Minnesota Gravel at the Almanzo 100

We had a fun trip north last weekend to the southeastern corner of Minnesota for the Almanzo 100 gravel race (and for some travelers, the more daunting Royal 162). Berly and I had an amazing bathroom, wheelchair accessible, which resulted in a full-bathroom shower and a phone next to the toilet, just in case of SHEnanigans...

The trophies for this fantastically run, beautifully designed and marketed event are Mason jars of gravel. Rad. I was pretty sure there was no way I was in contention for one of them -- with some 550 toeing the line and roughly 100 of them women -- but I was hoping for a top-10 female spot. I've been getting miles in, mixing disciplines, and in the hot (for MN) and windy conditions, I might actually be better off than the northerners.

The start was incredible, with riders stretched all along curved road, 6 or 7 across. Berly and I rocked our awesome-looking new kits -- looking sleek! 

 We all sang happy birthday to race organizer Chris Skogen's son, who just turned 6. Pretty awesome. And then the race began! It was a crazy fast, dusty start, and I moved my way up toward roughly the second or third group. (Though really, there were so many riders that aside from the front pack, it was just lines and lines of bikes.) The first 20 miles flew by. A couple climbs shook things up a bit, and they weren't like the rollers we have here. Nope, these were half-milers winding up out of valleys with anywhere from 15-20% grades. At least the gravel was somewhere just bigger than crushed limestone, so worrying about white rock traction wasn't an issue.

Yeah, you gotta watch those children. Shifty little buggers.

 Lots of roads wound through the woods, and the shade offered some nice relief from the sun, which was pushing temperatures well into the 80s. The other benefit was a break from the wind, which was sustained at 30+ mph all day. The crosswinds were the worst -- I've never come that close to being literally blown off the road before, and found myself in the gutter more than once. And trying to follow wheels of total strangers in conditions like that wasn't exactly the most comfortable. So while I'd find people to ride with a bit from time to time, I was mostly flying solo.

 Grocery store water and bathroom stop in Preston, 40 miles in. Really dusty legs. I tried to make this a really quick stop, and it's debatable whether the roughly 10 minute wait for a real bathroom was worth it. At least it was nice and cool in the store, too.

There were about 20 miles between Preston and the oasis at Forestville State Park, and when I hit the road again, all the people I'd been riding nearby were still resting and refueling. I hit the long headwind climbs out of town alone, burying my head and staring at my cue card begging for a turn out of the wind. It came in the form of Jay Road, the first climb where I got off the bike. Good thing I'd been staring at the card, too, because a pack a little bit ahead of me missed the turn.

Pack riding somewhere in the hot dust. Photo by Craig Linder.
These 20 miles felt really long, and the heat and wind were starting to wear on me. In a section with tailwind, I made up new lyrics to "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing Baby" that went replaced "the real thing" with "a tailwind." You come up with some damn silly things deep into these rides that seem super clever at the time.

It got cloudy, and with all the dust and wind, I started wishing it might rain. Pulled into Forestville, refilled bottles and got some nice cold hose water through the helmet, sat in a lawn chair for about 3 minutes, and mounted back up next to a fellow Lincolnite, Dave McCollough, who I introduced myself to after spotting his Trek Store kit and Cycle Works bottles. It was his first gravel grinder, and he was crushing it on a SS 29er. Way to go!

We climbed, then climbed again, then climbed again. Sure, it was pretty, but the winding descents, while super fun, were somehow not making up for all the uphills. Halfway up another climb, 71 or so miles in, I had to pull off the road, get a little "you can do this" pep talk, and stare at this little beer can tree. C'mon. 30 more miles.

Another difference from our grid system? I'd look at the cue sheet, thinking I'd have say 2 miles of crosswind before turning to a tailwind. But then the road would curve and I'd pretty much feel like crying. On one of those roads, there was suddenly someone passing me kind of slowly, and then I saw the camera, and then..."CORNBREAD!!!" Oh, I was so happy to see a familiar smiling face. Nevermind that he had 60 miles on me at that point.

I was SO happy to see Corey. That's the only thing that smile is about. Photo: Cornbread

I hung in his draft for a couple miles, but eventually, around when I fumbled for my camera to take this picture, I lost contact. I was glad, too, because I didn't want him to slow down because of me. But damn, that was a nice draft.

The last 25 miles were pretty excruciating, despite there being a couple sections with pretty righteous tailwinds. I was having a lot of trouble breathing again, and anytime I took a deep breath, my lungs would go through sharp and excruciating pain. Full of dust, tired of working so hard. I started leapfrogging with a couple groups and a couple women, and there was a glimmer of competitiveness that snuck back in. Maybe I was top 20? Maybe higher? If that woman is the difference between a top-whatever spot and not, should I try a little harder?

