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!