It’s the World’s premier bike festival. Eighty-thousand visitors and more than a thousand exhibitors. It’s located in Laguna Seca Raceway outside Monterey, California. The raceway might be known for the other kinds of bikes, with 1000cc engines and 250 horsepower, but this weekend it was all about pedaling, lycra, coffee, beers, and electrical shifting. Not to mention building bridges across the cycling community. And gravel racing. La Gravilla - which I happen to win!
READ FIRST: Belgian Waffle Ride California
Last weekend’s gravel race in San Diego was a tough challenge just a few days after my 26-hour travel from Norway. After the BWR, I had some lovely days on the Pacific coast near Encinitas. I was staying with Julie and John, a cycling and triathlon couple I found in Warmshowers. Amazing people. I got a chance to recover well and enjoy Southern California.
On Wednesday morning, I was picked up by Connor from Ryno Power. He gave me a chance to get a lift to Monterey. It was “only” a 7-hour drive, considered short in terms of typical driving distance in the US. But, of course, we had quite some traffic passing LA.
I loved Monterey at first sight. Green fields and hills as long as the eye could see. An Eldorado for cycling. I made a ride after we arrived at 4 pm. It was sunny and 15-16˚C. I took on the trails, the first part of the race I was signed up for, La Gravilla.
La Gravilla is a 100k gravel race. It is known to be demanding for a gravel bike. Once hitting the trails, I understood why. The single track was chunky and rough. Some sections of holes and rifts. Dry and loose ground. Without suspension, it would be a proper test for the bikes.
The ride was beautiful. Fields were green and full of blooming flowers. It smelled amazing.
In the evening, I had my first meeting with the global team from Felt Bicycles. They had booked a room for me 10 miles from the venue. The rooms in Springhill Suites were exclusive. Next, I met the rest of the gravel family with Niki Terpstra, Charles Ouimet, and Federico Macario, our global ambassador manager.
The expo started on Thursday, and I used the day to meet with partners and get known in the area. Schwalbe Tires generously provided me with 45mm and 40mm G-One R tires, which would be perfect for the course. Around noon I met up with my friend and biggest supporter, Chad Plumlee, from Cadence Cyclery. I am grateful to him. He has been helping me a lot in the last few years. It was good catching up, and we went on a short ride together.
As the owner of five bike shops, Chad had many to meet, so he shortened the ride as I reconnected the whole route. This was proven to be a brilliant call. More on that later.
I was also riding to and back from the venue, so I got in a little more hours than I usually would plan, but I felt good getting into the rhythm. And then I was all ready for tomorrow’s La Gravilla.
– Ring, ring.
I jump up at 6 am. I slept well, but I knew what day it was as I woke up. I can feel the tingle in my whole body—race day.
I don’t know how many times I have prepared for a race; There is always this excitement and those underlying nerves when you are going to race. Today is no other. Let go!
My racing stuff is placed in order all over my table. My pre-race routine is quite simple. I try to do most ready the day before the race, so I don’t have to stress about remembering it in the last hours.
I make a coffee while mixing my bottles with Ryno Power hydration fuel—time to energize. Then, I get a big bowl of oatmeal and juice for breakfast—very common and nutritious food, perfect before a race. Then, I dress up, put everything in the backpack, and visit the toilet.
There are many thousand people at Sea Otter, so traffic is chaotic. But, for me, it is a no-brainer to ride to the start. So I through the sack on my back and start riding. It’s a chilly morning, but the sun is up. I’m sure it will heat up quickly.
Getting a good warm-up will be necessary as the start of the race goes up the climb of Laguna Raceway and straight into a single track. Being in the front on the single track can be decisive.
I go to the Felt booth, leave my backpack and pump my tires—32 psi in the front and 35 in the rear. Maybe a little high pressure, but I don’t want to risk snakebites when hitting the rocks.
It’s almost 9 am. I line up with solid gravel riders. The most known would be Ivar Silk, last year’s winner of Unbound Gravel. He has an engine like few others.
The American national anthem on the speakers is a clear sign we are about to start.
And there we go. I get quickly in front. I want to ensure I hit the single track as one of the first riders.
The climb up the first km is challenging, and we aren’t starting easy. I’m almost at my max capacity. At the top, we go into a short single track. I’m going into it in the second position. We are all together into the gravel downhill. The speed is high and a little sketchy on the loose surface.
The descent takes about two minutes before we turn into a new section of single track. This one is a little longer, and the group is spread out.
I get into my rhythm but lose contention with the first four riders—no need to worry. I will make up the few seconds when we exit the trail onto the next gravel road.
I feel pretty good. The start was hard, but my legs respond better than last weekend. Seeing how I cope with the best riders later in the race will be interesting.
The route makes a hard right 180˚ turn. I accelerate and am eager to close the gap. But where are they?
I push on, and after a short kicker, I get a good view of the road ahead. No riders to see upfront. Where are they? Did they get that big of a gap? No, it can’t be.
I tell the rider next to me that the other riders must have gone the wrong way.
His name is Michael. He is on an MTB - probably a more suitable bike for the technical course. He goes faster than me on the trails, but I pass him on the gravel roads. We manage to get a gap to the rest of the riders behind.
– Did you see any riders pass? Michael asks some spectators on the roadside.
– No, you are the first we see, they respond.
That means we are now in the lead. It’s a bit confusing. I don’t know if they are turning and now in the chase or if they took a shortcut and missed this part of the course.
There is a vast trail network here, and you can easily connect different trails as you ride. I have the official route on my unit, so I know I am on the right course. The route signs also point me this way.
