Words and photos by Dave Schlabowske
Last November, the night before I headed off for my Northwoods deer camp in Peeksville, Wisconsin, I decided to build a new rack for my blaze orange Schlick Northpaw hunting rig. Because I was putting it together at the very last minute, I started with a really basic rack, but left it bare steel so I could continue to modify.
My Schlick is built up with a Shimano Alfine 11 IGH and Gates Carbon Centertrack belt drive, plus a Super Nova E3 powered by an Alfine dynamo hub. Adding the rack, a pair of 45Nrth studded Dillingers and some full coverage fenders from Big O Manufacturing in Minneapolis and I had ultimate winter commuter and an incredible hunting rig. After four months of tweaks over the long winter, I think the rack is finally done.
I typically use a backpack and sling my rifle over my shoulder when I ride to my deer stand, but this rifle season, I decided to hunt a couple of miles deeper in the woods, and I wanted to bring some camera gear with me. In order to save my back, I decided to build a rear rack to haul the gear.Tweet
How much could you save by going by bike?Tweet
By Henri J Boulanger
The act of creating, disassembling, or modifying something is what tells the child inside of me that there isn’t a monster under the bed. When everything in life is handed to me pre-made, guaranteed, and safe as can be, I begin to feel something akin to claustrophobia; it’s like watching somebody play Monopoly for me. I feel robbed of the opportunity to expand, simplify, or simply tinker. This poking, prodding, construction, deconstruction, and overall exploration of the resources at hand and the structures of my mind is how I breathe, how I exercise, and how I live. It’s the Manual Life.Tweet
By Marie Autrey
When I stepped through the exhibit hall doorway, I knew the world had changed.
I have a recurring dream in which I’m driving the interstate or walking to the mailbox, when a meteorite rips the sky in half like a broken zipper. I feel the shock wave and watch the smoke rising from the crater where a city used to stand, and say to myself that things won’t ever be the same.
Sometimes it happens in real life. When, after a hard crash, I tried to stand and discovered that one leg didn’t reach the ground. When Mom’s doctor said that he’d done all he could. There’s no blast or ash cloud like the dream, but I know just as certainly that the past has passed and things will be different from now on.
The 2014 show was my fifth North American Handmade Bicycle Show. That’s Indy, Richmond, Austin, Sacramento, and Charlotte. (No Denver; see above, about crashing and legs.) I always get an early start, hitting the show as soon as the doors open, buttonholing the exhibitors while they set up, chatting before potential customers clog the aisles. There’s always a sense of excitement in the air. It’s like at a concert when the band is taking the stage. What’s coming may be pure rock and roll energy, or it might be a mish-mash of muffed lyrics and tangled chords. What fills the air is risk—Wallenda placing his foot onto the high wire.
If you know cycling, you know the story of NAHBS: how track bike specialist Don Walker assembled a couple of dozen of his lug-brazin’ buddies to show off their work in Houston in 2005. Apparently the idea struck a chord with cycling’s psyche, because as it roved from town to town in succeeding years, the exhibitor list doubled and doubled again, and the lines of visitors circled the block.
Well, that’s how it used to be. Attendance peaked in Sacramento in 2012, when a bright sunny weekend in a city two hours from San Francisco swelled the convention center to bursting. The momentum broke the next year in Denver, when a snowstorm sent visitors running for home. Emerging shows in Seattle, Philly, and San Francisco siphoned off exhibitors. This year’s NAHBS felt more like a trade show, with manufacturers and vendors—companies with the budget to buy a double booth and commission frames to show off their gear—outnumbering custom frame shops.Tweet
By Andy Carlson
Few winters have challenged the meddle of a year-round bicycle commuter quite like this one. While the Polar Vortex has likely forced many riders to reconsider, some hearty souls embrace the discomfort and tackle the Icy Bike Winter Commuting Challenge.
Created by Colorado cyclist Scot Stucky as a way to stay motivated and keep riding throughout the winter, in its second year participation has exploded with more than 400 members from all over the world taking the challenge to ride to work 52 times between October 1, 2013 and March 31, 2014. Riders tally their rides online, so far rolling up more than 43,000 miles this winter.
Riding in the cold and dark, through snow and ice, isn’t easy and staying committed to bike commuting in these conditions can prove challenging, so how do the Icy Bikers maintain their motivation during the winter?Tweet
Well, if you’ve tried one, you know that already. How popular is it? Singletracks.com compiled the data.Tweet
Guest column by Adrian Montgomery
There was a common theme during this year’s Global Fat Bike Summit in Ogden, Utah: fat biking is not a fad. Many statements in Summit presentations were preceded with, “I used to think differently about fat bikes, until I tried one.” The Summit provided the opportunity to throw a leg over the industry’s finest products for the uninitiated to the disciple.
