TransRockies Gravel Royale: The House Always Wins
Posted by Andrew Davidson on September 27, 2022
Myself and fellow 4iiii employee Mac Potter recently completed the 4-day, four-stage, Easton-sponsored “Royal Flush” event, which dealt out 407km of riding and 7500m of climbing over terrain that was 84% gravel, 10% pavement, 5% doubletrack and 1% singletrack. While only a sliver of a pie chart that accounts for the single track sections seems negligible, the nature of that single percent had an impact much more significant than its sole digit would imply, much like an Ace card, if you will. A healthy proportion of the conversations held around the post-race swimming pond and beer-equipped “Chill Zone ’’ revolved around those kilometres of challenging and wild nature. “I should’ve run a dropper post,” “I’ve never ridden something like that on a mountain bike, let alone a gravel bike before,” and “that was amazing!” were some of the overheard reactions to it as riders recounted their day in the saddle. That’s the beauty of a gravel event like this; with a wide-ranging mix of ability and experience rolling up the start line, from a 24-hr Mountain Bike World Champ to the “I just want to make it to the finish” rider, everyone would have a unique experience despite covering the same route. Mac and I were impressed to find some genuinely demanding technical riding that few people would typically go out of their way to send a gravel bike down or up. I soon discovered this was just one of the surprising cards up the sleeve of this majestic but cruel environment known as “the house” in this poorly researched analogy.
On the drive up to Panorama for the Stage 1 start, I joked with Mac about what a scenic and enjoyable experience this four-day ride through the Rockies would be if only I could turn off my racers mentality. Still, in the famous words of poker player and musician Bob Dylan, “it ain’t me, babe.” Despite the lack of external pressure to ride fast or place well, I knew I’d be spending the vast majority of my time staring at the wheel of the rider in front of me, reading body language for signs of fatigue and analyzing the road ahead for strategic attack launchpads, while paying no mind to the majestic waterfall that we just rode past. I’d love to flick a switch in my brain that would make me okay with hitting every aid station along the route and partaking in the sweet watermelon and stroopwafel offerings. I’d probably sleep better knowing I didn’t have to be one of the first in line to consume breakfast, so it would have more time to digest and allow me to be “race ready” when the start gun fired instead of rolling out with a relaxed attitude and the comfort of knowing the scrambled eggs inside me would stay there because I wouldn’t be red-lining it anytime soon. Alas, that’s not the headspace I find myself in after a couple of decades of being “in it to win it,” and I simply embrace that if someone puts a finish line at the end of a bike “ride,” then it is in fact, a race.
The cycling god(s) must have overheard my lamenting and taken my mostly joking stance on racing vs riding to heart, as they played a hand in how my days would unfold. Little did I know at the time, but Stage 1 from Panorama to Nipika would be my only trouble-free outing; with good legs, lungs and luck on my side, I’d finish 6th overall, 1st in my age group (30-39). Stage two began with ominous foreshadowing as my multi-tool-equipped saddle bag cashed-in its chips and departed from my saddle no more than 500m into the fast and frantic downhill start. An ill-timed mechanical failure 45 minutes later (snapped rear derailleur cable) at the base of the day’s biggest climb demoted me from gravel cyclist to trail runner with a bike for most of the 7km ascent. I made the most of my now 2-speed set-up (thank god for double-chainrings) and limited my losses by time-trialling the remaining kilometres, holding onto my age group lead by a couple of minutes, despite the odds being tipped against me on the day.
The following stage, I was happy to find myself in a cohesive 5-man group on a bike that once again had a functional rear derailleur. I never did find my saddle bag that probably now lives in the forest surrounding the Nipika campsite, but with tubes and tools stuffed in my jersey pockets, I was optimistic about a drama-free outing. For the most part, it was, until a seemingly harmless dropped chain upped the ante, jamming between my frame and crankset and warping several of the chain links in the process. With it once again dropping a mere 200m from the crest of the final climb, I sadly watched my pace-making pals ride on as I dealt with my dud of a hand. It was starting to feel like I wasn’t meant to be racing this race. For the second consecutive day, I was ousted from the pointier end of things and on a solo expedition through the mountains and forests, like some solitaire/poker player hybrid metaphor.
A new chain and a new day, as we summoned our remaining chips of strength and pushed them all in for the climbing-heavy finale into Fernie. With a ten-minute buffer of a lead I’d built up over second place in my category, I had to avoid any major catastrophes in this last 5-hour shuffling of the deck. Mac and I would find ourselves in the same group, along with the rider immediately behind me on GC, going through the motions together on a rain-soaked course that sapped the legs that little bit extra. With limited vision through my mud-splattered glasses, I went wide through a corner on a speedy descent into some chunky rocks and then waited for the inevitable hiss of a tire puncture, which came a minute later in tandem with a spray of tire sealant. Pulling over to fix the utterly flat tire that had failed to seal, I found my C02 cartridge and tube absent from my jersey pocket, having presumably wiggled their way out on a rough patch earlier in the day, classic. I could see the race lead riding away from me, literally and figuratively, as I took a nature break and waited for more riders to come by, ideally with some parts to spare. A generous rider hooked me up, and some 15-20 minutes later, I was rolling again, but now free of any urgency or thought of a winning result. With 90km of solo riding ahead of me, I knew I couldn’t match the pace of the fast-moving group I’d been ejected from, and I was forced to shift to a mindset of pleasure cruising. There was a mix of disappointment and relief, knowing the pressure to suffer my way up the remaining climbs and bomb the descents on the edge of catastrophe had evaporated; I was simply riding my bike amid postcard-worthy landscapes at a pace that allowed me to absorb it all, alone with my thoughts. I had hours to appreciate and reflect on what a wild experience the last several days had been, the palpable camaraderie that had developed between a group of 200 cycling nuts and the fortune of good health to partake in it. I recalled my earliest mountain bike rides as a kid, discovering what epic trails existed in my backyard. For the first time, I could stop at an aid station and enjoy some watermelon instead of blowing past it. I’d come here as a racer, to race, and had fought back against multiple set-backs to still be in the mix, but today the Gravel Royale decided to throw down a hand I couldn’t counter, “the house” had won, and yet I didn’t feel like I had lost.
Photos courtesy of TransRockies Gravel Royale.
To learn more about the TransRockies events visit their website