Sunday night I lay down and thought “My body hurts. Everything hurts. What a great day.”
The Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder is by far the hardest gravel ride I’ve done in the year or so I’ve been riding dirt roads. But it’s also one of the most interesting, scenic, and diverse rides. Organized by two mountain bikers who wanted to showcase the beauty and bounty in and around Columbia County, New York, FDGG takes you on an epic journey through peaceful farmlands, quiet forests, and some of the best hills the Taconics can throw at you.
Let’s start with – it’s been a long winter and wet spring. This week was no exception with more rainy days than not. It rained the whole day before the ride so we knew it would be a bit sloppy. The forecast for Sunday was continually changing, showing we were either going to have a really rainy day or just overcast. Most of the questions being sent to the organizers on the Facebook page were around tire choice.
In the end, I’m not sure what the best tire choice would be for 65 miles on mostly peanut butter roads, some paved, and 6 water-logged, muddy off-road/tractor road sections.
I, of course, went with my 26mm Panaracer Gravel King SKs. It was that or my mountain bike, and I didn’t feel like riding that for 65 miles.
My friend Matt rode with me, and I’m so glad he did because this year was a true test of strength, stamina, and grit.
In the Beginning …
The first three miles of the course is on a grassy rail trail with a gentle incline and really sets the tone for the event. Fairly quickly the ride separated the speedy folks from the ones who wanted to enjoy the day.
Back on the road for a short bit to get to the second off-road section through a nature preserve. If you are not a mountain biker or cyclocross racer, this is the first sign the route isn’t for you as you are basically on single- and double-track. The rains made this section extremely muddy, and we ended up walking good portions because the mud was so rutted, slick, and deep. We were in good company though – virtually everyone around us was also walking their bikes.
The first water stop was at a brewery around mile 16. Fueled up on maple syrup shots and pickles, skipping the whiskey-soaked Swedish Fish (which we heard were amazing). Topped off water and got back on the road. The clock indicates we’re slower than expected.
More beautiful dirt roads before heading into Off-Road #3 – singletrack edition. We’re yo-yo’ing with the same people and camaraderie is high. We’re getting a bit tired, but we aren’t pushing the pace terribly because conditions are pretty soul-sucking. But at least it’s not raining – just really, really soggy. Rode as much of the singletrack as possible; walked where it felt prudent. Popped out into a field with the first full rest stop at mile 27 on the other side of the field.
FDGG has excellent rest stop food because it’s catered by local businesses like Bountiful Bread Bakery who had delicious sandwiches prepared. I chose the peanut butter on cranberry-walnut wheat bread; Matt chose the turkey with stuffing and cranberry spread. Refilled water, checked the time, had another cookie, then back to it.
Matt and I have ridden gravel grinders together and we both expected to be done around 3pm as a 10mph average is a good estimating target for rides with 100’/mi of climbing. As we left the rest stop, I started doing the math and said “I don’t think we’ll be done until 5pm.” Our average progressive speed, inclusive of breaks, had dipped below 8mph. But with the bulk of the ride (and the majority of the climbing) about to happen, we didn’t want to burn too many matches.
(There are no photos to add to this section because it’s basically a pain cave.)
The middle 20 miles has nearly half of the total climbing for the day, an endless series of rollers with a few back-to-back-to-back hills that put you squarely above 10% grade for a bit.
This is also where I had to humble myself and walk two of the steepest hills, my energy sapped from the struggle just to navigate the soggy conditions. We took a breather at the top of one particularly nasty climb and a tall guy on a Rivendell and wearing Crocs stopped too. He reminded me of one of my kids. We chatted for a few minutes, then continued on.
This is also where it began to rain, turning thick nut-butter roads into pea soup. Our bikes are so caked in mud, gears grinding in the grit. The SKs are shedding mud well, but I still find myself spinning out a few times while trying to power through thick mud. Every fishtail of my rear wheel, every slippery root or rock on the off-road sections remind me that the skills I’ve learned on a hardtail mountain bike will always serve me well in any terrain.
Mile 40 brings us to a pop-up ice cream stop catered by Cold Stone Creamery. It’s stopped raining, and we’re getting chilled, so we put on a few layers to keep warm. We’re at the final rest stop in 7 miles.
The End …
The rest stop at mile 47 is a bounty of food: bananas, PB&Js, Mexican chocolate cake, and probably more importantly, COKES. We take a little longer to enjoy full-sugar soda guilt-free, eat, and strategize our next 18 miles. We still have the last 2 off-road sections to go, including one notoriously steep grassy incline that is sure to be even soggier and slick now.
There aren’t many people around us now, and we overhear many people opt for the bailout at this point – cutting a few miles but staying exclusively on paved roads back to the start. We are not these people and soldier on.
Despite the rest and refueling, there’s simply not enough power left in my body to power up the grassy hill, so we end up walking. We get in a rhythm of riding when we can and walking when we spin out. I will note here that Matt is a beast and rode more hills than I did and I remain in awe of his power. But to be sure, we’re both hurting at this point.
We continue on the roads to the final off-road segment and stop to decide if we want to ride the soggy, grassy loop through a field. We made it this far, I’m not throwing in the towel yet – so in we go. The mowed path goes down, down, down, and then turned sharply right and UP. Hopped off and walked – there was simply no traction on the water-logged grass. Took a short singletrack loop up to a gazebo for a short break to take in the incredible views. We’re 60 miles in and closing in on 5pm. Matt and I are both exhausted.
The last few miles are downhill, as any difficult ride should be. We roll into the finish, and people are still milling around, the band is still playing, and there is plenty of hot food and cold beverages waiting for us. Nearly 8.5 hours after we started, we were finally done. And we are far from the last people to roll in.
Probably the best part of this ride is the organizers did not pressure anyone to be done by a specific time so they could clean up and go home. They built an incredibly challenging and beautiful route that was meant to be savored. And then let those of us who wanted to finish despite incredibly challenging conditions do so.
We cleaned up, we hosed off our bikes, we said “great ride!” and headed back to our homes tired but accomplished.
Which brings us to …
the opening statement about everything hurting. It hurt to lay down. Ever fiber of my body held the dull ache of full depletion. I haven’t been this wrecked from a ride in a long time – a sign of a really good time.
At the end of the ride I wasn’t sure I’d want to do this ride again but here we are, just a few days later, and I’m thinking … if the conditions are drier next year, I’ll be there and so should you.
The nerdy details were logged on Strava.