This past Saturday, for the first time since February of 2020, I used twist-ties to attach a number to a bike. It was a deja vu of the same flavor a week before when I received my first dose of vaccine. I expect that going through security at an airport will feel much the same, once it finally happens.
The occasion was The Rock Cobbler, a gravel event held outside Bakersfield that poses one of the most technically challenging courses I’ve heard of, let alone ridden. Before we go any further, let’s get something out of the way; unless you’ve got experience riding near Bakersfield, any associations you have with that town—Buck Owens and country music, oil fields, cattle farms—aren’t helpful to picturing this ride.
I won’t lie; Bakersfield is known to be dusty and smelly, but when I got out of the car Saturday morning I wasn’t prepared for what filled my nostrils. The aroma reminded me of star jasmine, which used to grow outside of my patio in Redondo Beach. We were parked in the middle of orange groves and apparently I’ve only visited orange groves when the fruit was far more mature; my memory of that experience has been the scent of orange itself, but orange blossoms carry a fragrance very like jasmine. It was a pleasant note to begin on.
While orange trees arranged in neat rows filled the valley, oversized rolling hills painted chartreuse surrounded us. It was a version of Bakersfield I’d never seen previously. Compared to the course I rode in 2015, this year’s course was very similar in broad strokes, but was not the same by any means. Many of the dirt roads contained in the course I’d ridden previously were used, but there was plenty of unfamiliar terrain, which lent the experience that I was riding something familiar while still encountering fresh vistas.
The opening of the course took riders over a series of so large as to seem grown on steroids, but utterly treeless. The upshot was that I was frequently able to see the riders ahead of me in a conga line that shrank into invisibility or disappeared over some horizon. I can’t recall a similar vista in any other event I’ve ever ridden. That alone makes the event worth the entry fee.
The other defining characteristic of the event is just how technically demanding the course is. It was not uncommon to see riders easing themselves down a grade approaching 20%. Indeed, at one point, as I followed other riders into a short, fall-line descent, there was a marshal advising riders to take it easy as the grade hit a maximum of 25 percent. Honestly, I think he was wrong; I’ve been up 33 percent—and looked down it, and this seemed steeper. At the steepest portion I could hear both my front and rear tires sliding on the sandy surface and I was constantly modulating both the front and rear brakes to maintain control; I finally reached a place where my runout seemed secure enough that I could release the brakes and I was able to shoot down the hillside, across the brief flat and up the opposing hill with enough velocity that I was able to roll over the top with just a few pedal strokes.
Sand was a frequent ingredient to whatever surface we were riding on and it made not just the descents more difficult, but every aspect of the course ratcheted up in difficulty. That said, event organizer Sam Ames, of Sambarn Promotions, did a great job of inserting less daunting sections to give riders a chance to recover from the leg-breaking climbs and hair-whiting drops.
For my part, I managed to make several mistakes, a couple of which compounded on each other. Sam’s final email prior to the ride advised us to have a bike with a low gear of at least 34×42. Well, none of my gravel bikes have a gear that low. And with my memory of the technical drops worrying me, I opted to take a mountain bike, a Pivot Mach 4SL with Fox’s Live Valve suspension control. I figured a 34×51 low gear, 29×2.1-inch tires, a dropper post and wide, flat bar would serve me well. What I didn’t calculate was just how slow that bike would be in many circumstances. It’s not like I don’t know how much slower I am on a mountain bike than I am on a gravel bike; I’ve got the Strava data for several climbs around here. The difference can be minutes. For whatever reason, that gear choice recommendation intimidated me into taking the wrong bike.
Adding to this issue that saw me losing ground to all riders except on the steep descents (on the gentler ones, I lost ground there, too), was the fact that at around the 30-mile mark I began needing to pull over periodically to tighten the cassette lockring, which had loosened for reasons I can’t fathom. Saturday was the second time since 1999 I’d had a cassette lockring loosen during a ride or race. As if I wasn’t slow enough, each time I pulled over to tighten the lockring with my fingers, I lost two more minutes. And while the course was very well marked (better than it had been in 2015), my GPS died around the same time I began needing to pull over to tighten that lockring. I’d had a Wahoo Elemnt Roam begin to freeze during some rides—the first problems I’d ever had with a Wahoo unit—and when they sent me the new one, which I’d used the previous weekend, I got confused and charged the old one, but brought the new one with me. How I made that mistake I’m not sure, but it gave me a good laugh. But it also chastened me; the thought of trying to ride another 50 miles with no directions seemed as ill-advised as diving with sharks while sporting an open wound.
The upshot was that by the time I reached the second rest stop—where riders had the opportunity to win $400 if they could ring a pony keg with a 700C tire from about 20 feet away—most of the riders I was with were all doing the short course, known as the Pebbler. Honestly, I was amazed that the two courses hadn’t already diverged. I asked around to see if there was a mechanic with a lockring tool. I got my answer when someone walked over holding a mini-tool. He offered to bang the wheel on the ground for me; to what end, I have no idea. Perhaps he thought a loose cassette made the wheel less true.
I considered that I could soldier on and very likely be one of the last people to finish the full Cobbler. I’ve finished near the back of the field in tough events before; my ego survives that just fine. But I asked myself to what end finishing the full course would bring me. I was likely just to end up even more worn out and might struggle to recover ahead of next weekend’s event.
So the question of ego shifted: Would I beat myself up if I turned off on the short course and rode the Pebbler? On the contrary, I concluded, giving myself permission to have a bad day and not beat myself up I calculated would serve as an effective barometer of my mental health. Sometimes, HTFU is the wrong answer.
I don’t think I’ve ridden a gravel event with less pavement in it, except, possibly the first year I rode the 100-mile distance of Unbound. Certainly nothing else in California has featured so little pavement. With each little twist and turn I registered a growing amazement at the course’s circuitous creativity. Not only does the Rock Cobbler—and it’s little brother, the Pebbler, take in some challenging dirt roads, there is plenty of singletrack and some of the turns come up fast and off-camber. The Pebbler may well be the toughest sub-50-mile event I’ve done. It’s technically demanding in a way that very few rides can even hope to be. And while it did not include all of the climbing found in its big brother, it did include the biggest climb of the day with the most dramatic vista.
More than anything else, what the Rock Cobbler illustrated why gravel riding has been such a great development for cycling. Unlike road racing where every crit seems the same and mountain bike racing where you’re going too hard to see any of the pretty, gravel riding takes us to foreign landscapes and gives us a chance to see them in a way that no other form of cycling really permits. And Bakersfield gets a bum rap, this I can tell you.