you know will sail through corners and over the more technical sections smoothly, skillfully, and with confidence. Colin’s wheel is a hot commodity and, unsurprisingly, it turned out somebody else wanted it. I felt a rider move into my shoulder from the right side but held my ground.
“Can you not do that,” I said to the rider pushing into my shoulder.
“Do what? I was just holding my line,” he said back. Right… I kindly informed him we had 150+ miles to race and causing a crash during the neutral rollout was not a good look. To his credit, he gave me ample space after that.
We approached the creek and madness ensued. I quickly dismounted my bike and hoisted it over my shoulder. One arm out for balance, and one arm securing my bike, I did what could best be described as a “shuffle-run” through the water. I felt pushes from behind but did not panic, the last thing I wanted was to rush, trip, and fall in. By some miracle I made it across safely. I remounted swiftly and powered up the other side.
I remained with the main group until approximately 20 miles in when the first climb reared its ugly head. Knowing I had 135-ish miles to go, I was not particularly motivated to blow myself up that early. I know my limits and trusted my instincts when they begged me not to bury myself to stay with the leaders. I watched them ride away. I heard a bike bell ring and shortly after a chase group cruised by. I latched on. About a minute after moving up to a better position in the chase group, I heard the sound of a rider hit the deck behind me. Oh boy.
Without a backwards glance, the group powered on.
When the next incline was met with the surge of racers still riding the adrenaline of the start of the event, I let the group ride away without me. I cruised solo to the feed station at mile 33. I was having difficulty getting my heart rate down. Concerned about the sustainability of where my heart rate was in comparison to my power, I decided to focus on breathing, drinking, and eating. The humidity of the morning was getting to me. By the time I got to the feed station, I had succeeded in drinking both of the bottles I had filled with EFS Electrolyte Mix and eaten two Larabars. I swapped out my empty bottles for two fresh bottles of EFS Electrolyte Mix and traded my empty Larabar wrappers for a Clif bar and an EFS Liquid Shot.
About 30 minutes later, another group caught me. I tucked in and cruised along with them until mile 55 where the “3 B’s” made their dramatic entrance.
The “3 B’s” are exactly what they sound like.
3 back-to-back climbs with 18% pitches. Ouch. My smallest gear is a 40x33 so I had no choice but to smash my way up the inclines at 280 watts doing 50rpm. Mega Ouch. I could feel my rear wheel spin out on the loose surface of the first kicker. I pressed my weight into my saddle and tried to make my pedal strokes as smooth as possible as I hammered my way to the top. Two minutes later, my efforts had shattered our group and we were reduced to 5 or 6 riders. Breathe in and out. Rinse. Repeat. By the time we reached the top of the 3rd “B”, there were 4 of us. Somehow, those efforts seemed to wake my legs up and we were finally in business. Our group naturally began rotating smooth, steady, turns. I learned that my companions were training for Unbound XL and planned to pace themselves today. Perfect. Two of the riders were easily 6 feet tall and had aero bars set up on their bikes which yielded welcome results: aerodynamic and fast (especially on descents), but still offering a substantial enough draft. I was thrilled to have found the perfect companions for the remainder of the journey.
As we approached the feed station at mile 78, it became apparent that one of the riders had a slow leak. His tire pressure was getting precariously low and he had bottomed out on the last two sets of cattle guards.
All good things come to an end, as they say.
I swiftly replaced my empty bottles for some fresh ones and traded my empty Clif bar wrapper for a new one. I mistakenly thought my Camelbak was still half full. Turns out I had about three gulps left. Oops. There was nothing to do but carry onwards and hope that I would get to the next feed station swiftly.
At the bottom of a descent, a truck came into view parked in front of a creek. “Danger: Slippery Creek Crossing” a sign read. A man stood by the sign and I asked if he recommended walking. He mentioned people had been riding it. Although not particularly deep, after one glance at the speed of the water flow, my instincts told me to walk it. Carefully. One step in and it was apparent I made the right call. The surface was extremely slick. After awkwardly shuffling across the slippery creek crossing, I cruised along solo until about 90 miles in.
The sky turned dark and the rain started to fall. That is when a group led by an enthusiastic youngster caught me.
“Hop on!” he called merrily. Hop on I did! The pace came back into my legs and I was feeling strong and motivated. We will get to the next feed station in no time!
The weather had other plans for me.
