Monday, May 30, 2011

The Gravel Metric

The wind whips up, shifting yet again from a would be tailwind into a deadly headwind.

The rain picks up, pelting me in the face with hail-like raindrops. Perhaps it is hail, and I'm just too delirious to tell.

I turn yet again, ready to race another 5 mile stretch of gravel, riddled with potholes, mudpuddles, and the occasional dead animal.

Welcome to my Sunday in Hell.

When I first heard of the North Central Cyclery/Half Acre Cycling Gravel Metric, I was completely stoked. A chance to ride on some awesome gravel roads, ala the Strade Bianche in Italy? Awesomeness.

I knew I would have the perfect bike for the job. My road bike would do just fine, especially when equipped with the same tires used by many teams in Paris Roubaix - the Vittoria Pave Evo CG Tubular. I could only fit the 24c version on my bike, but I thought it would be more than enough.

The forecast for the day called for a 40% chance of thunderstorms. Psssh, thought I. That means nothing. The temperature was reasonably warm, the roads were dry, and I thought I could fly.

Turns out 40% is a pretty good chance. More on that later.

The ride started out with about 120 cyclists rolling out from the NCC shop in DeKalb. Well, at least we tried to rollout, until just half a block from the shop, when our progress was impeded by the longest freight train I have ever seen.

Great timing, guys.

Anyways, once we were able to get rolling, things went pretty smoothly. The pace was kept low for the rollout, which was nice, as it gave my legs a chance to warmup, and myself a chance to move up towards the front.

And a few turns and a stop sign later - all hell broke loose. We hit the gravel.

I managed to make it into the main break, a group of 10 or so riders. We were absolutely flying, with my sense of speed (I no longer use an actual computer) somewhere between "holy crap" and "insane". I used my better judgement and slipped quietly off the back of the group, knowing that my legs would likely not make it at that tempo for the entire ride. I found my way into a nice little group of 5 going only slightly slower than the leaders (I began kicking myself once I realized we were basically going the same pace - which had slowed down a bit).

We hit the first checkpoint, somewhere in Esmond, about 16 miles in. The checkpoint workers were quick, and I was able to roll through as they marked my wristband. Quickly back up to speed and into the group, we did the one thing that you don't want to do on a long ride - we took a wrong turn. It happened at an intersection where the road does a bit of a jog to the right. Instead of going mostly straight, we did a full turn to the right, and ended up about a mile out of our way.

Oops. (In hindsight, had we gone the way we were thinking, we would have been back on the actual route in no time.)

The group I was with decided to break up for no apparent reason, so I was left looking for a new group once I was back on the actual route. I got in with 3 other guys, 2 of whom were on 'cross bikes and the other on a mountain bike.

It was at this point that I noticed it getting darker. That could only mean one thing:

Rain. And lots of it.

I stopped preemptively to put on the rain jacket that I had stashed away in my saddle bag. I quickly caught back onto the other 3 just as it began raining.

Let me rephrase that: just as it began pouring.

It went from dry to torrential downpour instantly. Along with the rain came lightning, which seemed to strike on every side of us (and fairly close by). It was at this point that I was thankful to be riding behind a mountain biker, who, thanks to his higher bottom bracket and more upright position, was just ever so slightly taller than I.

If the GH were going to strike us with lightning, that guy would be first. See, mountain bikers do have a use in society.

Just as we passed the 32 mile point, we came across the second checkpoint. With my cuesheet now completely soaked (the rain jacket really wasn't doing much at this point), I was relying only on the stakes that the organizers had so graciously placed on the course. I asked the brave checkpoint workers which way, thinking that it would be down the gravel road to the right.

He pointed down a muddy ditch to the left.

Normally, I wouldn't have had too big of a problem with this, if I had been on my mountain bike or if I had this guy's bike. But, as I said earlier, I was on my road bike with 24c tires.

I managed to make it about 100 feet before falling over. Looks like I'm walking. To give you an indication of just how muddy this section was, have a look at this:

What the organizers were thinking by not telling us about this section, I haven't a clue. It probably would have been fine if it wasn't raining, but as it was, I had a nice 2 mile walk to think things over. My only thought was "The one benefit to carbon bikes in this situation is that they are extremely light to carry."

Eventually, we did get back on gravel, but only for a little bit. My Speedplay cleats, which normally are the greatest cleats in the world, had become jammed with mud, and I quickly gave up any hope of ever being able to clip in again. Mashing on top of the pedals it was.

Quickly, we came to an intersection that wasn't marked with a stake (which meant we were supposed to go straight). The other two directions had nice, smooth gravel roads to ride on. The way straight ahead said "Dead End: Dirt Road Ahead." I believe my reaction was somewhat akin to this:

More walking. Or was it? This road looked actually somewhat rideable, and to my disbelief, I was actually able to ride it in low gear.

Who'd thought that I'd ever need a 36x27 in the middle of flatland Illinios?!?

While the rain was doing a fairly decent job of keeping my bike clean, I was having a bit of mud buildup on my brake calipers (which didn't really matter, since I didn't need brakes to slow down). I thought it might be a good idea to try and wash the mud off by riding through a puddle.

