Sunday, June 4, 2017

Sometimes the Truth Hurts...

As many of you know, I was essentially born into the cycling community. My father drilled the "rules" of the road and group riding skills into me from the time I could walk. He'd bring me to races and tell me what safe and non-safe bike handling looked like and he always schooled the new racers if they got careless. His job, as he saw it, was to prevent any possible crashes on the bike.

Now, as a participant in group rides, and someone who wants to be an ambassador for cyclists, I take what my father taught me very seriously. I try my best to mark debris or issues with the road so others behind me know what's about to come, I stay the furthest to the right as I safely can, I drop into single file if traffic is around, and I try to be a predictable rider.

Up until now, I have never caused another rider to crash. I say "up until now" because I was partly to blame for another rider's crash on a group ride this past week. Essentially it was a hillier ride with fast descents and a fair amount of loose gravel at each turn. I felt pretty strong that night and was climbing smoothly. On one of the faster descents, however, I took the final turn a bit too fast, not knowing how much gravel was at the base. I remember looking behind me prior to the turn, noticing no one was on my wheel at the time (I do this to make sure I have a clear line), then marking the upcoming gravel with a hand gesture and yelling "GRAVEL". I had to feather the brakes and take the turn a bit too wide and that's all she wrote. I felt another rider's hand on my shoulder and bars rub my thigh. I went completely off the road, into the gravel shoulder and at that moment, I heard him crash behind me. There is NOTHING worse for a cyclist to hear than a bike and body hit the ground. I, along with several others, came to a quick stop. Thankfully the rider, although road rashed, bruised and a bit shaken up, was okay. His bike was ridable and he didn't seem to have a concussion. He and I, along with another rider, ended up riding back into town together slowly. We kept asking him questions to make sure he was doing alright and in between, I just kept playing the scenario over and over again in my head. How did this happen? Why didn't I do more to prevent it? How much of this was my fault? No matter what the answers were, I felt bad for him. We got back just fine, he got cleaned up thanks to another rider, and sent on his way to urgent care and the only thing that seemed truly ruined were his kit and mine. But here's the thing, now I'm spooked as all get up to go on any more group rides. I don't consider myself a reckless rider at all, but I also don't want to be tagged as one by others (probably the worst black mark I can imagine) and I certainly don't want to ever have this happen around me again.

There are no answers to this for me right now. I'll have to figure it all out over time. All I know is if I do choose to partake in larger/faster group rides in the future, I'm going to be extra cautious and will most likely get spewed off the back each time because of my concerns.

Writing this is most certainly a difficult thing. We, as cyclists, love to write and talk about the grandeur of our endeavors, not the ugly things that sometimes happen in between. I chose to write about this to not only expose my mistake and apologize for it, but also make others very aware that a split second decision can make or break a ride. Be careful out there folks--on solo or group rides. Be aware of your surroundings, be predictable and err on the side of caution. No Strava KOM, bragging rights or ego boost is worth causing or ending up in a crash...ever.

Crushing Gravel 15: Long Live Ten Thousand!

Exercise daily...walk with Jesus
-church sign coming back into Freeport, IL

The start of Ten Thousand 2017 (one hundred riders strong)

Four years ago, Ten Thousand was born. Given birth by Chad Ament, formerly of North Central Cyclery and Axletree, now a proud Colorado resident. This magical event would be the last child of Axletree...although none of us knew it at the time. Reading the route information prior to the first ride was like preparing for the apocalypse. Warnings on the severity of climbs, the remoteness and the b road most likely scared most gravel enthusiasts away. I, on the other hand, was perverse enough to run towards the event. I like hills. I like gravel, I like cool folks to ride with....check, check, check. Oh, and might I mention I had a gullible friend who didn't know any better to say "no" when I asked him to join me. It rained that day. A light steady drizzle that made the gravel "squishy", kept dust where it belonged and made me jealous of those who could sport full fenders. I finished the ride covered from head to toe in gravel grime and mosquito bites...and yet I couldn't wipe the grin off my face for anything! This, I thought, was a damn near second to my favorite gravel event, Dairy Roubaix...and I knew I'd be back riding in Joe Daviess county, IL very soon.