There was a diverse group of attendees at the Summit, an event largely overlooked by the big brands in the Bike Industry. Land managers, enthusiasts and niche product suppliers all huddled up to address access issues, talk best practices for grooming and how to deal with potential user conflicts. Sounds pretty organized for a fad. IMBA was on hand too, and when Mike Van Abel compared the fat bike movement to the early years of mountain biking it was clear that this movement has the wheels to roll-over growth obstacles.Tweet
Photos by David Gabrys/45NRTH
The frozen feats of strength known as the Arrowhead 135 started Monday morning and 45NRTH sponsored rider Jay Petervary took the win in his first attempt, finishing the 135 miles in 20 hours and 11 minutes.
Though it was his first crack at the race, Petervary is no stranger to these types of races. He has won the Iditarod Trail Invitational (350 AND 1,100-mile versions), the Tour Divide and now the Arrowhead.
Armed with nearly a full fleet of 45NRTH gear, he likely stayed pretty toasty warm, even as temperatures hit -30 degrees overnight.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Petervary set a record in the Arrowhead. The record is actually held by Todd McFadden at 14 hours 20 minutes.
Jeff Commissaris is an author, musician and world traveler who has ridden his touring bike all over the world. He sent us this excerpt from his book “Travel on Two Wheels” documenting his adventures through the United States and Europe.
I handed the officer my passport, where he took it back to the police car for computer examination. A few minutes later, the officers came back and they told me that I could not ride on the highway anymore and I had to take a detour. I would have not ridden on the road if it had not been the only choice available and the one that the nice Swedish couple had recommended to me. From head to toe, I was drenched with a thick rain.
“Where are you riding to?,” one of them asked.
“Paris,” I told him.
They pointed me to a trail just off the highway that seemed to just run around in circles. “You can ride there,” they told me. “This might take you to Paris.”
They handed me back my passport after making it clear that I couldn’t ride on this particular road anymore and drove off. An hour later, I realized that the trail was definitely not going to take me to Paris and I was more or less riding around in circles. Also, the weather situation showed no signs of turning for the better, still. The highway seemed like the only way to get there, but it wasn’t an option anymore.
I took shelter in an abandoned barn for a few minutes. There was a huge hole in the top of the roof, and all around me the skies were grey, lighting streaked in the distance.
An hour or so later, the sun finally decided to peak out fromt eh clouds a bit. I started riding through the farmland into the city area. The small villages in northern France were like ghost towns; I rode past empty parks and houses stood still with often times no trace of life whatsoever. It was like time was at a stand still. One could only assume that the people were indoors spending time with their families on this dreary Sunday day.
I stopped at a boulangeries (French pastry shop) and got some bread. I started talking to the store owner and he told me that he was also a lawyer but had opened the store so that he could “create jobs for his family.” After buying a few pieces of bread, he added a few extras and said,” These are for you my friend. I wish you safe travels and welcome to France!”
It wasn’t too long until I ran into a German guy who was bicycle touring for a week through the French country side. He was taking a week vacation off his job to fullfill his dream of cycling France. He was upbeat, and he spoke English well—much better than my lack of German. I made an executive decision and decided to purchase a train ticket to make it to Parist and bypass some of the bad weather.
So the German guy and I rode about five miles into the central area of Donkurque together, passing by parks and businesses that the locals would call “home.” That’s one of the great things about cycle touring—you can meet up with another bicyclist and immediately make a connection based on the simple passion of biking. We both enjoyed our ride together, and after the ride he headed off towards the direction of the campsite he was staying at that night.
I opted for the five-star stay underneath a bridge along the river. I woke up around nine o’ clock, bought some local food and was well on my way to Paris.
By Bina Bilenky
By the time you read this my husband and I will be heading to Africa for the 2014 Tour d’Afrique. We will be staff members for the four-month, 7,500-mile cycling expedition that starts in Khartoum, Sudan, and wraps up in Cape Town, South Africa. There is a lot to do in preparation for the trip including ironing out the details for the fifth annual Philly Bike Expo at the end of 2014!
