April 29, 2018
Twelve days ago there was twelve inches of snow stacking up on the roads and fields here in Miesville, fifty miles southeast of Minneapolis. This morning was clear and cool, just shy of 50F (10C) for the 9:00am start time of the Miesville 56 Gravel Ride. About this time, the Wind was kicking its legs over the side of the bed, stretching out its arms to let out a yawn and scratching at its side. The Wind was waking up to what was going to be a hard day’s work of blowing and gusting up across the fields.
Miesville’s main street is 240th Street E- a half mile stretch occupied by the city office, town ball field (home of the Miesville Mudhens), Niebur’s Tractor & Equipment Supply, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and its quiet cemetery, the burger place called Kings, the supper club called Wiederholt’s, the River Country Co-Op, a gas station, and a bank.
It is Sunday morning, and the church lot is filled with the bikeless cars of parishioners. Beyond the far edge of the cemetery, in the ball field parking lot and across the street behind the tractor supply, the riders are preparing for their peculiar sacrament. Stepping out of cars and trucks between orange ploughs and cranes, unloading and gearing up for the day.
They’re debating layers with others and themselves, circling out and back to the car, and finding out what that thing is that they forgot at home — shoes, helmet, glasses.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you what kind of feeling was in the air. I can’t tell you anything for sure except what I know as my own. I was at a meeting of the Gravel Tribe with our clan of Gravelleras & Gravelleros (the dudes having recently followed the ladies’ lead in getting sporty new kit). My belly was full of coffee and pulled pork Eggs Benedict from our inaugural breakfast stop at the Kitchen Table in Prescott, Wisconsin, just above where the waters of the clear St. Croix and the muddy Mississippi meet, running along each other before fully mixing and flowing into the wide spot called Lake Pepin.
In addition, I had some well-placed sugars flowing into my legs from a sizable glass of barrel strength bourbon I poured the night before around 11pm while the bike was up in the stand getting some last minute TLC. I was feeling good. It was setting up to be a solid day.
Somehow, the time was suddenly just 2 clicks short of 0-900, so it was time to abandon all remaining decisions and roll to the line. Maybe a quick u-turn to ditch another layer, then a lot of looking around to see who’s where on the way to the ball field. Sean’s message to the 600 riders was simple and short and mostly inaudible. Smiles and nods all around, then we rolled out slow to the left down 240th St E taking a left after the church and then after a short stretch of pavement it was a left turn onto the gravel. The first moment when the road goes to dirt is the first sip of a tall drink. The senses take over and the mind sits back. The sounds change, the bike begins flexing over the road, and you smell the first waves of gravel dust. After just a brief moment, the savoring is over at the front of the pack. Things start to get organized and within half a minute everyone is generally where they want to be and the rapid exchange of positions settles down.
I came into the day with a plan. One that was likely to fail. Certain to fail, really. What was less certain was how far into the 56-mile ride I could get before it did fail, and in what amount of hurt it would require to push on after that point. I’d played around with the idea in the past, but I don’t recall setting it up with much intent or design. Today, I would ride with the lead group for as long as possible, then fall back into a series of trailing groups as they came up. The day would start fast, then I would start to go backward through a long sequence of riders passing me as I fall farther back in the group. They will be passers, me a passee. For the rest of the day, I may not pass another rider and I was okay with that.
I suppose, I could go out in some reasonable-like manner, corralling my heart rate into some sustainable zone or other. I could stay back a bit and admire the leaders as they become a cloud up ahead on the road and then vanish. I could stay with those would become my passers later – those riders that are smarter than I am and will finish and have a beer down before I roll into the lot at Kings. Sure, I could do that. But why not check out what is happening up at the front even if it can only last a little while? What if somehow I can make it through??
A half hour into the ride and the Wind was awake starting to get busy. Pulling up warm air from the South at around 15mph and bending some chunky gusts around the tree lines. The Wind, when it’s behind you, will pat you on the back and whisper in your ear that you’re quite fit today and sorta good looking on that bike too, and you listen and you believe it, even though you know that the story will change when the Wind is in your face, stripping you down and telling you to prove everything you just heard. There’s no real point in shutting out the whisper — might as well take the push and believe whatever you want, so long as you can stop listening when it turns the other way.
