The world of gravel racing is still very foreign to me. At least the competitive side of things, yet I find myself getting roped into these races, namely the ones where they boast features like timed sections. These enduro-inspired gravel races, like Grinduro, adopt this format in hopes that people will hang out and make the event more casual, rather than an all-out battle for who crosses the finish line. In events like Grinduro, this works perfectly, keeping the pace party-level and the conversations lively. This party vibe isn’t easy to cultivate. You’ve got to convince people it isn’t worth charging ahead, stringing the group out.
So maybe that’s why I felt compelled to try out the Eroica California’s Nova race. It boasted timed segments, chiller riding vibes, and I have ridden in the area, twice before, as well as the Eroica California’s course, back when it began and ended in Paso Robles. With this year’s event starting in the sleepy town of Cambria, it surely would be one to remember. Oh, and it was.
Just a few hours north of Los Angeles and a few south of San Francisco, it’s easy to see the veritable gold mine this event is founded upon. Two of the biggest cities on the west coast, a quick jaunt, or for some, a ride away. Eroica California didn’t have to work too hard at getting the word out there, or in attracting people from those coastal cities to attend. A weekend where you get to flaunt your period-correct vintage bike, complete in costume, with aesthetics, dialed down to the “t”? It’s easy to see the attraction. Get out of the city.
The Nova, however, allows any drop bar bike to take on the 80-mile and 8,000′ course. It takes place on Saturday with the Eroica Classic on Sunday. As you might have guessed, people ride both in the weekend, so many of the Eroica Nova entrants are there for the Classic, they just want to get the most out of their riding weekend. This creates an interesting dynamic for someone riding the course and photographing it. During prior Eroica events, everyone is in costume and you’re transferred to the 1970’s as classic steeds rip down through perfect dirt roads, all wearing wool jerseys and many without helmets. It’s aesthetically very transformative, yet for those not seeking the live-action role, or roll, playing, the Nova is a straight up, modern gravel race, complete with carbon bikes, shop lycra, hydration packs. It’s actually really fun to see people’s kits for these rides!
Coming in from Los Angeles, my friends at Brooks England – thanks, Bregan and Jason! – set me up with a car camping spot near the start of the race, at the Barn at Fog’s End (not pictured – that’s the shed at the Barn at Fog’s End.) It had a level spot for me to park, WiFi, and amenities. A lot more than I’m used to when camping – thanks, Guy! Being across the street from the event, it made going back and forth easily, so the morning of, I casually rolled out a few minutes before the start, which was as you might expect, anything but a party pace. That’s the thing about “races,” no matter how hard the event tries to make everyone chill out and ride slowly, people still want to race. I blame the lycra.
Before long I had lost my friends and spent the day hanging out with people I didn’t know, having conversations I didn’t expect, and not regretting a single bit of it. A guy named Daniel and I chatted about Death Valley excursions, lamenting the approach of warm weather and the end of the lower elevation explorations in the area. Hopefully, we get out this fall into the Panamint Mountains!
The whole time, there was this looming issue of food on the course. I’m the kinda guy that likes to pack in all his snacks for a ride, to cover his own ass. Prior to the start, I asked around if there would be food on course – in years prior, the Eroica California presented sandwiches, snacks, olive oil, cheese, french fries, wine, the whole nine yards – and was assured there would be. You did, remember, pay a hefty fee to ride in the event. They ought to feed you throughout the day. From the first stop onward, it was all downhill, figuratively speaking. Each rest stop had less and less food, with the crescendo of letdown being the last stop, which had only Clif bars and bread – the theme of most the day. No peanut butter, no Nutella, no nothing, just slices of bread. It was dismal. I haven’t cramped on a ride in 10 years, and due to the lack of caloric gains during these rest stops, I was cramping, which made the headwind on the last 10 miles quite miserable. The kind of misery where you’re putting your mind anywhere but in the moment.
There was a lot of dismay at the finish, including a racer pissed because there were no vegetarian options on course – unless you consider bread sprinkled with freshly picked grass an option – or even at the finish. We joked about the Fyre Festival, the Eroica boot camp, or as I liked to call it, the Diet Eroica. It felt as though the organizers were intentionally killing the event, culling the broad-reaching brand of the Eroica, and getting rid of the California chapter. Surely there must be some reason for this lack of sustenance on a very challenging course. Or perhaps they were completely unaware.
Rather than look for answers, I looked for my friends, went to a bar that had food and had my fill of companionship, camaraderie, and laughs. It made it easier to lament the day’s events with people I knew while thinking about all the people I met that afternoon, most of which who were there to do the same. It’s a shame the Eroica California event organization has gone stale because everything about the event has such potential, yet it goes without saying that in even the worst circumstances, the right people can make anything bearable.
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