The following year I made the event once again, this time sporting most of my winter layers since it didn't reach freezing until several hours into the ride. One might say my smile was "frozen" on my face...but really, although it was a different month, a slightly different route, and Chad was no longer sending us off, the ride still had the same spirit and beauty. And this time I was able to con two more friends into joining me! I still remember one friend making a statement at the base of the final climb into Stockton, IL..."I'm going to stop here and eat all of my candy!"

Sadly I couldn't make last year's actual event but I was able to get a couple folks together to do the ride with me on a different weekend. I remember giggling as we came up to Morseville Road...knowing the poor souls I brought with me had no clue what was ahead of us. They just saw me give the road sign my middle finger and I'm guessing thought I had lost my marbles. They soon figured out why I had done it...about seven hills on one road with loose gravel at the crest of each (the driftless region of IL IS NOT flat folks!).
Riding this route as a planned event is amazing, but there is also something really special about doing an event route on a different day. A "gentleman's ride" is something I've always loved, and having a couple friends with me to experience the beauty, pain and glory makes a ride even more grand.

When Axletree officially decided to call it quits this past year, I automatically thought Ten Thousand would be shelved. The amazing volunteers and founders of Axletree chose to permanently retire the Gravel Metric and Night Bison, but a surprise came to me when I saw that Stu Garwick, now owner of Freeport Bicycle Company in Freeport, IL and Bailey Gene Newbrey, owner of Comrade Cycles in Chicago, were given the go ahead and the reigns to forge forward with Ten Thousand. Even the founder of Axletree, Tobie Depauw, and former Axletree rider, Michael Feller, helped out with the route and map. Essentially, since both Stu and Bailey were also Axletree riders, this was just a giant reunion event of sorts which almost brought tears to my eyes since I appreciated what non-profit had accomplished in prior years.

Look at that perfect sky and pristine gravel!

A bit before 7am, I along with two other Madisonians, made our way down to Freeport to play in the gravel. We had only planned on doing the 78 mile course since I was on a time commitment, but I was so damn giddy to see Morseville Road once again I made the assumption we were supposed to climb it this year as well (wrong...always check your cue sheets kids) and that little extra climb also rewarded us with a few extra miles of the 120 mile route. There was a brief moment when I thought "hmmmm...should we just continue on?" but lack of supplies reminded me to stay smart and find a way back onto the course.

Morseville Road, we LOVE you!

I find it difficult to find new and exciting ways to describe gravel events unless something terribly wrong occurs. I just remember a bluebird sky day (something we hadn't seen much of all spring), chatting with folks I hadn't seen all year (these events are like giant family reunions), Bailey taking a picture of me as I laughed and almost lost traction going up Krise hill, trying to get bites of food in while being swarmed by pesky gnats anytime we stopped to make sure we were on course, the most pristine gravel I have ever ridden (seriously...this was delicious gravel!), having a nice little tailwind to push us back into town, and cold beer to welcome in.

Stu, Monica, Bailey, Tobie and guys outdid yourself this year. Thank you so much for your hard work and dedication to keeping this event going. You can bet I'll be back next year as well as riding down there a couple more times before the first frost!

Several folks in this picture just finished Dirty Kanza yesterday!
Stu, owner of Freeport Bicycles is seen waving.
Tobie, founder of Axletree and co-owner of Blackriver is seated below him.
Allison, co-owner of Comrade Cycles is seated on the right.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Crushing Gravel 14: Barry Roubaix and Buckets of Rain

And it's a hard, and it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall
-Bob Dylan

One week out before my first Barry Roubaix I made the mistake of looking at what is now jokingly referred to by my friends as "". Rain. Lots of it. And cold. Very cold. And wind. Again, lots of it. Over the following seven days, I would return to weatherpessimist hoping that somehow the forecast had miraculously changed. That it would be 60 degrees with sunshine, maybe just a little rain the night before to settle the sand down, and light southwesterly winds for a tailwind coming back into Hastings, Michigan. Bahahahahaha. I laugh at myself even as I write this, knowing fair well mother nature, although kind once in awhile, loves being a complete bitch for planned gravel events.

