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Rock Cobbler 11: Does gravel get any better?

In 2014, a crazy guy named Sam Ames, some volunteers, and about 50 very trusting riders gathered in Bakersfield, California for a lark of an experimental, mixed terrain bike circus. The Rock Cobbler was born, and quickly began to grow. Cobbler combined a wildly variable course, beautiful emerald rolling hills, silly gags, and a positive atmosphere to form something that was not often seen in the cycling landscape in those days: A singular bike party.

That same year, in January 2014, Rodeo was also born. The Rodeo / Cobbler paths of each did not cross right away. It took me a bit to hear about Cobbler, and to be interested in going at all. In a way though, people all over the country and the world were asking a similar question: Can bikes be more of party, and less of a strict tradition? As quickly as people began asking, they began finding similar answers for themselve.

Did bikes have to be serious all the time? Do rigid disciplines really matter? Could we bend genres? Were there still fresh things left to do in cycling? Apparently, yes there were.

I like that nobody owned this specific moment in cycling, or this inquisitive spirit. The reinvention that was happening, in retrospect, feels so spontaneous. It pretty much Big Banged itself into existence all over the world. Or did it? Maybe, rather, it was a backlash to having watched so many cycling gods fall from their lofty mountain tops in the early 2000s, and having collectively realized that the ideal that they, the industry, were selling us was quite often false. We, cyclists, as it turns out, didn’t need to be serious. We didn’t need to be the fastest to the top of the mountain. We didn’t have to perform like race cars. What we needed was a sport that was comfortable letting itself have fun, and in that 2013 era, I think the sport began letting itself do that more and more. Little did I know that there were people out there like Sam, and events like Rock Cobbler spearheading that effort.

Years passed, and as they came and went I would look at yearly galleries and posts about ongoing editions of Rock Cobbler. It no doubt looked like a total party, and something that I wanted to try, but its place on the calendar in February never lined up for me, living in Colorado, frigid and unfit for the challenge. The travel involved in getting to the race was also a factor in me never quite getting up the momentum to go. So I watched with my face pressed up against the glass, with images of smiling riders surfing emerald hills in my head. Some day, Stephen. Some day.

In February 2019 I received a direct message from Sam Ames out of the blue. A month earlier I had written a ride report that had morphed into a bit of a manifesto about Rodeo and its purpose. Someone sent that ride report to Sam, and for whatever reason it resonated. Sam sent me a note:

“Hey Stephen a buddy of mine shared your most recent post about the slow adventure ride….it was awesome… I know you’re not just down the street but I’d love to offer you two complementary entries to next year‘s Rock Cobbler event here in Bakersfield California. You sound like our kind of guys, keep up the great work. We’d would love to share our naughty/difficult/shenanigans riddled adventure with you. Reach out to me next fall registration opens November 1 if you’d like to make the trip!”

That was a wonderful note to get, and a very generous offer. I swapped some words with Sam and told him that I’d been eagerly watching Cobbler for years. I would definitely reach out. I had to go.

Years passed. I didn’t go. Not because I didn’t want to, but rather because… ugh… life. There was always something in the way, and then of course there was also COVID for a few years as well. Cobbler simmered in the background, the way a dog side-eyes you when it wants to be played with but you are too busy, but I never forgot about that note from Sam, or the siren’s call of the hills of Bakersfield.

Cut to 2023, Thanksgiving. Nearly five years after Sam’s note. I spent that holiday week off the bike and with family at a snowy cabin. It was wonderful, but long passive days eating and lying around on the couch also had the effect of leaving me dreaming about two wheeled adventures in warm, green places. I had been stewing in my thoughts about the idea that 2024 would be the year to leave my Colorado fox hole and roam the country more broadly, in search of fresh experiences and fresh interactions with the extended Rodeo family. I felt tired and stale in my habits. I felt repetitive in the rides and events that I attended. I felt like a politician who only visits the most important states with the most electoral votes, neglecting infinite beautiful and unique people and experiences in search of the industry spotlight. Please don’t take this to mean that I have anything against large bike events. I do, in fact, love any gathering bikes, anywhere, anytime. But to only seek out those headline experiences over and over; that ain’t it. That isn’t curious, that isn’t staying nimble. Instead it feels to me like riding in circles over and over until the rut wears so deep that you can’t even see out of it.

I was moved by these thoughts to action. This was the year to go to California. Go West Old Man! This was the year to Cobbler. My memories were fuzzy. Who was it that had reached out to me? What was his name? I searched through messages for a bit until I found the five year old thread, and I shot Sam a note.

