Short lived but already fully established, Grinduro has quickly become an unmissable bicycle event held in the spectacular and sun soaked Sierra Navada. The whole thing is rich with Californian vibes, big days, stunning mountains and party atmosphere. There is no doubt that the pressure was on when they announced that they were going to hold a second event, especially considering it would be held on international soil. The location was announced and they had chosen the Isle of Arran, a small Scottish island on the west coast.
The course looked excellent, it twisted and weaved, dodged and ducked around a healthy portion of the south east quarter of the island (often described as “Scotland in miniature”). The Arran course which featured mostly gravel, singletrack and a small road section was shorter by 10 or so miles than the American route plus the Quincy loop also starts with a monster climb. A 3,850 ft gravel climb that stretched out over 13.5 miles which laughs at the 853 ft initial climb of the Scottish course. Even Goatfell, the highest summit on Arran, only scraps 2867 ft so Arran was definitely going to struggle on a numbers game. That is not to say that the Scottish course was going to be easy. Quincy’s route looks to have a knock out punch however Arran was to go all the way to the bell, over 10 small but very steep climbs that were lurking throughout the day to repeatedly punish your legs with a continual requirement of effort.
There would always be comparisons between the two courses and on paper you would be excused for thinking that the event was running a risk of just being Grinduro Lite, an epicness taster of the full fat american original. But there was one more card to play, an important ingredient that shapes days, experiences and stories. Something that would cement this race as distinctly Scottish* and although cut from the same Californian purple cloth it would have its own distinct style.
Scotland is not known for its sunny days, we do have them from time to time but rain is often an ever present theme of visitors experiences. It’s so ingrained into us locals that we have more words for rain than Inuits have for snow**. So it was only fitting that the clouds rolled in over the heads of 150 excited racers and one bagpiper gathered at the start line. The stage was set for what would be an exciting yet grueling bicycle race, the pipes bellowed and the race was underway. A gentle spin along the road through Lamlash soon turned to dirt which began to climb up through the trees.
Stage one began and consisted of an undulating climb to the highest point of the whole course. Somehow I missed the signs indicating the start and without realising it I ruined my Stage 1 time by stopping with Stu when he had a moment of mild clenching as his bars flipped upside down mid downhill. Small fast descents would lead into punchy climbs which finished in a final long pull that would assure that even the fittest rider would be feeling the burn. Breaths were caught and riders set off for a well deserved downhill.
Rain drops prickled our faces on the blasty fire track that led to a grassy single track straight which seemed to punish a number of riders with punctures. A very slippy and steep section of road with a hairpin brought riders down into the first of the feed stations. The Velo Cafe hosted and was full of wet riders looking for a cup of warm coffee before facing the outside again. Other riders bustled around the car park with hands full of bananas, chocolate treats and various other goodies, lots of chatting and making new friends.
A quick burst of energy got riders up the hairpin and onto a gentle road segment that allowed everyone’s snacks to settle. What would have been a very pleasant pedal soon became a head down grind with torrential rain beating the road. Some marshals waved me down and pointed in the direction of the next off road segment. Another double track climb made me strain my cleats and pull hard on the bars as my tyres searched for grip on the crumbly steep surface. Cloud covered the hillside, isolating riders and obscuring climbing progress. The climbing relented and the cloud lifted just enough to hint at the potentially stunning views of Whiting Bay for any rider brave enough to take their eyes from the track which was now an awkward mixture of soft sand, chunky rocks and speed.
I along with most other riders around this point noticed that there was very little brake pad left, eroded away by the grit of the last 20 miles that coated everything and everybody. Back onto single track, past two Neolithic chambered tombs and into a steep section of hair pins which would have been mildly intimidating on a normal day but was bordering on terrifying in the wet with such limited braking. Some chose to bravely ride but others cut their losses and walked (including myself).
Another sharp 500ft climb brought us to the start of Stage 2. Only a mile long this very technical section of tight single track had become a greasy ribbon threading between trees and over slippy roots. Cross tyres struggled for grip as riders tried to hold their lines and stay upright. Out the other side and any rider that didn’t meet the ground or had any brake pads left were counting themselves lucky.
