Gravel Worlds, take two, was last Saturday and to say that I was dreading the day or more to the point that I had some trepidation about the race was an understatement. Human beings are funny creatures in that we tend to focus our memories of certain events on the negatives at times rather than the positives. Regular readers of the blog, if such a person exists, will remember that last years Gravel Worlds ended after about 92 miles for me. Even with needing to pull the plug early I had a blast on the ride up until the last few minutes and final miles but of course leading up to this years Gravel Worlds those final miles and moments were about all I thought about during the days right before Gravel Worlds this year.
Some things had changed since the last time I sailed the 7 seas with these pirates though and I hoped my seamanship had become vast enough to safely navigate the deep waters.
At OMG dark thirty on Saturday morning we were about to find out, all the planning you were ever going to do was done, all the prepping you could have done you just ran out of time to do, all that was left now was to throw a leg over the top tube, settle into your saddle and pedal... for a very long time and hope that it was enough.
As I had said in the previous post, it's interesting looking at all of the different gear choices, food choices and bike choices that each of the riders chose in hopes that it was the best combination to get them to the finish. There was a cold front that moved in the day before and the forecast was calling for winds in the teens and temps that were only in the mid 50s at the start. Chilly for sure at this time of the year and I had debated if I needed layers, in the end I opted to ride with just the summer kit in hopes that it was enough but there were lots of riders who had arm/leg warmers or full on jackets at the start. Then there were those that chose a pack to carry all their gear, those that chose to carry all of their supplies in frame bags of one kind or another, those that opted to get what they needed along the route or those, like this lady who tested the bursting strength of their jersey pockets stuffing it with all the accouterments they thought they needed. That's the great thing about races like this, it's all up to individual choice and what works best for each person; there really are no right or wrong answers and no cookie cutter set of instructions that fit every person the same. Planning, prepping and finding the gear choice that works best for you might be more important than how many 100 mile rides you get into your legs before Gravel Worlds and then there is the mental aspect. If your mental game isn't on point, it doesn't matter how well any of the other aspects go, every long distance ride in my experience is either won or lost based mostly on the minds willingness to let you keep going.
In the early morning hours we were met with soft, spongy gravel which kept the pace slower than last years start and had the skinnies swerving left, right, right, left and back again all looking for the perfect, dry line. Sitting back cruising on the 3.8" inch tires of the Pugsley it was all I could do to keep from literally laughing out loud, didn't they know that there was no perfect path to be had this morning and all the juking and jiving wasn't going to reveal one. The best you could hope for was that you could stay upright, moving forward and that the person to your left, right and immediately in front of you could do the same; until things spread out a little we were all in this together. Live by the skinny, die by the skinny.
If you could get past the squishy gravel and the chill in the air, once the sun started to come up it was an absolutely gorgeous morning to be on two wheels.
Gary, Brian and I began the journey riding along together and on these type or rides company is always welcomed.
The three of us rolled into and out of Greenwood, mile 21, an hour and 45 minutes into the race so we were averaging right around 10-11 mph at this point. The soft gravel was definitely having an affect on pace and if we didn't figure out a way to bump that up a little we'd be in serious risk of not making a check point later on down the road. The key is to try to ride at a quick enough pace to allow yourself time to stop at an oasis or store as needed but that meant you had to ride faster than a 10 mph average to give yourself some cushion because a 10 mph average is the slowest you could go and make the check points on time.
Or cat stops, you had to leave a time gap to allow yourself time to pet the furry creatures along the way, especially the ones not chasing you down nipping at your heals.
Fortuitously as the sun rose higher in the skies and the winds increase slightly the roads continued to dry at and ever increasing pace making swifter travel not only a possibility but very manageable. We even met up with Frank and Chris out on the course, I can't remember if we caught up to them or they caught up to us to be honest but we looked around and there they were.
Since they slowly started to ride away from us, my guess is that they caught us and then off they went.
Rolling into the first official oasis in Eagle at mile 32 we had managed to bump ourselves up to about 12 mph which is exactly what we needed to do if we wanted to keep ahead of the minimum mph average by more than the skin of our teeth.
It probably helped that we also had a slight tailwind after making the corner at Greenwood and the short pavement section had everyone feeling good and racing along.
A Street found us battling a bit of a crosswind but it's a great road for scenery so it wasn't too difficult to take the mind off of the extra bit of struggle and it was still easier than riding directly into the winds.
Rolling into CP 1 we were still making decent time but the cross wind had slowed us a little so it was a few donut holes, a pipe cleaner and off we went.
