Bikes > Quickshift

To live is to suffer, and to suffer is to live at Gravelton PH

The author competed in a 100km gravel-bike race

People think gravel racing is more pleasant than road racing. LOL. PHOTO FROM GOCLARK SPORTS AND EVENTS

I am not a pious man, but I can be very spiritual—most especially when I am suffering on a bike.

“Please God, let this be the last climb,” I muttered to myself as I gasped for breath on yet another steep dirt road. In between cussing, drooling, blowing out snot rockets, and trying to keep my heart rate from maxing out, I had an epiphany…

“God, I love this day! Thank you! Ang saya!”


Many cyclists come to an epiphany when they are in great pain. PHOTO FROM GOCLARK SPORTS AND EVENTS

I may be the motorcycle editor around here, but my first love has always been cycling. I bought my first real bike after I quit my first job, then around a year later started signing up for races and getting my ass handed back to me.

That was more than 20 years ago. I’ve crashed enough times to know what asphalt tastes like. I’ve spent so much money on bikes that I could have had a Ducati Panigale by now. I’ve won a few and lost a lot. And I’ve never felt so alive as when I’m suffering on a racing bike.

I signed up for the “long-distance” 100km race of Gravelton PH several months ago on a lark. I hadn’t been riding much—if at all—and figured it would be a good way to get back in shape and ride my way out of depression. My only race so far this year had been the Ultra Gravel 160, a nut buster of a race that saw me flying off my bike, nearly impaling myself on a tree, bursting a front tire, and other misadventures.

“Never again!” I said to myself.

Yep. Cyclists are such liars.

Low body fat is a must if you want to be competitive. Otherwise, prepare to race for ‘not last place.' PHOTO FROM GOCLARK SPORTS AND EVENTS

Naturally, I found myself back in the mix at Gravelton, a race that would take us through so many towns and barangays in Tarlac that my eyes glazed over as race director Jumbo Tayag excitedly told me about every twist and turn. “Brother, I didn’t understand a single thing you said, but I trust you’ll make everything perfect!” I said after collecting my race kit.

People seem to think that a gravel race is a more laid-back event than, say, a road race or a mountain bike race. I suppose it is if you have absolutely no competitive fire in your belly and just want to ride at a coffee pace.

In reality, a gravel race takes the riding-at-threshold intensity of a road event and marries it with the off-road technical nature of a mountain bike race, without the benefit of suspension. In gravel racing, you think you’ve got skills until a muddy rut sends you flying into a ditch. You don’t appreciate a good suspension fork until you’ve played jackhammer with your gravel bike for hours. And we haven’t mentioned the attacks yet.

On race morning, my roommate and good friend BJ Afable and I rode off to the start line for our respective wave starts. Mercifully, the organizer (Go Clark Sports and Events) had set a 6:10am wave start. Did I tell you how much I hate early morning—like four in the morning—starts? It just throws my body out of whack. A sunrise start is perfect. Enough time for a shit, a shave, and a sandwich.

A neutral start of around 5km as we rode along Clark was a good way to warm up and get acquainted with my wave. Some familiar faces, a lot of new ones, and—crucially—a modal body fat percentage of around 10%. I haven’t weighed myself in a long time, but I’d wager I was around 20+% (and that’s being charitable), which meant that:

1. I was going to get my ass kicked.
2. I would need to ride smart if I wanted to have a good finish time.

It has been a while since the author had to harden the f*ck up. PHOTO FROM GOCLARK SPORTS AND EVENTS

I was already thinking of how my friends would say: “Anong nangyari, coach? Medyo tumaba ka ha!”

Fat-shaming is real, and the only reply I have is: “F*ck you very much.”

In those final, peaceful moments before the flag dropped, I remembered what BJ told me before as I rued my lost fitness and how everybody I used to drop on a ride was now dropping me like a hot potato.

“Nobody cares. Just ride.”

So, I did. After the initial shock of tearing into the gravel sectors at around 30+km/h (I stupidly thought we’d go at a more sedate 20+km/h there), I was following wheels and constantly checking my cyclocomp to see what the next turn would be. On the tarmac, we’d form into small packs, and it was a matter of pick-your-poison.

Do I burn my matches bridging to the faster group up ahead? Or do I stay with this slower group to catch my breath but also lose valuable time? In the end, I went with how I was feeling on a moment-by-moment basis. By the halfway mark (a little under two hours), I was feeling the fatigue and noting that my heart rate had not gone down from 158 beats per minute since the start—something I’d never done in training.

Admittedly, I only had two weeks to prep for this, so yes, I was undertrained, but I also wasn’t in that much pain…yet.

Nothing makes you feel as alive as when you're suffering on a bike and still have a long way to go. PHOTO FROM GOCLARK SPORTS AND EVENTS

Eventually, my group was reduced in number from 20 to 15 to 10, and then somehow I found myself all alone in no man’s land. All the best riders were way up ahead, and the rest of the peloton had split into ones and twos as everyone was left to deal with his own suffering.

As my internal fuel gauge started blinking “E,” I told myself that the last aid station was at Kilometer 79, just a few minutes more and I could stop and get a drink. I caught up to another rider—Tom, a Brit from Thailand—who seemed to be in similar shape and kept talking about how there were two big climbs up ahead.

“No f@cking way! Are you serious?!” I asked incredulously.

“Oh yeah, you’ll know it when you see it,” he said. “So, do you want to trade pulls then?”

I wanted to scream, but I didn’t have any oxygen to spare. My throat was dry, my skin was burning, my arms were cramping from acting as shock absorbers for the past three hours, and all I could think of was: “Where’s the damn aid station?!”

So, all I could say was: “Yeah, sure, man. Good idea.”

All in a day's work for the author's trusty steed. PHOTO BY ANDY LEUTERIO

We made our way over the first hill, and as we approached the second, I finally saw the aid station at Kilometer 82 with bottles of Gatorade, water, and gummy worms. An oasis in this self-inflicted hell.

I stopped and grabbed a drink from a volunteer who was about to give it to another guy coming up, chugged it down, and grabbed another. I suppose the wild look in my eyes as well as my heaving chest were enough to warn off anyone from having a problem with my rudeness. But in my defense, I was delirious.

Meanwhile, Tom went ahead.

After refilling my bottles and regaining my composure, I got back on my bike and remembered Tom’s last words to me before we parted.

“When you see the orange bridge, you’re on the home stretch.”

I crested the last wretched hill while telling myself I would never have extra rice ever again. And, behold, there was that orange bridge! With just 10 measly kilometers to go on the smooth tarmac, I relaxed and took a look behind me; nobody for at least 200m. I hate being passed so close to the finish line.

My chain started skipping at this point. I looked down and asked God for one last thing: “Keep that chain together ‘til I finish, please.”

After a little more suffering, with my legs beginning to twitch and at the point of cramping up, with a few more riders up ahead and one last false flat, I made it to the end without a scratch. I had a bucket’s worth of mud all over me, of course, but overall, it was a smooth ride.

The author's chain held on long enough to finish before finally breaking a link. PHOTO BY ANDY LEUTERIO

It’s weird, but those moments when you feel like you’re dying are when you’re actually most alive. It’ll be a while before I can get back into competitive shape, but I know now that I can still get back in the fight.

After all, as I like to say to my coaching clients: “But did you die?”

Congratulations to all the finishers of Gravelton PH!

Andy Leuterio

Andy is both an avid cyclist and a car enthusiast who has finally made the shift to motorcycles. You've probably seen him on his bicycle or motorbike overtaking your crawling car. He is our motorcycle editor and the author of the ‘Quickshift’ column.