Gravel season is upon us, my friends. Last Saturday morning, I rolled out of bed at the delightful hour of 9:30 to a facebook reminder about Dirty Kanza registration. Not ten minutes later, I was signed up and committed to 4.5 months of serious bike mileage in preparation for this 200-mile race that has, in the words of the Emporia Main Street Facebook page, been my kryptonite for the past two years.
What that means for you, of course, is 4.5 months of blog posts about bike rides (although there are at least two running races on my schedule also). I know the majority of my readers are runners, so I hope you keep coming back because I love your comments. If you just can’t stomach any more bike talk, though, I should be finished talking about the race by mid-June, when you can tune back in for pictures of Nathan’s graduation from Marine boot camp.
So, DK registration was Saturday morning, the SHITR was Saturday night, and Sunday morning we saddled up. Bob and I met Chuck, Lori, Dave, and Mickey at the Mound for a combination gravel ride/course clearing excursion. Out of the six of us, only Dave isn’t signed up for DK, and he’s got a different gravel race in his sights. We planned to start by riding the Lost Valley gravel to finish picking up the course markers for the previous night. The Hamburg Trail had a fair amount of slush and snow on it, all having frozen over again the previous night. This made for some “fun” bike handling moments, and I started thinking about the drop down into Lost Valley, a ride that scares me even in good conditions.
I suggested to Lori that we ride the gentler Hamburg downhill and come into Lost Valley from the lower parking lot, eliminating the bigger (and more importantly here, snow and ice-covered) hills. We spun it as being more time efficient to work towards the guys and meet halfway, but everybody knew I was wimping out. I was OK with that.
As it turned out, there was no “easy way out” on this ride. While the Hamburg downhill wasn’t bad, some of the flat parts were tough going. There was still a lot of snow on the ground, and footprints and bike tracks from the previous day had frozen over. We decided Lori was the smart one for leaving her mountain bike tires on!
|Footprints, ruts, snow, and ice. The snow was the easiest going, but even that was tough for me.|
We did our fair share of walking. I was starting to think the guys would be waiting for us at the parking lot gate because it was taking us so long, but eventually we made it to Lost Valley and managed to clear a few markers before they came down the trail with reports of how sketchy their ride had been. Now I felt more smart than wimpy.
|Since the guys had ridden the SHITR route, there were way more footprints and frozen spots than we’d had.|
Nobody wanted to try riding back up the way the guys had come, and since Lori’s and my route wasn’t much better we all opted to take the Katy Trail to the less traveled quarry trail and head back towards Busch Wildlife that way. The Katy was much more rideable, thanks to thawed areas and to whatever vehicle had driven on it and laid down a couple nice tracks, but the quarry trail looked like an icy mess. So much for that idea, but the detour wasn’t a total loss.
|There was throwing of rocks onto the ice…|
|…and digging out beaver-chewed sticks…|
|…and group pictures|
Still looking for a suitable route to Busch Wildlife, we decided to take the Katy to a paved trail that would eventually lead us back onto Highway 94 for a short ride to our destination. I’m not a fan of riding on the highway, but in this case it seemed the least treacherous option. Still, I was relieved to reach our turn. Chuck, Lori, Bob, and Dave all had other things to do, so Mickey and I set off onto the gravel roads of Busch Wildlife without them.
I’d been anticipating clear roads. Since Busch gets a lot of sun, all of the snow should be melted and we’d get a break from riding on snow and ice. While this was mostly true, “melted” didn’t imply “dry”, and instead of solid road we found ourselves trudging through soft, soupy muck, gray rooster tails spraying behind us.
|My poor pack…|
We arrived back at the parking lot with 30 miles on our Garmins and a liberal coating of gravel paste.
|It took multiple trips through the wash to get all the dirt out of my clothes|
The rest of the week I managed to squeeze in a 3.2 mile treadmill run and a 1.5 hour trainer ride, but life was mostly about taking care of things at home since I’d be gone for the weekend. Martin Luther King weekend features the happy intersection of the Cardinals Winter Warmup and Team Virtus’s MLK Ride at the Berryman Trail. Jeff and Jacob spend every day of the three-day weekend scoring autographs and meeting baseball players, leaving me a guilt free ride binge. This year allowed for back-to-back rides, with the Rte. 66 Bicycles Joe Dirt Ride being held the day after the MLK ride.
