Skinny Tires and Slick Singletrack
Grinduro Scotland 2017
For those distinguishing themselves as part of the “enduro clan”, the concept of racing rigid bikes and skinny tires on gravel roads may seem an unnerving task. Add a field of fast European gravel riders and the task seems exponentially more daunting. Having very little gravel and cyclocross riding experience with strong roots in the mountain bike community, I excitedly and with much uncertainty began my journey to Scotland to add a dose of “SEND IT!” spirit to the Grinduro occasion.
Isle of Arran
The Isle of Arran is a small island west of the Glasgow area known to many as miniature Scotland. With rolling hills and green pastures, fences strangled with wool fragments, pine forest, and quaint coastal towns featuring ancient castles and large distilleries, Arran does not elicit a typical race location atmosphere, greatly adding to the allure and magic of this event. With picturesque road routes meandering the coasts of the island and a large array of access roads cutting deep into mountainous logging territory, the possibilities for pure mixed terrain bliss are nearly endless. With this in mind, you can imagine my excitement as I stepped off the ferry, looking forward to a week of exploration ahead.
Because my appearance in Scotland was merited to the generosity of the Giro crew, unlike my travel companions whose purpose on location was work-related, I had many open hours to devour the dirt roads and singletrack that Arran had to offer.
After a quick glance at a map on my phone and a general direction in which to travel from one of the race coordinators, I put tread to road in the search for loam. Having never traveled to Great Britain before, I immediately realized road riding would pose a challenge, having to hug the left side of the road instead of the right. Each intersection felt like a brain game, and I was thankful to find myself on dirt reasonably quickly so I could cease the constant mantra of “left to left” in my head to avoid a head on collision.
The dirt logging roads meandered through clear-cut fields, passed rock walls and charming homesteads, and the recent rain but current sun left the dirt moist and tacky under tread. Endless singletrack emerged on left and right and I found myself overwhelmed with the possibility of singletrack adventure (yet I soon realized root-littered singletrack is far more difficult on a cross bike with a high post, than the usual 150mm plush steed).
A Lesson in Trail Access from the Scottish
While the trail network seemed endless, I noticed a certain hesitancy to explore unknown trails for fear of a Scottish scolding, yet a soon learned that the U.S. could use a lesson from Scotland in trail access. Scotland has what is known as the “Scottish Outdoor Access Code”, which grants virtually any human-powered activity, including mountain bikes, equal access to all trails and routes, with the exception of golf courses, sports fields, yards, and agricultural fields. In fact, access is permissible through privately owned property as long as a respectable distance is left between housing complexes, so carrying the stigmata over stiles and traversing cow pastures became a frequent activity.
A Wee Bit of Rain
While the first week in Scotland featured bright blue skies and sunshine, the first ferry of racers on Friday brought with it an onslaught of dreary conditions. Overnight, the once magical and loamy trails turned into a slippery and muddy mess, drastically shifting any tactical race strategy from the day before.
With a slight drizzle settling in, the race took off in the town of Lamlash to the sound of bagpipes and the cheers of locals and family members alike. The course featured four special stages and two loops, with a large variation in terrain throughout.
What is unique about Grinduro is that there is no typical race format. While there are special stages, no time cutoffs or start times exist, and chip timing means that one can start a special stage at any point, leaving the door wide open for a new era of race strategy. Riding with friends is a possibility, drafting, or strategically planning timing are all ways to tackle the race.
Yet differences in timing is only one difference in the Grinduro experience. Along with the encouragement to race in a far more social environment, the transfer stages and feed stops cater to those wishing for photo opportunities and a leisurely pace.
Heading out from the start, the morning loop went south, with the farthest point reaching the town of Kilmory at the southernmost tip of the island. With Kilmory and feed station one at the Velo Cafe on the mind, I slogged up the first special stage, a 6.6 km fireroad climb with little hesitation, thinking of the espresso waiting on the other side.
After enjoying an espresso in a crowded and classic cycling cafe, I took off on the transfer stage, heading east on small back roads and some epic rocky and technical singletrack descents towards special stage 2 in the pouring rain.
Then came special stage 2... a technical, undulating singletrack descent...my jam! Having ridden the trail in dry conditions the day before, I was thrilled at the prospect of tackling the trail on the stigmata again. I bypassed the crowd of riders nervously surveying the start of what would be for many their first singletrack experience and dropped in. The once loamy ground had turned to mush, creating landmine root sections and exposing slippery rock faces. This stage was going to be about having fun and staying upright as much as possible, with a clean and smooth run far out of the question.
A fair bit of tripodding, one slide out, and a sketchy near crash on a rock drop got me down the hill in a decent fashion, and while it was far from perfect, I could not wipe a smile off my face the entire time. With a few more minutes of singletrack descending, the first loop was complete and it was time for a brilliant lunch prepared by the Trek Factory Racing chef and crew.
After lunch, the route headed north to the town of Brodick and the Brodick castle and featured stage 3 and 4, a fast forest doubletrack descent and a forested cobblestone climb. The rain and fog had become so thick that the once spectacular views were shrowded completely from view, and my gear was so drenched that any photo documentation of the experience had become impossible.
With all four special stages complete, the final descent of the course featured a thin and rutted line of grassy singletrack directly on a cliff's edge. With a steep drop-off to the left and not one single switch back to stop momentum with underperforming brakes, The best way to describe this sections is simply to say that describing the trail as "sketchy" is a definitive understatement. Sketchy, yet absolutely thrilling and loads of fun. The trail finally dropped to the beach, and a short pedal completely the day to the sound of bagpipes once again and mud plastered on every inch of bike and gear.
Good Laughs and a Fair Bit of Whisky
The best part about Grinduro is that racing is only half of the experience. As their hashtag (#partytoraceratio) highlights, the party is almost as important to Grinduro goers as the riding itself. So, it is no surprise that the conclusion of racing only meant the commencement of good fun. There was live music, handcrafted bikes on display, and a fair bit of local Arran distillery whisky to pass around. When the time for awards came around, I was shocked but stoked to take the second spot in the women's field, having suffered greatly during the many climbing stages.
And so, with the sounds of DJ funk in the background and the lightening rain outside, the inaugural Grinduro Scotland was complete and my mind turned to the next event on home soil;
I'd have to say Grinduro is by far the best event I've ever been a part of and I absolutely cannot wait to continue the journey in October!
Written by Leah Lind-White
Photos by Leah Lind-White, Satchel Cronk, Robin O'Neill
Giro Sport Design
Santa Cruz Bicycles