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So far it’s a solo ride.

Brakes of Wrath: Brennan Wertz at the Gravel Worlds

Peter Harrington |

Where’s Brennan? In answer, Nebraska. Or Kansas. Somewhere-states where rocks grow up to be bigger rocks, and flint eats rubber for breakfast. Also, on occasion, Italy, where little stones gently dust in the sun, and prosecco springs from every bidon. Recently, Treviso, where we sipped with AC’s gentleman racer and Team USA tall boy to find out what went down - and got back up again - at the UCI Gravel Worlds. Photos by Jim Merithew.

We just spotted you in Treviso, Italy, with all the European heavy hitters. What was that all about?

A few weeks back, I secured third place at the US Gravel National Championships in the deep, loose gravel of Western Nebraska. The main reason I was so thrilled to land on the podium at Nationals was because the result secured my spot for the UCI Gravel World Championship in Treviso, Italy.

I felt a tremendous sense of pride and a responsibility to give the world a taste of the scene in the States. Luckily, we had Keegan Swenson to lead our team. I mean, most of us gravel racers in the U.S. have spent the last two years getting beaten by Keegan at just about every race.

We came together as a team. Trained as a team and were prepared to race as a team. When the start gun went off, the crowds erupted in a deafening roar. I quickly slammed my cleat into my road pedals and immediately launched into an all-out sprint. Tires were buzzing off one another, elbows colliding, and a thick dust suddenly filled the air. We shot directly into a tight and twisty grass cyclocross course before the entire 230-rider field was strung out in a line.

The pavement turned to gravel, white dust filled the air, and all you could see were the bobbing helmets hovering above the thick dust cloud obscuring the riders. We were riding blind, listening carefully for the sounds of a crash and suddenly I was pushed off the road by a large crash. Luckily, I managed to stay upright but hit the ditch.

I got back on my bike and charged back towards the front, making up spots while taking some bold inside lines.

Unfortunately, I got a bit too bold and crashed again and got passed by all the guys I had worked so hard to overtake, and I was beginning to feel the physical effects of the hard efforts. It was only an hour in, and the engine was starting to sputter a bit. It turns out I was in good company, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Wout van Aert and defending Gravel World Champion Gianni Vermeesch. 

The second half of the course was packed with relentless, steep climbs lined with enthusiastic fans. It was like you see on television, with the Tifosi screaming encouragement, even for us Americans. Seeing the pure joy and emotion of the young fans reminded me of when I would go to the San Rafael Sunset Criterium with my parents as a youngster.

The final two hours of the race were an epic suffer-fest. I clawed to the finish line, cracked, cramping, and exhausted. Keegan secured 5th place overall, and we all left Italy feeling euphoria and an intense desire to return next year to get the Star and Stripes on the podium. 

As 2023 is coming to a close, can you give us three things you learned during your year?

  • Gravel racing is really dynamic, challenging, and fun, and I absolutely love it. Mountain bike racing is also dynamic, challenging, and fun, but I don't love it as much. I've found racing against some of the world's best mountain bikers an eye-opening experience.
  • Altitude is no joke. Training at altitude is taxing on the body and the brain. Between the physical effects, the hampered sleep quality, and the logistical challenges, altitude training is quite taxing for this sea-level dweller.
  • It turns out racing gravel is as much a business as it is a sport. Business is hard, and it's not all about getting free bicycle parts and first-class travel. I continue to learn the business of being a gravel racer and the challenges of making this my living.

How do you think growing up in Marin and having your early riding/racing experiences take place in Northern California shaped you as a rider and person?

After traveling all over the country and the world to ride gravel, I have realized that much of the gravel riding here in Marin County is expert-level, double black diamond. It is truly world-class. I appreciate the ability to train on the diverse terrain available right out my door. It sets me up nicely for whatever and wherever I will race next.

You've had the opportunity to attend some amazing events over the last few years. Are there any in particular that stand out to you and that you're especially keen to attend next year?

Steamboat Gravel (SBTGRVL) is a particular favorite. It is a race I have done every year since starting to race gravel in 2021, and is a big target of mine every year. The terrain suits me, but beyond that, it is just an incredible place to ride a bike. They have the event dialed, and the riding is top-notch.

You're living most of the year in Mill Valley now. Do you have three insider Mill Valley tips for cyclists?

  • My personal favorite road ride is the ride to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, especially in early spring when the grass is green, but the high winds and view-obscuring fog of the summer haven't yet arrived.
  • My favorite gravel ride is climbing Old Railroad Grade to Bolinas Ridge, followed by the Perth Way dirt climb up Mt. Vision before descending the sinuous singletrack back down to Pt. Reyes Station, finishing with San Geronimo Ridge on the way home. 
  • After a big ride like either of these, one of my favorite spots to refuel is Joe's Taco Lounge on Miller Ave. 

And finally, for those of us hoping to maintain some semblance of fitness in the off-season, can you share some of your off-season plans to make 2024 the year of the Brennan?

Rest, first and foremost. I'm putting the bike away for a bit. Well, not actually away. I take them to the best mechanic in the world, Robert Gee, at AC, to get them all dialed in and prepped for the long winter months of training in all conditions.

Then, I begin slowly getting back in touch with my body and starting the patient and meticulous build to peak fitness. The most important bit of advice I have is to take it slow and not rush the build-up. Good things take time, and there is no point in pushing too hard, too early and ending up sick or burnt out.


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