Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gunnison Growler: 64 miles of blissful Colorado singletrack

On the top of the world at Monarch Pass
On planning my build up to the Tour Divide, a distant acquaintance had mentioned he'd be racing the Growler on a great course in a small Colorado cowboy town called Gunnison (or Gunni for short). He described the course as one of the best of the season, which is no small feat given the exceptional reputation of the trails abound in Colorado. With such high praise I was quick to hand over my fun tokens and sign up,  even convincing Heidi and Kiwi ex-pat Will to road trip south for the ride. 

After a morning in Denver and a probably the best breakfast I've ever had at the legendary Snooze, we dropped off Nicole at the airport and headed South, our Volkswagen rental loaded to the gunnels with bikes and snacks including the compulsory Safeway Donut dozen pack. Passing through quaint tourist towns along the route, the drive took us higher and higher, over the Monarch Pass with its spectacular views to the surrounding ranges.

After loading the Tour Divide course onto my GPS last week, the sheer volume of information seemed to have crippled the 'where to' function, to the point where navigation maps were nothing more than gibbeldegook. Fortunately the grand landscape meant alternative routes (and the possibility of wrong turns) were few and far between, and having the Tour Divide course on the GPS meant I could check out parts of the course along the way. In a few weeks I would be passing through Como, which was named by early Italian prospectors despite its distinct lack of resemblance to Italy's Lake Como. Also Salida, where I will have to make a point of timing my arrival with the 11:30AM to 1:30PM Pizza Hut lunch buffet, a disappointingly narrow window.

Rolling in to Gunnison late afternoon, a cruel wind was blowing, and was clearly evident on the faces of those finishing Saturday's half-growler. Huge billlowing clouds of dust weren't a good omen, and after registering we checked in to our campground and secured tent stakes to bolster our flimsy shelters against the buffeting winds. The Hartman castle campground where we stayed took the donut for the strangest of our trip thus far. 
Our campground's quaint castle

Complete with chincy fresco on the turret ceiling!
At first glance it appeared to be a failed development along the lines of Micheal Jackson's Neverland ranch, but further investigation and assistance from our intoxicated camp host revealed the castle was built for the wife of early high rolling cowboy settler (Hartman) in 1890. Despite such a large role in Gunnison's history, it didn't stop more recent dreamers from modifying the castle with frescos, rat stained carpets and a basement with a foot deep lap pool. It all made for a truly strange building with the modern modifications thoroughly insulting what would have otherwise been a magnificent historic building.

Another feature of Gunnison which we would become all too familiar with was the town's altitude. At 2400m  high and at the confluence of two river valleys, nights were remarkably cold and while we slept soundly, we woke to frosted tent flies and tingling appendages.

On the warm up ride to the start I could swear my fingers were trying to part company with my body, a feeling last felt at the high Thorong La Pass in Nepal. Fortunately as in Nepal this sensation quickly passed.
A more amusing incident  happened while I was biding my time waiting for the shotgun start, where while sitting on a grassed lawn I got drenched by the hidden pop up sprinklers when they decided to go out for their morning rounds.

With double blasts from a 12 gauge (an all 'Merican start!), we were off at a sedate pace heading for the Hartman Rocks trails South of town. While I sat comfortably in the bunch on the lead in, the vertical ramp that meant the start of the trail proper saw me sliding backwards faster than an obese Texan on a teflon treadmill. The altitude bit hard, but rather than be disheartened I took comfort in the epic 100km task ahead, knowing that other's enthusiasm would likely fade into a lactic haze as the hours progressed.

The Growler course was truly amazing. While the surface was blown out by the drought affecting Gunnison, the sandy soil still formed a well crafted flowy ribbon, linking awesome rocky features reminiscent of Moab's Porcupine rim we'd ridden a few weeks prior. Despite the rigid bike I was riding, it was the rocky technical descents and climbs where I reeled people in, as where speed was low I could pinball over the rocks and squeeze past riders on plusher rigs who'd opted for conservative lines or a tactical walking. The climbs to the flowing descents were a sublime grade that egged you to spin a harder gear, while the descents were more than enough to erase short term memories of pain whilst trying to hold the wheel of these crazy fast mountain dwelling Coloradians.

Growler country. Dusty flow trails that made you want to keep riding!
While I'm no stranger to longer races, courses in New Zealand usually comprise a short 30 minute lap, which while exciting at first, quickly become a battle to keep motivation going. Not the case at the Growler where the massive 32 mi. (50km) loop meant interest was always peaking. Features like the spectators at far reaches of the course, and aid stations complete with freshly fried bacon only added to the appeal, and on indulging in a strip of the golden stuff I decided to kick it in the guts and try and reel some of these pinners in. By the time I'd finished the first lap ( in about 3 hours) I was in 33rd position, and by the end of the second I'd passed eleven fading riders to make 22nd. Despite my efforts to consume more bacon I'd timed my charge a bit early, and with four miles to go I hit empty and the frustratingly slow pace that comes with it. Fortunately others were in the same boat and I only let one local slip past, finishing up 9th in my age group with a tremendous sense of satisfaction and a dust induced coughing fit. 
More used to the heat and thick air of Austin, Will did Texans (and Kiwis) everywhere proud proud by finishing 10th in the single Growler lap dubbed  'More Bark than Bite', while Heidi pulled off a 2nd in the women's equivalent.

Prizegivng was more akin to a street carnival than the dry festivities that are NZ's norm, with a live bluegrass band belting out folk music, and food stalls including tacos, hot dogs and wood fired pizzas to refuel after a long hard slog in the saddle. Obviously the format is hellishly popular and I can now fully appreciate how making an endurance race into a festival rather than just a race makes for a thoroughly more enjoyable experience.

While the Growler was one of the toughest races in recent memory, I'm stoked to have made it through unscathed, and it was great to have a final hit out to test mind and body. I'm pleased to report butt, legs palms, arms and feet all made it through with flying colours, so feel I'm all set for the real ride, the Tour Divide which begins on June 8th.

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