Gravel worlds 2015
Before I start I need to make to two thing painfully clear. 1) Nebraska is not an endless flatland of corn and grain. On the 150 mile ride of Gravel Worlds 2015 we climbed over 11,000 feet on long rolling hills. 2) When someone tells you that you will be riding in Nebraska in August, what they really mean is that you will be riding on the face on the sun in what can only be described as hurricane force head winds no matter which direction you turn.
It is Saturday morning just before 6am and still dark as 200+ people full of energy lined up in a parking lot waiting for the start of the 2015 race. A few quick words about the day and the course and the racers begin their shoulder to shoulder slow roll into the darkness. Headlights dance across the ground casting long and strange shadows on the gravel road ahead. From my position in the pack, the hundreds of flickering taillights look like I’m about to ride into a swarm of fireflies on steroids. As the pace quickens and the riders start to break away from each other, the air becomes think with chocking dust and tiny projectiles of gravel flying in every direction. Having learned this lesson the hard way I reach down and pull my buff over my nose and mouth trying to block the chocking air. I’m not exactly sure it helps all that much but it does make me feel like I was prepared. The early morning race jitters are left behind as the sun begins to rise into the horizon. The cool night begins to give way to warmth and the stillness which accompanied us in the parking lot just 30 minutes ago is replaced by a stiff breeze. My body and bike quickly settle into the rhythm of the road as they have done all summer long and minutes and hours just slip past. Checkpoint 1 at just 50.5 miles comes too soon and breaks that rhythm. I am feeling good, very good, and was anxious to just be back on the road. The next checkpoint is only 9 miles out and my plan was to spend as little time at this stop as possible. I grab the required pipe cleaner, check in, and sprint away trying to chase down the dust of Seth Woods.
Hazards on the road are expected on any ride and as much as I would like to just zone out, listen to the sounds of the road, and peddle I know too well I need to be ready for the unexpected. As I began to chase down the next group of riders easily a half mile ahead my eyes caught sight of a large shadow at the top of the next big climb and nearly instantly my head screamed bear! I have encountered many wild animals on these rides and plenty of them pose unique dangers but a bear – in Nebraska – in what was quickly becoming scorching heat – I needed to rethink that hastily drawn conclusion. It took me about another quarter mile to realize it was in fact not a bear but a rather large dog, roughly the size of a bear, hanging out in the road. Man’s best friend is not always a bikers best friend and I needed to approach this situation with due caution. As I approached, it was clear this dog posed absolutely no danger to me. It simple sat and watched as I rode by with a swift wagging tail a great big grin on its face that said something like “It’s gravel worlds, its gravel worlds, I love watching bikes, I’ve been waiting all year, I love this day, have a good day, I wish I had a bike …” I carried a grin on my face as I rolled into Powerball stop at mile 59.8 trying to imagine what that dog must be thinking. A bear – what the heck – it must be the heat starting to get to me.
This was a Powerball stop. I needed water and to purchase a Powerball ticket to prove I was here. I was welcomed with a smiling face and a gallon of cool water. I filled my camelback, bought my ticket, and headed out of the General Store with a small group of riders which included last year’s 1st place women’s finisher and Salsa sponsored rider Andrea Cohen. This group was moving at a fast pace and it wasn’t long before I could no longer keep pace as they climbed a long rolling Nebraska hill. I knew as they pulled away, this was the turning point of the race. As the physical demands of the ride start to catch up with you – the mental and nutritional parts of the ride begins.
Riding alone, in the middle of Nebraska somewhere, I am starting to feel the effects of the wind and sun. There is no shade in this part of Nebraska and the sun glowing high in the sky is well versed at baking anything it can find. Even the gravel under my bike seems to be relieved for the moment of shade my shadow provides. I generally don’t listen to music while I ride but at this point in the race – I pull out the iPod. I would like to say music helps me stay focused on the ride but really the truth is it just distracts me from the ride. This distraction helps me block out what is really going on in my head and allows me to push and dig deeper – adrenalin for the brain. Checkpoint 2 sits at mile 84.9 and is a sight for sore eyes. A quick check of the time and at this point I’m still keeping to my plan of a sub 10 hours finish although I know the heat, humidity, and especially the wind are draining my energy quickly. More water and some much needed shade – aaah – I could spend the rest of the afternoon sitting right here. The camaraderie of the bikers on a ride like this is amazing. Listening to the other riders at this checkpoint and you start to hear the first tidbits of how the race is going for everyone else. A story of a crash, lots of mechanical failures, flat tires, are all typical of the checkpoint buzz. All these were floating around, some exaggerated by the retelling of story after story but then a new mumble drifts my way. Heat exhaustion, dehydration, and sever fatigue are taking out some riders as well. At his checkpoint, the guess is as many as 40% of the starters are out. As much as I enjoyed some rest and shade, I knew I needed to get back on the road. The longer you spend in the comfort of the rest stops the harder it is to get back on the bike.
