Monday, April 29, 2019

Open Range 200K Gravel Race


Gravel race season is upon us already, some have been racing since mid March if not earlier but for me it didn't really pick up until the C.O.G 100 at the end of March. It seems like the "season" starts earlier every year and every year there are more and more races or rides to choose. Not a bad problem to have but it does make the schedule a bit tight, I think that there are two open weekends that don't have races or organized rides on them from March through about mid June. Saturday we found ourselves in the town of Pratt Kansas for the Open Range 200K Gravel Race.


Joe had been to the race last year and said it was a good time with some great scenery and "some sand", that last part would turn out to be a lie; I've seen less sand at a sand volleyball tournament.


What Joe didn't tell us was his secret weapon to ride hard all day, while he claims that this bag was full of Sports Legs and "Aleve", when I see little blue pills in a baggy I start to wonder just what sort of relief the users is seeking.


6 of us went down for the race, four of us toeing the line for the full 127 mile race and two deciding to tackle the 58 mile shorter version.




Right at 8 a.m. a guy on his Harley fired it up and lead us out on the neutral start for the first few miles of pavement in town. It didn't seem too neutral to me as we lit out of Lemon Park at a fairly decent pace, Brian and I decided not to follow the pack and just ride at a steady pace. It was going to be a long day and burning up fuel before you even got to the gravel seemed foolhardy.


Cool old railroad station on the way out of  town, not sure if it's still used anymore but someone is making sure that it is maintained and not left to rot away.


It was good to finally get on the gravel and let the nerves and legs settle in a bit and just get to spinning way.


Gravel didn't last all that long though and after a few miles we were back on pavement for a pretty decent distance. I was pretty surprised by how much pavement there was, it was welcomed at times during the day with that 25-30 mph winds in the face; it was just a bit surprising is all. This race actually had a little bit of everything. Mountain biking your thing, there were plenty of canyon and pasture roads that would test those skills. Cyclocross more your style, well there were more than a few sections in the pastures that were all grass and little to no dirt. Road cycling gets you going, there was probably a good 1/4 to 1/3 of the course paved and then of course there was gravel and deep sand just to make things interesting. I actually thought the mix was a nice change of pace and I think it sort of leveled the playing field a little bit since there really wasn't any right or wrong bike choice with so many different surface types.


Brian and I decided that we would try to ride together for the race and see how things went, I'm almost never in a hurry to see how fast I can get from start to puke and Brian was riding only his second century ever... gravel or road, the first being Land Run in March of this year.


I was plagued with shifting issues all day, the week leading up to the race was a really crazy one for me and unfortunately I didn't have the time to do my due diligence on making sure everything was working top notch.  I pulled over at 50th St and 50th Ave to tweak the barrel adjust a bit so that I could get at least most of the gears to shift, all day has issues getting it to go in the biggest or smallest cogs but it was better than it had been and that would just have to be good enough.



Winds were already in the high teens to lower 20 mph range at the beginning of the race and they were supposed to just keep building most of the day to get into the mid to upper 20 mph range with gusts higher than that. Racing in any of the wind farm states is almost a guarantee that you're going to be racing in the wind, they don't put them where there isn't wind after all; that would just be silly.




The first 15-20 miles of the race was pretty but fairly flat and we had the wind mostly at our backs so it was a nice warm up for the legs and to work out all the kinks with cadence, gear and getting settled on the bike. It wasn't all just jamming pedals though, gravel in the Gypsum Hills is sandy, very, very sandy. You could be riding along and a decent pace and then all of a sudden you find yourself in the middle of a sand pit, you had to be on your A game all the time and couldn't let your mind wander too much or you were going down. Not being in the front, we did get the benefit of seeing the crazy zig zag tire tracks before we got to the sand. It didn't help riding through it but at least we had an early warning system and could mostly see which sections were worse than others.





About mile 20 or so we started getting a mix of the Open Range roads that make up the name of the race, these were legit, private ranch roads that the race director got access to by talking to the land owners and getting permission to ride on their land; with their free range cattle. These were some of the funnest roads of the course but they were challenging to ride at times. I wish I would have been able to get more pictures of these types of roads but riding them with two hands was difficult enough at times; riding with one hand while taking pictures would have been dumb. This wasn't a photo shoot it was a bicycle race, all pictures were taken at or about my "race pace", many of greatest views won't make it here on the Blog for that reason. You want to see them, you'll need to sign up next year and go see them first hand.




Joe had said that most of the sand was reserved for the last 10 or so miles of the race but he was wrong, albeit when he raced it last year it wasn't as dry as it was this year but there wasn't a single stretch of gravel over 3 miles that didn't have sand pits mixed in with it.






About mile 35 we rolled into Sun City and the first checkpoint of the day, Joe was already there and shortly after we arrived Carolyn rolled in. She was doing the 58 mile route so we parted ways here as the two routes went in different directions but Joe decided to join Brian and I leaving out of Sun City.







The views helped the miles tick away and spirits were pretty high and we were making good time. We did comment more than once during that day how empty even the paved roads seemed to be in this area of Kansas, I'm guessing that there are roads like this in Western Nebraska as well but we don't get too many car free paved miles near Lincoln/Omaha.




More views and more ranch roads!




I know I said we didn't stop but this was a particularly gnarly little hill so I made an exception. It might not look all that difficult in pictures but it was rutted and steep with loose sand and rock all over it, one miss pedal or pick the wrong line and you were walking it. We watched a few people tackle it before we took our turn, everyone made it up and all had smiles at the top.




