One of the greatest mysteries in the Minnesota gravel cycling scene is how a race called the “Filthy 50” has gone so long without really getting filthy. I mean, it’s a mid-October event in Minnesota where there have been blizzards on Halloween. Sure, the race has been dusty, but all of my memories of the Filthy 50 are filled with images of sun and mild (or hot!) temps. I don’t think I’ve worn a jacket. Ever. Check out the history of the Filthy 50 here.
The combination of the relatively shorter distance and the weather history (along with the fact that it is late in the season so riders are in good form) has made the Filthy 50 into the “gateway drug” for gravel cycling. I don’t count the names beyond my friends, but I know that the Filthy has been the first gravel event for probably a dozen of them.
All that changed on Sunday. If Trenton had, as legend has it, cut a great deal with the Weather Gods, then it either expired or was severely revoked on Sunday. Given that he was still all smiles as he welcomed folks to the sign-in table, I am saying that he knew the terms of the deal were to run out on this very day.
The weather forecast in the last week descended into cycling hell – eventually, it was temperatures just above freezing with rain/snA couple. Couple of years ago under less harsh conditions I had to abandon/DNF on the Almanzo 100 due to wet/cold hands that lost ability to brake/shift/steer. And yet, somehow (jet lag?), I decided, like consciously decided, not to pack a real rain jacket or rain pants for the day.
So, per tradition, we met for breakfast at Tarsilla’s in Stewartville– the group of Gravelleras & Gravelleros, slopping up some good greasy spoon country breakfast cuisine while having some yucks as our destiny for the day was coming closer– you could see the snow falling on Main Street through the window blinds at the end of the table. I threw down a Seven Layer Special without counting, but curious as to whether there was cheese in between sausage patties like a breakfast version of a Juicy Lucy(?).
Our group included some hardened veterans of nasty gravel weather, yet even after a 90-minute drive down from “the cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul, a handful turned back after breakfast and returned to warm and dry cars with wet bikes in tow.
Given my experience over the rest of the day, I think they made very sound and reasonable decisions. It was the intelligent thing to do.
We rolled to the Safeway grocery store lot around 9:00am and were greeted, as mentioned, by a suspiciously chipper Trenton (the organizer, tribe leader). The snow was not thick but it was wet. My leather saddle had been lapping up water the whole morning (where are all the shower caps that I’ve been collecting from hotels!?!). We unhitched everything and geared up inside the car with the heat cranking at full. Everyone was popping in and out of their cars, getting ready for the day.
At the start line, as usual, our group was scattered and unidentifiable amongst the mob of balaclava’ed cyclist. Trenton stood in the back of a pickup – normal gravel race director sort of thing – and shouted out at the 533 riders that had suited up for the day. The PA system would not work in the weather. Some riders were doing the Pretty Filthy (new, 24-mile route – what did I say about gravel gateway drug?), but most were in it for the full 50.
As we rolled out, I bid farewell to the Wegner family (go Anna!) and rode out toward the front. Found Michael briefly and managed to switch on my Strava without crashing before we hit the gravel.
Once we hit the gravel, the muck started to spray everything. I remember seeing a dude in a green wool sweater as the spray started to build upon his back. The spray was streaming from people’s rear wheels, forward against their vertical seat tubes, dripping downward like a car wash.
I immediately lost any visibility of my computer screen despite wiping with my glove. I also had no cue cards (pretty standard M.O. for me) and I should mention that I also forgot to wear eye protection. Not sure glasses would have really helped much, but I don’t think I have ever had so much interest in other people’s sunglasses in one day as I did on Sunday.
In photos I saw later, I noticed that some people finished looking a whole lot cleaner than I did. I’m assuming they were not trying to draft off other riders, whereas I was committed to riding as fast as I could manage – at least at the start.
This is now what I am calling the “meteor strategy” – hurtling myself into inhospitable atmosphere of the faster riders and hoping I don’t completely disintegrate before landing at the finish line, even if all that remains at the end is a small, smoldering and scarred stone remnant of what I was at the start. I pressed ahead near the top 20-ish riders and then fade back into trailing groups (of other meteors) as the miles go, trying to hang on to each passing group before realizing I am nearing the “melting rate” and letting off a bit to ride solo until the next posse appears.
This time there was not as much of the trailing groups — relatively few pace changes beyond a group of about eight that I yo-yo’d with a bit and then let go of.
I have ridden this event four times – with Deepak, on a tandem with Vivian (at age 11!), on a fat bike (first ride on new/used bike), and once on my current “Manga Man” gravel rig where I went hell’s-bells for time. I know many of the landmarks and turns. I was still watching the tire tracks in the wet road to confirm I was on the right path – especially since I spent a lot of time with my head down and eyes squinting against the freezing rain and the limestone gravel spray.
