The Tour of Dirt Roads VIII was this last Saturday, 91 miles of Nebraska dirt and gravel roads setting sail from Taggart Park in the tiny town of Palmyra.
ToDR is a grassroots event organized by the same group of people who put on Gravel Worlds, the Pirate Cycling League. This was, as the VIII indicated, the 8th official iteration of the ride, however many rides there might have been before the ride made official status is anyone's guess. That's one of the great things about grassroots gravel rides and gravel races, they don't just spring up over night as much as they mature from innocent beginnings. A group of like minded people get together and plan a ride, that ride is so much fun that the same people plan it again for next year, same time and same place. As will often happen those pioneering riders invite more people to participate in the ride, if the ride continues to occur over a few years and continues to grow it seems that eventually someone might suggest that they should "put the word out" about the ride in a more public forum so that anyone who wants to participate can. Suddenly, or not so suddenly in reality, the ride that was 5 buddies a few years ago is 30-ish people standing around in a small park, in a tiny town in SE Nebraska waiting for the "official" start time. This was my first ToDR but I'm guessing I missed more than just 7 previous rides, how many more only a handful of people could probably answer that question; if anyone could.
Somewhat promptly at 9 am the ride rolled out of Taggart Park, I say somewhat promptly because there is no official lineup, no official announcements or roll call, no pomp or circumstance associated with the Tour of Dirt Roads. Someone looks down at their time keeping device, be it a cycling computer, phone or if you're still kicking it 90s style, an actual watch and notices that it's time to get rolling. Once the first few riders start it out, everyone else drops what they are doing and falls in line. If your not paying attention or a late arrival, it's not uncommon that you might still be taking the bike off the rack, tightening your shoes, making last minute adjustments or caught with your pants down in the bathroom. While there is not an official "and we're off" to these events, tardiness is still generally frowned upon and you do so at your own peril as nobody wants to start out a 91 mile ride at a dead sprint to catch up.
Since the start of most gravel events happen within a town's borders; as a general rule there is a short paved section before being dumped onto the gravel. By the time you get done with the pavement roll out and hit the gravel the pecking order has usually been established. The fast folks are out front churning cranks in as quick of a cadence as their legs will allow because even when it's just a ride, for some there is no such thing as just a ride.
For mere mortals, the roll out can cause some trepidation and anxiety as they try to figure out where in the pack they belong. Chase the rabbits when you have not the legs of a rabbit and you could find yourself out of gas and alone off the back of the rabbit herd with 50 miles or more left to go. This is the cycling equivalent of the walk of shame as your legs, lungs and endurance die a slow death and the mere mortals start to gain and pass you. They look at you, you look back at them with those dead eyes and without a word everyone knows you're cooked and there is nothing anyone can do for you... suffering knows no company, especially when you're alone on a dirt road miles from the nearest town and the demons in your head begin to speak.
Everyone expects and anticipates the physical challenges that comes with long distance gravel riding, there's nothing about riding 90 miles of dirt and gravel that doesn't sound like it's going to be exhausting but you can train for the distance so you can prepare yourself for the physical toll that you'll pay for riding that far.
What you can't train for as easily is that inner voice in your head, the self doubt that can creep into your psyche when you realize that you've made a grievous error in judgement about your physical abilities and your neck deep, treading water just trying to stay afloat in the abysmal pool of your pain cave. That voice is a dick, it's not your friend and it will do anything and everything it can to get you to just stop pedaling; it will make deals with you, (let's just pedal 5 more miles to the main road and we will call for help, OK?) It will plead with you to stop, tell you that you can't go on, you're not strong enough and if it's feeling it's oats that day it will succeed and it will beat you to a bloody pulp until there is nothing left of your self confidence. When that happens it will leave you there in the ditch along side some county road, broken, teary eyed and full of doubt and loathing. As a parting shot it'll give you a Cheshire grin, throw you the bird and casually sink back from where it came. That voice in your head is such a dick it won't even keep you company while you sit in a puddle of your own sweat along side some country road waiting for rescue, it'll just leave you there with plenty of time to ponder if you really should have stopped, if you really couldn't go on or if you just plain quit for no good reason. I've been there and it's not a pleasant place to be, dark things happen there, things you won't soon forget but will wish you could. Controlling that inner voice is the challenge that is gravel riding or gravel racing, knowing how to keep it at bay when faced with potential hours of solitude is not an easy thing to master.
Fortunately for me, this story didn't have near as dark or dismal outcome. I've been there before but today was not that day for me. Just big bulls and fluffy clouds on the Tour of Dirt Roads.
