On the (bumpy) road of Trans Iowa

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.

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