The penultimate event in the 2018 Michigan Gravel Race Series is nigh…well, it’s next week.
That’s right, the massive year-long calendar is flipping into its final two events and two months. What started way back at Melting Mann is just two starts away from wrapping up on October 27 with the Lowell 50. But first, riders have a lot to tackle on Saturday, September 29 with Michigan Mountain Mayhem’s Gravel Grinder. The astute among you may have noticed that they put the main challenge of the race right in the title: the ‘mountain’ part.
MMM is actually a series of fondos, offering two events throughout the summer that stick to pavement and wrapping up with a much dirtier, grittier affair in late September or, as the race has also featured, the beginning of October. That later start date is partly due to what’s traditionally known as gravel season, but also out a necessity most riders in northern Michigan are familiar with, and that’s sand. If you’ve ridden anywhere off-road north of Cadillac, you know a long dry summer can lead to incredibly loose conditions, even on relatively well-maintained county roads. The Gravel Grinder uses those county roads and even a few two-tracks, and the late fall event helps to ensure things are about as packed and as fast as they’ll get.
While sand can play a factor, it’s no surprise that it’s the climbing that takes its toll on the racers. Rather than the more attritional, relentless climbing that makes another MGRS event, The Divide, so hard, the Gravel Grinder has some set-piece ascents that provide plenty of selection. Think of it as more of an Alpine Tour stage rather than an Amstel Gold Race or Liege-Bastogne-Liege; you can circle the big climbs, you know when they’re coming, but can you stick with the pace once you’re on them?
The sixty-mile route offers just a hair over 3,000 feet of climbing, but that elevation comes primarily in just three climbs. Coming 10.7 miles into the race, Mount Bodawei is a short, sharp climb of 195 feet in under a half a mile, and while there are bigger climbs on the course, this is the first time in the race you’ll see riders dropped from the main group. The real selection, however, comes on the long and arduous slopes of Mount Diablo, just three miles later. At just under two miles and 516 feet of elevation, it’s one of the biggest climbs in the entire state, and though it’s paved, it’s still a much longer climb than most riders are used to. Don’t be fooled by the 5% average grade; the lower slopes might be a forgiving 2%, but the top is consistently between 7 and 10% until the road first flattens, then turns to dirt, then spills down for a sandy, uneven descent. Plenty of riders wish they were on mountain bikes for the downhill, especially if they’re forced to press the pace to regain contact with the leaders.
While certainly not the last climb, Mount Mayhem is the last long climb and a chance to firmly shut the door on anyone clinging to the coattails of the very best climbers. At 2.6 miles long and an average grade sticking close to 3%, it’s not steep, but the fatigue of the day makes it feel much tougher than the numbers reflect. If you’ve got the legs, it’s an ideal point to go early and hope to others are content to ride steady and hope to come back later in the day. There are a few smaller climbs to go, but the race usually knows who has a chance by the top of Mount Mayhem, and if you’re watching riders disappear over the crest of the hill ahead of you, odds are you won’t have to worry about contesting any sprints.
As always, we try to offer some speculation on tire or wheel choice ahead of these events, and for the Gravel Grinder, it’s a true case of picking your poison and taking a hearty swig of what you think won’t kill you. Dominate the pavement and flounder in the sand, or vice versa? The middle-of-the-road option would be a 35mm tire like the Panaracer Gravel King SK, with a bit of tread a nice tough for when things good loose. If you like to live on the edge, and in this case, it would be either edge, then hit the extremes; a 30mm Schwalbe G-One Speed would be perfect for the long paved climbs and the well-maintained gravel, but you’ll be cursing your heretical confidence in the sand. And unless you know of some 40-42 tires that are both light and offer decent puncture resistance, you’ll be staring down and cursing them on those very same climbs. Go with what hides your weakness…and possibly blunts your strengths.
A look at the updated Michigan Gravel Race Series has Ann Arbor’s own Nick Stanko looking solid with two races to go with the third most points, with Jeff Johnson ten points up in total but behind on the five-race maximum and bonus points. Our top placed rider is still Danny “I Moved To Boston Three Months Ago” Soltan, whose strong spring sees him sitting tenth place without lifting a finger since spring.