I looked down at the pedals in my hand. They’d seen better days, to be sure. A battered and chipped pair of old Shimano XTR. The kind of play in the spindle that would drive some people batshit. A patina of rust and dirt staining the palm of my glove red. I absently thought about that dirt. Kanza dust? Pisgah mud? Or was it just dried blood? I thought of the last time I’d stained something with my blood. Really stained it. Thought of the worn hardwood floors of my house. How they’d soaked up my blood like a sponge. A bad night.
I winced at memory and looked up at the sky… overcast with a topography. Not a boring blanket of gray, but a landscape in its own right. Peaks and valleys. Currents and shorelines. The rain was light now, but that would change soon enough. And whatever stains and dirt were on those pedals would be washed away. Hopefully replaced with something new.
I’d accept that.
If I had a fucking bike to put the pedals on.
Grinduro Scotland started in 20 minutes.
Grinduro bills itself as “the world’s most interesting bike race.” Grand declarations aside, I won’t argue with that. Even the artwork for Grinduro is instantly compelling. Less a poster for a race and more a flyer for a punk show. A crudely drawn mountain with off-balance eyes in stark black and purple. Bold and uneven lettering punctuated with an exclamation point. It immediately sets the tone for the event; giving nothing away, but saying everything. In juxtaposition to the almost cloying earnestness of other gravel events, Grinduro is more a playful smirk. Less a praise-band ballad and more a bawdy yodel. This sense that however serious an endeavor it may be, it doesn’t take itself seriously. Whatever “it” is, because the wonky eyed mountain isn’t talking. It doesn’t even have a mouth.
By now most of you know the format: gravel-grind mixed with Enduro. A mixture of pavement, gravel roads, doubletrack and singletrack. Timed stages spaced throughout a day of riding. A rolling party on two wheels, punctuated by whatever efforts you want to give. On site food. Music. Is it overhyped? Honestly… No. Not really. While there are a ton of incredible and unsung events out there deserving of just as much recognition, Grinduro lives up to it all.
While not the original impetus for a trip to Scotland, the moment it seemed possible it became a focal point. For the past two years, I’d made vague and whispered threats about showing up in Quincy. But only if I could drive my van. And thus far I hadn’t managed to make that happen. Because, well… I don’t know if you know this or not… but California is a long way from North Carolina.
So is Scotland, you say? Yeah, but no.
Yeah… but no.
It can be easy to talk yourself out of travel. I get that.
If you’re a practical person… there are entirely too many reasons why “it just can’t happen right now.”
Why the timing is wrong.
Why it’s too far.
Why you have too much to do.
Why she doesn’t want you there.
Why your god hates you.
Why you’re too broke.
(And holy fuck, I was broke.)
But fortunately… and in spite of how much your god hates me… I’m not a practical person. (Also, have you read my 13 precepts for mega-happiness? Oh man… prepare for some mega-inspiration!)
It’s this girl’s fault.
She has a wee bit of an obsession with Scotland. So much so that I jokingly called her “lass” the first night we slept together… and it stuck. (I honestly still don’t know her real name.)
Lying next to me on the floor of the bike-shop, she told me all about Robert Burns. About Glencoe. About Oran Mor. A.L. Kennedy. Ceilidhs. Stripping the willow. Having studied there as an undergrad. Traveled there frequently in another life. She told me she’d take me one day.
But that always seemed far away. Inaccessible. As two people who balance life post-divorce… with two respective children and two respective schedules… coordinating international travel seemed impossible. And anyway, I’d invited her to join me on a trip to France once, and she’d declined. So like… whatever. Pffft. Like I fucking cared.
But up ahead, there was this odd little pocket of time. Where both of our kiddos would be traveling with their other parents. And she threw the idea out there. Half in jest… Half not.
“Let’s just fucking go to Scotland.”
How we initially found it, I don’t remember. But there’s a little airport in Newburgh, NY that flies internationally for cheap. Specifically to Edinburgh, Dublin, Oslo… Florida and Detroit. How cheap, you ask? Cheap enough that we drove eleven hours to catch a seven hour flight… and still felt like we totally won.
