My memory of that Saturday evening last year is pretty sketchy. But within an hour or so of finishing Gravel Worlds’ inaugural Long Voyage 300, I’m pretty sure I promised my daughter we’d tackle the 50k Buccaneer together in 2022.
Sydney liked that idea. So did my wife. And you bet your butt I accepted all the Good-Dad Points on offer, like Mario stuffing coins into his overalls. But the truth is, I hurt so bad at that finish line, and my emptiness ran so deep, that I’m pretty sure my first objective in making that promise was to avoid any chance of riding the Long Voyage again in 2022.
I didn’t know it in August 2021, but my weasely promise to Sydney would sweep me inside an effort in 2022 that now gives me more pride than my LV300 finish ever could.
About a month after GW 2021, the Pirate Cycling League announced its “1,000 Women of Gravel Worlds” initiative for 2022. PCL set an ambitious goal to sharply increase the number of women and girls participating in Gravel Worlds weekend. And they coupled that goal with an impressive fundraising effort for the Nebraska Interscholastic Cycling League’s GRiT (Girls Riding Together) campaign.
Sydney took a GRiT clinic at Van Dorn Park last year and had a ball. So I was thrilled to see the Pirate Cycling League step up to support it.
Omaha coach Abbey O’Brien described GRiT’s importance this way. “In order to grow the cycling community here, especially in female-identifying circles, the first step is to make everybody feel welcome. And there is no environment that is more welcoming than a group of female-identifying cyclists.”
To support GRiT’s work, the Pirate Cycling League ponied up $10 apiece from 1,000 female entries, and combined that cash with a 50% match from an anonymous donor. If this English major’s math is correct, that’s $15,000 for girls on bikes in Nebraska.
It’s difficult to overstate how ambitious this goal to register 1,000 women was. Gravel Worlds’ promoter Jason Strohbehn shared annual registration figures for perspective. It took Gravel Worlds five years to register its first 1,000 riders. By 2019, overall registrations were shy of 700, and female entries still hadn’t cracked 100.
COVID cancelled the 2020 event, and pent-up demand brought a big bump in 2021. The field more than doubled. And female entries quadrupled to 376. But what made Strohbehn so sure GW could leap from 376 women to 1,000 in 2022?
Nothing, he said. He wasn’t sure at all.
“I guess I like goals that scare me,” he said.
A lot of leaders will claim to like scary goals. Talk like that sounds brave in the air. But few folks mean it like Strohbehn does. He began volunteering for Gravel Worlds a few years ago. Big-picture conversations with race director Corey Godfrey led them to a shared conclusion: Gravel Worlds either had to stay capped at a manageable size, or someone needed to manage its growth full-time, 12 months a year.
Strohbehn had health insurance through his spouse, Annie. And they were both willing to take a chance. So he quit his job and became Gravel Worlds’ head gardener. He’d go four months without a paycheck. (Talk about scary…)
Now, very few of us will ever quit our day jobs to make a living in gravel cycling. But our sport’s growth is built on countless leaps of similar faith. How many of us signed up for our first gravel race because we also kind of like a scary goal? And how many of us keep racing because we love the community of wild leap-takers we find out here?
It’s thrilling to set the bar a little too high, then take a big cat’s swipe at it anyway.
Psychologists tie this ambitious thrill to what Stanford professor Carol Dweck termed a “growth mindset.” When you believe your ability isn’t fixed in stone, when you have faith that you can grow your capabilities through training and perseverance, it changes how you deal with struggle.
With this mindset, great difficulty isn’t a sign you suck. It’s just part of our growth as dynamic people. And this valuable growth is rooted in our willingness to struggle and fail at things. (You could do far worse than to define courage as “a willingness to struggle and fail.”)
Compelling 1,000 women to tackle Gravel Worlds was no sure thing. And the thought of falling short of that (very public) goal sat in Strohbehn’s mind.
“What if we didn’t make it? What if we tried really hard, and we ‘only’ got from 376 women to 800-something? Is that failing?” He wasn’t sure.
“I think about that all the time with the riders who absolutely turn themselves inside out at Gravel Worlds and can’t quite reach the finish line.” (That was me in my first GW attempt.) “A lot of them feel terrible, like they failed.” (Yup. Guilty.)
When you fall short, you grow. And when you’re growing, you’re winning.
Gravel racing is thick with gritty, courageous, growth-mindset types. Which is why it felt so good to follow Sydney out onto a Gravel Worlds course.
It’s not because I need her to love bikes like I love bikes. I don’t. I just want her to tackle whatever it is she winds up loving with all the grittiness and courage her worthwhile life will demand.
I realize it’s a generalization, but I think women and girls may tend toward growth mindsets more easily than boys and men. And the appeal of that mindset might help explain the explosion in female ridership we’re seeing today.
American men love watching “superhuman” athletes go full Beast Mode. The term itself suggests: They’re Not Like Us. They never were.
Women are equally impressed with high performance. But they generally seem more interested in an athlete’s human journey from Point A to Point Beast. A little more invested in the growth story.
Duke’s Kara Lawson coaches her athletes to handle adversity with a growth mindset, calling it “a mental shift that has to occur in each of your brains.” Her three-minute speech to players is a near-perfect case for growth mindsets feeding resilience. (You should watch it now. I’ll wait here.)
As much as I hoped Gravel Worlds would help Sydney “handle hard better,” the day probably had a bigger impact on Pete’s daughter.
Sydney and I came into race day having made the most of our proximity to the Gravel Worlds course. She was very familiar with the roads we’d be riding. But the Welsch family lives in Minneapolis, where it’s not so easy to find gravel or hills like what we’d ride on the Buccaneer.
So Pete’s daughter (who’d rather not have her name bouncing around her weird dad’s weird friend’s weird gravel cycling blog) found some difficulty in the thicker stuff. She took one spill, then a nastier one. She dialed her speed back to where she could feel more confidence and control. And she kept grinding. Meanwhile, Sydney and I rolled ahead at the pace that felt right for her.
Syd did fantastic. We loved the stretch near the farmhouse checkpoint where the courses merged onto shared roads. That let us wave and whistle and cheer for hundreds of folks on the 75, 150 and 300-mile courses. We saw friends like Dwight Brown and Tony Black. And teammates, Marty and Don and Addison and Sam. All of them smiling at full tilt, doing this hard thing we love.
Their energy was infectious. And Sydney got faster after the checkpoint. She went from saving her matches to popping off firecrackers left and right. Gosh, we had fun together.
I admit I wasn’t sure whether the Welsches were having similar fun behind us. As we waited for them to roll into town, I worried Pete’s daughter might look about as happy as a cat in a car wash.
Two things startled me when I caught up to her in the finishers’ chute: The blood running down her leg and the smile running across her face. She was deeply scraped on her knee and elbow, and deeply proud she never quit.
Like us, she and Pete also liked crossing paths with the racers on the other routes. She liked the chaos and camaraderie she found at the friendly farmhouse. Nobody there saw her blood and you-poor-thinged her. They cheered her on and called her tough as shit. If the spills had embarrassed her, the other riders wiped all that away with their near jealousy of her obvious grit.
“Everybody’s so nice!” she confided to her dad.
She let me hug her at the finish, and I told her she was in luck. I pointed at her knee, still bleeding toward her sock. Tomorrow, I said, that won’t hurt at all. Not one bit.
“Yeah, right,” she said. “It’ll hurt worse than it does right now!” And she gave me a growing smile. A smile that didn’t waver or flinch or quiver or lessen, even with the new certainty that her tomorrow would dawn as something other than easy.