When Beach Balls And Gravel Bikes Collide

Beach balls. Yes, beach balls. What do beach balls have to do with riding bikes? Usually nothing. Unless of course, you’re at The Rock Cobbler.

For the past four years The Rock Cobbler has proven to be anything but predictable in what could happen when out on course. When I say ‘unpredictable’ I don’t mean that in the way that most bike riders are probably thinking of. Usually, that description implies the feed zone may or may not have enough food or water, or that the course might not be marked well. No, these are not an issue with Rock Cobbler, the unpredictability comes in the way of “shenanigans”, as co-promoter Sam Ames calls them (Sam Ames and Keith Barnden make up SamBarn Promotions and put on road, cyclocross, mountain bike, and gravel events).

Having fun yet? We must have a sick definition of “fun”. Photo: Derek Smith

Those shenanigans started year one when we topped one of the many 15-20% dirt kicker climbs and had a drill sergeant with a loud speaker yelling at us to “DROP AND GIVE ME 10!” “Ten what,” I thought? This was a cycling event and adding in anything other than pedaling is usually a very bad thing for me. I managed to struggle my way through 10 unsightly push-ups, although my arms never quite recovered the rest of the day. Year two would see the forced removal of our socks (which were then pinned to the back of the jersey) for the final 15 miles. Non-compliance would get you a five-minute time penalty, but even worse, go against the spirit of the event.

Some people like to hate on Bakersfield, but for the past four years straight this is the Bakersfield we see. Photo: Bill Baker

So after two years, the questions from new riders looking to jump in for year three would be: “Do you really have to do push-ups?” Or, “Is there really one hike-a-bike so big and steep you might end up crawling up it?” To those questions, my answers would be “Yes” to the first, and to the second, “No, there is more than one.” Last year, the fine folks at Rock Cobbler thought it best to combine one of the hike-a-bikes with push ups at the top…and that came after 65 miles of extremely hard riding. One particularly well-seasoned road racer I was next to at that point lost his mind and went into a meltdown. This stuff isn’t for everyone, I guess.

Finding better feed zone support than what you get at Rock Cobbler is pretty much impossible. Photo: Julie Pratt Zweigle

Somehow, for year four, more people came out than ever before and filled up the 300 or so allotted registration spots. People were obviously looking for an event that knows how to mix a little fun into things. Which brings me back to beach balls. By now, everyone knows that no matter what course changes there are from one year to the next, the event’s trademark is one or more rather extreme hike-a-bikes in the closing miles. So, in the group I was in with six other riders, you could feel the anxiety rising as we got to about mile 60 of 85 and we all started looking around at the heinously steep hills that were only suitable to ride up on a YZ450, wondering which one it might be.

The Cobbler utilizes some magnificent private ranchlands that are closed to cyclists the other 364 days of the year. Photo: Bill Baker

Then we saw it. At first, it didn’t appear to be any different than the other three or four minute hike-a-bike sections I’ve faced at Cobblers’ past. You know, the kind that is rutted, rocky and gets so steep by the top you are putting your hand on the ground straight in front of you? Yeah, it was one of those. “But why were there more than 20 people hanging out at the top?” I wondered. And then, beach balls started coming at us. One after another rolled down like an inescapable barrage of red, white, red, white, red, white. Avoiding impending impacts was impossible, but the only damage inflicted with each direct hit was only to my concentration, which was focused on getting up that stupidly steep hill.

It’s not all dirt at the Cobbler. There are also some pavement miles that offer the chance to grab a wheel and ready for the next section of dirt. Photo: Derek Smith

At the top, the culprits were the Brown Monkeys Cycling Club from Bakersfield who were having a team bonding experience raining down beach ball ammo on the riders below. After a high-five with one of them at the top I was on my way to the finish…or so I hoped. Minutes later, a second hike-a-bike appeared where another celebration seemed to be happening at the top. This time, the only challenge at the summit was, in fact, a reward–the opportunity to throw a dart at a life-sized cutout of none other than Mr. Sam Ames, the man most people had been cursing for their failing legs and tiring body at that point.

A record amount of rainfall this winter meant that our shoes got a little wet. Photo: Grizzly Cycles

After that, it was a much less challenging final 15 miles to the finish and post-event party at Lengthwise Brewery, which ends up being the best few post-event hours of the entire year. Beer, pulled pork with macaroni & cheese and telling the tales of the day is always a huge highlight. Everyone also leaves with a memento of their day, last year it was an embroidered shop apron with the Rock Cobbler logo on it, this year it was a Pocket Monkey Multi-Tool. Fitting, considering it is the year of the monkey, at least at the Rock Cobbler.

Thanks to Rock Cobbler, California has a true gravel event that goes toe to toe with anything else out there. Photo: Derek Smith

I know I skipped over most of the actual ride details from the nearly six hours I spent on the bike through the hills surrounding Bakersfield, but what I talked about here are the reasons why I’m drawn to events like the Rock Cobbler that are ridiculously challenging, have a good vibe, and don’t take themselves too seriously. That’s why I’ve done each and every Rock Cobbler so far and will be back for 5.0.

At the finish line with the guys I spent most of the day with. It wasn’t long before we were back at Lengthwise Brewery enjoying the company of other riders and their stories of the day.