The Grind... Giants Ridge:
The Grind? Huh, what can that possibly be?
I recall last year, sometime after the fact, there was some MTB race up in northern MN over labor day weekend.
So this year, the weekend arrives having family plans for the remainder of the weekend... what options did a I have? Well, the forecasted rain of Sat AM kept some would-be partners from doing a Chequamegon 40 hammer down prep ride, the thought of doing it myself wasn't so appealing but late Fri afternoon I got to thinking.... hmmm, what about this Grind thing? Giants Ridge? Heard of it, where the heck is it? Google maps to the rescue. Ok, less than half distance to Copper Harbor MI for their race and still quite abit shorter than Maplelag (Callaway MN) for the Richard's crew much heralded MN MTB series weekend. So I sleep on it overnite, knowing the weather was the unknown.
I slept in til 6:30, the rain is pounding down in Ashland. I check the forecast for Giants Ridge though - huh, little to no rain. Excellent, what the heck let's give it a go! In one my fastest pack jobs ever I got my breakfast made & training bike in the van & hit the road by 6:50. Must have rained steadily for first 45min of my drive, but I'm trusting the Underground Weather App that somehow further west & north, MN has sunshine.
Enjoyable drive. On my way up checking in with different guys, one being Tim Andrew who did race last year gave me the "Yeah you'll like it, it's your style, you'll do well." Solid. Now to see if that's true. I arrive much to the dismay of ALL that know me, with more than 10minutes to spare. A rather leisurely 45minutes in fact. So I registered, found my power meter battery was dead, dangit - no data from this effort. Got tires pumped, chain lubed and then noticed.......oh boy there's alot of standing water around this place! Prudently leaving mud fenders front & rear installed as might come in handy.
Scoping things out as who may have come to play today? In a short spin around I see gravel racing extraordinaire Drew Wilson the Cyclo-carbon wizard, Sam-I-Am Olson of Duluth among others. When you're used to arriving at the last minute, must admit it felt like a lifetime for the race to start. But got a reasonable warm up & it was soon national anthem time & a ready, set, go with 120 other racer ready folks.
The race started with a 1mile controlled roll-out with a few guys politely leading the charge. With an short incline approaching & 4 wheeler lead out moving aside. Matt Lee lays down a rocking acceleration waking up the crowd, and Sam Olson stealthily sliding in behind. I figure might want to be getting with this as things start to stretch out. Soon 4 wheelers peel away & it's "go time" over the top of a tight left corner, followed by a downhill right turn off wet pavement onto the promised punchy XC ski trails that start the race. The wet pavement & quick turn... not a great combo. Following Sam & Matt I slide out slightly but stayed up right, however behind one or two others weren't so lucky with sounds of clashing bikes the hitting the deck.
Matt kept drilling it pretty solid at the front from one punchy climb to the next, followed by Sam, then myself. With a 4th rider doing some yo-yoing on each climb & descent. I noticed I was breathing much harder than I would have desired but knew it was best to hang in there until I could confirm who all was going to make this front group. Once confirmed it was in fact Sam & Matt, pleasantries were exchanged, we began a steady effort working together and the 4th rider was in the distance.
The XC trail rollers provided opportunity to speed thru the descents and gain momentum for the ensuing climbs. It extended for some time but eased in pitch. Whether the pace changed or I was finally settling in & feeling much more comfortable I stayed to front frequently with Sam coming in to take turn. At some point Matt seemed to be getting distanced. I yelled back for him to get back with us, but post race I found out he started dealing with cramping issues and sticking with us was no longer in his game plan.
Sam & I continued on eventually hitting the middle of the race, characterized by gravel roads, 4 wheeler trails of various composition rocks, dirt, etc.....but all holding a very common variable -- water! For the mentally prepared this had to be one of the best parts of the race. We got to play/ride in the worst kinda-bike-hating-riding conditions. Mud holes that you hit square on that went axle deep. A full quarter mile of riding with 6"-12" deep water & simply no where else to go. The trail was completely underwater. Paradoxically then be treated for a few miles of smooth bike path pavement, it was bizarre but cool going from heinously to heavenly riding.
At just over half way mark in the race we were circling back towards the resort on some really rocky 4 wheeler trails, loose rock combined with bed rock and off course the constant obligatory overnight "stream crossings" that frequented the course. I noticed Sam falling back alittle, he's technically superb rider so I wasn't sure why. Post race I found out he's still working himself back from a broken wrist/arm earlier this summer and from personal experience '14 I know how painful that can be on certain sections of trail.
