I had to find a way to tell my son: We’re not racing on Saturday.
Marcus is 14 and jazzed to start riding gravel this year. He’ll race Dirty Kanza’s 35-mile high school course in June, and he knows enough to want more experience before that wild mess.
We circled Angry Cow Adventures’ Panama Enduro as the place to build some of that experience. Everything about the event was perfect for Marcus. It’s early-season. It’s shorter. It’s small. It’s friendly. It’s close.
But then came the extended forecast. One to three inches of snow the night before. Highs in the mid-30s. Winds gusting up to 40. You know: Nebraska spring.
Marcus’s reaction (bless his heart): “I think it might be fun to race in the snow.”
I told him we’d have to wait and see.
Every gravel race is a wrestling match with the elements. God help you if your first opponent is Jordan Burroughs. (Photo, Beatrice Daily Sun)
Making it worse for me was the fact that Marcus didn’t want me anywhere near him. “You do the 35,” he said. “I’ll do the 15.”
Keeping my distance made sense to me as an athlete. He’ll be on his own in Kansas. He should do this alone, too.
But the dad and the domestique in me wanted otherwise. Let that 40 mph wind hit me instead of him. I could help. I could encourage him.
You’re not drinking enough. The best line’s to the right. You should really shift down on these climbs… (OK, Marcus had a point. Suddenly, I didn’t want to ride with me much either.)
The forecast improved. Friday’s snow fell mostly as rain. Things looked soggy, but maybe the maintained roads with solid crowns would still be OK. We packed the car for Panama.
Jim Craig welcomed us to town. “You must be Marcus,” he said. Then he laid out in simple and encouraging terms everything Marcus needed to know about the course.
Director Jim lectures on race hydration in 2016.
Nebraska’s devastating March had been rough on Panama’s country roads. “I reworked this thing a dozen times, trying to find gravel in good enough shape,” he said. But those roads don’t exist.
“There’s nothing here that wouldn’t just rip your derailleur off in the first two miles,” he said. “So we’re going to be roadies today.”
Marcus’s course was now a straight shot—an out-and-back where going wrong would be almost impossible. And the 35-mile route drew a simple box.
Next to arrive was my teammate, the walking good time known as Brad Znamenacek.
No one has worn the Abes jersey with more class than B-Rad Zee. (Photo, Michael Dixon)
Put Brad and Jim together, and amusement follows. If Jim set the perfect tone for Marcus ahead of his race, he turned around and did the same for Brad and me ahead of ours.
Jim and Brad. (photo, Angry Cow Adventures)
Jim has that ability to tell filthy jokes that somehow aren’t quite dirty at all. Seeing Brad and me in our Abrahams jerseys, he walked over wide-eyed. “Is it true what the county sheriff says about you guys?” he asked us. “Secret meetings in Quonsets…” He shook his head. “Weird, you guys.”
Our first order of business tonight is, once again, to properly and thoroughly haze Addison Killeen. (Photo, vagabondish.com)
We rolled out in the cold, the 15 and 35-milers parting company after 150 yards. “Go get ’em, Marcus.”
The wind was … fulsome. I watched the first miles tick along and thought about my son. His out-and-back would be crosswind-only. Crosswinds are physically easier, but technically trickier and more dangerous. They can knock you off your line and into things you don’t want for your son on a shoulderless county road.
I stayed with Brad in a small lead group and tried to act unconcerned. But I was a little ball of worry. How was the traffic on his road? On mine, I could hear and see trouble. Up ahead, a car crested the hill. And behind, I could hear a pickup not slowing down.
I gauged that bikes, car and truck would come together at roughly the same plane. I didn’t know about the other guys in our group, but all my dashboard indicators were flashing “EAT SHIT.” I ditched the road and sunk into the slop as truck and car passed in opposite directions. Nobody died. I stayed upright and hopped back onto the pavement.
Maybe it wasn’t that close of a call. I don’t know. But I didn’t like it.
We regathered and I tried to joke myself into calming down. “Did you see I got some gravel in after all?” But my thoughts were all about the nimrods who might be driving on Marcus’s road. Would he know to bail?
It became difficult to sit still. I got low on my drops and nervous energy pulled me a little ahead of the group. Brad was on a mountain bike and had told me to just ride my ride. I hadn’t really wanted to jet off. Brad’s fun to ride with, and I have nothing to prove. But he was riding with his buddy Paul, and wanted to keep it mellow. We climbed another hill and the gap grew a bit. I was antsy and just decided to ride my own tempo.
My thinking was that the sooner my odometer clicked a bit above 15 miles, the sooner I could reassure myself that Marcus was back safe in Panama. I didn’t sprint, but I was really looking forward to putting the first 15 behind me.
Right about then, the course turned north on Highway 77, straight into the wind. I hunkered down and just shut my brain off. I never dug deep and I never relented. Forget what your speed says and just hold a steady effort. Marcus is back home now, and you’re not falling apart. I don’t remember exactly where Hickman Road is, but it’s not far. See? There it is.
I turned back into the crosswind, and now my motivation was to get back to hear how Marcus held up. With the goose-cooking side of the box complete, now I felt safe burning matches. I pushed a little harder for home. I turned south and let the wind blow. The road was in great shape and there was no traffic. So I opened the bike up as wide as it would go and saw my speed tick above 41 mph. That was fun, and the section passed quickly.
Not very familiar with these roads, I fell easy victim to an error in the turn-by-turn directions. And I headed west toward Stagecoach Lake when every local knew Jim meant to have us turn east. I was nearly two miles off course before I realized my foolishness.
I turned around and told myself that I really didn’t care about winning the race anyway. I just wanted to go hear how Marcus’s race went. And, if that was my motivation, well, falling down a few slots was really nothing to get discouraged over. Go ride hard. Ride hard and get back to your son.
I saw no one in front of me. I reached the intersection where I’d made the wrong turn and looked down the road I’d already ridden. I saw a man in a black jacket some distance off that I hoped was Brad in second, but I didn’t know for sure. I took off thinking maybe I could catch whoever might still be up ahead. I’d at least try to bring them in sight.
After a while, I saw Beth’s van with a madly waving Marcus inside—a big smile on his face. That felt really good. “I went off course!” I yelled.
“We know!” they yelled back. They’d been tracking me, and must have seen that I’d gone off course. They were headed out to tell me to quit being an idiot and turn around.
I didn’t think to ask whether I was winning…
Couple more miles, and I was back in Panama, happy to learn I’d come in first. And a few seconds later, I was happier still to hear Marcus had won, too!
Another minute, maybe, and here came Brad. We had plenty to celebrate. With the Panama Locker and Smokehouse next door, Jim made sure we could celebrate with meat.
Meat stogies taste like victory!
To the winner goes the bacon.
Why not some ice cream, too?
Much gratitude to Jim for hosting another fine event; to Marcus for riding his tail off in that cold wind; and to Beth for loving and supporting a pair of bike racers.