Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Celebrating the Dirty Dozen on the Palisade Plunge

I know, I know. We've been on the road for months in our new van and not a peep. So why the silence? No good reason other than being in places for short amounts of time leaves me limited days to explore and not be on a computer. Then time adds up and here we are. So, my dear diary, I owe you a pretty big entry on our 2021 trip in the Great Wide Open.

But for now, as I gaze out of the window of our 6th rental of the trip, staring at the Book Cliffs on the eastern edge of Fruita, Colorado, I will retell the tale of our 12-year wedding anniversary, riding the newly minted Palisade Plunge, a 32 mile traverse starting at 10,700 feet atop the Grand Mesa, eventually ending at the Colorado River.

We traveled up to Colorado along the famed Million Dollar Mile, after a stay in Santa Fe. We found dispersed camping for a night just north of Durango up some remote 4x4 road to a lake the fly fishing guy told us about.  

It was only a few weeks prior that Ryan's office changed the dates they were going to allow employers to return. We thought about it for all of a minute before we decided to extend our GWO'21 road trip. Since I was injured at this time last year and didn't get to ride the western slope with our friends, and an announcement on the socials that shuttles were still running up to the newly opened Palisade Plunge, the plan started to fall into place for where to go next. Plus, it seemed a fitting place to celebrate the 12th anniversary of taking the actual plunge into married life! Ryan also reminded me that on our honeymoon we rode a trail in California called the Cannell Plunge!

We overnighted in a local state park only about 10 minutes from the shuttle pick up point. We enjoyed a fire followed by a rare full night's sleep. We were up early and things were going good until I managed to spill almost an entire bowl of the last of our dried oats all over the van! Shit! We rationed the remaining two packets between us and shared the last apple as well. I added a Lara bar to make up for the lost calories that were on the floor of the van and I was good to go. We packed up and followed two other vehicles packed with bikes to the pick up point (which was also where we would finish). I could tell Ryan was getting excited by how fast he was driving to keep up with the others--just like on the trail. ;0 

After a quick load of the bikes, ten riders were headed up the Grand Mesa, a solid hour shuttle. We were dropped off "at the top" which is to say, at mile 0. As we found out later, the hard way, there were better places to get dropped. I was excited but also a bit nervous. Reviews online are mixed which told me that it was going to be a challenge. Last year we happen to have met one of the Plunge's builders, who did some of the major rock work, at his house we rented in Salida. He told us of the team that had to dangle from ropes to cut the trail into the side of the cliff, where riders descend off the mesa. Well, shit, that only made me want to actually see it more! So, yes, we knew all about the extreme exposure, the technical nature of the trail, and the remoteness. But for us, that's the attraction. We can ride alpine single track all day but to ride remote back country on the edge of a cliff, well that's something unique and worth seeing what there was to see!

Ok, back to the ride. The husboy and I were the last to leave the parking lot (my choice) and we had the single track to ourselves. It was frozen and there was plenty of frost on the vegetation. Then we hit sunlight and the once frozen trail became a loose slur of black mud. To our relief, it wasn't collecting on the tires, but it sure was spraying on everything else. We heard from a friend that the top of the mesa was a boring XC trail through flat terrain and was a waist of time but we wanted to do the whole thing. We're not vertical junkies. We're adventure xc riders with a tick for exploring new areas. But this time, we should have taken our friend's advice. 

As the morning wore on, the mud began to get sticky and about 6 miles in, I had to get off my bike and start scraping it off the tires with my shoe, as there wasn't a tree in site that could offer up a stick for such things. I might have gotten another mile up the trail before I had to do it again. Ryan's bike was holding up but my front mud flap was creating a narrow tunnel and the mud was packing on the edges, creating a tire that looked like I was on a fatbike. The back tire was fine and my chain looked like I had just lubed it, so I was optimistic, but I knew we had to get the hell off that mesa because it was just going to get worse. And it did. We caught other riders with bikes upside down or they were bent over trying to clear the mud. It was a shit show and I was questioning why we were being allowed up there in those conditions knowing that the hardest part was yet to come? Someone was going to get an earful! 

