I’d been looking forward to Iowa City Gravel all fall. After a summer of race meltdowns, I was ready for a chilly October race in new country. Then Jason at Method went and inflated my excitement north of 120 psi.
He had a demo bike fit for a tall guy, and he wondered what I might make of it. Would I want to put a Donnelly G//C through its paces for a few weeks, then share my thoughts in this here gravel blog?
The result picked for you here is a corn-country hybrid—the story of a gravel race crossed with a bike review.
If you know Donnelly, you probably know them as a tire maker. I was happily running the Colorado company’s MSO gravel tire before I ever knew about the G//C. So that Donnelly name grabbed my attention when I found it on a complete bike. Donnelly offers two builds with its G//C (Gravel Carbon) and C//C (Cyclocross Carbon).
This G//C was an XL frame (57cm) with a Sram Force 11/32 22 drivetrain. (Donnelly also offers a lower-priced build with Sram Rival components.)
The frame is an exercise in classy understatement. The seat tube arced a bit around the rear wheel and notched for the front derailleur. And the top tube gave a subtle athletic bend as it narrowed.
As a 2x guy, I was happy to see the 48/32 chainrings. The G//C featured flat-mount disc brakes with 160mm rotors and 12x142mm through-axles. The wheels were tubeless-ready Donnelly Ushuaias. And the tires were—of course—MSOs (tubeless 700×40). Donnelly claims the G//C fits up to 700×45 and 650bx50. I chouldn’t check their work, but judging by the roominess around those 40s, I believe them.
Up top, the alloy handlebars give a comfy 12-degree flare. And bike meets backside with a snub-nosed Selle Italia Novus Boost.
Iowa City Gravel held its third race October 26. It’s already a gem.
Pete and I arrived at the River Junction start in the cold dark—and ran straight into the bright warmth of three firepits and a team of cheerful volunteers. Sign-up was a dang snap, and the hot apple cider kept the chill off.
Because I’m dim, I heard the first few loudspeaker utterances of “ICGravel” as “icy gravel,” and fretted about slick roads. But I figured it out eventually.
The 100-mile course was heavy on Iowa River valley views, white rock and B-roads. It was also lighter on hills than I’d feared, with “just” 3,700 feet of climbing. (But those hills punched, especially the doozy at mile 90.)
The start line stood at the front bumper of ICGravel’s unofficial mascot. “Jenni DaBus” is a tricked-out party vehicle complete with rails for rooftop boogie-woogie. Race Director Todd and his hockey-mad friends on Team Puck It fire up Jenni for hockey games and bike races both.
Let’s drop the puck, shall we?
Leg one: Fire in the hole!
ICGravel dealt B-roads at mile 0. In 30 yards, we had deep ruts full of not-quite frozen water. We picked lines, squished and chose new ones.
I’m happy whenever a smaller race starts in mosey mode. I love it when any rider who wants to can work their way to the front to taste the air at the tip of the spear. It’s gravel-family-reunion time, when the speedsters and rookies and fatbikes and longbeards and singlespeeds and sleeve tattoos and teens and dad-bods and masters all mix together and chat it up gloriously.
Yeah, this wasn’t like that. Somebody lit the damn fuse straight away.
The G//C isn’t zippy. The bike and I agree that, on gravel, comfort leads to speed. But when the front folks gave it hell and kicked up frost, this bike had answers.
I figured this pace would quickly thin our herd to six or so. It didn’t. There were two-dozen pyros up here—a quarter of the field with early matches to burn.
When things finally simmered, I focused on what this G//C was doing for me. Those fat tires, sturdy rims and carbon frame soaked up noise I was used to absorbing through wrist and buttock.
We hit hills where other racers rose out of their saddles, bobbing like charmed cobras. But I felt dandy on my stubby Italian seat. The G//C’s comfort kept me in my most efficient positions longer, which helped me climb better.
The differences felt steeper going downhill. The flared handlebars kept me nice and wide—less aero, but stable as Spock. The smoother ride helped me hold aggressive lines. A twitchier bike might be faster. But the G//C kept me out of trouble and gave me zero reasons to slow down.
I survived a few more punches and rolled into checkpoint one with the leaders, strained but happy.
Leg two: My first case of the stupids
The human brain, Spock tells me, needs water, sugar and time for proper function. Divert all three and decisions grow … illogical.
I’d planned to wear my disco jacket through checkpoint two. But the pace kept me warm, so I peeled it off and tossed it at my son—not realizing I was also chucking my phone, pickle juice, credit card and gels. Staying with the leaders also meant skipping my Wendt-family recharge.
