The Inaugural Monarch Grind Recap

By Sammy Berryman

Cover photo courtesy of Sammy Berryman

In total, the Monarch Grind is a 70-mile race that starts at 2,000 ft. of elevation in the town of Clark Fork, Idaho. It is the final event of a three-part race series held in North Idaho and the brainchild of Charles Mortensen, the owner of Sandpoint’s Syringa Cyclery. Riders make their way through the small town, across the royal blue river; past lush, sunlit fields; and climb 5,167 ft. into the Idaho Panhandle National Forest.

While averaging 300+ watts up the easier of the two climbs that make up the event, the realization of what you have really gotten into hits. The event is sadistic. Pure torment. Questionably not gravel. And, yet—it’s one of the most stunning courses out there. What follows is my first-hand account from taking part in the inaugural 2023 Monarch Grind. As someone who considers themselves adventurous, fit, and doesn’t mind sitting in the pain cave, this race was everything I wanted and nothing I expected.

Photo Courtesy of Sammy Berryman

As soon as the gun went off, it felt like we were in our own, intimate Tour de France. Pend Oreille Pedalers volunteers Tyler Kee and Steve Sanchez led us out on their motorbikes for three fast, flat miles on gravel. A peloton of 10-12 riders formed as we made our way to the bottom of the first climb averaging 20 mph for the first 10 miles.

All hell broke loose as we approached the first climb. A pack of five to six men broke away up the suffer fest of a hill that lasted eight miles and averaged a 7.2% grade. No surprise here, my 1×11 BMC aluminum bike maxed out on a section graded at 10% and I found myself walking until it was back to a reasonable 7% grade. (Prior to this, I wouldn’t have deemed 7% reasonable.)

Like a mirage in the distance, our first aid station appeared at the top the climb. It was packed with cookies, bananas, mandarins, chips, asian pears, water, mini bottles of coke, and happy volunteers. My dad, Mike Berryman, and I reached the aid station side by side and were greeted by my husband and our golden retriever, Dudley.

After topping off our water bottles, we began the first decent back down to 2,100 ft. The relief that came with descending was short-lived. The next 45 minutes required one to ride like a mountain biker in power position: out of the saddle, bent arms, and bowed legs. Realizing I had given up too much time at the aid station, my tactic was to grip it and rip it. (I was later called a descending maniac by my Strava idol, Beth Stoner, who was also racing.)

Waiting at the bottom was a short, flat section of gravel lined with gorgeous forestry that provided shade as the morning began to heat up. By this time, I had dropped my dad and a few other riders at the top, in large part thanks to all of the mountain biking I’d done over the summer. Two womencaught me as we began the second major climb of the day. The biggie-uppie, as I like to call it. They were on mountain bikes and had a few more gears available, which I was longing for. My Garmin GPS alerted that there were a couple of 13-15% climbs coming up. Surely, it was mistaken, I thought.

Over the next two hours, Valerie, Charlene and I hopscotched our way past one and another up the biggie-uppie. Some small chat was had and I got off of my bike countless times to push while eating a peanut butter and honey sandwich and laughing at the thought that this was turning into a duathlon. Valerie made an impressive push to the top and wasn’t seen again until the finish line. Taking her place was Galen, who had just signed up for the race the week prior thanks to a link his brother had flicked him. Our new threesome stayed within eyesight of each other until finally reaching the top of the climb—a false top, as we quickly found out.

Photo Courtesy of Sammy Berryman

For the next hour, Charlene and I took turns leading as we pulled away from Galen and navigated the rocky cobbles of the false flat. Sandy sections became a relief to the build up of pressure I began feeling in my hands, arms and shoulders. We reached a peak elevation of 5,167 ft. and began an undulating decent past the same aid station we stopped at on the way up.

Once again, I got into power position and somehow dropped Charlene. Assuming she stopped at the aid station, it was apparent that, soon enough, she would whizz by on her glorious suspension as we made our way back down to 2,000 ft.—and she did.

The palms of my hands were screaming at each washy section of gravel. It got so bad that I began making noises like a 5-year-old who wasn’t getting their way. I found myself talking out loud switching between “Nooo no no no” to “You’re okay, you can do this” while gyrating down the hill.

The hopscotch continued for the next 40 minutes when Charlene made a blazing pass toward the bottom of the decent that said “I’m going to beat you.” I was gutted, but knew that we were finishing the same way we started—fast, smooth and flat. My gravel bike was much better suited to this, so all I had to do was make sure the fuel tank had some energy left to make it.

When signing up for this race, I told myself that finishing would be a success. This was the first bike race I’d ever done, and I was doing it for fun, right? But now, there was a chance to place second. I popped my one and only Maurten caffeine gel and slurped down some water while glancing at the heard of cows on my right and peeking across the shimmering blue water to the finish line on the left. Narrowing in on Charlene, an animalistic instinct came over me—it was time to strike. Switching into a big gear, I lunged out of the saddle as my bike braided the ground beneath me. For the next 35 minutes, every pedal stroke counted.

Photo Courtesy of Sammy Berryman

Emotion crept up from the pit of my stomach into my throat while blazing through town on smooth tarmac before taking a righthand turn onto the final miles of gravel. Somehow, I was about to finish this insanely tough mental and physical feat. This was the feeling I was looking for. This is the reason we enter into races and take on challenges we’re unsure of—it’s the best feeling in the world.It’s what keeps us coming back time and time again.

A huge, grimy, sweat-incrusted grin engulfed my face as I crossed the finish line as second female overall. Holy shit. I had done it. After a cold beer and jump in the pond, I made the decision that I would do the race again next year. Only, this time, on a bike that had some suspension and another gear or two.

2024 will be the second year the Monarch Gravel Grind takes place on Sept. 16 as part of the Idaho Panhandle Gravel Series. Other events include the 3/4 Minus Cykeltur (May 4) and Chafe 150 (June 15). If you’re interested in learning more or want to sign up for the event, you can do so at //

Sammy Berryman is a sport obsessed Portland, Ore. native who recently found solitude in Sandpoint. You can find her perched upon her pedestal educating those about media coverage, equity, and accessibility for women in alternative sport. She created the website to inspire confidence in women in outdoor recreation.

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