Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race

This past weekend I travelled to Cordesville, SC with my buddy Jeremy for the Hellhole Gravel Grind Stage Race. The HGGSR consisted of a Prologue along with two 65 mile stages which took place in and around the Hellohole Swamp in the Francis Marion National Forest. In the race description, it was noted that the forest is named for the revolutionary war hero Francis Marion, who was known as the British Swamp Fox. He used the swamps, creeks, and forest areas to ambush and hide from the British and was depicted in the movie "The Patriot".

Upon arriving to the forest, Jeremy and I took a spin around the 6 mile Prologue course. The dirt was smooth and the route was flat... very flat. A couple miles into the course I realized that the 1x10 Carve SL with 1.8 Rengades was not going to be the right tool for this particular race. I mentioned to Jeremy it seemed as if I had brought a knife to a gun fight. Little did I know at the time, but that statement would end up as the perfect descriptor for the racing ahead.

Saw lots and lots of this..

Jeremy warming up for the Prologue

Photo Cred: Brian Fancher
Jeremy killing it on course..

For the Prologue, we were set off solo in 30 second increments to complete the six mile loop. A time bonus would be given based on finish times and would be factored into the GC (overall) times for the entire race (all of the stages combined). My goal for the Prologue was to catch and pass as many people as I could. This proved to be more challenging than expected as I found my legs heavy and the carrot fast. Around the four mile mark, I was caught and passed by the rider who started behind me (Zachary Kratche). As he passed, naturally I hopped on his wheel. After 30 seconds or so of drafting, this guy start spouting off to me. "What the Fuck are you doing on my wheel, get off my fucking wheel, get the fuck off". Wondering what the hell this guy's problem was, I pulled up beside him and asked why he was such an asshole. His reply was "don't you know you're not supposed to draft in a fucking time trial?". My response was along the line of "if I had a road racing background, don't you think I'd be on something other than a mountain bike for a race like this." For the record, I have never ridden in a road group, participated in a road TT or payed any attention to road racing. I know nothing about the rules or tactics of road racing.

Prior to the Prologue, I had reviewed the rules and afterwards I went back and double checked... nope, nothing in there about drafting. After completing the prologue I watched as the remaining riders came in. I took notice of Nathan Smith who was sporting aero rims as well as a time trial helmet. It then occurred to me that some of these guys may be taking this racing thing seriously. I ended up with the seventh fastest time in the Prologue while the ever so pleasant Zach took the top spot.

Our "digs" for the weekend. KOA comfort.

The following morning a mass of riders rolled out to begin Stage 1. The stage would consist of 65 miles and would also include single day racers as well as 32 mile racers. It ended up being a tad confusing as no one knew who was in what race. Being on doubletrack for much of the start, there were two trains which made for some interesting times with riders back and forth between the two. It was tough figuring who might go off the front and if someone went, I wanted to be in position to make the break as well. Sure enough a few miles in, Zach and Ken broke off the front and with a little guidance from the group, I decided to stay put. The idea being that with just the two of them out front, they would wear themselves out and our group of twelve or so would work together to reel them back in. That was the thought anyway but that was not how it played out.

Our group did not work together, not in the least bit. There were a few of us that would take pulls while everyone else decided to sit in and save their legs. We were a very dysfunctional group and little did I know at the time, it was all part of the plan. As the two flyers faded, they came into sight. As we pulled closer, Miles and Chris jumped around the group and off the front. With ~25 miles to go and not knowing what was going on, I decided to stay put in the larger group hoping that we would soon start working together. Chris and Miles caught and passed the two flyers while Zach and Ken were absorbed into our group.

Now would be the time to work as a group to reel in and overtake Miles and Chris right? Not the case. Zach and Ken sat up in our group and everyone else was happy to sit in. Sonni (who was in the 40+ Cat.), myself and Nathan were taking pulls trying to get a chase group formed but the rest of the riders just sat there. Sonni fell back to chat with the group and found out that Zach and Miles were teammates and this was all part of the plan.

Upon finding this out Sonni, Nathan and I gave chase with a few other in tow who were just there to be towed. Our effort was pointless as too much time was lost getting caught up in the game and Miles and Chris were long gone. I was able to edge out Nathan in a sprint finish while Sonni got me by a wheel. I finish third on the stage and claimed third spot in the GC while Miles and Nathan were first and second respectively.

Photo Cred: Jeremy Morgan
Men's Open Stage 1

Stage 1 was very frustrating for me. I had the legs to be out front but by being naive to what was going on out there, I had missed my chance. I had gotten schooled and I was not going to let it happen again. Even though I didn't have any teammates with me at this race, I did have a few friends. Friends who are very good on the road. I asked for advice and a loose game plan was formed. Knowing that I have a strong endurance background, my buddies where going to go off the front early taking huge pulls in an attempt to get the group wore down while I sat in saving the legs.

