Gravel Union visit Grinduro California

“I recommend you head up the highway for a mile to the Spring Hill trailhead and then ride Gateway, Marley, The Tunnel and finish with the Shastice Connector trail” said a local, eyeing us up and down and checking out our eclectic array of bikes. In our small group we had a high-end carbon gravel bike, a top of the range slack-as-you-like überbike, a big travel eMTB and my slightly careworn gravel beasty fitted with the biggest volume tyres I could possibly shoehorn in. His route suggestion didn’t fit with our pre-made plans and we gently queried his trail choice and also the fact we would now be riding the trails in the opposite direction to the way the Grinduro event would take us. The local, who it turned out volunteered for the Sora Outdoor Recreation Alliance and seemed to have helped build most of the trails we would be riding, was adamant. So, we took his advice and headed up the road (into a headwind) to the trail head to start our Gravel Union tour.

Gravel Union at the river crossing, Grinduro California

Within a few minutes of leaving the trail, the imposing sight of a snow-capped Mt Shasta, an active volcano that towers over the region at a height of 4321m, hoved into view and my mind was well and truly blown. A combination of jetlag and sleep deprivation helped create my slightly woozy mental state and meant the shock of riding bone dry California singletrack under azure blue skies was proving to be quite a sensory overload. Literally around every corner was something even more amazing – smooth flowy singletrack led to a techy rock garden, which was followed by a bermed descent through ancient Redwood trees. It was hard to compute just how good the riding was, less than 10 minutes ride from the centre of the nearby settlement of Mount Shasta.

Gravel Union: Smiles for miles in California

Travelling out to the event a day early and doing a spot of pre-riding of the course (even if we did do it ‘backwards’) could be considered cheating, but seeing as I was one of only a tiny handful of travel-frazzled Europeans who had made the trek over to California, I didn’t feel too guilty. Getting my head and bike dialled into California-mode proved to be an ideal start to the trip and also allowed me to check out some of the more technical features on the course. About an hour into our ride, we came across this amazing looking kicker jump which Elliot, Giro’s in-house photographer, promptly nailed on his borrowed eMTB. During Stage 2 of the event itself we rode this same trail and while riding obstacles like this is never mandatory in a Grinduro event, after trying out some of the local trails I knew roughly what to expect and it set the tone for the event. 

Full Send

Grinduro events are very much in the gravel-Jim-but-not-as-we-know-it mould. The Grinduro website describes their events as “a celebration of cycling with as much emphasis on the fun as the ride, with excellent food, an impressive display of art and incredible handmade bikes, live music, camping and a festival atmosphere”. The participants, the bikes they bring and the trails used in the event are incredibly diverse and eclectic. The riders ranged from top pros in full race kit (Tiffany Cromwell from Canyon/SRAM was probably the most notable) to groups of friends in fancy dress. Bikes ranged from big travel full suspension trail bikes to CX bikes with 33mm tyres and cantilever brakes.

The trails selected followed this same pattern – variety really is the spice of life in Grinduro world.

Olly from Gravel Union
Onto the boardwalk
Warp speed in Mt Shasta

The event was laid out over three days, giving gravel Union plenty of time to explore and become accustomed to the Grinduro way of life. Friday was arrival and sign on day, with a short-and-sweet mass-start prologue stage scheduled for the afternoon. Saturday was the main day with two route options – the non-timed Grindurito with its 37km parcours and 825m of climbing and the full Grinduro version with a 93km route and 2175m of climbing. Sunday saw an optional komoot-sponsored ‘hangover’ ride heading out for a few more hours of fun, so if you rode all three, you got a really decent gravelly bang-for-your-buck. The Grinduro format is based around a combination of longer non-timed ‘liaison’ stages and shorter timed segments. The combined times from the four timed stages generated the overall leader board. 

The timed sections were as diverse as the rest of the event – Stage 1 was a long, fairly gentle fireroad climb that topped out at just over 1800m altitude. The climbing started right from the start line, but the timed portion was carefully located to mean riders’ legs and lungs had warmed up by the time we reached the timing paraphernalia. 

Stage 2 was a spectacularly fun singletrack blast through Redwood forest. It was only 3kms in length, but it felt way longer than that and was some of the most fun singletrack I’ve ever had the pleasure to ride. Twisty, swoopy, flowy. Just enough gradient change to give you a speed boost and make you concentrate. Dust motes floated through the trees. The air was thick with the heady scent of freshly released pine resin. If you got to the end without a huge gravel-grin plastered across your face, then you officially had no soul.

