Maisie Devore walked the highways around Eskridge, Kansas, for 30 years, collecting aluminum cans to recycle to raise money to build a swimming pool for the children of the 500-person town. There’s an obvious parallel from her example of determination and perseverance that can serve as inspiration for a 100-mile gravel race, although let’s not kid ourselves here: raising money to build a swimming pool for children is noble and selfless; “Hey let’s all go play bikes!” is decidedly less so.
Nonetheless, the Gravel Ride for Maisie’s Pride raises funds to keep the swimming pool open, and free, for the children for Eskridge. So at least I get to do something worthwhile with my little cycling obsession. Now in its 7th year, the race is well-organized and is a fun course through some of the most challenging roads the Flint Hills have to offer.
As dedicated pack fill, I was satisfied with my results but they were unremarkable:
6 hours 47 minutes
8th out of 24 in my age group (Men’s 39 and under)
24th out of 105 overall finishers.
14.73 mph overall average
16.5 mph moving average
5413 feet of climbing
However, I had the good fortune to ride with a friend who ended up being the first-place female finisher, which was a cool thing to witness first hand, and also provided some motivation to keep pushing during the last stretch of the race when I was tempted to sit up and soft pedal.
It was a perfect day for a ride, at least by Kansas standards. Temperatures started in the 60s and the forecast called for highs in the upper 70s, with a mild south wind of about 10 mph. (Spoiler alert — LOL!) I toed the line at the Mission Valley High School, a few miles outside of Eskridge, with two friends from Lawrence who I felt like were of similar fitness, Hannah Tell and Paul Heimbach. Hannah likes to do things like show up to her first ever cyclocross race and take the podium, and Paul is like a diesel engine who will just ride all day and never slow down. (Unless he gets three flats. More on that later.)
The lead group disappeared within the first few miles, and I rode by myself for a few miles after being a little too enthusiastic on the first climb. At mile 15 there was a steep, rutted minimum maintenance “road” that was just technical enough to cause a bottleneck and force a dismount. But that only lasted a mile, and the rest of the course was smooth and dry.
Shortly after that section, Hannah, Paul, and a group of about 8-10 riders caught me and I jumped on. It was a solid, steady group and we stuck together for most of the first half into the halfway checkpoint in Eskridge, reeling in a few riders who had been dropped by the lead group here and there. We were averaging about 18 mph by the time we rolled in to town.
A quick 5-minute stop at the checkpoint to top off water bottles and scarf some food, and we were off again. Hannah mentioned that her Garmin was no longer giving her navigational cues, and Paul also did not have any navigation, so we had to rely on my cue sheets taped to my handlebars. That’s pretty much my secret weapon to avoid getting dropped — be the guy with the map.
Leaving Eskridge involved what was, in my opinion, a needlessly steep paved climb out of town, before we turned north and the Flint Hills started in earnest. Our little group had splintered apart just before Eskridge, so it was just me, Hannah, and Paul. But we were still moving at a fast pace, aided in no small part by the allegedly 10-mph (once again–LOL!) south tailwind.
Unfortunately, shortly after Eskridge Paul had his first of three flats. A 5-minute tube change and we were rolling again, but a few miles later he flatted again. The spare tube went flat before he even got the wheel back on the bike, so I gave him another tube which seemed to hold air. We both inspected his wheel and tire but could not see anything obvious that was causing the flats, but we lost about 15 minutes that time.
While stopped Hannah counted four women who passed us. I made a tongue-in-cheek comment about catching them, but given that they had 5-10 minutes on us I really didn’t think that would happen.
Lesson learned: Don’t count Hannah out.
After a few miles Hannah and I realized that Paul was no longer behind us. In addition to the flats he was having front shifting issues, and I knew he had dropped his chain at the beginning of a climb and fallen behind. However, I thought he was right behind us. As we got to the top of a climb and made the next turn we realized Paul was nowhere to be seen. Bummer! Sure hope he’s not dead. Anyway, like good friends we kept going. The work got harder from that point–Paul is a good person to draft off of.
We started to reel in some of the riders who had passed us while we were stopped, including three of the women who had passed us. At mile 82 we had to dismount and walk through a field to get around a maintenance crew on a railroad crossing. We caught the last female rider at that point. She jumped on our wheel for a couple miles but eventually Hannah opened up a gap and started to put some distance between her.
The course then turned south, and with few exceptions was a long, straight, grind straight to the south for about 16 miles to the finish line. It also involved climbing about 350 feet over four miles, and that 10 mph headwind? My completely unscientific guess is that it was at least a 15 mph sustained wind with 20+ mph gusts. The temperature, according to my bike computer, climbed up to 84, which doesn’t seem that hot until you’ve already been on your bike for 6 hours and you’re out of water, fighting a headwind, and climbing.
The scene from Finding Nemo where the Ellen Degeneres fish repeats “just keep swimming” always starts in a loop in my head in those situations.
This was the point at which I’m glad I was riding with a contender for the podium. Since I am never anywhere near the podium, my own tendency at that point would be to sit up, conserve energy, and soft pedal. But since Hannah had opened a gap and was, as far as we knew, in first place, it provided motivation for me to keep pushing. Also, I was the sole source of navigation at this point.
Did I mention I use cue sheets instead of a computer? Great plan – until the wind blew the last cue sheet off my handlebars. Luckily, I had a spare map stuffed in one of my bags and that was enough to get us to the finish. It didn’t hurt that we went straight south with no turns for about 10 miles.
The last 13 miles we managed to average about 13 mph. Hannah kept waiting for me at the tops of the climbs; I told her not to wait on me because I didn’t want her to lose her spot on the podium, but there was no one within eyesight behind us. So, like Maisie Devore picking up one aluminum can at a time for 30 years, we kept spinning the pedals one revolution at a time and inched our way to the finish. (Except, instead of 30 years, it was about 1 hour, and completely different.) Arturo Morales, a rider from Topeka who I’ve crossed paths with at various races, was taking photos on the course and was handing out water at the top of the climb out of Maple Hill. I selfishly took two bottles for myself and that was enough to get us to the finish without further stops.
At the finish we were greeted by Hannah’s husband, Dave, and two children, and a meal of sloppy joes. Those were really good sloppy joes. Paul came in about 30 minutes later and told us about his mechanical issues, he was clearly spent but still in pretty good spirits, all things considered.
Great day on the bike, good prep for this year’s DK, and I’m mostly satisfied with both my performance and my bike setup. It was also good to share the miles with Hannah and Paul and it’s always cool to see someone you know take a win. Kudos to Ryan Dudley and the rest of the volunteers for putting on a well-organized, challenging, and fun event, and thanks to the volunteers taking pictures.