Admittedly, when we arrived at said airport, it was chaos. But hey… that’s what happens when an airline’s entire computer system goes down, right?
And while it may have taken a little while for them to handwrite every boarding pass for every single passenger, there was beer… and as long as I got the fuck out of the States… I really didn’t care how long it took.
A little over an hour later, we were in the air.
The Isle of Arran is sometimes called “Scotland in Miniature.” In that on its relatively small surface is a fairly good representation of the landscape of Scotland as a whole. Hills, forests, rivers, shoreline, highlands, lowlands, blasted heath. Criss-crossed with a network of quiet roads and trails, and already a cycling destination in its own right, it’s an ideal venue for an event like Grinduro. A contained microcosm, accessible only by boat. Helping to create what truly amounts to an experience, more so than yet another “race.”
Even the ferry ride to the island was, to my provincial mind, magical. Watching one beautiful landscape recede and another rise. Eating fish and chips and drinking cans of Tennets in scattered and dwindling patches of warmth on the deck.
More pints in a pub while we waited for our shuttle to the venue. Setting up our tent in the field and bumping into friends from the states like Kyle Kelley… Amanda and Scott… Fis and Michelle. Meeting new friends. Exploring the expo. Wandering down the road to another pub for wifi and drinks. Dragging people with us.
By the time we arrived on Arran, we’d been tooling around Scotland for five days. Staying with friends in Edinburgh. Scrabbling over Arthur’s Seat. Crashing guest rooms. Exploring the city. Visiting pubs. Winding our way towards the Borders. Looking for the Great Uncomformity. Sipping afternoon tea on the beach. Getting sunburns in the unusually balmy weather.
Arran was the first time “traditional Scottish weather” really caught up with us. But we were ready for that. And while on race day, I’m sure that no one would have objected to sun and warmth… it was beyond beautiful. And getting to spend a day on that island, with those people, on that bike, in that atmosphere… was perfect.
Mark Reidy was somewhere in the ditch.
Pulling himself and his own borrowed bike out of the brush, he shrugged it off. “I’m good. I just overcooked that turn.”
I’d come close to doing the exact same thing. As the first real descent of the day, a rutted dirt track that had slowly segued from mud to gravel to DIY concrete, I’d spent most of it in a state of mild anxiety. Yes, it was wet, but that wasn’t the problem. See… there was an issue with my bike.
The Mason Bokeh that showed up twenty minutes before race start was stunning. A glossy dark gray with minimal but effective logos and lettering. At a point, I was prepared to ride anything that even remotely fit… but I liked the idea of getting to ride something different. Something that wasn’t widely available in the states. So when efforts began to find me a bike to ride at Grinduro, I started paying attention to Mason and keeping my fingers crossed.
After exchanging emails with Dom and Cal at Mason HQ, it looked good. Tom from Hunt Wheels would be the mule. As it turns out, he missed the ferry that night and would try to be there in time for the race the next morning. Unsure about that math with regards to ferry schedules, I started to resign myself to spectating. And while I’d have not been TOO discontent simply finding vantage points from which to take terrible pictures, and imbibing whisky and beer in whatever pubs and distilleries I found along the way, I really did want to ride. So when they showed up 20 minutes before race start, I was relieved to have a bike.
I installed my battered pedals, raised the seat, begged for a water bottle cage, and rolled toward the start, playfully tapping the rear brake to execute a cheeky and flashy parking lot skid. The front end locked up.
“Oh. Fuck,” I said, something dawning on me. Turning to Tom and Cal. “Y’all… y’all run your brakes opposite, don’t you?”
“What? You mean “correctly?” chirped Tom.
Quite possibly. In any case, my right brake was my front. And my left brake was my rear.
An interesting day just became more so.
The best comparison I can give for having your brakes reversed… …is masturbating with the wrong hand.
Yes, you can do it. And yes, ultimately the outcome will probably be the same.
But you will lack all of the finesse that years of practice have afforded you. It takes longer. It will be messy.