If you’re not familiar, the Tour d’Afrique is a test of mind, body and bike that winds its way through 10 countries along the Nile River, past ancient temples, across the Equator, past Mount Kilimanjaro, Lake Malawi, Victoria Falls and finally to Cape Town.Tweet
We received this wonderful contribution today from filmmaker Brandon Neubert. Here he describes it in his own words:
My mother is an amazing woman. Because some back problems, she never found the athletic freedom she wanted until she discovered mankind’s greatest machine: The Bicycle. The Bicycle is the epitome of freedom in her life. One day I received a letter from her, describing her experiences out on her bicycle during the magical time of autumn. It touched me very much. I saved it for two years cherishing it and having the desire to share her same experience with others through film. I was finally able to make that dream a reality. She is the voice behind both the narration and the music, and is our showcased cyclist. Like her, I too love this time of year. I call it “The Quiet Season”. I hope this message touches you the same way it touched me. This video is dedicated to her.
We’re excited to announce the launch of the Movers and Makers video series, a partnership with Swobo highlighting inspirational figures throughout the bike industry. Episode 1 profiles Chris Igleheart, who has been building frames since forever. Igleheart was recently hit by a car while riding his bike and Swobo helped organize a fundraiser. This footage was shot before the accident and we hear he is on the mend.Tweet
Fatbikes and packrafts are the only way to explore a remote section of Alaska before mankind’s approach changes the landscape forever.
On a late July afternoon, we rode our fatbikes off Homer Spit and onto a 176-foot landing craft, a ship loaded with cargo for transport to the remote side of Cook Inlet. Though the vessel had made this crossing many times, passengers were uncommon and in our case, a curious sight. In addition to our oversized bicycles, Brent and I carried one packraft apiece, five days worth of food, plus some minimal camping gear and camera equipment. After an exciting and sleepless night onboard the vessel we were deposited on the far shore of the inlet at 4 a.m. Waiting for the light, we watched the boat unload its cargo and then began cycling the gravel Pile Bay Road to Iliamna Lake in the early dawn.
I was drawn, in part, to this route because Alaska is in the midst of mineral development projects that could entirely transform the landscape. Our route would bring us through a proposed, controversial, open pit copper mine—the Pebble Mine. I wanted to see clear streams full of sockeye salmon, bears and untamed landscapes, as it has been for millennia, before it is allowed to be transformed—forever.Tweet
By Emily Walley
Liv/giant is Giant’s initiative to reach out to female cyclists offering bikes and gear designed by and for women. Click here to read the Liv/giant philosophy. The Invite 2 is Giant’s women’s-specific, drop-bar bike for mixed-terrain adventure. Its aluminum frame makes it light weight, only 24lbs. with the stock pedals, so I’m able to tote the bike up and down steps without a grunt. Read the full storyTweet
By Carolyn Szczepanski, League of American Bicyclists
As the summer riding season peaks, the League of American Bicyclists has released a first-of-its-kind report showcasing a trend seen on streets nationwide: Women are changing the face of bicycling, and bicycling is transforming the lives of women.Tweet
Editor’s note: We were tipped off to this story by Jeff Jones, creator and namesake of the Jones mountain bikes. Olsen rode his Jones 2,858.75 miles to finish fifth in the 2013 Tour Divide from Banff, Alberta, to Antelope Wells, N.M.
Words and photos by James Olsen.
Just over a week ago I arrived at Antelope Wells after 17 days and about 5 hours of the most intense riding experience of my life. I’m back at home now, I’ve been meaning to get something written down for a few days and it’s only now I’m starting to accept that it’s in the past, no longer waking in the night feeling that it’s time to get up and roll along the trail for a while, warming up before settling in for another long day in the saddle. The Tour Divide was everything I went out there for, it was beautiful, intense and at times almost crushingly hard and it got the best out of me.
Firstly, my bike and kit. I bought a Jones Titanium Spaceframe a couple of years ago and it changed my riding. Really, this wasn’t just new-bike love. Longer rides went by in comfort, the handling was addictive and motivated me to ride almost every day and the comfort meant my rides got longer and my fitness improved noticeably.
I bought a steel diamond frame with truss fork for holidays and bikepacking trips and found it was the perfect tool for the job. Comfy and efficient but also a huge amount of fun downhill—a bike-packer ride that wasn’t ever dull or a compromise when we found unexpected gems of trails. Not once did I think “If only I had my susser here…” on those trips. For the Divide there really isn’t a bike I’d have felt so confident in.
I used my steel diamond frame for the frame-bag space and the Ti truss fork for less weight–it all counted. The Velocity P35 rims let me use my tires at maybe 17-18 psi at times when the washboard roads were beating me up, or simply when I wanted to roll more easily along the rougher trails. Others were sticking to 40+ psi and thinner, lighter rims and I think I had an advantage there. I’m certain I was getting less beat up than other riders.
