Monday, August 22, 2011

Gravel Worlds 2011

Sheesh, for a professional photographer, I sure didn't take many photos yesterday. This is definitely attributable to the task at hand, the completion of the Gravel World Championships. If you haven't heard of this, read up. Completing the Pirate Cycling League's Gravel Worlds has been one of my biggest goals of the year. And even though I was in the last group of riders to finish, I wasn't one of the 1/3 of the starters that didn't make it the whole way. Read on for my attempts at a recap!

Early morning, Fletcher full of blinkies heading East.

Headlights and sun on the horizon. Must've been a trip to come upon this sea of 116 cyclists at 6 on a Saturday morning!

After a hot streak that dried out the roads around town to beautiful riding shape, early August in southeastern Nebraska took an unseasonably cool turn. Add a little heat back in, and we had massive thunderstorms the two days before the race. What's that mean? Wet gravel. With added humidity in the air at start time, the roads were power-sucking and soft. Though not technically hard to ride, they sapped more energy than I'm used to expending to keep the pace I wanted to keep. Silver lining? White rock sections early in the day were much more forgiving, as the soft ground gave way for the rocks.

First hike of the day. Oh, County Road B. We became quite familiar, eh?

While the soft gravel may have been ok, the Minimum Maintenance Roads (MMRs) were not. Though we had ridden on a couple dirt sections that had one rideable line before this one, Road B wasn't rideable in the slightest if you were interested in going more than a couple hundred feet. Gravel endurance superstar Janna Vavra (first ever female finisher of TransIowa) offered me this advice Friday night: "If you see people walking up ahead, get off and start walking. If your tires are starting to pick up mud, start walking."

Portage! That's not a very happy face, is it?

And so shoulder my bike I did, dumping off any bits of weight-adding mud I could first. This went on for about 2 miles, with a couple places where pushing the bike in the grass on the side of the road was possible. After riding mostly solo, though, my long legs gave me a chance to catch up with some other riders!

Trying to find bits of grass worth pushing the bike along.

In this area north of Lincoln, the mud is of a pseudo-clay composition. Every bit on your bike made it that much heavier. People who didn't stop soon enough were pulling huge chunks off their bikes.
As we came to the end of this MMR, PCL Pirate Schmidty was directing people to the grassy side of the road to thoroughly scrape off their bikes. As people hit the gravel, he said, he'd witnessed 3 people fall victim to seized, bent or snapped derailleurs at the bottom of the hill.

Kevin Wilkins having to call it a day, snapped derailleur in hand at Valparaiso.

One of the victims was Kevin Wilkins, who was very disappointed to fall from the front of the group to having to call for a ride home. Several people went for makeshift single-speed conversions at this point (and at a point between Valparaiso and Malcolm). Thanks to Janna's advice, a lot of walking, and a very vigilant eye on the cleanliness of my derailleur pulleys, chain, and brakes, however, I stayed geared the whole way!

From the first checkpoint in Valparaiso (38 miles in), I rode solo to the second checkpoint in Malcolm (67 miles). I passed a few more single-speed conversions in progress, walking or riding in the grass in the ditch -- which, while good cyclocross practice, was extraordinarily sapping. 'Cross races are only 45 minutes, and this was an all-day kind of thing!

One great memory from this stretch that I wish I would have stopped to record was a windmill that was making the exact squeaking sound from the opening sequence of Once Upon A Time in the West, one of my favorite films.



I rolled in to Malcolm to a big crowd gathered outside the General Store, leaned up against the wall in the shade and gorging on all sorts of vittles, beers, and sodas. The sun was out, it was starting to get warm, and we were almost halfway through. With my parents' oasis just 10 miles away (and at the formal halfway point), I downed some chips and a Sioux City Sarsaparilla and made my way to the farm with Clint, Russell, and my vet, Mark Falloon.

Mark pulling me South to the Farm on W 98th.

Mark and I had ridden together earlier in the day (he picked great mountain bike lines I could follow on the first dirt roads), but then his pace was faster than I wanted to keep. I was glad to reunite with him for the 10 mile stretch to the oasis. He just rode Leadville last weekend, and I think the altitude was still in his lungs! In addition to being my vet, Mark was also a student of my dad's back in the day, so my parents were all excited to see him when we got to the farm.

