So last (*last) weekend, the day finally came for me to test out the worlds of gravel, singlespeeds, and cyclocross. All wrapped up in a 112 mile ride through the rolling hills of mid-MO. After an awesome breakfast of pork cutlets (thanks to Peat’s friend Nick, who let us crash in his guest bedroom – can you say fancy??) we drove out to the start and made last minute preparations: signing our lives away to USAC, and stocking up on lil’ packets of chamois butter and GU. We lined up… to ride over to where the national anthem was played in most awesome fashion by Kanye (a local teenager) on an electric guitar. Followed and preceded by other sweet tunes. I lined up with Peat and many of his Team Noah Foundation teammates (including badass ladies Maria E and Emily Korsch!!), we were hoping to stay together for the first bit, where he’d help me with pacing (slow down and attempt to not burn out). The first 10 miles or so were a nice combo of pavement and little rollers, giving a pleasant intro to the day to come. A group of really fast people took off from the front… I can’t imaging keeping that pace for a full day. I was happy settling in at my “pace”, and getting used to the wheels I’d borrowed from Peat (tubeless bontrager 38’s, for those that care. Running a lot of pressure).
Soon enough, we hit the first section of ‘singletrack’, which goes in quotes because it was really a wide open field with plenty of cow poo and a rough trail to follow. It’s weird being on singletrack in such an open space… but it was rough enough to bounce off my saddle bag. Multiple times. I had been keeping an eye on Peat’s teammates Emily and Maria at the start of the race, figuring I’d try to stay near them and see how they paced themselves. Well, during the course of re-adjusting my saddlebag, I was passed by about 20 people and lost about 5 minutes. Stupid, stupid decision with that bag. In my frustration, I actually scaled a gate at the end of the field instead of opening it like a normal person… I tried to open it from the wrong side, assumed it didn’t open, so I just grabbed my bike and climbed over it. I am not a smart person.
At the start of the singletrack Peat had stopped for a pee break, but said he’d catch up. I figured he couldn’t be too far behind me after all the stopping I did, but I hadn’t seen him yet. Immediately following the gate fiasco was some ‘real’ singletrack through vegetation and with some technical sections. I proudly blasted through it on the cross bike, confidence boosted from a trip to Chubb on the mtb a few days ago. No flats, no problem! The singletrack shot you out onto a road, where Bob Jenkins (the super awesome race director) was there with a truck, and a bunch of people were hanging out. I followed someone up a hill to the left… then heard someone say something about the ‘short course’. Turns out I had taken a turn onto the cedar sapling 65 mile course instead of the full 112’er, so I rolled back down the hill and over a fun little bridge, thoroughly frustrated in my time loss so far (mostly due to saddlebag, but also due to my race-dumb brain).
I rolled grudgingly on, wondering where Peat could possibly be, and stopped to fix my saddlebag a few MORE times (seriously?!). As I was back on the gravel section, pushing what felt like a reasonably fast pace trying to catch everyone that had flown by, I saw a familiar figure in front of me… Peat?? Riding along with the easily- spotted Don Daly on a fatbike (yeah, he’s insane), we had somehow missed each other. On the bright side, I had caught back up, and we started pedaling together for a bit.
We were cruising, and passing a few people here and there, and finally we met up with the team Alpine Shop (David Frei, Jeff Sona, Emily Korsch)/Noah Foundation (Maria, also Emily) and got to hang out and chat for a bit, and blast some fun gravel hills. Peat and I were on the left, having a grand old time flying down one steep hill, when we overshot the sharp cutoff into the trees for the next singletrack section. The alpine/noah group all jogged ahead of us, along with 3-4 other people who had been right behind them. The singletrack was easy but dense, and with so many people in front of us it was a good chance to catch my breath and take it easy. Somewhere in there we found some separation, and I got the chance to hop over a few logs. This is a big deal for me – I wimp out on logs (more than rocks or anything else) on my mountain bike, so it was awesome to make it over a few on the cross bike with skinny tires. I also rode a few technical sections where the dudes in front of me had stopped to walk… and felt like a total badass. It was awesome. (also, thankfully, no flats. I’d been having nightmares of flats… and here was the place for them. survival!)
