Guest Article: Gravel Worlds
There has been some gravel fever going around; there is a lot of talk of new bikes and new routes. I don’t live in gravel country and have not caught the disease, yet. @Antoniv submitted this tale of gravel. It’s a bit long but the race was long too. For those of us who haven’t caught the bug, this might help, or hurt. Either way, we all enjoy reading about another cyclist’s suffering.
In April of 2012, I sent a postcard to the Pirate Cycling League in Lincoln, NE. I was told that the postcards they like the most are the ones that are homemade, preferably out of something that is cycling related. I gathered that this was because of the underground nature of the PCL which shunned the normal conventions of sanctioned bike racing and all of “the man’s” fancy computer generated forms. I chose a box that when new, contained an inner tube for a 700X28 cm bicycle tire, which I (rather less than painstakingly) cut into a square, stuck a stamp on, and then scrawled “Tony Kavan, 35 year old, open, male” in black sharpie on one side before dropping it in mailbox. I needed to do it quick before I thought better of the self-flagellation that I had just signed myself up for.
Gravel Worlds, or The Gravel Road Race World Championship is a 150 mile race that starts and ends in Lincoln, NE, and is best known for its brutal combination of rolling hills and perineum-pounding washboard roads. Started in 2008, The Pirate Cycling League is a lot like a terrorist cell in organization; there is no real leader, and anyone can host or organize a PCL event if they want to. There are, however, a few regulars that set up races, and a handful of regular events on their calendar. Gravel Worlds being chief among them. They even have a rainbow jersey that the winners of each class win and can wear with the ultimate pride that only being a champion can bring.
The best part of the PCL is their rule list:
1. If someone needs help, stop and help.
2. Don’t be a dick.
What led to the sending of the aforementioned post card and my willingness to try a race of this type was a new bike. I’d wanted a cyclocross bike for a while. I’ve only been riding a bike with any seriousness for a few years and already I was feeling the n+1 fever. I’d already added a time trial bike to sit beside my trusty Ridley Excalibur in the garage (when it’s warm, obviously when it’s cold the bikes come inside, I’m not a moron). I’d looked at several different cross bikes and I settled on a Team Carbon made by “Stevens” from Germany. I personally had never heard of them, but my friend Bob had met their sales rep at the holiest of holy events for our kind, Interbike.
Bob Breckner and I have been friends for several years and it was him who got me into serious cycling. Bob has been cycling his entire life and at one time did a lot of racing: mostly mountain bikes, but some road racing. He is in fantastic shape when compared to anyone, and even more impressive when compared to people his own age of 52. Bob reminds me of a middle-aged Italian, with his slight paunch and what is probably a gazillion cycling miles on his legs, and a lot more left. He lives for the bike, and to bring others to the sport he loves so much. Bob can take on men half his age and leave them wanting, panting, gasping for breath, and begging for mercy. I know, because he’s done it to me and it was only a combination of intense training, genetics, and Bob finally starting to feel his age (slightly) that has allowed me to hold my own. Bob was putting my Stevens together and helping me get it sized when he mentioned Gravel Worlds. Like many of us, I’m a glutton for punishment at a level that might rise to masochistic, and I was also drunk, so while I don’t remember the exact conversation, it probably went something like this:
“So now that you have a ‘cross bike you should do Gravel Worlds with me. One hundred fifty miles on bad roads, it hurts like hell.”
Maybe now is when I should mention that I’ve only been riding a bike since 2006, and I had yet to ride a century, let alone a century and a half, and on gravel to boot.
For good measure, I decided to recruit one more person to share in my misery. Kendrick Clay is a former All-American track athlete and current head track coach at Hastings College. Kendrick came to cycling later in life because decades of running at the elite level had soured him on that sport. At nearly six and a half feet tall and weighing in the range of 165 pounds, he’s built like a classic cyclist: long and lean. He still holds the indoor 5k record at Hastings College and watching him ride a bike is like watching classic ballet. His legs spin in smooth circles at a much higher cadence than most riders and his movements are so graceful that he looks like he’s floating above the ground rather than connected to it. He’s the yin to my yang; at five foot seven, and 170 pounds, with a background is in power lifting, I was sort of a natural sprinter. Contrasted to Kendrick’s effortless pedaling style, I stomp on the pedals like a thoroughbred pounding a dirt track. I ride at a low cadence and push a big gear, flexing my quadriceps, calves, and hamstrings, while Kendrick creates motion through his aerobic system.