The first dozen miles cut across the Mesa and so did a very clean paved road. On that paved road, were other drop off points that could have been very easily used instead of mile zero. I made the comment after crossing said road when coming upon Ryan and a group who were waiting for others behind us that were also having problems. We found sticks and tried to get as much mud off as possible. I carried the stick with me the rest of the way across the mesa and finally, we made it to Shirt Tail trail head, which was where we should have started. But our shuttle service didn't indicate any issues by starting at the top, instead saying there may be some mud, but we'd be fine. Insert eye roll here.

A large group of riders descended before us and they were soon off their bikes as the trail was slick and rocky. This wasn't an issue for us so we kindly got by some of them before we hit another group stacked up. It took me a second to realize what was happening because we were in tree line but once out of the trees, I saw it all. The view of the Grand Valley and all of its pastel glory. THIS was why we came up here: to peer over the edge of the world onto a scene that is THE Great Wide Open. At that moment, we were explorers, in awe of not only the sights before us but also of the challenge that lay ahead: 6000 feet of relief (You'll notice I didn't say descent. There was about 2000' of climbing in order to get down)!

That challenge started at that moment, as there were 4-5 very tight and steep switchbacks right at our feet, dubbed Otto's Wall, named after the pioneer builder of the Colorado National Monument, John Otto. Some guys rode the few seconds in between each but it wasn't worth it to me. I felt pretty rushed through that section, as everyone seemed amped to get on with riding and less walking. The trail continued down, in tree line, and the switchbacks weren't nearly as steep but were pretty slick. I walked most of them along with a few other dudes. From then on, for about 3 miles through the Kannah Creek drainage, was classic alpine single track, with roots, rocks, creek crossings and all the fall colors to boot. I was happily surprised by this, having thought that we'd be in high desert terrain the whole time. But that was coming soon enough. We managed to pass quite a few riders in this section.
I think folks were already gassed from the mud up top. Our bikes were making all kinds of noise so we had to take care not to stress our chains too much. They were dry as the desert floor and made no bones about it telling us for the rest of the ride! 

By mile 15, we crossed Land's End road for the final time, and if one was to bail, this would be the last chance. It also is the last drop point if one were to skip the stuff higher up, but for those reading this, Otto's Wall, for just the view alone, is worth the effort.

At this point we entered the Whitewater Basin and the beginning of classic Western Rim terrain: sandy high desert with rock step ups and roll downs and sections thick with scrub bushes (think Hazzard above Porcupine Rim) and pinon pine. Some of the switchbacks I had to slide down but I wasn't in any real danger. Open meadows celebrated the changing of the seasons and rock falls from the Whitewater Creek made it challenging. This was the last water we'd see until the Colorado River at the bottom. 

This section of the Plunge was the belly of the beast. From here until about mile 27, we were riding at our most heightened, aware of the drop to our left but not looking down at it. We took breaks at obvious view points and many times I got off the bike to gather myself, rest, walk and make sure I was eating. 

The temps were perfect, the wind calm and the sights were majestic. I could tell Ryan was eager to keep moving while I, though equally as eager, wanted to try to savor it all. Alas, he'd go for a bit and wait for me and then disappear again. Sometimes those were at prime photo spots so we would take a few moments to take it all in and thank our lucky stars that we were able to do what we were doing. 

But even the most happy go lucky find their limits. Fatigue was starting to set in and it seemed the valley floor was nowhere nearer than it was at the last turn. Around miles 22-27 was a slick rock playground, marked by white stripes painted on the surface. I was thankful that it meandered predominately away from any cliff edge, as this type of terrain, with its deep bowls and quick edges, can suddenly take you to places you don't want to be.