Stage 2 was another 65 mile loop on fairly smooth dirt roads like the first day. There was however one 3-4 mile singletrack section about two miles into the loop. All was going as planned. I had two buddies at the front of the pack, I was sitting on their wheel, Miles and Nathan were just behind me and then it all fell apart. My two buddies and I missed the turn onto the singletrack section while everyone behind us stayed on route. As we were hauling ass in the wrong direction a marshal on a motorcycle chased us down and made us aware of our mistake. As we looked back towards the missed turn, not a single rider could be seen. We were the only ones off course and I had a sick feeling that my day was done.

Not being one to give up, I entered the singletrack on a mission. I was going to bury myself taking advantage of "the knife" I was riding and was going to work my way back up to the front. Fortunately for me, other racers seemed to know what was going on and my calls for passes were heard and granted. As I approached Zach, I had a feeling that he was all too aware of where I was and would have no problem blocking me to aid his teammate. I came up on him trying to push his pace. When the bobble came, I proceeded to work by. Once I had the leaders in sight, it was a huge relief. I sat back taking the time to recover and soon Nathan, Myles, myself as well as one other guy on a mountain bike exited the singletrack in the lead with no one in sight behind us.

We rotated through the pace line each taking quality pulls. All of us but the guy on the mountain bike. He just sat on for 25 miles not taking a single pull. Miles and Nathan took turns dropping back to chat with this guy and he assured them that he wasn't playing games. Sure enough there came a point were he dropped off leaving the top three in the GC together to battle it out. Even though Miles and Nathan didn't appear to be on the same team, they were both local. I knew that this would not play in my favor and more than likely there was nothing I could do to make a jump in the GC. This did not mean that I wasn't going to try.

Each time I began a pull, I would shift to a harder gear allowing me to stand. This would cause a bit of sudden acceleration which means Miles and Nathan would have to work a tad harder to regain my wheel. If I could wear them down enough, I might be able to make an attack stick within the last five miles. This tactic also gave my body the chance to use my muscles a little differently delaying the onset of issues that might pop up due to being in one position so long.

At one point Miles fell out of rotation causing me to take an extra pull. Was this a mistake on his part or part of the plan? I still don't know. Not knowing the route or how much farther we had to go, it was difficult to decide where to attack. Typically I would attack on a climb but there were zero climbs to be found on this course. I decided to use the traction of my mountain tires and attack in a turn. The attack was on, a gap was made, but with two of them chasing it was useless. They were back on my wheel in no time.

Photo Cred: Brian Fancher
GC Leader, Miles and I

They waited for me to take a pull and just as I was finishing up the two of them darted around and attacked together. I clung to their wheel and once they figured out that I was not going away, they gave up. Thinking we were just about to the finish, I attacked in a turn once again, got down on my bars in an aero position and began grinding. Looking back, I had a gap but looking ahead it was straight road as far as I could see. I let up and once again we where three.

The next attack was clever but I was waiting for it. I was once again taking a pull when I reached for my bottle. While I was taking a drink, the two of them attacked together. The problem was that Miles fell off. I was able to dart around him and chase Nathan down. It was here where I took the opportunity to let them know that I do training rides solo at a good clip sometimes for 200 miles and that I could play these games all day long. Realizing that these attacks were useless and the finish line was fast approaching, the attacks subsided and preparations were being made for a sprint finish.

As we rolled through the pace line, I stayed out front for long periods of time hoping to see a familiar piece of road indicating the finish would be near. I wanted to be in the front coming into the last turn in order to get a jump on the two CX bikes with the paved finish. As we came into the familiar turn we jumped on the pedals accelerating from a few miles an hour to 30 in an instant. I jumped out front while Nathan closed the gap and Miles fell off. As we made the right turn into the finish, Nathan tried ducking in on my left side. As I made sure that didn't happen, I heard Nathan yell something in response to move I had just pulled to claim the stage win.

Upon asking Nathan what that was all about, he informed my that in road racing you must hold your line in a straight sprint to the finish. I guess it was a good thing that the finish was not straight and I didn't sign up for a road race. After all, who would bring a mountain bike to a road race?

Photo Cred: Jeremy Morgan
Men's Open Stage 2

Men's Open GC

Even though there were lots of aspects of this race which were new to me. I really enjoyed spending time with Sonni and Nathan on the first day and rolling the second day with Miles and Nathan. Those guys were strong and a pleasure to be around. This was the inaugural year for the race and I do have to say that the organizers and volunteers did one heck of a job. If you are a road racer looking for some dirt or a mountain biker looking to try something a bit different, you should check this race out. Just be prepared to make friends and spin, spin, spin as the only hills you will see in the Francis Marion National Forest will be covered with ants.


  1. Very cool Kelly. Way to send them to school

  2. Nice write up Kelly, being a local here in CHS I found that particularly entertaining. I don't know about sending them to school Parker, it seems Kelly did most of the learning. And a quick study you are Kelly, props and congrats.

  3. It was great meeting you at the race. Fun times were had all around. While I just stuck to the 32 mile one day, listening to my boombox the whole way, it was impressive racing on everybody's part.

  4. Great write up and even greater riding! Congrats!

  5. Dang silly roadies. Like you, I will eventually dabble in some CCX, but I will NEVER road race. It seems to bring the A-hole out in people.
    Fantastic write up! I think I enjoyed reading it more than actually hearing you tell it. ;)