Last week, I wrote about my upcoming ride of Rebecca’s Private Idaho, an annual event held in Ketchum, Idaho on Labor Day weekend. There are two choices on the menu, the Small Fry and the Big Potato: a 54 mile or 94-mile grinder of a race over gravel roads that traverse gorgeous scenery and include a large chunk of elevation gain.
With all of the smoke in the Northwest, things worked out perfectly. My wife and I went over on Friday after she got out of classes, and settled into an Air B and B in Hailey, 11 miles south of Ketchum. It was a nice town home, and had all of the amenities we needed, although if we can next year staying closer to the ride would be ideal.
There is a ton of lodging in the area, but it does fill up fast since it is Labor Day weekend, and the annual Wagon Days Parade is going on at the same time (more on that in a moment) so booking both the ride and lodging early is probably the best policy.
On Saturday, I got up early to join organizer Rebecca Rusch and a bunch of other cyclists for a practice ride up the paved portion of Trail Creek road, a part of the neutral roll out, and then up some gravel to Corral Creek trailhead. It was a nice ride with some good climbing on some rough gravel that got us motivated for the next day, but didn’t wear us out.
That ride had no real rules: you could ride as far as you wanted, turn around anytime, and just get your legs moving. Coffee and Gu Stroopwaffels were offered to start the day, and they were both great fuel.
The coolest thing was the sense of community. Even with the smaller group of riders and the short ride, you felt like you were part of something greater than yourself, a feeling that continued through the weekend. Falling into a groove with a group and pacing yourself seemed natural and easy. Everyone was friendly and helpful.
Wagon Days is one of many annual events in Ketchum, but one that is particularly special. There were many large horses and some small ones as well, along with a variety of wagons (and occupants) from the local area. It was a celebration of pioneer heritage, one that centered on mining and timber, toughness and resilience.
The finale was a huge wagon train pulled by 20 mules that lumbered through town, finally making a right hand turn some big rigs would find challenging. The coordination and training that the mules exhibited were a testimony to the people who live and have lived here.
The smoke was not bad on Saturday. It was present, and there was a feeling there was more smoke from the surrounding fires that would come, but a breeze Saturday afternoon gave us hope that the skies for the race would be at least reasonably clear.
The Welcome Event
Saturday night, we picked up packets for the big race, talked to vendors, and gathered swag and nutrition as we got to know other riders. Rebecca gave her pep talk and told us the rules of the road, of which number one was to “be good.”
There were drinks, but not a lot of drinking. Riders were clearly saving energy for the following day. We met the crews that would be our support for the race, and gazed longingly at bikes we wished we could afford.
We talked tires and what we would ride, strategies for the neutral roll out, and how long it would take us to reach the summit of the first climb.
There was some talk about the heat, but not much about the smoke. Personally, I knew it would be hot on the climb out of the Copper Basin, and I was a little worried about how that would affect my body. It was reassuring to know that others were worried as well, but there was nothing we could do to change the temperature.
The Roll Out
It’s an odd feeling to line up with 850 other bikes, although honestly, t did not feel like there were that many bikes in the pack. We started on time, and things went surprisingly well. It was pretty smooth, with riders settling into their pace pretty quickly.
The variety of bikes was amazing. From tandems to a fat-tire pulling a Burley trailer with a little one inside, there was nearly every kind of bike you could imagine. Hard tails were pretty common, as were cycle cross and gravel bikes. There were a few full-suspension bikes, but not many. It was kind of what I suspected I would see.
As we reached the traffic light at the end of town, a few bikes took the bike paths to right and the left to get ahead of at least part of the pack. Riders were four or five wide in the right lane at points, but as time went along, things spread out and riders sorted into groups riding at similar paces.
We all knew that the real sorting would come when we started to climb.
The Big Climb
The big climb was not as hard as I had anticipated, but it was also not the part of the ride I was most worried about. More on that a little later. The road was smoother than I thought for the most part until we were pretty close to the top.
I did learn a lesson there though: one about breaking in tubeless tires. I had George’s Cycles in Boise do a conversion a few days before the ride, but had not really had a chance to break the tires in. On the preview ride, they did fine, but the rear tire did seem to lose some air overnight.
