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Not racing but racing: Tackling the Grinduro

In-depth
21 Apr 2020
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Grinduro in Scotland is like a race, but it isn’t a race. It’s a fun day out on gravel and forest trails. With some racing. This article was originally published in issue 1 of Cyclist Off-Road magazine: you can order issue 3 now

Words Stu Bowers Photography Geoff Waugh

I think I’m having what someone more spiritual than myself would call a Zen moment. Still in my sleeping bag, I’ve unzipped my tent and taken my first sip of espresso, made on my little camp stove. Beads of dew catch the sunlight, and framed in my tent door is a picture-perfect view of a rugged Scottish hillside.

In truth, I’m not alone in a remote wilderness. I’m on a school playing field in Lamlash on the west coast of the Isle of Arran, and I’m surround by hundreds of other cyclists who are all beginning to crawl from their own tents.

Still, as the sun begins burning off the early morning mist, I feel slightly euphoric yet at the same time strangely calm. Is that Zen? I’m not sure, but I’m still excited about what the day has in store.

It’s nice to wake up in daylight – usually I have to set my alarm for some time in the middle of the night to make the start time for a sportive. But then the Grinduro is not like other events. It feels more like a festival than a bike race.

 

During the one-hour ferry crossing from the Scottish mainland, most competitors kicked back with a cold beer or a gin and tonic. Many have brought their families, and I haven’t heard a single mention of power meters or Strava.

As I stare out of my tent, a guy walks past with a bottle of beer and a packet of biscuits sticking out of his jersey pockets. Not a little packet, either – a full-size helping of McVitie’s Digestives.

I smile, quickly trying to hide the energy gels and drinks sachets I’ve just pulled from my kit bag, like in some way they might be considered cheating.

 

Born in the USA

What is Grinduro? Despite being a laid-back affair, it is still a competitive event. It’s partly the brainchild of Californian ex-road pro and author Joe Parkin, who saw an opportunity to create an event that would reflect the kind of riding he liked to do.

To his mind, most group rides are ridden at a sociable pace but inevitably there are the occasional sprints for town signs or attacks up climbs. Crucially, though, there is always a regrouping afterwards, and once everyone has their breath back the conversational pace resumes until the next tussle ensues.

That’s the format here. Riders tackle a route that will challenge their fitness and endurance, but being first home isn’t the goal. Instead, the competitive aspect is distilled into a number of timed stages of varying lengths that test a range of skills. The combined time for these stages determines a rider’s finishing position.

 

Think of it as gravel riding meets mountain bike enduro meets sportive. The course I’m about to tackle is 84km and designed for the new breed of go-anywhere bikes (although there are no restrictions on bike choice).

There are four timed stages that range from just over 2km to 5.5km and which include some really testing climbs and descents on a variety of terrain. In the middle of the day, everyone will stop for lunch. As I said, it’s all very relaxed.

Ready, steady… chill

There’s no argy-bargy to get to the front when the 9.30am start time comes around, and we roll unhurriedly out of Lamlash along the coast. We have a magnificent view of Holy Isle just off the shore to our right, and the civilised pace means everyone can enjoy the morning sunshine.

Participants in 2017’s inaugural Grinduro Scotland (the first to venture outside of the US) weren’t looked upon so favourably by the weather gods. It was wet and windy, although judging by the photographs of that event the conditions didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm.

 

After meandering along a stretch of gravel through a pine forest, the start of the first stage looms. It’s making me nervous. I’ve told myself I’m not going to take the timed sections too seriously, that I’m here to enjoy the countryside, but once I see the timing beam approaching something switches inside me. Once a racer, always a racer.

The great thing about this type of racing is that it’s up to you how you approach it. For some it’s about overall victory, while others just want to be faster than their mates. Some will cruise through the racing stages like they’re not even there. It really doesn’t matter – no one is judging you.

Stage 1 – ‘Fireroad of Fury’ – lives up to its billing. It’s a downhill 2.5km stretch on loose gravel and it feels like riding on marbles, which combined with the adverse cambers requires complete concentration. It would be easy to get carried away and slither off into a ditch.

It’s a blast to ride, and immediately after the sector everyone stops racing and regroups. Riders wait for friends, spouses and children before continuing gently onwards.

 

The sense of shared camaraderie that comes from getting the first test out of the way means the mood is now even more upbeat. It’s hard to imagine things could get much better. Then we roll into the feed station at Brodick Castle.

A selection of ice creams, flapjacks, cakes and other local delights – not least gin and whisky – greets us as we drift into the impressive castle grounds. It’s more like a picnic than a feed station, and it seems rather decadent after only 13km of riding, but it’s too good to resist.

Were this a regular sportive I’d stuff my pockets with snacks and tear off as quickly as possible. Not so here. With no clock running, there’s no rush. People relax on the grass and build up their energy for Stage 2, the ‘Lung Buster’.

 

Slippery slope

It’s an uphill affair. When it arrives I fight for rear-wheel traction as the surface and gradient change constantly up the 2.8km climb. Line choice is paramount to avoid wheelspin or stalling on the rocks and grassy tussocks.

I try to meter my effort as I have no clue what’s around each corner. The dense pine trees on either side prevent us from seeing further ahead. At the finish line I join the others slumped over their handlebars and catch my breath. By way of recompense, what follows is a superb, winding trail back down through the forest.

It’s technical in places but a joy to ride, and the fun continues as we hit a series of singletrack lanes, interspersed with the odd stream crossing and a final stretch of tarmac back into Lamlash.

