150 (ok 145) miles of rollers: Gravel Worlds 2016

Me on the right, and Mike on the left. This must have been relatively early because we both still look like we're enjoying ourselves. Photo courtesy of Gravel Guru, https://www.facebook.com/gravelguru/

Me on the right, and Mike on the left. This must have been relatively early because we both still look like we’re enjoying ourselves.
Photo courtesy of Gravel Guru.

Two months after it has ceased being relevant, here is my ride report on Gravel Worlds.

GW is a well-organized, well-supported race and I had a lot of fun doing it. We had fantastic conditions*, it’s a fun course, and I was riding good.

*relative

(It didn’t hurt that there were no ex-roadies trying to bend the rules and screw it up for everyone else… but that’s a topic for another time.)

Backing up a couple months, even though my time at Dirty Kanza was a two hour improvement over the previous year, I could not shake the feeling of mild disappointment over my performance. In 2015 my goal had been simply to finish; once the mud hit, my goal was to survive. At the 2016 DK, merely finishing wasn’t good enough because I’ve already done that. Sure, the heat and headwinds took their toll on everyone but I felt like my body had failed me and I could have done better.

A couple weeks later I had dinner with a couple friends, Mike and Jake, who had also ridden DK (faster than me) and we debriefed each other on our ride experiences. Jake, who has three kids and way more excuses than me not to ride but still does, started talking about Gravel Worlds. He has in-laws in Nebraska and said that we would be welcome to crash with them.

Absolutely not, I thought. I just want to relax for a while and enjoy biking, and not worry about some 150 mile ride. Plus, it’s in Nebraska. Kansas is windy because Nebraska sucks and Oklahoma blows.**

**Just a little mild ribbing to my friends in our neighboring states. I made that joke once when I was deployed to the middle east, a soldier from the Nebraska National Guard who took herself way too seriously apparently thought I was serious and got really pissy about it. That was 12 years ago, clearly I’m over it.

Anyway, under no conditions was I going to ride in Gravel Worlds. Absolutely not. Nope. No way.

Two months later I found myself lining up at the start line of Gravel Worlds at 6 a.m. on a chilly, windy, dark morning.

After having some time to reflect and analyze my ride at Dirty Kanza, I realized that my nutrition and hydration strategy were not working, and that I could stand to lose weight. I got serious about my nutrition-both off and on the bike-and changed a couple things about my hydration strategy. I also changed my crank arms from 172.5mm to 170mm. The combination of a focused nutrition, hydration, and electrolyte strategy, and refining my bike fit, seemed to address the persistent leg cramp issues I had been struggling with all spring. The improved nutrition plan (I used the Fuel Right, Race Light plan from Apex Nutrition) which involved a few easy-to-implement changes in my overall diet, also resulted in quite a bit of weight loss. I suddenly found myself actually climbing hills with the group, instead of getting dropped at the start of every climb. Neat!

Even though I had somewhat reluctantly signed up for GW (I gave myself an out by saying that I would DNS if conditions were shitty… which no one believed that I would actually do), by the time it actually started I was somewhat eager to find out if these changes would pay off.

Did I mention it was cold? It was in the high 50s, overcast, and windy to start. Not exactly what I was prepared for in August. It was somewhat of a blessing though, wind is easier to cope with than heat. I had my arm warmers on until noon; and I’m glad I thought to grab them at the last minute.

A heavy thunderstorm had swept through the area the evening before. I was concerned about the condition of the roads, given my past experiences (I was going to insert a link here with my experience at Land Run this year but apparently I was so disgusted after having not only torn off my derailleur but also shearing off the entire hanger I didn’t write a post) with mud and broken derailleurs. I had received intel from locals that the gravel roads were actually gravel (unlike in Oklahoma, where they only put gravel on the roads where the county commissioners live), so I was somewhat reassured that the roads would be rideable. But you just never know.

In addition to Mike and Jake, another friend from Lawrence, Dustin, was joining us. We had a loose agreement to ride together for the first part of the race. I’m always hesitant to agree to that, because you run the risk of going either faster or slower than you want to, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

The pace started pretty hot. It was a “neutral” rollout, and it went about the same way those always do–fast. However, after a couple miles we hit gravel and suddenly everyone was slowing down. Although the roads weren’t exactly muddy, the rains had soaked the gravel enough that getting through it was tough work. The gravel up there is more sandy than I’m used to, and wet sand = slow. There really wasn’t a good line to be had, it was all soft, and we were working a lot harder than our average speeds would indicate.

The roads got progressively better as the day went on and they dried out, helped by the 15-20mph NW wind. The route is a giant clockwise loop starting on the northwest side of Lincoln. After 10-15 miles we turned south and enjoyed a tailwind for the next hour or so. It’s hard to enjoy a tailwind when you know that you will eventually be turning back into it, though.

We got to the first checkpoint, just south of Eagle, at around 35 miles. Although there were numerous SAG stops and gas stations in between each official checkpoint, we all agreed that we would only stop at the checkpoints. We filled up our bottles and were in and out of the checkpoint in less than 5 minutes.

Hiding in the pack. Thanks to some changes in my nutrition and setup, I was able to take advantage of riding in a group for once. Photo courtesy of Gravel Guru

Hiding in the pack. Guy I don’t know in front, Jake, me, Mike barely visible behind me, and Dustin. (I’m third, in the black helmet). It was nice to hang with a group, for once.
Photo courtesy of Gravel Guru.

Shortly after the checkpoint we lost Mike. He was starting to fall behind, and we assumed he burnt too many matches at the start, but I found out later that he was having unusual leg pains that hampered him for most of the race. He suffered through it and finished, but it was a painful 10-hour grind for him.