Once through the slick rock, the terrain returned to classic, rocky desert riding. With about 5 miles to go, we were still thousands of feet from the bottom and the tech kept coming. When you get tired small things can start to piss you off, like having to dismount (again) or the sound of your dry ass chain. I'm not above this type of behavior. We were approaching the sixth hour by this time, on a trail that we probably should have been able to finish in five. Every turn I'm hoping was the last. 

Riders that had been behind us start catching up and passing us. Some were out of water and had been for some time. I saw their mud crusted back sides, dried from hours in the sun. Few words were exchanged, as the focus had shifted from thrilling adventure to down right let's get the fuck down!

At no other point did this crystalize for me than after entering a wash and Ryan said, "Look, I can see a building". I thought thank the Lord, we're done. Oh, but no. There were at least two maybe three super steep roll downs or in my case walk downs. I had plenty of water and food but my mental stores were low and my aches and pains were getting louder (but not as loud as my god damn chain)! 

Finally, I saw a fence and then a road and then a parking lot and then our van and it was only then that I knew we were actually done and quite literally dusted. Our bikes were equally as trashed, as the mud from the mesa had dried to cement. Every seal and bushing was covered and it was going to take a trip to a car wash to get it off. 
But, before that, it was a time for high fives and gratitude; not only for what we just accomplished but also for the dozen years of fun and adventure. And even though they are behind us, we willfully carry their joyful memories with us.

From mud mustaches and unibrows, to dirt clods in butt cracks, the Palisade Plunge delivered on all expectations from the most terifying to the most thrilling. And as we do in life, tackling all of its challenges together, checking off this massive bucket list ride was the perfect way to celebrate our adventurous marital plunge. 

The last sentence in the paragraph on the Palisade Plunge website, if read in the context of our life together, sums us up pretty succinctly:
Be sure to bring plenty of food and water and appropriate clothing and bike repair supplies.

Happy 12th anniversary R&R! Ten three, you and me!

Monday, March 15, 2021

Shredding at the Swamp: Graham Swamp 360

The last race we did was in the fall of 2019! So hard to believe it's been that long since we pinned on a number. After racing for over two decades season after season, it's been weird not having racing in our daily lives. So, when it seemed people were ready to get back into throwing elbows, (don't think it ever really stopped down here in Florida) I started looking for an event that would have less of the serious competitor vibe that is pretty rampant in the XC world down here. The Graham Swamp 360 is considered an endurance event with a 3 and 6 hour option. Not really wanting to ride 3 hours straight as we haven't even been riding more than 2 hours at a time, the coed team category seemed align perfectly with our non-training lifestyle. Author's note: I'd be lying if I didn't mention that I've been doing intervals since the first week of February, however, that was before I read about the 360 event and it was more of a way to spice up my forever flat rides.

Anywhoo, we heard through the Florida NICA league director that Graham Swamp was a pretty technical course for Florida. We've heard this phrase before and people below sea level have a different interpretation of technical. But we thought it was worth a look so we drove across to the east side of the state to check out the trail in late February and we're so glad we did. Not only is it technical but it's like fun technical, as in keep your speed up technical. As in get some air technical. As in rooty, droppy, jumpy, sandy technical. I took my Pivot Trail 429 (aka Miss Pivvy - hey, she's big boned) on the recon and even though I could have done it on the Super Fly, the extra suspension was going to help keep things comfy and chill. Plus we replaced the Maxxis tires and put on some used Bontrager XR3s to get her a bit lighter and rolling better in the sand. 

As we do, we drove across the state the night before the race. Ryan had to work til 5 o'clock and after getting some burritos to go, we headed north. As we passed Orlando and started east, the traffic was absolutely bonkers congested. What was to be a 3.5 hour drive turned into more like 5. Holy crap. Bumper to bumper and it was just congestion. No accidents that we could see. Thank God for long form pod casts! And I hate Disney even more!

