I didn’t write after Dirty Kanza because, well, I didn’t want to linger there. My race started great. My legs felt strong. For 90 minutes, the bike did just what I told.
And then it didn’t.
In a single downstroke on dry roads, my derailleur jumped ship and buried its humiliated head in my spokes. Hanger, chain and wheel all died together faster than you could poke my eye out. And I was done. Months of training, a thousand miles, a bucket’s worth of sweat at the Y, all dumped out onto one forgettable little back-roads hill on mile 34 of what was supposed to be a 206-mile ride-of-my-life.
Before the turn south. (Photo, Gravel Guru)
So I didn’t write.
Instead, I got my head right. I went on vacation with my son and brother—a heckuva canoe trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Listened to loons. Paddled past moose munching on willows. Dipped my hands in the water and let small stuff be small stuff.
Then I set my sights on a new local race: the inaugural Solstice 100 in Pleasant Dale. The village of 212 is down the road a piece from Milford, my hometown. The start and finish stood outside Big V’s—a pub owned by a high school friend. And all the pass-throughs and pass-nears crisscrossed my childhood’s sphere: Beaver Crossing. Ruby. Dorchester. Friend. The race’s final third unfolded on roads close enough to Lincoln that I’d ridden just about all of them before. I knew the “sting in the tail” waiting near Denton.
It was the perfect race to rinse away the taste of my Emporia misfortune. And despite feet still healing from the cuts and blisters of portaging through the Boundary Waters, I was riding well.
I put myself in the lead group of four select riders—one, a strong Omaha guy I did not know, setting pace on a single-speed for Pete’s sake. The other two were Lincoln bosses I knew by reputation: Josh Shear, with a motor so big he sweats Valvoline; and Randy Gibson, a 130-pound sensei. Give a billy goat thumbs and a bicycle, and he couldn’t climb with Randy Gibson.
Meet your pre-race favorites. (Photo, Kevin Fox)
Then there was me—Super Grover with a large butt.
Josh did what my more experienced teammates told me he’d do. He started hard and made riding with the lead group pretty painful. He’d dial it up for minutes at a time to see who belonged, then fall back into the heavy side of manageable. And Randy did what I’d do, too, if I were 60 pounds lighter. He matched moves and waited for cards to play out, knowing he was pretty likely to be the guy with the most left in the tank at the end.
On pure fitness and experience, I was the odd guy out. But the gift of gears meant it was Mr. Single-speed who got culled first—after maybe a dozen miles.
Then we were three. I had no illusions; I was the next mark. But that was fine. I was content to ride with these bosses as long as I could and hope we’d distance the field by so much by then that I could pop off and just pedal my happy way to a podium.
I took a couple turns at the front—mostly as respectful courtesy (I was not driving this train). And each time, Josh would follow my small efforts with smart stabs. No free rides!
There’s a polite ruthlessness I enjoy in good cyclists. These two seasoned racers signaled our turns, pointed out washboards and inflicted pain. When a farm dog bounded up out of a ditch, I swear one of them slowed down, allowing me into his slipstream so I could more easily accelerate away from the threat. If I could have chatted at their pace, they’d have gladly entertained me, I’m sure.
Near Goehner, maybe a quarter century in, I took another token shift at the front, which Josh followed with another quiet push, the only difference being, this one stuck. I slid off the back, tried to bridge, and felt my heart rate slip toward danger-high. So I let them go and settled in for 70 miles of solo discomfort.
A solitary man. (Photo, Kevin Fox)
When you pop like this, you become vulnerable from two directions. There’s the familiar threat from below. (“You can’t hold these guys on account of you suck.”) And there’s a threat from above. (“Isn’t this a beautiful course? A beautiful day? A beautiful life? Coast a little, son, and take it all in.”)
I opted for the middle path. (“You’re a bad man on a nice course. Lower your one and only head and go do work.”) I rolled into checkpoint 1 at mile 35 in Beaver Crossing before the leaders had rolled out. “Nice,” Randy said, and off they went.
I kept it quick at that checkpoint and was happy holding the leaders in occasional eyeshot for several more miles. Soon enough, however, they were beyond my ken and I got a wee bit complacent. I took a nature break. I took a breath. I took this photo.
One of the many neat things about this new race: Plan A had plenty of B roads. But they were ready with an alternate course if these guys proved impassable.
Checkpoint 2 came in Dorchester, mile 71, I think. My plan was to take a little more time than I had in Beaver Crossing, get out of the fog a little bit, and finish strong. I nibbled on a pickle and asked the kind women there about gaps. Two skinny fellows had left a couple minutes in front of me, they said. They knew nothing about the gaps behind me. But, judging by the sudden arrival of Mr. Single-speed, I’d say the gap between third and fourth had squeezed to zero.
