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.

1 comment:

  1. I'd like to point out that I know your name. :) I get so excited and anxious doing these kinds of things, plus the long day of driving the course and checking in on things that brains check outs a bit.

    Thanks for coming out to ride with us. I'm glad you had a good time, and we hope to see you again next year. Don't worry, we did leave some more minimum maintenance roads out there for you. :)