We pulled into the hotel and the lot was completely full of motorcycles of all kinds. And trucks with trailers. It was bike week in Daytona! Luckily, the loud mufflers quieted down but I slept like shit (as usual) even though I wasn't nervous about the race. What we were nervous about was parking at the race. It wasn't ideal and we wanted to get a good spot. We were only 10 minutes away and since we were up, fed, and full of coffee, we headed to the venue. Two hours before a race is pretty typical arrival time for us but it seemed folks don't arrive that soon down here. I think we were there before most of the volunteers! Needless to say we got rock star parking and the shadiest spot for our staging area. 

Soon riders began to arrive and a woman I've met who leads many of the women's rides and events down here set up next to us along with her friends, so we had a fun group to hang out with all during the race. Party Pace!!! We were all about it.

It was time to head to the start line. Ryan was going first. Because of how the event was set up, they had very limited space to start, and the course went immediately downhill. So, they did a Le Mans start. However, there was a twist. They told everyone where to line up and then threw out potato sacks. That's right! A gunny sack race to the start line was an awesome way to spread out the pack. It was fun to watch but I was glad it was them and not me! Ryan was early to his bike and made it out clean. 


The riders would pass the start line once more before heading onto the rest of the course and Ryan was right up there with a mix of single riders and team riders. We assumed our laps would be 40-45 minutes so I went back to our staging area and hopped on the bike to do a few spin up intervals to get the heart rate up and make sure all the gears were working. Then I waited (and visited the port-o-pot about five times). Right on schedule Ryan came by our staging area within about 35 minutes. That was my signal to get up to the transition area. Once there, I saw him a couple times through the trees and along with maybe 4-5 other riders, I got myself to the front so we could easily exchange our ankle bands. Then I was off! 

It was our goal to have fun. I raced in baggies and my R&R tech tee to remind me of our goal. I wore a camel back but only carried enough fluid for each lap and I could barely tell it was there. The course was technical and there weren't many places to drink. It was also tight and punchy and tested our skills with sections that had rooty climbs that forced riders to navigate between trees; there were drops with large roots across the middle of them and high speed jumps with flat landings. One section took us through a labyrinth of roots 6 inches tall, one after another, as if a giant octopus was trying to emerge from the sand. The best way to get through them was just keep unweighting the front wheel, which left just enough time to take a breath before stomping a 2ft step up. One power climb was "rewarded" with a tall root to navigate around before bombing down a waterfall of drops that included more roots or deep sand. Only a few sections were flat enough to take a breather so mostly I was on the gas, which was just what we needed after over a year of vacation paced riding. 

There weren't many women but the ones who were there were good riders, as the course demanded a bit of skill. One of them had on a leaders jersey from the Florida State Series and I found myself around her a few times. The first time she caught me but the next two times I held her off. The second time she was right on my wheel for the last 1/4 mile and I did everything I could to stay on the gas and keep a good pace so she wouldn't need to ask to pass. After we came in to the transition area, we were both like hell yeah, that was fun. The next time she was behind me it was our last lap. I was feeling the effects of a Red Bull high and had fun pushing hard so as to not let her catch me. 

Our final lap count was eight total and the winning team I think got in 9 laps. It was fun to get called to the podium although at first we thought there was a mistake with the timing b/c the team with the State Champ on it was called up to 2nd place even though the results had us beating their time by several minutes. We were like, what evs but then they announced "masters co-ed" and called us up. I laughed to myself as I'm sure Ryan didn't really dig being on a masters team. Hehe. 

The after party was sweet. They fed us pizza and tapped beer and gave out really cool finisher medals made from wood. They had a massage vendor on site and a recovery tent where riders could don recovery legs, those blow up pressurized leg wraps. The podium winners received cash and the trophies were hand cut by the trail crew from fallen trees. I thought using the trail work truck as a podium was a nice touch. They called out props to the trail bosses and really made sure those that made the event happen were given all the love. It kinda felt like we had crashed a local bike party that had a race attached to it. 

All said, it was great to be among bike folk again. The track was really unique and fun and maybe, just maybe, fun enough to sit in traffic and head back there next year.