“Sam. You probably don’t remember me, but in 2019 you sent me a kind note offering entry to the Rock Cobbler if I ever wanted to make the journey out. Just this morning I was thinking about how I’m tired of doing the same events over and over, and I was thinking that 2024 should be about making those “I wish” events happen. Rock cobbler was at the top of my list. Any chance that offer might still stand? No stress if not!”

The reply was swift:

“You bet! Look forward to meetin ya! 🤠 Happy New Year!”

And that was that. Tickets were booked, car was rented. I’m going going, back back, to Cali Cali.

As cobbler neared I had more amazing interactions that reminded me how deep the cycling community runs. CJ Covarrubias, who hails from the Santa Barbara area, and had been a Rodeo friend since 2014, reached out and asked where I was staying for the event. I had no plans, and figured that I’d end up in a dive hotel, doom scrolling the night before the race. Instead, he invited me to a house in Bakersfield where a group calling themselves the Cobbler Crew had been gathering for years. I’d never met CJ in person, but we’ve traded hellos, thumbs up, and good vibes for a decade now, and it amazed me that he would go out on a limb and invite me to crash their tight knit race lodging. I happy accepted, loving the idea that I would just be able to drop in on a new group of bike people and start some new friendships. The Cobbler Crew filled my race weekend with hospitality, laughter, warm meals, and general acceptance that reinforced this hunch that I had about 2024: Go new places, meet new people, and amazing things would happen.

The night before the race I was briefly able to track down and thank Sam Ames in person. He strikes quite the figure with his Bakersfield cowboy persona, but that hand shake and that moment of recognition when I told him that I was that random guy from Colorado, here to say “thanks” were all that it took to further reinforce how family-like this present cycling community can be.

Speaking of family, I had a singular mission for this California trip and other future trips like it: I wanted to find and meet in person as many Rodeo riders as possible. The night before and the morning of the race I pedaled up and down the parking lot and through the expo, looking for familiar faces or familiar bikes. I hit the jackpot! Even though Rodeo continues to be a very small company in an absolute sea of modern gravel bike brands, our community was well represented at Rock Cobbler, and it was so meaningful for me to be able to say hello to each person that I met, and to also say thank you for riding a Rodeo and making all of this possible. Some people I didn’t know at all prior to meeting them there, but others like Brad Henry or Jack Guenther I’ve spent much time swapping notes, jokes, and phone calls with over the years. Meeting them in person would be reason enough to come to an event like this!

I was struck while talking to everyone how much of the feeling of a tribe all of these Rodeo riders had. Southern California has a very mature cycling and racing scene, and the Cobbler stables and expo area were dominated by thoroughbred race bikes piloted by obviously fit riders. It was so clear to me while observing that Big Bike, as expected, has set its eyes on the gravel market and has executed perfectly in terms of creating refined and mature steeds for the masses to consume. I don’t want to sound cynical in this observation. This isn’t a David and Goliath thing. Gravel is amazing, gravel is fun, gravel is growing, and the marketplace has responded to that reality by giving people really really great bikes to chose from at every price point. That said, there was a time when Rodeo was a very early mover in this space, and was very unique in its offerings. Those days are long gone, and that leaves me asking myself, “who in California is choosing to ride our bikes instead of every other option”? It seems that every region has its own cycling culture, and even cities like Denver and Boulder which are very close to each other have different expressions of cycling culture, so being able to drop in to California’s general gravel culture with fresh eyes was a really beneficial lens through which I could see what the “industry” was up to, and where Rodeo fits into culture at large. In terms of Rodeo riders, what I saw most were really passionate free thinkers aboard our bikes. Everyone I talked to, no matter how new or old our bikes were, and no matter if they picked it up brand new or second hand, knew exactly what they had, and seemed to be beaming with pride that they had it. I didn’t stop to ask anyone what their personal “why” was, or if they thought that they had the best bike in the world. It was enough for me to meet each owner, look at their face, and listen to the stories that they offered up. What it all added up to was a very friendly, and once again very family feeling group of people who rode their bikes with pride, and had explicitly opted into what they felt that Rodeo represented as a bike and a brand. I didn’t have to fake excitement in these interactions, I was beaming and excited with each encounter. More of this in 2024, please more names-to-faces, more chance encounters, more thank yous to each owner, and more profound satisfaction that whatever this all is, it has legs of its own.

With the run-up to the Cobbler being so incredible, how about the event itself? Would it, could it stand up to the weight of my expectations? Would the course be kind and allow us to pass, or would the recent rains render it largely unrideable, a destroyer of souls and of drivetrains? There was only one way to find out. It was Cobbler time!

I lined up at the start with my house mates with no particular plan for the day other than to soak up every bit of the experience that I could. My February fitness absolutely had me worried if my legs were up to the 90 miles and almost 10,000 feet of climbing that lay ahead. I wondered if I could hang with my new group of friends, or if I would spend the day largely alone. I wondered if I would bonk. I wonder if my freshly remodeled bike was correctly adjusted and tuned, or would it rattle to death in those beautiful rolling green hills? There was only one way to find out, and so the pedaling began.

