The Gravel Locos 2022 Race Review
I (Alvin) live in Texas, not in Utah where our shops are located. One of the cool things about living in Texas is the burgeoning gravel bike community in the area, particularly in the southern part of the state around Austin and San Antonio where I am. Alongside an array of cyclists from the area and farther out, I had the chance to participate in Gravel Locos, a gravel bike race that connects some of the prettiest farm roads in Central Texas. Here are my thoughts on the 2022 Gravel Locos gravel race.
You might be tired of hearing about gravel bikes. They’re not *that* different from a road bike, just a little slower and heavier in feel. Other gravel bikes might just be old-school mountain bikes from a time before. But it's different here in Texas. There are near-endless farm roads covered by dirt, sand, rock, and hints of pavement. And while rural drivers tend to be accommodating and thoughtful toward cyclists, huge trucks and inconsiderate drivers in suburbs make farm road rambling a safer option, with a gravel bike being the ideal tool of choice.
How Do You Prepare for Gravel Locos?
The event is based in Hico, Texas, a small town nestled about two hours away from Austin. While that makes it somewhat hard to get to, it is well worth the time. These farm roads are the ones your significant other told you not to worry about; miles and miles of gravel roads people dream of when they buy their first gravel bike. It makes for a route that is fast and smooth, with hardly any of the washboarding or looseness that robs riders of their speed. Think roads so smooth that if you wanted to, you could probably get away with a road bike and 32mm+ tires, though I still believe a 40mm slick gravel tire is the right choice.
There are four courses, with the big wig pros going for ‘La Loca’, a 155-mile ride with 6,600 feet elevation gain. Out of an abundance of caution, I bumped myself down from the 155-mile ride I registered for to the 110, with 5,500 feet of elevation gain. It shares most of its course with the longer route, just following a road with 10 miles left while the 155-mile course turns off. Temperatures were high going into the ride: a forecasted high of 99 degrees Fahrenheit with 85% humidity. We always talk about how hard a ride was because of the temperatures, but higher temperatures generally complicate things, as I’ll talk more about later.
A Word on Moriah
Just a few days before the ride, women’s 2021 race winner Moriah Wilson was killed by homicide. She had raced Belgian Waffle Ride San Diego just two weeks prior. Her death was a needless tragedy, and while I did not know her personally, the start of the ride was much more somber than the energetic vibrance that usually fills up a ride like this. Give love to the people you love with as much energy as you can, everyone.
The Ride in Review
Word on the street is that 1,500 eager cyclists crossed start line, and you could feel it at the start of the ride, even from the back. There were a LOT of people. Gravel Locos starts with an eight-mile strip of road and dirt that is considered neutral, with no tactics, no aggression, and plenty of congeniality. The race really starts right after the first of three water crossings. The 2021 Gravel Locos recaps touted a scary, rushing river crossing, but that wasn’t the case here. A dry winter and minimal rain leading up to the event meant I was able to ride through the river crossing, though most around me opted to walk their bike.
The early parts of the ride were indicative of the rest of the course - rolling climbs and descents with fast, finely-crushed gravel. About 75% of the course would be gravel roads, with nary a car or ATV in sight, even on paved roads. High speeds were pretty easy here, though the occasional rock in the way meant keeping up a race pace required plenty of concentration.
Importantly though, fairly smooth rolling hills coupled with the terrain meant that you could actually paceline with other people and take advantage of someone’s draft. As someone comfortable with drafting in tight quarters AND with decent enough handling ability to manage the bike over loose terrain, I was certainly looking to team up with other people and form a group. But gravel racing, especially when you’re sub-pro or sub-elite like myself, tends to be pretty individualistic; not everyone knows how to follow a draft, and those who do aren’t likely to want to take their fair share of pulls. So while it is important to get into a riding rhythm, it might be even more important to have friends of similar levels of endurance so you have people to work together with. Either that, or find a group you can build a connection with. I latched on to a group, and it ended up paying dividends in more ways than one.
Of course, even riding in a group means that often, all bets are off in regards to sticking together. Our initial group of seven became three friends who raced together and myself after a section of the three most difficult climbs of the day about 52 miles into the ride. This section is called the Three Bs, consisting of three consecutive climbs with an average grade of 17.5%. While these climbs only took a minute or two each, their looseness meant most people, particularly the back part of our group, chose to walk up the climbs. I don’t blame them!
At the top of the Three Bs was the third of four total aid stations, right around mile 56. Riders arrived with heartrates high and desperate for a cooldown. Unfortunately, there was no water when we showed up. One volunteer was swarmed by riders trying to get the last bits of ice from the remaining bag, but there was nothing else remaining. I don’t always expect cold water on a day when it is so difficult to keep things cool, and I understand that race day logistics are difficult. However, the lack of water at this station while I was there was dangerous, not to mention a general lack of thoughtful nutrition.
