The drive to the fifth running of the Solstice 100 looked far different from the first. Back in 2017, just a few motley cars made the hop mostly unnoticed from Lincoln to nearby Pleasant Dale. We parked in the shade outside Big V’s Bar and Grill.
By 2021, the start line had marched south to Beatrice. And the field had grown (and bloomed) like a pretty weed. On the early-morning drive down Highway 77, three out of every four southbound vehicles were sporting bikes. There was the car with “RYD GRVL” Nebraska plates and a “Gravel AF” sticker in the window. Pickup after pickup with forks and front wheels draped over the tailgate, their Solstice race numbers flapping happy in the wind like dog tongues.
If you looked along the highway’s left, you might’ve even glimpsed a few hardy Lincoln characters biking the 45-miles to Beatrice on the Chief Standing Bear Trail. Hell, somebody even showed up at the start in a hearse with a hitch.
As we all entered Beatrice, a roadside sign flashed: “WELCOME SOLSTICE RIDERS!” (Back in 2017, we maybe kinda sorta felt cool. But we wouldn’t have guessed we’d ever be this popular. Nowadays, grassroots gravel doesn’t just get invited to the party. Grassroots gravel is the party.)
Standing guard like a nightclub bouncer just outside this party’s grassy parking lot was a squat and uncompromising mud puddle. I’d been oblivious to the storm cell that had passed over Beatrice the night before, and I told myself somebody must’ve left a hydrant on. But once we skirted the puddle, parked and stepped outside, Marcus and I discovered the storm was the talk of the party.
Folks had reason to be worried. Our host’s predilection for dirt roads was well understood. So was nature’s two-part recipe for mud.
If enough rain had fallen on the wrong sections of the course, Joe’s bike race would become a bike hike. And ain’t nobody got time for a hike-a-bike party.
There were contingency plans. The Solstice has always featured enough MMRs that each year’s race includes both a dry “Plan A” course, and a wet Plan B. And partygoers sounded a little divided over which course they were pulling for this year.
I hadn’t even downloaded the wet course, so I was firmly in the dry camp. But I chalked that decision into the “Stuff I Cannot Control” category and didn’t stew on it. I busied myself instead with the “Stuff I Can Control,” like finding a porta-potty.
Though I frequent them as seldomly as I can, I have strangely warm feelings for portable johns. In the hands of a good race director, the humble porta-pot becomes a weapon for greater diversity and inclusion in gravel cycling. For while I have the distinctly male privilege of treating any rural ditch like my personal urinal trough, my female compatriots often must craft entire race plans (and even their hydration strategies) around their ability to pee. (At Unbound a few weeks back, the first convenient tinkle didn’t arrive until mile 68. It’s a barrier, I’m telling you.)
By comparison, the Solstice has your backside. When I downloaded the course, the first thing I noticed was the glorious distribution of johns. In addition to the start/finish in Beatrice, racers could find relief in Diller (mile 20), Steele City (mile 30), Odell (mile 48), Barneston (mile 69), and Holmesville (mile 90).
I stepped out of one of the race’s start-line porta-potties feeling better. My relief doubled when I learned that race reconnaissance had come back with good news: The MMRs passed the toe-tap test. The dry course was on!
Knowing which course we’d race was only half the equation. There was also the question of how we’d tackle it. The muggy morning promised to give way to a downright hot midday. And I fully expected the race’s last third to suck tar.
My season’s primary objective is to somehow drag my oversized body across the line at the Long Voyage in August. And I’d do myself no favors toward that goal if I pushed myself to heat exhaustion twice in June. I just couldn’t wind up on my back again.
So Peter and I committed to riding with cooler heads in Beatrice (and, we hoped, cooler core temperatures). Marty, meanwhile, was on pretty good form and decided he’d ride at his own pace up the road a piece. All good!
Pete and I called this pace “party mode,” and Lordy, what a party we had. We sure weren’t the only ones having a great time on our bikes.
Over on the Solar Fiddy course, my teammate Eric Vacek did his best to keep other riders’ mechanicals from stopping the party.
Vacek helped two riders fix flats and escorted another friend through his first-ever gravel race. That’s three people experiencing proud finishes who maybe wouldn’t have without his help. And when his wife, Becca, pulled the plug due to heat on the 100 course, he ran rescue. That’s an MVP performance if I’ve ever seen one.
And oh, that course! The B-roads we found…
Even in party mode, the heat still got to me late. I weakened and clung to Pete’s wheel. The guy trains so hard up in Minneapolis, where indoor riding is the only riding possible for months and months. And he’s sharpened himself into this amazing steady-state diesel rider. I happily hitched my wagon to his gorgeous T-Lab titanium frame and did as little work as possible.
Due to vanity and pride, I tried my best to avoid asking him to slow down.
Due to empathy and grace, Pete mostly knew when to slow down anyway.
We rolled to the optional aid station at mile 90 and met gravel’s friendly godfather, Corey Cornbread Godfrey. He was calling out to riders like a low-pressure salesman at a lemonade stand.
“Hey, the finish line’s close, but if you’d like some water, we have it!”
“We got Cokes and water just over here if you’d like some!”
“Want to top off your bottle for the last 10 miles?”
He took one look at me, jersey and mouth dangling open, and changed his tone on the fly. “Dude, you need water. Like right now.” And I did.
Two Cokes and one ice sock later, and I was functional again. And the party resumed. We even pushed the pace a little and felt fastish for the last few miles.
Waiting for us at the end was one Marty Killeen, some gorgeous shade and a lot of stories.
Best story probably goes to my son, Marcus, who took a high-speed downhill spill early on in the Kindler course. He dusted himself off and kept racing. Kudos to his friends who bandaged him up mid-course and kept him on pace.