Sam got out front again shortly afterwards & said something to the effect "let the pain begin - we've got 3300 feet of climbing in this race". Honestly, My first thought? How to make this upcoming pain stop.... Slow down? No? I didn't feel up to that point we'd done that much climbing so I thought oh boy this race is gonna make up for it at the end as advertised. That's when we headed into why they probably call this race The Grind. I start to get my answer. The organizers set up the last 15+ miles of race with loops that weave & circle the vast area of ski hill terrain.
The race went vertical at that point. While I found a combination in the back cassette with a 40 tooth chainring in the front that worked, soon I was in heated front derailluer shifting mode. Sam & I started the climb together but after a short while I noticed he was back a few bike lengths & then some more & more. I yelled back to get back up to me again so we could ride together but the climb was really long & the pitch was not easing up & the distance between Sam & I would yo-yo.
Now, for those there, they know this wasn't a normal XC ski trail climb. You had not only constant, but perpetual soggy wet areas with frequent streams of gravity assisted water crossing the trail -- finding it's way downhill after the multiple inches of rain the area had the night before. This began the hilarious game of "find the best straightest line" -- think of it like this -- following a recently beheaded chicken running uphill. Everytime you thought you had firm ground, it was squish or mud or water, zig across the trail to find something better. Only as soon as you thought you had "it", it was back to the other side. Relentless. Matt Lee after the race said quite accurately he perhaps put in an extra 5 miles doing so. Fortunately seated pedaling kept for the most tire traction and I found a really comfortable cadence and kept pushing it, eventually getting 20 seconds and 40 seconds on Sam as we did battle up the hill. One climb would just lead to a switch back downhill corner that took finesse to stay upright before climbing again.
It came to a point you thought you might be in the Himalaya's as the climbs never seemed to stop, but then it popped out to a long moderate descent that sweep into the 2nd loop/start/finish area. I shot down the hillside with a decent gap on Sam. Passing the resort where the announcer was in full form entertaining the crowd and racers as well as we went by. The course was mark fairly well but there was some uncertainty as to the direction of the 2nd lap. That was probably my frantic moment of the day. I thought this must be what it feels like to be Jesse Lalonde sometimes when he out front & gets off course. Feel for you bro. Seeing what I thought might be race course 4 wheelers to guide us to a second lap & I follow them shouting out "Where's the course?" A shrug back & a "I don't know!" answer & things for a bit weren't looking good......So it was wait here til Sam catches back up or Lewis & Clark this thing & find the trail again. Fortunately my short pre-ride gave me a clue where to go & I got back on track, losing not more than a minute and no Sam in sight behind.
With probably 8 miles left in the race I was still feeling fairly good, hadn't unnecessarily punched any of my red zone tickets and it was out for the final loop. Well, this lap was gonna bring Narly to the already too wet party. Most memorably part of the race course for me was on this loop. A highlight was a loose rocky pitched climb had become a flowing downhill river. Sorry sustainable, Starbucks singletrack loving IMBA folks, mother nature is pretty forgiving & self healing so sometimes you can afford to cut loose and tackle what is there. This being an old jeep/4 wheeler trail she could take some tough love and I for one loved every minute of her. By the top of that climb, Sam had road himself back into sight though approximately 2 minutes down at the bottom. Amped up my efforts for a bit but measuring each ensuing climb, finding hills that required going full granny (26x36) to just keep moving. I started feeling more confident but knew I couldn't let up nor go too hard & take the chance of blowing up -- because at one point or another all the hard climbing was gonna catch up to a guy.
I looked at the clock and after 2 hour mark & no end in sight I thought there was a chance of things slipping away on me, maybe Drew was coming on strong, or Matt recovered or Sam's decending would get him back into it. I started asking the course marshall for the remaining distance but the answers came back varied and I wasn't trusting the GPS. So it became a serene steady effort the final miles with a joyous alleluia when I popped back out on the downhill straight that lead 1/2 mile back to the finish area. Man that felt great, legs were good but ready to be done. Came zipping through the finish area to surprise of the crowd & announcer. Little did I know but the hurt was on everyone behind with Drew coming in 2nd 9 minutes back having passed Sam in final 2 miles who cramped up but got 3rd with Matt holding on to 4th. Itiming.com has results or website www.racethegrind.com
Great time had post race. Music, food, entertaining announcers. Swapped stories with Sam, Matt, Drew, Tim Wilkie and many others -- hearing of the carnage The Grind had left people in on this memorable course & conditions. Also in the evening was a night time party & cyclocross race. Of additional note funds raised from the race went to support NICA student league of MTB racing. Overall among the best organized events I've participated in. Glad to have it as an option on a Labor Day weekend stacked with great riding and racing opportunities.