Sunday, November 1, 2015

2015 Omaha Jackrabbit: You'll be in pain, but you'll be happy about it.

Once again we've come to that auburn season, where the leaves begin to change, the farmers attend to the business of the harvest, and a small group of loonies go for one freaking long bike ride.

The Omaha Jackrabbit has a number of things going for it. 1) It's free. 2) The people are some of the best that you'll ever have the fortune of suffering with. 3) Hot showers.

This year the start of the Jackrabbit was moved to a private acreage a bit west of Blair, NE. I heartily support this becoming the permanent location, because the owners rolled out the red carpet for us and made us feel like the kings and queens of gravel riding. Again, hot showers. Also beer. Also camping on site. It's a full package of awesome.

Thanks Greg!
I rolled in right at sunset the day before the ride, just in time to get my tent set up before dark. The beauty of the gravel biking "scene" (hate that word) is that it's small enough that you see familiar faces at almost every event. It was good to chat with Scott, Pell, Jamie and the rest again, share a few drinks, lie/tell a few stories, and generally be reminded of how great it is to be able to go on these adventures together.

As a rule, I don't sleep well before events. But having camping on site meant that I could get my bike all set up and loaded up the evening before, and didn't have to get up early to drive to the start. Not having to worry about those things made for a very restful (if a tad chilly, it got down to 32F) night of sleep.

My goals for the ride were to 1) Finish and 2) cut an hour off my 2014 time of 11:06. As you'll see, that might have been a tad optimistic. I had reason to feel confident, I had trained harder this summer, my weight was down about 15 lbs, and my bike situation had improved considerably.

The morning was calm but chilly. As we gathered at the start, most of the conversation was about finding that perfect balance between dressing warm now, or being overheated later. Scott and Pell asked us all to please not die if we could help it, and to text them if we did.
Bunch of loonies

The start was the most relaxed of any race I've ever been on. The group stayed bunched together at a pretty relaxed pace for the first 5 miles or so. It was a bit odd to be riding in a tight double pace line during a gravel ride, but it did make for a nice social point in the ride. Once we cleared the closed bridge at mile 8 though, the pace spooled up and the group came apart. I found myself leapfrogging with a couple of riders, a pattern that would repeat for the rest of the day.

The leg to the first checkpoint went by in a blur, partially because I had forgotten sunglasses, and that cold air makes one's eyes water. If you take anything away from this report, let me tell you what an absolutely gorgeous place this region is to ride. Especially if your route isn't planned by someone as diabolic as Scott, it can be a lovely mix of easy river bottom roads mixed in with some great rolling hills. As a rule, if I passed by a nasty, hilly looking B road, it meant I had missed a turn, because Scott took every single one he could.

As I was coming into checkpoint one I saw the leaders heading out. That meant that they were only a few minutes ahead of myself. I felt pretty good about life at that point and kept my checkpoint stop as brief as possible.

In all honesty, it takes me about 30 miles to get into a groove.
Short note about hydration: My system in these events assumes that I will burn through a standard bottle every 15 miles. I do not like having weight on my back, so instead of a Camelback tape 2 additional cages to the front forks. I use some handlebar tape scraps to protect the frame, then use electric tape to lash on the cages. It's a bit of a kludge, but it works great. To save a bit of weight, I only filled all four bottles on the longer legs of the course.

After the checkpoint, the course turned east and we got a taste of the wind that would be our constant companion for the day. The forecast had predicted a south wind gusting from 15-25 mph. While that's mostly annoying as a crosswind, I knew that the long flat section later in the race would be heading straight into it. I did my best to "take it easy" on the many hills in this section, but that strategy only works to a point. There simply are a lot of hills on this very long course, and they started to take a toll.
Also, Nebraska has a pretty loose definition of what qualifies for a "road."

There is always a dark point in a ride.  Sometimes the slide to that point is imperceptible as your mind gets fuzzy, and your legs start to give out. It is, simply, the point where you stop, look around, and declare the whole affair to be BS.

I told my wife later that had she drove up alongside me and asked if I wanted a lift, I most certainly would have taken her up on it, just as soon as found a cliff/creek/train to toss my bike off/into/under. There were three hills going into Decatur that broke me. The first two I could carry momentum from the descent to just barely crest, the third slapped me with a leg cramp and I was forced to walk.

Miles of smiles.
I limped into Decatur, and checkpoint two. The checkpoint volunteers were cheery as always, and a gas station sandwich and a short nap in the sun fixed my crankiness. In some ways the next leg felt like home. Most of my training for hills involves grinding straight into headwinds. For the next 35 miles the course ran parallel to the Missouri river, barely deviating from heading right into that wind. At the beginning, I could manage about 14.5, but the end it was closer to 12.5. The roads were often washboards, where I laughed to see the desperate weaving trails of other riders seeking a smoother path. It didn't exist. The shaking and rattling were so bad that I found the speaker that a tandem crew had been using. They hadn't even noticed it falling off.

Brief note about bikes: I ride a Giant TCX. Technically this is more of a CX bike, and at first I had some concerns that this would be a twitchy race bike that would prove miserably uncomfortable on long days. That hasn't been the case at all. In both the very wet 24hrs of Cumming, and on the washboarded mess of the Jackrabbit, this has been the most comfortable bike I've ever rode on. While on pavement this bike feels asleep, on gravel it comes alive and simply floats.