He took no food. Just filled a bottle and absolutely shot down the road with my podium finish clutched in his handsome teeth. Spitting chewed pickle, I took off in hot pursuit. In my cognitive fog, I’d forgotten this guy was on a single-speed. And I wondered why his feet were spinning so fast. And how was it possible I was gaining so quickly? Oh, because that’s the only gear he’s got…
I then thought a multitude of thoughts. First, I was impressed as hell he’d caught me. He’d managed something north of 18 mph on a crazy low gear. The guy was a specimen and deserved third overall. My next thought was about how I didn’t care. Deserving or not, I wouldn’t give it to him. I closed the gap and contemplated taking a few breaths on his back wheel. But I thought better of it. This road is flat, went my logic. Shift to your 46 and bury the man right here.
Make yourself unreachable before Denton, I said. Because with his strength and a low gear, you’ll have no advantage in the hills. I put him behind me and cut my way through my favorite dirt stretch of County Road BB. My gap lengthened a little, but the guy remained stubbornly unburied. Then he started closing.
I resisted the temptation to look over my shoulder. I dropped a water bottle and watched it skid on the gravel beneath me. Podium’s worth a bottle, I thought. Don’t stop. Each time I glanced back, it felt like a chainsaw movie. There he was with those terrifying quads. Closer. Then closer still…
Denton’s coming! He’s going to murder me in the hills and feed me to his dogs! This is it! This is the end!
The hills arrived, somehow steepened. I tamped down fear and hatched a new plan. Sure, I hadn’t buried him. Nor had I hung myself. For 190 pounds (“morbidly obese” in cycling terms), I climb pretty well. Yes, advantage was about to swing in his favor. But I set a new goal to just stay inside myself on the tough climbs, then pick and choose the spots where my advantages reemerged. I’d lay down my big efforts there.
Let him gain on the steepest climbs. He might pass me, even. And gravity will make sure he bombs the steep descents. He’s fitter. But I still had 21 more gears to fight with. And the shallow climbs, soft descents and anything resembling flats were where I’d fight. Just mete out your effort carefully. Shift way down to save. Then shift way up to slam. And if he beats you doing that, well, hats off to Mr. Chainsaw Man.
Mr. Chainsaw Man (Photo, Jason Cyboron)
County Road C pitched way up and I tossed my gear down, thinking, Save it, mister. Let the guy in the goalie’s mask come. You know where your race is at. I shifted down on the steepest stretch and felt a familiar crack.
My rear wheel locked and I saw my derailleur flapping at my left heel. It’s a sick feeling—the mechanical equivalent of blowing your Achilles and watching your calf creep up, deformed and out of place in a ball at the back of your knee. I was done. Again.
The woodsman in the blood-spattered goalie’s mask transformed back into a fit guy tapping out a swift pace up the hill behind me. He reached and asked what happened. I told him. He shook his head in sympathy. Man, that sucks, he said, and kept tapping out that rhythm on his pedals.
The irony here isn’t lost on me. I was only ever ahead of this guy for one reason: My derailleur gave me 22 gears to his one. And I lost to him for one reason, too: That same derailleur took them all away.
I watched him summit what was left of the hill in front of us. Just beyond my sight waited a left-hand turn. He disappeared and I took from him the only lesson I choose to take from my crappy luck.
The guy just kept tapping.
One gear. Zero mistakes. And a first in division trophy. (Photo, Rob Evans)
The race: Solstice 100
The place: Pleasant Dale, Neb.
The day: First Saturday after the summer solstice
I very much hope this new race is here to stay. Gravel Worlds alone puts Lincoln on the cycling map. But there’s enough here to animate an entire season. And the growth of events like this can make the Lincoln area a top bastion for this cool thing called American gravel cycling.
I got my money’s worth in a big way at the Solstice 100. There was beer at packet pickup. Friendly checkpoints had the basics. And beer, burgers and respect were all waiting for us at the finish outside Big V’s.
Drone footage and nice photography scattered throughout remind you you’re doing something special out there.
And the course! I’m biased, because this race takes a big old lap around my childhood. But I love these roads both for nostalgia and for racing.
The Solstice features a healthy dose of gorgeous MMRs (and a smart plan B in case it’s too wet to ride them). That forethought should give you confidence in circling this event on your calendar.
The course rode fast and beautiful, with the best climbing saved for late to give everybody the sense of accomplishment you want at the finish.
Humble suggestions lovingly made:
I’d love to see hydrant hookups at the checkpoints next year. When you’re chasing Lincoln’s finest (or getting passed by a rider from your nightmares), it can take an awfully long time to fill a Camelback from a cooler’s spigot.
And I’m of the general opinion that ample porta-potties do a lot to encourage more women to race gravel. (If I couldn’t pull over any old place for relief … Lordy, talk about nightmares!)