I used Geax Saguaro 2.2 tires that do roll very well and work well on both loose or hard ground but I think a bigger tyre would have been a wiser choice. Fast-rolling 2.4 tires aren’t so widely available but perhaps the tread is less important at lower pressures. On the roads an Ardent 2.4 at 40psi would’ve been slower than the Saguaro, but on balance it may have been faster or comfier over the rougher sections. I saw a couple of Surly 29×3.0 Knard-equipped bikes on the route and eyed up their tires enviously.
A Ti Loop H-bar was the perfect bar for this kind of ride, plenty of space for lights, computer, route maps etc as well as the grip options. A good number of racers were using them this year.
I used a single 34t oval chainring and a 12-28 six-speed modified cassette on a Hope singlespeed hub, using three single-speed cogs and three Shimano cassette cogs stacked up. This was a really hard-wearing combo in the gears I used 80 percent of the time (16, 19 and 22 rear) and I was confident 2,800 miles wouldn’t put too much wear on them. The shifting wasn’t as slick as a normal cassette but it was ok, like a singlespeed with a few options either side of my usual 34-19 ratio.
The straight chain line and front single ring would have been a benefit in the infamous Divide mud, but it was my downfall on a fast road section at the end. A triple may have been a wiser move, certainly if I’d known it was going to be generally so fast and dry I would have fitted one. Shifting was done by a bar-end shifter with a Paul Component mount and I used XTR v-brake levers on BB7 brakes with 160mm and 180mm rotors. Pre-greased cables were a little sticky at first but ran smooth the whole way and I only used one set of pads. My wheel set uses the same spokes throughout so I only carried 2 spare spokes. All my kit came to around 11 lbs., just under 2 lbs. for my sleeping kit on the bars, 3 to 4 lbs. of clothes and waterproofs in the seat pack, the rest was a camelback for food and water and in my frame bag that had extra space for a full 2-liter water bladder if needed.
As for the ride, the Tour Divide isn’t that well known outside mountain bike circles but the number of entrants has increased sharply the last few years and blue-dot watching (trackleaders.com) has added a new spectator dimension to races like this. This year there were 140 or more of us, mostly gathered at the YMCA Lodge in Banff on the morning of June 14, heading south.
I guess most of us had discovered bikepacking in recent years, seen “Ride the Divide” or read Jill Homer or Paul Howard’s books and been hooked on the idea. Some had been planning the race for a couple of years, others for less time. I fell into the “less time” group. At New Year’s I decided I wanted to do something committing on the bike and the Tour Divide was big and exciting enough to really motivate me (fear is a good motivator I found).
Multiple-race-winner Matthew Lee’s posts on Divide racing attitudes and ethics on a forum clinched it for me, it was a race that seemed to appeal when racing rarely does so. For five months my spare time was focussed on little else. There was no race experience in my past to base any confidence on but I had done plenty of reasonably long rides and bivi trips in the past. I feel at home when alone and outdoors and I love sleeping under the stars. I felt confident in my self-sufficiency and felt that I could answer a reasonably confident “yes” to the “Are you up to this?” check-list on the Tour Divide site. Or at least, ‘yes, after some preparation’.
I also had found the perfect bike for my long rides and overseas trips in my Jones bike. What I needed to do was get myself in shape for the demands of the race, finalize my kit and decide on some kind of strategy.
I wanted to race in a certain style, influenced by what I’d read about the original Great Divide race and Matthew Lee’s approach to Divide racing. I really wanted the Divide to be a tunnel that I entered into with the only way back to home comforts being the finish line, or retirement from the race. That meant (to me) racing without a phone or GPS, being 100 percent reliant on myself for bike servicing or repairs and I wanted to sleep out trail-side every night and find a rhythm that worked with daylight hours and my body clock to maximize rest or minimize physical and mental disruption.
The Divide route was to be an open-air experience and roofs were off-limits between start and finish. I think a few more storms would have tested that aim towards the end, but I’m happy that the stormy nights were times when I pushed on out of town in the evenings, set up camp in the dark downpour and lay safe under my small tarp as the lightning lit up the fabric every few moments. Other nights, the storm threatened, tested my resolve then backed down and let me rest with only a light drizzle that couldn’t disturb my coma-like sleep.
