Solstice 2020: The Damnedest Thing

A professional mentor of mine said every article he ever wrote started with the same sentence: I just learned the damnedest thing.

The late Brian Doyle never published that sentence. I don’t figure he even bothered to write it out most times he started a story. But for him, just thinking it, just stepping his mind into that footing, put him in the right mentality to do his work.

And the right mentality for his work was wonder.

Doyle edited and wrote wondrous stories for the University of Portland’s Portland magazine. He died in 2017. He was 60. (Photo, guideposts.org)

I’m in the same line of work, writing about all things connected to the life of a liberal arts university. So it pays for me professionally to stay curious about subjects as mixed as metaphysics and macroeconomics and the Mediterranean. To see it as my job to learn and share the damnedest things.

It took me some time to see Doyle’s wonder as more than professionally useful—to let it drip down into every part of my life. To parent and husband and bike for the damnedest things. I’m grateful to him for this seep.

By my measure, Joe Billesbach is somebody who looks a little like Doyle—and lives a lot like him. He directs the Solstice 100, southeast Nebraska’s late-June must-race gravel grinder, an event the pandemic punted clear to the fall equinox this year. It ran last Saturday.

Is Joe new-school or old-school? You make the call. (Photo, Joe Billesbach)

To Strava-know Joe is to realize the guy is a true gravel connoisseur. It’s not unusual for him to post a 40-something-mile ride with 20-something photos. In other words, once every couple miles, Joe sees the damnedest thing, and he wants to share it with you.

Would you look at that? (Photo, Joe)
OK, that counts as a damnedest thing. (Photo, Joe)

Lots of his shots are straight-up dirt love portraits.

Joe survived a collision on his bike with a drunk driver in 2017. So he knows better than most of us that the time to share these things isn’t down the road a piece. It’s right-the-hell now.

The Solstice’s first start was in Pleasant Dale a couple months before Joe’s collision. He ran the next couple races out of Malcolm—both villages just a short hop for the Lincoln crowd. For 2020, he thought the bonds with Lincoln’s riding community were strong enough to ask us to travel a bit to his home-turf in Beatrice. (He was right. Registrations filled up quickly. And the event stayed full after the leap to September.)

For me, the travel was part of the appeal. I was excited to see new roads. And I knew Joe’s tour would be a flipping doozy. We were sure to see the damnedest things.

Marty put it best. “I knew it would ride like a personal tour of all his favorite hiding spots.” (Photo, McColgan Photography)

Joe’s last post before race day got me all shades of stoked.

“Out checking the roads. Everything looks good to go. You’re either gonna love this course or hate me when you’re done. Maybe both.” (Photo, Joe)

“It took a lot of time and effort to get the courses planned out,” Joe told the Beatrice Daily Sun, “but I’ve ridden a lot of that around south of Beatrice and know a lot of secret roads not a lot of people have ridden.”

One change in the race’s “Equinox Edition” was a welcome adjustment for me. To help with the social distancing, he nixed the mass start in favor of a chip-timed approach. Start whenever you like within a half-hour window. Teammates Marty, Addison and I decided to roll out some 10 minutes behind the race’s sharpest knives and just do our own thing. In so doing, we got to add an honorary Abraham, the always-classy Scott Kiddoo on his 29th 29th birthday.

Kiddoo can scoot, man. That’s him in the Cycle Works jersey. I’m on the left wearing the same expression I held for 100 miles. (Photo, McColgan Photography.)

Scott’s secret for late-race strength may or may not be the long John donut he may or may not have yanked out of his jersey pocket around mile 75. That information is proprietary.

And my secret (besides cool temperatures) a heavy dose of gratitude for the course we were getting to experience. It served up a great variety of roads you don’t easily find in Lancaster County, with lengthy winding stretches of MMR, rocky climbs and descents, lots of hero and a little of the loose stuff.

At mile 70, I thought a thought I don’t think I’ve ever thought that late into a 100-mile race. I thought, “You enjoy this now, because in less than two hours, you have to quit because it’s finished.” I didn’t want it to stop.

And as we took the course’s last turns and rode a kindhearted tailwind north into Beatrice proper, Scott Kiddoo climbed still higher in my esteem, saying, “I don’t think I’ve had this much fun during a race in a long, long time.” I couldn’t have disagreed if I tried.

My teammates and I all had great days with successes across the board.

Steve Morin (center) took third overall in a stacked field. (Photo, McColgan Photography)
Tony was second in the masters division, just a couple minutes off a division championship. And Scott was just off the podium in fourth. (Photo, McColgan Photography)
Marty, Addison and I merrily ducked inside the top 10 in the men’s open. (Photo, McColgan Photography)
Over in the Solar Fiddy, Becca took the women’s crown with her husband, Eric, in tow. (Photo, McColgan Photography)
Beth took the day off from running support to race the 32-mile Kindler division; hoping simply to dodge a DFL, she turned heads with a fifth-place finish.
And what do you know? My son, Marcus, took first in the Kindler. Go Abes! (Photo, McColgan Photography)
Says Eric Vacek, “Joe gives you so much for your race entry: ice cream coupon at Coldstone, free beer, a long-sleeved shirt, a catered meal, the best courses and a great small-race vibe. Are you kidding me? Best bargain out there.”

No, Joe is not kidding you. His race is the damnedest thing.


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