Field of rocks: A conversation with Sam Ames

Real … easy … ride.

It’s probably easier to describe what the infamous Rock Cobbler isn’t than what it is. As organizer Sam Ames likes to say, mostly with a shrug, “It’s a stupidly hard bike ride.” He doesn’t add that you’ll have to dismount and go through a kiddie pool, or ride your bike through … a house.

Gravel race? Extreme ‘cross race? Not even a race? That’s up to you, apparently. The only thing definitive is a gorgeous course, an ominously hard reputation, and the knowledge that whether your post-ride drink is water or cold beer or something else, you’ll have earned it.

Traditionally run near Bakersfield, CA in February, in 2021 the event has moved to April 10th. I’ve known Sam Ames since he began promoting the now-defunct Vlees Huis Road Race well over ten years ago, and have been living sort-of-in-his-neighborhood, an hour or so up the road in the mountains from Bakersfield, so the timing was great to talk to him about the Cobbler.

Sam manages an enormous bike shop called Action Sports but found the time to chat about this event that leaves its mark on everyone who does it. Sam also runs the Gear Grinder Grill, a mobile feeding operation that caters eats for the Belgian Waffle Ride and other outdoor festival events. In sum, he is a hardened professional when it comes to making things go off without a hitch.

Seth Davidson: What’s the connection between the Rock Cobbler and the Belgian Waffle Ride?

Sam Ames: The Rock Cobbler suspects you know went to ride BWR [in 2013], met Michael [Marckx], and were inspired by it when we got home. We thought it was really cool, he was doing things we like to do so it spawned a process of showcasing things here in Kern County. Catering was born out of that because Michael hired us immediately and off we went.

Seth Davidson: Who is the typical Rock Cobbler?

Sam Ames: Somebody that enjoys adventure, has an open mind, and kind of likes what we call mixed surface. The running joke is that it’s sort of gravel and sort of not. The person that gets a little bit of the madness and the challenge. Don’t mistake our shenanigans for kindness when it comes to the route.

Seth Davidson: Is the Rock Cobbler an attempt to change perceptions about Bakersfield?

Sam Ames: Not intentionally. We have some pretty good riding but a lot of mixed surface stuff that is unique to Kern County. We picked February because it’s a great time for rain, things are green, so inadvertently we’ve changed perceptions, people have come up and said wow, I had no idea, and part of it is the private land we are able to ride. It wasn’t a goal but it has happened. People have come back and ridden on their own. That part I do like. I’ve lived here all my life and like where I live.

Seth Davidson: You promoted the best road race in SoCal for years, Vlees Huis. What happened?

Sam Ames: It was having a difficult time in hindsight in getting spots on the calendar. Some rider feedback that we had a really good road race, people that loved a hard road race loved it, I was fighting so hard with criteriums to get a spot on the calendar. We have a window, March, between heat and cold. I didn’t want to fight with the powers that be, USAC and its entities, we’d started the Rock Cobbler, and it was a slow migration away towards events that we didn’t have to work as hard to make happen. I got tired of having to fight with SCNCA and others to get the date that worked so I decided to focus on other areas.

Seth Davidson: What direction is competitive cycling going?

Sam Ames: I haven’t had my finger on the pulse. I said when I was 50 my racing days were over. I really haven’t paid attention, even pre-covid I wasn’t following any level of SoCal bike racing other than on social media. I perceive and hear that numbers are down, people are doing other events, interest is in other places. I’ve said for a long time that more effort and money needs to go into younger kids. I love what NICA is doing. It’s about getting more kids on bikes at an earlier age. The masters are wonderful but if cycling doesn’t become culture early I don’t know what happens. If you look at the Cobbler, 80% of the riders are over 40. People that age are seeking out other things. I get the feeling that USAC is on a bit of a decline and for young kids and young adults, that’s the area that needs to be bigger.

Seth Davidson: What got you into promoting races and events like the Cobbler?

Sam Ames: We knew we had great venues. Cyclocross was always my favorite aspect of cycling. We wanted to promote a ‘cross race. I rekindled racing as an over-30 guy and wanted to put on some events, so I put on ‘cross at Hart Park and I was confident that we had good venues. You do enough industrial park crits and you realize you have something people might enjoy, something cool for people to do. I really like entertaining and I get a lot of joy out of people enjoying themselves. The greatest reward is a satisfied customer, and I always treat my bike racers like customers.

