The True Grit Gravel Epic - Southern Utah Spring Gravel Racing!
2022 was not my best year. Bombarded with life upheavals including a sudden health crisis that included 2 major surgeries and 3 Emergency Room visits, I saw my amateur cycling career go from local podiums to 7mph e-bike laps around the park. I wanted to start 2023 strong and needed an early season goal to stoke motivation. Winter in the Salt Lake City area is short on endurance event opportunities, so one needs to head to the warmer, southern end of the state. Luckily there are a few early Spring event options, not too far away.
Southern Utah is certainly spectacular any time of year, but its allure for cyclists wanting to escape the cold and dreary northern half of the state has become increasingly popular. And for good reason, as the St George area offers up something for literally everyone looking for a two wheeled escape. World class MTB trails, scenic and challenging road loops, and endless miles of incredible gravel roads are all minutes away from the city of St George and right on the doorstep of charming small towns like Santa Clara, Hurricane and Springdale.
Gravel riding in particular offers up a unique way to experience the area’s rugged, stunning desert landscapes, as you can go at your own pace, and take it all in. The abundance of off-the-beaten-path tracks and roads in the area also means that you’ll likely be discovering new routes and having new adventures for years to come. If you’ve never headed out on any of the area’s gravel and off-road byways, it’s well worth the effort to check them out. One great way to get familiar with any off-road area is to check out organized rides, events and races in and around where you want to ride. The idea of “racing” can be daunting to some, but the great thing about the gravel racing world is that you can have a great time just completing the course. Gravel events are all about fun, and the courses are generally well thought out and supported.
The True Grit Gravel Epic takes place just outside of St George, Utah and is a relatively new offshoot of one of the more established local endurance MTB events, the True Grit Epic. Just like the MTB race, the gravel version serves up an event true in character to its name. Clocking in at just around 80 miles this time around (due to some road construction and diversions), the course includes 2 mountain passes during the 9,000 feet of climbing and stays on gravel for a full 80% of the course. The paved sections covered in the event bookend the course with a 7 mile escorted rollout at the start, the end of the event as you make your way back into the start/finish town of Santa Clara and a brief buggar of an uphill towards the middle of the event. The super smooth ride into the finish came as a welcome reprieve to me at the end of a pretty grueling day. But we’ll get to that….
I’m not a huge fan of graveling with a hydration pack, so if there are aid stations I prefer to stick with bottles and what I can fit in my pockets. I also made use of the top-tube bag that comes standard with the Cervelo Aspero 5 that I set up for the event. It came in handy for having quick bites at the ready and for stuffing wrappers so they don’t end up on the course.
The high-desert terrain of this part of Southern Utah is breathtaking any time of year, and the early spring setting serves to amplify that in many ways. If it’s warm, it can get *really* warm. If it’s cold, it can be solidly miserable. Given the year that we’ve been experiencing in Utah all around, it was truly anyone’s guess as to how the course and the riders would fare this year. Luckily however the March 18th event managed to slot in between two wet weekends (one of which held this year’s MTB event) and conditions were perfect, with just a bit of a chill. Past year’s events have seen not just rain and cold, but full-blown white-out snow. So given the sunny, 50-ish degree weather at this year’s start, everyone was stoked to say the least.
Course conditions were as good as anyone could have hoped, minimal wet sections yet virtually dust free. In terms of early season gravel racing, I’d say it rated as “excellent”. Wind did play a factor, especially over the higher sections of the course but luckily that included a couple of tail wind sections to complement the lonely headwinds and sometimes relentless crosswinds.
I rode the event on a Cervelo Aspero 5 that I finished off just a couple days before the race. True, this is never a wise move to jump into an endurance event on brand new equipment, but that aspect of the adventure went remarkably well. It was a unique test perspective: If something isn’t right or doesn’t work, my day is done. But I had great input from the shop, top-tier parts and enough hard lessons to manage to avoid any mechanical catastrophe.
The True Grit event course covers a clockwise route starting with a deceptively comfortable neutral pavement section for about 7 miles as it leaves the town of Santa Clara. Once off the pavement, the pace kicks and the race is on. Once over a small series of bumps, the first climb begins in earnest at mile 10. An extended climb of about 8 miles follows and serves to really break up the mass start group. Myself included. This climb was my first real fitness test for the year and I was rudely awakened. The rubber hit the gravel for me right there and then. The upside was that I got to see quite a few friends that I hadn’t seen for many months, as they passed me and encouraged me on.
