To say that the gravel scene in the Mid-West has increased in recent years would be an understatement, it's just exploded! Here on the wind swept plains of the flyover states, we have plenty of little towns with funny names and those funny named towns are often connected by miles of gravel roads; maybe more gravel than any other region of the country. While that is a good thing, it can also make scheduling gravel rides/races a bit of a headache. All it takes is a peek at the list of rides on a calendar and you will see how it's possible to have multiple really fun looking rides/races on every weekend from May through August and as close as your backyard... sometimes almost literally. If you're looking for such events I recommend going to RidingGravel.com and checking out their event page, GT, Ben and whoever else is involved in the up keep of that event calendar do an amazing job, it's the best one I've seen for gravel events. Any who, that means making choices and that means that some races/rides get left off of the schedule on a particular year or all together if it bumps up against another ride you really like. The Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash is in it's fifth iteration this year but I had never made it down for one even though it's just across the border in Marysville Kansas. Now some of the crew made it down last year and the pictures of the course were pretty amazing, a mixture of gravel, B roads and even some gnarly looking single track sections, I penciled that one in for this year. As it turned out it rained, it rained a lot in August, forcing the organizers to pull the single track and the B roads, leaving only 125 miles of Kansas gravel. I was a little bummed but totally understood the need to move away from the mud if it could be avoided.
Watching the forecast the week leading up to the race could give a person an ulcer fretting about rain or no rain. I decided to stop watching it mid week and give my gastric fluids a break, if it was going to rain then it was going to rain and there wasn't anything we could do about that. As you might have guessed, Marysville was one of the towns that the Pony Express went through during the days of its existence, hence the name of the gravel race. The town itself is a fairly quaint little place and it doesn't take long milling about the downtown area to see that they have fully embraced their rich history as far as the Pony Express goes so the race name was a natural choice.
The Pony Express race also embraced that history by doing their check point verification a little different, instead of your usual pipe cleaners, lottery tickets or what-have-you that most races use to make sure you make the check points; the Pony Expressed gave each rider a piece of Official Mail. The riders were responsible for making sure that they didn't lose their mail and had to get it punched at each check point to verify that you had made it there with your mail still in hand and that it arrived on time. Nobody likes when the mail is late or gets lost and it was a fun way to make you think about what it must have been like back then if you were carrying mail on horse back, it will also make a nice conversation piece hanging on the bike cave wall. If you hate spoilers then don't look too closely at the punches on my Official Mail because it will give away the ending but not the story.
The start was 7 am but with overcast skies we were well out of town and onto the gravel before it was light enough to even have a prayer of getting a decent picture that wasn't blurry. The skies remained overcast all day with only an occasional sunshine sighting but the gravel was in great shape despite all of the rain that the area had taken leading up to race day. I've never ridden in this particular section of Kansas before but some of their roads, like those pictured here, had obvious "lanes" that were almost pavement hard, smooth and fast; not sure if the rains had something to do with that or not but it was nice to not have deep gravel to fight with for a change.
While I never did get rained on, it was clear that there was rain in the area from time to time shortly before we rode through that section of the course. The wettest I got all race was this two mile stretch of pavement! About 8 miles into the race and I was wishing that this road was anything but paved, even the gravel wouldn't have soaked us the way the pavement did. I was feeling good at this point though and it wasn't water from the sky so I was, uh... rolling with it.
Had I known that a two mile section of mud was just up ahead, I probably wouldn't have complained about the wet pavement. The Fargo did a pretty good job shedding the mud initially but without the now hated front dérailleur to catch the muck it all landed on the front chain ring, which did wonders for making the chain not want to stay on the chain ring. I ended up needing to pull off to the side and walked the worst of the mud before dispensing most of a bottle of water onto the chain to get the majority of the mud out of it so that I could ride more than 50 yards without the chain wanting to pop off the ring again. It still took several miles before it didn't sound horrible but it stayed on so we were still rolling but it probably cost me 15-20 minutes clearing that mud out of the chain enough to trust it not busting the rear dérailleur off. Time well spent though in my opinion as a buster der would certainly mean a DNF and after Gravel Worlds I was itching to get a finish and try to end the gravel season on a positive note. The Omaha Jackrabbit still looms out there on the horizon in October but I haven't registered quite yet and when I do I will probably switch it up and do the Half Rabbit this year rather than the full I've ridden for the last few years.
