Rock Cobbler “Roadirt” Event Goes Big
Photo: Peter Wollesen
By Neil Shirley
Gravel Grinders, Mixed Surface races, or Roadirt events, whatever you decide to call them are the fastest growing segment in cycling right now. In just the second year of the Rock Cobbler held in Bakersfield, California, it has seen a threefold increase in riders. That’s pretty much the common theme these days with the gravel or hybrid events such as Dirty Kanza, Belgian Waffle Ride, and Crusher in the Tushar to name a few that literally open registration and fill up in a single day.
For the Rock Cobbler, last year’s 80-mile course wasn’t quite enough mileage to showcase the area, so promoter Sam Ames decided that taking it up to a nice and even triple digits would suffice. 100 miles, 6,800 feet of climbing, and around a 60/40 dirt to pavement ratio was in store for us this time around. And just like last year there was the promise of unspecified antics at some of the checkpoints that kept us guessing whether we were going to stop and give ’em 10 (push-ups), or possibly riding the final 10 miles without socks. We would soon find out.
Ames sees the Rock Cobbler as its own unique type of event, “It’s not necessarily a gravel race in the pure sense of modern gravel racing. But it is our interpretation of what we like to do on ‘cross bikes. I had an incredible gut feeling that other people would truly enjoy what we had to offer. It’s humbly gratifying to see so many wide-eyed and beat down riders thinking and saying the same things. What sets it apart is it uniqueness; it’s the sum of all parts of that type of bike riding.”
So, what is the perfect bike for something like the Rock Cobbler? There is no perfect bike (yeah, it was a trick question). Because of a vast difference in terrain, ranging from paved roads to relatively smooth dirt roads, beat-down double track, and single track that’s bumpy as all heck, bike choices ranged from road, mountain, ‘cross, and even a few “gravel” bikes. Probably the worst option was a straight-up road bike, though that didn’t discourage a brave few.
For me, after having done the Rock Cobbler last year and knowing the terrain’s difficulty, I had planned to use a Litespeed T5 gravel bike, but due to a rear brake hydraulic hose issue I had to scratch that and use Specialized’s new Diverge gravel bike I had raced just the week before at the Old Caz Grasshopper event in Northern, California. No worries, the Diverge was a great ride, but because of rain in Bakersfield the previous day I was worried about the Diverge’s limited tire clearance compared to the Litespeed.
Before the 8 o’clock start time, the Rock Cobbler experience began at Lengthwise Brewing Company with a breakfast that included everything you might need to tackle a course with finishing times forecast to be from six hours for the first riders, up to an all day affair for others. Then, it was onto the bikes for a 15-mile neutral rollout along the bike path that allows the excitement and suspense to build, until finally, it’s go time. As the early rolling dirt roads began to separate the group, everyone found their own rhythm–those who were trying to race it, and those who were happy to just try and finish.
A maze of perfectly groomed orchard roads came fairly early in the course, and was followed a handful miles later by a fantastically fast and technical descent through ranch lands. Those were the moments we realized how cool of an event we were doing, since riding the same private roads any other time would not be an option. As we made our way onto the longest climb of the day that had more than 1,500 feet in vertical gain, the course’s bite was taking hold and what had been 15-25 person groups earlier on were now down to two or three riders trudging along at their own speed.
I didn’t think it worth mentioning to Burke Swindlehurst, my lone companion at the head of the pack, that the second half of the course was much harder than the first. Some people might know Burke as the promoter of the Crusher in the Tushar race in Utah, while others might remember him as the man that’s won the Tour of the Gila overall three times, more than anyone else. Burke had heard the tales from the inaugural Rock Cobbler and wanted to experience it for himself, and I sure wasn’t going to ruin any of the course’s surprises.
Once you hit mile 75 one might think, “Alright, I’m almost done!”. That would be foolish. The final 25 miles features some of the tightest and most fun single track sections of the route, and also the roughest. And if you had studied the course route you’d realize that even though each passing mile does get you closer to the finish line, it also gets you closer to the heinous hike-a-bike section that I’ve literally lost sleep over since experiencing it last year. Yes, it’s that bad. This time around, the route used an alternate hike-a-bike section that still took about five minutes to get up, but at least you didn’t need full mountain climbing gear to make the summit like the previous one. From there it was mostly flat, yet traversing the dry river bed and its sandy banks sucked out any energy reserves you thought you might get through to the end with.
By the finish, I was quite satisfied with my Rock Cobbler experience, and equally happy it was now over. I ended up taking the win in 5 hours, 46 minutes, with Burke in second, and cyclocrosser Brent Prenzlow in third. Almost surprisingly for such a challenging course, there was a finish rate of over over 90%. Thanks to numerous checkpoints on the course with Fluid, Bonk Breaker bars, snacks, and water, there could be little excuse for bonking.
Back at Lengthwise where it had all began at breakfast, which now seemed days ago, we ate and drank to our heart’s content while live music played, a raffle ensued, and the prized hammers were handed out. Not a bad day to be a bike rider in Bakersfield.