We picked up a couple more people and turned back west. The wind was more out of the north, so we weren’t riding directly into it, but it was definitely picking up. Also, we were starting to take more notice of the rollers. Like, there sure were a lot of them.

None of the hills on the course were, individually, anything special. They aren’t particularly long or steep, for the most part. But they Just. Never. Stop. After the first 1/3 of the course there probably wasn’t more than a half mile of relatively level terrain on the entire course. Just constant climbing and descending.

This is where it started to dawn on me that my nutrition and fitness were paying off. I was keeping up with the group on the climbs, and not doing the yo-yo thing where I try to catch up on the descents. My stomach was doing well and my energy levels seemed appropriate to get me through the course.

We picked up a a couple riders and a group of about 5-8 of us rolled into the second checkpoint. Right before the checkpoint Jake started to ride away from me a bit and I thought I might have to sit up and let him go. I wasn’t looking forward to that because I knew that we were had 30 miles of headwind to deal with right after the checkpoint. But we re-grouped after the checkpoint and stayed together to fight the winds.

Our group of three picked up a couple more riders, and then we passed a small group as we turned north. A minute later I was taking a pull on the front and when I looked behind me I was surprised to see that group of 10 had joined us.

For the next 30 miles or so our group of a dozen riders battled the wind together. Every once in a while you ride with a group of strong riders and without saying anything the group starts working together and everything is smooth and synced and before you know it you’ve put 30 miles behind you. Everyone was working hard, and the pace was strong, but manageable. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep it up for the entire race but I decided I could burn a few more matches to keep up with the group and get through the headwind, because without the group I’d be fighting the wind alone.

The group held together remarkably well. We only lost one or two riders, and one was a singlespeeder. But all good things, etc. We finally turned out of the wind and into the town of Valparaiso. This was the last gas station before the checkpoint at mile 125. I was out of fluids and out of energy. I considered trying to hang on for another 15 minutes without hydration, but decided I would probably regret that. I pulled into the gas station and watched the group ride away.

Impressive time, right? Except Strava doesn't account for stopped time.

Impressive time, right? Except Strava doesn’t account for stopped time.

Total time: 10:10. Still, I'm all right with it.

Total time: 10:10. Still, I’m all right with it.

I found out later from Jake and Dustin that the group fractured pretty shortly after that anyway. There was a section of loose gravel that splintered the group, and then it turned into a free for all.

After my stop at Valparaiso, there was a 10 mile section east with no turns, but just constant rollers that seemed to be getting bigger. For some reason going in a straight line with no turns for multiple miles is mentally taxing. I have to play games in my head to pass the time–timing each mile, counting pedal revolutions, etc. I know some people listen to music or audiobooks or whatever, but that just seems like one more thing to keep track of so I just deal with it.

Unlike the DK, where I was almost always within sight of another rider at least until the last 50 miles or so, there are significantly less riders at Worlds, and the field gets spread out pretty early on. I did not see any riders ahead of me for that entire stretch, and only a couple riders on the horizon behind me.

Eventually the third checkpoint came into view, and from there it was 35 miles to the finish. A few miles of it were back west, and into the wind, and the wind had not let up any, but it was broken up by stints to the south. The Hills that Would Not End, although quite irritating by this point, did serve to block the wind on the climbs.

The one section of mud on the course was right after the third checkpoint. It was a dirt road, closed to cars, and it had 4-5 mud holes. They were just big enough that a skilled rider could get through them without dismounting if she or he picked a good line. I am not a skilled rider under normal circumstances, and definitely not after 120 miles, so I dismounted. You know, it’s better to have muddy feet than a busted derailleur. I think Abraham Lincoln said that.

Interestingly, according to pictures on social media, virtually every one of the 300+ riders stopped on that one 1/4-mile section of mud on the entire course and took pictures. Ok.

Speaking of busted derailleurs, about 10 miles from the finish I caught up to a guy pushing his bike up a hill. He had no derailleur. As I got closer I realized he had no chain. I offered him a quick link, but he said he’d already tried a single speed conversion but ended up breaking his chain. Later I heard someone say that guy walked all the way to the finish. 10 miles of walking at 3 mph = a lot longer on the course then I would care to be. Ouch.

The rest of the ride was uneventful. The rollers never stopped, up to and including the last mile to the finish. I passed one guy on a fat bike on my way into town and that was pretty much it, no one came in before or after me by a couple minutes.

I finished just a few minutes above 10 hours. I didn’t have a goal, other than to maintain roughly a 15 mph average and really to see if my nutrition and weight loss had paid off. It had, I was able to hang with the group when it mattered and was not completely destroyed by the hills. To be fair, the fact that it was in the 60s-70s all day probably helped, but overall I felt a lot better than I expected to after 145 miles. Anyway, after the fact I realized I could have easily come in under 10 hours if I hadn’t stopped in Valparaiso, or if I’d pushed a little bit harder in a couple spots, but overall no regrets.

I caught up with my friends and had some dinner. Mike came in about 45 minutes later and he was hurting, but still in relatively good spirits, all things considered. Before the race I had been undecided whether I would stay another night in Lincoln or make the 3-hour drive home; but I felt good enough to drive home and I wanted to see my dogs. And my wife.

So that was my ride. The Pirate Cycling League does a great job and I’d recommend this ride to anyone. I’ll probably be back in the future, once I stop having bad dreams about rollers that just don’t stop.

Post-ride recovery. The dogs help with muscle something or other. #science

Post-ride recovery. The dogs help with muscle something or other. #science