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GRAVEL TO GRANITE: NSW GRAVEL CHAMPIONSHIP

5/3/2023

On Friday the 3rd of March, I drove up towards Tenterfield to race the Gravel and Granite; a tough 105km gravel race, with roughly 60kms of gravel and 45kms of sealed road. Over the 105kms, the race had 1751m of climbing, with most of it coming in the final 40kms of the race! This raced doubled as the Auscycling Gravel State Championships.


When I first became aware of the event through a friend, I considered if I could do this race on my road bike. My new team bike, the Lapierre Xelius SL, has clearance for 32mm tyres. I hopped online and searched '32mm gravel tyre'. After a bit of research, I decided on the Panaracer Gravel King SK, in the 32mm variety. It is advertised as a 'go-anywhere' tyre, so I took a gamble and purchased them. I also purchased some protective frame wrap from my local bike shop to make sure I didn't hurt my beautiful frame, which I will use for the remainder of the road season.


When the tyres arrived, I was eager to go out and test them. I've ridden gravel on my road bike before, but often ended up with punctures early in the ride and regretting my decisions. But with my new gravel tyres on, I set out for some dirt on my local gravel roads in Tamworth.



Swapping tyres over takes time, so this ride was to be my only test ride before entering the race. For this reason, I didn't hold back when approaching the gravel. I hit the gravel, pressed 'lap' on my Garmin, and launched straight into a 4 minute VO2 max effort. The gravel initially started on a downhill stretch, so I was flying. 400 + watts at 50km/h, hitting some sharp rocks, ruts and corrugations, yet the tyres absorbed most of the impact. It felt like I couldn't puncture them or lose traction if I tried. After that ride, my mind was made up, I would enter the NSW Gravel Champs.

I arrived in Tenterfield early in the morning on Saturday the 4th of March. I was so excited, I couldn't sleep the night before. I was up well past midnight, with an alarm set at 5am, but with the adrenaline and anticipation, I may as well have had a full nights sleep. I signed on and received my number. Instead of pinning it to your jersey, it's zip-tied to the front of the bike. Not very aero, but then again, many people were racing on MTB's, so aero isn't at the front of most peoples minds.


Things were going smoothly, too smoothly. So sure enough, with 45 minutes before my race start, things started to go wrong. My bike was in the back of the car, with both wheels off. I must have bumped the levers, because the wheels wouldn't spin when I put them in the bike. 'Not to worry', I thought. I can simply push the pistons back in. I took the wheels and brake pads out, pushed the pistons back in with a flat head screw driver and put it all back together. To my relief, this fixed the problem and I had no disc brake rub at all. However, in the process of doing this, I somehow got air in my front brake. To my horror, when I squeezed the front brake caliper, nothing happened. My front brake was completely lifeless (forever a battler).

Starting to feel a little panicked, I kitted up and headed towards the start-line. I spoke to a mechanic, and he proceeded to pulse the front brake like his life depended on it. After about a minute of frantically pulsing it, he said 'there you go, it's grabbing slightly'. Slightly was the word to describe it, it barely stopped the wheel spinning in mid air, let alone down some of the gravel descents we were about to tackle.

'3,2,1, GO!' We were off. I was so nervous about my brake, but I tried to stay calm. The race started on a tar climb, so it was a casual start to a frantic race. People were chatting, joking, laughing, there were no attacks. That all changed when the road kicked up properly. We hit a 10% gradient, and sure enough, the hammer was getting dropped. I was on my road bike, sandbagging the climb at 425 watts, and I was on a road bike! It was beneficial for me for the race to be hard before we hit the gravel, so I was definitely happy with the situation. The paced eased up, and with only 2kms before the first gravel section, the nerves got the better of me and I launched an attack. 3m:40s at 465 watts split the field, only 2 followed.


We turned right onto what was meant to be a gravel descent, but to our surprise, it was freshly laid tar! Nevertheless, the descent was steep and windy, and with almost no front brake, I lost the two in front. I eventually got back onto them, but shortly afterwards, we were swallowed up by the group behind.

We then proceeded to ride at a very civil pace. There were no further attacks. It was only once we were about 30kms into the race, we finally hit some gravel! Up until that point, I was very pleased with my decision to race a road bike. When we hit the gravel, I drifted towards the back. Not having working brakes is shocking for the confidence. I was last wheel, because I knew I needed extra time to stop if something were to happen. The pace was not too quick, so groups behind proceeded to get on. The peloton swelled to perhaps about 40 riders, and we turned onto some more tar road.