In the end, we were still behind a train of people and walked a few sections, and eventually made it through the infamous run-up. *If you don’t know, Peat had hip surgery oh, 3 months ago. So the run-up was definitely tricky for him… I was worried he was going to trip and fall to his death in the creek. But, he’s a champ, and rides 100’s of miles on broken body parts. On his singlespeed. We all survived, but at the top of the climb I had to, you guessed it, fix my saddlebag. Grrrr.
After the runup, we had a nice section of gravel to regain bearings. Around this time, Peat said he was feeling the last 4 weeks of 100 milers in his (still recovering) legs, and let me loose to roll my own pace. I was bummed we wouldn’t be chillin together for the rest of the race… but took my opportunity to just enjoy the woods and crunch of gravel under (borrowed) tires. It really was a lovely day.
We hit a pedestrian bridge where I saw Noelle (who was crewing for us, and is a saint). I didn’t stop, but waved hello! I’d caught up to the team alpine noah again, and followed the train up a horsed-up loose hill following the bridge. This is where I got my first real lesson on offroading with the singlespeed – my legs were not used to such a low cadence slogging through loose mud/gravel. When we got to the top of the hill, I took off with the hopes of at least keeping my legs moving a little faster, even if it meant spending a bit more time out of the saddle (but still standing over the rear wheel for traction… so many ss tricks discovered). Unfortunately for the single-speeder, following the gravel hills was a decent section of downhill road, followed by flat gravel. I simply couldn’t keep the legs spinning, and was caught by team alpine/noah as I tried to snack a bit on the flat gravel sections. The hills had my legs starting to complain… so I figured I needed more food and water. Down the hatch!
Finally, I hit the ‘aid station’ at mile 47 where Noelle was set up to crew for her husband Corey, Peat and I, and probably about 40 other people. Seriously, she’s super pro at support crew (I got to watch her in action at the OGRE the weekend prior, and she had been kind enough to offer to help us during cedar cross… we very happily accepted!). She helped me fill a few water bottles, I grabbed an extra GU, and – the best part – she had electrical tape!!! I very happily taped the shit out of my saddlebag, running loops over my saddle and hoping it wouldn’t chafe… but honestly, I’d prefer a little chafing to stopping every few miles, particularly knowing we were headed for one more section of singletrack.
The next section of singletrack was fun and awesome… until it wasn’t. There were a bunch of horses on the trail, which cut down on my ride time a bit, but overall they moved past at a decent pace and were pleasant. This also meant there were plenty of new ‘obstacles’ to avoid, along with some extra pasture perfume in the air. I was still pretty pleased – riding just about everything, including some tricky uphills. But near the end of this section, I discovered the downfall of the singlespeed – my legs were cramping. Hard. Like, I didn’t think I could move them. I kept pushing, hoping to see Emily (knowing she’d left the pit a few minutes before me). I rounded one corner then, at the very top of a hill I was starting along, I caught a glimpse of nice new red shorts! So, I promptly got off my bike and tried to stretch out my legs. At least I’d know how far behind her I was. Only problem was… my legs didn’t stretch. And they didn’t move. And they didn’t stop cramping. It was like trying to rip cardboard against the grain – just not gonna happen for me. I got to the top of the singletrack, and regretted not getting Noelle’s phone number at the pit stop. How was I going to get someone to come pick me up off the course? Forget winning, forget finishing, I might just dry up in a ditch somewhere and nobody would even know.
A few turns after exiting the singletrack there was a hill. Not a particularly terrible hill, but not an easy one either. My legs were still lead. Both quads were solid cramped – turning the pedals did nothing to dull the pain, or encourage it to leave. There were twinges of hamstring cramps thrown in here and there as well. I am not happy to say… in the middle of that hill, I stopped and got off my bike, and squatted on the ground, trying to get the cramps to go away. The did not. They laughed right back at me, and started clamping harder. I figured I’d try to finish the race, drink a bunch more water, eat as much food as I could, and probably just rip through all my muscle attempting to ride my way in (or at least until I could find someone I know to come get me).
Luckily, drinking water helped. I revived. I just kept spinning, knowing that it really couldn’t get much worse. Might as well be moving. And, slowly, it got better. Encouraged, I pounded a bunch more water and food. And just kept the legs moving.
Not much longer, Peat’s friend Lurch came flying by with Matt, and I hopped on the train. I couldn’t hang (we can say my gearing was slightly lower than theirs… but in reality I’m just not quite as strong or used to spinning my legs out like they are… did I mention they’re both also SS?). I got maybe a mile or two in, but wanted to conserve some energy for later in the race, as I’d heard the last 30 miles or so are terrible.