Friday, the day before Barry came all too quickly. Did I pack everything I thought I needed and the kitchen sink? My pile largely consisted of clothing I'd wear for January rides, not late March rides, and that pile was ridiculously big. Dressing for cold wet conditions is the most challenging combo to be ready for. My former wilderness guide self kept telling me to add neoprene like layers and multiple layers which I could shed if I overheated. It forced me to pack not only chemical warmers for my feet (which became non-functioning the moment the rain started) but also the trusty bread bags I've used as vapor barriers for ages. It forced me to wear 100% synthetic vs. wool, pack extra calories (I normally only eat a bar and one electrolyte bottle on 62 mile rides) and an extra pair of gloves as well as a dry hat in case my others got soaked (which they of course did). I'll admit it, I'm one of those safety gravel girls who packs extra of almost everything just in case I have a (shhhhhh...don't say it) mechanical issue on the course. This, of course, also makes me look like a camel since I never do gravel rides without a small pack strapped to me. So be it. I'd rather look like fool than be a fool.

So here my friends who were joining me were. Standing by the car Friday morning, in bright sunshine and warmth no less, packing for what we knew would be an adventure fun shitshow. The 6 hour drive from Madison to the packet pickup and then Grand Rapids was uneventful other than the 25mph winds threatening to rip our bikes off the car and make it to Michigan before us. We unloaded everything at my gravel friend's, Josh Duggan's, house and promptly proceeded in drinking our way through a couple of the Grand Rapids breweries (for carb loading purposes only).

We woke to the sound we knew we would hear...rain. The radar showed Hastings had been hit even harder than us. And me, always nervous prior to new events, just kept thinking "will I make the cutoff if I have to walk Sager road?" I can do 62 miles, I can do hills, I'm not so great at mountain bike or cross skills through mud. I had no clue what laid ahead of me as one of my friends just kept saying "good times" every five minutes.

As we drove down to Hastings in a downpour, and it stopped raining when we pulled into town, there was that little bit of me that cautiously thought, "okay, it's not going to rain...we'll be good". All while I overheard someone next to us who was also getting his gear ready say to his friend "they cut out Sager". I may have made an audible sigh.

I pulled into my wave 2 start position alongside my partner-in-crime and quickly did several adjustments of layers since I was sweating from, what I suspect to be nerves, not the damp 40 degree temp. It was stunning to see so many people, alongside of us, to brave the elements and come out for what we all call "bike fun". If they could do it, I could too. 

Looking back at the waves behind me at the starting line

Yet another layer change
photo by Tim Reinhardt

I'm always a bit skittish in the first few miles of these events until the pack thins. I don't trust other's skills, especially on mushy gravel with potholes and after being in a crash a few years ago at mile ten during Almanzo, I always err on the side of caution. I don't talk to anyone, even the friends I show up with, I refuse to hug the wheel in front of me and my eyes dart back and forth until I see patterns in riding styles. Hey, it may seem crazy but it's kept me from getting in any serious diggers. 

A few miles in the rain decided to return
photo by Tim Reinhardt

Momma said there'll be days like this, 
there'll be days like this momma said.
-The Shirelles

The first ten miles ticked by, even though the rain had now resumed. Everything seemed completely rideable and safe although albeit a bit slower since I only had 33 mm tires which wanted to sink into the mush. The hills seemed completely manageable and my heart rate actually began to slow down vs. speed up. Body heat was being generated and although it was wet and cold, I felt like I was doing okay...until mile 25. Until then, I had purposely chosen not to look at my computer. I thought wherever I am, I am...and I seem to be doing alright. But sometimes, your mind and body play a little trick on you and make you think you've gone further than you have (this happened to me on the Night Bison as well). That moment, when you "thought" you were around mile 35, only to be told you were ten miles back, is one of the worst feelings out there. I went from feeling okay to feeling completely drained. My feet were soaked, my hands couldn't warm up, despite having neoprene gloves on, the temp felt like it was dropping vs. increasing, and the gravel actually seemed to be getting softer. Shit. Was I going to have to take my first DNF? This is when I forced myself to get to the next aid station at mile 40 (I had blown by the first one thinking I didn't need to make any adjustments). By mile 40 I had made the mistake I warn all wilderness travelers about...NEVER let yourself delve into the hypothermic sate...not even a little. I knew I had to strip my shoes and booties, put plastic bags around my feet, do a hundred or so jumping jacks to produce heat and stoke the fire through calories. What I wanted was to crawl inside one of the warmed up vehicles sitting there and take a nap. But I knew that by taking the volunteers up on their offer to do so, would essentially be a DNF since I was accepting aid. Folks have different feelings about gravel events. I don't race them, I just ride them, but I do believe in carrying everything needed with you and being self supported. It's what separates the new me from the old me who used to race road bikes. It's my wilderness side and my cycling side rolled into one. I was not going to sit in a warm car. I would ride the short way back to Hastings if I had to and pull out of the event, but only if I had been terribly injured would I enter a car. I'm stubborn, I admit it.