 

After a big lunch I’m grateful for the 8km of steady riding before the 5.5km climb of Stage 3, the ‘Lunch Roll’. At the start line I’m in a group of five and we begin by working together, taking turns in the strong wind coming off the coast.

When the finish line comes into view, however, the race is on – and I narrowly avoid total disaster while sprinting head down when I nearly overshoot a left turn.

The climb has delivered us to one of the high points on the route and the view across the mountains to the sea is worth taking time to savour. We pick our way precariously down the rutted descent until we reach a stretch of tarmac that feels smooth as glass after the bumpy trail.

Our group of five reforms on the road and we chat as we ride to the southernmost point of the route, where we discover a little oasis in the most unlikely of places.

A steep descent brings us to the tiny village of Lagg, where we find the delightful, cycling-themed Velo Cafe. It’s hard to resist the cake but I’m aware of how steep that descent was, and we will shortly have to climb straight back up.

 

Final fling

As I try to revive my cafe legs, the route climbs to the highest point of the day. After a lengthy drag mostly on gravel, and with 65km covered, we stop to admire another spectacular view over the sandy beachfront of Whiting Bay.

It’s no time at all before we’re riding next to the beach and looking up at where we were only minutes before. Seriously steep and littered with loose rocks, some the size of footballs, the descent was a succession of switchbacks that demanded full commitment.

Being back at sea level means a climb must follow, and this is when I feel my legs start to buckle. Grinduro might only be 84km but it feels like a lot more, and there’s still Stage 4 to come. I’m now wishing I too had digestives.

 

Stage 4 is ‘The Final Fling’, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a tricky and twisty 3.2km singletrack descent through dense pine forest, and it’s also a great way in which to sign off an incredible day’s riding.

Whipping in and out of the trees, pushing my tyres’ grip to the limit on the dusty trail, I’m actually disappointed when it is over. After that, it’s a short stint on tarmac back to Lamlash before we seal the day with a cold beer.

Grinduro has been an outstanding event, only ever as hard as you want to make it, technical at times, but always beautiful. What’s more, the course design changes each year, so you can come back again and get a completely different experience.

As the sun sets, there is just one challenge remaining: to avoid being eaten by midges. This is Scotland, after all.

The details

You’ll be rolling in the isles

What: Grinduro Scotland
Where: Lamlash, Isle of Arran
Next one: 13th July 2019
Distance: 84km with 1,520m ascent
Cost: £150 (numbers capped at 400, so get in quick)
Info: grinduro.com

 

The rider’s ride

3T Exploro Flatmount, frameset from £3,000 (full bikes from £4,200), saddleback.co.uk

I set out to build the perfect bike for Grinduro. Having ridden the event, I would now say it’s practically impossible to have a bike perfect for every challenge you’ll face, so varied is the course, but the 3T Exploro is as close as you’ll find.

It’s truly versatile – and great fun, especially with the addition of the Fox AX suspension fork (here colour-matched to the custom paint scheme by Fat Creations) and a 650b wheelset with 42mm WTB Resolute tyres.

The beauty of this frame/fork combination is that the 40mm of suspension travel really aids grip and stability, which allowed me to carry more speed safely over the roughest sections and stay off the brakes on descents.

With the flick of a lever, locking the fork means the stiffness of the frame comes to the fore, which helps on climbs and tarmac, especially with such a stiff crank and chainring as 3T’s own Torno 1x set-up. Pairing the 42t ring with 3T’s 9-32t cassette gave me all the gear ratios I needed, and both shifting and braking were flawless.

There were times when I felt the rear end could possibly benefit from a little more comfort, maybe in the form of a flexier seatpost, and it did take some time to tune the settings of the fork so as not to blow through its travel and bottom out too quickly.

But once I’d got that dialled in it felt truly capable for the demands of the event – kind of where hardtail mountain bike meets cyclocross bike.

How we did it

Travel

Arran is only accessible by ferry, for which Grinduro uses the crossing from Ardrossan on the west coast of Scotland. Race entry includes return ferry crossing as a foot passenger with bike.

The closest airport to Ardrossan is Glasgow International, which is an hour’s drive away. ScotRail also operates a train service directly into the Ardrossan Harbour, about a four-hour journey from London. Typical journey time to Ardrossan from London by car is around 7.5 hours, and from Glasgow 45 minutes.

Once you reach Brodick on Arran it’s about a 10-minute drive to the event village in Lamlash, for which the event provides a shuttle service by minibus, with bike trailers. However, it’s so close that many choose to simply ride there from the ferry (weather and good bikepacking permitting).

 

Accommodation

In the spirit of the event the preferred option is camping, for which there is ample flat grassy space on the school sports field, but if you don’t fancy a night under canvas (figuratively speaking, as who has a canvas tent these days?) there are numerous B&Bs and local hotels close to the event in Lamlash or nearby Brodick.

Tips for entrants

Don’t forget your insect repellent (the West Highland midge is voracious). Get a decent tent and comfortable sleeping mat and embrace the festival atmosphere.

Don’t be disillusioned if you have one bad stage – the beauty of a multi-stage event is that there’s plenty of time to make amends.

Don’t be fooled into thinking 84km will be a breeze, and don’t miss the ferry – the crossing is one hour each way, so you’ll be waiting at the dock for two hours if you miss one.

Oh, and don’t forget to look up from your stem – Arran is a truly stunning place to ride.