Pebble Cobbler 2023 Race Report20 Feb 2023
The Pebble Cobbler is an annual gravel bike race held in Bakersfield, California. This year it was held on a cold morning on February 11. Participating in this race is right up there with the most crazy, most risky, most insane, and most exciting things I've ever done.
A gravel bike race is normally held on relatively flat terrain with the most technical feature being loose gravel in the place of asphalt. But this race was anything but normal. This 85km course had as much as 1640m of elevation gain and several technical features which I would've felt nervous riding on a hardtail, let alone a gravel bike. There were sections where the climb became so steep that riding up was impossible and the only option was to push, if not carry, the bike. The descents could take you through beautiful green pastures one moment and through rollercoaster like berms the next. This ride was epic and I am so glad that I took the plunge to take part in it as my first major bike race ever.
What went well
My only goal for this race. Despite almost bonking midway, I'm proud of myself for making it through!
I'm very happy with the choices I made for what I brought with me on this ride. I took my Giant Revolt 2 and swapped out the stock pedals for Race Face Chester MTB pedals with Adidas 5.10 Freerider MTB shoes to go along with it. I also invested in padded cycling shorts and a jersey for this race. Even the choice of bottle cages turned out to be crucial, for many cyclists lost their water bottles after flying over bumps. I'm also glad that my tires survived all the abuse without a puncture. Every bit of cycling gear I got with me made the journey a little bit easier and it all helped getting me across the finish line.
Bakersfield is a fairly long drive from the Bay Area so I had to figure out my way there and a night's accommodation for the race. I originally planned to pick up my race packet the day before, but heavy Friday afternoon traffic on the way to Bakersfield delayed my arrival by two hours. Fortunately I was able to pick up my race packet early morning on race day without a hitch.
What didn't go well
My training for this race was badly hampered by all the rain in the Bay Area leading up to the race. Dry weekend days were nearly impossible to come by so I settled for doing 40-50km road rides when the rain wasn't too heavy. I also did a loop of Alameden Quicksilver on my gravel bike to get a better idea of how to handle the off-road descents on drop bars. Although these rides made me more comfortable with the length of the Pebble Cobbler, I had very little practice in dealing with the amount of elevation I encountered on the race day.
I use energy bars filled with carbohydrates, protein, and fat for fueling myself for most of my longer bike rides. However, these do almost nothing for replenishing electrolytes and sodium levels. This nearly cost me the race had it not been for the packets of Lays chips at the second SAG (Support And Gear) station 50km in.
I am very particular about the way my bike feels and I had spent a great deal of time in trying out different saddle heights and handlebar settings to make it comfortable for long rides. Though I had set it up for comfort and efficiency, I found that my bike fit was still inappropriate for climbs as my back really hurt on the biggest climb of the race!
My bike is equipped with a stock 2x9 Shimano Sora transmission with a 32/48 crankset and 11x34 casette. This means my transmission's lowest gear ratio is 0.94, which is probably just a little too tall for the climbs. I noticed that although I could get up climbs much faster than others with lower gearing, I was having to work a lot harder for it as well. In some of the steeper climbs, I had my tires spin out. This became more apparent towards the end of the race when I was totally spent from the big climb in the middle.
Even at 85km and 1600+m of elevation gain, the Pebble Cobbler is the little brother of the Rock Cobbler, a truely daunting course with 122km of mileage and 2800+m of elevation gain. Both the Pebble Cobbler and the Rock Cobbler share the first 75km of madness, after which the Pebble Cobbler diverges to a bike trail back to the start whereas the Rock Cobbler has another 50km in store. This year, there were 750 cyclists taking part in the Rock Cobbler and 250 taking part in the shorter format. I was under the impression that the competition in the Pebble Cobbler was probably not quite as high as that found in the Rock Cobbler which would only draw the most hardcore of riders.
Sector 1 (Start to 25km)
The race started off in four waves ten minutes apart, with roughly 250 cyclists in each wave. The Rock Cobbler had three of the four starting waves while the Pebble Cobbler only had one. The start was jam-packed and it took a full minute before there was enough space that I could start pedalling. The race started off on a two-way paved bike trail going by the Kern river. This was my first time riding in a group and I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to cruise at 30+km/hr on the flat ground in this section. After a brief hill climb and descent, the off-road section started out with a steep climb! Several people opted to push their bikes on this section but I was feeling great so I decided to power through all the climbs.
The doubletrack descent which followed was smooth and easy - a good way to warm up before the gnarly sections which came later in the day. Before I knew it, I came across the first SAG stop and I stopped for a few minutes to replinish my food and water supplies. I also needed to adjust my seatpost's bolt, or else I would have to contend with the seatpost sliding down into the frame on its own. The Cobbler is famous for mini challenges during the race and at the first SAG stop, the challenge was to jump over a fire pit for…posterity?!