Before the race I said that these ideals or ethics may cost me a few places but racing style was important to me, I had some kind of “clean, onsight” kind of climbing ethics in mind that could only really be done once as a rookie on the route. Ask me about ethics after I mis-read my cues again or rode miles past a turn and spent a stressful time uncertain whether it was the right one and you’d have got a different angle on Divide racing! GPS is a good thing if you want to go fast and phones are a faster way to find out about fire diversions, but adventure and uncertainty is also part of the experience.
I think I had a couple of advantages in the race that made up for a lack of race experience and helped keep me in the top five most of the race. One was being happy to sleep trail-side anywhere and in almost any weather which saved me time, the other was having reliable equipment. I was confident in my bike and gear as I’d used it in roughly a Divide’s worth of distance of bikepacking and touring trips before without a single issue. Some of my kit was fairly new but simply a lighter or simpler version of what I’d used before. Some other things I’d do differently next time having completed the race, but that’s always the case with an experience of that magnitude.
The training went well and I enjoyed the long overnight and weekend rides I did in preparation. By the time the race came around I was nervous, scared almost, but raring to go. If you love long rides and existing with the minimum of possessions the Great Divide is a wonderful place to be. Remote in places but rarely dauntingly so, it’s a route where you’ll often feel very small under dramatic skies and expansive views. The feeling of open space is simply huge. If it wasn’t a race there would have been times when I would have got off my bike and just sat or stood in the middle of these great spaces, trying to take it all in. But it was a race and that added a pressure I never predicted.
I’d ended up in the top 10 on day two; when Billy Rice (a northbound rider nearing Banff, who would then turn around to ride south, completing the first TDR double last week) stopped to say hi and tell me there weren’t many ahead of me I realized I was making my way towards the front of the field. After that there was no letting up, I wanted to do well. If I was going to be happier at a slower speed I could tour the route another time.
Naturally I found myself close to other riders on different strategies and with different strengths but the Divide evens things out soon enough. Racing so closely with Alex Harris for over 2,000 miles taught me a lot as well as stretched my ability and my mental strength, I found I could pedal longer and harder than I expected but the lack of sleep and need to compete with a very experienced racer/adventurer was tough, it wore my nerves down at times but it also stopped me slipping into default tourer mode when I felt tired or close to being beaten by the scale of the route.
I don’t think we were ever more than a few hours apart and all I could go on were tire tracks. If there weren’t any signs of Alex’s tire tracks ahead of me, every time I stopped for any reason I was looking behind me and the pressure built. I learned soon after riding with Alex for the first time that he had experience and a source of strength that I would find it hard to compete with when things got difficult, and it was simply a case of when that happened, not if it would.
Things got difficult after La Manga pass, going into New Mexico. Alex and I were low on food but had eaten well in Platoro, 30 miles or so earlier. We were headed into the first of New Mexico’s wilderness stretches, the Cruces Basin, a very beautiful area that we first saw through rain and a fog of hypoglycaemia as we separately tried to make 800 or so calories each last well over a hundred miles of mixed ground. At times it was among the hardest terrain of the route and all of it was at high altitude.
We both knew it’d be hard as we went in, we’d briefly debated the wisdom of going off-route for 30 miles for food or the ethics of hitching off-route. I didn’t want to hitch or delay but I also wanted food. I remembered Aidan Harding’s comments about considering how a racer-to-be would feel when much-needed resupply points were closed, leaving another half-day’s ride to the next point. I thought it was something I could cope with.
Bravado was called out as Alex decided to head into the wilderness. I think the racer in him knew it could be a pivotal moment in our two-man race. Maybe he was just calling my bluff, I don’t know. But I had to follow. As I pushed uphill in the rain to save what little energy I had only ten miles in, he slowly rode away and I felt alone for the first time in the race. I’d enjoyed riding alone for so many miles before that and at times I wanted to break away from Alex simply to ride alone again, but after the first week’s fatigue I wasn’t up to putting more than relatively brief, almost futile gaps between us and I also enjoyed his company.
The Divide racers’ dilemma perhaps, you need a strong head to race the entire route solo, refusing any company. Further up the trail I found half of the small bag of trail mix that a couple on quad bikes had given us earlier. Alex had split it and left it clearly on the trail… “This really was half, honest! : ) ” it said on the bag. Riding alone was losing its appeal, tough times are better faced as a team but this was a solo race and more so now than before it really felt like a serious, solo race for me.
Dark, irrational thoughts closed in and I thought I may end up losing a few places as I walked, then stumbled, for miles and miles to the next potential food supply but my decision had been made and only I could affect the outcome or take the blame.
