The Almanzo 100, my third race of the spring gravel classics. The season is in full swing now. The competition shows up stronger due to the later race date and opportunity for better weather. With the founding of the AGRS, riders who traditionally wouldn’t make their way to southern Minnesota for a grassroots 100-mile race, do make their way. This year, with a larger field, a new host town, and near perfect weather the Almanzo 100 was exceptional!
I usually start to lose focus after the Trans Iowa . This year was no different. I have other things on my mind. Hosting the Chequamegon 100 and TransWisconsin is exciting, but doesn’t come without late nights. I’ve still been riding plenty, but I haven’t been resting much. My La Cruz Ti was still in pieces 7 days before the race. The mud and sand in Iowa dictated that I tear it down to the bare frame, replace the BB, and check all the other details. Wednesday night, before the race, I finally got it back together, but the rain had been falling for three days straight. I was reluctant to ride my freshly cleaned bike in the rain and grit. I held off until Friday morning to give it a shakedown ride, hoping I’d uncover any shifting issues, or loose hardware.
Saturday morning I set my alarm for 5:15am. I woke up at 5:45, the planned pickup time that Miker, Paul, and I agreed upon. Fortunately, planned pickup times always end up 10 minutes later than stated. I made coffee and put my granola in a container to go. I had packed the night before and put all my gear by the door. In the process of packing Friday night I realized I didn’t have much in the way of nutrition for the event. The good fellas at Angry Catfish, here in South MPLS saved me with their generosity and my nutritional needs were fulfilled.
We arrived in Spring Valley around 8:15, perfect timing for checking in and getting our gear in order. I procured outside support for the 40-mile mark in Preston, MN, the one place where outside support was allowed. The start was relaxing with race promoter Chris Skogen pacing us on a moped out of town. The peloton hit the gravel and that was the end of relaxing. The pace ratcheted up quickly, but the lead group was fairly large and most everyone took turns pulling.
Ten miles in, on the descent down to Masonic Park on Co Rd 38 I received a wake up call. My head wasn’t in the game and I knew it. I’d been feigning focus and getting away with it because the pace wasn’t hard enough to require it. At the bottom of the descent into Masonic Park was a 90° turn that I hadn’t anticipated. My eyes watered up on the descent and my tires broke loose. It was too late to brake and scrub speed, but I was far enough outside that I could keep my line wide, stay upright, and most importantly, not take anyone else out. Fortunately for me, there was a grassy berm on the outside of turn. Perhaps it was built for just such an occasion. Further back in the 300-rider pack, there was a nasty crash that sent one to the hospital with a concussion and some gnarly road rash. I should have been paying attention.
I focused internally for the next few miles. Regrouping, riding conservatively on the downhills, and getting my head together. Brian and Kim Eppen, on their tandem, began to attack on the descents. The chase group would regain them on the climbs and I figured this is how it would go. I’ve attempted to pace tandems in the past and the rhythm of a tandem just doesn’t match that of a single bicycle. They are typically fast on the descents and slower on the climbs. Around mile 30 the Eppens attacked hard. Five riders went with them, I stayed back. When I realized that they in fact would not be coming back to the chase group it was too late. I found myself riding alone, chasing, but not making any ground. I was only burning up energy. I thought that if I could just get on I could stay on, but I soon realized that if I chased to get on I would be spent.
The chase formed up with Jesse Rietz, Troy Krause, Ben Doom, Nick Martin, John Struchyinksi, and myself. At mile 40 we quickly re-supplied. I dropped my two empty bottles for three fresh bottles. We would occasionally see the lead group up the road, but weren’t gaining on them at all. Slowly, the chase group was whittled down to Troy, Ben, Nick, and me. We reached the 60-mile checkpoint. I grabbed my cues, dropped an empty bottle and rolled on through. I climbed out of Forestville Mystery Cave State Park solo, and caught up with Dirk Rettig. He was the first of the lead group to be shelled in the jet wash (yes, this is a Top Gun reference!) of the Eppens. I was beginning to cramp at this point, but pushed to catch Dirk. As I approached him, it was clear that he had been worked over. A fate I surely would have suffered had I got on the back of that train.
I rolled by myself, taking a short rest, recovering from the cramps and hoping that some of the chase would regroup. The only rider in sight was Nick Martin. As we reconnected he said “It’s just you and me from here on out”. It was confidence building to know that the strategic move not to place a drop bag would give the advantage. Nick and I began taking turns at the front, rolling off after short pulls, not saying much. As we approached a small township a confused rider appeared ahead of us. He was searching for water and found a hose to fill with. That rider was Geoff Perrill, owner of Geoff’s Bikes in Iowa City, IA. He was the second of the lead group to be shelled by the Eppens.
He chased on and introduced himself and quickly the three of us fell in line. It was clear that Nick and Geoff had ridden together. They new each other’s rhythm and I just tried to fit in. Our pace slowed between the 80 to 90-mile markers. The hills had taken their toll and we had a couple still left to climb on the out and back connector back into Spring Valley. We could hardly be called a chase group at this point as we eased up a bit and had short introductory conversations. At the 90-mile marker we began to ratchet the pace back up again. The big climbs were complete, but then we had to cut back through Masonic Park, where I vowed to punch Chris Skogen upon finishing. He loves this deep cut in the rolling landscape of southern Minnesota. It’s an ideal spot for a picnic.
Finishes at these races are never the epic sprints that some might expect. Geoff indicated that he would not be sprinting. Nick and I never had the conversation. Really, what’s the difference between 4th and 5th if you finish at the same time anyway? We ratcheted up the pace and I expected Nick to come around me. To put it simply, I’m not built for sprinting. I sometimes wonder if there is a fast twitch muscle in my body. Much to my surprise we stayed in line as we came across the finish line.
Chris Skogen is a class act guy. As we circled back to the finish line he stopped and shook each one of our hands and told me, “Welcome back Joe. Nice riding”. I indulged in the Coca-Cola and Peanut Butter cookies provided by Bicycle Sports in Rochester, MN next to the finish line after the race. As riders came in I watched Chris welcome each and every one of them back. Almanzo 100 is an incredible grass roots event. It is clear that Chris pours his heart and soul into crafting this experience. I know that he couldn’t do it without the help of his family and friends, and the volunteers at the checkpoint and finish line making sure every rider has a great experience.
I’m satisfied and proud of my performance at this year’s Almanzo. A finish time of 5:30 is the fastest 100-miler I’ve done to date in any discipline. My nutrition plan worked well and my body responded to the stress. I was able to recover from my early race funk, get focused and stay focused. Most importantly I learned a few things and had fun! This race helped boost my confidence for the upcoming Chequamegon 100 and the Dirty Kanza in early June.
For some great photos of the event check out Craig Linder’s Flickr set