Gunnison’s Original Growler: What You Need To Know

Race Coverage

Photo by Matt Burt Photography/

Dave Wiens cringes at the comparison. Though the Leadville 100 is longer, higher and includes far more climbing, the Colorado native prefers not to contrast the race that made him famous with the race he now runs – this Memorial Day weekend’s Original Growler.

Indeed, the six-time Leadville 100 winner (and man who took down both Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong during that run) says bluntly that you have to be a better pure mountain biker to finish the Full Growler, a 64-mile race that’s held the day after Saturday’s 32-mile Half Growler.

Wiens (L) battles Armstrong at Leadville.

The reason? While Leadville’s course is predominantly fire road and doubletrack, the Growler is loaded with techy singletrack and almost never-ending pedaling as you wind your away around the ever-undulating Hartman Rocks trail system that’s just a few miles south of Gunnison, Colorado. No wonder everyone who registers for the race must tick a checkbox affirming that they are “an experienced mountain biker.”

“It might only be 4,000 feet of climbing per lap (and the 64-mile race includes two laps), but it all comes in these tiny pieces that added together really break people’s legs,” said Wiens, alluding to the pain, not the possibility of trauma, which also exists in what will be the race’s sixth running. “Lots of people love to climb long climbs like at Leadville or on the road, but this is not same. This course is super physical and you have to work for every inch. For some people it really is death by 1000 cuts.”

So how does one survive this interminable beating and make it back to downtown Gunnison for the beer-fueled after party (the race was named after a growler of beer after all)? Well for starters, listen to what Wiens has to say in this exclusive Q&A about the race he helped found and now directs.

Photo by Matt Burt Photography/

Mtbr: What’s the best tip you can give to a newbie Growler racer?
Dave Wiens: Pacing is really the key, especially if you are not use to this type of riding. You need to be prepared for repeated short, punchy climbs where you’ll have to be up and out of the saddle a lot. That can really beat you down over 6-7 hours, maybe longer. (Note: Last year, men’s winner Alex Grant finished in 5 hours, 17 minutes, and the majority of the Full Growler finishers spent 7-8 hours in the saddle.)

Also you really need to pay attention out there. Don’t just drop blindly into something if you are not sure. There are some steep rock sections that may look like they have a lot of options, but it’ll turn out that there is just one rollable line. So when in doubt use caution – and remember that we don’t do a bunch of hazard marking because if we did there would be too much to mark.

Mtbr: Tell us more about the course and what people can expect.
Dave Wiens: It’s a lot of singletrack. Not all singletrack. But a lot. And a lot of that is fairly technical trail that’s connected by fast, flowy sections. Basically you spend the day going from short sections of granite rock problems to fast flowy fun. So if, or maybe it’s when you get discouraged, just know that it wont last too long. But it’s definitely a course that keeps people engaged from start to finish. There are only a few road sections, and usually you’ll be pretty happy when you get to them because it’ll give you a chance to relax for a minute and get a drink.

Don’t forget to look around either. A lot of our racers come from [Colorado’s] Front Range where you spend most of the time riding in the forest. Hartman Rocks isn’t like that at all. It’s high desert with amazing long-distance views. You can literally see for miles in all directions. It’s a really unique riding experience.

Mtbr: How about the charitable element of this race.
Dave Wiens: Yeah, all the money goes to fund Gunnison Trails, our local trail advocacy organization. That means maintaining trails, proposing new trails like the one from Gunnison to Crested Butte that we are working on, that kind of thing. This event is the lifeblood of Gunnison Trails, probably about 60-percent of our annual budget comes from entry fees to this race.

It’s also really important to our community. Before this race there just wasn’t much going on here. Now this kicks off our summer season. The KOA campground sells out, the hotels do well, the restaurants have their first real busy weekend. Analysis done by the city says it’s about a $1 million impact, so the community is really getting behind it.

Wiens is a force in the local trail building community.

Mtbr: The event always sells out. Why not expand beyond the 350-rider-per-day cap?
Dave Wiens: You know we could probably get the Forest Service to allow us 500 per day, but that would just be too many because there is too much singletrack and the racing experience would suffer. We don’t want that.