By the time we got to the first check point things were rolling along more normal as far as the chain goes and most of the mud had cleared off of the tires as well so other than a few spots of dried mud on the bike frame and fork we were mud free. First 25 miles was in the rear view and I was feeling pretty good still at this point, Blessing's sister even had a SAG stop on the road leading into check point 1 so I grabbed a few of the wraps and PB&J sandwiches that she had made and downed them, they were tasty and hit the spot. Doug and I were mostly riding together at this point and according to the stats we were chucking along at a decent pace, not nearly as fast as we went out on GW but that might have been a tad too speedy anyway so I was feeling good about where we were in the race and the pace we were maintaining so far.
As luck would have it, about three or so miles out of check point 1 I ended up having a soft tire that required me to pull over and add more air. If you've never had a tire go low on you but not loose all of it's air, it's a unique feeling. The first thing you'll notice is that you start to bounce in your pedaling cadence, if you're a spinner you start bounce significantly if you don't notice it right away; it's a very distinct feeling and that is what I was experiencing. I rode it a bit more but it didn't seem to be holding air, not wanting to continue to mess with it every few miles for another 90+ miles I opted to just change it out with a tube and hope I didn't meet something else sharp the rest of the way. I never did see what had caused the issue but I suspect something sharp got rolled up in the mud and punctured it then as the mud stripped off the tire, the air found the path of least resistance and slowly escaped out of the opening. Well just like that another 15-20 minutes or so down the drain but also the right call to make, messing with a finicky tire is not fun and can end up costing more time in the long run than just changing it out.
Mile 30 something found us climbing up Brewski, to my dismay I discovered that there was in fact no beer at the top of the hill, the beer was to be had later at the Wagon Wheel back in Marysville; a beer would have tasted a little bit like heaven at that point in the race. Last year the hill was about mile 90 and a much more brutal climb, not really sad I missed that.
Picture of Doug and I climbing Brewski hill courtesy of the Pony Express 120 Gravel Dash photographers.
Right around mile 50 I felt like I hit that wall again, energy wise, like I did during Gravel Worlds last month. I am not sure what the deal is with that these last two races, although I suspect it has to do with not eating any real food for either of the two races. Gravel Worlds I was trying to stop less and limit my time at Oases and Check Points so I didn't eat anything but what I had with me, which has usually worked to keep me going but I also usually get something at one of the stores we stop at along the way. This year for Gravel Worlds Valparaiso was too soon in the race and Malcolm didn't have much if you didn't want to wait for Lippy's BBQ so I didn't end up getting anything to eat at either place if you don't count snack type foods. The Pony Express passed through a few towns but nothing of much size and I didn't see a single gas station to stop at, which I was banking on for food. Totally my fault for not researching the towns we would pass through and not taking advantage of the drop bag option that was offered as a food option. I will definitely need to improve on that and maybe look at carrying a few of the Clif Bar food pouches as a food option, needless to say miles 50-70 were a struggle and some dark times mentally. Having pulled out of Gravel Worlds, I didn't want to do that again for the Pony Express so I focused on moving forward, the stats show that these miles were also my slowest average mph of the race which would make sense. Familiarity or lack there of I think also helped me to keep on keeping on, the Gravel Worlds course I was very familiar with and knew how to get back which I think played into my decision to pull the plug, maybe a little prematurely. For the Pony Express I had no clue where I was, yes it wouldn't have been all that hard to find out and plot a course back but that seemed like a lot more work than just following the Garmin as it plodded along the course I'd already uploaded. I guess techno-laziness along with a smidgen of stubbornness trumps being tired in my world. At least the course offered up some interesting views during those miles to help keep my mind off of how bad I felt. It's weird because the legs weren't exactly tired in either race it was more of a whole body energy drain where I didn't feel like I had the power to keep pedaling or not enough to keep up the pace I'd been riding at so far at least.
