Almanzo, revisited

What a difference a year makes!

Last year, I felt like I was prepared for the ride. This year, I knew I was. With some shifts in schedule and life, I’ve been more consistent and deliberate in my training. Add in the fact that I’m entering my fourth year of competitive cycling, and you can surmise that I’m getting the hang of it.

The lead-up to this year’s Almanzo was filled with apprehension about the sheer number of riders taking the start line. A whopping 1,400 sent in postcards, and while I knew they wouldn’t all show up, even if a third of them didn’t, it would still be huge. And that, to me, meant dusty and sketchy. With that many people full of adrenaline, the race could conceivably end very badly, very early.

Our travel squad this year included a caravan of Schmidty and Corey (now dubbed Lil’ Sprout and the Jolly Green Giant) followed by Berly, Ashley and I taking over Corey’s Mint Julep Honda Element for the weekend. We were staying in a converted elementary school in Preston, and met up there with  with Linda and Tim Kelsey, Dave McCollough, Jenn, and Mark Falloon and his family. The weather on the drive up was mild, but once we hit Minnesota, the wind picked up and it got much cooler…rain. As we pulled off the interstate to head toward Spring Valley, the rain really picked up. No dust!!

The JGG and Lil’ Sprout

Rain to the east, heading north

Wiper warp, steady rain into Spring Valley

The warrior princesses unloading at our converted elementary school accommodations.

The ever-gorgeous welcome packet. A thing of art and love.

Literal sign-in tent

After checking into our awesome accommodations in Preston — the old elementary school that had been converted into suites — we headed back to Spring Valley to check in to the race. Saw a few good buddies from Iowa, signed our names on the tent, and headed to the grocery store so I could make dinner for us. Corey made sure all our chains were in smooth working order, and we slowly headed to bed, all packed up for the morning.

The guys headed off earlier so Corey could start the Royal, so we ladies took our time getting ready and stashing a cooler of water and goodies just off the road on course.

In Spring Valley, we wasted no time getting outfitted, and rolled to the start together, managing a spot quite close to the front of the pack mostly just by listening to directions.

Berly and Ashley rolling to the start

The gravel goddesses of Sheclismo

The air was just buzzing at the start. Bikes were filling several sloping blocks of the main street in Spring Valley, curb to curb. When Chris Skogen, the race organizer, took the microphone from the bed of a truck atop the hill, he welled up. He was quickly saved by his radio announcer-father, who shared in a beautiful baritone how this was his son’s dream come true. Chris then shared that if you like this event, go home and start your own. Community building at its finest. It was really beautiful.

Looking back down Main Street

Chris Skogen addressing the crowd

We rolled through the streets of Spring Valley, including a fun moment of going around both sides of a traffic island that felt like the overhead shots of pro pelotons look, and we hit the gravel and were off. Got several early compliments on the kit, not recognized as local and bearing our “Women Taking The Wheels” boldly across the back. Damn proud of that bit of copy, am I.

Miles and miles of bikes on gravel

Quite early on, I connected with my buddy Meredith, a kick-ass cyclocross racer from Madison. We rode together for a bit, but while I’d get ahead of her on the descents, after a few climbs she was gone. I knew better than to believe this was really a training ride for her. Like I said, she kicks ass…

Let’s climb, eh?

While I occasionally tucked into a group, I was mostly again in the position of riding alone. One good problem of riding with the guys I usually roll with around here is that I’m fortunate to be used to riding with a group of very experienced cyclists. Consequently, where I feel safe on their wheels, I was repeatedly sketched out by people I was riding around. Better safe and solo…

Luckily, the wind wasn’t that bad, and so I was putting down a pretty solid solo average pace. Hard on the easy stuff, easy on the hard stuff. Rode past a dude rocking cut-off Wranglers with a can of Four Loko in his bottle cage — “Mile 80, it’s gonna get weird” — that reminded me of Malcolm and Rhino. The miles were ticking by, and before long, I was at my stashed cooler in Preston.

Photo by Craig Linder of solo gravel crushing

After grabbing a bunch of food, refilling my bottles, and munching on my yummy boiled potatoes, I took a nature break and emerged from the woods to find Linda Kelsey walking up to me, saying “hey, I have those bibs!” I wasn’t anticipating seeing her, and since she was heading from Preston to the next checkpoint in Forestville, I scrambled to put together a bag of snacks to have there, too. The luxury of selection! She wished me well and I headed up the highway toward the water crossing introduced by a torn-down bridge. 
Water crossing #1

At this point, I think my social nature was dying to override this solo ride action, and I was cracking all sorts of jokes about cyclocross on the muddy descent, telling everyone how nice and cold the water and mud felt on my feet, etc. etc. To virtually no avail. Finally, coming up the other side, some guys from Iowa start chatting with me about the dry 2012 season, and then we talk about the much more fun 2011 Jingle Cross. One of the guys is originally from Benkleman, NE, and was shocked to find out I knew where it was. We rode side by side for awhile, and then suddenly, the gravel got deep for the first time all day.  

