Lincoln’s Gravel Worlds long ago earned its place in the big three of Midwestern gravel racing (also known as the coolest part of cycling).
Dirty Kanza in Emporia, Kan., has the corner on tallgrass-prairie beauty and bike-eating ruggedness.
The Flint Hills are a sight to behold. (Photo, travelks.com)
The Land Run 100 in Stillwater, Okla., is a gob of red mud sandwiched between a cannon-fire start and a finish-line squeeze.
Hugs from the volcanically amped Bobby Wintle are officially a gravel thing. (Photo, landrun100.com)
And look what we have here in Lincoln: this gorgeous thing.
The fog of Worlds. (Photo, Robert Clark)
Each year, an evolving 150-mile course features fast, wide, race-worthy roads with little traffic, friendly pass-throughs and even friendlier checkpoints. No bring-your-own-race-support here. The Pirates want you interacting with race volunteers and folks at the small-town convenience stores and bars.
Oh, and there are hills. Scrappy little rollers as infinite as ocean waves. (These are the Pirate Cycling League’s “gravel high seas,” after all.)
Racing Schmidty’s courses is like fighting a boxer who’s taken your measure and determined he only needs jabs. Through rounds one and two, you may think thoughts like “Is that all you got?”
But by round nine, you discover that your ribcage has turned concave, your tongue no longer works and something ugly has happened to your will to live. The bell rings and you turn onto SW 140th. And if you’re not afraid, it’s because you don’t know what’s coming.
Schmidty: Pain designer. (Photo, Kyle Hansen)
At that point in the race, Steve Morin found himself in a small group of out-of-state riders taking in their first GWs. This was Steve’s first stab at Worlds, too, but he knew these roads.
“Uh, guys?” he said. “Just so you’re aware: This next part here is going to suck.”
In a sport full of ironies, here’s another. If Gravel Worlds didn’t suck, it wouldn’t be awesome. The degree of difficulty is what makes finishing—in any place whatsoever—feel like a feat worth crossing the country to chase. And people do.
I heard Lincoln’s Graduate Hotel alone let some 88 rooms to out-of-town racers. Men’s winner Colin Strickland came in from Austin, Texas, and women’s winner Alison Tetrick is from California. (Strickland must have punctured early, because around 50 miles in, he came blowing by our group at Batmobile speed, bridging his mad way back to the leaders.)
Meanwhile, at human speeds, your Lincoln Abrahams were plugging along pretty well. I knew from this season’s Solstice 100 and Cornhusker State Games that working exclusively for Steve was my personal recipe for a meltdown at mile 80. And at last year’s GW, my experiment in pretending with the pros kind of blew up in my face. So I promised myself this time to stay inside my abilities. I hoped a couple of us Abes could stick together and support each other through a tough day. And in a personal first, that plan seemed to be holding up.
Five Abrahams—Tony Black, Addison Killeen, Marty Killeen, Steve Morin and me—set our own pace early, working together and attracting a pretty healthy following along the way. It was super fun.
The Abes get some much appreciated help up front from Larry Kaufman of Longmont, Colo. (Photo, Gravel Guru)
I didn’t expect all five of us to stick together for long. Steve had the lungs and ambition to muscle ahead whenever he felt inclined. And a good or bad day could’ve pushed any of the rest of us off either end of the train. So when all five of us rolled into the first checkpoint at mile 58 as part of a pretty healthy group, I was all smiles.
I need to figure out how to move faster through these checkpoints! (Photo, Michelle Louviere Otto)
I was slow in refilling, and, predictably, our group splintered. Seeing I was at the back, I hurried at the garden hose and failed to get my CamelBak quite sealed. I dashed to catch my teammates and felt the lion’s share of its bladder spill down my back. This wetness felt so good in the moment, but promised suffering down the road. The sun was just kicking in, and I needed to go 42 miles on two bottles. (For a heavy sweater with zero wind to cool me on the climbs, this was a tall order.)
Remember me, the heavy sweater? (Photo, Extravagantza.com)
I caught up to the waiting Killeens straight off, and we worked back up to My Hero Tony Black. But Steve was up the road swinging that hammer. Sporting about half the water doctors recommend, I just couldn’t risk leading a big push to catch him. I sent my best wishes up the road and we settled in.
The thermometer rose and my hydration dipped. And just as I tasted the dregs of that last bottle, I experienced a small, wet miracle. Underneath a mostly sunny sky, a gentle mist sprayed my face.
I want to know: Have you ever seen the rain coming down on a sunny day?
Rain in the sun! Up is down and down is up! In fact, my soul noted, this magical mist didn’t seem to fall from above so much as rise from beneath. Glory be: An act of God! Rain rising to quench my parched soul!
No, moron. A front puncture and a spray of sealant hitting you in the face. You are out of water, miles from Milford. And if that tire doesn’t seal right dang now, you’ll cook putting in that tube and cramp up into something the curled shape and color of a cocktail shrimp right here on the road.
Praise baby Jesus, the hissing stopped. I looked through sealant-clouded sunglasses and saw my rim was still above gravel.
In another 100 meters, the thorn twisted and the spray spouted anew only to re-plug in a half-dozen revolutions. I lived and died by a series of these hideous hisses and redeeming silences (I’m doomed! I’m saved!) all the way to Matzke Highway.
Me in my running-dry face… (Photo, Gravel Guru)
We made it to the gas station north of Milford. I plucked the outer husk of whatever shard of evil had punctured my tire. No more air escaped, and I concluded that whatever shrapnel remained underneath should at least stay still and cause no further havoc.
Turns out my tire woes paled to Steve’s. He was also at the station, out of CO2 and still fighting a sidewall slash and puncture. I gave him a cartridge and played surgical assistant in the gas station’s shade. He was not happy.
We spent some time getting him going. The delay was worth it to be five strong again. But before we got very far east toward Denton, he lost pressure again and had to tube up. We hung around, then rode on without him.
During this stretch, Addison’s effort grew in my eyes from impressive to grand. I don’t mean to sell him short. He’s a tremendous athlete who can run like a pronghorn. But fleetness of foot doesn’t always translate to power in the pedals, and I’d never seen Addison ride this strong this long into an ultra-endurance race.
I scolded him for working too much. I encouraged him to hang back and be stingy. But the man was having a day. He not only held on just fine. Addison did his shifts.
We rolled into the second checkpoint still four-strong and I was chest-thumpingly stoked. Tony, Marty and Addison were all nails. With just 30-some miles to go, we became unwilling to see anybody drop. And before we rolled out of that checkpoint, look what we have here—a red-lined Steve rolled in.
Gentlemen, we’re back to five! Steve recovered on the road and I told a still-strong Addison to forget what I’d said earlier. You go to the front if you feel like it. And you pull up there as long as you daggum want.
We rode this last stretch with Joe Stephens of Milwaukee, Wisc. With an Abe yo-yoing a little bit, we told him he could go on ahead, but that we’d hold up for our pal. And he said, “Hell, I want to be your pal, too!” That pretty much sums up how I felt about the whole field at Gravel Worlds. (Photo, Gravel Guru)
The delays had pushed my time goal a little out of reach. But at that point, staying together was more important than shaving minutes. Gravel Worlds is a race a guy like me will never win. I may never even crack the top 50. But it’s helped teach me that there’s so much more to gravel racing than that.
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to roll into the finish at one of your sport’s top events with four—four!—of your close friends. But I’ll tell you, it’s a feeling worth racing for.
I love this photo. I just wish Steve were in the frame. Trust me. He took the corner wide and is right there to the left.
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