During the cyclocross portion of the race; it was a good thing that we weren't in the lead because how everyone else knew where to go was beyond me... it was all grass as far as the eye could see and it all looked the same to me. We did find a sweet water stop to refill the bottle though and a little dysentery only makes you ride faster.




It was crazy how often we would go from gravel to sand to pavement and back again, all within a few miles of each other. You never could tell what awaited for you up ahead.


Then you look over and see this and hope against all hope that you are seeing a banana and not a manana. It's not that kind of race!


Gyp Hill Rd and later Isabel Rd were two of the worst sections all day, I know what you're thinking... but it's pavement, it should be easy. Both roads were on our way back north and both roads were straight into the wind and just miles of mind numbing grinding uphill. Gyp road was 7 miles of nonstop climbing and Isabel was 11 miles of nonstop climbing, so while paved they weren't exactly a cake walk. It's times like this that I am glad I carry a speaker and music with me, nothing huge and heavy just a JBL Clip 3 but I like it better than a single headphone because you can still hear people talking, traffic coming and you don't have it constantly falling out of your ear. These two roads would be enough to drive me bonkers if I didn't have anything to distract me.








After the 7 mile slog uphill on Gyp Road we were justly rewarded with some of the most kick ass roads of the day. These pictures don't do them justice as they are only the parts where I could take a hand off of the bars and not worry about dying. We were yelling and wooping like little kids, at one point Joe and I got a little rowdy and caught a little air on the lip of one road without knowing what waited for us on the other side but it all worked out in the end. I'd love to go back and ride some of these ranch roads if there was a way to get permission but that probably won't be possible until next years Open Range.




Mile 89 saw us into Medicine Lodge and the last checkpoint before the finish, before we even made it to the checkpoint we spotted a Casey's and pulled in for a little pizza. It was worth the time penalty; we were all feeling a little beat down and I knew I needed some actual food if I was going to make it another 40 miles. All the goo, gel, blocks or what-have-you are fine and dandy but nothing beats some real food to put a little pep back in your step.



Since all we really needed at the checkpoint was to check in and grab some water it was a quick turn around and then we were on the road again. Isabel road and it's 11 mile climb awaited us and we kind of got separated at this point a little bit. I just wanted to be done pedaling so put my head down, tuned into the music and just tried to keep a steady cadence up the hill and didn't notice that I lost Joe and Brian at some point. I got to the top of the paved hill before one of the final gravel sections and looked back but didn't see anyone, nobody at all. I waited a few minutes but nobody materialized over the hill, not knowing where they were I decided to push on before legs started to get stiff.


Rolling into Sawyer, the last little town before Pratt and the finish, I was treated to the start of an amazing sunset. I kicked it up a little here in an effort to make sure I got back to the finish with plenty of daylight still left, I had lights on me but didn't want to have to hassle with putting them on if I didn't need to.



I lost the course a couple of times coming into the finish, Garmin would tell me I still had 100 feet until the turn and then change it's tune to being off course when I passed the turn I was supposed to take... Wahoo anyone? By the time I righted myself twice and got to the finish I missed my goal of getting in at 8 p.m. by four minutes, had I not gotten lost I would have made it but it wasn't meant to be. I also spotted Joe and Brian so I figured they must have passed me while I was wandering around town, Joe did in fact pass me when I zagged the wrong way. Strava flybys are pretty cool and I was able to see right where my mistake was and that was when Joe went flying by in the right direction. Brian had pulled the plug at mile 100, I wish he could have made the last 27 miles for the finish but he rode well all day and it he did get in his second ever century! Joe ended up being 87 and I was 88 overall out of 94 finishers, there were 21 who didn't finish and another 24 who did not start; so by my math that's 87 and 88 out of 139. Not a bad day on the bike and I got to ride it with two of my great friends, plus a sweet shot of my ass crossing the line! It really is my best side though so I'm not even mad. Just like with any other race, if the weather would have cooperated more it might have been a different race altogether but it didn't cooperate and you just have to go with the hand you're dealt and all three of us handled that really well. That wind was no joke though.

In total I finished just a bit over 12 hours, with 10 hours and 40 odd minutes of moving time for 127 miles, that averages out to just a tick under 12 mph.

Nutrition was good, stuck with mostly the same things I have been going with for about 2 years now. Jerky, Clif Bloks, Sour Patch Kids, Nuun and Clif Bars; I did try a bottle of Go Far at the second check point and I think it helped so I might have to incorporate that into the mix as well but earlier on in the races if I can figure out how to carry enough of it without being cumbersome.

Legs felt good all day, rolling a 20 something lbs bike helps instead of a 50 lbs Pugsley but not to fret Pugs will still get a race/ride or two this year. It's just too comfortable of a bike on gravel to not give it a ride or two.

Speaking of bikes, the Journeyman did not disappoint it was the right bike for the day. Tires were wide enough for all but the deepest sand but not too wide to add too much extra rolling resistance. And Salsa knocked it out of the park with the geometry on the J-man, all day comfort and stability on the loosest of gravel, rock and dirt that was thrown at it; not anything you can really do about sand unless you're willing to push a 3" or wider tire. These have been flying out of the shop, most shops that carry them I would think, and after riding this demo one for a few months now I can see why. They tick off a lot of check boxes of what makes a great gravel bike and they do it at an entry level price for a bike that I wouldn't necessarily consider entry level.

Much appreciation as always to Cycle Works and Moose's Tooth for being the awesome shop that they are, so many great folks involved with the shop from the ground up. I also love the gravel team we have right now, some rad folks and great teammates that are always there to encourage you and lift you up in a time of need.