Folks were riding on the spongy soft side in the grass, and meanwhile, with the TransIowa gravel fresh in my memory — along with the memory of Mark Savery floating past me on some really deep white rock on the Tour of Dirt Roads last year — I just went for it, powering down the middle and past groups of riders. A few miles into it and I put myself in the running for Amazingly Snarky Statements of the Year by saying “Hey guys, this is a gravel race, not a grass race!” as I charged by. This prompted a couple guys to hop on my wheel, requesting a pull up to their buddies. Ha!

The gravel mellowed out and the clouds rolled in, and before much longer I was pulling in to Forestville, where I was met by Linda’s darling support crew buddy, Ringo.   

Linda and RINGO!!

As I went to grab my bag of goodies, I heard my name from across the road, and up comes Erin Young, formerly of Greenstreet and now back in his home state of Minnesota. He was hanging with a fun group of Minneapolis folks taking an extended break, and I hoped maybe I could hop in with them, since I had certainly transitioned from solo “crushing it” pace to solo “I’m-kinda-bored-of-this” pace. He got ready to go a little faster than I did, but luckily I caught him at the water station just up the road. And more luckily, he suggested he’d be riding to the finish with me. After riding with the front group early on, he was feeling like chilling out a bit. Score!!

We rode and chatted at a nice, comfortable pace, and the miles were going by super easily. A kid was selling “homemade Grandma cookies” at .25 cents apiece, tearing up his lungs giving his sales pitch to riders, so obviously we had to stop there. A few miles later, there was a raucous crowd, people lining the street giving high-fives, and a loud cowbell ringer offering free cold beer. Mile 76? Oh yeah, that’s gonna happen. We split one…just the perfect amount of refreshing tasty calories.

Beer break with Erin at mile 75

Onward, with Erin bombing descents and pushing my courage. So fun. Just before the second water crossing, we see Chris Skogen in the road, rerouting folks a couple miles around what had apparently become quite the raging river. Watch this video. Holy smokes.

The first rider fords the Root River at mile 81.5 during the Almanzo 100.
Following riders attempted to cross but many were knocked over by the thigh-deep, swiftly-moving water.

Eventually, race organizer Chris Skogen rerouted the remaining riders to avoid the river crossing.

We had a couple more big climbs, including the dreaded Oriole Road. Once we got to the top (where we spied a sweet cabin and camper in the woods and probably should’ve stopped to see if we could buy it), with 8 or 9 miles left and a wind that’s steadily picked up, Erin catches his 7th wind.

About where Erin hit his 7th wind and we decided to smash all the pedals to the finish.

I try to take a photo of the beautiful valley we’ve just climbed out of, fail, and then it’s game on to the finish. Pace goes UP. Erin is crushing it into the steady headwind, I’m on his wheel, and we’re cruising by riders by the dozen. It’s really exhilarating. I take a short pull and want to cry. We turn into a crosswind. “Holy shit,” I say. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “Nothing, just, wow, we’re flying,” I say, to which Erin replies, “yeah, when you pass, you gotta pass hard.” Somehow, completely unexpectedly, I’m racing to the finish, the way you’re “supposed to” do it. On the paved road approaching the finish, once again we fly past rider after tired rider. We come up on one who does latch on, Royal racer Eric Brunt. I get distracted, lose the wheel, but don’t really care. The finish tape is in my sights, there’s no one close to my wheel, I’ve passed 4 women in the last 5 minutes, and we have a mini-cyclocross course bit to the finish line.

I flow through the park, completely alone again, and roll across the line in exactly 7 hours of ride time. Add in about 45 minutes of breaks, and I beat my time from last year by a full hour. I have no idea where this ranks me, but I don’t really care. I had a great ride.

Face after realizing I’d forgotten proper street clothes to change into after the race.
The beautiful Berly Brown, finishing with a huge smile on her face.

Had a nice time hanging out with various folks at the finish and waiting for Corey, Ashley, and Berly to come in. With a great success rate, 100% of our Nebraska crew finished, with no one smiling more broadly than Ms. Berly.

Sunday, we dodged thunderstorms the whole way home, hoping our teammate Linda, running a 50k on the same course that day, would luck out on the weather. 

Trolling under a bridge in Omaha, dodging hailstorms.

We made it home without hail damage, but I did get caught in some pouring rain while riding around to spin out the legs later that night. Warmed up quick with this little buddy waiting in the bed for me, though.

Earl Grey. Whatta buddy.

Once again, this is an event that does not disappoint. It’s well-thought out from start to finish, a beastly difficult century and yet filled with folks pushing themselves to the limits. I’ll be back.

4 thoughts on “Almanzo, revisited

  1. Great words and pictures. There were at least three of us from Omaha on the Royal and I’m sure more on the Almanzo. Everyone I know finished, so it looks like Nebraska was well represented.

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