By Janel Holcomb
Gravel grinder. Skinny tires on dirt roads. If you're a cyclist and you've been out on your bike in the past couple of years, these ideas are not foreign concepts. In fact, the chances are good that you've already sought out dirt and gravel roads to test your skills and fitness. Throughout my years as a pro road racer, I trained on dirt and gravel roads for fun, to sharpen skills, get away from the hustle and bustle of paved rides, and prepare me for times when dirt sectors would pop up in road races. When registration for CCSD's Dirty Devil opened last fall, I jumped on the $51 early bird pricing and the opportunity to do a "Gran Fondo" on some of my favorite home roads.
The Dirty Devil was a wild idea born in the mind and legs of CCSD's Robert Panzera more than five years ago. It was first conceived of as the "Dirty Double" covering a 200-mile route with 40 miles of dirt. As I lined up with nearly 200 others on Saturday morning, I was thankful that the evil double concept had been trimmed down to two fabulously challenging but decidedly more reasonable options: 84 miles with 7,500 feet of climbing and two dirt sections, or the 127-mile route with 11,000 feet of climbing and three dirt sections. While I had originally registered for the long option, more than a week before the event I decided that 84 miles was going to be enough devilish riding for me. As we rolled out in the cool morning air, I knew I was in for a treat.
The Dirty Devil doesn't attempt to mislead you: right from the start you are climbing and you get a taste of what your day will hold. But as soon as we climbed over the highway we were treated to a rolling country road through open cattle range that leads to the base of the first dirt sector: Viejas Grade. This is one of my all time favorite dirt climbs! The cool morning temps make for good climbing weather whereas I'm normally hitting this climb in the heat of the day. You could tell the temps were perfect because the usually lazy cows were tromping through the fields. Viejas Grade is four miles at an average grade of 5.7% on pretty darn good dirt. The views are incredible: it's hard to believe that the city of San Diego lies just 35 miles down the road. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits on the climb and when I got to the top everyone I was with, including myself, could hardly believe we had already been pedaling for an hour.
After Viejas Grade, we were treated to a twisty descent before taking the turn towards Boulder Creek. We stopped at the first SAG stop and refilled our bottles for safe measure. While it was only 15 miles to the next full aid station, it would likely be the hardest of the ride. Boulder Creek is about 13 miles of dirt, nearly 1,400 feet of descending, 1,600 feet of climbing, and endless opportunity for excitement! My husband and I started the climb to Boulder Creek at the back of the bunch (we were on the "stop and smell the wild flowers" program!) and saw riders off in the distance as they made their way to the dirt. It was gorgeous, the flowers smelled amazing, and as we hit the dirt we started to catch those who had left us in their dust. After climbing on lovely dirt for a while we hit the most thrilling part of Boulder Creek: the descent.
Together with my new Mavic tubeless 30mm tire set-up on Ksyrium Pro Disc Allroad Wheels (hooray, disc brakes!) and my husband on his normal road training wheels with 23mm tires (the Dirty Devil takes all kinds!) we started the descent, slaloming less dirt-savvy riders. The first half of the descent was what I expect and have come to love from a dirt descent: bumps, occasional washboard, shaded turns, and loose sections. As we rounded a tight left-hander I said to a woman who was confidently rocking a traditional road bike, "Don't worry, that's about as rough as it gets," but it appears my memory isn't so sharp!
The second half of the descent really tested our grit, skill level, equipment choice, and jostling threshold. Lots of riders were on the brakes and getting a seriously bumpy ride, but I employed some bunny hopping, as little braking as possible, and reached the bottom in one piece only to drop my chain in spectacular fashion! As I urged my chain back onto the chain rings, I was able to take in the myriad of reactions as riders passed me realizing they had made it to the bottom: smiles, sighs of relief, shaking out tired hands, and exclamations of "thank goodness we're climbing again!" It was great chatting with people as we climbed the next section of Boulder to hear everyone's account of the descent. The "dirty" and the "devil" of the ride were truly beginning to show.
But that's not where the story of Boulder Creek ends! You climb. You climb some more. There are some seriously steep pitches. There's a KOM/QOM segment (the second of the day) to take down. There's even a little more descending (where I may or may not have gone momentarily sideways as I foolishly locked it up before hopping a respectably sized rut). As we reached the 27th mile of the ride, many riders were rejoicing at the sight of pavement again.
Greeting us there were the smiling happy volunteers at a fully loaded SAG station. The crew of CCSD knows what the riders are facing and they stock the SAG appropriately.
In addition to the great food and drink, the SAG station was a blast because it was like an exclusive club meeting for tough-as-nails cyclists who just slayed Boulder Creek. We were there to laugh as we recalled the steep pitches, oooo and ahhhh about the speedy riders we saw blazing up the dirt climb, and trade tales of our gnarly dirt descending. There was no doubt you could find comfort in the shared experience and pride in what we had all accomplished.