On the climb, I hit a particularly rocky area, and suddenly it felt like I was riding on the rim. I was. The tire came off the bead and burped some sealant around the edges. My hand pump and that of another cyclist (thanks, dude for stopping) just wasn’t enough to set the tire again. Luckily race support was not far ahead, and after a couple of attempts at hand pumping, I was able to reach them and we were able to fill the tire to capacity. It held the rest of the ride, but that incident did slow me down more than I would have liked.
The Aid Stations
At the first rest stop at the top of the hill, I discovered a true delight of Rebecca’s Private Idaho, one I had heard about but not yet experienced. It turns out Rebecca’s mom makes a mean baked potato. Thousands of them, to be exact. There is almost no better natural food to fuel a ride than a red baked potato you eat like an apple.
There was water, which I topped off with, Gu drinks, hydration pills, gels, and chews. I had some of all of those in my pockets, but it was good to save those for later. It was a good thing I did.
The first part of the ride into Copper Basin is a blast. You are mostly going downhill over rolling hills and smooth flats through some gorgeous country. It’s fast and easy, and after a long climb you feel like a million bucks.
At the same time, your brain is registering that you have to come back up these rolling hills, and that the first big drop, about 4 miles averaging about 6% grade, will be your last big climb out before you head back down Trail Creek and into Ketchum. The good thing about going back the same way you came is you know what’s coming. The bad part is, you know what’s coming.
Still, after a turn and a short climb, you reach the next aid station and more potatoes. Another short leg and a turn around, you end up going back by that station.
A little advice here that should not need to be said, but something I failed to do: fill all of your water containers here. I topped off both water bottles, but did not fill my Camelback completely. I got lucky—I ran out of water just before I reached the top of the climb out, but I could have run out much sooner, and the extra water would not have hurt me at all.
The climb back out was the part of the ride I was most worried about. It was hotter, drier, and there was a little more smoke in the air. Even the rolling hills were tough, but when I got to the bottom of the last and steepest part, I started really hurting.
Part way up, my legs started to cramp a couple of times, and I had to stop and get off the bike. I knew if I made it to the top, I was pretty much home free, but the last 100 yards felt a lot longer than they were.
I made it, along with a few others who had been struggling. It was a great moment, but the ride was not over yet.
With the toughest part of the ride over, we crested the top and started down from the Trail Creek descent. The gravel that was so grinding on the way up, that contributed to my flat tire, was now the fast way down, and staying in control was much more critical than muscling upward.
My tired upper body ached, and my arms and shoulders protested over the abuse, but only slightly. Before I knew it, we had reached the pavement and were racing to the finish.
Wisely, the timed finish is located a couple miles from town. This is to keep racers from zooming through lights and stop signs on a busy weekend. There was a slight uphill just before the finish, and it seemed to take an eternity for that last few minutes before we crossed under the giant Red Bull arch.
It was there we received our finisher patches (or bolo ties for those who were faster), and then began the leisurely ride back into town.
I was anxious to see my wife, who had been my cheerleader through the whole process, and so fell in with a group who had done the Big Potato and were moving fairly quickly. Once we reached town, I felt an overwhelming emotion and sense of accomplishment, and when I saw her waiting for me I knew all the pain and effort had been worth it.
The After Party
The after party for Rebecca’s is legendary, but unfortunately I needed a solid power nap before I could really participate, and since we were staying in Hailey, I did not have a place to do so and come back. So I ate my post-race meal (free as part of your registration) and then found myself ready to collapse for a bit.
Although my wife and I skipped out, I heard the party was amazing. Signature drinks, bands, and general frivolity ensued.
As far as a first real “endurance” race was concerned, this was a great one. Doing it on a mountain bike was a challenge, although next year I think a cycle cross will be my ride of choice. The sense of community was amazing, and everyone was willing to help when riders were in trouble or struggling on course. Words of encouragement were frequently offered and accepted.
For the registration, your money not only helps a good cause, but you get a free t-shirt, your finisher’s patch, all kinds of vendor swag, an after-race meal, bike wash and valet, and the epic events surrounding the ride.
The ride is worth it: worth the money, the pain, and the lodging. The town is amazingly friendly, and the Wagon Days events add an element of the old west sprit that has lived on in this area for years.
The Big Potato will be my “A” race next year, something I will train and be equipped for. Every year I can, I will plan to join Rebecca and hundreds of other riders as we take on the #GravelLessTraveled.
If you are a cyclist, and at all crave an endurance challenge, I highly recommend this one. You won’t be disappointed.
Also published on Medium.