The flat terrain and the wind meant that there never was a break from pedaling. I worked for every rutted and washboarded foot. There were moments when I simply had to get off for a break, even if for only a few moments. Yet somehow this was the happiest part of the ride. As the miles ticked away, I allowed myself to think that I might finish. The hills that had been on the edge of the horizon were now getting within reach, and with them, the finish.

The route turned west, and into the last few miles of the course. A long coast downhill came as a welcome shock. I'd love to say that I crushed those last few miles, but I limped into the finish. My chain was squeaking, I was out of water, and hills that normally would barely slow me down now required my lowest gear.

In photos no one can hear your chain shriek.
I was beat to the line by a combine, which felt like a very Nebraska was to finish. Final time was 11:17, a full ten minutes slower than last year, and nowhere near my sub-10 goal. Given the challenging nature of the course, made worse by the headwind, I felt pretty good to be standing at the finish line at all.

That moment when Scott asked my name and I had a bit of a hard time remembering.
In the midst of the post race chatter with Scott, he let drop that a hot shower was available, "if you want one." Yes please, and thank you. Being spared driving back home filthy turned that 5 minutes into a transcendent experience.

I returned the speaker to the tandem guys, who where thrilled to see their long lost audio companion. I told them I never wanted to see it again, as I had gotten the soundtrack to Rocky stuck in my head the moment I stuck it in my jersey pocket.

One of the most welcome, and surprising bit of news was that all of the riders who left that morning made it to the finish. With the exception of an unfortunate mechanical that struck a rider (at mile 8, no less) this running of the Jackrabbit had not a single DNF. I guess everyone who lined up had an extra dose of stubborn in them that day.

Thanks to Scott, Pell, Greg (for hosting us at his beautiful home) and all the other volunteers who helped us have the best worst day on the bike possible.
Never doing this again.
Until next year.
All photos courtesy the Omaha Jackrabbit FB.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Riddlebox 120k: No Prep, Dehydration and Funny Hats

Generally, I like plenty of time to plan and think about events. With this spring's Almanzo, I was obsessing about the details for months. The Riddlebox was something else entirely. Through some lurking about on Facebook, I stumbled upon this ride four days before it was set to start. I jokingly posted the notice to the Brothers Bike shop page, and tried to put the event out of my mind.Though the ride was only 30 miles from my house I was certain that taking off for the weekend and the cost for the registration would make this event impossible. Shortly afterwards, my wife texted me:

K: Do you want to do the ride, say yes because I know you'd be lying if you said otherwise
N: Yes, but registration is $60
K: Do it, Merry Christmas

Having been properly green lit, I promptly began to panic about clothing like some teenager before a first date. I'd only done very short rides below freezing, and very little in the sub-20 range that this race was forecast to start in. Though some cobbling and last minute thrift store digging, I managed to put together an outfit that seemed likely to keep me from simultaneously getting frostbite and overheating.

Working from top down and inside to out:
Heavy weight synthetic base
Bike Jersey (mostly for pockets to keep water bottles thawed)
Columbia winter coat

Pearl Izumi leg warmers
Bike shorts
Heavy weight cotton pants (woohoo thrift store)

2x Wool socks
Cycling shoes (Old pair of Doc Martins. I've got something like 2000 miles on them, I'll say they work)

A few test runs in the days coming up the ride made me reasonably confident that I could be comfortable on the bike for a day. Unfortunately, it also showed me how out of shape I had become since the Omaha Jackrabbit back in October. The goal for this ride would be simple survival.

The day started early, alarm went off at 5:30. Sleeping at home before a big event definitely has its perks. It was almost surreal to be traveling very familiar roads to ride in very different conditions and with a group of complete strangers.

The start location was Calico Skies Winery. With the large banquet hall it was an excellent place to start and finish. In addition to the 120k ride, there was a 50k ride and a 50k run. The 120k riders started first, and with a field of only 7 riders, it was a pretty calm and quiet start.
Your's truly, front and center, mostly terrified and high on adrenaline
Unlike any other ride I've done, this ride got to business immediately. We turned right from the start down a steep downhill, slammed on the brakes to cross a highway, biked 100 yards then hike-a-biked a frozen river, and hit a 5% grade climb all in the first mile. If I was at all chilly at the start, I was well on my way to overheating already.

My body quickly went into what can scientifically be described as a freakout. My lower body was chilly, upper body was overheating, and my heart rate and breathing were way beyond what I could sustain for any length of time. After trying, and failing to slow my pace down, I realized that I was subconsciously chasing the riders a quarter mile ahead of me. I forced myself to stare at the road immediately in front of me and forget about those riders to get myself settled into a 75 mile pace.

One of the big issues coming into this ride was water, more specifically keeping it from freezing. Most riders use Camelbaks for rides like this. If you load them with warm water or wear them under your outer layer, they generally stay thawed. I was using my standard bottles. The plan was to keep one in the cage and one in my jersey pocket, and cycle them in and out as needed. That was good in concept, but had some issues:

1) The bottles would freeze faster than my body heat could thaw them. I could put both in my pockets but...
2) With clumsy gloved hands, I could not get the bottles from my pockets without stopping and fully unzipping my coat.

