As much as I wanted it to be, the Mid South just wasn’t part of my race plans this year.
This top gravel event seems forever stuck on my radar—and off my race calendar. The distance from home and its cold and muddy spot on the calendar have kept me away. (How would that 400-mile drive home feel if the mud claimed my bike on mile 12?)
I wrote approvingly about the Mid South’s name change back on New Year’s Day, 2020. And Bobby Wintle’s warmhearted response to me deepened my desire to buck up and go be a part of this special race. But then came the damned pandemic. It sat down on the country uninvited. And it didn’t budge.
The Mid South, thanks to that frightful spot on the calendar, is our first major gravel race to face a second lap in the COVID era. And having learned much on the first lap, Bobby and company changed much this time around.
Now’s not the time to draw a crowd, they said, or to ask folks to travel long distances. So they ditched the traditional race with its cannon-fire start and its huggy finish. In its place, they planted the 2021 Incredibly Socially Distanced Mid South. To lessen folks’ travel, they scattered several Stillwater-style courses across the nation’s midsection. Without an official mass start, folks could begin the course whenever they saw fit within a certain window.
And would you look at that? Thanks to a friendly relationship with Cycle Works at 27th and Vine, Lincoln was one of the communities chosen to host a Mid South course. And the Cycle Works folks put together a gnarly northerly route, threading riders through 100 miles of Nebraska’s Bohemian Alps. (Other Mid South-endorsed courses emerged in Stillwater; Bentonville, Ark.; Emporia, Kan.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Austin, Texas; Johnstown, Penn.; and Denver, Colo.)
The race’s delivery to my doorstep couldn’t be more perfect for a reluctant traveler like me. Except this reluctant traveler happened to be traveling that weekend.
My earlier-than-expected vaccination sparked a family getaway to Colorado, where the Wendts would throw on skis for the first time in our privileged lives. It was a bummer to miss the race, but we couldn’t pass up a rare shot to scurry outside the Wendt-family burrow for a sunny while.
Soon after we arrived in Fraser, Colo., however, our plans changed. Meteorologists began predicting three-ish feet of snow in Denver toward the end of our stay. So we vacationed our tails off, knowing we might have to cut our trip short.
Marty—my teammate and the benefactor of a great deal of borrowed ski gear—called to make sure we’d seen the forecast. We had. And by then, we’d already decided to cut out early. We’d be getting home Friday night.
“Great!” Marty said. “You can race Saturday.” He’d pick me up at 5:30 in the morning. Dress for 40 degrees and rain.
“Great,” I also said. But my tone was different.
It’s impossible to race the same when everything’s changed.
The socially distanced format meant there was no typical mass start or neutral rollout to join, no celebratory cannon to fire. The only people there in the dark were my also-vaccinated teammates: Addison, Marty and Mike (health care workers, all). A few empty vehicles of the handful of riders who’d hoped to beat the rain by leaving even earlier than us. Strava orbited above as our silent timekeeper. And we rolled out alone.
Our loneliness didn’t keep us from imagining a scorching lead group out ahead of us in the predawn dark. And we turned ourselves inside out running down these phantoms. In other words, we tried our very hardest to pretend things were back to normal. And our race pace was … enthusiastic.
We had to look a little silly in our mad pursuit. At least the mechanical rabbit that greyhounds chase at the dog track actually exists. What were we running after, beyond the idea of a mechanical rabbit?
But to four grown men who’d spent a winter sweating away on four basement trainers, even this brand of pretend racing felt plenty real, with actual gravel crunching under actual tires. And we rode about as hard as we could until we all felt shrunken as preschoolers, exhausted from all our pretending.
As badly as we might wish for everything to go back to how it was, we know some things won’t. And surely, that’s a partial good. Right?
Frank Bruni is a New York Times columnist who’s written about this. “From the unfathomable loss and grinding horror of this pandemic, shouldn’t we wring some positives, including a recognition that we don’t have to do everything as we once did … and that some of the alternate routes (we’ve found) have lasting merit?”
He said, “Did you discover that daily walks outside and more quiet, contemplative time did your soul good? Then don’t jettison them when the world whirls back into frenzied motion.
“Did less fussing over your appearance feel not like a surrender but like a liberation? No rule compels you to fuss anew.”
To that I might add: Did racing sometimes feel like a mad and painful effort to stay shoulder-to-shoulder with rivals whose company, if you’re honest, you may not have universally enjoyed? Friend, it’s 2021. You can let that shit go.
The virtual results are in from the 2021 Incredibly Socially Distanced Mid South-Lincoln. And I’m proud that my teammates and I came in just ahead of the only opponent we needed to mind that day. We beat the rain. Beth and the kids greeted me at the happy finish. And just as we loaded my bike into the family van, the rain arrived, softly.
That rain was light, chilly, and meteorologically odd. We sat in the lot and Beth worked the wipers. The blades pushed a ribbon of strange rain down the windshield’s side. I watched it run the color and consistency of cocoa. Well, not cocoa exactly. It was something redder and grittier, a chocolate milk muddied with paprika maybe.
I’d learn later that this rain constituted a rare Midwestern mix. There was moisture from the west, from the same Colorado blizzard my family had just fled. And from the south, the clouds had drawn a reddish dirt, stirred up and hauled northward 400 miles from dust storms in Texas and Oklahoma. And what sprinkled down on us at the Nebraska finish line of Oklahoma’s most famous gravel race was in reality a little bit of incredibly distanced Oklahoma itself.