Rounding off 100 miles in Hickman I was still feeling good but it was obvious the heat and especially the wind were wearing me down. This is a common place for me. The physical, mental, and the nutritional parts of the race all collide. I had spent a lot of energy to get to Hickman by myself and I knew the last 50 mile were going to be a much slower pace. As the goal of finished under 10 hours slipped past my attention desperately needed to be refocused on simply finishing this ride. Eleven miles outside of Hickman I hit the wall. That dreaded point where your body simply says no more. I knew I needed nutrition and water, my body need more recovery time. I tried energy GU as I slowly rode along but my stomach defiantly rejected it. I found the only bit of shade I could, dropped my bike on the shoulder of the road, and focused on just trying to lower my core body temperature and keep some food down. I sat for almost 30 minutes trying to get refocused before climbing back on the Warbird. The next checkpoint was under 10 miles away and I rolled into it with all the energy of a dead horse. A garden hose was at that point about the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and if soaked myself under the cool water. I stayed here for another 30 minutes, enjoying the shade, eating animal crackers by the handful, and pumping my body full of water. I was at mile 119 of a 152 mile course. It was the sound of distant thunder and a wall of clouds that were obviously bringing rain that motivated me back onto the bike. I envied my bike, laying calmly in the shade like an old friend – it was ready to go whenever I said lets go. My Salsa TI Warbird had carried me well over a thousand miles this summer without an issue and I felt a tinge of guilt when I realized this was probably the last race like this with this trusted steed. I knew at this point I had a new Salsa Carbon Warbird frame waiting to be freed from the box in my garage. Riding out of the checkpoint – I knew the last 30 miles were going to be the hardest yet – stay focused – finish the race.
I certainly was not the only rider left on the course. With the exception of the last 20 miles, I had been riding a strong race. I picked up groups of riders and rode with them as long as I could before watching them disappear on the road ahead of me. Riding in a group allows you to draft behind another rider and conserver energy. Energy conservation was something I desperately needed at this point. I focused on finishing the race and begged that thunderstorm to wait until I was finished before soaking that gravel road with rain and turning it to mud.
Head down, focused on keeping the legs pushing, I felt the slap of a hand on my back and the familiar voice of a good friend and shop owner of District Bicycles in Stillwater, Ok Bobby Wintle beside me. I had actually thought he had dropped earlier in the race but I’m glad I was wrong. No words needed to be shared at that moment – he knew I was struggling. He simply said “come on Dave – let’s finish this together” before he pulled ahead of me to break the wind. With less than 10 miles to go I fell back into my rhythm although it was a much slower rhythm than I started the day. Five miles, three miles, the finish line in sight – this race was over.
I have ridden longer races and faced some of the same challenges I did in this race but never was I so glad to hit the finish line. This was hard – probably the hardest ride I have ever finished. The crowd of people at the finish line was amazing. The gravel bike racing community is very close and every rider is greeted at the line with cheers, claps, whistles, and cow bells. We were met by Kristi and Tim Mohn, good friends and the new the tandem champions. Bobby’s crew from District was there and took our bikes so we could recover and share the moment with friends. All the struggles of the day, all the physical and mental pain of the last 10 hours were all gone. The adrenalin of the crowd takes over – the moment is victorious.
On the 10 hour drive I had the next day to get back to Minnesota I had plenty of time to reflect on the race. What went well, what needed to change, what part of the race strategy could be improved – all thoughts racing through my mind as the miles passed by. I was sad, knowing this race was over for the year. I always find it hard to come back to reality after an event like this. I am at peace on my bike and I’d rather just keep riding the hours away. Great rides like this do not just happen. I cannot say enough about the great crew that put this together this year. Cory and the crew at Cycle Works did a great job – thank you so much. I’ll be back next year to challenge myself again.