Once over the first big climb of the day at mile 21, there’s a welcome descent for roughly a mile. This was the first descending test of the Aspero 5. That first loose, sketchy, off-camber descent told me that this was one aspect of the day ahead I would not have to worry too much about. The bike was brilliant! The remaining descents of the day along with the flat, windy sections of the course ended up being the sections where I could make up some time by relying on the Aspero and what it’s designed to do best; cheat the wind and remain unshakingly stable.
Miles 22 through 30 proved that in earnest, over the 8 mile more gradual descent to where the course crosses Utah Old Highway 91 at Joshua Tree National Landmark. This is some of Southern Utah’s best scenery and tricky to appreciate without getting off the beaten path. From here, the course hits the pavement for a few arduous uphill miles before ditching west back onto the gravel. This was my “sliding door” moment of the event. I’d ditched some spare food and layers with my wife at the road junction and wasn’t feeling great… My nutrition was anything but dialed in this early in the season and it was feeling like that might be the end of the day for me. Done with the short section of pavement at the left turn back on the gravel though, I went through the “I can flip around after a few miles and go back” phase and pushed on. By this point, I’d lost touch with any of the groups I’d been with so far and it was me-against-me.
One thing that’s undeniable about the high desert environment is how it can bring everything into focus. Approaching the halfway point of the course, I realized that the day wasn’t about needing to “get through” the next 40 miles, but rather that I had the chance to spend a few more hours on an amazing bike in a breathtaking landscape, with no pressure of winning anything or doing it for anyone else but me. This was about accomplishing a big goal after a legitimately bad, bad year. I finally really felt like I could get it done.
Once past the halfway point and fully committed to the course (no turning back after mile 35 or so), you face about 5 miles of relentless rollers at about 4500’ above sea level. Add the aforementioned crosswind and no other riders immediately around and it makes for a pretty good test. I gave a lot of thought to Cervelo’s intentions with the Aspero 5 this whole time. The idea of integrating the cables and cockpit on a gravel bike might seem like overkill, until you find yourself on something like these “Rollers of Death” (as the course creators call them). I for one was grateful for any marginal gains the slick frame design and Enve 3.4 wheelset gave me. These are great comforts when there’s nowhere to hide.
The bike truly came into play around mile 46, when the course “calms down” and drops down another 5 or so mile fast descent. One thing I was not entirely expecting from the Aspero 5 was to descend like a fast road bike on tarmac, on gravel. This bike seems to bring all of the aspects I love in a sharp road race bike onto the gravel and makes fast, loose and unpredictable gravel feel solid and confident. This was of course more than welcome. I was cooked from several hours on the course, but managed to have a dust-coated grin plastered on my face!
After this last fast descent, there’s another roughly 1,000’ of climbing before the course takes a right turn to the south and back towards the main highway roughly 15 hardpan miles later. This last off-road section of the course provided more time to consider the bike. I thought about what was working, what I’d change, and how fortunate I’d been all day to have *zero* mechanical issues. No flats, an ultra-smooth running drivetrain and an overall bike setup that yielded no major cramps, minimal hand tingling and a generally comfortable day as far as the fit. The only thing I’d consider changing is the chainring sizing. The 33T small ring combined with the 36T largest cassette cog made for some rough climbing on the steepest sections, but I’m not at my best yet this year. Generally speaking, the ratio is most likely fine for me.
With about 10 miles to go, the course again picks up the pavement after leaving the Santa Clara River corridor and heads back into town and the finish. Being a weekend with nice weather, the highway section was busy with traffic but the drivers seemed well aware of the event on the road and things felt fairly safe. The same road construction around Santa Clara that influences the start of the course contributes to a somewhat funky last mile or so and I was actually grateful to not be contesting any sort of bunch finish. I was well out of that danger, as the leaders were a solid 2 hours ahead of me. But I finished, thanks to a remarkable bike, the training I’d been able to slog out in the garage all winter, and help from a great group of friends and coworkers that helped me get the bike together and dialed in.
All in all, it was a very perfect, imperfect day. True Grit Gravel presents an opportunity to see some of the most beautiful terrain in the world, ride with some great people and definitely test your early-season fitness. Hopefully I’ll see you there next year!
Cervélo Aspero 5
|SRAM Force AXS 2x12, SRAM Red Crank
|170mm Crank, 46/33t Rings, 10-36t Cassette
|Ceramic Speed D.U.B.
|Enve SES 3.4, Enve Premium Road Disc hubs
|Shimano MT 800, 160mm front/rear
Cervélo Carbon AB09, 16 degree flair
|Cervélo ST32 Alloy stem
|Supacaz Super Sticky Kush, Oil Slick
|Cervélo SP19 27.2 Carbon
|Ceramic Speed Oversized Pulley Wheel System