It was just two years ago I rode my first “gravel grinder”. The following year (2013) I completed 6 or so events. And this year I may have 3 knocked out by the end of this month. Yes, I kind of got hooked.
I was always a cyclist, my entire life really, but had pursued it with varying degrees of intensity over the years. But an addiction to tobacco, of the smoking variety, had hooked me in a different way- nonetheless, the cycling continued. But I began to feel and experience things that became pretty clear signs that my health was declining and something had to change. And I finally discarded the cigarettes, really without much fanfare, and haven’t touched them since. Was it easy? Hell no! Nicotine withdrawl is very unpleasant and difficult. The human body becomes dependent on nicotine on a chemical and neurological level, and suddenly removing it from a person who is addicted can cause some very unpleasant reactions.
But I did succeed in quitting, and part of my strategy was to pursue cycling again with a new vigor, with a longer term goal to be able to ride/race competitively on some level. It was kind of like in the same way that I ravenously chased the nicotine rush, I was going to ride my bike with purpose and start to pursue these previously abandoned goals of racing on a bicycle. Becoming more healthy of course was a pretty significant “side benefit”.
So, it is 2014 now. We had a long, cold, and snowy winter this year. Everyone was saying “when will it end?”. But we have had some pretty nice spring weather, and the 2014 gravel season is underway. Lakeville-Milltown-Lakeville would be my first event of the year, right at the very end of March. Arctic air was just starting to loosen its grip on our area (again), and temperatures for the day started in the low 30’s and climbed into the upper 40’s in the afternoon. From previous warmer days, the roads had cleared of all snow, and dried quite a bit, but then sections might have been frozen, too, it seemed, but overall, fast and very good road conditions. But, the day before the event, I developed a fever. I was getting sick. But I decided my fever was just below 100 and I could still do it. Probably was a bad idea. But hindsight is 20/20, right?
The race was 82 miles. I rode with the lead group for, I don’t know, 6 or 7 miles, but then was squeezed off pretty handily after 2 or 3 bumps we had to climb over. There were other riders to spend some time on the road with after that, some passing me or leaving me eventually, sometimes me catching riders who had been dropped later on. I got to the halfway checkpoint in okay shape. The lead riders had already come and gone. Once I stopped, I became chilled pretty quickly, and realized I was really wet with perspiration. I took off some layers and tried to dry them and myself in the sun behind Milltown Cycles, while eating donut holes, hot bacon, drinking hot coffee and gatorade. The longer I lingered behind the bike shop, the more I realized I really felt like crap! I was sick. I started thinking there might be somebody who had driven down from Lakeville I could beg a ride back with. Then my thoughts started to turn to calling Chris back in Minneapolis. But I had her car, and she can’t drive mine. I’m going to have to finish this thing.
So, I did finish. I finished somewhere behind the middle of the field. Not terrible, but not great, either. But I did finish. Went through quite a bit of pain, psychological and physical, but I did finish. And bronchitis and full blown upper respiratory infection quickly set in in the ensuing days. Some asked me as I crossed the finish, “how was it?” I replied “How was it? It was horrible!” It wasn’t that they put on a bad race, not at all. It was just that I suffered to get to that finish line, and there wasn’t a happy feeling left in my body.
I started to recover and was back on the bike in a few days, though still to this day I don’t think I have this illness 100% beat. The next event on the calendar would be the Dairy Roubaix. It takes place in Wisconsin about 3 hours or so from us, but only 1 hour from Chris’ hometown of Decorah, IA. So we decided to spend the Easter weekend with her family, and I would get out to the race on Saturday. The weather turned very nice Saturday, warming through the 50’s as the day went on, and beautiful sunny skies.
I found myself hanging onto the lead group from the start. “Alright, let’s see how this goes.” The little bumps we were going over were straining me, and I thought “oh no, what is going to happen once we hit a real climb?” Somewhere around mile 8 or 9, not even on that significant of a climb that I can recall, I was ejected from the rear. I rode on and was eventually joined by a pair of riders. We rode together, at first it seemed they were happy let me pull them along on a fairly long paved section, but then I decided I wasn’t going to do all the work for them. I sat up a little and moved to the rear, we never really got into a cooperative groove as a trio, but I think each of us took some turns at the front. Then during one of my turns one or both of decided together to leave me. They pulled away, and I decided to let them go. It seemed too early to fight to stay on a wheel, no less chase back to the lead group. I was used to riding these things alone.
But somewhere down the road, back in the coulees and gravel, I was catching some stragglers again. And then a bigger group appeared ahead of them. It was the leaders again. As I was gaining ground on the stragglers, it appeared that they surged. I realized they were going to make a run to bridge to the lead group. I hesitated. Then I decided, I’ve got to do it, too. I likely won’t get another chance. I saw some of my supporters on the road gave them a shout and wave, and then shortly after, I was back with the pack. And we were flying along, up and down the rollers and bumps, twists, and turns of some of the prettiest gravel roads in the world. And I was more than content to sit right on the very back of this fast moving group, for as long as I could.
And the miles ticked by quickly, and the rest stop was fast approaching. And it didn’t even occur to me that people wouldn’t stop. But as I slowed, the entire group went right by, minus myself and maybe two others. I didn’t see that coming. But I didn’t see coming riding into the rest stop with this group, either. I ate some food, drank, and used the bathroom, and decided there was no reason to hang around. There was a very long climb back up from the river town to the Wisconsin prairie. I passed one rider not far from the end of this climb. It was very slow going. It was not long after that the first tailwind section came. A strong steady breeze and some long paved sections. This was a good place to ride alone and not lose time. I tried to keep my tempo high, and use the wind as much to my advantage as possible. It was then onto more gravel and hills, each one always just taking a little more from you each time. It was within the last 10 miles I was joined by a rider. We chatted a little bit. He asked about my tires. We took a paved breakneck descent together, interspersed with small gravel sections. I thought “that felt a little sketchy”. And then other riders were approaching from behind just before the turn where the 107 milers split off. They went right, and I went left. Nope, I’m not doing that, I am almost done.
So I finished. One other rider caught me before the finish. I wasn’t able to hold his pace, but didn’t really care. I already thought I had had a pretty good ride. It didn’t matter if one more guy passes me. And I hit the sand pit and went flying off my bike, my pedal carving a nice long gouge in my shin. Got back on and finished. My computer recorded my time as 3:24.43, with an average speed of 15.9 mph, a distance of 54.51 miles, and a max speed of 42.7 mph. My actual race time was actually about 3:35, though, on account of my break, which my computer didn’t record. I have never seen any official results posted anywhere, but I am fairly certain my placing was somewhere around 12th or 13th.
So, a pretty long and tough race to start the season, still finishing with not a small amount of adversity, and then a pretty decent result for the second event. Not a bad start for 2014. I have managed to hang on to last years fitness, and can build on that this year, with a lot of riding yet to do. This year I will participate in the Almanzo for the first time, the Dirty Benjamin again, and several others. Also, I’ve got my eye on some road races I might give a try, and I’m still wanting to try to race on the track, too. Stay tuned and we’ll see what unfolds.