Despite his background, Kendrick was less than enthusiastic about coming along for what was, admittedly, going to be a sufferfest. I eventually was able to change his mind through the promise of glory and achievement…and mostly because there would be women and beer.
Saturday, August 18th was a frigid morning in the upper 40’s. When compared to the triple-digit heat Nebraska had been experiencing, it felt more like standing in a freezer. The air smelled clear and crisp and felt more like mid-October than mid-August. The weather forecast for Lincoln told us to expect a high in the lower 70’s (which was going to be just on the edge of warm for cyclists burning about 700 calories an hour), with a slight chance of rain. Kendrick made an observation that I knew was going to haunt us.
“Dude, at least it’s not going to rain.”
At 5:30 am, the event’s organizer, who goes by the nickname “Cornbread,” held the rider’s meeting. Bob, Kendrick, and I were standing at the back, just out of the range of the speaker system while Cornbread was giving instructions, so I had no idea what was being said. Whatever it was must have been well-received because cheering and applause rippled back to us from the front, and being good Pirate wannabes we cheered along. We joined a mass migration from the barren overflow parking lot at the Lancaster County Event Center to the road. It was about this time we realized Bob wasn’t with us. I knew he’d been training hard but while Kendrick and I were only aiming to finish, Bob was looking to win the Master’s division and had moved himself to the front of the pack to start. Kendrick and I, knowing our place, moved to the back.
The soft glow of the sun rising was just visible over the horizon when the race started. Kendrick and I got on our bikes and began to pedal softly in the dark, watching as the serious racers took off up the road. Soon the race had separated itself into two main groups: those who were racing and those who were J.R.A. (Just Riding Along). From near the back, those of us who were J.R.A had a spectacular view of the sun rising, which silhouetted the horizon, turning the ground completely black. The gravel road appeared gray in contrast to the blackness, and stretching as far as we could see in front of us was a line of the blinking red tail lights from the nearly 200 cyclists that had started. We were on our way.
During the first couple of hours as the sun rose, first in front of us, and then to our right after we turned north, the riders began to settle into smaller groups that were riding at the same pace. Kendrick and I found ourselves alone and occasionally passing other groups of riders. We had decided early that since our only goal was to finish, we were going to take it at our own pace. If we could average just twelve miles an hour, then we should be done by 6:30 pm. For two riders who can routinely ride 70 miles with an average speed pushing 20 miles an hour, we didn’t think that would be a problem, but as the morning wore on and we transitioned from nearly flat to constantly undulating roads, the enormity of the task we had undertaken began to sink in.
Kendrick didn’t talk much in the morning. It was as though he’d wrapped himself in a cocoon of effort. The only thing I heard from him was the grinding of his tires on gravel or the occasional sound of a wrapper opening as he snacked on some type of scientifically developed bar or gel. When he did talk to me, what he was saying didn’t fill me with hope. At one point, he fell behind me and I could just make out the sounds of his singing. I slowed down so he would catch me. He was singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen with one noticeable difference.
“Momma, just killed a man. Put my gun against his head, pulled my trigger now he’s dead. FOR MAKING ME RIDE ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY MILES ON GRAVEL!”
I tried to change the subject, responding, “Can we move this in a not killing Tony direction?”
For my own part, I know that the athlete’s mind is a fragile thing and the slightest hint of doubt can take said athlete from, “I’m going to win this thing” to “I quit” faster than it took for me to type this sentence. To try and bolster Kendrick’s spirit I sang back the happiest songs I could think of; I’m not sure what it says about me that they were all “boy band” songs but my rendition of “The Right Stuff” by New Kids on the Block at least made him chuckle. I was safe, for now.
After 35 miles, we found ourselves in the small town of Malcolm. Our task was simple; we needed to purchase a Powerball ticket at the local grocery store to show that we had stopped. It was also an opportunity to purchase food and refill our water bottles.