After we left CP 1, I started to find myself in an odd situation, it seemed that Gary and Brian were starting to fade, at the same time I was feeling really good physically. It's not a situation I find myself in all that often and I was struggling a little on what to do, stay and wait for the guys and risk not making a check point or worse not finishing again for a second year or, in my eyes, selfishly push on by myself and see what I could make of the race and sink or swim based on that choice.
Those thoughts were still weighing heavy on my mind as the water tower for Bennet appeared on the horizon... what to do, what to do.
Crossing Hwy 2 at mile 43 of the race we had dipped below 11 mph for our average again, we seemed to be dancing with the devil and hoping the devil wouldn't win out. Gary opted to turn off into the gas station for a brief pit stop while Brian and I rode on, that was the last time I saw Gary until the race was over.
As Brian and I rode on, it was completely unintentional but a gap opened up before I really noticed it had done so and it began to increase as the miles wore on but I wasn't sure slowing or stopping was the best choice at this point in the race, there were still a ton of miles to go. I felt terrible for pushing on but I felt great in mind, body and spirit not to mention the pedals just seemed to be turning more effortlessly than they should have been at this point in the day and I didn't want to jinx that if I could help it.
I passed a guy on a cargo bike who looked like he was really struggling, I commented that his bike might be one of the few out there that were more difficult to keep going up these hills than the Pugsley. We shared a few more words and then he was behind me and I was once again by myself on the road.
Shortly before Roca, I caught up to Scott Redd who was cruising along at a good clip and we also shared a few words before a gap opened up and increased as I continued on, on what had surely become a solo journey for me. I really hoped that I hadn't made a grievous error riding like I was and choosing to do so with nothing but my thoughts as company.
Rolling into and out of Roca after a quick stop for water I didn't see Brian or Gary ride into town, I felt horrible for having left them, it's shitty thing to do but I was feeling amazing still and had managed to click the average back up to around 12 mph. Knowing that I likely wasn't going to see them again that day unless my fate dramatically changed, I decided to push on and see just how long I could ride out this euphoric feeling before it all came crashing down around me.
I knew we would once again be on Wittstruck road for this years Gravel Worlds but actually seeing the spot where I had bowed out last year was a truly hypnagogic experience, bordering on the nightmarish after remembering how awful it felt to have to text Corey and Craig to let them know I was pulling the plug. Ironically, as I came upon the intersection of Wittstruck and Hwy 77 (mile 60) there was a fellow cyclist sitting there sideways on his bike looking much like I probably did last year in almost exactly the same spot. I stopped and talked to him for a few moments and tried to offer any help that I could but I think in the back of both of our minds we both knew his day was done, if not right there at that spot then somewhere else shortly down the road. I felt for the guy as I continued on, he was me 12 months removed from my experience with Wittstruck. Sometimes the hills win and you just have to regroup and hit them back the next time.
I knew that shortly after Wittstruck we would turn and start heading north and into the wind, it wasn't as terrible and gusty as last year but it also was blowing more than what you could call a gentle breeze. Up to this point I was feeling better than I expected and better than I had felt in a race of this distance, at this point in any others previously. I didn't want to get too optimistic but I thought to myself that if I could manage the next 40 miles or so into the wind with minimal fatigue while still maintaining a decent pace, I just might have a chance of finishing this thing... I was still a long ways out though so it was guarded optimism at best.
I rolled into the Reinkordt farm, also CP 2, and was shocked to see Ed, Jamie (oddly no picture of Jamie) and Kyle, Ed had shot out of the start on his Warbird like a scalded dog and I figured I'd seen the last of him for the day barely a mile into the race, yet here he was. Remarkably I was also still feeling really good and a bit more optimistic about my chances, there was still a long ways to go but the farm marked the halfway point and the wind wasn't slowing me nearly as much as I had thought it might.
I decided to take a bit of a break and enjoy some of the homemade pickles they always put out and an ice cold lime soda, both really hit the spot. Jamie took off on her quest to try to catch the other two ladies in the women's Fat Bike category and I followed her out a few minutes later. I said my goodbyes to Ed and Kyle and assured them they'd see me down the road as the passed me.
Shortly before Malcolm I caught back up with Jamie, she looked like a woman on a mission and after seeing the look of determination and concentration on her face I decided the best course of action was to let her be so she could focus on her task at hand. Knowing a Lippy's stop was likely in the cards and that Jamie wasn't stopping I pushed on ahead to help give myself a little cushion that would be eaten into as I was eating into a BBQ sandwich.
Moments after I passed Jamie, Ed and Kyle did in fact catch up to me and since we were all going to Lippy's we rode into Malcolm together.