I really got a kick out of this sign, church for the slow, or at least that's where my mind went during the race and I actually chuckled out loud just a bit when I saw that sign. Now, sitting in my living room, it doesn't seem as funny, still a little funny, but not hilarious like it was on Saturday.
Mile 75, or so, saw us to check point two and the small town of Lillis KS. With the two mechanical issues and the slower speeds from mile 50 to about 70, I was flirting with going below the minimum mph average needed to make the check points and finish on time to get an official finishing time. Thankfully I started feeling a bit more of a "normal tired" and less in a dark place tired around mile 70, so by the time I rolled into check point 2 I was riding a bit faster and feeling a bit better. I also remembered that I had another Motts squeezable apple sauce and jerky so I ate the Motts and some of the jerky here to help with the last 50 miles.
The old Lillis High School on the way out of town was pretty rad, I always think to myself that I need to come back to these places when I have more time to explore but so far I've never made it back to one when time wasn't important.
Of course to make things even more tight, I got caught by a train shortly after Lillis as well. Thankfully it wasn't stopping and was moving at a decent clip so the delay was only a few minutes, could have been much worse.
Really thought I was going to get rained on in the last 30 miles or so but thankfully all those angry little clouds didn't rain on my parade and just cooled things down a bit, which I was OK with.
There weren't too many pictures between check point 2 and check point 3, since I had to make sure to keep moving at a better pace than I had been in the middle of the race or all this riding would have been for naught the camera didn't come out much. I did come upon a kid in the middle of the road on an ATV with a case of Dr. Pepper that he was handing out to riders as they went by, really hit the spot and reminded me of that old Mean Joe Green commercial for Coca Cola... if Mean Joe Green would have been a 14 year old boy on and ATV and he was giving out Dr. Pepper instead of Coke... so exactly the same really.
I was pretty stoked when I saw the town of Beattie looming in the not to distant distance, that meant there were only 15 miles or so left to finish this thing out.
And finish it I did, with a total time of 11 hours and 55 minutes... which ended up being a bit closer to the cut off than I intended it to be and it was a good thing I had picked up the pace over the last 30 or so miles at the end. It seems that the cut off was 12 hours, even though at 126 miles a 10 mph average should have netted you a 12 hour and 30 minute window but that was not the case so I came in just under the time limit, phew! As it was I earned the coveted DFL title for this race as nobody came across the line in the next 5 minutes, I know that there were 8 or so folks behind me at check point 3 but I don't know if they ever finished or if the pulled the plug but either way they didn't get an official time since they missed the cut off time. It's been a bit since I've gotten a DFL in a finish but considering the way I felt in the middle of this race, I'll take the DFL over the DNF.
The well earned beer from Brewski Hill was cold and tasty, even if I had to ride another 90 miles to actually get to drink it.
By the numbers it was 125ish miles, moving time was 10 hours and 49 minutes with a total time of 11 hours and 55 minutes. One bright spot out of all the struggle that day was that I did manage to really lower my stopping time at SAG stops, if you take into account the 30-40 minutes for the two issues with the bike it means I cut stopping time down to around 30 minutes, a huge improvement over the couple hours of stopping time I usually have in longer races. Elevation gain was almost 9,000 feet and it sure felt like that and then some.
Fun race and one I'll consider doing again next year, hopefully they can have the single track and B roads back in the course next year. Now to figure out how to not nose dive around mile 50 and all will be good. Fargo performed awesome, the one mud issue I wouldn't put on the bike but it came through it with flying colors and an almost dry chain for 80 miles with out a single mis-shift.
As always, thanks to Cycle Works for letting me ride for them, thanks to the Saturday crew for getting my lazy ass out of the house and on the gravel and for the great friendships that have developed out of that ride and a huge thanks to the other half for continuing to put up with my bikes and all the mess that they make. Thanks to the Black Squirrel Cycling League for organizing the race and last but not least, thanks to Mean Joe Green and his Dr. Pepper packing ATV.