This naturally resulted in not drinking enough water. While you don't sweat as much as you would on say, RAGBRAI, the cold dry air makes your body loose water rapidly though respiration. After doing a few events like these, I've learned some lessons about what my body needs for food and fuel. With my hands hampered by gloves, I was eating and drinking way less than I should have.

My second big mistake was passing up on a chance to fill water bottles in Hudson at mile 17. While I had drank only about a 1/3 of my water, it was another 35 miles to Canton and my next chance to top off. I misjudged my water needs and kept riding, again foolishly trying to catch some riders ahead of me.

The middle section of the ride was tough. I wasn't drinking enough, and had fogetten elctrolytes, so my legs were burning and threatening to cramp. My mental state was also hitting a low point. This usually happens with most of my big rides. By the halfway point my legs are starting to feel the miles and I begin to wonder if I'll be able to finish. This time the low hit worse than usual because the ride was "only" 75 miles. 75 miles should be easy, right? It did not help that when I rolled into Canton at mile 55 I would only be 6 miles from the start as the crow flies. It was mighty tempting to cut the last 20 mile loop from the course and call it a day.

The C-store in Canton was our only control for this ride. We simply had to buy something and get a receipt to prove that we had been at point in the course. I took a liter of Coke and some water and grabbed a patch of sun on the side of the station. I knew I was 6th out of 7, assuming the guy behind me (who I had not seen since the start) hadn't decided to quit and move me to dead last by default. I knew that the final miles would be hilly, that the miles before those would be into a head wind. I knew that even with the magic restorative powers of Coke I would have to fight to finish those last miles. I could ride six miles and be done, stop the hurt and go home.
The particpant skullcap was a lifesaver,
but should not be worn without a helmet covering it.

But it was a beautiful day, the sun had come out and the temps were hovering around the freezing mark. It was just 20 miles, nothing I hadn't done before.

Remarkably, what saved me was simple selfishness. I had seen the prizes for finishers, and I wanted
some of that swag. I couldn't have it if I didn't finish. DFL beats DNF, right?

So a few minutes later I was rolling out of town.

The last chunk went by in a blur. I was crawling, rarely breaking 13 mph. I got briefly off course, not helped by South Dakota not putting street signs in all-gravel intersections. I'll admit to walking a few of those last hills, and crawling up the rest. I was overheated a good portion of the time, and cursed my lack of training all of the time.
This was one of the "roads"

The relief of the finish put a pleasant glow over the final miles, which included another frozen river crossing, and a barely passable B-Road. Finishes are always strangely sudden. There's the anticipation of the start, the middle slogging doubt, the hope of the end, and then you're done.

Perhaps the highlight of the whole day came after the ride. The aforementioned 50 k runners were still trickling in, and we waited for them to finish before the awards and goodies were handed out. I found myself eating and talking with perhaps the most experienced winter bikers I have ever met. I spent some time talking  with Joe and Tina Stiller, who ride with the FCA Endurance Team as well as Lance Andre who is the race manager for the Triple D out of Dubuque, IA.

The Riddlebox was definitely not my best day on the bike. My average speed on the course was something like 11 mph. But given my lack of prep and experience operating in those low temps, I feel pretty good about it.

Perks of paying: Funny hats.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Coffeeneuring Rd 2: For want of a proper cup and a windscreen.

Shop 2: The Fruited Plain Cafe
Trip: 2.3 miles
The espresso was lovely, rich with a smooth finish. But please,
PLEASE never serve it in a paper cup unless you have absolutely no other option
Someone (Tolkien, among many, I'm sure) has said that we easily remember days that are dark and dangerous, while times that are good and lovely take little time in the telling and are quickly forgotten. If nothing else, recording these little coffee runs will help me remember the days that were lovely. We've had an outstandingly gorgeous fall, one which I hope to remember for a long time. 

Trip: 6.5 Miles
French Press

This CWOW takes place at a local park that recently changed hands from city owned to county owned. So I'm not certain if any new rules have come into play, and if I was trespassing as a result. No one was around to tell me otherwise; I had the place to myself at 5:30 am.

Thanks to a swirling breeze, even after 15 minutes on the stove I didn't get the water to a rolling boil. Rather bitter coffee resulted. After a little extra time in the press, the brew evened out to that nice, satisfying smoothness that a proper press should have.
It takes an event to get me out the door this early. But I never regret it. As rural as Iowa is, its hard to find places open to the public where you can be alone. This is one of those rare places.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Coffeeneuring! RD 1

The level of metaphorical dust on this blog is embarrassing, but the coffee is hot and fresh, even if the wind is getting cold and raw. Here's my caffeine-driven report:

Location: CWOW (Coffee without walls)
Distance: 6.2 mi
Drink: Tea (Yorkshire Gold)
Bike: The Frisian (Civia Prospect)

So I had these great plans of riding out at 4:30 am, grinding out a hard training ride before stopping for coffee and heading home by 7 or so. But that was before a flu bug laid me on my back. By Sunday evening of my recuperation the flu had turned into case of cabin fever, so I (slowly) took a direct route to a spot at a local park. The pop can stove was lit, sandwiches were unwrapped, and I started to feel like myself again. (Instructions for building this stove can be found here, I'm happy to answer any questions. My wife might have a point when she says these things have become an obsession.)

