103 Miles of Gravel

I signed up for my Twitter account in early 2009, basically to make it easier to keep up with Lance Armstrong.  Then, randomly, a guy named Chris Skogen starting following me.  I took a look at the website on his profile and read about this crazy thing: the Almanzo 100.  A 100-mile “gravel grinder”, a race along gravel roads.  What?  So it’s not a mountain bike race, but it’s not really a road race either.  What kind of bike do you even use for that?  What kind of tires?  But most of all, why?  But I reciprocated the follow and have been reading his tweets since then.

In an astonishing display of the “Small World” phenomenon, one of my Red Jacket teammates got wind of these gravel grinder races and got totally fired up on the concept.  He threw himself into the Almanzo Gravel Road Series, a collection of Midwest gravel races. This included something called the Gentlemen’s Ride.  This Ride is done along the same course as the Almanzo course  but in teams of four.  It’s a little less of a race and a little more of a ride, but still worth points in the AGRS.  So if he wanted to get these points, he needed to do the Gentlemen’s Ride.  And that meant finding 3 other people who were crazy enough to do it with him.  Somehow, I felt crazy enough to do it.

I had never ridden 100 miles on my bike.  Up until the Chequamegon 40, I had never ridden more than 3:10.  Why in the world did I think I could do this?  I had read somewhere that any reasonably fit cyclist could knock out a century if they needed to, and I was clinging to that hope.  I just didn’t want to be an anchor for the team.  Turns out that wasn’t going to be a problem.

The eternal question for bike racers is: which bike do I ride for event X?  This is followed immediately by: what tires do I put on that bike?  For me, the first question was easy.  I was going to ride the Tricross.  It was designed for this kind of terrain as much as for cyclocross.  The second question was a little harder.  I have cyclocross tires, but they seemed so knobby for riding 100 miles.  I could get touring or randonneuring tires, but they would get used for the Gentlemen’s Ride and then nothing else.  So I spent a while looking at low-knob cyclocross tires and found the Continental Cyclocross Speed clinchers.  If it was going to be muddy, I thought they might be a problem.  But on dry, hard roads, they would be awesome.  I could not have made a better choice of equipment. The Conti’s actually clean very well in muddy conditions and are incredibly fast in the dry and on pavement.  I ran the recommended 58 psi in the 35c folding bead version.  Coasting down hills, I was leaving my teammates in the dust without even trying.  (On a vaguely related note, they actually work really well as general ‘cross tires except on really loose surfaces.)

It would be futile and uninteresting to recount the events of 9+ hours in the saddle and 103 miles of riding.  So here are a list of simple thoughts about the event:

  • It is cool to mark off your very first century (the Fat Cyclist 100 Miles of Nowhere notwithstanding).
  • Gravel roads are a nice compromise between mountain biking and road riding.  You get that sensation of speed and of covering large distances without all the nasty traffic.  The tradeoff is the frequent smell of cow manure.
  • I was climbing like a maniac.  There were some steep pitches and I was able to just stomp up them.  Unfortunately, that crazy pace was too much for my teammates and I had to wait at the top of the hills.  (Of the 9:15 we were out on the roads, only 8:15 were actually moving.)  I wasn’t trying to be a jerk.  I just didn’t have any other gears to go down to and if I started standing up on the pedals, my back wheel would be spinning out.
  • Allen Lim’s famous “Francois” rice cakes are completely delicious and wonderful on the bike.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two strongest riders on the team were not eating completely preprocessed bars and gels, but were rather eating real food.
  • I finally got to use the Hydrapak Morro that I won in an “Ask Reba” contest put on by Rebecca Rusch.  There’s still something a little funny about the taste of water coming out of the reservoir, but between the 100 oz. of water and two 24-oz Camelbak Podium bottles, I was set for hydration.  It also nicely held all the food and extra clothing I brought.
  • Copious application of dznuts kept me nice and comfy all day.
  • Around the 4 hour mark, I was grumpy.  I wanted to go faster.  I wanted to be done.  Things got better after the 6 hour mark, but by hour 8 I was pretty sick and tired of the whole thing.  By hour 9, I wanted nothing more than to see mile 103 on my Garmin and to roll back into the parking lot.  In every race I’ve ever done, there’s always a point where you hurt from the effort and think to yourself, “Why am I doing this?  Why can’t I just be done now?”  Usually, there’s something that causes that feeling to go away — usually a sweet descent.  But I’ve never had the feelings like I had at hour 4 where I completely stopped having fun for a while.  I did not want to ride my bike one meter farther.

The Garmin trace for the ride is here.  It was a fun experience, but not one I’m keen to repeat in the very near-term future.  Part of is that last bullet point.  This biking thing is supposed to be fun, and I don’t want to do anything that makes me stop having fun on a bike.  Also, as I’ve mentioned, I really want to keep my races a little shorter and more intense.  That just fits into the rest of my life.

So to those heading off to the Heck of North this weekend, I salute you.  May the roads be dry and fast.  As for myself, I think I’ll just hit up a little 1-2 hour mountain bike ride instead, thanks.


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