Michael and I get an increasingly bigger gap on the other riders behind. If we keep this speed, no one should manage to catch us from behind.
As we ride, we get a little info from the roadside. They say it is a group of four riders 15 minutes in front. That would mean they did manage to connect to the course again but skipped a part of the route. Surely unintentional, but if the race officials get it right, the riders must be disqualified.
Time will tell if they will. But first, I must focus on riding and getting away from Michael.
The course is a killer. I felt strong initially, but now I am starting to get tired. Still, more than 2/3 to go. I hope the others are in the same place. The single tracks are the most difficult sections. The ground is mainly hard-packed and dry but sandy and loose in the corners. One of the sections had a descent with huge washboards. My front wheel is slamming into each one. I desperately try to keep my pace up while maneuvering along the path.
Now I’m on the last 3 miles and climbing up this steep tractor road. I haven’t seen Michael in a while. I finally manage to drop him and pedal hard to make a lasting gap.
– Dunk, dunk, dunk.
I hear the sounds of a drum. There it is—a women’s orchestra of drummers. Fifteen women are beating those drums. You can hear them a mile away. It inspires. I try to get into the rhythm of the drums and get into a good momentum, fighting the steep climb.
I make it to the finish. One hour 44 minutes so far. One lap to go!
– Both bottle and the gels, please!
I see one of the Felt guys handing out a bottle to me, and I make sure I also get the gels. I have already consumed three gels and two bottles of hydration fuel. Eating on this course is almost impossible as focusing on keeping up the speed is always needed. Either maneuver well on the trails or climb up those steep hills.
The gels make sense, and I like the taste of the new Ryno gels. As the temperature rises, drinking might be even more critical.
– Wow, this is amazing! I say out loud.
The single track Laguna Flow is just amazing. A narrow trail makes its way along flourishing fields with a view of the Big Sur National Park mountains. It’s one of the prettiest trails I have ever done.
As I enter the flow and enjoy the ride, my chain jumps off my 1x drive chain. It doesn’t happen often, but the bumpy trails make the bike fight the terrain. I stop to get the chain on, but it is easier said than done. And as I am struggling, Michael passes me. Okay, so back to second place.
Soon I get on the horse again and start catching up.
I quickly stop at the natural feed sone to ensure I have enough water to get me to the finish. It’s hot, above 72˚F / 21˚C. I’m getting warm in the sun, with no wind. And fatigued.
I focus on pedaling and finding the trail flow without taking risks or errors. I drop Michael again, and I am in a great position to get the win. I’m excited, as I am racing with the Felt Bicycles staff as spectators, and getting to the line first would be a great way to celebrate our partnership. But I still have to get there.
The eagles fly above my head. I almost hit a lizard. A rabbit ran across the path 10 meters before me just a moment ago. It’s wild animal life here. I cross my fingers I don’t face a snake.
It’s easy for your head to wander while riding out here alone, but I force myself to concentrate on the tasks.
– C’mon, Jonas. I remind myself to pedal hard, choose the right lines, and don’t forget to drink.
With a healthy gap, it is now up to me to do the right things. Lack of focus can lead to hitting a rock and getting a flat or even crash. Not eating can lead to bonking or cramps. I have to keep my head in the game.
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Many people are at the festival, and the trails are crowded with bike riding. So I have to overtake many riders who were not part of the race. Most riders are polite and let me pass easily. But others I have to yell at and maneuver around. They probably don’t realize I am in the lead, determined to make it to the finish line first.
As I see the 5-mile-to-go mark, I know I got this. I am just as much relieved to be able to finish as to become the winner at this point. Mountain biking is another kind of pedaling than gravel grinding or road cycling, which I am more used to. There is a lot of variation in pedaling, and exhausting for the muscles. But I got my Felt Carbon Breed going on the trials. I love the feel of riding fast around the technical stuff with drop-down bars and a rigged fork. Hard, but fun!
The last miles are slow as it’s again up the steep climb towards the Laguna Raceway. There I hear the drums and know I am near the top. Just a final push!
Over the top, I turn around, no Michal to see. No other elite riders either. Great, I will make it to the finish first - as long as the officials know the four riders up front made the shortcut.
I am happy to pass the finish line, but I don’t dare celebrate before I get to talk with the race director.
– Good job, Jonas! I think you won! Federico comes running excitedly towards me.
We go over to the officials, who can confirm they heard about the shortcut but are hesitant to announce the official results before they have all the information.
I have been waiting in the expo for hours. It smells of Mexican food and BBQ from the food truck around the corner. Then I get it confirmed. Finally, the race director makes the call; the riders who made the mistake and took the wrong turn cannot qualify for the result list and get disqualified.
That means I am the official winner of La Gravilla!
Winning the gravel race at such an event is fantastic. And what a day it was. Fast from the go and a never-ending fight for speed on the trails. It’s a pity the riders went the wrong way; I’d love to get a good duel with them for the rest of the race.
My race recon took me three hours but was proven to be decisive. Preparations are essential, and today it made all the difference. I’m grateful to have the full support from Felt. It was great being part of a team working together for success.
Also, thanks to Schwalbe for the tires, Ryno Power for the hydration and support, Julie and John for the housing in Encinitas, Cadence Cyclery, and Austin for the photos.
For the rest of the weekend, I will enjoy the massive expo, talk with cycling friends and ride more bikes for fun!
Thank you, Sea Otter!
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This isn’t your typical gravel race — this is flowy singletrack, wide-open fire roads, and all the natural beauty of the Fort Ord National Monument. This is La Gravilla.
From a gnarly climb at the start, racers navigate rolling roads, sandy climbs, and rocky pinch points across 65 miles.