Surviving Gravel’s Sirens

The gravel seas are calling…

Better husbands than me have been guilty of the wandering eye. Beth caught mine years ago and promptly jabbed it with her thumb.

“Ow, Jeez!” I staggered backwards, pressed a palm to my face and took a knee.

“Don’t even think about it,” she said.

“I was only looking.” I blinked hard and tried not to cry. “I hadn’t even registered.”

“Do all the century rides you want,” she said. “Gravel Worlds 150? DK 200? Knock yourself out. But please, don’t even look at Trans Iowa, OK?”

You need to understand here that Beth is not your typical cycling widow. Beth is a believer. She gets sincerely excited to stay in some shitty hotel in Emporia, then drive to small towns and wait around all day just to help me and a few reeking friends make it through the checkpoints. She’s been an accidental witness to countless dirt-covered men performing unseemly chamois maintenance. (Those images don’t wash away.) She’s stood in the heat at the Valparaiso gas station just to rattle an encouraging cowbell at each racer rolling by. She’s coaxed overheated strangers back to functionality with ice-stuffed nylons and even trudged up a bluff outside Iowa City to occupy a loose farm dog, keeping it away from racers on a fast descent.

So when Beth says, “This is too much,” I take that seriously. And Trans Iowa, she said, was too much.

The now-retired Trans Iowa is gravel cycling’s 350-mile Book of Genesis. It’s the original grassroots ride that triggered the great gravel avalanche that followed.

When I looked at TI, I may have seen gravel’s creation story. But Beth saw worry. She saw months of energy-sapping training and hundreds of dollars tossed into gear and food. She heard the mind-numbing conversations about tires and gear ratios. She’s seen me in varying states of heat exhaustion and hyponatremia. And she realized an event like this could all culminate in a 3 a.m. mechanical on some unreachable Iowa cow path with no phone reception. Throw in some bad early-spring weather, and she knew you had a more-than-hypothetical threat of hypothermia.

The race’s difficulty was the source of its attraction; it was also the source of her concern.

Like a date with Wonder Woman, Trans Iowa’s appeal ran inversely with your odds of surviving it. (Photo, Warner Bros. TV)

So I never looked any further at Trans Iowa. And I’ve generally ignored the siren call of all the other tempting gravel events north of 200 miles that have since sung in my direction. Up to now, I’ve drawn my line in the gravel roughly where sleep deprivation begins. If a ride would cost a night’s sleep, it probably cost too much.

That rule worked for me. Until the race next door came calling.

Last week, Lincoln’s Gravel Worlds added another world to its 150-mile main event. The Pirate Cycling League announced its 300-mile Long Voyage. “Just you, your bike, and 300 miles of Nebraska summer weather, gravel roads, unending hills, and the greatest challenge of your life,” they sang.

And I found myself freshly tempted. Smitten. Twitterpated even. Enticed enough to turn to Beth in the kitchen, bike helmet in hand, and say in a single breath:


Pirates are suckers for sirens. It’s always been that way.

My daughters listened to me, then pretended to weep, saying they didn’t want to be orphans. My son was less tearful, but just as skeptical of my odds. If we were entertaining absurdities, he said he had a request of his own. He asked for his mother’s permission to bike to the moon this winter … without a coat.

Ignore the pile of dead bodies and pedal over here! sang the gravel sirens. (“The Sirens and Ulysses,” by William Etty, 1837)

For her part, Beth just wanted to know why.

Best as I can tell it, my change of heart has the same root as every other weird thing that’s happened in the last dozen months: It’s 2020.

Last January, I wrote, “Will 2020 be the year gravel begins to suck?” The click-bait title and gravel riders’ disdain for the UCI made it this cycling blog’s most-read post by a country mile.

Of course, I had no idea then just how terribly 2020 would suck. Nor did I see how gravel cycling would help me to cope with that suck. Without races, our speed on the bike became pretty much irrelevant. But our endurance found extra meaning. Our ability to endure grew from this neat athletic trait of ours into a vital organ of our daily lives.

Look at what we’ve endured together: the 300,000 American deaths and counting. An economic meltdown. Lost jobs, shuttered businesses, shutdown schools and venomous political and racial divides. For Pete’s sake, Lincoln, Nebraska, burned. A girl had her nose blown off by a rubber bullet downtown for breaking curfew. And in August, some scared teenager with a gun murdered LPD’s Mario Herrera. We’ve endured the tiny inconveniences of nasal swabs and masks and quarantines and so much public foolishness. We’ve endured the hateful blather of white supremacists and the whining mendacity of a president too self-absorbed and emotionally stunted to acknowledge he got his ass beat in a fair and square election, primarily because he’s really bad at his job. We’ve endured all this together and a hell of a lot more.

In LA, and in cities across the country, Americans endured lines for food assistance that stretched for blocks. (Photo, REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

As a result, I find myself ready to recalibrate the boundaries of what I’m able to endure in my own path as a person with a bike. I’m ready to circle a date on the calendar (or two dates, in this case), and pour my sorry sugarbeet of a heart into the longest effort of my bike riding life. I want to do this, not because I think it’ll change anything that we’ve had to endure. It can’t. I want to do it to show how everything we’ve endured has changed me.

So that’s why, with Beth’s reluctant blessing, I’m throwing my hat in the ring for the Pirate Cycling League’s consideration. They’re collecting applications for the Long Voyage now, and choosing a small group of entrants based on experience and their estimation of our potential to endure.

Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to make that group, but I won’t be silly enough to promise a finish. A lot can go wrong, and nobody gets through a journey like that cleanly. But after the year we’ve endured, my gratitude and my strength work a little differently than they did before. And I can reassure my kids that, while the possibility of failure is always there in every hard thing we tackle, that doesn’t have to scare us. And I know it would take more than a 300-mile bike ride and some lost sleep to make them orphans.

OK, so, Beth didn’t really jab me in the eye back then. I was joshing about that. But the rest is the truth, mainly.

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