The two Raleigh riders in the Chino Grinder. © Nicole Duke
by Nicole Duke
It’s not everyday that I get a chance to torture/challenge myself. So when I was asked by my sponsors SPY and Marin Bikes and the folks at the Chino Grinder if I wanted to participate in the inaugural event in Arizona, I hesitated but said yes. The Chino Grinder, a 106-mile gravel road race would be held in the Chino Valley just outside of Prescott, Arizona. The event was composed of 40% road and 60% of some of the most unforgiving gravel I’ve ridden.
I wanted to prepare for this race with not only long training rides on the ’cross bike but some specific bike preparation. I would be racing my Marin Cortina Pro CX, my carbon ’cross bike from the previous season equipped with SRAM Red components, Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes, and ZIPP Firecrest 303 clincher wheels. My only concern was that I wouldn’t have enough gearing with my 44/34 ’cross set-up for the long downhills involved. So I ordered a 50/34 from supporter, Wick Werks. With that installed, my other options were tires. I decided on the Clement X’Plor MSO 32 in the front and X’Plor USH 35 in the back. If I had my choice, I would have run a bigger one in the front but sometimes you get what you get.
The race had attracted some attention and pros such as Chloe Woodruff (the previous weekend’s Whiskey 50 winner), her husband TJ, and the Raleigh-Clement team composed of Ben Berden, Jamey Driscoll and Caroline Mani showed for the race. 200 strong and courageous racers would participate, a great start for a first year event. The race started at 7:30 on Saturday morning, one day after my 40th Birthday. I was surprised at the start by a birthday song led by announcer Kaolin Cummens and followed by all the participants. It made my morning! It was a mass start and we were off after the countdown.
The mass start at the Chino Grinder. © Nicole Duke
The start of the race held the worst of the gravel: it was deep in some places, rocky in others, and the pace of the lead pack was continuously kicking up large rocks, slamming against bikes, bodies and sometimes sunglasses. I wanted to actually race this event, instead of what I usually do: relegate myself to just finishing since this is certainly not my kind of distance. But I had been training longer distances and was feeling strong. I stayed with the first pack consisting of all the fast men, Chloe, and myself.
The first hill would top out at mile 9 and we would have an 11-mile gradual gravel downhill to the bottom. The pace was quick and felt a bit much for the start of a 106-mile race. I believe the pace was hastened by the fact that everyone wanted to be in the front since it was the safest place to be, away from danger and flying missile rocks. It was so bumpy that even the cattle guards went unnoticed. Halfway down the 11 mile downhill, I casually crossed one of the guards and got a pinch flat. It quickly threw me to the side of the peloton and ended with a sketchy stop on the side of the road. That was it, the group was gone in the flash of a second and my hopes of racing with Chloe were gone. [Want to find out the best way to smooth out rough gravel? Be sure to subscribe to our print or digital magazine for an in-depth look at the latest "compliant" frames and seatposts in Issue 25.]
Lonely roads in the Chino Grinder. © Nicole Duke
In my hastened effort to change my flat and get back to the chase, I ripped the valve stem out of my first tube while pumping it up. Bummed, I moved to the second tube (and last one) in my pocket, pumped it up and sat on the wheel of my sponsor Jim Miller from SPY to make every effort to pace back to some sort of fast-moving group. We reached the bottom and ended at the first aid station. There I asked for more tubes, and then discovered that I also had a slow leak in my back tire.
Jim continued on as I again, had to change a flat. I watched as what I felt like every racer went by. Now at the very back, I started again, riding a consistent pace through a series of rollers, picking off one rider after another, an arduous effort for very little reward. On one of the last rollers before the beginning of the smooth pavement began at mile 30, and I again punctured on a downhill from a protruding rock. This time, it was done, I was out of tubes and had to walk. And walk I did, all the way to the communication station #3. There, I met volunteers Mary Jo and her husband Richard.
No tubes here, just a 44-year-old patch kit that Richard had carried all these years in hopes that one day, someone would need it. I tried the first patch and it crumbled in my hands, dry-rotted from all those years in the dry Arizona heat. That was it, I sat down in the shade and gave into the fact that it certainly was not my day. Forty five minutes passed and finally a truck carrying someone back to the start came around. I flagged it down and the promoter, Craig, jumped out of the car to help. My ZIPPs required a minimum 60mm valve stem and everyone had 48′s. Trying to get air in the valve required patience and two people.
But finally, I was back on the bike.
Driscoll, Duke and Berden: All smiles despite the stress at the Chino Grinder. © Nicole Duke
In the meantime, hearing communications from Richard and Mary, I knew that two lead men had reached the turnaround point at a small resort 23 miles up the road. Deciding to make a call not to be out hours past everyone else, I thought it best to turn around at this point. I was also having major bike mechanicals: my chain was twisted, and my front derailleur was bent and the shifting was whacked from all my mishaps. I was not comfortable continuing in the bleak, hot desert alone any further. For training, I would hobble my way back and complete my day with 60 miles of gravel.
In the meantime, the race continued on and Chloe had hung with the boys as long as she could before being dropped, I believe about halfway up the long 14-mile climb to the top. Jamey Driscoll had gotten a flat around the same spot I did before the tarmac and his teammate Ben Berden stopped with him to pace him back to the group. They caught back on and Jamey sat in for a bit before attacking up the hill to catch the lone rider off the front, TJ Woodruff. TJ chose a mountain bike for the ride and Jamey was on his ’cross bike. The two continued together to the top, made the turn around and headed back down.
Jamey realized that TJ’s mountain bike gearing was no match for his ’cross gearing and attacked on the downhill, leaving TJ spinning in the dust. Jamey then soloed the rest of the race, back to the gravel and into the fierce, hot, headwind that had emerged over the afternoon. This was something that I battled alone on my way back also. The desert was certainly unforgiving, the wind was sucking all the water out of us faster than we could replenish, the heat was stifling, and vultures circled dead cows as a reminder of what could quickly happen to any of us if luck and fortitude did not go our way. I was beginning to think a 60-mile ride was not so bad after all.
I returned safely, but certainly disappointed, to the finish. I would explain my day to the announcer and would have to claim a DNF to an event that I had prepared for and traveled all this way to do. 30 minutes later, Jamey Driscoll showed up for the win, 14 minutes ahead of second place, TJ Woodruff. Chloe would show one hour and 20 minutes later, alone, for the female win. Caroline Mani finished strong 22 minutes behind for second.
Hot and dry for the Chino Grinder. © Nicole Duke
Everyone was tired, crusted in salt, but feeling accomplished. Ben Berden crossed the line in seventh place and declared that it was one of the hardest races he had ever done. For a first-year event, it was well organized, though I believe they learned that more water was certainly needed. All in all it was a certain success!
I was greeted with one more surprise from the race promoters and was presented a birthday cake on the podium, a nice way to make up for a challenging day. Ben and I left the venue seeing smiles on everyone’s faces and a feeling of satisfaction that the day was done.
Getting a birthday surprise at the Chino Grinder. © Nicole Duke