There's now been two weeks since my last chance to Coffeeneur. Harvest and the Omaha Jackrabbit have eaten into my weekends considerably. Shooting for a double shot this weekend!

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Omaha Jackrabbit 125: Briefly the dumbest idea ever.

(All photos courtesy the Omaha Jackrabbit FB page. A camera did not make the cut of things I wanted to carry for 125 miles.)

Before I launch into a tale of the transcendent experience of a long, hard day on the bike, watching the sun rise and set in a blaze of glory from my bike saddle, I should forewarn you that midway through the ride I had serious doubts about being able to even finish. There is also a bit about getting lost in a bean field, and a screw up with my drop bags (both my fault).

I had been looking for a late season ride, in part as a motivator to keep riding, and in part as a oddball birthday present to myself. With the majority of gravel rides happening either near Des Moines or around the Twin Cities, the Jackrabbit was also a significantly shorter drive from NW Iowa.
Bunnies for trophies

Registration for the race was held at Dundee Cycles, which is a custom bike builder located in Omaha. Not only are the paint jobs on their bikes very cool, the collection of vintage bikes hanging around the shop was astounding. Maybe I should have spent more time looking, and less time talking, but I was wound pretty tight. Among other things, the owner of the shop (Chris) showed me a magnetic engagement rear hub made by the Polish company Soul-Kozak. According to the company, using magnets results in fewer moving parts, so the hub should be more reliable. All I know is the thing was loud, more so than Hope and Chris King hubs, which are legendary for the racket they make. The Soul-Kozak reminded me of a semi's jake brake.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I managed to secure camping in the backyard of a local bike shop owner. After a fitful night of sleep courtesy some pre-event jitters, I drove north out of Omaha to the start at Lake Bennington. We had been warned that parking at the start was limited, so we were advised to park at the high school, which was a mile away. I drive into the parking lot, and there is not a single biker there. Stupid 5:30 am thoughts clouded my head, making me wonder if I'd drove to the wrong town. Turns out everyone else had just parked at the start.

I was also running late. I needed to be at the start by 6:45, and it was at least 6:35 before I left the school lot. I still had to bike the mile to the start. By hustling I managed to get to the start on time, but not before dropping one of my drop bags and riding over the apple stashed inside. Thankfully the organizers had extra bags to replace mine (which now featured fresh applesauce).

By this point, most of the racers had gathered at the start. I had a distinct feeling of not belonging. Everyone was very friendly and the mood was good, but most of the riders seemed very well equipped, and looked like the sort who would be putting in a hard, fast day. I resolved to stick with a group, any group, until it got light and I could properly read my cue sheet (headlamp had been forgotten in the car) and then spend the day riding solo off the back. I planned on being the lanterne rouge, and that was alright.

Rollout was neutral with dirt bike escort. Dawn was just beginning to peak in the east. As the escort ended, the group began to stretch out into a rather lovely chain of blinking taillights and headlights. About 4 miles in, my choice of wearing a fleece was proven a mistake. I rammed it into my saddlebag, where it would stay for the next 120 miles. While stopped I achieved my goal of being dead last (Yay!).

Back on the bike I started working my way through the stragglers, eventually joining a group of two fatbikers, a 29'er, and a cross bike. We pulled for each other and swapped stories of rides we had done, comparing notes on both awesome and spectacularly bad rides.

It was all good until mile 46. The cue sheet told us to take a right at Ave E, which was an unmarked road. Maybe we all though the road was a field driveway, maybe the vibrations from a particularly bad descent had blurred our vision, whatever the reason, our group of five missed the turn, instead taking a right at a T intersection a few tenths of a mile later. The "road" we turned on quickly devolved into a path, which dropped us off in recently harvested bean field.

Knowing that the organizers were planning on sending us down some paths, we rode through the field, wincing as the stalks jabbed at our tires. We assumed that somewhere on the other side of this very hilly field would be the continuation of this road. Instead the field ended in a fence line and a creek. Minutes of head-scratching and haranguing passed, and a few more riders who had also missed the turn joined us in the field.

Some GPS consultation eventually revealed that the sneaky Ave E was a bit south of us. Rejoining that road involved crossed a harvested corn field, a patch of woods and a bit of pasture, plus a barbed wire fence. Being lost cost our group about a half hour, plus a lot of energy expending riding a mile and a half over hill and dale.

A few miles later (including a bit of singletrack) we rolled into the mile 50 checkpoint. I had been running on trail mix and a Cliff Bar, and I was looking forward to some of the goodies stashed in my first drop. I get to the truck with supplies drop bag.

Near as I can tell, this picture was taken about 30 seconds before I found out that
my dropbag was missing.
No drop bag. No food. Nothing. I had a one more Cliff bar and a handful of trail mix. How far could I ride on this? There was another checkpoint in 33 miles that might have some supplies, and my next drop bag was at mile 100. But if one of my bags was missing, there was nothing to say that the mile 100 bag wouldn't also be missing.

