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So far it’s a solo ride.

It Ain’t All About Winning, But Winning Sure Is Nice

Brennan Wertz |

It’s been a busy start to the season. To say it’s been ‘full gas’ would be an understatement. The season has presented challenges and required tremendous hard work and sacrifice. We had yet another very wet winter, making training conditions suboptimal on all too many days. But after all those weeks and months of banging my head against the wall and putting in the long hours, things are finally coming together.

In gravel racing, there are many factors at play. Fitness comes first, of course, but it’s far from the only spinning plate. To be successful in a gravel race, you must have your bike in good working order, the correct equipment for the demands of the course, a sound tactical plan, the ability to react on the fly when said plan goes out the window and of course a healthy dose of good luck.

This season, I have had countless races where I have checked most of these boxes. At the Huffmaster Hopper, a local NorCal classic, I was able to take the win. But in the two weeks following Huffmaster, I made a few critical mistakes that ultimately put me out of contention for the win. At the inaugural Valley of Tears in Turkey, Texas, I was 4th, missing an extremely early split and spent the rest of the day chasing.

At the legendary Midsouth Gravel in Stillwater, Oklahoma, I crossed the line in 8th. I felt incredibly strong but missed a decisive split due to poor positioning and being off the pace in a short but technical section of singletrack in the final fifteen kilometers. These were not bad results, but they were not what I had spent all winter training for.

At the beginning of April, I traveled to Velden am Wörthersee in Austria for the inaugural Wörthersee Gravel, the first UCI Gravel World Series event of the season. This entire experience was incredible, from start to finish, but when it came to race day, it appeared that my luck had stayed on the plane. Towards the end of the first lap of three, I was riding near the front of the roughly seventy-rider bunch when the two guys in front of me suddenly closed in on each other. As they moved closer, one of their rear derailleurs entered my front wheel, cutting ten spokes. I somehow managed to stay upright as I came to a stop, but the race was immediately over for me, as there was no way I could continue. I was bummed, frustrated about the circumstances, and sad I couldn’t contest the final in this beautiful race. I gave myself ten minutes to be frustrated and then moved on.

I’ve been racing gravel long enough to know these types of things come with the territory and are inevitable. The only thing I could control was how I reacted, so instead, I focused on the wonderful time I had in Austria and the many unforgettable rides I went on before and after the race.

In between races, I would return home, take stock of equipment and stop into AC to visit Robert and Dane. I’d share a few war stories; they’d get the bikes back up and running like new again, and the work would resume. I was training hard, with more focus and determination than before, and the ‘sensations’ were quite good. In fact, my numbers were trending up. But again, numbers are only a small piece of the puzzle.

After another brief yet productive training block, I set off for the Sea Otter Classic, where I would be racing in the Road Race and the Gravel Race. In the Road Race, I felt extremely strong, taking every opportunity to put the others under pressure. Ultimately, with three of the nine laps to go, Nico Roche and I attacked the reduced bunch, got up the road, and put our heads down to solidify our gap. Soon, we were out of sight, with the moto official telling us the gap was around forty seconds. The battle for the win would be between Nico and me on the final three-kilometer climb. Just as we rounded the corner into the base of the climb, a spoke broke on my front wheel, puncturing the rim tape and immediately causing the tire to go fully flat. A wave of frustration washed over me, but I quickly calmed myself and took stock of the situation. Unlike the race in Austria, the wheel was still more or less straight, and I only had three kilometers to the finish. I took a deep breath and powered up the climb, riding the rim to the line to hold off the chasers and secure second. Obviously, I was pumped to land on the podium after such a hard-fought race, but it wasn’t easy to hold the frustration at bay. At some point, the stars must have to align!

Well, no less than two days later, they did. We started the Sea Otter Gravel Race at an infernal pace from the gun and never let up. Early on, two other riders and I got off the front on the first steep, loose, and technical climb on the course. From then on, it was just the three of us, our feet pressed firmly on the gas for the next two hours. On the penultimate climb, I put in a big attack, dropping one of the other two riders, but I still couldn’t shake the other. On the final climb, Rob Britton set the pace from the bottom, almost dropping me at a few points. Fortunately, I managed to cling onto his wheel, and when the gravel road leveled off with two hundred meters to go, I launched my sprint, beating him by a handful of bike lengths. Excitement, relief, and joy washed over me. I had done it. I put all the pieces together!

And to make that victory even sweeter, just a few days after Sea Otter, I flew to Arkansas for the UCI Highlands Gravel Classic, which I also managed to win, this time with a late race attack three kilometers from the line. To say I’d be thrilled would be an understatement. First, putting it together at Sea Otter and following it up with my first UCI Gravel World Series win was simply awesome. I spent a lot of last year struggling, deep outside my comfort zone, in races that didn’t suit me well. On countless occasions, I fell backwards through the field, being passed by guys I had previously beaten handily.

This year, I took a gamble, leaving the Lifetime Grand Prix to focus more on the races I wanted to attend, which also suited me better. By leaving the mountain bike hanging in the garage for a few months this winter, I could focus entirely on preparing for these gravel races without the added anxiety of trying to teach myself how to race a mountain bike against some of the world’s best. It was a gamble, but I’m happy to see it starting to pay off.

As I alluded to in the title of this article, it isn’t all about winning, but winning sure is nice. There are so many things I love about gravel riding and racing: the terrain, the equipment, the preparation process, the element of adventure, and the welcoming community, to name a few. It’s an incredible way to experience nature and ride a bike. But in addition to all that, I also love to win. While wins don’t come every day and aren’t the only measure of success and progress, it feels good to put it together and take the line first.

I originally wrote this post before Unbound Gravel this past weekend. I was full of pep and raring to go. Well, as if to prove that what goes up must come down, things in Kansas did not go to plan. I punctured repeatedly and ultimately lost contact with the bunch.

Thank you all for your support, and I hope to share more positive updates with you soon, including a longer piece about Unbound.

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