Soon after that quick checkpoint, the lead group lost its hurry, and we found ourselves riding slow on a fast road. Some folks maybe felt a little frustrated by the relaxed pace, but I knew that soon enough we’d hit a slow road and our pace would flip to ridiculously fast. As an out-of-towner, I didn’t know where those switches would come. So I hoarded comfort while I could.
That first tough road arrived at mile 47. Douglas Avenue was a pair of ruts (slanted like the backslashes in G//C) running between West Liberty and Nichols. The fast guys didn’t attack here so much as romp.
We accelerated. There were washouts to hop, overgrown brush to brush. The technical stuff broke our group into a dashed line. Annoying chain-slap aside, the G//C shined through this beating.
Then came a videogame’s succession of pie-sized burrows dug in the road and cloaked by weeds. Snapping-turtle-shaped mounds of varmint-dug earth became our cue for these holes.
I’d see a pile in the weeds but have no idea where the hole hid in relation. Should I pass on its nine o’clock or three o’clock? Hop it?
It was whack-a-mole in reverse. You win by hitting nothing.
Well, I hit nothing, and rolled into Nichols seconds off the leaders.
Legs three and four: Things fall apart
The G//C and I went into Nichols in good shape. We’d leave it in deep poop.
All the stuff I’d mistakenly dumped at checkpoint one meant there was more to take on here. And a hiccup’s worth of confusion on my part meant I tore out only partly restocked and 30-ish seconds behind the group.
Lone chasers have options in this situation. You can panic and slam the gap closed with a white-hot effort. (Been there. Tried that.) Or you can be too lackadaisical and nibble at a gap that never shrinks.
You want that mindful middle path where you spend enough energy to shrink the gap, but not so much that you fry. I decided “G//C” stood for Gravel Confidence and set out to calmly whittle the gap. But once they were tantalizingly close, I lost moderation and reeled them in with a lung scorcher. Success!
But before I could coax my 43-year-old heart back under 170 bpm, the whole race sloshed sideways.
The strongest locals had circled a righthander at mile 54 as the place to spill blood. And Lordy, did they know what they were doing.
My front wheel sank into a damn sandbox, and before my rear wheel could join, I knew an attack had arrived. We were staring up at a steep, sandy road deeply rutted and veined with washouts. Well, I was staring. Everyone else was sprinting.
I was about as ready for this work as an auctioneer with a tennis ball crammed down his throat. But racers can’t be choosers. Dig in, brother!
I wouldn’t see the leaders again. In fact, I wouldn’t see anyone for several minutes of kaleidoscopic effort. My only complaint about the G//C was all the chain-slap on this moon road. I was already taking a beating; I didn’t need a slapping, too. I worried about dropped chains and added “clutched derailleur” to my Christmas list.
Once the smoke settled, there were six riders ahead of me, and only two in eyeshot. I chased. And for a couple minutes, I had the G//C geared out at 48/11.
I burned through my allotment of gels catching these two, but felt restored by their company. I liked them. And the three of us worked well together.
Then came a curveball I didn’t handle. The pair must have decided earlier to skip the last aid station—a decision I wasn’t privy to until we passed Jenni DaBus at mile 67. (Beats me how I missed a huge roadside bus, but I did.)
I needed both calories and water. Logic said to squeeze the brakes and turn around. But I didn’t do that. I kept riding.
I rationed sips.
By mile 80, my colleagues suggested a Casey’s stop to refuel. I wildly agreed, neither knowing nor caring it meant riding off-course into Columbus Junction.
Having ditched my credit card with my jacket, I could buy nothing. I refilled bottles in the men’s room, then watched my compatriots chew pizza and drink Red Bulls.
I was a free man. I didn’t have to wait in that parking lot any more than I had to skip the checkpoint. But I waited. And the three of us slipped from fifth-sixth-seventh to seventh-eighth-ninth.
“Oh, Eric,” you say. “Fifth… Ninth… Who cares?”
And you’re right. Ain’t nobody cares.
I had a great time riding on beautiful roads with solid racers. And sweet Lord, that bike. The Donnelly G//C hummed through a real beatdown. It made me a better rider at a truly cool, grassroots race.
But a great bike can’t fix stupid.
The G//C tucked a rare thing in my pocket—a puncher’s chance at that last podium spot. And I feel like I chucked that chance, one more afterthought forgotten inside a jacket I tossed away, a jacket stuffed with things I still needed.
Speaking of things I need… Let me tell you about the wonderful family and friends who made the trip to support Pete and me at ICGravel.
Their pit work done, our tribe motored to that last steep climb at mile 90. There, they took in a gorgeous river view. They befriended a hulking farm dog named Molly. They watched Nate Kullbom make his race-winning move. Then they lifted my spirits.
I tell you: Love like this isn’t normal. It’s something only a fool would throw away.