I snagged/stole a cheese stick and one of the Little Debbies at the back of the truck, but not knowing if they were for public consumption, and being to embarrassed/dumb in the head to ask, I quickly fled with my departing group. I could make the mile 83 checkpoint on what I had, but if there wasn't anything to eat there, I'd be hurting.

By far the worst part of the ride was those 33 miles. This was a hilly section of the course, with lots of rutted, jarring B roads. Bunny hopping ruts at 30 mph was a new, terrifying experience for me. Shortly after the checkpoint I let my group go. The snap was out of my legs, and I spooled back my pace to better my chances of finishing the remaining 75 miles.

I had some long, unpleasant conversations with myself about the stupidity of participating in a ride I was so clearly not prepped for, and why on earth I had set on endurance gravel riding as my hobby of choice. I walked a few of the steeper hills in an effort to keep my energy up. I gave serious thought to how I could manage to quit. But without SAG, and my family a 2 hr drive away, I knew I needed to get to the finish even if I meant I had to crawl.

Around mile 65 the course dropped into the Missouri river valley. The flat expanse promised a chance to keep a easy, mile-eating pace. No hills meant no climbing, but also no breaks. Any attempt to go faster than 14 and my legs started to burn. I stopped briefly for a nature break, and noted that my legs were shaking uncontrollably.

After a weaving, river-hugging "road" that was equal parts rocky, rutted, and sandy, the beautiful mile 83 checkpoint came into view.
I might be looking at the checkpoint volunteers, but my mind is
most definitely on that table over my shoulder.
Perhaps the sweetest sight of the ride was that checkpoint and its table burdened with treats and snacks. A Coke was nectar of the gods, a banana was edible glory, and a lawn chair was a throne unparalleled in opulence. I wrestled myself away from this checkpoint after about ten minutes, and my mood lifted as the food refueled my depleted legs. Everything might just turn out alright.

The flatlands were spent totally alone, without a single rider in sight from mile 83 to 100. At one point I had to completely leave the road to let a combine pass. The farmers were working, I was playing. I was happy to walk in the ditch for a minute, and the farmer looked pretty happy too.

As good as I was now feeling, I didn't allow myself to feel certain of finishing until I hit the mile 100 checkpoint. As I checked in, the very nice lady running the station asked if I was hungry. I was of course, so she pointed me to my two drop bags. That's right, two. As it turns out, in the dark and in my rush, I had stashed both my bags in the 100 mile pile. My bad. Now I had too much food. Burdened with a wealth of stroopwafles, jerky, chocolate covered espresso beans, and a liter bottle of coke, I feasted my way towards the finish.

Off in the distance I could see a lone biker riding. As we moved into the rolling hills of the finish, I slowly reeled the rider in. Turns out he was the lone single speed rider that day. I'll simply say I was very impressed. We rolled in together to the welcome sounds of the volunteers still cheering with gusto after what must have been a very long day. Total time was 11hrs 6m for a course average speed of 11.1. Negating the time I spent lost in a field, my rolling average was around 12.

A cold can of Coke, a few handshakes and congratulations, and I was headed home. Though I felt pretty good when I left, the two hour car ride guaranteed that I was very stiff by the time I was home. Later the next day I was feeling good enough to pedal my kids around on our longtail, and two days later my legs are mostly normal, with only a sore throat from a long day spent breathing hard in the dry dusty air.

Thanks so much to the organizers for putting on an outstanding event. It vastly exceeded my expectations, especially for one that cost me exactly nothing. If I'm looking for a fall ride next year, this one will definitely be on the top of my list.

Ridewithgps file can be found here.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Almanzo 100: Howling for you.

I've heard the Almanzo described as "just a bike ride, with 1400 of your closest friends." While there was some quickly, perfectly formed friendships, there was also some very lonely miles. I had elation, terror, exhaustion and peace in the space of the day, and not in the order that you might expect. Before we get to details, lets lay down some basics.

The Course

The Almanzo is a 100 mile, unsupported (sorta) gravel ride in southeastern MN. It's lovely part of the world that also happens to be rather hilly.

This profile exaggerates the climbing. Still, 7500 ft of climbing does make a body tired.
As stated, the ride is on gravel roads. But there are different kinds of gravel, depending on local geology. This ended dealing me a pleasant surprise, because the gravel in SE MN is noticeably easier to ride on than the gravel in NW IA. The Almanzo gravel is chalky, with flatter stones. It often packs down to a hard pan that's smoother than many paved roads, while the flat stones made even the loose sections easier to manage. That said, I have never had a ride so test my ability to handle a bike. On occasion (especially on corners) the gravel got sandbox loose. Also, all that climbing made for some blazing fast descents, and even with heavy use of the brakes I had a difficult time keeping my speed under 30.

Pre-Race Shenanigans

While it's common practice to hold registration for bike events the night before, I'll dare to bet this is the only one that had free-for-all grass track racing. Somehow I though this would be a good idea, so I did participate in a few rounds. This was not a terribly serious event. At one point a singlespeed Schwinn banana-seat bike was winning against a couple of fatbikes and a few CX bikes.  Unfortunately participation was fairly low, I think many riders did not want to risk injury or damage to their persons or bikes. They missed out on some proper nonsense.

