Plenty of things about Gravel Worlds make me shake in my cleats.
There’s the distance: 150 miles out (and two miles up). There’s the late-August heat (and the late-season fatigue). The gravel itself isn’t the tire-eating stuff you find outside Emporia, but it can lull you into problems—convince you it’s packed and fast, then go mushy and send you swimming. Then there are gravel racing’s “unknown unknowns”: those loose cattle, farm dogs, coal trains and turkey families just waiting to crisscross your line.
But my darkest perils are still hubris and its bosom buddy, stone-cold foolishness. I caught my toe on most of these in 2017, and am grateful to have simply reached the Fallbrook finish.
It was hubris talking at the gun when my legs said, “Hey, Self, let’s go up there in that lead group with those people who race bikes for their real actual jobs.”
Foolishness answered, “Great idea, Legs! Yes, let’s!” Even if the > 20-mph pace was the sin that triggered all the pain to come, I hesitate to repent, because it was loopy fun to ride with the sport’s baddest players, not for seconds or minutes, but for a full-throttle hour of damning the torpedoes.
Rubbing elbows with the pros = good. Rubbing wheels = bad. I met the queen of Kanza, DK course record-holder Alison Tetrick, when I accidentally swerved across her line. Thank gawd I didn’t cause her to wipeout. I’d have walked myself down the plank! (Photo, alisontetrick.com)
Our hive of hornets also included my sister-in-law’s brother-in-law, Michael Smith. See the guy in the camo jersey? That’s Michael. See the man on his left? That’s some guy named Peter Sagan. No big whoop. (Photo, Steve Cohen Photography)
Marty, Tony and I couldn’t hold with these elites forever, but we were happy to dig our hole pretty deep to stretch the moment. And our moment stretched no farther than mile 18, where Agnew Road threw up a closed bridge. Dismounting to cross the two barriers, our lead group stretched from a clump into a line. And that line couldn’t help but break at its weakest points.
We were almost close enough to call out to those accelerating pros and fittest amateurs. But not quite. And the Abrahams got dropped quicker than a smart sitcom set in the rural Midwest. There was no being heard.
Adios, bad-asses! (Photo, Gravel Guru)
Fast-forward to the slow-down
Skip ahead 100 miles to Bennet and here’s what you missed. Tony laid the beatdown in the Alps after Valparaiso (photo below), and later paid with cramps. I found a way to fall off my bike for no discernable reason whatsoever after the first checkpoint, then slowly overheated. (Can you say, “Crash and burn”?)
Tony turned the screws in the Alps, and I was left hanging on for dear life. (Photo, Gravel Guru)
We got passed a lot as I tried to recover. Marty finally agreed to give up the tugboat routine and went ahead without me.
I stayed at the Bennet Casey’s for a while and bled quietly. I made two fat ice socks like polar boa constrictors and crammed them down the back of my filthy Abes jersey. I left looking like a bloodied shoplifter making off with sleeves of billiard balls. The staff was just happy to see me go.
The Antarctic Anaconda in captivity.
My race unfolded from there into something other than a race. Forget time goals. Forget beating this guy or that. Just don’t hurt yourself (any worse), don’t puke and don’t you ever quit. Mike Suing and his kids were at checkpoint two. They saw me coming and formed a little kicking chorus line to cheer me on. They did me a wonder of good in the not-quitting department.
I approached Highway 6 and saw what I figured I’d see just beyond: a train. Worse, it was standing still. I joined a small group waiting at the crossing. The train started rolling after a bit and cleared before long. (In my survival mindset, the delay meant little.)
My ice socks gave up their ghosts and I just kept plugging. Then something I never expected happened. The same Marty Killeen who’d gone ahead of me at Bennet came up from behind. Turns out he’d been stuck at the same train. His group waited. And waited. For all they knew, it would stay there all afternoon.
