VCI @ The Lakelander – Gravel Grinder

Over the summer months I began looking for a winter bike. I had initially been looking for a used bike, but with limited availability and inflated prices, it soon became clear to me that my best option was to buy a new bike, although not wanting to ‘break the bank’ it would be very much a base model. I liked the idea of an ‘all road’ bike, where I could kit it out for gravel/adventure, but primarily use as a winter trainer – enter the 2021 Trek Domane AL2 Disc. Equipped with Shimano’s entry level Claris 8-Speed Groupset, with Tektro mechanical discs, it was never going to set the world on fire, but it did also come with clearance for 38mm tyres and 4 pairs of mounts for bidon cages, etc. Online reviews were very mixed, with some claiming the 38mm tyre clearance just wasn’t enough and with it being a brand new model (most sizes aren’t available until next year) there weren’t many owner’s reviews online.

While waiting for the bike to be built and delivered to me (22 working days) I started to consider ‘having a crack’ at the Lakelander Gravel Grinder. I knew that I’d only have just over a week from receiving the bike to the date of the event, so I needed to do some research to make sure I had everything I needed when the bike arrived. Based on feedback from people who had taken on the Gravel Grinder before, I knew that punctures were a big issue, so I set out to find the tyre with the best puncture protection at 38mm wide. I found that under 40mm there wasn’t a huge selection of gravel tyres available, but the one that seemed to come to the fore was the Panaracer GravelKing SK Plus. SK is for semi-knobbed, so there are small knobs on the outside of the tyre to provide grip when cornering and the ‘plus’ is for their additional layer of puncture protection across both the sidewall and tread. Gravel Kings seemed to get fantastic reviews, although admittedly most of these were based on experience of 42mm tyres. Most would recommend running tubeless, but I ended up running Continental Cross tubes, which are designed with more puncture protection than a normal road tyre, but with the penalty of increased rolling resistance.

The event itself was held under very tight restrictions, due to Covid-19. All competitors from ROI (which had entered Level III lockdown less than a week before the event) had their entries deferred, which had a serious impact on the numbers taking part. Sign-on in the morning went really smoothly (although this was partly due to arriving early). Numbers had been allocated a few days beforehand, so it was simply a case of going into the community centre, giving them your number and being presented with a race number (with barcode for timing) your event t-shirt and your GPS tracker, which allowed organisers and followers to track your progress online.

After gearing up, it was a mass start with a short ‘neutralised’ rollout to Ballintempo forest. The rollout contained a few draggy sections and immediately after entering the forest the real climbing began. By this stage, the entrants were already split into groups, such was the range of ability/equipment/etc. Riding on forest roads and trying to pick the optimal path, passing points were few and far between, so progress was a little bit slow at times. After winding through part of Ballintempo forest, we crossed into Boho forest, where the climbs just got worse! At one point, the steep gradient and loose surface got too much for me, as my back wheel just kept spinning, so I was forced to dismount and push for a bit until I could find a harder surface before continuing the climb. I felt I never really recovered properly from that one – possibly dressed too warm for the climb and then hit with a cold wind at the top. The descent back down was particularly sketchy – the ‘gravel’ was deep and made up of quite large stones, so there was really no way to control the bike.

Back into Ballintempo forest, we merged with the 50k entrants and it was good to see a few familiar faces. The climbing continued – not so many long climbs, but lots of short(ish) sharp ones and long drags. The going was even difficult on many of the flatter portions though, due to the loose surface. Reaching the food stop, where there was the choice to continue along the 100k route (for more climbing up to Lough Navar viewpoint) or turn off onto the remainder of the 50k route, it didn’t take much persuasion for me to pick the shorter option. While the legs were still okay, I felt mentally and physically drained (although to be fair the food stop did help with that a little).

The return route through Ballintempo forest was similar to what we had encountered previously, but with the addition of a couple of long drags – I’m calling them drags, but one was approx 1.5miles @ 11% so that gives an idea of the context. Soon we found ourselves at the top of the initial climbs and were able to enjoy the descent down the forest roads we had climbed earlier in the day. Crossing the finish line at the entrance to the forest, we had our numbers scanned for official times and were presented with our event medals, before following the roads back to the community centre – this included what one of the organisers described as an ‘uphill descent.’

Arriving back to the community centre, we were presented with goodie bags, before making our way back to the car to get changed and set off for home. Unfortunately social distancing guidelines meant that the usual BBQ and entertainment was very much off the menu. Similarly, while a hot shower would have been more than welcomed, these were not available. While it obviously wasn’t the same atmosphere that competitors enjoyed last year, I think most were just happy that the organisers had gone ahead with the event, rather than cancelling. I’d definitely be keen to do this event next year and with a bit of preparation would be firmly set on completing the 100k route.

As for the bike, I couldn’t fault it. It’s not an out and out gravel bike, it’s not lightweight, the brakes are rubbish and the 38mm tyre clearance may be right on the limit, but at no point did I think to myself that the bike was letting me down. The fact that I – completely inexperienced in gravel riding – could compete in such a gruelling event is surely a glowing review for the Trek Domane as an ‘all road’ bike.

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