Royal 162

There’s this thing with gravel events. You send in a postcard months in advance. It’s usually deep in the winter. You’re dreaming of summer. You’re eager to put training plans into place to meet this year’s goal. And then, life happens…as do long-winded race write-ups…

This year, rather than making a third year in a row of the very fine, wonderfully challenging Almanzo 100, I instead opted for its more ambitious companion, the Royal 162. (No, I didn’t go for the 380+ mile Alexander, as much as the fellas tried to get me to change my mind the night before…) It would serve as my May Hundy-of-the-Month Club ride — 14 months in a row — and with a course as beautiful as the Almanzo, I was up for taking on a few more hours of scenery and a little less dust and ditch-to-ditch bike traffic at the start.

And then there was the whole thing where I took 12 credit hours, finished and defended my Masters thesis, and fell in love with someone very far away. I trained some, but not as much as last winter. My winter/spring looked more like “ride hundy/do virtually nothing but sit in front of computer or book for three weeks/panic/ride a little/fly cross country/more work/ride hundy.” I knew I had miles in my legs and that after last summer, my body knew what to do, but I was a little out of practice. I graduated a week before the race. I spent the early part of the week in a real funk, contemplating cross-country moves and the vast unknown that is my professional future. My head was not in the game for a long, difficult day of riding.

I headed up Thursday with Corey, who was going to be taking on the nearly 400-mile Alexander. Chatting with Almanzo’s organizer Chris Skogen at their check-in, I was absolutely switched into “happy to be there” mode. Then having dinner with the Alexander crew that night, 162 miles suddenly seemed incredibly reasonable.

Gasland. I need to watch the whole thing. Impressed by the director’s dedication to his work.

Ostrander lunch

Riding with Kurt and Mike

Friday, I enjoyed a mellow start to the day after Corey’s early departure. Finally watched (most of) the documentary Gasland, which was on TV, and remembered why I love the medium of documentary. Met up with Mike and Kurt from Chicago, who took me on a lunch ride to a bar in Ostrander, where I ate a bunch of fried cheese curds. Noted the amazing lack of school-related stress. Napped. Joined the rest of the Lincoln crew at the check-in. Ate more pizza. Hugged far away buddies at the campground. Packed up the bike with lots of food and room for the clothes to be shed between the mid-30s at the start to the low 60s it was to be in the afternoon. Slept, restlessly.

Dustin and I met up with Matt and Butch at 6:30 to roll down to Main Street for the 7 AM start, and it was so chill and sparse in comparison to the Almanzo start. I liked it, but I also missed the overwhelming “I AM PART OF SOMETHING” feeling that being there with over 1,000 other riders gives. I’d venture about 60-70 riders started the Royal, and about 7 or 8 women, by my count. It was chilly but beautiful as Andrea Cohen and I rolled out of town. It’s always so good to see that lady!

Coffee and a cinnamon roll on Main St. before the start

Hamming it up with Andrea

Love the name of this road.

Gorgeous morning to be riding with friends.

It was much easier not to get caught up in the excitement with fewer riders and more distance to cover. Goodbye, lead pack; hello, chit chatting. I noticed lots of beautiful buildings I’d overlooked in past years. I settled into my pace, leapfrogging with several riders for the first 25 miles. By about mile 30, Dustin and I found ourselves at a very nicely matched and comfortable pace. I had regretted not hopping in with Loretta and Andrea after taking a bit longer break at one point, but we had a good pace going. I was hoping to finish in the twilight, but I had lights with me…

We got to Preston, and Matt and Butch were no longer in sight. We pulled into town, filled up water and donuts at the grocery store, put on sunscreen and shed some layers. My bags were stuffed to the brim, between my frame bag and my little handlebar burrito. While there was another town stop 63 miles in at Harmony, there would be no food to be had from there to the finish, nearly 100 miles later. Oy.

We rolled out of Preston as a group of two, Dustin and I, and we didn’t see any other riders for quite some time. Then, shortly after departing from the Almanzo course and onto the Royal add-on, we missed a turn on the cues and found ourselves, one mile further, at an intersection we were supposed to be at something like 7 miles later. How frustrating is that? We saw a couple cyclists come at us from the left, one blow past from the direction we’d come from and just go on through, and then another, Mary from Minneapolis, stop to see what we were up to. Confirmed: we were just outside of Harmony, and we needed to go back a mile, turn, and do a nice, long loop to bring us back to this intersection. Honor code engage. Back we went, seeing the sign we missed in the trees. It was a pretty loop, but it felt so excruciating to ride these miles out of the way of our goal. It was warm and it was lunch time. But so it goes. We got them ridden.

