The Dirt: Three things I learned about SoCal gravel

The mountains around Los Angeles are rife with trails and old roads that make the area ideal for gravel riding.

Photo: Ian Matteson

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Welcome to The Dirt, the weekly news round-up on what is happening in the worlds of gravel, mountain biking, and all things rough and dirty.

Sorry for last week’s lapse in dirt news. I was out in California checking out the gravel scene in — believe it or not — Los Angeles. Technically, I was a bit north of the city in Calabasas, home to Kardashians, superstar rappers, and a really cool cycling scene, which is often based out of the delicious Pedaler’s Fork restaurant and 10-Speed Coffee cafe.

I probably didn’t get the full SoCal gravel experience due to some heavy rains on Wednesday and Thursday, but I did pick up on the basics of the area. Here are three things you should know about riding gravel in the L.A. area.

1. Gear up for climbing

Ordinarily, I love riding a single-chainring bike for gravel, because most of the time, gravel rides are undulating without too much severe climbing. Well, when you ride out of Calabasas, you ride straight up. Both my rides from there exceeded my “100x rule,” meaning if the feet of elevation gained is 100x the mileage, it is a lot of climbing. A few times, I found the limit of the 42t x 42t easy gear combination on the 3T Exploro I was borrowing. This does make for some great views of the L.A. downtown and ocean — it is worth the effort!

2. Shreddy for some singletrack?

A lot of the rides in this area include a healthy dose of singletrack, sometimes off the top of those ridgelines that provide the aforementioned vistas. I found this to be the case in the Belgian Waffle Ride race near San Diego, which I did in 2018. Mountain biking skills really come in handy. I find it’s also best to get comfortable riding descents in the drops. Sure, your body position is a bit lower, but the firm grip and more powerful braking are worth the tradeoff. If you want to get crazy, some bikes even have dropper posts to get the saddle down and out of the way, like you would on a mountain bike.

3. Do an event, but keep it chill

Southern California is a hotbed for gravel events, and a lot of them take a fun, (mostly) non-competitive approach. I hopped in one such event on Saturday, Bonk Breaker’s Tranquilo Ride. I felt the name was appropriate for the first 35 miles or so as we cruised up the Pacific Coast Highway past Malibu. Then we turned up Sycamore Canyon onto the first gravel section and it was not so tranquil. Fortunately, we all regrouped at multiple points along the way and had some beers after. I had to leave the next day, but it turns out the same sort of fun was on tap Sunday with the Rivet Ride, based out of Calabasas. Would-be gravel event organizers take note: You don’t need timing, official results, or number plates to create a fun experience.

USA Cycling’s Pro XCT to include three mountain bike stage races

USA Cycling’s Pro Cross Country Tour (Pro XCT) looks a little different for 2019 with the addition of three stage races: new four-day events in Soldier Hollow, Utah and Missoula, Montana, as well as an old standby in the Breck Epic, held the last 10 years in Breckenridge Colorado.

Along with those UCI-sanctioned stage races, the calendar includes five one-day UCI XC races and an XC Eliminator.

As usual, things get started in California at Bonelli Park on March 16. Temecula comes a week later, followed by Sea Otter Classic in mid-April. Soldier Hollow, Utah again returns to the calendar in early May, and the calendar continues on to the Eliminator race in Georgia, Missoula, Breck Epic, and finally the Eastern Grind in Williston, Vermont.

USA Cycling Pro XCT 2019 calendar

March 16
US Cup – Bonelli Park XCO + Junior Series XCO, San Dimas, California, UCI HC
March 24
US Cup-Vail Lake National + Junior Series XCO, Temecula, California, UCI C1
April 11
Sea Otter Classic, Monterey, California, UCI HC
April 14
Sea Otter Classic, Monterey, California UCI C3
May 2-5
Soldier Hollow Bike Festival + Junior Series XCO, Midway, Utah, UCI S1
June 9
Eliminator, Columbus, Georgia, UCI XCE WC
June 6-9
Missoula XCS + Junior Series XCO, Missoula, Montana, UCI S2
August 11-16
The Breck Epic MTB Stage Race, Breckenridge, Colorado, UCI S1
August 24
Julbo Eastern Grind, Williston, Vermont, UCI C1

Cape Epic start list keeps getting better

Coming on the heels of news that defending champions Howard Grotts and Jaroslav Kulhavy will return to the Absa Cape Epic mountain bike stage race, more marquee names have been confirmed for the eight-day event in South Africa March 17-24.

Cannondale riders Manuel Fumic and Henrique Avancini will team up in a bid to challenge Grotts and Kulhavy. Avancini is the reigning world marathon mountain bike champion. The duo finished fourth in the 2017 Cape Epic and third last year behind the Canyon-Topeak team of Alban Lakata and Kristian Hynek.

“This 2019 route looks good to us on paper,” Fumic said. “More climbing also means more descent, and the technical singletrack will suit our strengths.”

Maja Włoszczowska, a top World Cup XC racer, is taking on a new challenge at the Cape Epic. Photo: Sarah Harrop

On the women’s side of the race, two-time Olympic silver medalist Maja Włoszczowska will pair up with Ariane Lüthi to form the Kross-Spur Racing team. Włoszczowska, also a former world cross country champion, will be racing her first Cape Epic. Lüthi should have plenty of expertise to share as a two-time champion in the mixed division and a three-time champion in the women’s race.

“Of course I heard also that it’s the hardest race you can do,” said Włoszczowska. “But about that, I try to forget. As I like challenges I decided to pick up this one; especially when I got the opportunity to ride together with three-time winner Ariane Lüthi. I believe that thanks to her, I can avoid many ‘beginners’ mistakes. The biggest challenge is to race through eight days, without health or technical problems, and to get the best possible recovery in between the stages.

Two new gravel events

In the last couple weeks, two new gravel events were confirmed for 2019. The first of which is a big one, a five-day 365-mile stage race called the Oregon Trail Gravel Grinder, June 19-23. With 30,000 feet of climbing (yep, close to that 100x rule), this should be a tough one, but organizers are also offering shorter “Settler Routes” each day for riders who want to go easy. The ride is fully supported with medical and mechanical staff, food, and camping.

“This is almost 400 miles of the most amazing terrain in the country, on pristine gravel roads that see 10 times more wildlife traffic then they do cars,” said Chad Sperry, founder and director of event organizer Breakaway Promotions. “This isn’t just a ride, it’s an adventure, and I guarantee it’s something people will remember for the rest of their lives.”

Later this summer, Coloradans will have a new, high-altitude gravel event in the Lake City Alpine 50, August 24. This 50-miler is one for the mountain goats with 7,500 feet of climbing through the San Juan mountains and two passes that go over 12,000 feet, Cinnamon Pass (12,640 feet) and Engineer Pass (12,800) feet.

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