Seth Davidson: You pretend to be an easy-going, humorous guy, but your events are professional, meticulously organized, and deadly serious. Why the two hats?

Sam Ames: I think my character having a military mom, she was awfully hard to deal with and when I was younger I was always the mediator, and I always wanted to be the queller, the negotiator, the person who likes to get along, I don’t like confrontation. I want things to be easygoing and have a good time but when it comes to delivering an experience I wring my hands over “Is this going to be right? Are there enough arrows out on course?” I pay attention to detail. Now when we go to an event as riders I get a good understanding of knowing people’s expectations, then I want to exceed them. How can I deliver a better experience? I pour that into my events, I want to raise the bar of expectations. Sometimes it’s too much, but I’m always trying to find new stuff to do and I want it done well. If I’m going to do it, I don’t want to half-ass it. I want it to be done right.

Seth Davidson: Bakersfield isn’t perceived as bike friendly. Is that accurate?

Sam Ames: I would say it’s no worse or better than places I’ve traveled to. I’ve had road rage incidents and discussions with NorCal/SoCal riders, we all have commonalities, I’ve seen it everywhere. As much time as I’ve spent on the roads here, it’s not any worse. I think we do have more accessible pathways. Every time I go to Santa Monica we’d be riding up PCH, I’d be like, ”Get me outta here.” I don’t get that feeling here. The east side has good shoulders, minimal traffic. The routes for people who are training, there’s a lot of road. As a commuter, I can’t say for certain. My commute is 14 miles so it’s all on bike paths or neighborhood streets. We’re not Holland or Belgium.

Seth Davidson: Few people from LA/OC/San Diego view Bakersfield as a cycling destination. Why is that?

Sam Ames: There is good riding here. The number of rides and loops here that have a fair amount of climbing with minimal traffic, you could ride 3-4 hours and never see a car. Obviously it’s hot in the summer and the valley allows us a rain shadow effect, so it’s easy to ride here a lot. People from SoCal like the less impact of the east side of town. On the west side you have to go a long way and it’s all oil and ag, going east there is a lot of great riding.

Seth Davidson: What does Kern County have to offer cyclists that the rest of SoCal doesn’t?

Sam Ames: There are epic climbs here.

Seth Davidson: What’s the riding like east of Bakersfield?

Sam Ames: You get into the Paiutes (mountains), 6-8 loops there, it’s lumpy, it’s full climb, 6-8 miles, valleys, a little bit of everything. That’s dead east. The one route I don’t encourage is Kern Canyon Road on CA 178. It’s dangerous but people do it. There are a few gravel roads that go in and around there that you can ride on road tires. It’s a 34-mile climb so direct east and slightly north there is a lot of everything.

Seth Davidson: What’s your cycling background?

Sam Ames: I started in late 1984-1985. I saw a bike race on television, Paris-Roubaix. It was a bad weather year. I kind of sat there, it was a snippet on ABC Wide World of Sports. I was mesmerized. It triggered my interest and I wanted to get a bike. That summer I worked in the grape fields. In the old days you had to go weigh the grape boxes, I saved my money, making $5/hr, went straight to the bike shop, spent $200 on a Motebecane, a  pair of shorts, a helmet that weighed as much as my Igloo cooler, did a few triathlons, hated swimming, got a license as a junior, raced in Spain, Cat 1 amateur level, but in Europe in 1988-89, there were no resident Americans, no creature comforts for me at that age, it was challenging. Came home, worked, kept riding. I was near Barcelona, just south of that.

Seth Davidson: Are you involved in safer streets advocacy for Bakersfield?

Sam Ames: Not directly. There is an entity, Bike Bakersfield, Zach Griffin of iBikeKern. I like to contribute where I can and have had Bike Bakersfield involved in events.

Seth Davidson: What is your approach towards gender and racial diversity at your events?

Sam Ames: I don’t see a lot of that issue in my events. I’m that person that looks at it and I feel like if anyone has ever come to our event, we want everyone to be included. It never really crossed my mind, never had any incidents where I felt that was a problem. If people have a voice or have been discriminated against, yes, speak up, we need to fix something if it’s broken. I want everyone to be included. There are people from any gender who may not get the stuff we do. Everyone needs to be included and feel included.