During the final (and beautiful) descent into town, I crashed no less than five times. Always in the soft heather, and always laughing. Outside of the reversed brakes, I admit, I was pretty into the Bokeh. It was outfitted with a somewhat narrower bar than I would typically run on my own gravel bike, but I liked everything about the geometry and how it rode. The setup was aggressive in the ways I like, eschewing the tall head-tube that some adventure bikes tend to have. The 650+ Hunt wheels were great, and the big tire (ahem… tyre) had all the grip I needed for even the sloppiest of the single track descents.
I mean… for the most part.
The day was roughly 45 miles of riding total, bisected by a lunch break back at the venue, and effectively split into four parts in total; each corresponding with a subsequent “stage.” Fire-road climb… technical single-track descent… forest road descent… forest road climb. While lunch (and all of the food, honestly) was amazing, the standout of rest stops to me was aid-station one, inside the cycling themed Velo Cafe. Complimentary espressos and snacks. Everyone cramming in to the small space to get dry. An amazing little spot that, as the rain began to fall in earnest, was hard to leave.
During the mid-day break for lunch, those of us who lingered too long got a bit stuck. A parade in town was effectively blocking our point of egress, so we were asked to wait until it was over. Wet and cold, imbibing beer and whiskey to stay “warm” we were finally released.
The weather by this time was deteriorating. But it didn’t matter. Knots of us rode together, chatting and laughing in between our various efforts. Ascents and descents. Quintessentially British rights-of-ways across farmer’s fields. Tunnock’s Caramels. The final descent back into town was stellar. A steep and narrow trail skirting cliffs along the shoreline. Aforementioned falls broken by the heather as I grabbed handfuls of the wrong brake, and as by this point, most everyone’s brake-pads were worn to nothing.
And then…we were done.
Bike wash. Portraits. Hot (or, in my case, cold) showers in a high-school locker room. Beers and whisky. Regaining feeling in extremities. Unintended narcoleptic naps in inflatable ground hammocks. Dinner and more beers and whisky as we waited for the awards ceremony.
Immediately following the awards, the VanT’s took the stage and played an incredible set of music. An encore. Confusion.
A hysterical sense of deja-vu as timid men lined the walls of the high-school gymnasium and watched Dorrit dance. Occasional brave souls joining in.
Naturally, the next morning was brilliant. Scattered, fast moving clouds against a blue and sunny sky. We packed up our tent, reluctantly returned the Bokeh, said our goodbyes and boarded the ferry.
Unlike the California event, which seemed sprawlingly huge, Scotland was a relatively intimate affair. Whether because it was a new event and people were testing the waters. Or because it seemed far away. But to me, it was perfect. And while I loved seeing familiar faces in a faraway place, I especially loved seeing new ones. Loved being somewhere new. I have no doubt that the California event is amazing… but this is the one I wanted. The one I needed.
I’d brought this knot of tension with me to Scotland. This heavy weight in my head and gut. A pervasive sense of failing at most of what I do. Unable to shake the sinking feeling that I might always be broke and stupid. It had begun to untangle the slightest bit somewhere in the green sloping shoreline of the Borders, but it wasn’t until Arran that I finally felt it release. The ride, the place, the people. All of it. So much of what we seem to do is just bury ourselves in our ruts. Get lost in shitty patterns. Stare at other people’s lives on our phones; lives we wish we were living. It either inspires…or buries us. And I’d been feeling neck deep.
But now… sitting in sunshine on the deck and watching Arran fade… for the first time in too long… I felt light. The weight was gone.
Well done, Grinduro…
Kind thanks to Giro, Focal Events, Mark Riedy, Paul Errington, Peter Nicholson (and Tyler, I guess) for making it possible. Thanks to Cal and Dom at Mason for making a seriously fucking great bike, Tom at Hunt for killer wheels and for getting said bike to me. Thanks to Max at Podia, Kyle Kelley, and any others for all the photos and stories. I look forward to more wet miles with all of you soon. To those of you debating it… stop. Get your ass to Grinduro Scotland.
Watts is the brainfart behind the biannually updated blog: Revolting Cogs, as well as the scrivener of shoplife at Dirt Rag magazine and Master Blaster at Revolution Cycles NC; a “bike shop cum bar” in Greensboro, NC (according to Woven Magazine). Follow him at @revoltingcogs on Instagram if you want to do irreparable harm to your social-media reputation.