I ran out of water for the third time that day. A couple riders -- all of a sudden, I met like 3 guys named Dan, maybe I was hallucinating -- gave me fluids, one some horribly opaque pink thing I had to hand back for fear of what havoc it would wreak on my system. I was staring at my computer...10 miles, 9, then 8...ok, this is like a ride to Pepe's, 5, more blasted headwind, almost there, watertower visible...and then pavement. Highway. Headwind. I tucked my head down and threw it in a big gear, so ready to finish.

At the line, people were cheering and Chris was there waiting with a handshake. Super classy. It was a perfect way to finish. 8 hours, 39 minutes, with 8:11 of it ride time. According to the roster (and not sure of gender on some names), that made me either 8th or 9th among the women, 179th overall.

 Big thanks to Sam & Skip at War Axe and Eric at Monkey Wrench for putting together a fine, fine bicycle for me. Not only was I comfortable and confident, but I was getting compliments on it all day. That definitely makes a girl feel good.
And more thanks to my Nebraska gravel travel crew. Had a blast with Berly, Rafal, Cornbread and Schmidty, as well as with Dave and Andy. Next up: a bit of time off, Ponca, and then Odin's Revenge!


Battle Royale at Platte

Hot & humid pretty much sums up the Platte River State Park race this year. Not my favorite weather. At least most of the course is shaded...

Pre-race. Soft trail, no point in warming up for the marathon. Photo: Jeremiah Grell
Cruising up the climb on lap 1. Photo: Jeremiah Grell

The race itself, well it started a little hectic. Lemans start, and my pump went bouncing out of my jersey, had to run back to get it. Climbed much better on my 1x10, floating past people spinning their granny gears. Lost contact with Anne right after the rock garden on lap one after a bunch of messy Cat 3 traffic. (Guys, please just cat up instead of getting frustrated with us when trying to pass. I am looking for good spots for you to get around, but I'm racing too, you know.) I also made the mistake of goofing off too much at the start line, forgetting to eat something right before we started. I crashed in gully the first time through, slamming the nose of my saddle into a very sensitive place. By the end of lap one, I was hungry and already feeling dehydration seeping in.
Faceplant root on Yun2, still ahead of Anne at this point. Photo: Jeremiah Grell

I regrouped in the feed zone, and Roxy let me know Anne was about a minute up on me. I dug into the climbs, but I just didn't feel like I had it in me to mount a successful chase. A secondary goal, however, was taking more risks, and Platte is the perfect course to do that. It is varied, technical, beautifully hand built, and very challenging for a beginner. I think the best thing about racing there this year was having tons of fun on sections that felt well above my ability just a year ago. Take the section Yun2, remembered for last year's faceplant. This year, I went flying through those dips, getting my stomach to flip up that way you get when driving a little too fast over rolling gravel roads.

It was great that Cycle Works had so many volunteers stationed all along the trail, many of them buddies of mine fresh off of completing TransIowa. I enjoyed chatting with Scott as I scampered through the rock garden, Bruce and Aaron in the gully, and others wandering from place to place throughout.

I am not posing intentionally. I am merely smiling for Kyle Hansen's camera and taking a chance to stop. Photo: Kyle Hansen

Lots of marathoners were taking big breaks in their camp chairs between laps. The heat was really brutal, with temperatures well above 90 with humidity of 90% or so. After lap 3, which had been pretty solitary, I rolled out with Rafal, who was really struggling in the heat, and my racing buddy from last year, Scott Noel. I think the Cat 1s and 2s were on course at this point, but I'm not really sure. Lap 4 involved a couple stupid crashes, and in the last third of it, even with an hour left, I was struggling with whether to go on. As I came into the feed zone, though, there were Emily & Megan, calmly pouring water over me, filling my bottles, getting me stocked up, and just very subtly preparing me for a fifth lap. "This is what having a race wife must be like," I thought.

Trying to cool off in the feed zone with a frozen water bottle. Mildly successful. Photo: Emily Hoesly
So off I went for lap 5, otherwise known as my Usher Raymond "Nice n' Slow" lap. All I had to do was finish. Mark flew by me with a huge lead in the 1s, harnessing the gnarness. I stopped to pee in the woods (this is becoming a trend in hour four...), and I slammed my way through the gully and last open section, finishing at 4 hours, 5 minutes. Last year, I did one lap less in about the same amount of time and in way less heat. 17th out of 28, 2nd in women's. Major props to Anne on the win, and to Jen Deep, cranking out 4 laps with a smile on her face til the end.

Podium style, with henna & a Ranger in a War Axe koozie. Photo: Michael McColgan

I love my bike race family. Big thanks to Corey, who found me right after I finished and brought water, beer, a veggie burger, and tons of ice water for my head. Don't think I would've eaten otherwise, as shellshocked as I felt. It really is awesome to be part of this community.

Chillin' with villains Rafal, Noah, and Megan. Photo: Emily Hoesly