When we got to Harmony, we headed for the main street, where we found a bar offering “Drunch” — get your drink and brunch on. YOU GOT IT. There were a few other riders there already, and not too long after we got there, Jason & Aaron from Lincoln joined us, too. We all ordered beers and big plates of breakfast food. Don’t think I’ve ever eaten eggs and hashbrowns and toast so fast. This was going to be a long stop — the one that prevented my daylight finish — but it was worth it.

Drunch menu

After Harmony, Dustin and I connected with Luigi and Steven, who were both riding fixed gear All-City Big Blocks with huge gearing and had driven through the night from NYC to get to the race. They were fun to ride and chat with, and the pace was probably a bit too high for right after a big lunch. After 7 or 8 miles, we saw two familiar figures on the crest of the next hill — Matt and Butch! They’d opted to skip a stop in Harmony for some snacks on the side of the road, and so now we had a little group of six to head into what felt like a really long stretch of headwind.

Our group strung out into solo suffer efforts. We were just a bit under 100 miles in. The wind was definitely stronger than forecasted, trade-off for the slightly less cold morning, perhaps. When we finally turned north, we took a break from the wind in the ditch. The psychological benefit of knowing we were at the far point and heading back toward Spring Valley was palpable. Butch, however, was feeling pretty ragged from the course. He had me look at the map to see how far it was if he headed directly back. He didn’t make a decision at that point, and as we left the ditch, I thought he and Matt were following right behind. A few miles later, though, and we didn’t see them again the rest of the race. It was sad to part ways, but the one thing you can count on riding with Matt is that if you want to keep going but are struggling to know why, he’ll keep you going. I sincerely hoped I wouldn’t be needing that skill set later…

Ditch stop. Not feeling so awesome.

I think this hawk was sent for me from afar to remind me to keep going.

The next stretch of road was absolutely beautiful and peaceful. We were in Amish country, and we’d pass by fields being plowed by teams of four horses. The farmers and their children always smiled and waved, even from far off in the field. After all, their horses and plows were quiet enough to hear our bikes coming down the gravel. The sides of the roads were dotted with signs reading “Do Not Spray, Organic Farm,” and I thought a whole lot about how good it is that these farming communities lasted long enough through the industrial agriculture revolution to make it to today, when their sustainable practices are valued once again. It was such a stark contrast to scenes from earlier, getting dusted by huge farming equipment that nearly took up the whole road, or to later in the evening, as the sun set and the giant tractors with bright headlights were still out in the fields, roaring away. As we passed through a small Amish settlement that was home to what appeared to be an Adirondack chair factory, a family out for a walk asked where we were from. “Nebraska!” I said. “Wow, really?!” answered the father, smiling broadly. It was a beautiful moment.

Amish Country

Dustin is an awesome riding buddy.

Amish mowing. Chain the horse in the ditch, relocate periodically once grass is eaten down in that area.
Adirondack chair central. Looked like a pleasant place to work.

Not long after that, we rejoined the Almanzo course. The prospect of catching up to some riders from the 100 was welcome, as Dustin and I hadn’t seen many people of late. The thing I realized, though, was that while in perspective, that last 50 would be the home stretch, my memories of doing the 100 had me recalling that those were some damn tough miles. And only half of that course. Yeesh. We had some strong winds again, and the hills were rolling. What was remarkable, though, was seeing how the 1,000+ bikes that had traversed this road ahead of us had made a distinct track in the gravel, one ribbon of smooth line reaching far into the distance. We passed a couple packs of Almanzo riders, including three of my friend Anna’s Koochella teammates. I admired their tenacity, plugging away at the miles. We had more headwind sections, and Dustin and I finally decided maybe we ought to do a little pull rotation. This got us through a chunk of miles, tick tick tick on the cue sheet.

The miles to Forestville dragged on. Finally, we were there, refilling bottles, eating, and trying to keep our eyes open. I tried lying down on a picnic table and nearly threw up. I sat next to a tree and thought I’d fall asleep. The early evening light was beautiful, and I thought about the fact that you should never, ever set up camp there, or you’d never leave. And as we got rolling, we pulled past Mary, who was doing just that. I looked at her with a deep sense of envy, but Dustin pulled on up the hill, reminding me we had 38 miles to go. And we were going to do it. From here, the river crossing would be halfway to the finish. 