Most wisely opted to wait after volunteers reminded time and again that water would be on the way. I, alongside those three friends, opted to keep going. Some quick math led me to believe that the approximately 35 oz of Skratch Hydration-infused water I had on my bike would get me to the fourth and final stop, about 25 miles away. Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest gamble, but I was feeling good and didn’t want to lose the solid cast of rotating riders we had.
The next 25 miles were fairly predictable. More rolling hills, more smooth gravel, but a lot more exposure under the sun. The extra sun, paired with the higher temperatures - my computer said it was 103 degrees Fahrenheit for much of the day - really started to take a toll on me. By the time I got to the final aid station, I found that I had drank about half as much water as I planned. My power was going down, my heart rate was staying up, and things didn’t look great. But it was worse for others, as two others in our group dropped off, leaving myself and one other to get to the mile 78 aid station. Fortunately, there was cold water and a hint of shade. A helping of pickles, energy chews, and cold water on my neck, and we were back on the road.
One of the benefits of riding with other people for extended periods is the opportunity to learn about them. I love talking with people during rides and races like this, even if it is as simple as complimenting them on their bicycle and little else. These people likely have the same interests and approaches to life as you do, considering you’re both spending your Saturday gritting it out on a bike. People tend to be a bit less guarded with their answers than they might otherwise be, and it can lead to interesting connections. This person I rode the last 30 miles with - I’ll call him James - turned out to be a friend of the shop. Despite living outside of Utah, he and his friends are Contender customers, including the wheels and bars he was riding that day. A 110-mile race is a long time to be concentrated, but not so long that you can’t build relationships with other people.
With 15 miles to go, James and I settled into a rhythm. While we weren’t as fast as we were 50 miles earlier, it was still fast enough that people would latch on to us for a bit before dropping off. More rolling hills, more heat, and more dirt roads that lead us to the finish line, where I vaguely heard the announcers call my name to. Just past the finish was a live band playing Pearl Jam covers, cans of Coke, and a bunch of smiling faces, just as excited that I finished the race as I had.
Here is the ride by the numbers:
- 109.7 miles ridden in 7 hours, 21 minutes.
- 5,584 feet climbing total.
- 6 bottles of water, 6 gels, 2 Pro Bar Meal bars, 2 packages of Skratch Chews, various gels I found on the ground.
- Zero mechanicals.
You read that right. Zero mechanicals, including flats, or mechanical adjustments needed. I can’t say enough how thankful I am to my bike, an OPEN WIDE ENVE Edition with Campagnolo Ekar. The combination of my ENVE 3.4 AR wheels and Pirelli Cinturato H 40mm tires led to a fast, comfortable ride without any issues.
See Everything Alvin Uses for Gravel Racing for his gear for more.
For the most part, I followed our Gravel Race Nutrition Guide leading day into race day, during the race, and after. I was only able to follow the nutrition guide and feel decent from relying on my own nutrition. Bring your own nutrition that your body is accustomed to, and bring a little extra just in case. I perhaps could have drank more water with sodium, but overall I feel good about what I ate and drank.
A huge thanks to the locals out there supporting riders with ice, cold water, and even positive cheers people cheering brighten everyone’s day. Small acts of kindness like this lift spirits and offer motivation outside of your own. That said, I personally feel that so many riders rave about the generosity and kindness of random people on the side of the road with drinks and food not only because of how much of a fun surprise that is, but also because those things - Coke, pickles, cold drinks, carbs - weren’t available at aid stations.
There are a lot of technologies available to smooth out your gravel ride. Stuff like a Redshift Shockstop stem, a Rockshox Reverb XPLR suspension dropper post, and even a Rockshox Rudy XLPR suspension fork take the edge off continual vibrations and work magnificently. I don’t think you really need it for this event. Aim for aerodynamics and a quick-rolling tire.
Call this the Contender Texas Correspondence, but Contender was well-represented. I counted 12 people who either recognized me as someone from Contender or I talked to and learned they have purchased from us in the past. How cool is that? A random gravel bike race in the middle of Texas filled with people connect to Contender in one way or another is nothing but fun. Small world.
If you’re on the fence of whether or not you want to do a gravel bike event, do it. Push yourself. Ride more and ride farther than you think you can ride, within reason of course. Do whatever you can that’s close to you, train for it, and bring extra snacks. On that note, bring extra hydration mix too so you know exactly what is going in your body and what isn’t.
Gravel Locos was a fun experience. Great rides, great roads, outstanding folks people, and thoughtful strangers who extended a hand to cyclists. Meh support. Would I do it next year? Not sure. The lack of water at aid stations I saw (as did many others I talked with) is a bad look. I don't expect the world, and I don't expect the same treatment as the pros, but for my entrance fee I expect water at a minimum at feed zones.
If you’re able to ride some sort of gravel event like this, you should do it. Hopefully I'll be there and say hello. But if you say hi after the race, maybe wait until I get a cold Coke in me. See the selfie for proof. I was cooked.
Words and images by Alvin Holbrook.