Five miles after eating a bar and getting bags on my feet I started to feel better. The miles clicked by, the headwinds increased, but I knew I could make it. I began to really appreciate my surroundings. A house made entirely of river stones, the chorus of spring peepers and sandhill cranes, and the smell of wet earth and decomposing leaves. I began to really enjoy myself even though my neck and back hurt and my feet began to burn with the increased circulation. For a few miles, I couldn't contain my joy in the fact I had not pulled out. And then I heard the thunder. "I can outrun it" I said to myself. Only five miles left. Well, three miles to go, a flash of lightning told me otherwise. The skies opened up and I began to laugh uncontrollably. This, I thought, was comedic. I had already ridden through a steady rain, had fought off hypothermia, had pulled myself together and now mother nature decided to give the remaining few on the course one final test. I think it spurred me to tap into that last bit of strength. I rode into town at around 20mph, parting the standing water on the roads with my bike tires. I didn't care if I didn't have enough energy to find the car at the end, I just wanted to finish the ride. And sure enough, I couldn't find the car until one of my friends came to get me. I stood outside of the car, dripping both sand and rain, shaking once again uncontrollably until I toweled off, got into dry clothes and shoveled food down my throat. I was done, and like any challenging gravel event I do, I had already forgotten the pain and was laughing (until I had to fish out the wet sandy clothes the next day from the car rack).

Did you know Grand Rapids was chocked full of breweries? Well, I, along with my friends and host were on a mission to visit several more of them after a hot the name of carb replacement. Although I would have loved to stay at the bike event for the Founders after party, I just couldn't handle getting soaked again (but don't you worry...Founders brew had been consumed during the weekend!). 

Post race carb replacement!

Thanks go out to Rick and Scott for putting on what must be one of the most challenging gravel events to organize...I'm not sure how you guys make it flawless, but you do. More thanks go out to the hundreds of volunteers who did everything from check us in to stand outside to cheer us on and give those in need aid. Josh and Amy, you two rock for housing three dirty cyclists! And finally, to Tim and Jeff, I never would have done this without you two. I owe you and will gladly pay you back in yet another gravel adventure. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Crushing Gravel 13: Frostbite 40! I may be getting crazier...for gravel that is

The start of Frostbite 40
photo by Patrick McDonough

Stu and Monica signing people up
photo by Patrick McDonough
I'm driving straight south to Illinois. The sun is rising with a peach colored glow to my left. Barns, all of them now it appears, proudly display their barn quilts. Lone oaks stand in the middle of farm fields with rolling hills all around them and my co-pilot turns to look at me and says something like this, "You know, you are a crazy woman for choosing to drive an hour and a half early on a Sunday morning just to ride forty miles of gravel." I laugh it off. I have to because I'm low on sleep, a little too hungover from beverage consumption the night before, and it's effing cold out with winds picking up from the west, making the flags, even at 7:30am, taunt me. The only reply I could give him is "I wouldn't do this for just anyone...but Stu is putting it on and some of my favorite IL people will be there!"

I met Stu Garwick a few years ago at Almanzo. I felt like I already knew him when I walked up to him, shook his hand (the one free from crutches) and said "You must be Stu!" You see, I was supposed to meet and be able to ride some gravel with this guy a month prior to Almanzo, but a nasty spill on the gravel earlier that spring left him with a broken pelvis. The crazy thing is, he still showed up with his wife, Monica, to act as support for Almanzo. That's right, he drove hours, with a healing fracture, just to cheer his friends on, and hand us beer and peanut butter/pickle sandwiches. I knew I'd like him right away.