At first it was paved bike paths, crisp morning air, effortless drafting, jokes, smiles, low fog, and a shy sun. Legs warmed up, bodies warmed up. We settled in to those early miles with nothing but positivity and enthusiasm. Suddenly, I heard jingling and I looked down. To my horror, seemingly for no reason, my chain was dangling from my rear derailleur on the cement. I hadn’t been pedaling hard, it had simply separated at a link and had rendered my bike useless. I watched as my housemates disappeared down the road, shouting “oh no!”. I calmly pulled over. What could I do? Was the day over as quickly as it had began? I remembered fishing through my seat pack the night before, transferring its contents into my top tube pack. I had found a half of a Quick Link, but no the other half. What good is half a link? I forced myself to search each crevasse of the bag until a fold revealed the other half of the link. I congratulated myself for being thorough, put both links in my top tube bag, and forgot about it all. Now, standing on the side of the path, with riders sailing by, I dug furiously through that bag once again. Could they be in here? Where had I put them? My fingers found something small and metal. Jackpot! I had the link with me! I re-wrapped the chain, inserted the halves of the link, stomped my crank to set the link, and was suddenly, instantly, miraculously back in it. My bike was whole! ONWARD!

In my experience, and with my ability I’ve learned that it is not wise to ride too hard early in an event. Those early miles are so exciting, but they are also dangerous. If you lose your mind and ride above your level you can fake it for a minute, or maybe even an hour, but later in the day the piper will be paid, and the tune that he comes calling with will be misery, meltdown, and malaise. I ignored this wisdom of course. My friends were five minutes up the road and I must find them! Sam, my host at the Cobbler house had graciously turned around to check on me, and we worked together for fifteen or twenty minutes to catch back up with a cluster of the Cobbler Crew just as we began riding into Bakersfield’s eye popping emerald rolling hills. For someone freshly arrived from colorless and winter-weary Colorado, the beauty and vibrancy of these morning moments was more than I could take in. I was dazzled. I was energized! I was utterly distracted by the innumerable steep, punchy climbs that arrived with the non-stop cadence of ocean waves. Somewhere deep down I knew that this would be a very tough day, and somewhere next to that I already didn’t care, because I draw inspiration and motivation from natural beauty. Even if I were left to ride alone, I had the stunning beauty of the beautiful Bakersfield foothills to keep me company all day long.

It is not common to be able to ride the roads, trails, cow tracks, farm trails, and gullies that the Rock Cobbler threads throughout the day. Sam Ames does a tremendous amount of work collaborating with local ranchers, land owners, and stakeholders in order to gain special access for riders to be able to experience places like this, and as someone experiencing this place for the first time, I was immediately thankful to all who had collaborated to make this course possible.

The race continued on and my euphoric distractedness persisted, so much so that my pace became less intentional and more a reflection of my positive mood. I rallied up the climbs, buoyed by the expectations for what would come next, and I rallied the downhills, feeling somewhat invincible with my much larger than average tires and the flowing, serpentine descents.

Aid station one came and went. I refilled a bottle, not knowing what future temperatures the day held. The morning had remained refreshingly cool, and I wasn’t drinking much, but I’ve been ambushed by the sun before, and that was an outcome that I wanted to avoid this day.

Climbs came and went. Never ending and steep, I began deciding to simply hop off and walk some instead of trying to prove to nobody at all that I might be able to clean some of them. I started looking forward to these little minute long hikes. They changed my pace, they rested my legs, they let my mind relax from needing to pick a careful line. I dad-joked to anyone who would listen that it was a wonderful day for a hike, and it was!

I eventually connected with a second group of house mates who were up the road a bit. Each looked fresh and I could tell that they were intent on riding as a group, waiting for each other when necessary, encouraging each other as needed. Even though they all seemed like stallions to me, they didn’t show that blood lust that is sometimes in the air at races. They seemed to have a shared appreciation that Cobbler wasn’t the place to flex, it was an event to experience, and to create shared memories. At aid station two I rode on by myself, wanting to not be hypnotized by the pace of riders that I wasn’t familiar with. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of wanting to ride with people who are even 3% quicker than you, and tricking yourself into thinking that you can do that all day long. I thought it safer to give myself some space to feel how I felt, and to adjust pace accordingly. We soon entered what I think was the most beautiful section of the course, which is saying a lot, because everything had already been 10/10 on my scale. We threaded a singletrack cow path up a valley, then transitioned to a ridge, then pushed our bike up a few walls, then whooped our way down into the next valley.

