"Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes."We arrived in Stillwater the night before the race just in time to get to District Bicycles for the pre-race meeting. Since last year they had moved to an outstanding new shop with a huge garage door they had open to the street. From the tailgate of an antique pickup parked inside the shop, the owner and race director, Bobby Wintle, told us details about the race. He gave thank yous to the community for its support and shared with us more about the origin of his love for gravel riding and the "unlearn pavement" motto he is bringing to the cycling world. Stripping life of excess nonsense has been the mantra of many enlightened teachers. Judging by his positive attitude and the amount of people that seem to truly love Bobby, he could lead a movement. He is one of those people you can't help but smile when you see them.
|Bobby in his new shop laying down some wisdom on the masses. Photo by Troy Ochs.|
|Photo by Yvette Wynne|
The effort at first was easy as the group stayed behind the escort out of town. People jockeyed for position as the herd of riders rolled down the road together. Once you hit the gravel is when the escort falls away and the game truly begins. As happens in every race I have ever attended, the moment they are set free the group moves to warp speed and things get fast and frantic for a little while as everyone's legs feel fresh.
I had a slight moment of panic when we left the pavement and hit the first real chunky gravel of the day. The bike started bucking wildly and it took about two seconds to realize what I had done wrong. There was way too much air in the tires and they were bouncing off the gravel. I was using a tire that I hadn't ridden before and had not worked out the right air pressure yet. Normally I run 35 Kenda SB8's but I was trying out some 35 Clemente USH's. I had just put them on the bike and only ridden them once, on pavement to work no less. I mean I rode it into the grass and gravel next to my driveway a couple times but that wasn't nearly enough to ascertain how they would manage large chunky gravel at 20 miles an hour.
Relearned Lesson Number 1. Don't do new things on race day. If you haven't used something on at least one long training session, you probably shouldn't do it in a race. If I had put a long ride on those tires first I would have known they needed less pressure and they would have made the first few miles of gravel a lot less white knuckle.
I wasn't sure if I should stop and let some air out or stay with Jamie and the group we were in that was making great time. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to catch them again if I let go and you almost always move slower alone. The decision was made for me as I made a sloppy shift while charging up a steep hill and dropped my chain. I rolled to a stop and put the chain back on. I took 10 seconds to let some air from the front tire and jumped back on the pedals. The tire was absorbing much more of the shock and I was able to relax a little and focus more on pushing forward. With a great amount of effort and working far too hard for the beginning of a day long race I was able to catch up and latch back onto the group Jamie was in.
The are lots of components to achieving your best performance. Sure having the strength to put lots of power to the pedals is important, but to pull off a really great race you need to nail lots of other things as well. Another component that matters as much as physical strength is navigation. After struggling with handling in the beginning, and then working so hard to catch back up to the group, I was completely ignoring where we were on the course and just trusting everyone in front of me. I figured after things spread out I would start following the map and all would be fine. Apparently, I wasn't the only one in our group feeling this way because just minutes after catching back up the entire pack we were riding in took a wrong turn. After riding a couple miles of increasingly more pavement and not hilly gravel, more and more guys began to sit up and ask if we were going the right way. We all stopped to pow wow and decided we had definitely missed something. We pushed hard back to the last turn we had taken and sure enough we saw groups of riders turning the opposite direction we had gone.
Relearned Lesson Number 2. Always keep up with the map for yourself. Somehow 15 guys managed to ride off the course in a tight pack. You would think at least one of us would have realized immediately but it would take a couple miles before we all figured it out. It turns out the flagging on the road marking the turn was in fact a little wonky, and there had been some changes to the gps route given out prior to the race, but I believe if I had been reading the map I would have noticed the conflict immediately and fixed it without riding the extra 5 miles. If I had been following every turn like I normally do, I could have saved us a ton of time and effort.
|If your map has that little pigtail on the upper right you were part of the extra special crew.|
After spending the first few miles concentrating on keeping the bike on the gravel, and then chasing like a madman to catch up to my group, and then finally trying to figure out where the hell we were, I realized I hadn't been fueling. I should have been through two bottles, several gels and a handful of electrolyte pills by this point but I had barely drank half a bottle and eaten one gel. I was way behind, and unfortunately, once you put yourself in this hole it is very difficult to get out. Because of this mistake early on the rest of my day would likely be spent in survival mode.
Relearned Lesson Number 3. Never go more than 30 minutes without fueling. It's ridiculous that I keep succumbing to problems with nutrition because I have dealt with this in more races than one person should. It is black and white. Keep up with nutrition from the beginning and you will feel good for most of the race. Fall behind on your nutrition schedule at any point in the day and you are spinning the wheel for prizes like nauseousness, muscle pain and cramping, puking, diarrhea, dizziness, headaches, and other things you just don't want to deal with in the middle of a long race. I have experienced all those things in races and I keep making the same stupid mistake.
