Hot Routes: Gravel’s greatest course designers shine at high heat

Can gravel get any hotter? Craig “Schmidty” Schmidt’s Gravel Worlds courses lay it all out there every August.

Around mile 63 of this year’s Solstice 100, the temperature touched 97 degrees; the course turned north; and my well-being tipped south.

Sam, Pete and I had ridden well together all morning. And our positivity, pacing and patronage of a particularly well-stocked oasis had all done me a world of good. Knowing my history with heat exhaustion, Pete even carried an extra bottle just for dousing my hothead.

The Gravel Worlds crew doesn’t hesitate to stock and staff aid stations at “competitors'” events. When grassroots gravel wins, PCL wins. (Photo, Matt Pearson)
May God’s blessings rain down upon Peter Welsch, and upon his children, for the kindness of that extra water bottle. (Photo, Matt Pearson)

But 97 is still 97. Once we turned north, our “cool” crosswind flipped into a tailwind. And things went squiggly for me pretty quick.

Whoever wrote the Irish toast, “May the wind always be at your back,” never had to bike uphill outside Odell, Neb., in 97-degree heat. (Photo, ottsworld.com)

Riding with a hot tailwind, the moving air seems deathly still. You feel like you’re breathing the same breath over and over, slowly exhausting it of oxygen. Your sweat gives up evaporating and just slips off your body in irrelevant rivulets. You get wicked hot, wicked fast.

On days like this, it’s fill up or fall off. (Photo, Matt Pearson)

Lucky for me, this first northbound stretch was only two miles long. Then we turned west again, and evaporation resumed in the crosswind. I felt better, then worse, then better again as the course took us up several one-mile steps: west, then north.

The route worked this crosswind on and off like a kinked hose. And it struck me that I wasn’t at the mercy of the day’s heat alone. This was about heat in combination with course design.

Joe couldn’t possibly know the weather on race day as he drew his course. But if it was to be a scorcher, he could guess it would roll in on humid winds out of the south. And if he did see this coming, he might do exactly this: Nurse us north toward home, as safely as possible, in merciful, one-mile steps.

The Solstice’s gravel staircase (Image, strava.com)

The idea of a merciful course designer felt upside down to me. I’d always imagined them as these cackling sadists plotting out my death on smudged county maps spread across a butcher’s table.

But here was proof of sadism’s opposite. In godawful conditions, I realized I was riding along a kind man’s pencil line: a literal drawing of mercy. And if I survived this heat, I vowed to learn more about what goes into each turn of a summertime gravel race. 

Joe Billesbach puts thought into every foot of the Solstice 100. (Photo, Kevin Fox)

Well, I did survive the Solstice. (I pulled out with symptoms of heat stress at the top of Joe’s gravel staircase in Diller.) And for my next lesson, I reached out to the most experienced course designer I knew. 

I called Schmidty.

You know you’re a big deal when your name is one word. (See: Cher. See also: Madonna.) (Photo, Schmidty)

Craig Schmidt is a retired Cat. 2 road racer and a Pirate Cycling League cofounder. He’s drawn the lion’s share of courses in Gravel Worlds’ storied history, as well as those for ToDR (Tour of Dirt Roads) and plenty of others. We sat down over beers at White Elm and he walked me through his thinking.

Every year, heat climbs higher on his list of considerations.

“Just ride around and look,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of things we didn’t used to see.” Things like armadillos. Like birds outside their normal migratory patterns. He once spotted a tiny black lizard darting on the gravel, with bright yellow stripes and a blue tail. “It was a skink,” he said. “In Lancaster County.”

The five-lined skink is native to the deep South, and is rare this far northwest. (Photo, University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and the Environment)

“You can ride the Jamaica on a warm winter day now, and see a snake sunning itself in the middle of the trail,” he said. It isn’t weird anymore. And the normalcy of it may be the weirdest thing of all.

If the roads we ride on are showing these strange symptoms of heat stress, you better imagine riders will, too. “Aid stations better have a lot of natural shade,” he said. “And not just for the riders. You have to think about the volunteers who’ll be out there all day.” And you have to think about these stations’ access to water and ice, the demand for which can range from significant to ludicrous.

Raise your hand if you need ice! (Photo, Matt Pearson)

This year’s Gravel Worlds course is even designed with a heat safety valve. If race day is extremely hot, the race director has the ability to trim off a section and shorten the course.

Unprompted, Schmidty also brought up wind direction. “A tailwind can just melt you in the afternoon,” he said. And he gives thought to what time of day riders will move in different directions.

“With Fallbrook, Gravel Worlds is kind of locked into a north start,” he said. And he brought up another race-safety aspect that has nothing to do with heat. “You’ve got Highway 77 to the east. And I can’t send a pack of a hundred pros going full gas toward that highway early in the race before the selections happen.”

Gravel Worlds starts wild and stays stays that way for miles. (Photo, PCL)

Schmidty recalled a thank-you letter he got from an elite athlete. The racer outlined the sponsorship offers that came his way–the livelihood he was able to patch together–thanks largely to an attention-grabbing result at Gravel Worlds. 

Schmidty wasn’t patting himself on the back for Gravel Worlds’ impact. For him, that letter was a wake-up call about course safety. “People’s careers are on the line now. They’ll take more risks in that environment.” And as elite racers’ risk tolerance goes up, a course designer’s risk tolerance needs to go down.

“That traffic [on Highway 77] is going 70 miles per hour,” Schmidty said, shaking his head. If he can’t trust the front end to stop, he can’t take them to that intersection. It’s that simple.

Before dawn, groups at Gravel Worlds can number in the triple digits. (Photo, PCL)

Then our conversation shifted from where Schmidty won’t take riders to where he will take them. And his eyes lit up. 

“I think about the people who come to Lincoln from all over,” he said. “That New York City bike messenger–what do I want him to see? Maybe it’s this cool barn, or these neat little towns like Loma, or the general store in Malcolm.”

Hardware and hard times in Loma, Neb. (Photo, onlyinyourstate.com)

I sipped my beer and realized gravel’s greatest course designer is no mad sadist. He’s more like an art collector. An antiques nut or vinyl nerd whose collection of rare finds just happens to be scattered across southeast Nebraska’s most beautiful B-roads and beanfields. 

“It’s not, ‘How many hills can we make somebody climb?’ or, ‘How many people can we crack?’” Schmidty said. “It’s, ‘What all can we show people? And who will they meet along the way?’” 

If it’s a race, Schmidty’s into it. (Photo, Kathryn Totten Kelley)

Don’t get him wrong. The best gravel races are supposed to be hard. Damn hard. At any temperature. Because there’s something magical about reaching the end of a course at the end of your rope. 

But grassroots gravel matters most when the adventure’s end can also feel like the start of something bigger. A welcome line into a community made richer for that wild exhibition of sagging barns, waving windmills and winding roads we all get to travel together. 😉

Schmidty welcomes the human dynamo Venny Alub at the finish of the Long Voyage 300. (Photo, PCL)

One thought on “Hot Routes: Gravel’s greatest course designers shine at high heat

  1. Ha! My daughter added the winky face at the end of this essay as a joke, and I forgot to delete it before publishing. So I guess it stays!

    Like

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