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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Chequamegon 40 Race Report

Sometime in late 2008, I decided that I really wanted to do the Chequamegon 40 race.  I had heard about this so-called “Midwest Triple Crown” of mountain bike races: the Ore 2 Shore, the Chequamegon 40 and the Iceman Cometh.  I had ridden the Soft Rock (28 mile) version of the Ore 2 Shore several times, and kind of thought “been there, done that.”  For various reasons, I  had no interest in Iceman then (and still don’t).  But the Cheq40 had all sorts of advantages: not too late in the season, held fairly close in an area of Wisconsin I enjoy visiting and more than 20 years of history behind it.

So I set my iCal reminders, downloaded the registration form the day it was available, sent it in, and waited.  Some time in May 2009, I got my check back.  The lottery had not gone my way, and I was not riding that year.  I was still somewhat fixated on the race, so I wrote my Gu Cleanup Cru email, sent it in, and waited.  This time, my waiting was rewarded with an invitation to come clean up the race in trade for lots of Gu products and a guaranteed entry for 2010.  The experience was remarkable, as I detailed in an old post I will try to resurrect at some point.

2010 was then to be the year of Chequamegon.  I rode the long Cable Area Off-Road Classic to get used to the lay of the land.  I upgraded myself to several other 2.5-3 hour races to get used to that amount of time in the saddle.  I watched what I ate to lose 25 pounds.  I migrated to Chris Carmichael’s “Time Crunched Training Plan”.  As September drew near, I felt ready.

We drove to Cable and picked up the packet at the Telemark Resort under the new, improved Big Top Tent.  Considering that 2500 riders were supposed to be picking up packets, it went remarkably smoothly.  It was then off the KOA in Hayward to get set up for the night.  Anticipating the sub-40 degree temperatures, we snuggled into blankets and drifted off to sleep with plans to arrive at the start line around 8:30 the next morning.

One would think 1.5 hours before the start would be more than enough time to arrive.  One would be wrong.  Riders show up at unbelievably early hours to drop off their bikes for a primo starting position.  There seems to be a sentiment that a good starting position guarantees a good ride, something I don’t understand. There is so much room to pass on the wide roads and ski trails that it is trivial to make up spots.  I’m sure I passed hundreds of riders on my way to the finish.

Me at the start (in the red/white stripes).

One thing about Chequamegon that is remarkable is how friendly everyone is.  And by “everyone”, I really mean everyone.  The volunteers are cheerful.  The spectators will encourage any rider.  The riders are just happy to be there and love to chat at the start line.  I talked with a former student who is working in Minneapolis.  I talked with a couple from Duluth (of which the husband was teasing his wife that Paul’s Plunge — a notorious descent on the Copper Harbor trails — was at the end of the Cheq 40).  I talked with a very animated lady from Iowa who had completed an Ironman and lined up at that day with a beautiful purple tiara zip-tied to her helmet.  And then we were off.

The road section is fast.  Really fast.  I don’t ever maintain 20+ MPH on my mountain bike, but that’s exactly what we did, for 3 miles.  This is where I made up the most of my places, zooming past a lot of riders who were counting on god bike placement to give them a good race.  Even heading onto the dirt left lots of room for passing riders who were just not keeping up a good pace.

Eventually though, you end up on the Birkie Trail, a wide, rolling XC ski trail used for the American Birkebeiner race each winter.  I have never ridden trail that was so tiring.  You slogged up one hill in your granny gear and then tried to grab a bigger gear so that you can spin-spin-spin down that hill and maintain some momentum for the next.  You never could though, because the riders in front of you were just coasting down the hill.  If you tried to go around them, you went off into the momentum-robbing grass.  So for miles it was crank-crank-crank-spin-spin-spin-crank-crank-crank-recover.

Once you leave the Birkie Trail for a while,  you get on some rustic roads and ATV trails.  These were no easier to ride because of the copious rain the area had received all summer.  There were giant puddles, most of which had ride-arounds.  Some didn’t though, and these had deep sections up to the axles of your bike.  You plowed through and came out the other side with soaking feet and an unhappy drivetrain.

Then it was on to some wide, fast dirt roads.  The time I’ve spent on the road this year made this section scream out, “PACELINE!”  However, it would seem that mountain bikers just won’t collaborate that way, or don’t know about it, or something, because we were just all strung out in a line.  One guy led the train for the whole section and everybody else just sucked wheel. (While mountain bikers are not happy to pull, they are very happy to let you break the wind for them.)  Then when we got back into some rolling terrain, the whole “line” became more of a “blob” and I rolled on past.

Everybody talks about Firetower Hill as though it is some monstrosity.  Clearly it is hard, and clearly it is not fun to ride after 2 hours in the saddle.  But somehow it was a compressed, limited suffering, especially compared to being dumped back out on the Birkie Trail (which we were).  It was back into those soul-sucking rollers and wishing for an electric assist bike.

At the last aid station, they had doughnut holes.  I had read that they did this and it had sounded like an interesting idea at the time.  But by the time I rode through that station the mere idea of a doughnut hole made me want to throw up.  I could have had a Clif Bar or a banana or gel or something like that.  A doughnut hole?  Not so much.

As the final miles approached, I began struggling.  (Actually, my Garmin report indicates that I started suffering around 2.5 hours in, which would correspond to when I started feeling weak.)

Within the last mile, I was starting to wonder if I would be able to finish.  Some of the muscles in my knees were cramping or getting sore to the point that I was struggling just to pedal.  My legs were tired, my back was sore.  I couldn’t help but think of Sue Haywood’s quote from Off Road to Athens: “I don’t know, everything hurts, this sucks.”  But I was able to keep turning the pedals over and made it to the last descent into the bowl at Telemark.