I started fueling myself immediately and tried to get back on track. It's difficult when you are behind, though, you are still limited in how much you can stomach so you can't just catch back up. I stayed on top of eating and drinking for the next couple hours to the only checkpoint 59 miles into the race. It was good to see Sara and Jake there. It was starting to warm up and I was finally able to shed some layers. I would have let myself stay a little longer but Jamie was a man on a mission and I didn't want to lose him. We ride faster together and I still needed all the help I could get to pull myself out of the hole I had dug not eating and drinking. Anatolie left a few minutes before us but we were able to reel him back in within a few miles.
As we left the checkpoint I knew the course would finally be taking a turn out of the headwind we had been pushing for a couple hours. While the wind wasn't nearly as bad as it was last year here, it was approaching 15 mph out of the south and on the long open roads heading directly into it you could certainly feel it dragging you down.
|Secret Aid Station. Not sure who took this photo.|
Our trio had been rolling together for nearly 75 miles but as we approached the 94 mile mark I remember telling Anatolie either Jamie is getting faster or I'm slowing down. Anatolie surged to cover the gap Jamie was putting on us and I couldn't match it. Jamie looked back and gave me a huge wave. In my head I could hear him saying, "what are you doing back there, get the hell up here!" Unfortunately, the gap continued to grow and I wouldn't see them again until we were done. Because of the extra 5 in the beginning, we still had some 18 miles left to cover. I tried to bring their fading silhouettes on the horizon closer several times but it just wasn't happening. I eventually lost them and was on my own. I plugged in the music and tried to find a level of suffering I could maintain to the finish.
I realized at some point I had stopped eating and drinking again. I had left the midway checkpoint with 3 bottles but had only finished one. I reached down for a second bottle just as I was beginning a steep descent and somehow fumbled the bottle right out of my hands. I watched it bounce off the ground and ricochet into the ditch. I thought for half a second I should stop and get it but I knew I only had an hour left. Not to mention I would have to climb back up the huge hill to get it and since I was already exhausted and I had one more full bottle I decided to let it go. I hated that bottle anyway as it was a chronic leaker and I spill enough drinks on myself as it is. A few minutes later after working my way up the next few hills I reached back for the third bottle and it was gone as well. Crap. These last few miles were going to hurt.
I noticed a rider behind me gaining ground. It was Josh Brown who had stopped to refill at the Oasis. He asked how I was doing and I told him I was dry and falling apart. He offered me one of his bottles which at first I declined, I hate accepting help even when I desperately need it. Thankfully, he persisted in offering it until I finally gave in. I sucked down half the bottle and immediately felt rejuvenated. This is the good in the gravel community we talk about. He could have easily blown by me without a word and I wouldn't have thought ill of him for it. Fortunately for me, he was a much nicer guy than that and was able to talk me into taking a little help from him. I told him thanks and he powered off ahead of me.
Relearned Lesson Number 3, Again. Keep eating and drinking from the beginning to the end. What the hell is wrong with me? I love to eat too so I don’t know why I always forget when I’m riding but it is disastrous to power production. I will not make this mistake again this year! You have my permission to laugh and make fun of me when I do.
With that bit of water and a gel I had the energy I needed to finish this thing up. I left the last dirt road 7 miles from the finish and remembered this is where the rain had started for me last year. I was one of the lucky few who didn't have to fight the mud. On this day it had only sprinkled for a few seconds earlier, so once again after stressing for a week before the race about how hard the mud was going to make it, I hadn't ridden through a single puddle.
|Almost to the end. Photo by Ryan Souders|
I hadn't seen another rider ahead or behind me since Josh but I kept feeling like someone was going to come barreling by. I worked my way through the town of Stillwater toward downtown where the finish is. It's always a culture shock to come off the desolate farm roads and into the busy roads of a town. I wondered what the people peering from the windows of their cars thought about this guy in spandex covered in sweaty red dust.
I was able to forget about the mistakes and suffering for a moment as I turned the final corner and saw the finish line waiting for me. I got my hug from Bobby and was happy to be finished with a long day of hard work. Work I had made much harder on myself than it needed to be by ignoring rules and lessons I had already learned from once, but apparently needed to learn again. 275 people registered to ride this year. I don't know how many toed the line but there were 140 finishers. I was number 34 in 7 hours and 9 minutes. Sara had my cold can of Coke ready and waiting for me. It might have been the sweetest drink I have ever had.
|The Coke I had been dreaming about for hours.|