Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Crushing Gravel? Part 2

At the start--just under 1,000 racers
photo by Jesse LaLonde

We had to sign the Almanzo tent!    
Once again in my life, I have fallen into a "monkey see, monkey do"       adventure with my friends.  As a teen I took up skateboarding because  some friends did it, in my late teens and early twenties, I took up canoeing and rock climbing because of friends.  There was also a stint of dog sledding and winter camping thrown in there; and now, it's gravel road racing.

Biking itself is mine--I own this passion.  Gravel cycling, on the other hand, was this crazy thing some friends did--not me--until this this Spring.  My first adventure was Dairy Roubaix in April.  It either captured me or ruined me...I haven't decided yet.  It was such a fabulous experience, and dare I say somewhat easy.  Too easy.  It made me think, in my stupid little brain, that this was "normal" for gravel road riding conditions (even though I really knew better).  Call it euphoria or call it denial, but my gravel road honeymoon was about to end around mile 45 of Almanzo.

Half of our crew lining up
photo by Nathan Vergin

Saturday morning at nine, I, along with six good  friends--and 950 other brave souls--rolled out of downtown Spring Valley, MN, under clear skies after a very moving send off by Chris Skogen, the race founder/organizer.  Within minutes I knew several of our group members weren't going to sight see and lolly gag like we did at  Dairy Roubaix.  I kept my eyes fixed on Michael's bright orange shirt and reflective patch on his bag as we wove through the masses.  When we hit our first gravel road, we could see the front runners already a good 1/2 to full mile ahead snaking their way through the farmland, leaving only a cloud of gravel dust in their wake.  It wasn't a surprise that Steve Wasmund from our group was far up ahead on his fixie--with road tires and 90 psi.

Somehow, I found a rhythm in it.  I began to follow solid lines and I stopped getting nervous going down the constant rollers even if my rear tire fishtailed a bit.  Essentially, I relaxed and let my bike do what it was made to do. 

Grant refueling in Preston
We rolled into Preston around mile forty.  This would be our only refueling station--or so we thought.  Jugs of water were purchased and quick snacks were inhaled--no time to chew.  This was after all, an unsupported ride.  We were all responsible for ourselves and that's part of the draw.  Events like this make us wiser and stronger mentally, not just physically.  You have to be prepared or at least be ready to wait a long time for a ride back to the start.  I don't remember tasting any of my food in Preston.  Honestly, I wasn't hungry.  My mind was focused on the upcoming creek crossing we would have to do two miles away.  When we did reach the creek, we were greeted by a line of barefoot cyclists--mud squishing through their toes--all waiting to shoulder their bikes and rush through the water.  My only issue was cleaning the caked in goop from my cleats after mistakenly putting my shoes on too soon to climb the hill on the other side.

The creek crossing after Preston

For a long time after Preston, I was on my own.  Sure, people would pass me, or I would pass them, but I burrowed deeply into silence.  Freshly laid gravel--or as Michael likes to call it "freshies"--hit me hard.  I had very little experience riding through this stuff and my heart sank.  Before the race, I knew this would be my biggest challenge and, at the time, I didn't know if the next fifty miles would be like this.  I felt somewhat defeated.  Once again, I learned that relaxing made all the difference.  Although this didn't make it physically easier, it sure made it mentally easier.

Me on the gravel
photo by Nathan Vergin

After playing leap frog with Michael and Nate for a good chunk of the day, I dug deep and found enough energy to keep on their wheels.  One of the highlights was tearing down a long, winding hill around 40 mph.  All the memories of downhill skiing rushed back to me.  I remember being an okay Midwestern skier growing up.  It wasn't until I skied with friends in Bend, OR that I really grasped what skis could do.  My friends were much better skiers than I was and told me to follow their lines.  Within a few runs down the mountain, I was transformed.  And as I followed Michael's line down this glorious hill--or should I say I followed his hoots and hollers--I became a better gravel cyclist.  Of course the next turn dumped us onto Oriel hill and for the first and only time, we had to dismount and walk.  This was our payment, I suppose, for having too much fun--in a strange sadistic way.  Seeing fifty or more cyclists walk up a ridiculously steep hill--some did ride it (Stephen and Nate...you are gods) made me giggle a bit.  Hey, at least I wasn't the only one suffering.  Michael eased the pain for us all by serenading us with songs.

Nate handing me a beer at the Twin Six oasis

The only thing that beat the descents and beautiful scenery was the Twin Six oasis with about twenty miles to go.  Since Twin Six was a sponsor, they were allowed to give hand ups.  Beer...good.  Oreos...good.  Whiskey...I didn't go there.  This little reprieve gave me just enough fuel to hang with the boys until five miles out when the head winds really kicked in and I began to have crazy nerve pain in my feet.  At that point, I was brought down to rolling pace.  I wondered if I could finish.  Was this how it was going to end--me in a ditch five miles to the finish line?  This is where an idea came to me from a presentation I had just seen with the Dalai Lama.  He kept talking about training your brain to be stronger.  Of course I have always known this, but it was that idea that got me through.

Me and Michael at the finish line

I finished a few minutes behind Nathan and Michael--a full hour behind Stephen--but I finished, with a sub eight hour time.  Martha and Grant rolled in soon behind.  Although I was exhausted, I was elated.

Martha at the finish line--this was how I felt when I made it there!

This post is for Chris Skogen--the man with the dream.  In 1997, Almanzo consisted of twelve riders, this year, 1,300 signed up for the 100, 65 signed up for the 160 miler and 35 signed up for the 380 miler.  He has so generously given his time and energy to share this passion with others and thankfully has found enough help to keep it going.  Almanzo, like most gravel events, is run by volunteers and donations.  Without those key items, these races couldn't exist.  Thank you Chris, and all the volunteers, for making this weekend truly memorable for so many cyclists!

Some of the many volunteers


  1. I was totally yo-yoing you guys for like half the course! All white Cannondale with Pedal & Spoke jersey.

    1. Jon, that's too funny. Even though I was in an oxygen zapped state, I do remember you! Hope you had a great ride.

  2. Great read! Your experience mirrored my own... that fresh gravel nearly killed me (literally... I almost face-planted at 25mph) and it was hard to come back from it. Congrats on the finish!! In case you haven't heard it, my band Highchair Kings wrote a song called Crush Gravel. It was on constant repeat in my head, except the gravel crushed me. https://soundcloud.com/highchairkings/crush-gravel


    1. Thanks so much Trevor and thanks for shooting me the song! I hope your finish was strong. See you on the gravel.

  3. Chris is a god in my world!