I’ve learned that most women’s first experience riding gravel happens on a road bike, usually instigated on a group ride full of men. The combination of unfamiliar terrain, wrong equipment, plus the fear of getting dropped or, gasp, crashing in the group, makes gravel seem like some wild animal; impossible to tame. Wild as it may be, conquering gravel is possible (and FUN) with the right information and environment. We wanted to bridge the gap with a positive platform.
Living in Encinitas, CA, with historically sunny January days, made selecting the camp desitination easy. Camp was meant to inspire confidence and grit by pushing the women past the limits they have set, something that my mentors have done for me. Secondary to riding, the goal was to encourage team-building, bonding, and conversation by sprinkling in sunset yoga, wine, special family-style meals, informational sessions from bike partners, and wine (did I already mention that?).
We launched from Canyon Bicycles, North American headquarters on day one, for a skills session, within a 50-mile ride. Courtney Sullivan from Eliel joined as a coach, providing a 4:1 rider to coach ratio, along with a camp guest’s husband, Lance, in his SAG van ready with chocolate covered strawberry hand-ups. The women navigated a variety of terrain ranging from sandy double track, rocky trails, a river crossing, ruts, roots, and steep ups and downs. Tricks and techniques were demonstrated and the group was thrilled to experience the handling benefits at 30-35 psi. The highlight was watching the women learn how to lift their front and back wheels and ultimately hop a curb. They all conquered it, screaming with fearful-joy at first, but eventually confident-joy in conclusion.
Friday evening was spent at my house where Whitney’s husband, and a special sous chef, were busily preparing my recipes. We noshed on salmon and steak chimichurri, kale salad with delicately shaved watermelon radish, and Ziobaffa Prosecco mascerated berries. Ziobaffa provided Pinot Grigio and Toscana pairings for dinner and along with a special wine donation from a camp guest, the perfect “girl's weekend” was underway. We did, however, invite in the boys from IRC tires. Steve and Kris displayed a variety of tire choices while explaining tread, width and wheel size. Valuable information indeed, but it paled to the moment when they had one camp guest hammer a nail into a tire to demonstrate what exactly sealant does. A hilarious and memorable sight that set a tone of eagerness for tackling Saturday’s adventure.
Due to rain, Whitney and I waited until the day before camp to pre-ride Saturday’s adventure route. The conditions of the trails and one section, specifically, had not been maintained. So “we” redesigned Saturday’s route using other trails, that to my memory, would be the perfect challenge. Little did Whitney know what I was about to get this group into. The goal of Saturday was to push comfort zones, in a safe and encouraging environment. From experience, I know that when you simply start trying and exhaust yourself a little, you stop thinking as much, and then instinct and will-power kick in, a special “ah-ha” moment where all of sudden you can ride things that previously intimidated you.
We put this thesis to test BIG TIME. The most amazing part of the day was having Jamie from Eliel with the SAG van. We started the day on a tame four-mile gravel climb and then meandered paved roads over to twisty single track trail. The fun started there, as we tackled rocks, roots and a small river crossing. I could see bliss on some camper's faces and frutstration on others, so I offered a little pep talk of my initial days in the dirt when I didn’t know that undergarments weren’t necessary under bib shorts and refused to clip into pedals. Just keep trying and you will surprise yourself!
Jamie, a true pro, had the Eliel SAG van at each location selected, timing spot on. This allowed the women clothing options and also the ability to eat and drink early and often... a message I preach, especially on mixed terrain when energy zapping increases. Jamie also made an excellent photographer, as you can see from all the pictures helping to tell my story.
Next, we rolled out on a picturesque dirt road to a climb that, by memory, was 100% rideable. False. This climb was 50% hike-a-bike and the true test of the day. At first, I was horrified because it was far from “Intro to Gravel,” but once we made it through this section, I saw these athletes kick it into gear and ride technical sections like bosses with instinct! There were emotions, but the humility displayed truly changed me as a coach and human. Pointedly, we want to thank Kathy Pruitt from Canyon (former Junior Downhill World Champion) for being such a champ, voicing advice and skills when I was at a loss. Also, Courtney from Eliel, born to be a motivational speaker with her steady positive voice.
The day concluded with peanut noodle bowls and perma-smiles. These women accomplished something truly special together. That evening we discussed the experience and several of the campers spoke about how easy it is to idle in a place that is comfortable. Definitely not Saturday’s theme! We munched on enchiladas, made ice cream sandwhiches, sipped on delicious wine, and told stories while foam rolling and sitting in recovery boots. A lasting, meaningful respect and friendship was created by this day.
Sunday, the final day, offered a physical challenge up a beast of a gravel grade, Nate Harrison, on the west-side of Palomar Mountain. Lance joined us again ready to take all requests from tired women on bikes, as well as pictures. We spoke about pacing and cautioned the women about some steep, washboard sections, and rutted, rocky sections. As we discovered, this was laughable after Saturday. My favorite comment came from a camper who, after she rounded a corner to the rutted, rocky section, exclaimed, “Three days ago I would have bailed and walked my bike, but today I just laughed, got super low, to create traction, and powered up it!” Our jobs were done here.
We descended the South Grade paved road and headed back to the cars. Curried, quinoa bowls awaited, along with piles of AMP Human and JoJé Bars to take home (which the women had learned to be key survival pieces of the weekend). A big group hug and team cheer commenced, but the overall feeling of not wanting the weekend to be over was apparent. Some even went to ride more. Needless to say, the weekend has filled our hearts to the brim. Seeing the response, the pictures, the social media posts and blogs is only part of it. Watching the meter bursting through the roof means that there will be more to come.