Conquering demons at Gravel Worlds 2013

I hate heat. I try to resign to it, to embrace it, to love it, but it just doesn’t happen for me. After a fairly cool and mild summer, I was not going to be granted a nice cool day to attempt Gravel Worlds on a singlespeed. Nope. At 5 AM, there was already a strong south wind. Right. In Nebraska, that means it’s going to be a hot day.

Having the start/finish at my family farm proved to be far more emotional than I’d anticipated. We had a nice mellow dinner the night before; I slept in my grandparents’ bedroom, and my mom made coffee and breakfast in the morning. I peeked out the kitchen window a few times, but when I went down to the barn at 5:30 or so and the whole drive was full of people, it hit me. I was already welling up a bit. My dear parents love their crazy daughter well enough to allow 200 friends and strangers to roll up early in the morning to start a bike race, and there was my dad with the big Swiss cowbell from my mom’s host family in Fehraltorf. Wow. I just kind of drank it in.

My pack at the start decided to hang back, letting pretty much everyone else roll out first. The gravel was sandy, thick and loose right from the start, and the hills were going to be pretty steep right away. With conditions like that, I knew I wouldn’t even try riding up the Denton Wall for fear I slide out and take out someone behind me. I was working on getting the rhythm of climbing, and while I was mostly staying with Matt, the needle-like hills on SW 140th into a headwind had me nervous early on. What the hell was I trying to prove to myself with the singlespeed conversion? Why did I take on this stupid new challenge? Ugh!

Eventually, I gave up trying to chase and just rode. And once I relaxed a bit, it got a bit easier. Just learn to ebb and flow with the hills.

 I tried to get a good photo of masterful gravel photographer Eric Benjamin, but this was the best I could do.

 Field of sunflowers. Beautiful. Remember to enjoy the scenery. After we turned east, I knew we’d have some more climbs, but at least we didn’t have headwind on this stretch. I loved rolling through the War Axe KOM banners, and really loved that I made it up that climb on a singlespeed, the same climb I’d cursed and barely made up with gears back in the winter. I’ve come a long way… 

Around then is when I finally caught up to Jim and Matt. Turns out Matt was chasing Jim, who was laying down the speed early on. Once the three of us were together (with Corey on Jim’s postcard making it feel like our Ponca Ride crew), we were in business.

 Jim on his beautiful Spacehorse, for Anna.

 We cruised on at a good clip, not taking any breaks before Hickman, only stopping briefly there, despite having a long line to wait in, and not stopping until we were past Bennet. By then, the clouds had burned off and it was getting warm.

At the first oasis, we ate burritos and cooled off with the hose before heading further north. Never in my life have I disliked a tailwind as much as I did that day. The sun was blazing hot, and with a tailwind, there was no relief.

 The roads were dusty, too, and I was really happy I’d brought my kerchief for the inevitable car dustings.

 Linda Kelsey on her first gravel grinder, looking great, riding solid. She finished 4th in the very competitive Masters Women’s field.

We took advantage of the tailwind push as much as possible, but this was where the fact that Matt and I were geared differently was most evident. I couldn’t keep up as my 42 x 18 spun out where his 42 x 17 could push a little faster. Caught up as we turned west onto Mill Road for a heavy dose of climbs. And heat.

At 70 miles in, we were on pace for a 12-hour finish. That would have been sweet. But at the same time that we realized this, the need for shade was just overwhelming. We stopped for a bit in a hollow, then half a mile later were greeted by the awesome roving oasis that was Matt Fuller and Wes Trout. They had cold, fresh berries, tons of ice, and cold beer. Oh, yes, please. Fuller also had some old t-shirts in his car that I promptly dipped in the ice water and wrapped around my and other people’s necks. The visible relief and nearly-orgasmic joy this produced was awesome. I even got a marriage proposal. I taught a woman from Michigan to stuff ice down her sports bra. It was that hot. If that oasis had been in the shade, I never would’ve left. But we pushed on.

 The Malcolm General Store is always so friendly and welcoming, this time with lots of handmade welcome signs, orange slices, and bonus lottery tickets. Wow! We had a nice stop there, and saw lots of Lincoln faces there to support or pick up riders abandoning the cause. But we pushed on…

It wasn’t going to be easy coming out of Malcolm either, as we had more hills to climb, more heat to fight, and relentless south wind. We stopped at an oasis Jennifer Hoffmann had in the trees, with more ice water and bananas.

 Matt pointed out a beautiful house he’d drawn off in the distance. Incredible place.

 We seemed to pass by a lot of cemeteries this year. We inched our way to the next oasis, where Lucas had a tent, snacks, and more cold beer. Yes please. It was getting rough. More people were pulling the plug. But we pushed on.