My folks knocked it out of the park. Two varieties of homemade pickles, fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, cantaloupe, and pears from the garden, cucumber water, sodas, beers, and a sprayer hose to clean off dirty bikes. Can't believe Clint was the first to take advantage of that one! Hung out in the shade for a bit and then headed on with Conrad, Carl, and Matt Wills.

Conrad, Carl, and Matt, heading west for the Denton Wall.

The sun was definitely out at this point, and I knew there were some tough climbs ahead. Nothing like we'd had earlier in the day along Ashland road (in what's dubbed the Bohemian Alps, for all the Czech settlers in the area), but one in particular was the steepest climb of the day at 12% grade. Nicknamed the Denton Wall, the thing comes up out of a flat and really does look like a wall. Ouch. Carl and Matt were riding together all day, and while I was near them in the hills, once we got past that, they kept trucking. I was also having some gastro-intestinal issues at that point (not eating normal food for hours while putting your body through this much work is pretty tough on the GI tract), so I was looking for good trees rather than paying attention to the road. This slowed me down considerably, but I knew there was a secret checkpoint oasis in the future...

Clint at the Krull House.

My parents are friends with a fellow named Matt Steinhausen (appropriately, Stone House, auf Deutsch) who owns and is restoring one of the oldest houses in Lancaster County. Named the Krull House after its original resident, Frederick Krull, this beautiful limestone home sits tucked away in the trees off SW 2nd near Roca Road. Skip from War Axe Bicycles was there with scratch-off cards -- I won a pair of War Axe socks! -- beers, and generally good conversation with friends. Several folks who had ridden earlier were hanging out, and more decided that 102 miles was enough and were chilling before getting picked up.

Thank goodness for this!

Yes, that's an honest-to-goodness outhouse, and boy did I need it! It's true, the seats are really smooth from all the people sitting on them over the years. :)

Playful black cat on the side of the road underneath the Jamaica Trail, taken for c-rad.

Onward to Hickman ("Official" checkpoint #3, Mile 115.4), where I was hoping for some more substantial food, having eaten mostly Clif shotblocks, chips, nuts, and some pickles. The roads leading to Hickman weren't too challenging, but the distance was beginning to set in. That, and the back of my left knee was starting to feel really sore. More frustrating for locals, we knew leaving Krull House that we were being sent in the opposite direction of town for a good chunk of miles before turning back toward Hickman. Arrrrgh!

Oak rocking the Long Haul Trucker with a triple crank. Way to spin!

Oak, Scott, and Wes -- who rode his Surly Big Dummy cargo bike the whole way, dude is a machine -- caught me a few miles outside of Hickman and we rolled in to the gas station together. All the pizzas looked meaty, and as it was getting late, I didn't want to wait around for one without, so I grabbed a couple chunks of cheddar cheese and some peanuts and hoped for the best. Lots of folks were making the decision to get a ride or ride on, and with the sun going down behind a big and ominous cloud to the south, it wasn't a good time to chill out.

Also awesome in Hickman was the fact that Kit and Amy had come out and Kit had his bike stand set up doing neutral support for riders, cleaning chains and checking derailleurs. So nice! Amy gave me a big hug, surprised to see me there, and I headed off to the road to move on, thinking I might try to hang with the Wes/Scott/Oak crew. Kim Carveth and Scott Ideen were about to leave too, though, and as I was pulling out, Kim (whom I had been playing leapfrog with all day) asked if I wanted to finish together. I gave her one of the most definitive "Yes" answers I've ever given. Since we'd seen each other all day, it seemed like a really good decision, plus I liked the symbolism of finishing together. Hardcore cycling women rule!

She, Scott, and I pushed eastward into a bit of a headwind, and I quickly realized that I needed to hang on the back to keep up with their pace. Not a problem; we were in this together. When we turned on to a beautiful narrow gravel road -- 19oth/County Line Road -- I remembered riding this last year, when I was first starting to ride with the PCL crew. And I remembered it turned to dirt. Hoping that maybe there was a chance that they didn't get as much rain south of town as north, or that the sunny part of the day had dried things out a bit, I didn't say anything about the oncoming change.

