"When I came up to that last hill, I said fuck it...I'm going to sit down on the side of the road and eat my candy now!"
|Getting ready to roll out|
Last year, in a mix between fine mist and light rain, one of my gravel partners-in-crime and I drove down to Freeport, IL for the inaugural gravel event, Ten Thousand put on by Axletree. We were promised hills, beauty, more hills, more beauty...you get the drift. The thing is that like with any challenging (and somewhat painful) riding event, I tend to forget the pain all too quickly and even begin to wonder if the beauty I experienced was really just a hallucination caused by an oxygen deprived state.
Because the first Ten Thousand was held last July, a whopping 16 months ago, I had a lot of time to forget the scenery as well as the pain and found it necessary to experience both again--with more friends in tote this time. My plan was simple. More friends along meant more people to get me through bonks, possible wild crashes on steep gravel roads, mechanical issues, and down right delirium.
This year promised more hills--starting right from the get go vs. a pleasant 10 mile "warm up", bigger hills, colder temps and less daylight. I didn't mind the "hill" part since climbing is about the only thing I'm decent at on gravel. My concern came in when I noticed the starting temperature would be in the mid to upper 20's and it wouldn't get above freezing until a few hours into the ride. Having a nerve condition called Raynaud's doesn't make me the happiest cold weather cyclist. My hands and feet turn to painful blocks all too quickly even with the appropriate gear and chemical warmers. Once they're gone, they're gone and it's usually a nauseating thirty minutes in a warm environment to get them back to a sub normal state again. Temps below freezing made me almost pull out a couple days prior to the event. Thankfully, my friends talked me into giving it a shot.
Four of us drove down to Stockton (a bit further west than last year's jumping off spot) in the dark. I was only aware of two things: a thick coating of silver frost on the ground and a brilliant ink black sky dotted with millions of stars. The back seat of my car held my pack which had every layer of clothing I could possibly need, two packs of chemical toe warmers, about eight hundred calories, a camelback bladder full of water, lights if for some reason we were stuck out on course past dark, two tubes, bike tools, maps and cue sheets. If this didn't get me through, nothing would.
We pulled into the parking lot with the heater blasting stronger than the stereo--hoping our bodies could reserve some of the heat. Within minutes of prepping the bikes and changing clothes, the cold had already set in. I overheard someone say it was 23 degrees. I'm not sure it got that low, but I knew it was below freezing. Looking around the parking lot, I was amazed to see folks in shorts or 3/4 tights. I had my amphi tights on and although I knew I might roast mid day, I was still cool in them and wouldn't trade them for the world. My motto when it comes to cold riding is "better off being overdressed vs. underdressed".
The first ten or so miles for all of us consisted of a constant wiggling of toes and fingers and joking about how many felt "alive" at that given point. Statements like "well, I now have feeling in all of my fingers and two of my toes" were our only chatter mixed in with heavy breathing up the hills followed by oooos and ahhhhhs regarding the scenery. One must not waste precious energy talking about anything other than what's needed at the time.
Around mile ten, we were treated to a coyote crossing the road right in front of us. He or she was bathed in golden light and its fur was so soft and bushy, it bared more resemblance to a large fox. I think we all saw it as a good omen.
|Marc at the top of one of the many, many climbs|
|The infamous b road--this year almost completely ridable unlike last year|
Then we hit Morseville road and all laughter ceased. Riders dismounted and began to walk because of a shortage of gears, under training or rear wheel slippage on the loose gravel dust. I got close to having to dismount a few times but luck was on my side that day. How could one road have so many 18-20% climbs? By the top of the final climb I was ready for a break. Ready to have a few miles of mild rollers or flats. The road along the Apple River gave us just that, along with stunning autumn leaves, green pastures, an old rusty bridge with wooden planks and a "pop up rest stop" thanks to one of the Axletree members. There we feasted on junk food one step away from being the plastic it was wrapped in (Twinkies and Hohos), soda and Red Bull. Can I tell you how happy we were to be out under the blue sky, surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape in the country, feeling the blood course through our veins and just being with friends--finding our laughter once again...this time fueled by sugar and caffeine.
|Crossing the Apple River|
|Food of Gods???|
|Following Apple River Road|
More hills and miles ticked by. Our conversation drifted to what we thought the comment "Enjoy!" meant on our cue sheet around mile 60 (we would soon find out it meant a couple more beautiful climbs--we suspected this knowing Chad's humor) and then the final push brought us into a headwind that zapped all the remaining strength out of me. I remember getting to the base of the final climb and realizing I was already in my lowest gear. "I've got nothing left in the tank" was carried away by the wind. But somehow I made it up the hill and back into Stockton where a beer was waiting for me (thank you Marc!).
All four of us kept remarking about what a great ride it had been as we got the car packed up (see...the pain is forgotten almost instantly). The bluebird skies followed us home with the remaining corn flanking both sides of the road. On the final few miles back into town--I was now the only one in my car--I sent out numerous mental thanks to Chad for creating this wonderful event and the rest of the Axletree crew for helping keep it alive during a challenging year. Long live Axletree!