Sector 2 (25km to 55km)
Riding off the high of this being my first race, I got to the 40km mark in 2hrs13mins and I was feeling pretty good about my pacing at that point. My map indicated that I would need to brace myself for two big hills at 42km and 56km in so I reduced my pace as we got off the paved section. Then, the big hill started with an annoying 5% gradient which never seemed to let up. My back started hurting only a kilometer into the climb and the pain progressively got worse the higher I got. The only reprieve I got was when the dirt turned into mud higher up the mountain. It was impossible to pedal anymore so I did what everyone else was doing - pushing my bike up through the mud. My flat Freeriders were of little use on this part and I could only make it a couple of steps before sliding back one. The whole climb took me almost an hour and my shoes and tires were completely caked in mud. A bunch of us tried cleaning out the tires and brakes with the popsicle stick we got in the race packet, but it was of little use when a minute of rolling down the mountain would soil the tires again. I took a deep breath, steadied myself on the bike and started the most dangerous descent of the race. There was almost no traction at all from my tires on the surface and the occasional ruts in the ground nearly threw me off my bike. I was fighting for control and it took every mountain biking instinct I had to hang on. The traction and braking power was so poor that I might as well have been skiing. Once the descent mellowed a bit, the next climb started almost immediately after.
This turned into a real hike-a-bike affair with the gradient touching as much as 20 degrees in some spots. I was completely gassed at this point and I was dreading any more elevation gain. Even sitting hurt despite my padded shorts and the cushioned saddle cover! The 55km mark came up in 4hrs and I rolled into the second SAG stop just as I felt my legs cramping up. To my surprise, the packets of Lays chips which I had turned a dismissive eye to on the first SAG stop saved my race. I swear I could taste every crystal of salt as I wolfed down two packets. Never have chips tasted so good as they did then. With supplies replenished and electrolytes rebalanced, I was ready to take on the final 30km of the race.
Sector 3 (55km to Finish!)
The final sector of the Pebbler started off with a simple creek crossing. My pain in the rear was still no better than it had been at the end of Sector 2 so I did most of the initial part of this sector standing on the pedals. I chose my battles with the uphill sections and pushed my bike up some parts which would have been faster to ride through. Fortunately, the paved section in between helped me find my second wind and I was back in the race with the momentum which had been drained out of me in the last 20km. I was back on the saddle again. Not for long though, as the course had another wall-like climb in store. This was the steepest yet, with an average gradient of 26.8%, shooting up as high as 37.5% in some places! Riding this out was completely out of the question, even a 1:2 gear ratio would've struggled up this hill. The best thing to do would have been to carry my bike over my shoulder, but I simply didn't have the strength to do so. There was a lot of traffic up the hill so it became a dicey affair of pushing the bike while trying to stay out of everyone else's way. The reward for getting to a top was a remarkable view of Bakersfield and some of the best doubletrack fun I've ever had. The descent concluded with a twisty ride through a canyon with rollercoaster like berms. On a hardtail it would have been enjoyable, on a gravel bike it was a white knuckle affair. I nearly slipped off a berm by going too slow on one section. Shortly after, I came across a group nursing a rider who had broken his ankle taking one of the berms. Seeing the writing on the wall, I took it slow and walked my bike until the surface had evened out enough to ride normally. A few climbs and descents later and I was back on the pavement with only 15km more go!
Just before the Rock/Pebble Cobbler split, I came across the water ball pit challenge. I wasn't looking forward to wading through ankle deep water and getting my shoes all soggy. If I had been thinking straight, I would have thought to take my shoes off before getting in. Although every km beyond the 70km point was uncharted territory for me, I knew I had just enough in the tank to make it through the final 10km. The sun was finally breaking through the clouds, the path was paved, and the worst of the climbs was well behind me. I was feeling optimistic about finishing this and also proud about how far I had come in the race. After the course split, I found myself riding along the Kern river, just as I had a few hours ago at the start of the race. I was putting more into the pedals now and I was cruising at 27-30km/hr till the end. I found myself getting passed by some riders who had saving their final burst of energy for the end. I put my head down and watched the kilometers tick away on my watch. It wasn't until I reached the car parking lot that it hit me that I was only seconds away from the finish line! But wait! The track had been rearranged while I was out at the race and the final sprint to the finish involved a few obstacles like riding through a sandpit, dodging barrels, and negotiating tree roots. I took my another right turn and I was right back where I was 6hrs18mins ago. I smashed the pedals one last time with my right fist pumping the air as I went pass the finish line, 149th . I could not believe what I had just experienced. I was hurting all over and I was only able to stand because of the adrenaline. My shoes were soggy and my clothes were all muddy, but I couldn't care less in the moment.