Kim patches a flat on the side of the County Line Road/S. 190th MMR

And it was still totally muddy. At least this time, there was ample grass on the sides, so we didn't really have to shoulder our bikes, but at times, the sides were banked pretty steeply, meaning that feet were on one level and the bike was on another. My shoes were about 3 times as heavy as usual, with mud all filled in to the gaps in my sandals. Pretty gnarly. The hills on this road were pretty steep, too, and it wasn't possible to see where it ended. Kim picked up a flat, likely from the thorn of one of the locust trees on the side of the road. Meanwhile, Scott, who was riding a vintage Panasonic road bike, was having to make multiple stops to clear the mud from his brakes. The sun was going down fast, and we just kept hiking. From our cue sheets, this could be up to 4 miles long. Not fun at 2 mph.

As Kim changed tires, I took a moment to remember the beauty, a little flower stuck to my caked tire.

No photos from here to the finish. After the MMR oh-so-graciously gave way to white rock (never thought I'd be welcoming white rock), we stopped to clean everything off and get ready to ride again. Lo and behold, here come Lucas Orth and Brandon Wachal, who I hadn't seen since Brandon had fallen victim to unexpected single-speed conversion way back before Valpo. They stopped to clean their bikes, and we headed on into the dusk.

As we turned on our lights, I thanked the Bike Gods I'd decided to team up with folks. My rear light had stopped working, making riding gravel and MMRs -- or any roads on a Saturday night, for that matter -- completely unsafe. My front light worked, though, so we decided I'd ride in the front and lead the way, using my mountain bike instinct to find the best line, with Kim and Scott following. Thankfully, we only had a couple short stretches of MMR left, but flying down gravel rollers in the dark is pretty intimidating, too.

At that point, I was so bound to finish that I was riding downhill as fast as I could handle, letting the other two catch me on the climbs. We had one more oasis before the finish, and I convinced the other two that if they were still open, we should stop, at least to let Corey and Troy know that we were on our way to the finish. We stopped, slammed a little food (cold cheese pizza and a beer!), and talked with Schmidty about who we knew was still on course. Since we'd seen Brandon and Lucas recently and they were riding strong, we knew they'd be contenders to finish. Sure enough, a couple minutes later, they rolled up. Kim asked if they wanted to join us to the finish, and the 5 of us rolled out together, 10 miles to go.

Here was another local advantage: the street names were familiar at this point! We'd been just north of Van Dorn, now came A (where a car passed us and stopped, weirdly and at risk of dooring us, and I actually offered her help), then O, then Holdrege, then Adams, and then Havelock. Last turn! We knew we had a little more dirt, but it was all pretty packed down, so as long as you kept the line, it was really nice riding.

I was giddy, hooting and hollering about seeing the lights of Lincoln. Since the start/finish was really on the edge of town, it was dark and gravel until the last 50 yards or so. We saw headlights, and there were Corey and Troy, and my amazing housemates Diane and Liz (who rode 77 miles of the course and another 15 to get home!) waiting to pick me up. So awesome! Big hugs and high fives to the sweaty bikers, and jerseys to Kim, winner of the Masters' (50+ years old) Women Division and Scott, the winner of the Lanterne Rouge, a jersey awarded to the last place finisher of a race.

Huge, huge thanks to all of the PCL crew who helped put on the race. The oases were great, the secret checkpoint was awesome, and there were often folks along the way to monitor the progress of all the riders. Even bigger thanks to Schmidty and his uncle for hanging out late enough for us to come through, and for Corey and Troy being there at the finish. With huge time gaps, it couldn't have been fun to be waiting at the finish, but it made a big, big, deal for those of us who really cared about finishing.

Rarely do race organizers put out so much support and goodwill for the not-so-elite racers at an event. And really, that's what makes something like Gravel Worlds so special. Elite riders always have support and advantages, but this race isn't really about that. It's about pushing your body to the limit and having a crazy adventure on a bunch of minimally traveled roads, seeing the world from a different perspective, taking the impassable route and slogging through it because the cue sheet told you to, chatting with curious locals in the small town convenience stores where you buy your checkpoint Powerball tickets, waving to equally curious farmers along the route, and riding bikes with friends new and old who've come from across the country to explore with you.

-elisabeth