It turns out that years of long rides and often-poor pace management had taught me a lot about managing “the bonk” and by eating a tiny amount every twenty minutes I eventually stabilized and perhaps much of my lethargy was due to altitude, or caution-induced. I then had a reckless moment when I ate more than half of my only cliff bar in one go and as the sun went down my energy returned. I caught Alex shortly after turning my lights on and we rode together until we emerged onto a five-mile road climb between the wilderness/forest park areas at around 11 p.m.
It felt like a fairly lucky escape but there were still 50 or more miles to go before any hope of resupply. I was pretty sure that the first possible source of food would be shut anyway, as often had been the way. “Don’t get your hopes up”. I chose to bivi there and rest despite saying earlier that pushing on through the night was a good plan, since by then it was a clear night and getting colder and shivering costs calories. My thin but cosy down bag and cushy Neo-air mat was calling again. Alex had only a bivi bag and down jacket so he pushed on to the next shelter which turned out to be only six miles away. We remained within an hour or less of each other but all I knew the next morning was that I was following his tracks again.
The next day in the town of Abiqui I bought the Divider’s breakfast of two double cheeseburgers each with fries, a large milkshake and large Coke but only after being unable to get any cash at a post office and riding past two cash-only shops over the previous 30 miles. I was also caught at the post office by Liam Crowley who may not have got the friendly hello he deserved from this tired, run-down rider. Sorry Liam… He then gave me a spare bar in a generous offer that I won’t forget.
From that point on, I saw a lot more of Liam. He’d been behind us for almost a week but something had lit his fire and he was riding well, he’d closed a half-day or more gap with what must have been a tough all-nighter across the Cruces Basin from Platoro, a big effort that didn’t seem to cost him in the long term.
In the final miles of our Tour Divide we passed each other as we napped separately for an hour or so or paused at food or water points within 125 miles of the finish. I wanted to ride right through to the finish but sleep deprivation was building and mild, continual hallucinations affected me and falling asleep on the bike for brief moments happened too regularly. Waking and swerving across the road without crashing showed how in tune you can get with your bike after 17 days of almost continual riding but there was a real risk that I’d crash out of the race within sight of the finish.
I had an hour and a half’s sleep under a tree as light rain continued to fall and was back on the bike soon after 4:30 a.m. As dawn broke across the beautiful final desert stretch I was riding strongly but following in Alex and Liam’s tire tracks. Passed Separ, I saw no tracks and got my head down for the last 65 miles of road to Antelope Wells. Tears welled in my eyes as I realized I really was going to finish the Tour Divide, relief that it was almost over was mixed with sadness of a journey’s end, something magical grasped.
I thought I may be about to finish third, unthinkable to me really despite having spent a number of days between third and fourth position and as good as that thought felt, I tried not to dwell on it. It just didn’t seem possible. When I saw two dots behind me on the horizon I upped my pace to my limit, I felt good that morning and thought I could hold the pace for another 35 miles to the finish but whether I actually could, I’m not sure.
My 34×12 top gear was good for a speed that was about as high as a rider with 2,800 miles in their legs could maintain, but Alex slowly reeled me in. I sat up and we regrouped as Liam joined us. For a few miles the pace dwindled and we joked about all of us being caught again as we slowed up – half seriously, as we knew Brian Pal (top US rider that year) had been riding strongly and gaining ground in the last few days.
A truck drove past and pulled into the road side. A big guy in a checked shirt, Texan hat and suspenders got out and stood in the center of the road. His pose was pure wild-west, ready to draw. As we rolled up to him he smiled and held out cans of cold condensation-dripping Coke. Lloyd and Roger Payne, thank you for the best welcome committee possible. Racing was off the cards as we drank two cold Cokes each, then it went back on the agenda as a final sprint was mentioned.
From the one mile out roadside marker.
We were at mile three and I was itching to go. I did feel good, but I was tired enough not to realize that my 34×12 top gear wasn’t going to get me past either Liam or Alex on a flat road. But finishing as racers was the only fitting way to finish, there wasn’t to be any joint-placings among us.
By the time we wound up the sprint, I was back in 5th spot watching the others ride away over the last few hundred yards. It wasn’t a welcome sight yet somehow places mattered less to me then. In the early days I was elated to be top 10, as I moved up the field the only place that mattered was the one I held then and the racing had motivated the best riding I’d done. Ranking mattered less to me than how we’d ridden and coped with the challenges, racing all the way yet happy to ride together when our timing and pace matched.