With the addition of food and water, I was feeling better and started to think about catching Emily again. I just rode my pace (which I had finally found, after the jitters and adrenaline of the start followed by the total exhaustion of cramps) until hitting Ham’s Prairie, the last stop for food and water before the power plant climb/view and katy trail slog to the finish. Who did I see at the gas station, but Noelle!! I had only expected to have help at the one pit stop at mile 47, but having a cooler of ice-cold water ready to fill my bottles, plus food and snacks, was the best thing ever! I had drained my camelbak (again), which Noelle quickly filled with icewater… seriously, she’s so fast. She also said that I was the first girl they’d seen! I didn’t believe them… Emily had probably come through, but hadn’t stopped (because she’s a freakin’ badass, and knows exactly what calories/water she needs – ain’t nobody got time for stops when you’re so legit!). Still, I figured I wasn’t too terribly far behind, so I kept the stop short and rolled out for some road riding (ugh, ss downfall).
I survived the powerplant climb (I SO wanted to walk, but didn’t. I did, however, get yelled at by about 4 pickup trucks that blasted by, kicking up enough dust to make me reconsider breathing. thanks…). After the top of the climb, I was rewarded with a sweet view of the nuclear site, then just coasted along some gravel leading up to a sweet downhill into the katy trail.
I should mention at this point… I was totally blasting the gravel downhills. I worked so hard to gain that elevation, no way was I letting any of that potential energy go to waste. I think I topped 30 mph at least 3 times during the ride… fuck yeah! And, more importantly, didn’t washout or crash on anything. Success.
Once hitting the katy, I passed another rider confused with directions. I flew by, and immediately felt like a jerk for just shouting that we were going the right way. I didn’t have to wait long, though, until he caught up to me, and we worked together for a while. Even better than riding together an chatting, was that I had someone to share my directional woes with. I kept following the cue sheets, but the turn-off from the katy showed up a bit later than expected. Don (other rider) would humor me whenever I stopped at road crossings, hoping that we’d hit the end. Finally, we found the turnoff and made it to what I considered the hardest part of the day: gravel farm roads exposed to the wind 😦
I pulled away from Don, thanks to the ss gearing and not having a slow-down option. I cursed the wind, and just focused on turning the cranks. I couldn’t see anyone anywhere near me – it was just me vs the roads. Finally, I made the turn onto the levy, but there was magically another rider behind me! I had been trying to eat and slowed up a bit… I turned on the gas a little hoping he’d join me, but the next time I glanced behind me I couldn’t see anyone. Oh well 😦
Finally the gravel turned to occasional asphalt, and I could see another rider up in the distance. He saw me too, because he started to pull away. No problem, I thought, as long as I don’t get passed by anyone here, I’ll still wind up second in the lady division, which is cool by me. I kept checking, but didn’t see anyone behind me. Finally, the dude I was chasing slowed up a little, and we wound up together. I passed and told him to hop on my wheel, but as soon as I looked back to check he was way dropped off. I can only hope that my gasping for air kept him motivated to crush the last few miles!
I was finally on the home stretch, all on my lonesome, and just let it out. I kept telling myself – only 6 miles to the finish, you can run that! It’ll be easy. It’ll take you less than 45 minutes… or maybe 45 minutes, but whatever. You can do it! Passing the capitol building, riding under the highway, I knew I was close!
The finish was offset from the (real) start by a bit, and I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going… it looked like there had been some sort of wedding in one of the buildings to the right, but then there was a group of people huddled in the shade of a tree to the left… could it be??
It was!! I crossed the finish line, asking as I rolled through “oh, you mean I’m done??” and was met with a spray of beer from the Jerkins himself, plus from a few children who were very excited to be pouring beer on strangers. They’ve been trained well.
Bob’s wife came over to get my name, and I learned that I was actually the first woman! It turns out Emily had flatted out near Ham’s prairie, which is why I hadn’t seen her anywhere on the course.
Overall, I’m super stoked on the day, and excited to potentially do more gravel races on the singlespeed 🙂
Also… minor PSA – put sunscreen on your back. Turns out, it can be exposed when riding:
Strava, for those interested.