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Susan's story: Shasta Gravel Hugger

BaseCamper Susan Bernatas shared her experience at the Shasta Gravel Hugger in Montague, California.

I raced the 65 miles. I was not on the top of my game. I’m not completely recovered from an injury. But showing up at the start line ready to ride is always a win. Being well enough, maybe brave enough, not worrying too much about what others think, and just lining up at the starting line, call it a win. There are so many things to prevent starting. Fear of not doing well should never be one of them. A collective of cyclists is always a great party.

The 100-mile course was about 50/50 gravel/pavement. The shorter course still had the most fun gravel section on the long course, but overall, perhaps 40/60. Both distances came with a dose of headwind. I’d call this gravel "fresh" gravel, which I define as hard pack gravel, flowy chickpea size gravel if chickpeas have sharp angles. This gravel was just looking to give you a flat and inform you to look around as you fix said flat. There wasn’t much washboarding - the worse type of gravel. No "cobbles," which are fist size and punch you around as you ride. There was one section of 2-track full of pointy rocks, sand trap, and pay attention or you will be fixing a flat or launching into the shrubbery. Per dust, I never tasted dust. It snowed and rained a couple days before the ride, and it is early March. It had been a dry February, so there wasn’t mud, either. The temperature was perfect for this cyclocross and I-love-winter rider.

This was the first race where I really took advantage of drafting behind people. I was careful who I selected and let them know I was behind them and took my turn at the pull. I am no roadie and have never been comfortable with a peloton. I swapped leads with 1 or 2 people only. Learning to draft can save about 30% of your energy. I had no idea who was in my field and honestly never worried about it.

I road my cyclocross bike named Raven since it is the most comfortable bike I own. I won USA Cycling Nationals on Raven, a Niner BSB. The Bauerhaus Bikes, Boise, ID, custom build I named Raven when I first saw this matte black bike with Industry Nine blue hubs and Bauerhaus Bike custom wheelset. Yep, in 2018, I won the USA Cycling’s red, white, and blue jersey and a gold metal on this bike. I always feel stronger on this bike. Comfort is always key when attempting to ride fast and ride long. Skillset provided by cyclocross racing was also helpful. I cruised through the sand and every other messy section.

Riding sand, gravel, or anything encouraging gravity to take over requires luck and skill. No trusting luck so I worked with skill. I’ve learned to push in on the handlebars to allow me to float over the mess. By push I mean I have my hands on the hoods and push my palms toward each other. This engages my arms/shoulder girdle, pecs, lats, and upper back. It allows my head and neck to float. No eyeballs bouncing around. The front wheel must go straight. Gravel and sand require floating. Some people push forward on the bars and back on the seat, but that doesn’t float for me and makes my neck and back stiffer and less protected.

Riding gravel road is like reading a river. Again, think float. Each road or trail has its pattern. Work with it or work harder against it. Soil type, percent grade, and other users such as truck traffic, 4x4 go-carts, how fast other users drive, and the number of drivers form a pattern on the road. Some gravel roads make are just brutal on a gravel bike, and some suspension is a happy place.

With 12 miles left, my low back and under carriage were starting to complain. It was time to get focused and get done. There is nothing about conserving energy or wishing I was done that is going to get me to the finish line, off the bike seat, and to the food truck faster. I came up with a little tune to sing in my head to keep me focused.

I finished first! The 2nd place rider was a moment behind me. Unbeknownst to me, she tried to stay on my wheel on the last stretch, but I was a woman ready to get off the bike, and I dropped her. I didn’t know she was behind me; what was behind me didn’t matter.

Races are not just about the race. They're about trying something new and meeting new people, even if for just a moment. There should be no fear, no hesitation about joining in on these races/rides. Just go for it. It is not like anyone is paying any attention to you, particularly, a "distinguished" cyclist. Even people on my team didn’t bother to ask how well I did because they were too wrapped up in how well they did on the ride. I probably had more fun. Epic Rides uses the "distinguished" term for men and women over 60. If you’ve never done an Epic Ride, do so; those folks know how to put on a fun ride for everyone. I’m not as young or as fast, but I can ride well enough. I’m faster than being on the couch. Enjoy the people around you, enjoy the place, feel good on the bike. Riding is winning.

I won a gift certificate from Castelli (thank you, Castelli rep!!), a nice cutting board with the Shasta Hugger logo on it, and had a nice day chatting with other cyclists.


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