I’d stuck to my no outside-influence bike service and sleep-out-every-night plans and had nothing but pride and satisfaction for how the race had gone. I’d finished, after all. As much as I’d have turned myself inside out to have got third place, Alex truly deserved his podium spot and at the time I’d have traded that cliff bar with Liam for a place any day. The 17 days had gone by in a blur of huge vistas and wide-eyed discovery, tiredness and endorphins and massive appetites. I’d ridden in sublime places with great people and seen how welcoming small-town American people could be toward tired, smelly bike racers with accents they rarely could place. I’d met Kirsten at Brush Mountain Lodge and Megan and Clay at the Toaster house for not much more than an hour or two and it had felt like I’d known them for years. All the fatigue and pain that was to follow as my body went into a minor breakdown a few hours after finishing were worth it.
And I’m looking forward to tomorrow – unboxing my Jones, simply lubing the chain and riding my local trails again.
See more of James’ photos from his trip in his Flickr gallery.Tweet
By Jeremy Kershaw
The Trans Iowa is many different things. Speaking for myself, but I think many would agree, the race is a once-a-season phenomenon. It is a marker by which the rest of the year is gauged. You are either preparing for the T.I. or recovering from it… physically and emotionally. The high that I received from finishing last year endured many months afterward. This year, I will try to roll away optimistic, philosophical, but also more than a little disappointed. To me, that shows the gravity of this wild gravel race across Iowa farmland.
The wonder of the T.I. lies in the many different parts that build the whole of the event. There are the obvious: months and miles of base hopefully laid down beforehand. In the Northland, that means hours spent riding cold, wet and often snowy conditions in order to gain a little spring time endurance fitness, or worse, more-than-I-can-remember spins on the indoor trainer watching cartoons so that I could pretend I was kind of parenting and training at the same time.
Then there is the bike prep. This year, that meant endless emails to fellow singlespeed racers trying to guess as to what would be the best gear ratio for such a long race and exceptionally hilly one at that. Going singlespeed represented to me an analogy similar to mountain climbing high peaks without oxygen. Why not up it a notch, the already crazy challenge, into the just plain insane? I chose a 40×19 gear this year. It was probably as near to perfect as I could hope for.
There is the palpable sense of togetherness at the dinner the night before the race. So many genuinely good people about to share in an adventure that will test everyone of them to their limits.
Laying in the hotel bed the night before, watching the Weather Channel or The Simpsons, knowing full well that you have to be awake and ready to go by 2 a.m. That mix of fear and excitement makes for an extremely fitful few hours of rest.
Then, 90 riders, all with their white headlights and red flashing taillights on, huddle together at the start line in downtown Grinnell. Guitar Ted informs us of last minute changes. Confident handshakes and words of encouragement as brakes are tested, computers zeroed-out and tired eyes look blankly ahead into the darkness.
For about a mile, even the slowest rider can be up front, leading the pack through the first few turns out of town. You feel like a real bike racer. Hell, I can win this thing if I really had a good day!
The first crunch of limestone rock under the tires. A few unsecured water bottles already fly into the ditch. Many riders are very experienced with the jolt that riding "gravel" induces on the bike and the body. A few are already suffering the cruel facts of life on these rough farm roads. Too much air pressure in the tires equals exceptionally squirrely handling. Too little, and you risk suffering a pinch flat. Just right means a compromise between some form of air comfort and a rim dinged from tennis ball sized rock.
A quick look back and you realize that the race is on. A long string of lights rattling through the predawn darkness. In only minutes, though, I find myself in my own little pocket of speed. How is it possible that no one else is going the same pace as me? I know this will change as the day goes on. Alliances will be forged. New friendships made. But for now, quiet time, alone and many many miles to go.
Frogs. Lots and lots of frogs doing their spring chorus from the roadside ditches and marshes. If there is one thing I love about riding in the wee hours of the morning and night it is the sounds of birds and frogs. I never feel lonely when I hear them. I remember two years ago walking along a ditch of a "B" road ("unmaintained"), shoes filled with mud, grass and water, bike caked with ten pounds of Iowa’s finest black dirt, headlamps turned on trying to see through the foggy darkness of predawn. And the chorus of frogs was the only soundtrack supporting this scene of chaos. Millions of them. I wonder if anyone else noticed. How lucky we all were to be out there covered in shit, serenaded by amphibian music.
This year, we are graced by a nearly full moon preparing to set, sheets of early morning fog hanging over the low-lands, and a sun just dying to rise on a rare, clear Iowa countryside. I have my small camera along, tucked in my jersey pocket. I nearly die from the missed opportunities of images that I could have captured only if I had stopped and taken the time to shoot. It is a dream landscape. A scene where a thousand pictures could be made, ready for local bank calenders, chamber of commerce flyers, and stock photo galleries to showcase the pastoral beauty of rural Iowa. It was one of those mornings that I will remember for the rest of my life.
