Words by: Dylan Johnson
150 miles of potholes, rutted out mud roads, freshly cut dirt through corn fields and a whole lot of wide open windswept gravel on the coast of North Carolina sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday and apparently, 500 other people thought so too. The Croatan Buck Fifty is only in its second year but has already attracted an impressive crowd of riders stoked for all-day gravel suffering. This was my second participation and after losing in a sprint finish the year before and I was hungry to give the race another go.
The bike I chose for the event was the Niner RLT9 RDO. This bike usually takes the role of my trusted training steed to prepare me for mountain bike racing but a couple of times a year I’ll slap a number plate on it for some gravel racing. The RLT 9 RDO accompanied me at the Dirty Kanza 200 last year so I was confident the bikes all day gravel abilities. I had the bike set up with a large 53 tooth big chain ring as this race is dead flat and there was no need for climbing gears. That along with aero bars and deep section aerodynamic Boyd Pinnacle gravel wheels with fast rolling Schwalbe G-One tires and this thing was ready for out and out speed on gravel.
The length of this race and the flat nature of the course means that conserving energy within the pack is key, and that’s exactly what I did. For the vast majority of the race, I stayed at the front but tried to always shield myself behind riders. If I did pull through I made sure to make it relatively quick and easy as to not burn matches. However, on parts of the course where things got technical, I got to the front and actively whittled the front group down as much as I could, especially on the infamous sections that they aptly name Savage Road. This 3.5-mile stretch is littered with ruts and massive mud bogs that you want to avoid at all costs because they are much deeper than they appear. Riding these sections requires constantly switching between the right and left side of the road and because of the effects of drafting are reduced. If I was going hard through this section that means everyone else had to as well. And it worked. Through Savage Road, the group splintered and a select lead group formed.
With about half the race done there was still a breakaway with about three minutes on us. This where I employed the help of my friend Chris Tries. He had cracked his frame early and told me he was going to pull out. I told him that before his frame self destructs he should at least get a good workout in and get to the front and smash himself to real in the break, and that is exactly what he did. The pace increased significantly as he worked on the front and the catch was made. With 50 miles to go the front group was back together although at this point in the race there was only about six or seven of us left.
On the last lap through Savage Road, I got to the front with the intention of getting that front group even smaller. I’m not much of a sprinter and I knew the more people at the finish to contest the sprint the lower my chances were. By the time I exited Savage Road, it was just me and one other rider, Jeremiah Bishop. Although within a couple of minutes another rider, Michael Bissette clawed his way back up to us making the front group three riders strong.
It was at this point that I started to consider my options, should I wait and roll the dice in the sprint or try for a late race break away. In the end, I chose the latter. I noticed that Jeremiah’s pulls were starting to slow down indicating that he was tired so when it was my time to pull I went much harder than I had been. I took a quick look back and noticed that a small gap had formed. At this point, I put my head down, got into the aero bars and gave it everything I had and within about a minute the gap had grown substantially. With less than 10 miles to go there was nothing to do but empty the tank until the finish to take the overall race win.
The race aptly finishes on a miniature Nascar track and it’s there that the post-race festivities started soon after finishing as more and more riders rolled in. Over tacos and beer, racers relived the highs and the lows of the day and it felt good to be surrounded by like-minded people happy to have survived such a long day out on the course. Race organizers Matt Hawkins and Gordon Wadsworth have a pretty awesome thing going here and if you are in the southeast US or you don’t mind traveling for great events I highly recommend you put the Buck-Fifty on your calendar for 2020.