The last cruel stroke of the Cheq 40 is that after that descent, you have to climb one last little rise into the finishing chute.  Just to show I wasn’t completely spent, I gave a feral groan and sprinted to the line at the 3:15:03.0 mark.  I was 791st across the line overall and 101st in my age bracket.  Out of 1700, I’ll take that.

As I swung my leg over the saddle to get off the bike, my thigh cramped up painfully and I had to massage the cramp away before I could even move.  At that point, I really just wanted to sit down so that I didn’t throw up.  Eventually I was able to get down some of those doughnut holes (which were quite good, really) and headed back to the campground with my family.

At the campground, the kids had a blast on the jumping pillow and I just enjoyed a warm shower.  I also spent a while surfing the web on my iPad via WiFi.  Somehow, I don’t think it can still be called “camping” in those conditions.

My son on the Jumping Pillow

The next day I was signed up for the Cable Crit-Cross.  The description of the course read, “The Cable Crit-Cross course will contains a series of cyclocross obstacles including barricades, hike-a-bike uphill section, steps/bridge/ramp obstacle and some tight technical singletrack.” This turned out to be patently false and caused me to make a very bad decision.  I left my ‘cross bike at home.  Firstly, there was no hike-a-bike section.  Secondly, the “tight technical singletrack” was about 100 feet long and not technical.  It was a perfect cyclocross bike course, I didn’t have mine.  Instead I had a monster full-suspenion bike with a sloping top tube that was simply not where I was looking for it to be.  On the approach to the bridge, I missed it entirely once.  The bike stubbornly adhered to the laws of gravity and did not float next to me as I ascended the stairs.  It also obeyed laws of momentum and did not stop once I missed the grab, but crashed into the bridge.

Start of the Cable Crit-Cross

Fortunately all of this pain was to be short-lived.  I was very self-consciously wearing number plate #1, simply because I was the first one to actually register.  That got me to the start line in the first qualifying heat.  When the official said, “GO!” I promptly screwed up clipping into my other pedal.  I hurried to catch up, but had already lost a lot of ground.  I managed the grab going up the bridge, but as I remounted the bike, the bolt in the seat clamp sheared in two.  The saddle, no longer constrained by that evil clamp, shot out from under me and I nearly found myself sitting directly on the seatpost.  I just collected the parts spewed about the course, walked back up to the timing trailer and deposited my timing chip.  I was done.  I enjoyed watching my son ride in the Kid’s Bicycle Rodeo instead.

Already behind...

Just before the carnage.

The results.

Cameron Racing.  He's in the yellow flames.

I always try to find a lesson or some thing new about myself in each race.  I don’t think there was anything new this time, per se.  It rather reinforced something I already knew: My training schedule has not prepared my body to sustain a race effort for more than 2.5 hours.  Really, I can only sustain a really good pace for about 1.5-1.75 hours.  It’s time to accept that, but not in a defeated way.  It’s time to accept that as the reality of where I’m at in my life and my fitness and choose events that play into that.  Do I need to do a 100-mile MTB race?  Nope.  Do I need to do an Ironman?  Definitely not.  Can I try to be a competent cyclocross rider?  Yeah.  Can I try to win my age bracket in 16-20 mile MTB races?  Absolutely.  And that’s what next year is going to be about.

On a somewhat related note, I think I need a zero-offset seatpost or to update my Body Geometry fitting.  I have my saddle so far back that it puts a lot of stress on the rails and seat clamp.  Something to think about, at least.

So there you go.  My mountain bike season is done for 2010, at least in terms of racing.  I will be heading out for some fun rides, enjoying the cool weather and bright colors of autumn.  I’ve got a couple ‘cross races on the horizon that I’m looking forward to immensely.  However, the most imminent event is this Saturday’s Gentlemen’s Ride in Minnesota.  100 miles of gravel roads.  I don’t know what I was thinking…

You got some ‘splaining to do…

The internets are full of blogs, many of which are maintained by celebrities and other respectable-type folks.  Regular folks like me read those to be told what and how to think (or sometimes just to be entertained).  So why, after so long, is this one just being created?  What’s with the name?  (And so on.)

First, the reason it’s just being created is because my old home was destroyed.  For almost 3 years, I posted at the Specialized Rider’s Club, a social networking hub owned and operated by Specialized Bicycle Components.  Recently, Specialized decided that the Rider’s Club needed to be reinvented and all of the social aspects of the site were eliminated.  Fortunately, I was able to save all my content from that site and will repost it here from time to time.  So that’s why I’m here.

Why the “Race of Truth”?  I needed something that I felt communicated all of the main aspects of my life.  First and foremost, I am a born-again believer in Jesus Christ.  I consider the Bible to be God’s “special revelation” to man and to be Truth (with a capital ‘T’).  Secondly, I am a husband and father, attempting to lead my family in the ways of God’s truth.  Thirdly, I am a lecturer at Michigan Technological University where I instruct undergraduate electrical and computer engineering students in the world’s truth.  And finally, I am a cyclist (of all sorts of disciplines), and the individual time trial is often called the “Race of Truth”, for there is no hiding in the pack, no drafting.  There is only the bike, the rider and the truth of time.  So “truth” is the common thread in my life.

The blog will normally focus on the bicycle aspect of all of this, though I will feel more comfortable delving into other topics here than I did at the Rider’s Club.  I am looking forward to my option of exploring other areas of my life too, since writing has proven to be very cathartic in some trying or confusing circumstances.

I don’t expect to be famous, I don’t expect anybody but my wife to actually read this.  But I will write and I will enjoy it.  And the first real post, regarding my weekend at the Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival, should be up later today.  I hope that if anybody does read this, they will enjoy coming on this journey with me.

Cycling, Christianity and Fatherhood Meet.