Farmer's Daughter: Get it While it's Weird
“Where’s the finish line?” I yell in the general direction of three masters racers.
“What? You’re done. Congrats.”
I’m fake sprinting ahead of Clay and friend-of-the-team Ebbe and while this is just a gravel race, I am trying to beat my friends. We’ve all just barely completed 62.4 miles of steep gravel climbs, sketchy fast descents, and technical singletrack during the hottest days so far this year.
We’ve wandered through stages of feeling great, bonking, and recovering, and occasional “I give up” periods where we’re walking off cramps. It’s been 5 hours of this, and we tear into the parking lot where the whole thing started, only to find out there is no official finish line.
Farmer’s Daughter Gravel Grinder is hosted by HRRT and CBRC, two prominent clubs in the Capital Region. It started, like many of these gravelly road things, as an extremely informal group ride for some friends. The event has continued to grow since its inception in 2015, with 482 registrants in the 2019 edition. It kicks off and completes in Chatham, NY, and winds through varied terrain in and around the Taconic Range.
The route, should you choose not to cut the course (more on this later) takes riders first through a fast single, and sometimes double, track trail dumping you back onto a road climb. We’d gotten word from Ted that this is the time to make up some spots, because when hundreds of riders are trying to funnel into a tight, sometimes treacherous path, the folks at the back of the group slow to a crawl. Clay follows Colin, and I try to follow with Jon, but we’re gapped. Clay was pretty toast after following Colin’s wheel, and sagged the next climb so that we could come back together. We never see Colin again, but will eventually get an update about him later on.
After returning to the road for a stretch, we are guided onto another wooded, technical trail, followed by a fast winding gravel descent. This pattern more or less repeats for the next 58 miles. Smooth gravel roads, 18% grade climbs, technical single track. Over and over. It’s beautiful, and will end up being one of the hardest days any of us have had on a bike.
While we’re on the road, in one of the leading groups, we note that the general feeling was more aggro racer than we had anticipated, and certainly more so than what we’ve experienced at Rasputitsa. We’re feeling like we’re intruders on someone’s group ride, not really part of an intense, collaborative race-y thing. It’s billed as non-competitive, but doesn’t feel that way. We’re trying to figure it out, but it’s weird. (Also unlike Rasputitsa, we didn’t see a ton of women racers at the start, and the mid-front group of 15-20 riders was 99% dudes.)
More gravelly climbing and more medium-sketch descents follow. The descents are particularly tough on Jon. It’s his first time on a cross bike, and the Donnelly LAS file-tread clinchers – with tubes, how old-school! – can be a squirrelly beast in these conditions. We eventually turn into a beautiful, long stretch of proper (but light) mountain-bike style riding through the woods. Baby rock gardens link rooty switchbacks to just-rideable mud. A few guys on full-squish MTBs fly by our group. Jon manages to ride the whole thing, as do I, but Clay punks out in the deep mud. He complains that it’s yucky.
At the second aid station, we come across a huge group of folks that we’ve not seen before, but are certainly part of the ride. Like us, they’re feasting on a delicious, diverse selection of sandwiches, cookies, fruit, and Coca-Cola. They’re not nearly as gassed as we are, which causes some introspection in our group: “Jeez. We must be out of shape.” We were also informed that Colin had blasted past the aid station where the leaders were refilling, putting him into virtual first place on the course.
From there, the real climbing begins, and seems to never end. Our group splits on one of the longer, hotter ascents, but after a quick flat-fix, we’re reunited at a perfectly timed level crossing. Jon then drops us, claiming that he needed to stay on top of his gear. Fair enough: a 36-28 low gear isn’t quite right for this ride, where some of the climbs were hitting 20% grade.
On a particularly steep section, we pass an elderly rider that is likewise part of Farmer’s Daughter, but that we’d not encountered to this point. We realize that some folks are cutting off sections of the course. Which makes sense, because with the heat, and the climbing, and the technical stuff, the day adds up to a pretty epic ride, with TSS scores in the 300s-400s. At the same time, it’s a little disconcerting, or at least unexpected. Anyway, apparently that’s a thing!
The last 20 miles are a bonk induced blur. Clay and I traded off the role of quitter and motivator about a dozen times. There was a cruel aid station that just had Ice Cream. I do remember some amazingly beautiful descents, the best of the whole day. This must have been partly because we could see on our GPS that we were close to where we started. We could tell the ride was almost over, and that made us all relax a bit. We knew we were going to make it home safe and sound.
We turned left into the last single track section, which we could have skipped easily, but hey we were almost done. We crossed two short wooden bridges made with wooden slats perpendicular to the direction of travel, and then came upon a third with the slats parallel to our tires. In my daze I plopped my 35mm Cross Boss tires right in the gap in between the planks which promptly flipped me straight over the bars, leaving my bike in a bizarre-looking yoga pose with its front wheel stuck tightly in the middle of the bridge. And me crumpled on the ground. I was bonked and so I was already a little out of it, but I was now concerned that I had a concussion. As the path was cleared and I laid down to feel how I was feeling, I noticed some riders heading right for the bridge where I crashed. I wanted to warn them. “Careful on the bridge there!” I called out. As the riders passed by I noticed what looked like the Pan-Am cyclocross champion painted helmet on the head of one. That rider was on a Cannondale-CXworld cross bike. “Whats up?” Curtis White replied to me, while I was laying on the ground. He crossed the bridge with ease.
I collected my body and we back-tracked a bit to get onto the road that ran parallel to the single track section. Is this skipping of the course different than the kind we were weirded out by earlier? We’ll let the reader decide.
Two miles later and we could see the parking lot where the whole day started up ahead. I got into the drops and attacked. I ripped into the lot and frantically looked for a finish-line banner. Some folks who don’t look like they rode 65 miles but were already partially changed into regular clothes told me there wasn’t one, but there is a line for the beer.
We roll slowly across the field towards a mass of very hungry cyclists all talking excitedly about the day. It looked and sounded a lot like the post race haze you might see after a crit or local Park race. But without a timing chip, finish line, or even any way of verifying that everyone rode the whole course, what did it matter?
I guess that’s the point.
Farmer’s Daughter isn’t weird because it’s different than USAC races. Categorized races are the outliers. We who strive to make Cat 2 are the weird ones. Isn’t it enough that you can go ride in a new environment, see some amazing scenery, and challenge yourself physically, mentally, and if we’re honest, emotionally? It sure could be, and it’ll be waiting there after the glimmer comes off the goal.
Cyclists have always been riding and racing on roads that are less than perfect, but Gravel Racing is still new. This means that each event is its own super special thing in ways that go beyond “this race is cold” or “that crit has a crazy chicane” or “that cross race is always muddy.” Each has its own rules, its own traditions, its own culture.
It won’t always be that way, though. Go get it while it’s still fresh, new, and weird.