The downside to puddles is that you can never tell if they are 1" deep and you can skim right through them, or if they are hiding a sudden dropoff. The one I tried to ride through: dropoff.

With my momentum lost, it was back to walking.

Fortunately, I had plenty of company at this point, having completely resigned any hope of ever riding fast again. We all walked along at the same point, until we came to this:

I'm not sure if this was normally a stream, but with all the sudden rain, the ride had suddenly turned into a game of Oregon Trail. With no option to caulk the wagon, take a ferry, or wait to see if conditions improve, we were forced to ford the "river". Even at the shallower upstream end, the water was still up to my bib shorts. I felt bad for the shorter riders, some of whom said it was up to their chests. Surprisingly, my legs actually felt warmer after going through, which I chalk up to them saying "Aw, screw this."

Soon after the river crossing, we came upon a set of railroad tracks. I turned to one of the women I was riding/walking with at the time, and said the following:
I want to stay on these tracks. They're flat, reasonably ridable, and I'm pretty sure DeKalb is that way.
She merely laughed at me, and we continued onwards, thankfully back on gravel, with all of the dirt sections behind us. (As it turns out, I wouldn't really have been right, as those particular tracks don't really go anywhere in the direction I was thinking.)

We came upon another right turn, and started to turn down it, only to discover a bunch of riders coming back the opposite way. We stopped to ask them if we were actually going the right way, and they replied that the third checkpoint was at the end of an out and back section. A 3 mile each way out and back section. While the thought of skipping it and pressing on was tempting, my desire to finish this whole damn ride won over.

Now, going back to what I said earlier about puddles: they can be kinda terrifying. So imagine the look on my face when I discovered that what once had been a road was now a puddle as deep as my hubs.

Yeah, it was a fun 6 miles.

The only saving grace of the whole section was the actual checkpoint. Despite the fact that it was now raining harder than ever, the checkpoint workers were miraculously still there, making sure our sorry butts weren't lying dead in a ditch somewhere. After checking in and attempting to get my wristband marked (even Sharpie doesn't work when it's wet), I noticed they had a case of Corona in the back.

"Yeah, you want one?" was their reply to the three of us standing there.

It wasn't so much a question of do I want one, it was more like how many would it take for me to keep riding. Knowing there were still a lot of riders behind us, my present group of three each took only one, toasted each other, and headed back down the road a bit to some random farmer's shed.

To whoever own's that shed: thank you. It provided a temporary bit of relief as I drank the most delicious cervasa I've ever had. I finished mine well ahead of the other two guys, and not wanting to be a litterbug, somehow found room in my back pockets for the glass bottle. With that, I headed back out through the road/lake, for the 20ish miles back to town.

It was a slog. When heading out of the barn, the wind was coming from the west, meaning that it would be a blissful tailwind for most of the way back. After getting done with the 3 mile out and back, the wind was coming out of the east. It was a strong headwind the entire way back.

I was virtually alone at this point. Another rider (on a 'cross bike) caught me after I took a nature break, and we exchanged words. But he never actually rode with me, instead dropping back about 100 meters or so, and staying there the entire time. I have no idea why, as this left both of us fighting the headwinds alone. But that's the way things go.

It was a bit of the blind leading the blind at this point. Perhaps the reason he dropped back was because he didn't know where to go. Then again, neither did I, as even my cue sheet that I had packing taped onto my top tube was largely illegible. To make matters worse, I had abandoned my glasses along time ago, figuring that the small gain in visability outweighed the downside of my horrendous vision. However, it lead me slowly rolling through every intersection, making damn well sure there wasn't a stake telling me to turn somewhere.

Finally, we were off the gravel, and much to my surprise, I found that my left cleat could clip in! After a bit of stuggling, I also got my right clipped in, and could now apply 0.0001% more power. This actually did come in handy, as there were a few sections where the paved roads no longer existed: soil from the adjacent fields had completely washed across, and torrents were sweeping more soil (and a few cyclists) into the ditch. Miraculously, I managed to stay upright for the entire ride, and eventually made it back to DeKalb, praising Hincapie for being alive and remembering to bring a change of clothes.

All in all, this was without a doubt the most epic thing I have ever done. 5:30 in pouring rain and lightning, about 2:30 more than I was hoping for (thinking the course was all gravel). Sure, I've done muddier races, longer riders, and harder events. But all of those were in fairly decent conditions (well, I was expecting the mud at least). Plus, all of those other rides I had an option to quit. The Gravel Metric was pure survival. While I could have probably eventually bummed a ride back somehow, my body wouldn't let me quit, instead saying "Eff it, we're going to do this." Would I do it again? Maybe. But definitely on a different bike, and definitely not if it looks like more than a 10% chance of rain.

And what raffle prize did I get for my efforts? A Park Tool bottle opener. Which is a bit fitting, considering all I wanted when I got done was a cold one (disclaimer: Yes, I am of age).


Joe Hooker said...

wow, that's EPIC. I'm glad I was a lazy ass after dillo and only experienced it through this post

Yannell Selman said...

Bryan, you're so right about practicing riding in the rain.