Over the past few years, I've gotten to ride with him very little since his hands are always busy on the organizing and planning side of Axletree events. He, along with my other IL gravel friends, are some of the most kind and generous folks I know. They all carry extra gear if someone breaks down, they all stop for someone if they need help and they all do a ton of behind the scenes work at each of the Axletree events. Sadly, Axletree came to an end earlier this year. With that there was a big sucking hole left in its place. Although I mourned a bit for the loss, I knew people like Stu would fill that hole with new advocacy projects and gravel events.

Last year, just around this time, Stu purchased Freeport Bicycle Company in Freeport, IL. It was previously owned by one of the founding members of Axletree, and although it meant a huge life change, switching from being a career electrician, Stu decided this was the path we wanted to go down. He wanted to take his passion for bikes one step further. Very rarely would I suggest someone purchasing or starting a bike shop. It takes so much more energy and love than most could ever manage, but Stu, along with his wife Monica, are just those folks who would make it work. Their commitment to the community, to cyclists and to families ooze out of every pore they have...and that's why I drove my cold ass down to IL to take part in this ride.

Finally, back to Frostbite 40. Anyone who knows me, understands my hatred for cold and wind. Yeah, sure, I help run and ride in winter bike rides every week in Madison, but I do really hate winter weather. What do I love? Gravel, hills, steel bridges, riding with friends and beer. Frostbite had a mix off all this goodness so although the wind was carrying my curses east, I was pretty stoked to be in downtown Pecatonica to partake in my earliest gravel event ever.

Stepping out of the car and walking down to sign the waivers (they really should have read something like "If you lose fingers or toes, tough shit, you should have prepared more" or "If you end up on the east coast due to the wind, we won't pick your sorry ass up...harden up and ride back") was like a mini homecoming. My smile grew bigger and bigger seeing all my friends I haven't seen in what felt like ages. I was so impressed by the turnout, I'm guessing 100 strong, that I was doing a little happy dance inside for Stu and his family.

Thirty minutes later, we rolled out to his warning, "This is not a supported event, you are on your own, there is no sag wagon out there, but there "might" be a rest stop!" And that was it, we all rolled out, into the wind. The groups split up fairly quickly since many choose to race these events. I, along with my co-pilot, Tim, chose to take it more as a Sunday ride. Giddy about being able to ride gravel in late February, delirious (at least I was) about the wind we'd be facing on the way back, and in awe with the surrounding beauty. The gravel was almost pristine, the farm dogs were friendly, we got to go over a beautiful steel bridge and follow it immediately with PBR and even after the temps rose above freezing, the gravel stayed rideable vs. turning into complete peanut butter. Yes, this was a marvelous day (even if I had to go through the hangover tunnel a couple times on the ride).

We finished off, covered in gravel grime, at the Railway bar where bartenders served us with the same smiles they would serve anyone with even though we looked like Pigpen from Charlie Brown cartoons. There, we got to thank Stu and Monica again and ponder if we wanted to take on Ten Thousand over Memorial Day weekend. After getting home, I consumed what felt like a gallon of water and about ten thousand calories. Forty miles has never kicked my butt this much before, and I was still smiling because of it! Thank you to Stu, Monica, their kids and everyone who had a hand in putting this great event on!

I'm pretty damn happy to be on gravel!
photo by Tim Reinhardt

Half way point!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Keeping Hope

When by my solitary hearth I sit,
And hateful thoughts enwrap my soul in gloom;
When no fair dreams before my "mind's eye" flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o'er my head.

Whene'er I wander, at the fall of night,
Where woven boughs shut out the moon's bright ray,
Should sad Despondency my musings fright,
And frown, to drive fair Cheerfulness away,
Peep with the moon-beams through the leafy roof,
And keep that fiend Despondence far aloof.

Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,
Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;
When, like a cloud, he sits upon the air,
Preparing on his spell-bound prey to dart:
Chace him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,
And fright him as the morning frightens night!

Whene'er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o'er my head!

Should e'er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o'er my head!

In the long vista of the years to roll,
Let me not see our country's honour fade:
O let me see our land retain her soul,
Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom's shade.
From thy bright eyes unusual brightness shed—
Beneath thy pinions canopy my head!

Let me not see the patriot's high bequest,
Great Liberty! how great in plain attire!
With the base purple of a court oppress'd,
Bowing her head, and ready to expire:
But let me see thee stoop from heaven on wings
That fill the skies with silver glitterings!

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half veil'd face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving thy silver pinions o'er my head.