Groad Trip: How gravel pros do training camp
Four days of camaraderie and head-smashing competition with Colin Strickland and Ian Boswell on California's Lost Coast.
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One thing my solo Privateer career now lacks is an early season training camp. For the majority of my professional cycling career, I’d always gathered with teammates and put in long miles together, working towards summer glories. Over a recent phone call with fellow roadie-turn-gravelleur, Ian Boswell, we’d lamented how we missed those early season gatherings. Maybe that longing was heightened due to 12 months of Covid-exacerbated hermiting. For us though, training camps are comfort food and we were both hungry.
With the summer’s races looking like they have the green light, and Unbound Gravel potentially being the first big goal, I knew I needed to train myself into shape rather than race into it. Ian was keen on the idea and readily agreed. I hatched a plan for a “lite bikepacking” style training block, meaning carrying all our own gear except we’d sleep in hotels rather than tents given the weather uncertainty, and our relative lack of bikepacking experience.
The Lost Coast of California, despite being relatively close to my home, was somewhere I’d never explored. After a few hours of research, I put together a four-day trip that linked lodging via a mix of pavement and dirt, and prioritized distance and vert that our bodies could barely handle. We’d launch from my home in Santa Rosa, and finish at Mattole Campground on a quiet coastline where many backpackers begin their Lost Coast treks.
Turns out, Colin Strickland, our fellow Wahooligan, was also suffering from the same lack of training motivation, desire to find fitness, and general isolation pains. Thus an invite was extended, two became three, and the Gravel Pros Training Camp was formed.
Over four days we’d push both our weighted-down bikes (all our bags and gear added at least 20lbs) and each other, over borderline excessive miles in search of something, anything, really beyond the status quo. And the Wahoo Frontiers production team was going to document it.
Day 1: 79mi, 5hr 23min, 9,754 ft
Santa Rosa – Upper Clear Lake
It was raining. It was cold. The day before had been filled with packing, buying last minute supplies, and introducing my guests to West Coast IPAs.
We’d all slept in a bit to let the mercury climb above freezing. We’d get wet, but just how wet was the question. A lot of the day’s roads weren’t new to me as I regularly hit them on my big training days but I’d failed to realize how much slower we’d go with all our pack weight. Much of the day was spent hovering in that zone of pedaling hard enough to stay warm but not quite hard enough to sweat and freeze. We realized that, upon reaching the southern shores of Clear Lake and seeing a death-black storm cloud headed our direction, that a detour was needed. We democratically elected to reroute via a harder but shorter dirt road, thus arriving before dark. The highlight of the day was ripping down Bartlett Springs Road to the lake, a serpentine 5-mile descent of hardpacked “Gucci Gravel.”
Day 2: 97mi, 5hr 35min, 8,212 ft
Upper Clear Lake – Ft. Bragg
We all knew we’d have to encounter our own demons at some point or another, but I was surprised at how early my moment came. Today’s route was nearly due west to the coast and infamous Highway 1. We’d woken to temps slightly above freezing and rain. The hills just above us — no more than 1,000 feet above sea level — were blanketed in fresh snow. We departed with steely resolve and kept the pace high until, entering the mountain range that separated us from the Pacific Ocean, rain turned to sleet, then hail.
We’d already lost feeling in our extremities and elected to stop at a coffee shop and wait out the storm a bit. Only, due to Covid, we were not allowed to wait it out indoors. So we had to huddle under a patio heat lamp, stripping down to base layers and holding sopping items up to dry. I shivered uncontrollably for an hour, unable to warm my core back up. Eventually the skies parted, we redressed in damp clothes, and climbed through snow and fog.
The closer we got to the coast, the warmer it got. When we reached Highway 1, we popped out on a spectacular coastal bluff. The desperation and bleakness of just a few hours earlier only heightened this sense of euphoria. That euphoria gave way to mild panic when we realized that due to our extended stop, dusk was approaching and with it the closing of the fresh fish shack I’d texted the boys about for weeks.
This was where we first glimpsed the rebirth of Ian Boswell the racer. Due to work obligations and a frigid Vermont winter, Ian’s fitness was an unknown and many jokes had been cracked on whether he would survive the camp. Maybe he was just scared of missing his fish tacos, but something inside ignited and instead of a nice spin along the 1, he began to time trial. Faster and faster he went, nearly dropping Colin and I off his wheel. Flutters of competitive instinct kicked in and before we knew it, we were in a full TTT against the clock. The team prevailed; we rolled in right at closing and albeit sufficiently shelled, we got our fish tacos and beer.