To Business

After spending a very chilly night camping at the local state park, my wife and I rolled into Spring Valley. This was the first unsupported event that I've done, and I was a bit of a basket case. I told her that if I had a fly on my bike shorts, it probably would have been unzipped.
This is my freakout face.
After a few basic instructions, and the traditional singing of "Happy Birthday" to the organizer Chris's son Jack, the 1400 or so riders rolled out in a controlled start. Mechanical problems struck the group immediately. I saw for sure one rider with a flat within the first mile, and at least a dozen riders working on their bikes in the first ten miles.

The first 40 miles went by in a blur. I was busy adjusting to riding in a group, getting settled in for a long day on the bike, and grappling with the different nature of the gravel in this area. The gravel is faster than what I am used to, and that coupled with a tailwind gave me an average speed in the 16 mph range. I found myself passing a lot, especially on climbs. Was I going too fast? Was I going to burn out? I tried to settle down, and mostly evened my pace out after the first big climb at mile 10.
Roads were very chalky, and hence, dusty.

I had arranged to meet my wife in Preston, which was the only place where outside help was allowed. As I got closer, I started texting her my mileage to give her a better idea of where I was on the course. Trouble was, I wasn't getting any response. I knew that cell signal was spotty, and nonexistent at our campsite. I also was coming into Preston at least 40 minutes ahead of schedule. I texted my arrival to her, and got a panicked text stating that she was on her way, but was 20 min out. Time for a nap and an assessment.

At this point I was feeling pretty good. My legs had plenty of zip in them, and my mood was good. My back was starting to become an issue though. On gravel rides longer than 20 miles, my lower back starts to hurt pretty good. Stretching usually helped, but I was worried about those stretches losing their effectiveness over the next 60 miles.

It was a flawless day to be out riding.

After the Preston stop, the ride became work. I now faced into the wind, and the elation of riding in groups was gone. Typically I could see one rider in front of me. I would catch that rider, then move onto the next. The enormity of the remaining ride, knowing about some of the nasty climbs coming up, put me in the lowest point of the ride. When I wasn't climbing, I was slugging in out with the wind. A welcome mood boost came when a cheerful volunteer along the road yelled "you're at mile 65, good job!" My bike computer, which I had suspected was off, was showing me at mile 60. Five free miles felt pretty good. Soon after that came the welcome Forestville Checkpoint.

I bet someone in this crowd knows where the water is at.
Did I ask any of them? Nope.

There was Coke, beer, various salty snacks, and some wonderfully shady trees. But I didn't see any water. I had left Preston with just two bottles (a bit dumb) counting on a refill at this stop. I drank a can of Coke and headed out, WITHOUT ASKING ANYONE ABOUT WATER. Clearly I was 1) more fuzzy in the head than I realized, and 2) an idiot. I was heading out for the final 40 miles of this ride with two half empty bottles.

Not long after my departure, I realized my error, but resolved to keep going and hope that a second unofficial checkpoint from 2013 would still be in existence, or else beg some water from a local farmer. Then, about 20 miles later, I rolled into a small town and saw bikers massing around some small tents. It was perfect, and like a mirage out of a fever dream.

There was water(I'm saved!), Coke (nectar of the gods), Oreos(!), beer(later), whisky(nope) and a man dressed up like Elvis singing Devo. I'm not kidding.

No idea. (H/T Banjo Bros)

I promise I was there. I'm in red, to the right of the tent,
slumped against the white building. (H/T MN Bike Trails Navigator)
Feeling hydrated and thoroughly tripped out, I headed out and soon snagged the end of a paceline. Not only did this group get me through a few rough miles, but sticking with them kept me from attacking hills as I had earlier in the ride. This section was made considerably easy by this gang, who I found out later was from Georgia. Thanks guys!

One of the fun features of the Almanzo is the river crossing. Last year they had to route around the river, since high water levels made the crossing borderline dangerous. No such issues this year. Some riders attempted to ride across the river, with about a 50% success rate. I found wading barefoot through the cold water felt pretty good.
There was considerable debate about crossing barefoot and risking the sharp rocks,
 or crossing with shoes and getting wet socks.

Getting out of this river valley was especially fun, it was barely a road at all. Here, and throughout the course, the 40mm Clement MSO's really shone. They were stable, grippy, comfortable tires, and I love them.

My first and only flat struck not long after the river crossing at about mile 84. The group I was with continued on while I did a quick swap. Maybe it was the adrenaline from doing the repair, maybe it was the time spent off the bike, but for whatever reason my back stopped hurting after that flat. With just 15 miles to go, I knew I could finish, and with energy to burn I set my highest average speed since leaving Preston. I still ended up walking the last two big hills, but I used that time to keep limber, eat, and check cues. I knew my wife was waiting for me (with the headwind I was now a few hours behind schedule) and I wanted to be done, wanted that finish line, wanted to see her again after a long day.

Cue mental motivational music:

After many hours of working through the miles, I remembered how fortunate I was to be here, in this beautiful place, riding a great bike surrounded by crazy people, with my wonderful wife running support.

