During a recent presentation at Sunflower Outdoor and Bike, Roger Williams explained his motivation for organizing a 100-mile gravel race through the hills of northeast Kansas.
“We’ve got some of the best gravel roads and gravel racers around,” Williams said. Why not do something local?
Judging by the turnout for the inaugural Gravelleurs Raid on Sunday, April 12, 2015, he’s on to something. Registration, which was limited to 150 riders, was full several days before the event. A heavy lightning storm that morning wasn’t enough to deter 85 souls from tackling 100 miles of some of the toughest gravel hills in Jefferson and Leavenworth Counties.
For being a first-time event, promoted entirely on social media, the ride attracted some big names. Steve Tilford, MTB hall of famer, winner of more championships than I can count, and general badass, rode with his Tradewind Energy teammate and reigning Dirty Kanza champion Brian Jensen. Dan Hughes, owner of Sunflower Outdoor and Bike, took third. (There were other big names there but my knowledge of local racing is woefully inadequate. Please don’t take it personally.)
The race featured equal payouts for women and men — hopefully a trend that keeps growing.
I feel like Dirty Kanza is the king around here. I’ve been training for it since October, when I finally managed to scrape together enough for a Nashbar steel cross bike. It gets national press, bigger and bigger names, faster and faster competition, and participants from around the globe. Of course, every local who’s ever even seen a piece of gravel has ridden it.
Despite going to college in Emporia I never biked in the Flint Hills, so last fall I drove down and did a test ride of 75 miles through the Flint Hills to see if this was even realistic for me. It was, but I can’t just take off for Emporia every weekend.
I quickly discovered when I rode gravel roads up in Jefferson County my climbing data was double or triple what it would be south of the Kansas River, and although the climbs were shorter, they were steeper and more numerous than the Flint Hills.
“Self,” I thought to myself, “If you can train in Jefferson County you will be in good shape for the DK.”
Therefore, a 100-mile gravel ride with about 6000 feet of climbing (or more, depending on whose GPS you’re looking at), a few weeks before the DK was a great chance to test my fitness, my gear, and my preparation. I also got to support local racing and a local guy that I’ve ridden with before. At the end of the day I feel pretty good about my fitness, I learned some things about my gear, and I made a couple friends.
I love biking.
This was the first actual race I’ve ever ridden. That’s like saying I’m a car because I stood in a garage. I had no racing aspirations here, especially with some of the monsters at the front. I was just riding to ride and finish, so it was a success in that regard.
It was in inauspicious start for me. I rode to the start in a thunderstorm and was completely soaked. I’ve had a couple rides recently that have been characterized by catastrophic derailleur failures, so I was concerned that this may be an omen.
The start time was postponed an hour for lightning, for which I was grateful. I’ll ride in just about any conditions but lightning, like the Wu-Tang Clan, ain’t nothing to f with.
The first and last 5 miles of the ride were along the Kansas River levee, which is flat but gets very spongy and is really tough to ride through when it rains. It was a “neutral” start but the lead group’s version of neutral was about 20-21 mph. I hung with them — for like a mile. I slowed to a more reasonable pace, and a second group began to consolidate by the time we got off the levee and onto the first short climb past the county landfill.
The race had a KOM/QOM at 11 miles. It’s the 27th Street hill in Jefferson County. It’s about a half mile climb and 157 feet. Strava says it’s about a 10% grade but I’m pretty sure it’s more like 837%. I’ve ridden it several times and it never gets easier – each time I wonder if this will be the time I walk.
I did not walk, but it might’ve been faster if I did.
There was a pretty stiff SSE wind of about 20 mph throughout the day, so we had a tailwind on the front half. It’s impossible to enjoy a tailwind like that because you just know you’re going to pay for it later. We did.
Like I said earlier, the hills in Jefferson County are relentless. You conquer one and then see five more just like it in front of you. The tailwind helped a little, but I’m 5’11 and weigh 190. Hills aren’t exactly my strong suit. (Neither are flats, headwinds, corners, or pace. I can coast on descents like a fat torpedo, though.)
My shifting started going to hell because of the mud. I was concerned that it would be yet another ride in which I battled derailleur issues the entire time. After a couple hours the roads dried out pretty well and whatever was gunking up my derailleurs worked itself loose. At the SAG, Roger Williams had some chain lube and a rag and cleaned my chain for me, and I didn’t have any problems after that. (Thanks, Roger!) However, for a while I had to tackle some pretty steep hills in my 46-tooth big ring because it wouldn’t downshift to my little ring.
When the course turned back south into the wind I started losing the group, and found myself riding with Tim Mohn, one of the organizers of Dirty Kanza. Without saying a word we started pulling for each other.
Funny thing about riding – we didn’t talk all that much but after 100 miles I feel like I know Tim pretty well.
We caught up to the group and four of us — Tim, my friend Phil, and Ashton, a Sunflower employee who is riding Trans-Iowa in a couple weeks, rode most of the rest of the way together.
At the SAG stop in McLouth we ate and hydrated, cleaned our chains and rested for about 15 minutes. This is where we paid the price for the earlier tailwind. The hills weren’t quite as bad and there was some protection, but there were plenty of long stretches with the 20 mph wind blasting right in our faces.
Although the gravel was mostly packed down there were a few sections of fresh, loose rocks that were brutal. There was one long and flat section in particular in Leavenworth County that was maybe a mile or two but felt like about 53.
At mile 80 the course gets close enough to Lawrence that you can see the campus, but turns back north for another 12 miles or so of climbing. This is where Phil disappeared. He’d been getting further ahead of us and when we got to a road that he was familiar with he was gone.
Ashton, Tim and I rode the rest of the course together. Ashton was definitely the strongest of us and probably could have dropped us at any time but he kept hanging back and pulling.
The last 5 miles along the levee was straight into the wind. This was where Ashton’s Nebraska upbringing came into play. I asked him if he wanted me to pull and he just said “I’m from Nebraska. I’m good on the flats.” Thank god. The levee might be flat but 5 miles into the wind at the end of a century is soulcrushing.
What can I say? It was a fun day of riding bikes and I feel good about my preparation for Dirty Kanza. Roger did a great job organizing it and the volunteers and sponsors were awesome. The free slice of pizza at the end was pretty much worth the price of admission.
Steve Tilford wrote a really good race report over on his blog, and even he said it was a good tough course. When a man who has stitched his own wounds on more than one occasion says it’s a tough course, that’s saying something.
I’m already looking forward to next year.