After rounding the lake, we turned south again, into a long stretch of headwind. We had a bit of a paceline going, but after a time or two where the person at the front upped the pace, or I’d hear the clicks of shifters, I couldn’t do it. I tried and succeeded a couple times to latch back on after getting yo-yo’d off the back of the group, but I was burning matches I didn’t have in reserve. Jim had been hurting for a while, and he was nowhere to be seen behind me. As I rolled past Matt on my way to the back of the paceline, I told him I couldn’t hold the pace much longer. We slowed back, and I craved shade. I was trying to will him pull over, because he was a little ahead of me and I couldn’t chase anymore. Finally, I got close enough to whimper out “I need to stop.” We pulled off into the shade, and I took off my helmet. I was lying down for probably a good five minutes, eyes closed, before I realized that I was lying on top of a baby cedar tree that was poking me in the backside. I was in rough shape. We were 110 miles in, and the heat index was probably right at about the same number. (Air temperature was 96 in Malcolm…) I was whimpering. I couldn’t eat. And Matt, in the way he does best, listened to my incoherence and just said, “This is your demon. Fight it. This is the hardest part.”

We pushed on. We were almost to Milford. As we rolled up to the gas station there, Matt Bergen stopped me at the door, took one of my water bottles, and filled it with Stella Artois. My goodness, that tasted good. The booths in the c-store were filled with people who looked absolutely worked over. People I hadn’t seen all day, who’d been way ahead of me, who’d been relegated to taking long breaks. Someone had the genius idea of walking into the walk-in beer cooler. I did. It felt glorious. Jim pulled the plug here, and his little daughter Marie (who calls me pink fast at cyclocross races) gave me a sticker of a pink owl as a totem to get me to the finish.  

 I did not take any Liquid Nitro. But rolling out of Milford, feeling great, things got tricky on my psyche. See, from Milford to the farm is a pretty easy jaunt. But, having not really calculated the miles, I had failed to examine the cue sheets enough to realize that we were going to be making a big loop in a very not straightforward direction. Nonetheless, spirits were high, and after a short jaunt east, Clint instigated working together.

 He and I packed the group together, and suddenly we had a paceline of eight working together. I was trying to keep people in even rotation as best as I could, and it worked pretty well for a good chunk of time. If nothing else, there was a great camaraderie in the spirit of getting this shit done. From here on out, we were all going to finish.

 We’d been warned of some dangerous bridges with big slats, and they were no joke.

 Especially this late in the ride, it required a lot of concentration, and after riding the first one, I walked the next. Definitely not going down here. We’d been told there was to be one more secret checkpoint along this route, and while I kept thinking we were going around turns that were perfect locations, the oasis wasn’t materializing. I was starting to think they’d probably closed it down already, but this was proving to be psychologically troubling, too. After telling myself I’d eat at the oasis, or switch on my light at the oasis, etc. etc., it was difficult to have it not show up. Someone in the group flatted, and while a couple people pushed on, the rest of us took a break.

After we started rolling again, the relative flatness of the last 15 or so miles gave way to the Denton Alps again. And at 140 miles of singlespeeding in — 90 more miles than I’d ever done on a singlespeed — I was feeling it. I was making it up the climbs, but there was no sticking with the geared guys.

Matt and I stopped for one last break to catch the tail end of the sunset. It hurt, but we pushed on. We were so close to home. And for me, it really was home. I was getting emotional and excited again.

“This is the road where I first drove a car on the road! Like, not in the pasture, but on the road!”
“This is where my cousin lived when I was little. My mom’s uncle’s place!”
“This is where I ran my car into a guardrail after my little brother and I got into a stupid fight! And we tried to fix it and hide it from our parents!”

As we hit the pavement right before the driveway, the smile across my face was just huge. Corey was there at the end of the drive to tell people where to turn, and when he said, “The finish is right here,” my answer was: “I know, I’m home, baby!!!” It was just before 9:30. Nowhere close to a 12-hour finish, about 45 minutes past a daylight finish…but it was a FINISH.

My parents were there, of course, and so were my brother and very soon to be sister-in-law, Amber. There were people there cheering and drinking beers, eating food, and enjoying the beautiful night.

Amber snapped my photo with my new SS Women’s champ jersey…and wow, I was just so happy. I DID IT. And except for the heat, I kind of really liked the singlespeed. It was more rhythmic than riding with gears, in a way I can’t really articulate. It was more mindless in some ways, more physical. It was harder, but I was capable of it, and it felt good to be capable of pushing through difficult sections instead of slipping into an easier gear.

Now, it’s time to try to reprogram. School started last Monday, and cyclocross practice starts next week. I have a graduate program to finish off by May, a business to start, and a lot of great projects in the hopper. I’m excited that there are several women who were new to Gravel Worlds who are likely to give ‘cross a try. I’m going to race ‘cross on the singlespeed this year, and I’m looking forward to mentoring some new racers who are likely to kick my ass!!

Until next time…

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