Everybody was tired by this point. Nobody was talking.
But no one was complaining either.
Maybe it was just the endorphins and the adrenaline talking, but I was a happy to be so wrung out. The last 1/2 mile was on a city bike path, and I felt like I was flying. I got my handshake from Chris, (Thanks!) and shambled over to my wife.

Maybe a bit tired.
I'm very happy with how the event went. I had no disabling injuries or mechanicals, and despite my best attempts to dehydrate myself, I finished feeling pretty good. Compared to other rides (notably a disastrous 55 mile day during RAGBRAI 2012 where I thoroughly freaked out my wife and brother) I was not dangerously exhausted.

Will I do Almanzo again? I'm not sure at this point. Even with the event itself being free, it still is an investment to travel here, and training took up a lot of my time. I'm definitely hooked on gravel riding, so we'll see what next year brings.
(custom tulip stitching courtesy my wife. Thanks love!)

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Errandonnee 2014!

After a long, cold winter that reminded us all of our human longing for sun and heat, spring seems to be arriving fashionably late to the Midwest. I heard someone on the radio remarking that surviving a winter on the northern plains requires a patient spirit and a short attention span. Basically, we tolerate the months of cold, then promptly forget about it as soon as the weather gets above freezing.

This is all to say that I was very grateful that MG scheduled the Errandonnee a month later than last year. Doing this in February would have been possible-I'm generally more stubborn than sensible anyhow-but it would not have been a fun endeavor.  Plus, now I can include pictures of the cutest children in the world, who also conveniently happen to be my own.
Now if I could only get photo proof of that.

Errand 1
Category: Lunch
1.0 Miles
The Fruited Plain Cafe

The short ride to the cafe featured lots of little old ladies peeking through their steering wheels grinning at the kids and I slow rolling. Saturday was give-mom-a-break day, so we stopped by the FP for some flat bread pizza (pepperoni, nothing fancy but the kids love it so I will capitulate).

Errand 2
Wild Card
.7 Miles
The Centre Mall (Model airplane show)
Every time I looked away she shuffled a little bit closer.

The local mall is just a hop across the highway from our lunch stop. This Saturday the mall was hosting a remote control airplane show. Nothing was flying, but the models on their own were very cool. The gentleman responsible for the giant half built glider said that he was about 300 hrs into his project. "About 80% done with around 80% left to go." as he put it.
My daughter was fascinated (this meant a barrage of questions). My son, being 16 months old, was not allowed anywhere near.
When it comes to attracting the detail obsessive, the model airplane people are our kin.

Errand 3
Store that is not a Grocery
3.2 Miles

As we move through the errands, the quantity of snow slowly decreases
I despise Wal-Mart, if for no other reason than their grocery is laid out for maximum confusion, but I'll be stopping here more often if I want a chance at getting the needed number of miles. This was one of the first times that I've rode my road bike this spring, and it was glorious after months of slugging it out with the longtail. I've also been putting the Banjo Bros Saddle Trunk through it's paces the last couple of weeks. It's remarkable what you can cram in there, it actually works pretty good for light errands. Speaking of road bikes, I've got something new and shiny coming down the line that might make an appearance yet this week.

Errand 4
1.0 Miles
The Fruited Plain
Longtail switched over to muffin mode.
The purple tub has a dozen of the best Blueberry muffins you've ever had.

So, I don't technically work for The Fruited Plain. My wife does their baking from our home, and every morning I deliver the morning muffins. I don't get paid, but I do raid the day-olds, which I think counts as a wage. I've been doing this short ride 5 days a week almost without fail since Christmas (a studded tire as a Christmas present greatly increased the conditions I could ride in). After a nasty prolonged winter, it is wonderful to be able to simply enjoy a quick morning ride, instead of bundling up into a "fortress against the cold" as my brother puts it.

Errand 5
Community Meeting
1.0 Miles
(VOID-Photo lost)
My bike for this ride is the trusty Schwinn World tourist. It had been my go-to errand runner before the snow started flying (which was several months ago) so this short ride was a pleasant reunion. Despite it's weight, oddball shifting and many paint scratches, this bike just makes me smile. It's a bike that'll get me somewhere, sometime, whatever.

Errand 6
Personal Care and Health
Snap Fitness
3.2 Miles

Ordinarily, I'm not a gym/health club person. In part because I'm too cheap to pay for membership, and because (and my suspicions were confirmed on this) running on a treadmill sounds like a mild level of hell. My wife and I are participating in a marathon/half marathon challenge as part of Live Healthy Iowa, which is a state run 100 day wellness program. The challenge is to run a half or full marathon over the course of the week. I'm going for the full 26.2. This means getting up a 4:30 to get to Snap by 5:00, run 8 miles, and get back to the house by 6:30 to prep for work. Snap is a very nice place, people are friendly, but I really do not know how people can do this on a regular basis. I will happily run through the winter, polar vortex be hanged, if I can stay off that treadmill. That said, a easy bike ride makes a wonderful warm-up/cool-down after a long run.