Don't get me wrong, there is definitely a dark side to long distance gravel but there is also a brigher side... a yin to the yang or an ebb to the flow if you will. Brian and I set off from Palmyra together and picked up Scott somewhere along the first 20 miles or so of the route, he was riding at a similar pace and so we just sort of swept him up. Brian and I have ridden together multiple times and knew each other but neither of us had met Scott prior to the Tour of Dirt Roads and that is the great thing about hours of turning the cranks on a gravel road, you can meet a fellow traveler along the way and pick up a conversation with them almost as if you've known them for years. The best antidote for suffering is company and it's the foolish rider who doesn't welcome company and distraction in the form of conversation when it presents itself.
And so it went for the three of us, sometimes we would ride as a group and other times one or two of us would get a second wind and would pull ahead for a bit as is often the case but more or less we had formed a small group of weary travelers yo-yoing our way down the road. Tecumseh was our first chance for a refuel and we rolled in together but none of us were really sure where the best place to get supplies was so we asked a kindly middle aged lady and her brood of youngins. If you ever need to know anything about a small town just ask one of it's permanent inhabitants, small towns have very few secrets but plenty of people who like to share what secrets it does have. This won't help you any when riding gravel and looking for a resupply but it will be an interesting conversation.
Wouldn't you know that her recommendation was spot on, we met up with the fast group at the local grocery store so this must be the place to stop when in town.
Tecumseh wasn't even halfway yet at only 35 miles so I decided it might be a good idea to eat at least a little something in the form of actual food. The store had a deli counter at the back so I picked up a couple of pieces of chicken and a Monster energy drink to wash it down in addition to my other supplies. Even though the chicken they came from must have been close to pigeon sized the two anemic chicken legs went down smooth and the salt was welcomed as well to replace what I'd already sweated out.
I'm not sure if we stunk to high heaven or if they started getting some tire envy after seeing the meaty tires on the Pugsley, whatever the case, it wasn't long before we had the joint all to ourselves as the faster pack took off down the road.
Not too long after they had left we decided to get on down the road ourselves. Ran across an alien landing craft on our way out of Tecumseh. Luckily none of us looked the part of being a leader or intelligent and they left us alone in search of more acceptable probing victims.
Another one of the aspects of gravel riding that really appeals to me is that you can see the world in it's most raw form. Sure you can travel in a similar means on a road bike on paved roads but you'll still get a more sanitized, commercialized and hermetically sealed version of someone else's vision of what 'Merica ought to be or at least what they want to sell to you as America. Traveling down roads that probably get fewer vehicles on them in a month than the street in front of your house gets in a day, you get to see and experience things that at times seem untouched by technology and the modern world. Not many farmers in rural Otoe county sitting across from each other swapping Angry Bird tips on their smart phones while not looking at each other the entire hour they spend sitting at a table 5 feet apart from each other.
Sterling Nebraska is a small town straight out of a movie set with a pristine main street and sculptured church that you just don't see anymore except in those moving pictures if you stick to the main roads. A real jewel of a town right here in our backyard and one that reminds me a lot of my days growing up in Montana... except for the god awful humidity we have here and the very distinct lack of any mountains in sight. It was our next and last opportunity to refuel before the final push back.
It was a much shorter stop here, we were at about mile 70 so with the end looming in the not too far off distance we dare not doddle too much and let the legs refuse to keep moving. With a pocket full of bananas we set off toward that small park in the tiny town of Palmyra and the end of our ToDRs.
Some of them you could argue barely qualified as roads but they were some of the best roads we rode all day, the smooth dirt was a welcome change to the chunky white rocked gravel roads in and around Sterling and Tecumseh that would shake your fillings loose and fatigue the forearms.
Dark clouds might have started to loom in the sky but as we rolled into Palmyra there were nothing but bright spirits in the three of us. It was an absolutely gorgeous route put together by the PCL on an almost perfect day. It sometimes amazes me to look back later on the numbers staring back at me on Strava and see that I was riding for 7+ hours... in a row... when rides are going well and you're feeling good, it never seems all that long and you're almost sad when it's over. Well not initially, first comes the wave or relief that you can stop pedaling but once that subsides there really is a feeling of wanting more. Rode some good roads that day, met some great people and had an unbelievable experience that someday I can recount to the cute nurse or Dr. in the nursing home. Not that they will believe that the pale, bloated, liver spotted old curmudgeon that sits before them gumming a pureed chicken breast ever did such things but I will know. I hope I'll still be able to recall those memories after the physical being has withered away, trapping the mind in a slowly dying, fleshy sarcophagus.