Walking into the store was like stepping backward in time. The small, white building would not have been out of place on Gunsmoke, and I swear it still had a hitching post for horses out front, but I may have imagined that. Inside the store smelled like old wooden floors mixed with sweat from the eighty or so cyclists who were ahead of us. The store had been a stop on several previous editions of Gravel Worlds, so they had known what to expect. They had cold water and Powerball tickets ready to go. While waiting in line, I also noticed that they sold firearms and ammunition. I expected Marshall Dillon to walk through the door any second.
Back out on the road, we began the 50-mile stretch between Malcolm and Hickman. The weather was still cool and clouds had moved in, completely blocking out the sun. We had just gone over Interstate 80 when it began to sprinkle. I looked at Kendrick, not having to say out loud that his earlier statement had doomed us; the look in his eyes told me that he accepted full responsibility for the moisture which alternated from sprinkles to flat out monsoon over the next 50 miles.
In addition to having to contend with the rain, the grade of the hills we were climbing began to pitch up. My computer consistently showed grades of 13 to 15 percent, and I began to understand why they called this stretch of road “the wall.” My legs were starting to feel the climbing and I changed the screen on my computer so I couldn’t see the grade anymore. I also sang some more “boy band” songs and found that I didn’t know all the words to “You Don’t Know You’re Beautiful” by One Direction, which naturally caused the chorus to plant itself firmly in my brain the rest of the day.
Shortly after noon, after having ridden for six hours, we approached a secret checkpoint. There were a scattering of these checkpoints along the route to make sure that no one cheated by riding an easier 150-mile route (if there is such a thing), and to prove that you’d been there, they gave you a different color pipe cleaner to wrap around your handlebars. We also had to sign our names in a book and noticed that we’d moved up from eightieth to seventieth. Chatting with the volunteer, we asked where our friend Bob was. He consulted the notebook.
“Yup, that’s him.”
“He was in third when he came through.”
“Sweet!” I said, turning away.
I was about to start riding, pondering if it was possible to catch him when Kendrick asked, “How far ahead is he?”
“Oh, about an hour.”
“An hour?” I turned over my shoulder and shouted back. When the volunteer nodded, I looked to Kendrick and said, “Never mind.”
We rolled into Hickman at about 1:30 pm and the only thing I could think of was “real” food. After eating mostly scientifically developed supplements over the last 85 miles, I was approaching critical mass on “science.” At a gas station, we purchased our second Powerball ticket and I bought a personal Godfather’s pizza. Godfather’s pizza is an American chain of what can best be described as mass produced cardboard covered in melted cheese and some toppings and called pizza. Needless to say, I’ve never been a huge fan of Godfather’s, but right at that moment I would have fought a pack of rabid hyenas for it. I’d have lost, but that’s not the point.
Before leaving Hickman, I took my rain jacket off for the first time that day. I’d started the race with it on because I was cold and left it on because it rained. Now the sun was out and it was starting to warm up. I stuffed my jacket in a pocket on the back of my Sufferfest jersey and we set off when we discovered the fresh new hell that replaced the rain. Wind.
For Kendrick and his huge aerobic engine, this wasn’t as much of a problem. His background and body type meant that he was very well suited to the situation. I, however, found myself in a relentless grind. The wind caught my wider body frame like a sail, making it feel like I’d picked up a trailer full of concrete which I was now trying to pull up the same rolling terrain. As cold as I’d been earlier, I was now dripping with sweat, and both feeling and watching (via computer) my heart rate climb into levels that would be fine for a few minutes but would be unsustainable for the distance remaining. I gritted my teeth and willed my legs to continue to turn over, shifted to a smaller gear which slowed my speed. My brain fogged over and the “boy band” song that earlier had kept my spirits up was stuck in my head like an icepick.
On an intellectual level, I knew that the distance from Hickman to the next town of Adams was only 30 miles. There, we would turn out of the wind and head back to Lincoln, and the wind that had been dogging us would now be at our backs providing a push home. On a physical level though, those 30 miles were a torturous affair. I cursed the road, my life, and my decision to have anything to do with this race. I did the only thing I could think of: I embraced it. I rolled myself in it like a blanket, allowing myself to feel the fire in my abused quadriceps and the ache that had settled into my lower back. The burning in my legs was from lactic acid buildup and the ache in my back was from the hunched over riding position I was in. When understood, pain becomes just a thing. I wore my suffering like a badge of honor. I began to think of how I would describe this moment when it was over. I succeeded in both distracting my brain from the grind that had become my existence and simultaneously reveling in the pain that was the reward and the goal of our sport.