This was Cobbler, all day long. Up, down. Up, down. Dig deep, rest, rally down the other side, and do it all over again. It would be senseless attempting to count the hills, they were beyond numbering. That said, I didn’t find them discouraging, I found them inviting and rewarding.

At aid station 3 I arrived quite tired. Some riders participated in the push up raffle competition, but I had no extra energy to spare. The fatigue was very real! I had been avoiding looking at my GPS all day long so as not to focus on how far I had ridden or how far I had to go, but I finally stole a glance. I had covered about sixty five miles and 7,500 feet of climbing. Secretly I had been hoping to see a larger number, like maybe 75 miles. The thought of thirty five more miles felt genuinely overwhelming and impossible for a few moments. I tried to calm myself down and chose to settle in to the next paved climb with focus and a bit of self discipline.

The regroup helped, and soon the stoke returned to my body. The final 35 miles shifted gears in terms of terrain and feel, and we soon found ourselves motoring through rowdy fields and rollers, avoiding sand traps, crossing highways, and cruising through parks. We merged with the shorter course riders, and the tone became even that much more social and that much less about intensity. I found some great riders to bunch up and work with, and we passed miles silently and with purpose.

I began to wonder when, not if the famous Cobbler humor would kick in. Where was the bull that had charged riders in previous years? Where was the house that they had ridden through? Where was the ball pit, the shovel shots, and the absurd hike a bike? I knew that Sam wouldn’t let us off entirely, and with each mile ridden closer to the finish I knew that I would soon encounter the inevitable. The first such obstacle loomed into view out from behind a small hill. The sight of it made me laugh out loud, smile, and stop to take a proper photo. Ahead was an absurdly steep hill a few hundred feet high with a very tired group of riders stumbling their way up it at a snail’s pace. The Cobbler had delivered! I put my head down and began pushing my own way up it, laughing at what must be a 35% grade. We all struggled for traction. Our bikes defied our efforts to push or drag them up the hill alongside us. There are few things less elegant than a bike rider forcefully dismounted by nature, and the spectacle was on full display here. I loved it. Interestingly I heard no complaining. We were all here for it, we were all in on the joke.

After the hill was a delicious series of singletrack descents which spat us out onto a highway. Suddenly we veered off the highway into a parking lot full of people. It looked almost like a wedding to me, and I thought the timing of that was fun, but it wasn’t a wedding, it was a biker bar, and before I knew it we turned left, then right, then right again up a ramp, and were all of a sudden riding THROUGH the biker bar. People were cheering and applauding, the place was packed. There was a table of paper cups filled with beer and the instructions were implied: Take one and drink up! If you’re a beer drinker you probably know just how delicious a mid ride beer can be, and when I took my first swig the intensity of the flavor and refreshment hit me full force. Delicious! I want another! But no! As soon as I entered the bar I exited the other side. I dreamed a dream that was a biker bar full of cyclists, one where everyone got along.

All that remained was a short jaunt to the finish. I stopped to adjust a slipping seatpost and was passed by a very intense looking junior pulling a few more riders in his wake. That wake was what I needed, and I dug deep to join in behind it. Once safely in the draft I knew my work for the day was all but done. My thoughts immediately drifted towards gathering everything that I had experienced that day before they could be dispersed into the forgotten crevices of my memory. THIS was the Rock Cobbler. I was here, I had experienced it, I had done it, and it had delivered 10x on every ounce of effort that I had put into it.

Sublime moments like this are not bestowed on me with any frequency. Day to day life is stressful. Work is stressful, family is hard, business is essentially war. But every once in a while you get a handful of hours, or even more rarely days away from that all. These moments are almost a flow state. Everything is good, nothing is bad, and you feel it deep down. Yes, sure, Rock Cobbler is “just” a bike ride, but a bike ride can be more than a bike ride. A bike ride can be a weekend, a bike ride can be a gathering, a bike ride can be community, a bike ride can even be therapy.

Rock Cobbler was all of that for me. It was, and I mean this genuinely, absolutely perfect. The course, with the challenges that it demanded, the views that it delivered, and the conditions that it gifted us, was the finest, most enjoyable bicycle course I’ve ever ridden in my 30+ years of being a cyclist. Different types of riders might feel differently, but in retrospect I don’t feel surprised at all that I feel this way. When Sam reached out with his generous invitation in 2019, the early signs that a kindred spirit was at the helm of a genre-expanding event were undeniable. Now, after having experienced his genius first hand, the only thing left to do is for me to very much encourage you to go and experience all that is the Rock Cobbler for yourself.

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  1. great write up. this was my first cobbler, too. loved it! will be back. – eric

  2. Wonderful writing & photography as always Stephen.

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