My not so lucky moment. Photographed by Russell Burton
Lunch was served back at the HQ and everyone busied themselves with filling up on stew and visiting the SRAM tent for any mid race repairs. Worries of being cold after lunch in our wet morning kit were soon forgotten as Stuart and I climbed out of Lamlash on a track following the A841 now joined by Jack and Benedict. Stage 3 was waiting at the top, a fast open fire road drop that would reward any rider that was bold enough to let off the brakes. A small incline with a fairly savage headwind made sure that I was still peddling hard to cross the line. A questionable decision to fill water bottles from a rather brown looking stream and we followed an excellent section of single track which had us blasting along straights and through swoopy corners. Soon we were hitting speeds that would have you fooled into thinking that this section of trail was actually a timed stage. It was too good not to and we cut loose in a train with big grins on our faces.
The next feed station quickly appeared and although in good spirits the excitement of more treats, snacks and clean water was soon dampened by the fact that Stage 4, a short 1 mile/500ft hill climb unavoidably loomed within a few pedal strokes of snacks. A simple gravel climb that allowed no excuses for all riders to get out the saddle and give 100%, my legs were certainly feeling jaded by this point. The last 35 miles offroad fixed were taking their toll or the feed station treats had not kicked in yet but I managed to keep my legs turning and grind to the top of the stage. Another very slidy descent peppered with rocks that also included the most slippiest bridge returned riders to Brodick, we regrouped and readied ourselves to tackle the last finale.
The last climb was no less serious than any that we had already tackled and excitement grew as we had heard the rumours of something special on the other side. From claggy forest road to a steep double track path to thin grassy single track, riders pedaled and pushed before finally scaling a large abrupt mound. Bikes were shouldered and hands grabbed undergrowth as we scrabbled to the top.
The summit revealed a spectacular cliff edge panorama (that had it not been so dreich*** would have offered fantastic views over the water to the mainland) and the start of the much anticipated final descent. Stoke was high and following a brief warning from the marshal (fall right=safe, fall left = cliff and sea). Everybody that attempted this last hooray had a notably wild ride, with the choice of a small strip of mud or a thin border of wet grass it was a recipe for edge of control excitement. I somehow managed to hold on till the bottom riding out what must be one of the worlds longest skids and a phenomenal example of bike control and balls out luck.
A quick spin along the road to the finish line and it was time for shower, pints, food and Stage 5 (the party stage). Some well deserved prizes were awarded and then it was time for the Van T’s to do their music thing. We danced and drank and shared stories of the day’s exploits into the night until we only had the energy left to crawl into a tent.
So how was riding a fixed gear at an event that had a lot of CX riders pining for a mountain bike. Well I finished and not too badly either, I came in at 63/150 which I am happy with. Having wasted about 5 minutes watching Stu fix his handlebars on Stage 1 and then rolling about in the mud on Stage 2. In fact there is very little that I would change should I do it again. The biggest mistake I made was my gearing, 48×19 was far too stiff and although I made it up most gradients it was traction on the loose or greasy surface that forced me to resort to the occasional push. Other than that, grippier grips and spare brake pads would have really helped although a disk brake would have been an appreciated luxury. Most importantly though I finished with a big smile as I had the most fun getting rad in the mud and doing big skids with lots of cool people.
Stuart and my fixed gear exploits were not over looked by Giro/Charge either who very kindly awarded us the Spirit of Grinduro award and gifted us a very lovely limited edition Charge Plug. And with that I must say a big thank you to all the orginiser’s and the companies that supported the event. It was a flawlessly run weekend of big smiles and spectacular bike riding. I am already stoked for next year.
* Other than the plentiful supply of Irn Bru and Tunnocks at the feed stations.
** Inuits have 53 words for snow however Scots have over 100 for rain.
*** “dreich” / adjective / SCOTTISH
(especially of weather) dreary; bleak.“a cold, dreich July day, perfect for a bike race”