Then, we were turning. The wind was at our backs and the fog in my brain began to clear as my rate of exertion fell. We had made it to Adams.
As we had done twice before, we purchased our Powerball tickets at a grocery store. Standing in line behind us was a young man from the area who was very intrigued by what we were doing. When I explained Gravel Worlds to him, he gave me a look that said he didn’t think I was very bright.
Then he gave us a word of caution. “Riding a bike on gravel is dangerous! I mean, I fly down the roads in my big ‘ol truck and don’t really pay attention to what else might be out there.”
“Um… Thanks?” Was the only response I could muster. I appreciated that he accepted that he was the cause of the danger and simultaneously annoyed with him that he didn’t recognize that he should probably pay better attention to his driving. I was beyond too exhausted to try and explain that to him, though.
Kendrick and I left Adams at almost 6:00 pm. With 35 miles to go, it was a safe bet that we weren’t going to make our intended 6:30 finish time. Now we just wanted to finish before dark and find a restaurant that served a plethora of beers and food in mountainous servings. I’d eaten another “science” bar and promised myself that I’d never eat another one. I’d forced it down to fuel my body, but while the package said that it was supposed to taste like peanut butter, to me, after a day of eating science, it tasted like a dirty ashtray.
We soldiered on with the wind at our backs and the setting sun on our left. The rolling roads flattened out slightly, but the closer we got to Lincoln, the worse the washboards were. They pounded our bodies, especially the hands, feet, and “undercarriage.” My eyeballs oscillated at a rate that I was sure would cause them to pop out of my head or at the very least tear away the optical nerves that attached them to my brain. I was convinced that I now knew how Job had felt when Satan challenged God to see if Job would keep his faith even through endless suffering. I was not up to Job’s example. I knew I would never watch Paris-Roubaix the same way again.
I swore every time we crossed a washboard section: loudly, creatively. I reached back to my days as a Marine and wielded profanity like a club. Everything that caused me pain elicited another flurry of cursing.
I decided to ride faster to get my abused and battered body to the finish line as fast as possible. I forgot about Kendrick and flexed my legs, propelling myself to the fastest speed I could. I found a rhythm and held it while the road tried to kill me, embracing the fusion of man and machine and telling myself while watching the miles tick away that I was going to finish this if I had to carry my bike and walk the rest of the way. I’d come too far to stop now.
Soon there were only ten miles left, then seven, then four, three, then two. At one mile to go, the road turned into glorious, smooth, shimmering pavement as the sun dipped below the horizon and the temperature started to drop. Kendrick caught up to me and held his fist up for me to “pound it.” We bumped knuckles as the parking lot where we started came into sight.
Suddenly all the pain was gone and it was all worth it. I had ridden farther that day than in any other single day of my life. Kendrick had gone from wanting to kill me to being happy that he’d come along if for no other reason than that he proved to himself that he could still push his body to the limit.
As we rolled across the finish line, we found Bob, who had finished a good three hours earlier. As proof that he looks after us like he would his own kids, he waited at the finish with the leaders and volunteers of the PCL. He greeted Kendrick and I each with a hug and offered us a drink of his favorite beer.
The PCL, true to their image as underground racers, had skipped the yoga, massages, and perfectly measured recovery supplements of “serious” racers and were completely hammered on the booze they had staged in the early morning hours before the start of the race. They were waiting to cheer every last rider at the finish, regardless of how far behind they were.
Kendrick and I tied for 45th place of some 90 riders in our class. We would learn later that only 57 riders in our class finished. The rest quit, finding the ride too tough for them. Bob finished third in the Master’s division, just minutes behind the winner.
Bob asked, “Well, how are you feeling?” Kendrick put it bluntly, “My nuts are in my abdomen after 150 miles of washboards!” I was too tired to add anything coherent.
As someone who considered himself a serious (amateur) racer, and who could at times be condescending of groups like the PCL for just that reason, I learned that setting aside the seriousness of sanctioned racing and just going out and riding is a reminder of why I ride in the first place. It’s the connection of man and machine, the encouragement of good friends who push you to ride past your limits… and the love of good beer.