Grinduro California gravel

Stage 3 was described as a ‘rolling gravel stage’ by the organisers and was on a forest fireroad. There were glimpses of snow-capped mountains on the horizon and some sections of beautifully dappled sunshine, but the actual trails weren’t all that memorable

The organisers had warned riders that there was a sting in the tail of the day, but before that, at the end of the Stage 3, they had set up a lunch stop. There was an impressive array of food available including a choice of four main course dishes, with plenty of healthy choices, lots of fresh fruit and cans of pop and local beer cooling in the nearby stream for anyone that wanted it.
 
According to the GPX trace from my bike computer, there was exactly 100m of riding between leaving the lunch spot and hitting the start of the big climb. In total we climbed for 5kms and gained 568m, with the high point being an impressive 2027m. On paper that works out at roughly 10% average gradient which shouldn’t be too bad, but in practice, the climb was hideous. Initially it was at least rideable, but as the climb went on the gradient increased, the surface deteriorated – it soon became loose fragments of rock and chunky gravel with sustained pitches of 18-20%. For the majority of riders, it was a challenge too far. There were a few riders who had wisely chosen an MTB with a super low gear who could ride all of it, but for anyone on gravel bikes with a typical 1:1 ratio, the combination of surface and gradient wasn’t fun. Or rideable!
 
Luckily as we gained height, so the views became ever more impressive. Mt Shasta still dominated everything, but now we were further away, you could see the profile of the whole mountain, rather than just the summit cone. 
Prime Shasta Views at Grinduro California

The descent started straight away, and although it was untimed it was almost a mirror image of the climb – in places it was steep, loose, rocky, technical and a real challenge, even riding with big volume tyres.

I don’t have any photos from Stage 4, but it was, to be honest, a bit of a f*cker. It was a descent, which should have been fantastic, but it came just after 7kms of prior descending on a combination of loose rock, bedrock, gravel and roots and most riders were utterly spent just from the sheer concentration required just to make it to the start of the segment. Luckily the start was marked by an unbelievably well stocked feed station, with everything from cups of chopped local fruit to shots of decent strength alcohol to cream cheese filled bagels on offer. Even suitably fuelled, Stage 4 was tough. It was significantly smoother than the trails just prior to it, but was still steep, fast and loose, with frequent 180 degree hairpinned turns where a lapse in concentration would see you lose skin or plop gently off the edge of the world. I’m going to remember the fruit and the bagels and gloss over the actual riding. 

Gravel Union explore the lowlands

Luckily, the utter genius of a Grinduro event is that the timed segments for a lot of the participants probably aren’t the most important bit. Sure, they helped engender a bit of competitive rivalry, but for most riders it was the beauty of the liaison sections which would have stuck in their minds’ eye afterwards. A combination of mind-blowing scenery, killer riding (this section around Lake Siskiyou will be forever indelibly burnt into my retinas), friendly conversation with fellow riders and the amazing aid stations are really what makes a Grinduro event stand out from other gravel events. 

The event is so much more than just riding. The fantastic location, with Mt Shasta always looming into the back of photographs like a spectacularly handsome but slightly out-of-place gatecrasher, with plenty of space for camping and a well laid out event arena, was one of the star attractions. 

As well as Shasta’s trails and its location, the other hugely memorable aspect were the people. Whether it was a local trail builder sharing his knowledge, or family groups stood at the end of their driveways waving self-made banners as the riders took on a nearby section of the course, or the huge group of indefatigable locals who turned up as event volunteers, the people really made the event something special.  

Grinduro at night

As I crossed under the inflatable arch which marked the finish line, my bike computer showed a total ride distance of 92.4kms and 2373m of climbing with a wheels-rolling time of 5:45hours. None of those stats are that impressive and they singularly fail to convey either a) just how tough it was or b) how much fun it was. Apparently, I finished 224th overall and was an impressive 25 minutes slower than the men’s winner on the timed segments. 

I’m not sure any top-level sponsors are going to be breaking down my door to sign me up anytime soon, but Grinduro is about so much more than who is the fastest. If there was an award for who still smiles the widest more than a week later or who brought home the most Californian dust in their tyre treads then I reckon I could have made the podium. 

Thanks Grinduro California, you rocked.