Updated: Sep 7, 2020
Is there really such a thing as too much of a good thing?
The day promised to be savage. Whether it was the 90 degree heat, the 202 miles, or the 12k ft of climbing, something was bound to use me like toilet paper. Did I mention that 190 of the 202 miles was actually on gravel? *Mickey mouse voice* HERE WE GO!
I should preface this by saying I had promised Luke I would be his sidekick in his attempt to take the single speed (SS) win. I am not psychotic enough to think SS is a good path for me, so I stuck with my wussy ways of having more than one option for cadence. This also means in 2020 I am going for a full send attempt with only my own pace to decide where I end up.
A red sun rose on an army of legs nearly 2400 strong. These were no average legs either. Colin Strickland (Meteor x Giordana), Peter Stetina (Trek Segafredo), Alex Howes (Education First), Lachlan Morton (Education First), Taylor Phinney (Education First), Payson McElveen (Orange Seal Off-Road), Keil Reijnen (Trek Segafredo), Joshua Berry (Giant Factory Off-Road), Ted King (Cannondale), Tristan Uhl (Giant Factory Off-Road).... these monsters and many more were looking at the podium with hunger in their eyes. Nervous chatter filled the air. Everyone hoped they had prepared enough for what was to come, but no one truly knew.
The pace out of town was gentlemanly, but this changed when we hit dirt a few miles later. Transitioning from pavement to gravel in a group of 800 feels like trusting the blind to lead the blind while all parties involved have earmuffs on. Cue the crash reel. Someone would nail a rut and send themselves theatrically careening into the peloton. A tire would puncture and the riders behind began offering free handlebar colonoscopies. Some channeled their inner fainting goat and went down for no perceivable reason. I nearly had an early benching when channeled into a deep rut and upon exit clipped my pedal, sending my Stallion into full rodeo mode. Thankfully, I have botched enough things in my life to recover from such blatant stupidity and did not end up in the dirt. My mission in this pack was to stay with Luke, who seemed determined to move up as fast as possible. I began working my way to the front, as well, and settled in. Luke came by like a mad soccer streaker, flying past my position in the field. Time to exit the bunch and move up again. In the few seconds it took me to escape, Luke had managed a disappearing act and I assumed he was far ahead. Finding my person in the people stack became the name of the game. I neared the top 50 riders just as the front decided that single-file lines are way more in style than bunches. Still no Luke.
The pace at this point was savage as the conti-pros began testing the field with small attacks and accelerations up climbs.
A squad of 20 made a gap during this and continued to set a blistering pace. Can they hold 24 mph for 202 miles? If anyone can, it is these guys. The rest of us were not content to quit, however, and small groups began organizing to chase. Thankfully the lead smashers could not hold 24 for the entire day and the lead group swelled to 30 or so a bit before the first rest stop at 65 miles. Luke had decided to really dedicate to his disappearing act and was not to be seen in the lead pack. Where was that little goblin? It was an honor to be in the pack with these guys but I needed to re-evaluate my situation. On the next pace push I watched my dreams pedal away and rolled into the 65 mile stop solo 34th/1182.
The stops in this race are like little islands to a drowning man. Lindsey, Luke's wife, was a professional class soigneur and without her this race would have been impossible. All my nutrition and gear needs met, I found a bathroom to hose down while waiting. Luke, the disappearing man, rolled into the stop a bit later and told us his tale of woe. He had been crashed into by one of the "I'm going to yeet myself into the field" individuals. A small setback like eating shit was not going to ruin our day, no sir! We aimed ourselves down the road, looking towards our next stop at mile 155, and got to pedaling. At this point, Luke's gear choice began to become an issue. He chose a gear usually reserved for our Tuesday night smash rides *face palm*. The middle hundred miles contained almost every foot of climbing. Cliff-like hills had roads carved straight up their faces. What insanity possessed the creators? Lots of walking ensued because climbing doing 20 rpm is not a path to longevity, and longevity is something we needed.
We climbed like hikers and descended like mad men.
