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.

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After breakfast at Lengthwise Brewing Company it was on to the business side of things with the pre-event instructions.

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.

Specialized Diverge side
The new Specialized Diverge got the call up even though tire clearance was a concern. Ultimately though, mud ended up not playing a critical part in the race. 33c Trigger 2bliss tires mostly did the job asked of them, with the exception of a rear flat that the sealant was able to re-seal after using a Co2 cartridge to re-inflate the tire. Look for a Diverge review coming soon.

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.

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The first taste of dirt was enough to string out the field and soften the legs for the next 85 miles. Photo: Derek Smith

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.

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Through an orchard maze and out onto the open road. Photo: Peter Wollesen

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.

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The rolling terrain seemed to have no end. Photo: Peter Wollesen

 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.

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Just about at the highest point of the course, thankfully. Photo: Peter Wollesen

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.

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The out-and-back portion of the course gave myself and Burke Swindlehurst (left) a chance to view the competition. Burke rode a Niner BSB 9 RDO with SRAM CX1 (42×11-36 gearing) and Enve M50 wheels. Photo: Derek Smith

 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.

The hammer award went to every finisher. Not a bad finisher's perk.
The hammer award went to every finisher. Sweet finisher’s perk!
Although there were a number of road and mountain bikes at the Cobbler, the majority of riders opted for ‘cross or gravel bikes with tire widths between 33-35c.
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Some of the setup’s found at a gravel event wouldn’t be allowed at a road race, and maybe that’s all part of the fun.
Hamburger seatpack
Bringing two tubes, a multi-tool, tire levers, and a chain tool are essential in an event like the Rock Cobbler, but bringing all those things in a hamburger seatpack is a personal call.
Rock Cobbler sign
So long, until next year. Keep up with the latest Rock Cobbler info here

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