The rain started to fall harder and harder and the wind blew faster and faster. Within a few minutes, we found ourselves in a full on monsoon. Undeterred, we careened forward with additional motivation to get out of this storm as soon as humanly possible. We flew up the climbs and down the descents, unbothered by the spray and just happy to be moving towards the finish.
Suddenly my chain dropped. With a narrow-wide 1x chainring set-up, I was shocked. I was not prepared for this scenario. Impossible. I immediately stopped to put it back on and rapidly came to the realization that the wet grit from the road surface was cementing itself onto my chain which was causing it to be pushed off of the teeth on my chainring. Oh no. Not now. I watched as my beloved group rode off into the distance.
*Insert profanity here*
Not to be defeated so easily, I sprayed water from my bottle onto my chainring, chain, and cassette to clean it off, remounted it, and pedaled onwards. My drivetrain was not pleased and made its complaints well known with a grating scream that made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Between mile 100 and 121 I dropped my chain three more times. Each time, I became filled with a pinch more panic. I ran out of water to spray my chain off with. I started riding in the streams that were running down the roads in a desperate effort to keep the chain clean and working. The grating drivetrain screams would subside when I rode in the streams. I also stopped shifting into easier gears and just cranked my way up the inclines when I realized the complaints grew exponentially louder in the easier gears. Just make it to the last feed station at mile 121. That became my singular goal.
Up ahead: pavement. Thank all the gods.
The pavement was a welcome sight to say the least. My chainring stopped making that horrific grating noise. My chain became “clean” from the paved road spray. Then: a tent. I made it to mile 121. Only 34 miles to go from here. I swapped my bottles and an angel at the feed station put some chain lube on my melodramatic chain. Thank you! I shifted a few times to spread the lube around and my drivetrain also thanked the feed station angel.
Contrary to what I had expected of the 34-mile “home stretch”, those last 34 miles seemed like they would never end. I powered on and on for what felt like forever. To keep my drivetrain from shrieking like a banshee I changed my tactic and only rode on the most hard packed surfaces, which sometimes meant a jarringly bumpy line. It worked. Barely. I dropped my chain one more time and it took half a bottle to get it back on. But that was the last of the chain dropping saga. Even so, every climb felt like it would never end, the descents felt much too short and slow by comparison, and do not get me started on the headwind. I knew I was under-fueled and under-hydrated now. My bottles and top tube bag were caked with muck and I was not particularly enthused by the concept of eating or drinking at this point. I forced myself to. The miles ticked by one by one. Another “Danger: Slippery Creek Crossing”. This time the water was slow moving. I rode it. I almost lost control but at the last second I managed to keep it upright. Phew. At 14 miles to go, I saw a lone, forlorn, figure standing on the side of the road with a front flat. He said he was okay when I asked. I chugged onwards. I prioritized the smoothest, safest lines.
I’ll be damned if I get a flat this close to the end.
Another creek crossing. This one had an awkward rock drop off hidden by the water that caught me by surprise but I somehow managed to keep it upright through that too. Suddenly I saw that I was in single digits: 9 miles to go. Slowly but surely, my hopes rose. I was going to make it. Then. At long last. Pavement with half a mile to go. I heard cheers from spectators as I rode through the finish. A volunteer handed me a Coca-Cola. Upon finishing I found out I finished in 5th place. What an epic day!
Distance: 155 miles
Elevation gain: 8,200 feet
Average speed: 16.5 mph
Calories burned: 4,827 kcal
Training Stress Score: 576
Ride Time: 9:22:16
Total Time: 9:31:47
Bike: State Bicycle Co. 6061 All-Road
I cannot say enough good things about this bike! It is somehow absolutely bomb proof and simultaneously extremely responsive. This bike does it all: It flies on the smooth/hard-packed stuff, dances over any and all tech you can throw at a gravel bike, is a missile on descents, flats, and climbs! I have so much fun every time I race this bike.
Tires: Vittoria Terreno Zero
I'll start off by saying that a ton of people flatted out of this race and I'm grateful to Vittoria for designing a tire that kept me in the race regardless of conditions - these tires, just like the bike, have proven to be bomb proof
This course was a little bit of everything and the tires handled it all: fast on the pavement, stable and durable on the tech-y/rocky parts, grippy in the slick gritty muck (in spite of being designed for dry conditions!), grippy in corners, etc. etc. etc.
Wheels: Easton EA70ax
Easton makes quality parts and it shows! My wheels held up extremely well; Easton found a happy balance between light and strong - I couldn't ask for a better wheel set for a race that throws a bit of everything at you!