Huh…I’m still by myself. That’s OK. I don’t want to have to worry about going too fast right now anyway.
The first checkpoint. On these long races, you have to force yourself to ride checkpoint to checkpoint. It’s just too long otherwise. The T.I. racers are lucky to have some of the best volunteers in cycling. After my first 50 miles of alone time, it’s nice to see people again. Shed layers. Remove gravel from socks. Stretch. Swap out a fresh bag of cue cards. Clip in and go again.
Cue cards. An icon for these gravel races. Count them. Make sure they are all there. Without them, you are one turned around fool in farmland. I race to checkpoints, but I really race to the bottom of a cue card. A small victory every time you get to the last turn of the card and flip a new on top. A huge victory when you see you are on your last one.
Convenience stores. In this edition of the T.I., that meant Casey’s General Stores. Now, I love the science of sports nutrition and endurance physiology, and there have been tremendous strides taken in educating the average cyclist about what to eat and when, but I am seriously waiting for someone to write a manual on how real gravel endurance cyclists eat. It ain’t by the book.
Pizza slices? No problem. Coca Cola? Sure. Cinnamon rolls, Cheeze-it’s, Hot Tomales, chocolate milk, Peanut Nut Rolls…if you can keep it down then you win the game of ultra nutrition. A convenient store on course is like a little Christmas every 60 miles. A time to eat, socialize, stare blankly out into space while stuffing a bag of chips in your face. And lots of very friendly old farmers wondering where you are going and why you are going by gravel road instead of by Pontiac.
Back on the road, after a stop, there is a small period of re-acclimation. There is never the ability to replace what you are burning in calories. But for about 15 minutes, you have a vague feeling that you should not have eaten that last fruit pie.
Time to think. About important life decisions. Hours to re-plan your life and make mental check lists of things you are going to change when you get home. Actually, that’s kind of bullshit. Really, it’s some damn cartoon song that is stuck on repeat in your head. Dora the Explorer must DIE!
At mile 120 my butt begins to feel a bit chafed. Nothing serious. I wonder about about other rider’s butts. Does anyone really escape this thing without undercarriage damage? Does anyone really have the perfect saddle? Except for those fools riding their precious Brooks antiques. (I actually covet one and I think they may be the ONLY ones with intact butts at the end of the T.I.)
At mile 160 I feel the first and maybe the most ominous sign of bodily frailty. Rather out of nowhere, my left knee feels weak while standing on a climb. Then, a few miles down the road, both my knees feel weak while riding the flats. I think it will go away. But deep down I know this is not good—especially with no other lower gears to fall into.
Really? Still alone? I could have sworn there were other riders this year…
If I were a mathematician, I would probably win the Nobel Prize. Why? For naming the phenomenon that exists when you realize that your diminishing speed, coupled with a distance less than 10 miles, will always mean that it will take a half hour to reach the final checkpoint. I think there are probably still a few riders trapped out there in this black hole of time-space-cornfield.
The call of shame. It is both a curse and a blessing to have a Casey’s store only a couple of miles from the last checkpoint. For sure it represents an oasis in which to re-fuel and warm up. (This one looked like a cross between a bike swap and a homeless shelter. I think I watched a man fully change kits at the end of the candy aisle) It is also a spider web of defeat to those that get trapped within the sticky grasp of more pizza, bright lights and a place where your support crew might be able to find you.
I called Guitar Ted and informed him that I was done. I paced the sidewalk for a good 20 minutes before dialing the number. There followed an acute feeling of disappointment. Failure. A general sense of "what does it all mean". And a fleeting wave of relief.
This year I stopped riding at mile mark 180. I had ridden alone for nearly all of the 15 hours I was in the saddle. I chose to go singlespeed this year. The muscles surrounding both my knees, ten miles before the last checkpoint at mile 170, simply started to fatigue to the point that I couldn’t stand and pedal without a sense of impending buckling. I just couldn’t see making another 150 miles. So I called in and ended my bid for a second T.I. finish.
The importance of races of this grandeur can not be minimized. The Trans Iowa is a study in perseverance. Endurance. Cycling community. Hope. Breakdown. And a dusty stage to act out one’s own dreams of being a gravel god(ess).
Thank you, Guitar Ted, for creating and producing the Trans Iowa.Tweet