I knew that stopping would be a bit of a time penalty but it was well worth it, plus I was riding really well still and I was still maintaining a pace above the 11 mph range even though I was heading straight into the wind. Given that fact and the fact that Malcolm was more than halfway through the north section, I felt confident I could eat and still be more than alright with time. Besides, in my opinion you can only survive so long on food substitutes before you need to get something real in your gut.
It took a few minutes for the legs to get going again after having stopped for that long but once they loosened up I was clipping along at a decent pace again and feeling really well. I decided at that point that I might be living on borrowed time, nothing indicated that I'd bonk but a little voice in the back of my head kept telling me that it was a possibility because I was riding too well and feeling too good, this was not normal for me.
Usually I try to convince that little bastard of a voice to go away but for some reason I didn't that day, instead I challenged him... I told him that he might be right, I might bonk at some point but until that happened lets see what we can do, since we are just on borrowed time after all.
Things continued on this weird path, I was riding outside my comfort zone and pushing things harder than I was accustomed to doing. I was skipping oasis stops when I knew I had enough water to keep going, I was powering up hills stronger than I should have been, some of them out of the saddle, for being 95+ miles into the race. Yet no matter how hard I pushed, I didn't seem to be getting abnormally fatigued and my legs were feeling really good still. Who was this person riding my Pugsley and where in the hell did he come from all of a sudden?
The turn into Valparaiso marked the last of the true north section and also the last known store so I opted to stop here for a bit and get something cold to drink and a some Gatorade and water for the bottles. While anything still could happen, especially since the bigger hills were still ahead, I was starting to really feel like I had a good chance of finishing Gravel Worlds this year and I also felt like a decent time was still within reach as well.
Leaving Valparaiso, I popped in the headphones, cranked the volume a little more, told the little whiny voice in my head to F.O., put my head down and rode to and beyond what I had previously perceived as my limit... and well above what I am normally comfortable riding at. By my calculations, despite having already ridden 108 miles and the fact that the hills were bigger and more frequent, I turned in my fastest times on that last 37 miles; averaging close to 12 mph on that last section.
The only thing that felt better than hitting that last paved section knowing it was almost over, was actually crossing the finish line and having Schmidty hand me that rad finishers patch. At times I felt like I was a man possessed, riding like that is not my norm and to be honest I don't have a clue where it came from... a self proclaimed non-racer who just happened to have a good day I suppose.
By the numbers, 13 hours and 44 minutes of total time expired, 12 hours and 9 minutes of riding time according to Garmin, 145 miles ridden at an overall average of 11.92 mph (just ever so shy of 12 mph) and one hell of a sense of accomplishment considering last years failure. That effort was good enough for a 9th place (out of 23 registered entrants) finish in the Fat Bike, Recumbent and Cargo Bike category. I also felt great about the fact that it seems I did make the right choices in bike (for a 40 lbs behemoth, she sure can move when she needs to), equipment, nutrition, hydration and overall perpetration for the race. Everything just fell into place more perfectly than I could have ever hoped for and made for one memorable Gravel Worlds 2016 for me.
Now the shout outs. First I have to start with Kris Sonderup, Damon Hershey, Rick Dockhorn and all of the people at Cycle Works/Moose's Tooth for being the most supportive, greatest group of people a guy could ever hope to ride for. Without them nothing like this would be possible, proud to fly the rasta colors.
Next I gotta thank Corey, Craig and everyone else involved with the Pirate Cycling League for organizing a top notch event right in our own backyard. I can't even imagine the hours of work that goes into making this possible or the stress they have to go through in the weeks, days, hours before the event trying to make things go off without a hitch. You guys and gals rock!
Last but certainly not least I have to thank the #sovag and SMNDFBR gang... Ed, Janelle, Brian, Gary, Sarah, Jamie, Brent, MG, Todd, Ralph, Scott, Tyler and everyone else who has come out and made the ride what it is and has inspired me to take on these kinds of challenges. Thank you all for coming out week in and week out to ride with me, it truly amazes me every Saturday when you all show up to spin a few miles together. So blessed and beyond words appreciative of everyone I've mentioned in these last three paragraphs and of everyone I might have forgotten to mention who are a part of the Lincoln Fat Bike scene, I'd put our group up against any in the country. Much love to you all.
I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Kevin Fox for being on course taking pictures and providing encouraging words along the way, it's a bit odd being on the other side of the camera lens but it's much appreciated brother, next year we will have to get you a bike instead of a van.
Kevin Fox's work y'all: