Well, to any new readers, or to refresh the collective memory, it was last year that I developed the interest in “gravel grinders”, and entered my first event. (Well, actually it was two, but I try to forget about the first one…) And that first event was The Heroic, to which I brought my wonderful old ’73 Raleigh International, and rode. And I didn’t do too bad.
And this event and the emerging gravel racing “scene” rekindled in me a desire to race bikes, which I had abandoned (regretfully) 25 years prior. Give it another go. And I discovered that all kinds of people show up for these events, but some race their bikes in other “disciplines”, and take these events pretty seriously. They show up to not just finish, but to race.
This is Mark Skarpohl. He won the Heroic last year, on his vintage Raleigh International.
I don’t know him personally, and haven’t seen him around this year. But his ride last year was a pretty big inspiration for me.
If he can do it, maybe I can. And I don’t mean win, necessarily, but be competitive (reasonably), at least. Train, and become fit, and fast, and race. And age is not an excuse.
And this year, I set out to do it. To enter several events, to train and push myself farther than I have before, and to see what happens. And below, a list of events, in the order they occurred in 2013, the last of which will occur in just a few days. (Ha, my “race calendar”, if you will…) And then I’ll do a quick synopsis of each one.
- Dairy Roubaix (April, gravel)
- Ironman Bike Ride (April)
- Dirty Benjamin (June, gravel)
- Southside Sprint (July)
- Lifetime Gran Fondo (August)
- Inspiration 100 (September, gravel, 1 day before my 45th Birthday)
- The Heroic (October, gravel)
- Filthy 50 (October, gravel)
- Dirt Bag (October, gravel)
The Dairy Roubaix. 65 miles. Early in the season, and late snow made it tough to get enough miles in the legs. I rode a new bike, the course and day were beautiful. I did pretty decent, and passed the guy on the fat bike in my finishing kick.
Ironman Bike Ride. A week after Dairy Roubaix. 100 miles was the tentative plan, but was shortened to 78. Had a strong ride, and rode with and then dropped some pretty “racy” characters. It was one of best Ironmans, weatherwise, ever.
Dirty Benjamin. This was to be my first 100 mile gravel ever undertaken. And only the 3rd time, ever, I would cover 100 miles on my bike. I pushed a little too hard for the first half, and there was not much left for the last thirty miles. A pretty violent and windy storm blew through, too, which I had no choice but to endure and pedal through. I was alone for most of the second half of the course. Sheer determination got me to the end, and in almost exactly 8 hours. I was really glad I left that rear mudguard on.
Southside Sprint. A circuit road race in my town, Minneapolis. I had known about this race earlier on in the year, but didn’t give it alot of consideration, until a couple or few weeks before. I didn’t train well, and showed up with tired legs. The clouds were gathering early that morning, just as predicted. Much rain fell, just before my race, and continued through my race. I worried about crashing, and was scrubbing a lot of speed in the corners. But honestly, I would have likely been dropped no matter the circumstances. The race was going very fast, and I just couldn’t keep with it. And then I was pulled from the course, because I was getting lapped. I left there pretty frustrated. A small consolation — I made the local news.
Lifetime Gran Fondo. This was a road event, and a little more racy folks than at the typical century events. The mileage for this course was 60. I had done a lot of road riding through the summer, and tested myself with time trials nearly every week. I thought this would be a good test of my legs, and a bridge to my next gravel event in early September. I did ride with a pack early on, but more treated this as a long time trial. I faded a bit towards the end, but I was proud of my time, finishing 60 miles in 3 hours and 15 minutes.
And some time during the summer, ideas started to simmer about a new bike, and this was the result of those ideas, ridden in the Inspiration, and for two more events that year. It has worked well for me.
The Inspiration 100. A day before my 45th birthday. 100+ miles of gravel. Turned out to be a very hot day. The roads were soft and loose, and some pretty decent hills on the course, to boot. It was a very tough day. I overcooked it a bit, again, and the last 30 miles were pretty grim. Even “Our Lady of the Hills” couldn’t deliver me from the suffering of that day. But I managed to finish on a day when others had to abandon the race, and still managed to better my best 100 mile gravel time by more than 20 minutes. Progress? God, I hope so.
Then in the beginning of October would come again The Heroic. 65 miles of gravel. The race that one year before had started all this madness. I finished not a huge amount behind the winner, and I was included in the “leader’s group” officially, despite having not seen another rider for perhaps the last hour. I put in a time of 4 hours and 10 minutes. It wasn’t terrible, but still left me a little discouraged.
There were going to be two gravel events for me in October, two weeks apart. But then somebody decided to host a brand new event called the Filthy 50, in Stewartville, MN, just south of Rochester. 50 miles of gravel. (Officially, by my record, 51.84 miles) And I got myself registered, and I was in. And there was more than a little buzz about this new race, and 300 people fairly quickly filled up the roster.
And I felt really good at the start of this, and thought I might have a good day. I really wanted to be ” in the race”, even if for just a while, instead of just “completing the course”.
And I got what I wanted. I wasn’t going to try to go with the fastest group, I’m not a fool. But with as many riders as showed up for this, I had hoped a 2nd, or 3rd or 4th group might form on the road, that I could join with and ride and contribute, and maybe get to the finish a little faster with our collective effort.
So as is typical, the lead group went away, and I found myself in a smaller pack, which seemed to be disintegrating quickly. I tried to not panic, but I was determined to hold a wheel as long as possible. I watched a smaller group form and start to split and drift ahead of mine. That’s okay, I told myself, just ride your race, and stay with these guys. And that’s what I did. But it wasn’t long at all, and my group was starting to split up and disorganize. One guy was surging forward, only to drift back again on a hill, or after a turn into the wind. Other guys one by one were dropping away behind us. This group was soon not going to be a group at all.
And then the unthinkable happened. I don’t exacltly remember making the decision, but I just started to ride away. And as I was going ahead, I thought, “maybe I can bridge to the next group”. And I worked hard, but within my ability, and not at my limit, and the group that had gone ahead of us, starting drawing closer and closer. And then, BAM! I was with them. I got in the rear of this line, and was able to collect myself. And I rode along in this new group, usually at the back. And I started thinking, “these guys seem pretty good, how am I riding with them this fast, and not cracking yet?” And I stayed with this group, for quite a few miles, and I felt fine. The pace was quick, but I could do it. I even took a turn at the front a time or two. But then the unthinkable happened again! I don’t remember exactly if our group had slowed or what, but I found myself on the front again, and then, I went again. I rode off ahead. And I bridged again, to another small group. I don’t remember exactly, but I did this 3 or 4 times.
I found myself with another two riders, who were going okay together, but not great. And then we caught some other riders, and our group grew to 6 or 7. I thought most everybody would stop at the first water stop, and I didn’t need water, but had planned to grab some food then. But nobody stopped, and I was like, “okay, I have to eat”. And I dropped off of this little bunch just a bit, hoping I could get some food into myself and rejoin them. And then an important turn was coming up, and this group of 5 or 6 all blew right by it. But I didn’t. I made the turn and suddenly I was alone.
I was pretty sure the group who had missed the turn, would eventually catch back to me. I took a look behind me from time to time, but never saw them. It was going to be a solo effort now. Towards the end of the big climb of the day, at which mile I can’t remember, I was caught and passed by one rider, “a young guy” I thought to myself. I might have caught him again a little later. And then more lonely miles, nobody seen ahead or behind me. Until somewhere 10 miles or so from the finish. A group of two were behind me, both wearing the same kit it appeared. I could see they were gaining on me, I was going to be caught. And I was, and tried to stay with them, but I couldn’t keep their pace. They dropped me, I was alone again. But I was totally okay with that. I had set myself the goal of 3 hours for this race, or as near to that as I could. And looking at my computer, I started thinking it was going to be close. I continued on, and then, the two that had passed me, there they were again, on the side of the road, taking a “natural break” (peeing). So I rode by these guys, and thought “how long before these guys catch and drop me again?” Well, it wasn’t long before they caught me again, but this time, I wasn’t dropped. I don’t know why, but I stayed with them this time. And then 2 or 3 miles to go, we picked up another guy.
So there we were, the four of us, surging towards the finish. I was happy to be with these guys, but honestly I was just racing the clock at this point. It was coming up on 3 hours, and it was going to come very close. I rode with these 3 and took a turn or two on the front, and then two of our four sprinted ahead for the finish. And then I finished!
My time was 3 hours 52 seconds. My placing was 34th of 184 riders who finished. 25 of the 209 riders who started did not finish. I finished about 32 minuted behind the winner, and less than 15 minutes behind some pretty accomplished riders.
At times, throughout the season, I doubted and felt like I wasn’t really getting anywhere. And it’s hard to not ask yourself “why the heck am I working so hard?” when you aren’t getting the results you are hoping and training for. But in this race, for me, things came together in a really satisfying way.
And then the Dirt Bag would be the final gravel race of the year. The course was set at 88 miles for this year. The forecast was looking a little grim, with rain and cold temps possible, maybe even some frozen precipitation. I was tempted to drop out, no doubt.
But I didn’t. I showed up. And the rain did come, but not right away. (on right- my filthy bike at the finish)
Well, the race unfolded in the typical pattern. I got to hang with the cool kids for about 6 miles. And I found myself in a second group which became whittled down to three. And the three of us hung together for about half the race, sometimes joining or being joined, but then becoming three once again.
And somewhere near halfway, one of our three went ahead. And the other dropped behind me. And then I saw the guy ahead turn off in the wrong direction. When I got to the intersection, he was gone. And John joined me again for a little while. And I think it was right around this time the first rain started.
Well, it rained, on and off. The roads became wetter and sloppier. The winds picked up, and became pretty fierce at a couple of points. The temperature seemed to drop. At one point there was sleet. Dirty water and sand was flying up from my tires, often flying right into my eyes. I had to put the eyewear away. Eventually the cold set in, but fortunately with not too many miles. But the last miles were some pretty tough ones.
And I had hoped to finish at about 5 and a half hours, a time that I could be happy enough with. Even 6 hours wouldn’t have been a terrible day (for me). But I pulled it off even a little better, and covered 88 miles in 5 hours and 16 minutes. I finished 49 minutes behind the leaders, and my placing was 17th overall.
And so, this was my gravel season. I’m pretty happy with it, and am looking forward to more of this next year, and for a long time to come. I enjoy the challenge, and it is rewarding when your hard work pays off. For me, that payoff was improving my times and placings, and I really couldn’t have asked for more.
And of course, as always, thanks and gratitude are always owed to the people who give of their time and energy and resources, to put on these events. You are some fine people! See you next year!