I left from work on Friday afternoon, and after eating the awesome dinner Mickey’s wife cooked we headed to Cuba, MO, where we were staying with Luke and his family at his cousin’s house. The next morning we hit the trail, rolling out on time for perhaps the first time ever in Team Virtus history.
|Some of the group waiting to roll out|
With as much as I’ve been riding over the past couple months, I expected to feel pretty good on the trail, but the first few miles weren’t awesome. My mental warmup takes just as long as the physical one, but once I changed my thoughts from “how am I so out of shape??” to “this is good training”, I felt a little bit better.
|Photo credit: Kevin|
We had a decent-sized group strung out at the back of the pack with us, but it gradually whittled down. Luke and Rhonda dropped off to go get the grill started, leaving Mickey, Chuck, Dave, Kevin, and me. I was frustrated with myself because the guys had to keep waiting for me, so it was a little nice to catch up to them with Chuck walking his bike. He’d broken his chain, but luckily he had a spare link.
|He made quick work of the repairs and we were back on our way.|
Not long after this, Kevin had to drop off and head back home for other plans. Later, after having to walk an uphill switchback on his bad ankle, Chuck was really hurting and decided he was better off heading back early too. I stopped with him so he could check my map before taking off, so Dave and Mickey got even further ahead of me. It was at this point, though, where finally my brain kicked in and all of the sudden riding felt good.
Of course, it helped that this section of the trail was primarily downhill, but that hasn’t always been a positive for me in the past. I typically get scared on downhills, but the trail was in the best shape I’ve ever seen it in, and this was the kind of downhill I like: fairly gradual, winding and swoopy. All of the sudden I was having fun, and the guys were surprised when I took much less time than normal to catch up with them.
After a quick, somewhat triumphant, snack break, my hard-won flow disappeared and I could barely stay on the trail. Rather than be frustrated, I was laughing to myself as I careened from edge to edge of the singletrack, happy for once that the guys were far enough ahead to miss my ineptitude. We had a brief detour to check out a frozen waterfall Mickey had found while riding around waiting for me to catch up…
|Me and Dave|
|Couldn’t resist the triple dog dare|
Two years ago when I rode about half of the trail with Luke and Jim, my very favorite part was the downhill into Brazil Creek, and once again this section was a blast. Granted, my speed was probably still slower than the fast guys ride uphill, but it was fast for me. We ate a little something by the side of the road and then set off on the last ten miles of the loop.
This section of trail was a little rougher than the first part, and of course I was more tired by this point. I had to walk some short washed-out, rocky, rooty sections and some hills. Shifting down into my lowest ring in the front, I managed to drop my chain and get it really caught. I tried pulling it out, but it was so stuck I couldn’t budge it, so I resigned myself to walking until I caught up with the guys or one of them turned around looking for me. I walked and then tried dislodging the chain, walked again, and then stopped. At this rate I’d be walking forever, and it was killing me to walk downhill.
Normally I’m a huge chicken on hills, but the best thing about getting tired is that I typically lose a little of my fear. Coasting downhill, eating up distance with little effort suddenly seems so much more appealing, and if I crash and die, chances are I won’t have to ride my bike anymore. Win-win. I took another look at the chain and remembered that if I shifted the back cogs I might get more slack and be able to put my chain back on. Success! I was riding again.
…and walking. I basically walked part of every uphill in the last 4-5 miles. And by “part”, I mean a big part. I was vaguely embarrassed but too tired to care. Trudging up to where Mickey was riding back and forth on the gravel waiting for me, I urged him to go on without me — ”I’ve only got a couple miles left…if anything happens I can just walk out” — but knowing I was much more likely to take a gravel bailout if I was on my own, he stuck with me. The rest of the ride followed a pattern familiar from Dirty Kanza: ride the hill as far as I can, walk to the top, bomb down, repeat.
I was so tired that I just wanted to sit down on the trail and cry, but I was also excitedly watching my mileage and realizing that I was going to finish the loop for the first time ever. I was just giving myself a pep talk (“Two or three miles left…anyone can ride two or three miles…”) when I caught up with Mickey at a gravel road crossing. He gestured in front of him: “Do you see it?” I looked blankly for a moment and then realized what he was showing me. The parking lot and pavilion where we’d started were maybe 100 feet away through the trees. Now I wanted to cry because I was so happy.
I changed into some dry clothes, parked myself by the grill, and filled up on brats (yeah, plural), a hamburger, and a couple of cookies. We hung out for the next couple hours, and while it was a smaller crowd for the ride than in past years, some of my favorite people were there. Meanwhile, as I celebrated my epic journey of 26 miles, some guys rode two laps, and one finished three. Amazing. I was wiped out by my one lap and was wildly unsure how I was going to manage the challenging 46-mile gravel ride the following day…but this post is long enough, so that’s a story for another day.