Back in 2021 I had a baptism of fire to gravel riding when, shortly after getting on a gravel bike for the first time ever, I rode coast-to-coast across Costa Rica in two days with my husband Mark. 260km of riding with 6500m elevation including some stinking 20%ers was truly a gruelling test of technical skills as well as physical and mental strength, but I loved it. Roll forward to 2023 and despite not getting anywhere near as much riding on the gravel as I would like, it is definitely something I have incorporated into my training. With Badlands (800km non-stop unsupported gravel race in Spain) coming up in September, Mark and I decided to enter our first gravel race, The Traka, to give us a chance to try out all our kit and get a feel for what riding that far off road might be like.
Two weeks before the race I was caught up in a nasty crash at 40kph in 3 Dias De Mallorca, a three day stage race (road). Nursing horrible rib and wrist pain I was unsure if I was going to be able to do The Traka until a few days before. Finally, I took the decision to start and just see how it went. I seeded myself well back on the start line, not wanting to get caught up in the early km chaos of the mass (men and women together) start, and making it my only goal to stay upright for the entire race.
The race organisers purposely designed the route so that the first 25km include some steep ascents and descents to break up the field and make it a bit safer for the 50 km flat section that follows. The race went off really fast and some people around me were breathing so hard I was wondering if they misread the distance. Once we hit the climbs I realised I had made a bit of a novice error with my start placement as I was quickly passing other cyclists and often getting stuck behind when there was no safe way to pass on the uneven surface. It was a bit frustrating but before long we were on the first of a few loose and technical descents through a beautiful forest. I had ridden this descent on a training ride and knew that (for me anyway) it was too loose to go fast. I slowed right down, repeating my mantra that staying upright was the only goal, and watched as people fell off in front of me (twice!). Thankfully I made it to the bottom in one piece and that was when the fun really started.
The route then had a 50km section which was mainly flat and winding through an open valley, taking in some of the most wonderful gravel riding I have ever done. With a huge effort, myself and another couple of guys managed to make it onto the back of a big group. I spent the majority of this section just trying to stay with them, mostly getting spat out on the loose 90 deg corners and sprinting to get back on. Trying to navigate at the same time (the whole group would go wrong on occasion as the route was unmarked) was also new to me and I made a few fairly major errors that cost me time. Despite grimacing through the rib/wrist pain as I hit massive potholes that I couldn’t see coming, and breathing in endless gravel dust I was still grinning to myself and pushing some crazy watts. It was just like road racing with max sprints followed by a bit of cruising, but never able to relax or loose focus. I couldn’t believe how fast the race was moving. My average speed through this flat section was 33kph, and when you are taking the millions of corners at walking pace that is quite tough! The Orbea Terra with the Parcours Alta wheelset and 45mm tyres with just under 40 psi running tubeless was a great choice. I was truly astounded at the beating that this set up was able to take without any problems. There were so many people having flats and mechanicals – and with the number of craters I hit at speed with no warning I was almost expecting it.
The remainder of the 200km was broken up by a massive 9km climb at 110km which broke up any groups for the most part. The sun was beating down and it was hot on that climb for those not used to it. I passed a few people who had been reduced to a walk, and some just standing seeking shade in the trees. It was fairly brutal by that stage, but I felt really strong. Good nutrition and hydration, but also a good feel for how far 200km is from long course triathlon races stood me in good stead for the second half of the race.
Having not needed the first two (of four) aid stations, I stopped for the first time at the 130km point to refill bottles. I had been riding with Brit Hayley Simmonds for a while before that, but she flew through grabbing bottles from her support crew while I had to dismount and queue at the bowsers. It was a bit frustrating and something I would aim to rectify for future races (yes there will be more!). I reminded myself that despite racing hard for 130km so far, my only goal at the start was to stay upright. With concentration and focus requiring more willpower than ever at this stage, I knew I couldn’t relax and make mistakes as I got tired. My damaged wrist was starting to be a real problem, and the temptation to ride with just one hand on the bars was pretty strong. I had managed to find a good group of guys to ride with after 130km, but I had to drop back as it became untenable to hit any more potholes at speed with no warning and the section we were on was pretty rough.
Finally we were inside the last 20km, two fast guys flew by me and I managed to attach myself for one final push. But just as I was breathing a sigh of relief to be in the final 5km my bike started to behave strangely and we hit a very technical (for me!) single track section through some woods. I knew something was seriously wrong when my gear changes became clunky and delayed, but at 2km finally the problem showed itself and my cassette jumped out and spun freely. The wheel hub and skewer had worked loose, leaving me with two options. Limp the final 2km kicking the cassette back into the locked position every time it jumped out, pushing occasionally and swearing a lot. Or stop and take the wheel off to fix it before continuing. I did the first – not really knowing if I would make it but knowing that stopping would loose me too much time. The mechanical robbed me of the strong finish I wanted, but I was just grateful that the mechanical had not happened earlier.
Finishing 10th with a time of 7 hours and 43 mins I was staggered to find out that I had gone so quickly. My time would have won the race the year before- but the standards in gravel racing are skyrocketing all the time. This race was way faster and monumentally harder than I expected but I absolutely loved it. It certainly won’t be my last gravel race, and next time maybe I will back myself a little more!