Gravel Worlds 2015

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.

gravel worlds

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.

Gravel Worlds 2015

Fourth of July Trip

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Over the fourth of July weekend, a friend and I planned a ride from Minneapolis to Duluth.   This is a trip neither of us had taken before but well with-in our capabilities.  We left a 6AM, loaded with camping gear, bike essentials, and enough food and water to make it between the many stopping locations.  The weather was overcast and gave us near perfect riding conditions and a 17mph pace for the first 90 miles.  As we headed north out of Hinckley the sun came out, the air became thick and humid on the backside of a storm that had just passed and the near perfect conditions were gone.  We did not have a confirmed place to camp in Duluth so we held up at Jay Cooke State Park (150 miles) for the night and finished the last 25 miles in the morning.  The cold water of Lake Superior felt incredible on the tired legs.  This was a great 175 mile ride (14 hours on the bike) with many places along the way to refuel the body and stretch the legs when necessary.  This trip could easily have been done in a day.  Next time I plan to spend the night and ride it back to Minneapolis.  Great weekend ride!

The Trip Plan  

Minneapolis to Duluth (estimated 175 miles) through Wyoming, North Branch, Pine City to Hinckley.  Once in Hinckley, after refueling the body at Tobies, the plan was to follow the Willard Munger trail heading straight north through many small communities and into Duluth.

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The Bike and Gear (loaded weight 53 pounds)

                2014 Salsa Fargo with 2.10 WTB Nano tires (tubless) and a SP Dyno front hub for charging and lights

Full Frame bag (Must Stache Bike Bags) – food, clothing, rain gear, head lamp, first aid kit

Top tube bag (Must Stache Bike Bags) – gu, chews, etc. – quick/handy energy

Rear Top Tube bag (Must Stache Bike Bags) – Tubes, tools, sun screen

Garbage can bags (Must Stache Bike Bags) – Remember people “leave no trace”

Viscacha Rear Seat Bag (Revelate Designs)-Down jacket, Big Agnes sleep bag, Nemo tent

80oz Camelbak hydration pack and a 18oz bottle on the down tube

Garmin 810 GPS

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Noteworthy observations

  • The Willard Munger trail – although paved and well maintained – it is as straight and flat and boring of a ride as possible. If it were not for the curvature of the earth – I think I could have seen the North Pole with every glace north.  With the exception of a few local riders with-in a few miles of each little town along the way – we were the only riders.  This made for fast travel but the monotony and the monotony and the monotony really make you fight the mental game as we rode.
  • Never pass up the opportunity to chat with the people. The bikes and perhaps the clothing we wear seem to invite people to talk.  Where are you headed?  Where you from?  Are you crazy?  Wait – did you say you are going to ride it in a day?  Are you under a doctor’s care?  Never pass up an opportunity to share your biking enthusiasm as you ride.
  • MN State Parks cannot (evidently by law) refuse accommodations to bicycles/hikers after dusk. Even though Jay Cooke State Park camping was full – they accommodated us.  THANK YOU to whoever made that law.  The climb out of Jay Cooke State Park in the dark was NOT something I would have looked forward to doing.  Note – accommodate you is different than allowing you to stay for the weekend – we had to have our gear packed by 8:30AM.
Fourth of July Trip

Life in a small town

Its 6 AM, -12 degrees F with 17-25 mph wind, feels like -35 degrees, and the sun won’t rise for another two hours. I walk out to the garage and let the dogs out to run around as I ready the bike for a morning adventure. The air is crisp, clean, and fresh, nothing is moving, and the only sound to be heard is the wind in the trees as I throw my leg over my trusty steed, a Salsa Beargrease, and push off into the darkness.

The plan today is a short ride in the cold and dark to test some of my equipment and clothing in VERY cold conditions. For this ride of 50 miles my bike is loaded light but carries everything I need; it feels like home and life is simple. Even though I have logged hundreds of miles on the Lake Wobegone trail, this morning, in the still cold darkness with only 30 feet of light shining ahead of me, it seems like a new adventure.

I have often struggled in extreme conditions trying to manage moisture. The moisture in my breath and the sweat from my body needs escape from my clothing without freezing solid. It needs to escape. More than one extreme cold ride for me has left me with an outside clothing layer frozen into a solid block.

This year I made the decision to take as much weight out of my ride as possible. Fully loaded this morning, the bike, poagies, and custom frame bags are just under 25 pounds.

My plan was to ride from Avon Minnesota to Freeport. Charlie’s Cafe, made world famous by Garrison Keiller and National Geographic, was about the right distance to ride, refresh myself with a greasy spoon breakfast, and ride back home. The trail was fast with little snow, but the stiff headwind was brutal and killing me. Finally I saw the town’s lights off in the distance. It’s surprising how the thought of eggs and bacon can keep you going.

Rolling up to this local gathering spot, I saw a few locals sitting having coffee through the window in front. It is safe to say that the sight of a bicycle rolling up was not what they expected. I walked through the door and every eye in the place was looking at me. There were no conversations happening, no dishes clattering – time had stopped. All eyes focused on me as if they expected two heads to pop out from under my helmet as I peeled off a few layers. Not until I take a seat at the coffee counter does some brave soul at a table in the back start a conversation again.

As a very friendly waitress approached, the gentleman next to me asked if I was from town. “No. Just rode two hours in from Avon.” He leans to the man next to him to repeat the message,  “He rode two hours from Avon”, which then repeats its way all down the counter. The silence returns.

”Is someone coming to pick you up?” he asked next. “Nope, just getting some breakfast and riding back”, I reply. “He is riding back.” “He is riding back.” The message again traveled down the counter.

He finally turns back to me and asks, “Do you have a mental illness?” I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond in-between bites of egg and hashbrowns but I knew whatever my answer was it would travel to the end of the counter one person at a time. I also knew that they wouldn’t understand why someone would willingly go for a bike ride on one of the coldest days of the year. I tried to explain my passion for cycling and how I ride most days but I’m not sure I was able to sway any opinions.

While paying for my meal my waitress told me “You will be the talk of the town for weeks” and I remembered what it’s like to live in a small town. She went on to say “People will think I’m a celebrity, because I got to serve you.” I paid the bill, redressed for the ride home, and nodded to the room full of people watching as I left the restaurant.

It was a great morning ride.

Life in a small town