Mtbr: What’s the bike of choice?
Dave Wiens: Well, I may be the wrong person to ask because I’ve been a hardtail guy for so long. But probably the lightweight full suspension is the way to go for most people. It’s definitely a race bike course unless you are just out there to have fun and don’t mind pushing a little bigger bike. A 29er probably makes a lot of sense, too. There’s tons of smooth, flowy stuff, and then with the 29er it’s a lot easier to roll through stuff, those cantaloupe sized rocks. I’d go with a slightly bigger tire, too. There are some sharp rocks out there so it’s a gamble to run super light tires.

Mtbr: Hydration pack or bottles?
Dave Wiens: That’s all personal preference, whatever you are used to. I’d run bottles, but you’ll see a lot of people out there with packs on. If you do run a pack, there’s a chance that the volunteers at the Skull Pass aid station will tell you to drop your pack when you pass the first time, then they’ll fill it and give it back when you pass back through about two miles later. So if you can go without your pack for those few miles, that could save you some time.

Photo by Matt Burt Photography/

Mtbr: What about the halfway point drop bags? What do people put in those?
Dave Wiens: Honestly I’ve seen it all. Parts, tools, sandwiches, small coolers with sodas. So again, it’s just whatever you think you’re going to need out there at the halfway point of the race.

Mtbr: What will be available at the aid stations?
Dave Wiens: Main things will be product from Honey Stinger and Acli-Mate (hydration drink). There will also be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, water. And usually there will be people that go out there and do their own thing, passing up bacon, maybe beers, though that’s probably not a great idea.

We’ll also have a few mini-aid stations that are just Acli-Mate and water, so basically for the 64-miler there will be liquid every 7-8 miles, and you’ll pass full aid stations at miles 15 and 17 at Skull Pass, and 30 at Hartman Rocks base area, then again at 43 and 45, and then 61 back at the base area.

Mtbr: Any final words of wisdom?
Dave Wiens: Get ready to have some fun. It’s mountain bike racing at its finest.

Note: Check back to after the long weekend for updates on all the action, plus a first person account from Features Editor Jason Sumner, who will be doing his best to make all the time cut-offs in Sunday’s Full Growler.

About the author: Jason Sumner

An avid cyclist, Jason Sumner has been writing about two-wheeled pursuits of all kinds since 1999. He’s covered the Olympics, Tour de France, MTB world champs, and dozens of other international cycling events. He also likes to throw himself into the fray, penning first-person accounts of cycling adventures all over the globe. Sumner has also done extensive gear testing and is the author of the cycling guide book "75 Classic Rides: Colorado." When not writing or riding, the native Coloradoan can be found enjoying life with his wife Lisa and kids Cora and Tommy in and around their home in the MTB Mecca of Crested Butte.

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  • Gearwhine says:

    Good article and Q&A. Thanks!

    This is a fantastic race! It is brutal, but I loved it. I rode it the first time last year in the SS category. I truly didn’t train much, but paced myself well, drank a bottle of water every 10 miles, ate something every hour, and finished in 8h 48m feeling good. I was in the last 3 finishers for maybe 33 SSers. The competition is stiff if you’re looking for a win. I was just going for a finish, and couldn’t have been happier!

    I totally agree with everything Dave is saying about the race/course. As for pavement, there are about 5 miles of road in the beginning in the parade start….except us mortal singlespeeders are not in the parade spinning our hearts out…. then there is only 1 road section of maybe 1/4 mile somewhere in the middle of the lap and, oh hell yes, I was happy to hit it on both my laps. So, I’d say timed pavements is less than 6 miles total. Dirt roads are definitely in there, but more as connectors, not as main trails.

    I will say…the worst (or painful rather) is the mandatory road ride back from Hartman’s Rock at the end (not timed, but mandatory for an official finish). That was the most painful few miles I’ve ever experienced. It really turns it into a ~69 mile ride. Thankfully a truck pulled over and handed me a beer to help me nudge that last bit of energy out.

    Cheers…see you this weekend…and probably every other memorial day weekend thereafter.

  • channel_zero says:

    #1 Dave is 7x winner of Leadville. The year Armstrong won, the event should have been USAC sanctioned. If it wasn’t, well, there’s another USAC scandal. As a banned racer, and admitted doper there’s no way Armstrong’s name should be on a Leadville podium. I think Leadville’s promoter might have a doping problem!!!

    #2 Dave was a World Cup baaaadddddd aaaaaasssss before the Growler and Leadville. Nice as can be to regular riders and seemed to support his sponsors well. The sport needs more Dave, less USA Cycling!

  • winman says:

    Nothing worse than overly altered photos, heavily saturated and not very creative. couldn’t mtbr pick a better photographer?

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