Forestville emotions.

Coming out of Forestville, the climbs were really getting to me. I was tired, and not staying on top of my nutrition. It was looking stormy, and I was not excited about getting rained on. At the top of one climb, though, there was a beautiful rainbow. And then there was Dustin, waiting at the top of a hill with a magically delicious rice cake filled with blackberries and covered in mint leaves. HEAVEN. We were stopped alongside a beautiful farmhouse, and the woman who lived there was walking out to get her mail. She asked if we had a map or something that told us what to do, and I showed her the cue sheets. She offered water, and though we weren’t out, we filled up. “It’s by the horse corral,” she said, “but it’s nice, pure water.” She was not kidding. It was the most deliciously sweet water I’d ever had. Her husband was making a fire in their firepit, and again, it would’ve been lovely to stop and watch the sunset with them…

We passed through the town of Cherry Grove, where the Banjo Brothers shenanigans were long gone. We got to the creek crossing, descending into the beautiful valley. As we reached the river, there were two Almanzo riders on the other side, putting their shoes back on and encouraging us. Dustin gave it a go, and I opted to walk. Skinny tires and tired self…and I wanted dry shoes. The water was cold and the rocks were sharp, and I nearly lost my balance a couple times. That would not have been fun.

The World Menacing Dame inspects the Root River crossing.

Nah, we’re gonna walk. White feet, gray shins, tan quads.

The climb out of the creek crossing is really the only MMR section of the course, and I love it. Rocky double track…give me miles and miles of it. Ok, maybe not all at once at the end. But it was awesome, as was knowing we had just 20 miles to go. We sent a message to Adam and Joy that we were 20 miles out and anticipating finishing somewhere between 9:30 and 10 and if they could please get beer. We were treated to a gorgeous sunset. And then, as we descended to the base of Oriole Road, I had a scary, scary moment of losing control of my front wheel at 30+mph. I relived my crash from 3 weeks earlier in my head in a split second, screaming “NO NO NO!” Thankfully, I saved it. But, damn.

Gorgeous magic hour light.
Sunset over the Driftless hills

We stopped to put on our lights at the bottom of the hill. It was twilight. And that hill. Ugh. Dustin rode it like a champ, and I met him at the top on foot. 9 miles to go. One more scary descent and climb. Then, lights of Spring Valley blinking in the distance. One more rice cake. Lots of stops to double check the cue sheets in the dark. Just a few more turns. Pavement. Bike path. And then, the finish, to cheers and cowbells, even late in the dark. We’d made it before 10 PM, about an hour past my goal, but happy and in one piece. Besides, as Dustin said, it’s important to set ambitious goals — ones you can only meet about 50% of the time. After shaking hands with Chris and trying to get him up to speed on other riders that might still be on course, we rolled back to the hotel, to be greeted by a sink full of cold beer and a jacuzzi full of hot water. Well done, Joy & Adam! Oh, and they killed it in the Almanzo, finishing in 8.5 hours, first gravel century for Adam and first century of any sort for Joy. Amazing.


Jacuzzi felt amazing.

Ok, I almost passed out after sitting in that jacuzzi and then standing up. But it was amazing. And better yet, a couple hours later, we got word that not only had Corey finished the Alexander, but that Matt and Butch had pulled in to finish the Royal at about the same time. That meant a 100% finish rate for Nebraskans, from the 7 of us in the Royal, the 7 in the Almanzo (that I know of), and the 1 in the Alexander. Not too shabby, folks.

Eating Punjabi curry out of a can with the end of my toothbrush. Another type of “run whatcha brung,” in absence of silverware.

There were a lot of things I missed about the huge crowds that the Almanzo provides. And the extended party hours in the evening. But especially because of that long section through Amish country, the Royal was a nice change, too. The ride was beautiful. The company was great. The bike was flawless. The community that does all this is unmatched. I’m happy to be a part of it all. A couple days later, seeing Morrissey throw a diva fit on stage and sing decades of morose songs, I wondered at how someone could be so singularly mad at the world. Sure, there are plenty of things to be angry about and to take action to make better. But to be so unable to see beauty in the world just made me sad for him. Maybe he just needs a long bike ride. Thanks for reading, and remember to smile and appreciate what’s all around us. 

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