Some got fed up, lifted their bikes and hopped between the cars. (Can I cry foul? Review GW rule #1: Don’t be lame. Review also: the law.) The others, including Marty and the 2015 GW tandem champions, Kristi and Tim Mohn, called in for race permission to leave the crossing and ride an alternate route around the train and back onto the course. (Cheers to them for going about it the right way.)
It’s a bummer that something outside their control cost them so much time. Marty’s attitude: “That’s racing.”
Marty kinda got hosed, but—yay for me—we got to finish together!
What finish line?
Beth and I have a general agreement about my cycling. She’ll tolerate the bullshit, the time, the money, the talk-talk-talk about bikes and nutrition and fitness and whatnot as best she can. In turn, I’ll do everything I can to minimize its impact on our family—including getting up at 4 am to ride or workout. And I agree not to pull the “I’m too tired, too sore, too injured” routine when stuff needs doing.
Well, about an hour after our finish in Fallbrook, family stuff needed doing. In Omaha. So off we drove to Beth’s parents’. There, I could finally shower and clean out my elbow. And we could run some errands for her folks.
(I’ll stay purposefully vague about the family emergency that necessitated these errands for my in-laws right after a 150-mile bike race in high heat. But trust me. The reasons were excellent. Beth is not the villain of this story for dragging me along. And what she and her family had endured in just the last couple weeks makes Gravel Worlds look pale and tiny. It was the least I could do to shut up and endure for a few more hours—two things I’m actually pretty good at when necessary.)
Beth’s glances from the driver’s seat were empathetic, but firm. I know you’re nauseous. I know you’re hurting. I know you’re tired. But could you please not bleed on the van?
Deep inside my overheated soul, I believe that if all this endurance I’m building on the bike doesn’t translate to my life, then there is No. Flipping. Point. We needed to shop. So we shopped. When I could sit, I sat.
The bandaged racer, sitting.
When it was necessary to walk, we walked.
When the errands were done, and when I felt like I could stomach a meal, we stopped at a burrito joint. And we had a meager little late-night date—two exhausted and stressed-out 40-somethings smiling at one another over a table smeared with sour cream.
I set down my burrito between bites to hide the muscle spasms. She adjusted her hat to hide the alopecia that’s taken clumps of her hair. But neither of us could hide, really. And that’s OK. We were just two people, partners, teammates in the enduring.
When we finished, we got up. Beth was days away from knee surgery, and moved only a little more smoothly than I did. And we limped, stiff and happy, toward the door. Two people followed us out into the dark and nearly empty parking lot.
“Hey, buddy?” a young man with a shaved head said. “You got a minute?”
Maybe my first thought should have been, “You and your wife are about to be mugged. You cannot possibly fight. And he sees that.” But it wasn’t. My first thought was, “Oh, friend. I have already given everything today.” I thought of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, which I’d read to my kids from memory.
“I am just an old stump…” (The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein, 1964)
But the young man didn’t punch me. He didn’t reach for Beth’s purse. He said, “Do you mind if I pray for you? Right here?” I smiled at him, a little confused. “I do this sometimes,” he said. “I see people and I want to pray. I want to pray for strength.”
Now, I’m a pray-in-the-closet kind of guy. And I didn’t want him to bow his head in front of me. But my mind went to the second checkpoint (mile 120). The banquet of doughnut holes, pickle juice and Cokes. My attitude toward the man’s offer was the same as what I felt at that oasis. Yes to the doughnuts and to the pickles together. Yes to Mike Suing’s chorus line. Yes to kicking high. Yes to it all. Pray. You pray good and deep, young man. Give it hell, because I’ll take all the help I can get.
“You know, I think we’re good,” Beth said. I shook the man’s hand and we went our ways.
In the van, Beth rolled with laughter. Oh, the sight we must make, she said. “I look like a cancer patient, and you,” she said, gesturing at all of me, heels under head, “you look like you tiptoed early out of some emergency room.”
Strange as it seems, I can’t tell you a time I’ve felt stronger than exactly then, in all our weakness, my quads cramping as we laughed in the family van. Beth and I—we kept the faith. We finished the race.