Day 3: 71mi, 5hr 36min, 11,138 ft
Ft. Bragg – Shelter Cove
The bad weather was gone for the week and luckily so; this was the day we entered the Lost Coast and had it been stormy it might have been impassible. It was technically the shortest day of the trip but had almost 10,000 feet of vert in the last 40 miles of the ride. Cell service disappeared, roads got rugged, and Usal Road, a bucket list road for anyone who fancies gravel, did not disappoint.
This was also the day where the group’s mentality switched. The adventure camp became a training camp. Colin was really enjoying testing his limits on a relentlessly-rolling ridgeline, and Ian and myself became casualties of his stoke. Try as we might we couldn’t keep up and competitive flames really began to burn. It was still fun, but the fun definitely became type 2.
After regrouping a few hours later and a ripping descent through Jurassic-sized ferns to a remote outlook, Colin and Ian had begun to climb out while I lingered for a photo. I must have only been 30 seconds behind them but try as I might I couldn’t close the gap. I’ll admit here, expletives were uttered, and I was going full threshold when I eventually found them again. There were no words, just a cheeky middle finger and I continued to push on with my same rate.
Apparently Ian got the memo and by the top of the pass he was just on my tail while Colin followed shortly after, cursing being stuck with climbers on the steep stuff. All that remained was a kick and drop into the only hamlet along the entire Lost Coast; the idyllic and remote Shelter Cove. We were back on pavement on the last steep wall, when a car coming from behind forced us to single-up. Ian accelerated a little harder than was necessary, but I was ready and hit him, hard. I was sure I’d broken him on this 20% grade but to my surprise, and probably his, he dug in and came around me. I’m sure the film crew laughed at the sight of us locked in an end-of-race, summit-finish sprint… in the middle of nowhere, with massive saddle bags flopping side to side.
I will go on record here saying Ian was so smashed that evening, he passed out at 8:45pm, leaving Colin and I to finish off the rest of the IPAs we’d bought from Shelter Cove’s micro-brewery. Ian: That’s not how you gravel. We went to bed, content with sore legs and the sound of crashing waves on the cliffs below, but we all knew the gloves were off, lines in the sand had been drawn, and we had one day to finish it off.
Day 4: 105mi, 6hr 57min, 13,091 ft
Shelter Cove – Mattole Campground
The Queen stage. Bluebird skies and warm temps eased our crusty bodies. The day started with another unforgettable ridgeline followed by a descent into a valley that could be mistaken for Eden. Glacial-blue water and fertile land cut through mountain ranges devoid of population but we stayed on the main road; out here the crop of choice is marijuana and while most productions along the main roads are legitimate, it wouldn’t be wise to stray off the beaten path.
We descended off an hour-long climb to the day’s highlight: The Avenue of the Giants redwood grove. These trees are so big and awe inspiring that we couldn’t find it in ourselves to push hard. It was all we could do to coast, gawk upwards, and take in their massive magnificence.
Eventually we reached our final obstacle of the day. I’d mapped it but had no idea what was to come: A 30-minute dirt climb had me eager and I opened up the final battle, testing myself and putting Ian and Colin on notice. At what I believed was the top, I eased up at and we regrouped. An unexpected riser appeared and Ian took his turn, punching his way clear, leaving Colin and I gasping in his wake. The dirt still didn’t relent but instead continued to undulate into infinity westward.
As for Colin, I don’t think he was too pleased at being caught in the crossfire between two climbers sparring on their preferred terrain. He was seeing some red, and once the road leveled he clicked into that turbo-diesel that won him the DK 200 and churned away from us. We figured we could keep him close and let him have his moment, but in fact we never saw him again! The horse had the bit in his mouth and he pushed — for two more hours — all the way to camp! Ian and I rolled up minutes later in the late afternoon sun. Mattole was the perfect end, an isolated black sand beach with both Ian’s dad and my wife waiting with tents, bbq supplies, and coolers full of beer. Hearts contented, calories replenished, cheers made, we laughed until the sky was full of stars.
The new age training camp, the Gravel Pro Training Camp. It’s been said time and time again how gravel is about the community, the friendships, the openness. Traditional pro training camps are isolationist pursuits: Riders huddle up with their teammates or coach, sit on a mountain, watch what they eat, and are generally secretive, preparing to show up to the next race ready to perform and surprise. This, in stark contrast, was three fellows who, normally competitors during the season, came together to bond and motivate each other.
It’s not lost on me how I was, at some level, helping both Ian and Colin gain the fitness and motivation they need to beat me at coming races. But I needed that as well. We are joining forces now to defeat each other later; it’s a notion I’m still wrapping my head around. In the end there were no coaches, training plans, or massage therapists. Just three friends, testing each other deep in the woods, drinking beers, and exploring a remote part of the world.
I hope you enjoy this film that beautifully captures the antics: Wahoo Frontiers: The Lost Coast.