April in Kansas can bring everything from warm, windy, and typically Spring-like weather, to thunderstorms, hail, and the real chance of a tornado passing through; but only occasionally do we have ice, snow, sleet and freezing rain in the forecast. But, the weather projection leading up to the USECF Gravel Grinder Nationals race in Lawrence, Kansas on April 7, indicated that we were definitely in for some of the latter. When the 2-3 inches of snow forecasted for the night before the race failed to materialize, race organizers and riders alike let out a collective sigh of relief; but, the tradeoff was record-setting cold temperature and arctic-like wind chills. In fact, that morning’s low temperature of 16 degrees set an all-time record low for April 7 in Lawrence. These cold temperatures resulted in frozen CamelBak hoses even before the race started, and electrolyte bottles turning to slush then solid ice soon thereafter. To say that weather conditions were a significant factor in the second USECF Grinder Nationals race was an understatement.
Turning back the calendar to June 24, 2017 (if for no other reason than to warm up a bit), riders from around the region were all abuzz with news of the first USECF Grinder Nationals to be held in Northeast Kansas. This region boasts not only some of the best gravel roads around, but also hordes of talented gravel cyclists. The inaugural race came off without a hitch. The course, the planning, the organization and the family-friendly party-like atmosphere all made for an excellent event. So, the announcement that the USECF would return to Lawrence for the second annual event was welcome news. In addition, this year, the USECF entered into a partnership with the locally organized and sponsored Gravelleur’s Raid race, now in its fourth year, and held on the first Saturday of April. The Lawrence based 100-mile Gravelleur’s Raid has grown rapidly since launched in 2015 by local rider, racer, and all around great guy, Roger Williams. The Gravelleur’s Raid name, by the way, is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Quantrill’s Raid, the historic 1863 sacking of Lawrence at the hands of Confederate-backed slave-state marauders, a pivotal event leading up to the Civil War. Many of the gravel roads around Douglas and Jefferson Counties, the site of the second Grinder Nationals course, are the same roads used by settlers, Quantrill’s raiders and the local Free State defenders of 155 years ago.
The 2018 race offering included the premiere 104-mile Grinder Nationals race and a 50-mile noncompetitive version of the Gravelleur’s Raid. The start of the 2018 race included a controlled escort heading north out of downtown Lawrence via Massachusetts street, straight into a 10-12 mph north wind and 18 F temperature. That combination computes to a brutal wind chill of 5 degrees! And it felt every bit that cold! After being escorted for a few miles north then east on pavement, the race started with a turn heading north onto Wild Horse Road and up past the Kansas University Field Station. Though a bit of leg and lung burner, the “Field Station climb” early in the race was actually a welcome and much needed warm up. That climb also separated the pack a bit as rides settled into pace groups that lasted to the 25-mile checkpoint and way beyond.
The 104-mile race included two mandatory timed checkpoints at 25- and 75 miles. Both checkpoints were at a Casey’s convenience store in McLouth, Kansas, a tiny farming community in Jefferson County, Kansas. McLouth is well known to local riders as a convenient mid-ride oasis having paved and gravel roads in and out of town leading to Casey’s store on the main drag. Leading up to the race I questioned the rationale for a checkpoint so early in the 104-mile course, but on this frigid morning it was a more than welcome chance to thaw your water bottles, get some food (Pro tip: eating while wearing lobster claw gloves is seriously challenging), and insert more hand and foot warmers where needed.
The course route left McLouth and continued mostly north deeper in Jefferson County with riders still buffeted by a northeast headwind for another 10 miles. Gravelleur’s Raid riders circled back to Lawrence to complete their 50-mile course while the Grinder National racers made a 50-mile loop north almost to the town of Nortonville and then back to McLouth for the second checkpoint. As a general rule, cars and trucks do not heavily travel the gravel roads in this part of Kansas, this being one of the attractions to gravel riding. In fact, while on the gravel sections of the course, I saw fewer than five cars during the entire race, not counting the rescue crew Jeeps. Having ridden many of these roads on previous occasions, you get to know the farms and the farm dogs along the way and several of those dogs have no patience for cyclist and make every effort to find an ankle or calf to snap onto. But, on this day, a silver lining to the harsh weather was fewer chasing dogs! They were either holed up in warmer quarters or exhausted from chasing the lead pack of riders thus paving the way for smooth passage of the middle and tailing groups that followed.
One of the real pleasures of riding gravel in northeastern Kansas is the variety of scenery and topology. The rolling terrain, the sweeping descents through heavily wooded creek bottoms, punchy climbs rewarded by sharp descents, prairie vistas dotted with grazing cattle, and the ever-present abandoned 19th-century farmhouses made for beautiful scenery along the route. And on this day, though cold, the course was as pretty, challenging, and fast as ever. And for those who still hang on to the tired cliché that “Kansas is flat”, all you need to know is that over the 104-mile race we logged nearly 7,000 feet of elevation. Though not rocky mountain numbers, the never-ending undulations of the road will burn every last match after six or more hours in the saddle.
Once we hit the 75-mile checkpoint the pace of our pack picked up as we could feel the finish line just a routine morning ride’s distance away. From a personal standpoint, I had been playing cat and mouse with another local rider in my age group all day. He had this uncanny knack for appearing out of nowhere each time I had convinced myself that he was dropped for good. We played this game until about the 80-mile mark when I no longer saw him and sensed, correctly, that I wouldn’t see him again. Then around mile 90, we caught another rider in my group who was content to slip in with us to make a fifth to our pack of four. I didn’t know if I had a shot at the podium, but I knew I’d have to best our new ride companion if that was even a remote possibility. We were keeping a solid pace and the terrain was flattening out as we dropped into the Kansas River bottom for the last stretch of the race. I felt strong but we still had nearly 10 miles to the finish. Without a word, the rider pulled away with a head of steam that I sensed might be tough to match. Without hesitation one of my riding buddies made chase, caught him, and started chatting him up. Just that little bit was enough to hold the rider at bay and once we hit the levee for the final three miles to the finish, led out by another of my riding mates, I hit the gas and never looked back.
The finish line was the same location as previous Gravelleur’s Raid races – up on the river levee behind Johnny’s Tavern, one of the iconic local bars and a race sponsor. As with the inaugural 2017 Grinder Nationals race, the field was competitive boasting strong riders in each of the race categories. The top overall finisher, Mat Stephens, riding in the Pro category, finished in a blistering 5:21:45 – which by my calculation is averaging 19.4 mph over 104 miles and 7,000 feet of elevation. Right behind Mat was an all-out sprint for second place between Brandon Melott in the male 30-34 division (5:26:23) who nipped Rob Bell of the Pro division with the same time. Each finish was exciting and each rider came away with a real sense of accomplishment given the challenging conditions and the course. (All results can be found at www.GrinderNationals.com).
A memorable thing about the USECF Grinder Nationals was the post-race awards ceremony. The raffle – wherein no one goes home empty-handed, the party-like atmosphere, the free slice of pizza and Sierra Nevada at Johnny’s Tavern and the awarding of the national championship jerseys. Maybe it was the post-race endorphins, or the exhaustion, or the combination of both, but the post-race was a truly special event. And best of all, the USECF Grinder Nationals will be coming back to Lawrence in 2019 for the third year in a row; and, the Gravelleurs Raid will be adding the original 100-mile race to the 50-mile offering. This new relationship between the USECF, the Gravelleurs raid and the town of Lawrence, Kansas has the potential to become a signature gravel race event on the calendar of national gravel races! By the way, and for the record, I didn’t make the podium, but I did finish 5th in my age category and I came away with a better sense of what it will take and a deeper desire to get there in 2019!