Three weeks ago, I called Nebraska’s premier gravel cycling race a “dusty, dragon-sized hairdryer.” A “150-mile hot scream.” Well, Gravel Worlds 2016 proved neither dusty nor hot. A cold front brought an inch of rain the evening prior, then pushed highs down into the mid-70s. The wind blew, but mercifully cool. And only the Pirate Cycling League’s Jolly Roger logo screamed.
A year ago, this race left me bloodied and too dehydrated to cry. This time around, we got to see the pirates’ softer side.
Now, this aspect of the race has been underreported, but I—rider #416—am responsible for this cosmic kindness. Sports fan, when my oldest friend signed on for this race, I set in motion the chain of events that settled the dust and lowered thermometers some 30 degrees.
I’ve already told you about Pete [“On Winning,” July 27, 2016]. After an eight-year cycling hiatus, Pete up and bought a gravel bike. He trained hard and alone in Minneapolis for a scant eight weeks. In that blink, he dropped 20 pounds (!) and headed south to toe the line for this muddy endeavor.
This remained unspoken, but Peter wasn’t ready. (There is no starting at zero in late June and arriving “ready” for an ultra-endurance race in August.) But he’d taken on enough fitness, stubbornness, ignorance and vinegar to effectively cordon and minimize that unreadiness.
Lacking the asset of ignorance, I leaned instead on panic and prayer on his behalf. I tossed and turned and whispered a non-aggression pact with the earthy and unearthly aspects of this race.
I admit I was coming for you, Race. I was all set to knock politely on your door, as if with flowers. And whatever hooded specter opened, Race, I swear to baby Jesus, my plan was to punch it square in the lipless mouth. Then I was to ride with great fury across your dusty house.
But I will set all this aside, O Bicycle Race, and play instead the role of happy tugboat, if only you agree to take it a little easy on my friend here, who is a good man and a gentle father.
Reader, Bicycle Race heard me and laughed. Bicycle Race tipped its bony hand and showed me in the whirlpool of its palm what had been in store for us. Cyclist, it was humid and it was horrible! Amused more than merciful, Bicycle Race dealt a new hand, and a cold wind blew.
You are welcome, field of riders.
Now, conditions are, of course, conditional. Roads can turn wet or dry. The wind can blow at your back, or up your nose, or not at all. But distance is immutable. There is no negotiating. Even a kind 150 miles remains stubbornly 150 miles long. And there is no faking it through 150 miles of gravel.
Even when Gravel Worlds dishes out its “easiest” bowlful, you still must sit and eat your thin soup gone. Sorry, cyclists, but they’re all out of spoons. Your only utensil for this brimming bowlful will be your butter knife’s sad blade. Hope you wore your patient pants.
Our field of 450ish riders staged behind a blue Ford pickup in the predawn dark, and I tried to play it cool—as if I wasn’t battling my typical pre-race case of the nervous pees.
My exchange with the underworld aside, I had no reason to be nervous. I was just along for the ride. I told myself, “Self, whatever happens, happens. Relax. This morning, you’re just a tugboat with a bellyful of tug. Not race. Tug. Pee later.”
The race director was saying something into the microphone about it being somebody’s birthday. And in an effort to look totally relaxed, I unclipped my left foot, stood next to my bike in these closing moments, and chatted it up with Brad behind me—a guy I workout with sometimes at the Y.
Off my bike and facing backwards, I heard the man with the microphone say, “One, two, three, go!”
Holy smack, the race is on!
I swung myself around and lurched toward my bike before realizing the man with the microphone wasn’t launching the race. He was launching the field into a rendition of “Happy Birthday” to whomever. Lord almighty.
I returned to playing it cool. The Ford fired up, and we fired off. There was a good amount of neutral riding through paved Fallbrook, its well-mowed new urbanism hidden in the dark. The rest of the Abrahams shot out of sight as soon as the Ford accelerated, and Peter and I had a chance to get comfortable riding at speed within the field.
We turned onto gravel, soft and wet in the dark. There were puddles and bad lines, certainly, but they were avoidable. Messy, but not gory. I’d ridden Dirty Kanza in June, which opened with several 150-yards floodplains. I watched derailleurs falter, then fail, then rip off. I saw riders who’d trained for 200 have their day end at 2. This was not that.
Peter was doing well. We churned through the soft stuff, and Peter hollered for me to pick out a wheel to follow. Our rhythm was good.
The first wheel that presented itself happened to be rolling beneath a lean figure spinning out a smooth cadence. His bike was nice, and he was decked out neck to socks in DK200 stuff. He even had a Dirty Kanza logo tattoo on his right calf. I took all these as signs he’d pick good lines and lead us safely through this most dangerous, dark and crowded part of the race.
Addison would tell me later that I’d picked the wheel of the famous Jim Cummins, Dirty Kanza’s race director—the man whose hand I had shaken at the finish in Emporia, never mind that it was so late by then that the bartenders were sleeping. But, from behind, I didn’t know it was him. I just knew Peter and I were behind a smooth-rolling expert. As the field stretched and segmented, he’d tuck behind someone, catch his breath for a couple beats, then easily bridge to the next group and the next group, pulling Peter and me with him.
Here’s Jim Cummins, a good wheel to follow.
I told Peter’s headlamp behind me that this was nice going. We’d be in Greenwood in no time if I worked with this guy. But it wasn’t Peter’s headlamp. I am a lousy tugboat.
I let go of Cummins, and when Peter wasn’t immediately there, I worried. What if he flatted? What if somebody clipped him and he went down? What if his chain broke? But in a minute, there he was. I apologized and he laughed. “I could still see you up there,” he said, “kind of…”
The reason we’d finish sat squarely in that laughter, that patience. Peter didn’t rattle when I went too fast. Even better, he didn’t dig to follow me into a mistake. He showed the patience of a man eating soup with a knife.
There were several times throughout the day when I struggled to find the right rhythm to support him. And whenever my uphill pace slipped past the equal of a knifeful of broth, he neither whined nor took on too much to follow. He’d let me go. And he’d keep dipping. Blade to bowl. Blade to bowl. Uncomplainingly and ceaselessly. Dip. Eat. Dip. Eat.
We’d come back together and chat about his work, my work, our kids. Dip. Eat. Dip. Eat. On and on. Peter made no complaints and no mistakes. He just. Kept. Going. After the last checkpoint, with its life-giving tacos, he was empty. We’d eaten, but his stomach striked, and refused the work of passing energy along. But his legs kept carrying. The first time he gave voice to the fact that he was truly, deeply, suffering, all he said was, “How much more?” (Notice the utter absence of the words, “I can’t” in his sentence.)
I looked at my cue sheet and prepared to lie. But I didn’t need to. We were almost home. “Just five more miles, man.” He didn’t perk. He didn’t stand up and dart his way into any cramp-inducing dash. He just built. And by the time we pulled onto those last paved blocks, there arrived that last little dash of energy, drawn from a place I can only call pride.
In this way, we finished our bowls, placing 162nd and 163rd out of 263. Our placing is unlikely to impress anyone. It is equally unlikely that anyone else in this field did anything as impressive to me as that 162nd finisher.
I train with men capable of ferocious efforts. Marty was perhaps the top local finisher at 37th, his heart chugging away at 160 beats per minute for nearly 10 hours. That’s staggering to me.
But so is this quieter grit. This respectful and respectable dip and eat of 162nd place—this effort as mute and immutable as the roads I love.
*I wish this patience metaphor of eating soup with a knife were my own, because I love it. But it isn’t. I took it from Lt. Col. John Nagl and his book, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.