While we were feeling pretty darn good at this point, remember this was only 27 miles into the day!
From Boulder Creek the rest of the day was filled with the best weather and the most beautiful views that Southern California has to offer. The ride towards Julian is one of the most scenic and tranquil you will experience as the roads twist and turn, up and down on the approach to Highway 79. From there we followed Julian Highway towards one of my all-time favorites (I know, I'm at risk of sounding like a broken record!), Wynola Road. Picturesque. Wild turkeys crossing the road. Hawks soaring overhead. Beautiful vistas. Beautiful front porches on houses where you long to rest your tired legs. It's not to be missed!
Unless of course you're going to do the 127-mile route and need to head towards Black Canyon (another one of my favorite roads!); Wynola will have to wait until later! After talking to quite a few of the long-route finishers, everyone seemed to agree that Black Canyon was in great shape this year. I wish I had the training to take on the whole route, because, again, Black Canyon and Mesa Grande are some of my favorites!
After riding Wynola Road, the course climbs out of Julian towards Lake Cuyamaca. For anyone who hadn't taken notice of the wind direction, this is where we were treated to a little slice of the Belgian Spring Classics, minus the cold wet weather and gutter action of echelons, of course! I've grown fond of the wind over my years in the saddle, and with the views overlooking the high mountain meadows of Mount Laguna, who could complain?
As we rode up to the SAG stop at Cuyamaca Lake, I could practically smell the banana bread baking. CCSD is famous for home baked goods at aid stations (courtesy of Josephine Panzera) as well as plenty of yummy snacks and food to take in your pockets. As we lingered over the spread, SAG volunteer and solo RAAM finisher Matt Hoffman said, "Don't worry, there's only about 15 miles until you get to stop and eat another thousand calories!" Spoken like a true cyclist. And another beautiful part of the Dirty Devil!
From there things went rather speedily: beautiful descents, lovely tailwinds, another wonderful SAG stop, and the final climb into Alpine. Yes, I'm glazing over the final 30 miles of the route, but it really did seem to fly by...
When we arrived at the finish, we looked at the sea of faces happily enjoying their BBQ lunches courtesy of Alpine Kiwanis. Participants were in various states: some still in kit, some napping in the shade, others enjoying a post ride massage from Cyclists Massage (best venue I've ever had a massage in, hands down!), many with telling lines of dust on their legs and faces, and some lucky riders cooling off in the Campbell Creek Ranch pool. As I was changing out of my cycling clothes not even 10 minutes after finishing, the first riders came in from the 127-mile route. I giggled to myself as they raced into the parking lot, realized they were off course, rode down a set of wooden steps without missing a beat, and circled back to cross under the CCSD finishing arch, hooting and laughing the whole time. Like kids playing on a playground without a care in the world!
The Dirty Devil is perhaps the most challenging gravel grinder that you can ride: for those of you into numbers, I was alarmed to see that at less than 30 miles into the ride (with more than 50 miles to go) I had already done over 50% of my total kilojoules for the day. This course is frontloaded, for sure, but demanding and rewarding the entire day.
The Dirty Devil is an event you'll want to put on your calendar; maybe even put the QOM/KOM competition on your list of goals for 2017. And if you aren't ready to take on 127-miles and all three dirt sections, then you will have the chance to enjoy the SAG stops, views, and finishing BBQ for a little longer like I did this year.
Put it on your wish list, your to-do list, and bring your cycling friends. The Dirty Devil is not only impressive on all fronts; it lives up to its name.
About Janel Holcomb
Janel Holcomb raced professionally from 2008-2015 for the US National Team, Optum Pro Cycling, Colavita Forno-d'Asolo, and Webcor Pro Cycling competing all over the world in the sport's biggest races. In 2011 Janel was crowned NRC Champion after winning a number of races including three stage race titles at Cascade Cycling Classic, Tour de Toona and the Joe Martin Stage Race. In 2014 she and her teammates finished 4th at the World Championships in the team time trial only 6 seconds off the podium. Janel was honored to be selected as a member of the US Olympic Long Team for the 2012 London Olympics. Now retired, Janel coaches cyclists, runs cycling camps, and is a brand ambassador for Mavic. Find out more: www.janelholcomb.com.
About CCSD's Dirty Devil
Held at the end of March annually, The Dirty Devil is California's premier (and most challenging) road bike ultra century, which includes up to 28 miles of packed dirt roads. Route options available: 84 miles, or tackle the whole 127-mile course. All packed dirt roads are challenging, but road bike friendly. To learn more about CCSD and The Dirty Devil, check out this link: http://www.ccsd.com/dirty-devil/