We hit 40.5 mph at some point, holding loosely onto our drops, feeling the grip of our tires, wondering if any faster was survivable in the loose chunk. A gorgeous, green, rolling, sea faced us for mile after relentless mile. The heat built. The bottles emptied. Riding hundreds of miles in the 105 degree heat and 80% humidity back in Texas had made us strong and willful. Even so, our wills began to grow weak. Education First had set up an oasis of iced towels/water and the weary travelers flocked. Each one more grateful for an excuse to stop and for the life-giving water than the last. The riding continued.
Luke and I would pass people sitting on the side of the road in the shade of a tree or with their feet in a stream and ask if they needed help. No one ever did. They were always just resting, wondering if they could muster the will to go on. The miles continued. I began to become slightly delirious. The effort I was putting out was nothing compared to the long training rides we had done to prepare for this, but the sheer amount of time spent in my saddle was starting the break me down. We pulled into the second stop, at 155 miles, to the news that Colin Strickland had won! GO TEXAS BAYBEE! We promptly celebrated with pickle juice shots. After being repaired nutritionally and mentally by Lindsey, we set off once again. 45 to go. A quick glance back at the top of the next climb revealed a pink clad individual gaining on our position. Could it be? Not long after, the legend Taylor Phinney and a guy from Arapahoe Hincapie pulled up alongside us.
ALL ABOARD! THE PHINNEY TRAIN IS LEAVING THE STATION.
Struggling in the draft is not something I am used to, but behind this man you had better adapt fast. Stomping on the eggshells that my legs had become became the name of his game. Just as the rubber bands started snapping he sat up, let us roll around him, and went off the back of our little group with his Arapahoe friend. Sad to see him go, Luke and I soldiered on. A downed rider brought our flight back to earth. She just needed some help sealing her tire and figured laying down in the road would be a good way to get someone to stop. Is it dumb if it works? Taylor and his plus one joined us for a stop and we all sat around and chatted while sealing the rubber. That is what I love about gravel racing. We are all just out there trying not to die, helping each other, and having a blast. Next stop: Chase the Chaise! 180 miles in and a couch appears at the bottom of a descent. For the previous 20 miles, each pedal stroke had been a struggle, each climb a mountain, and every mile a deep and profound sorrow. Sitting down on the chaise should have been bliss, but dreams do not always come true. My body did not like any position that wasn't bent over my handlebars. I was cooked. That being said, the Salsa crew is rad and it was nice to take a quick stop!
Back to pedaling. A guy came up from behind spitting math equations. "If we hold 20mph we can finish the next 20 miles in an hour!" Really pushing it with the meta-mathematics there bud, but I think we catch your drift. We tried to hold his pace but, if I was cooked, Luke's gear had him overcooked and we settled back into survival pedaling. It seemed like it would go on forever. The rest of our lives spent in this rolling wonderland of gravel. Not a bad way to die, honestly. Suddenly pavement was rolling fast beneath us. Could it be? An end to the adventure? My body begged for respite from the bike. Just a few more miles, please, I promise it will be over soon.
The final climb wasn't exactly large but, for the state I was in, it may as well have been K2.
We crested and gently rolled into town. The finishing straight was packed with racers, townsfolk, hot food, and beer. We crossed the line to cheers on all sides, hands raised, not entirely believing it was over. Oh, thank God it was over.
The Take Away
Preparing for this event was honestly insane. So many epic rides with good friends, testing out nutrition, tires, and general set-up. There are a few things I would like to keep and a few things that need adjusting. As usual, my Cosmic Stallion handled everything without flinching. The 42mm durable Teravail Rutlands meant zero flats, lots of control, and good comfort for the long haul. Infinit Nutrition's Go Far was stellar, as always, and I ate a few solid foods more out of desire than necessity. Pickle juice shots are life saving. The Jackroo chamois and Chamois Buttr meant zero soreness the day after. So far so good.
The only change I would make would be regarding my Garmin. The night before the start, both Luke's and my Garmin REFUSED to turn on past the startup screen. This was a new issue, but a big one. Luke got to work getting a Garmin from the Garmin tent so we wouldn't be lost. Mine magically started working again a few minutes into the race but without a route saved. Truly an unmitigated disaster.
All in all this race was wild. So long, so hard, so EPIC! The town of Emporia has my heart forever and I cannot wait to see it all again in 2020! This time for REALZ.