Around halfway, there’s a church and then soon after, at a bridge before a hill, there’s a Banjo Brothers support tent where whiskey and coke and cookies are offered. As I approached, the tent was missing its usual throng of riders and Banjo Brothers Hollering crew. I could see “Banjo Mike” popping his head out to check for riders — and I shouted to him “Hey Mike! What mile is this?!” and he said “32!” and I kept going across the old steel and concrete bridge and up the hill (there’s always a hill after a bridge).
Shortly after that (or before that?) I saw Joel, Trenton’s dad, who always reminds us to have fun, be safe, and always use good judgment – well he was standing in the middle of a crossroads pointing and shouting numbers as the riders passed by. I was clumped in with a few others and he shouted and pointed intensely at each rider, “you’re 35! 36! 37-38! 39!!” as we passed.
This year, Trenton introduced the “Fast 50” and “Last 50” awards for the riders. Fifty-cent coins drilled through and laced as a necklace with a leather strap and lantern rouge patches, respectively would be taken home. Hearing I was sitting within the first 50 meant I had around 18 miles to go and just had to be sure I was not passed by 10 riders. I could not see how many miles were left, but I just needed to count riders not miles.
So I was keeping a keen eye ahead and mostly behind – but my eyes were crusted and blurred with limestone, and I wondered if there’s an amount of that acidic muck that could cause me to really lose my vision. I didn’t expect to pass many folks, but I did want to be sure I was not caught by many either.
This is a couple of hours into an intense ride and I have just barely been able to drink any water – the bottle top was crusted over with sand and required a swish-spit-drink routine. My food bars were like rocks so I only had one and a half in the ride. I am saying this because it may explain why, when I looked behind me and saw I was being pursued by a group of about five riders, it turned out to be only one person. And then that person would be right alongside of me, ready to pass, and then I would turn around and he was 50m behind me. I didn’t have the ability to try to understand what was happening – it was like magic. As long as he didn’t pass me, I was okay with his quark ways.
I sprayed some water on my computer — certain it would say I was at mile 40 (at least!) and it said 37.4. I had no internal sense of time/distance at this point.
I heard sounds that I thought were other riders, but I think they were animals or farmers. I saw one of them working with someone on a tractor just inside the door of a barn.
Then there is Joel again at mile 42 – “Eight miles to go and you are number 38!”
It was time to hang on no matter what. My shifting was completely wrecked, pretty much the middle range of the cassette was jumping around and got worse as the day went. I was just switching the front from big ring to small ring and back as I “crested” the mild elevations. Just wanted to keep spinning. On the descents I was going full speed, pedaling with no braking, sliding through the corners and putting some space between me and the chasing riders I could not see.
I passed a photographer around this time – I pumped my fist in defiance of my condition. I was in a suspended state of meteoric disintegration but still moving. My hands were failing me – I needed to look at them while shifting – and my face was cast in limestone crust and immovable. I had turned into a gravel zombie.
The gravel sections mostly ended and turned into pavement for the last couple miles or so. I could see the water tower in Stewartville. I put my head down and managed the weakest but hardest time trial effort I could. I passed one last rider who was at the side of the road, and I watched to see him closing in on me. We were next to each other on a final gravel half mile before hitting the pavement that is in sight of the finish line.
A red lighted blur was the time clock ahead. I went into the large ring and tried to hold a slow firm pace, pulling away from the other rider and then at the slight crest before the line I stood up and didn’t look back – a slow, stop-animation “sprint” to the line.
I rolled to Trenton’s outstretched hand where there was a medal on a strap dangling ahead – I grabbed it as I passed, then I slow-swerved right and dropped the bike and hunched over gasping with my elbows on my knees. Then the next rider rolled in.
Trenton came over and someone snapped a picture, then I zombie-walked to the nearest wall and sat down, collapsing into a heaving pulse of breathy steam. I was asked for my bib number (267) and I was handed a couple of raffle prizes including a nice set of Panaracer tires! But i was clutching onto the medal. The medal. Not the tires, or my bike, or my gloves. Just the medal.
My bike was laying on its side next to a trash bin, next to a food truck. I kept seeing there was a fire inside the food truck so I walked over and put my cold hands against the outside wall expecting warmth but there was none. I think I tried this twice before Joe Sayles thankfully spotted me and offered some help. He walked with me to the car and I dropped my outer jacket and gloves and sat inside to warm up. I got my phone out to take a picture.
Sullivan got back to the car soon after — knocking on the glass and smiling. I was shivering a bit (okay, a lot). I could not get my boots off, so he pulled them off for me and they emptied a cup or so each of water and mud as my foot came out. I got my tights off and my soaking shirt. My core was cold and that (for years) causes me some back spasms, so I was breathing through a sort of back labor for an hour as we drove back home. Within a couple hours I was totally fine, or something close to it. The fact that I wasn’t that hungry was unusual, though.
Trenton may have to explain someday how he packed all the filthiness of five years into one day. If he cut at a deal at the gravel crossroads some years back and if he knew it would run out. Year six of the Filthy 50 is certainly headed for the book of legends. I hope Trenton is able to renegotiate things before next October.
Representing his entity, “Gravel News Network (GNN)“