The pace was highish on the tar, but it was very easy to sit in. I was sitting at the back to save energy. No one was attacking, the pace was high, and no-one was coming back to tell me to pull a turn. I wasn't sure how I was getting away with it, but I was not complaining. Eventually boredom set in, and I attacked. I attacked not only because I was bored, but also because I wanted a head-start before the gravel started again at about 51kms into the race. We were also told the gravel descent was steep and technical, so I knew I would lose time there.


I attacked again, and broke away with one other rider: Liam Bertuzzi. We rolled turns until we hit the gravel descent, where he rode away and I got caught and passed by the peloton. Without the front brake working, I had to crawl down the descent, heavy on the rear brake, trying not to lock it up and skid.

It took me 7 minutes to chase back on to the group, but eventually I reached the front of the race again. Liam had been absorbed back into the front group. The pace was solid, but manageable. The gravel was flat, relatively smooth and flowing quite nicely. I sat at the back again. I'm fairly certain no-one knew I was there, except for a couple of riders that looked over their shoulder. There were still about 15-20 riders at this stage, what I thought was a surprisingly high amount considering the tough terrain and the hills being ridden hard.

It was only a matter of time before the boredom of sitting in set in again, and I was on the attack. 'There he goes again' I heard someone say to my amusement. For the next 25 minutes, I had an average power of 341 watts. Liam and one other followed, but I eventually dropped them during an accelleration on a climb. From there on in, I was solo. The only problem was, when I went to drink out of my second bottle, I discovered it had a crack in the lid! I think I only managed to get about 25% of the water into my actual mouth, the rest spilling out the sides. With no water on a warm day in a hard race, that meant I also couldn't consume any energy, because the dehydration would have been the worse of two evils in that situation (again, forever a battler).

With 20kms left in the race, I had roughly a one minute advantage on the chaser, Nick Baker from the Sunshine Coast with Liam from Byron Bay, not too far behind. It's at this point in the race, you hit what's referred to as 'Harold's Hill'. I had done my research, it's a 5.73km climb averaging 5.9%.


I knew the KOM time from last year was set in 20m:10s, so I knew I was in for a hard 20 minute effort. Ambitiously, I set off with a target wattage of 380, but I soon realised I was overestimating my abilities at the end of a challenging race. I was also starting to feel very thirsty by this point, and a little light headed from a lack of carb intake. From that point, it was more about survival and consolidating my lead, rather than trying to get a Strava KOM or setting a course record. What I didn't know about this climb, is it pinches up to 25%! Ouch. To simply get up this pinch, I had to do a 40 second effort, at 511 watts, at 9.6km/h, at a cadence of 66rpm in the saddle. All while weaving through B grade riders and trying to stay out of deep ruts. My HR was 187bpm by the top, certainly a maximal effort. I nearly had to walk it. For reference, my smallest gear was a 36t chainring on the front, and a 30t cog on the rear wheel. Definitely not small enough!

The following 6kms were a total slog. The road continued to drag uphill with rough corrugated gravel and a stiff headwind. A motorbike came up next to me. To my relief, he said 'relax, the others are over a km behind'. This was very welcome news. I knew I just had to get to the 96km mark, knowing the final 9km were all downhill and tar. After what felt like an eternity, I finally reached the tar. For the final 14 minutes of the race, I averaged 193 watts, but with the downhill run that was still an average speed of 38.2km/h.

I turned right into the Tenterfield Showgrounds and rode to the finish line. The race MC called my name as I crossed the finish line. I had a grin from ear to ear as I crossed the line.

Here are the final results.


I finished with a lead of 4m:09s, no water or food, sore legs, one brake and a massive smile. I can tell you, despite everything wrong that happened, it was one of the best days on the bike I've had.


So, whats next in the Gravel scene? To my knowledge, that would have to be the Auscycling Gravel Nationals, down in Derby, Tasmania. The race takes place in the depths of Winter, on brutal, Tassy dirt roads. Unlike Tenterfield, this race hardly has any sealed roads. Whilst it is the same distance (105kms), it boasts an enormous 2300m of climbing! It looks absolutely brutal, and could very well take up to 4hrs to complete. Will I do it? 50/50 at this point. It would be an epic adventure, but I will have to weigh everything up to see if it is worth the commitment.

To wrap up, here is a snapshot of the race data as a whole.


Until next time, stay motivated.

27 views2 comments

2 Comments


Just the best and inspirational


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Jamie Atkinson
Jamie Atkinson
Aug 15, 2023

Completely Unbelievable

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