Seth Davidson: How do you coordinate with local, private, and county entities for the Rock Cobbler?

Sam Ames: It has been pretty simple. We categorize it as not a race. Most of the land we use, we have to follow the rules of the road. We don’t get into CHP and law enforcement issues because we try not to take over signals, and we pay for small windows to get through intersections. Now it’s on the east side of town there’s little of that. Stop signs on the roads, people in ones and twos. The off road is open land area that everybody uses so we don’t have to hassle with a lot of that. Private land is having good relationships and doing some upkeep, fixing a few fences, earning people’s trust, it’s humbling to be able to do that.

Seth Davidson: Why do you cap entry at 500?

Sam Ames: There is some level of what the venue/course can accommodate. There’s a point where it’s jut too many people that I can’t deliver the experience and manage the course marking. It’s controlled growth management. We went from 150 to 300 the first two years, this last year was the fastest sellout year ever. We might do a bit more.

Seth Davidson: Why did you decide to offer the shorter and easier Pebbler?

Sam Ames: We do a small number of 50. I didn’t want to do it at all but I had some good customers who said they can’t do the whole thing. I told them to turn around when they’d had enough, it’s not a race. But then I thought the easier thing is a cutoff point where the course can split and they could get their full experience. Some of it was fitness. They couldn’t do the full distance.

Seth Davidson: Who are the iconic riders of the Rock Cobber?

Sam Ames: Neil Shirley comes to mind. When we first started I didn’t know him and he reached out and said, “I heard about the event.” He came to the first one and that was impressive. He is one of the grandfathers of gravel in our area. He was a big key in giving us credibility. We’ve had Amanda Nauman, Ben Raymond from San Diego, Brent Prenzlow. Locally all my closest  friends have chipped in time, the iconic list is pretty long! There is only one person left who has started all eight, Glen Imke, a local guy.

Seth Davidson: You say up front that it’s not a race but that it’s stupidly hard. Are you trying to keep the grass roots feel for a reason?

Sam Ames: Yeah, I like the fact that the demeanor and environment is casual. That doesn’t make it easy. The route, we make it really, really hard for everybody. But we don’t play up the competition between riders because that happens on its own. They pin on a number and there’s a time, make it what you want it to be, but there’s going to be a kiddie pool! There are a lot of events putting up money and true gravel events being races, I like it a little more loose and fun. I’ve heard guys who race a lot who love it and say “Don’t change a thing.”

Seth Davidson: Why is the ride so popular?

Sam Ames: I think it’s popular because it’s unique and it’s not something where I’ve seen our format anywhere else. It speaks to some people, and trust me it doesn’t speak to everyone. I’ve had people say, “I’m never fucking coming back.” That’s the human being—we’re not all gonna like everything. People who like it want to see what’s coming next, the core is the challenge of the event. When they come they’re going to get a challenge. People just like the adventure. We come up with cool gifts they can take home and use, something bitching like a throwing axe that they can use every day.

Seth Davidson: How is covid going to affect gravel riding?

Sam Ames: It’s affecting every event. We had to move to April from February. I had to get the county involved because I want the event to be healthy and not have a cavalier reputation. The big discussion among promoters is later in the summer and fall people should be able to execute. Covid will require protocol for the better part of a year, at least. Some of the hygiene/safety measures will continue for a long time. I went to BWR in Cedar City and they did an exceptional job with sanitation, and stations, and great lengths to make it safe and good and we’ll do the same thing. We developed our protocol with two doctors and county health. You can’t control everything but people are aware—they know they can’t blow their nose off to the left like they used to. The demographic is not the 3:00 AM person shuffling through Wal-Mart who doesn’t care. Pre-event, during the event, post-event we have protocol.

Seth Davidson: What’s the hardest part about promoting the Rock Cobbler?

Sam Ames: The course. I’m a one-man show leading up to the event. I can be a good delegator, but a lot of logistical stuff up front is manageable for one person. But getting the course marked takes a small army of people I’ve worked with over the years. My greatest fear is people getting lost. Every year I learn a little more. Once we get to Wed/Thu/Fri it’s making sure that’s done well. Weather can wreak havoc.

Seth Davidson: Thanks, Sam!

Sam Ames: You’re welcome.

END


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