Errand 7
Personal Care and Health
Snap Fitness

Back to Snap again for the 4th and final time. The previous evening I did a 9.5 slug out with the treadmill. This morning was an easier 3.0 to finish out the marathon challenge. All I know is that it is time to start training for Almanzo, and I am through with running indoors. I've mentioned it before, but the Banjo Bros Saddle trunk is working pretty well as a gym bag. Also: with the exception of the mall, there is not a single business in town that has a bike rack. I may have to start complaining.

Errand 8
Brothers Bike Shop
Calm before the storm

Time to sink or swim. I work part time at a small bike shop not far from my home. Over the winter, things get very quiet, so much so that I had not worked in the shop since late November. Now I was back, but my boss was gone for the weekend, so it's just me and the bike mad masses. RAGBRAI will be starting about 15 miles from my shop, and spring  fever had everyone all frothing at the mouth to get out. The morning went by in a blur, but I think I was able to get everything and everyone sorted out and happy.

Errand 9
Bike Shop
Brothers Bike Shop

NEW BIKE DAY! I am proud to welcome the newest member of my family's bike stable: The Civia Prospect. Though this bike was built to be used as a quick commuter/light touring bike, I think it has excellent potential as a gravel bike (comes with 32 mm stock, can go 35 mm without issue). The plan is to use this bike for the Almanzo 100 in May. If nothing else, it is a very pretty bike with enormous capability. I had intended to assemble the bike last weekend, but the very busy shop kept me from it. This meant getting to the shop at around 5am, which is early even for me. I'm a bit new at the bike assembly business, so this was actually the first bike I've put together that required cutting the steerer tube to length. Lets just say I took my time. Since the pedals for the new bike are at my house, I towed the new bike while riding my old city bike. I don't suppose that means I can double my mileage, since I was "riding" two bikes? (I'm also counting this as "Bike Shop" and not "Work" because I did not draw a wage assembling my own bike)
The Prospect fully set up.  Also, a giant pile o' gravel.
I trespassed to get this photo. Hope that's okay.

Errand 10
Store which is not a Grocery
Really, this is a photo of me with a bag of bags strapped to my back.
I'm bad at selfies.
Here's your oddball errand. We try to recycle our plastic bags, (I know, we should use reusable bags, we're trying) and the places in town that accept them are the local grocery stores and Wal-Mart. Our pantry was overflowing with plastic bags, so my mission was to simply get rid of them. Here's your 1st world problem: which bike? We have the old bike with a giant rack which would easily accept my bag o' bags, or the new (hellloooo shiny) road bike which had no provisions for a bulky load like this. The problem was solved by using bungee cords to strap the giant bag of bags to my back. I may have garnered a bunch of stares in the Wal-Mart parking lot looking like a very late Father Christmas, but I'm too bike happy to care.

Errand 11
Hulst Library (Dordt College)

Some quick work with a calculator revealed that I was barely half way to satisfying the mileage requirement for the Errandonnee. Some shameless padding was required. The library in question is about 3/4 of a mile from my home. The route I took looks something like this:
Basically direct route to the library to return a DVD, then proceeded to do a very good impression of someone seriously lost. One of the bad parts of a small town is I'm confined to this mess for training when it's too dark to ride in the country. It gets really old. But this was the first little shakedown ride for the new road bike, and I think that we'll do well together. The Prospect is technically the same size as my old road bike, same material, same tire width, built with the same focus, but they are very different animals. The Prospect feels much more stretched out, due in part to having STI and some very wide handlebars(48mm vs the 40mm of my old bike). The bike feels like riding a very sedate bull sometimes. Due somewhat to the expansive feeling of the bike, it doesn't feel as snappy as my older bike, whether that actually means it's slower is harder to quantify. The other big thing I've noticed is how quiet the bike is. I keep my Sekai in pretty good order, but it is still a 25 year old bike, and bits always rattle. The Prospect is like riding a ghost. A bull ghost.

Errand 12
Wild Card
All Seasons Center (Indoor Fair)
2.7 Miles

The Sioux Center Indoor fair is a local business promotion event. Area business set up booths, and you can ask them questions, and they try to sell you stuff. There are giveaways and food on the cheap, and its generally a good time. The kids and I arrived with one very specific goal in mind: Get a balloon. If you have young children, you know that at all costs, you MUST GET THE BALLOON. We got a balloon, then got out of there. By the way, a balloon flying behind your bike makes for an excellent driver attention getting device. No pictures of the balloon, sorry.

Errand 13
Coffee Shop
The Fruited Plain
Oh, the glamorous places you'll go.
We're into bonus territory here because I needed a few more miles to get over the minimum. My daughter shares a birthday month with MG (Cake for everyone!). My wife decided to make an Elsa dress for my daughter because she's the coolest mother in the world. She had completed the dress with the exception of some serging that needed to be done along the hem. This a problem, but fortunately we have some friends in well equipped places who were more than happy to finish the dress off. A pound of coffee was agreed upon as payment (Perhaps a bit generous, but if you need to serge and you do not have a serger, you're sunk). After padding my route a bit, I swung by the shop, stuffed the coffee into the Banjo Bros bag, and called it an erranndonee.

Thanks again to MG to hosting this event and helping all of us welcome spring with some proper bike riding. The Errandonne always gets me out when the weather says stay in. I hope all of you reading have a wonderful and safe spring.