The first ten miles being mostly northbound, were fast with a tailwind – something like 23mph average. I felt good tucking into the group, and was able to hang on when things got stretched out a bit, closing the gaps without going too deep. At that point, there were maybe 25 riders in the group and it was not easy to catch a glimpse backwards, but I did and saw that there were no riders in sight behind us. This was the first crack in the plan – where were the other groups that were going to pick me up when I fell off??
At mile 10, I nearly fell off the group as we started our first turn southward into the Wind. I decided to burn some matches and get back on. My catch was temporary. As the Wind kicked up it interrupted the space in between the riders who were trying to locate any small pocket of draft. At mile 12.5 the Wind spun up it’s blade and like a deli slicer it peeled me off the back of the lead group, then another rider and one more. Even slices, separated by a few seconds, alone on the road, dropping to about 14mph and trying to find the smoothest line in the road.
The Chimney Rock is a sandstone spire at the top of a small hill that rises above the corn fields of Dakota Country. Not sure what meanings it’s held over it’s thousands of years, but for the MF6 it is the place where the riders climb up a small sandy path to touch the Chimney Rock – and to select a random playing card from a volunteer. This is the only stop in the ride where water and food are provided.
I rolled into Chimney Rock just after being caught by a group of about eight riders. Pretty bad timing since I knew that most everyone would depart the Rock in smaller groups at random points in time.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and refilled a water bottle. I climbed the sandy path and kissed the Rock (too big to hug). Then I rolled out for a 5 mile section into the wind.
After the Rock, there a few turns and then it’s southbound on Inga Road, which at mile 25 switches to ‘Minimum Maintenance’ (official status). Just as it appears to be headed into a person’s driveway it veers left and down a cascade of sharp-edged, baseball-sized rocks. Someone called “Be careful on this one!” just before I went flying down there. As much as the bike was being thrown around, I felt pretty good about handling it until I felt I was risking a flat.
The next moment I had a flat and was on the side of the road for a few minutes switching it out. I was the only one I saw with a flat, until I was back in action and noticed about four other riders that had flatted and were ahead on the side doing their swap.
The next phase of the course is a series of three sections that run east-west. With the Wind fully awakened, the crosswinds were fierce.
I caught a group of four ahead and was lining up at the far end of the echelon when I looked up and noticed a Gravelleros kit. I shouted out “There’s and effin Gravellero here!”. It was Mike Pasdo (man of great fame for birthing a ‘knee baby’ (cramp or alien) on the side of a road at the Dirty Benjamin 2017 and also as a finisher of the DaMN 2017, across the width of Minnesota – read here). Good company to be in.
But my back tire was a bit mushy and though we had a good group working, I had to pull over to add some air. Then I had to pull over again to add some air. Then Pasdo finally got it through my skull that I needed to just switch out the tube. He was right. Post race inspection proved there was a small leak. By this time, we are around mile 40-something. All this time at the side of the road has me feeling pretty well rested. We head off again (and again) and catch groups and pass the same people over and over. The guy on the green All City bike with music playing – we must’ve heard 8 different tracks from his playlist just from the times we passed him and he passed us.
Mike started to have some labor pains and neither of us wanted to go through knee-baby-birthing again, so we kept it in the safe zone for the rest of the roll through Welch before heading back toward Miesville.
We rolled into Miesville, curling off into the Co-Op parking lot. It was a handshake and thanks and thanks. No bib numbers recorded. If you want to know your final time, do the math. If you want to know what place you finished, find another ride.
To King’s Place to wait for our crew. A table in the sun, a Surly Furious IPA and a burger. Riders rolling in with stories to share, and some with wounds to clean.
Turns out the card I pulled at Chimney Rock was the Ace of Clubs and turns out it was a winner – a Surly glass into which I poured a couple of Furiouses.
So, another great day and another great event. It’s spring in Minnesota. The ice will be going out from the lakes soon and the Gravel Tribe is alive. The Almanzo 100 is in a few weeks. The Gravelleras & Gravelleros will be there. Suppose it’s time to called for breakfast reservations in Stewartville.