For some odd reason, I entered my first race in 13 years. My last race was the Leadville Trail 100 back in the day. I can't begin to describe the feeling I had at the start of the race. Some day I'll delve into that, but needless to say, I was a bit nervous. I mean who wouldn't be, right? It was supposed to be 95 degrees, windy and I had 200 miles of gravel facing me. I had a goal of sub-18 hours. I secretly thought that I could finish in the top 20-30 if I persevered and finished. In writing that last line, I must have been crazy to have those dreams given I haven't raced in so many years. That said, I rarely set my goals low. My strategy was not to sit back and finish. My strategy was to race and push myself to my limit.
The police-escorted roll out of town was fairly uneventful. Truthfully, I expected it to be a bit faster, but I think the police car kept folks in check. I knew there would be a strong lead group as this DK field of about 160 riders had a stacked field. My goal was to be just behind the lead pack so that when we hit gravel, I would not be following too many folks. I don't like following people on gravel for a couple of reasons, dust and not being able to see the surface of the road.
Prior to the race, I had talked to a lot of folks about the rocks and how the sharp Flint Hills gravel really tears up tires. I sort of thought that this was hyped just a bit to add fear and drama to racers stories, sort of a Kansas cycling folk lore. Not more than 800 meters onto gravel after the paved roll out, I witnessed the first flat. Maybe there was something about the sharp rock? Maybe it was bad luck? Maybe it was shoddy mechanics? I snapped the pic above and then pondered my chances of a flat-free DK?
As we rolled out of town and got deeper into the open range of the Flint Hills area, I looked back. I wanted to see the sunrise. It was a beautiful morning. I also wanted to see how spread out the pack was at this point. I wanted to ride on my own. It's not that I didn't want to share it with anyone. I just didn't want to be part of someone else's story. This race was a personal battle.
As we zig zagged across the Kansas country side, it was fairly obvious that wind is a big part of the Kansas landscape and environment. Much of the first 40 miles was into the wind, or at least a strong cross wind. I love windswept trees like this. I thought about stopping to perfectly frame and expose and capture the riders as they crested the hill. However, it was a race and I snapped this shot as I pedaled and put my camera back in the frame bag.
Soon, the field was spread out over miles and miles of Kansas countryside. I saw riders searching for derailleur parts in the gravel, others changing flats, while others battled cramps. The sun was getting higher. It was getting hot. I felt incredibly strong. I picked off rider after rider. I rolled into the first check point at 60 miles in under 4 hours. I was pleased, yet the cows were not impressed.
The next section to checkpoint 2 was 40 miles. There was a tailwind and it was getting hotter yet. I was still feeling incredible. I continued to pass folks and press on. I didn't take many pictures on this section. I was focused on getting this 40-mile section put to rest and behind me. I wanted to get halfway as that is where I thought the real battle and test would begin. Then, it happened...I flatted. We had ridden a very rough section of gravel. I think it was called the CC road. Upon inspection, I found a nice tear in the tire. The fabled flint rock got me. Crap! Thankfully, I had a tire boot and all the stuff. I sat and baked in the hot sun as I changed my flat. With no wind movement, sweat was dripping everywhere. Salt stung my eyes. I think I counted 10 or so riders that passed me. As quick as I could, I got back on the road hoping and praying the tire boot would hold and that I would get to town where I could further inspect the tire. If it was bad, I made a plan to swap the rear tire to the front and put the less worn front on the rear. Filled with anxiety, I pressed on and repassed most, or all, of the riders that had passed me. I made it into the second check point at 100 miles in under 7 hours. Pretty darn good considering I had a flat and haven't raced 100 miles in 13 years.
This is where the race and my story really begin. I will apologize now for the lack of pictures that follow. My picture taking pretty muched stopped. I had planned to do a short video at each checkpoint. That did not happen. The checkpoints were points of anxiety for me. Many riders had support folks there to assist, refuel, put fresh tires on, etc. I did not know that was an option and had planned on self support. I carried all my food and supplies with me. I only replenished on liquids at the checkpoints. As folks got help, I scrambled and feverishly refilled my bottles, ate and worked to restore my electrolytes.
With 100 miles down and a 100 to go, it was time to get back on the road. I hopped back on my bike and rolled out of town. I left town alone again and then caught up with Scott, the eventual singlespeed winner, about 3 miles out of town. He was on a Moots. We chatted about the wonders of titanium and discussed singlespeed chain rings. It was the first time I had ridden or talked with anyone. It was nice to break up the miles. Eventually we split up and I pressed on ahead alone.
This section proved to be incredibly difficult. Some of the roads were very, very primative with huge rocks. One of the roads was called Little Egypt. After riding it, I'm guessing it was named after the huge rocks that I'm sure could have been used to build the ancient pyramids. It was rough and brutal. I was very careful to pick my line and somehow managed to avoid a flat through this section. As the road smoothed out and turned to rolling hills, I was once again flying down the road and pressing on. The last 5 miles into Alma was hot. It felt like it must have been 100 degrees. My black shorts were on fire. My calf muscle brushed the seat stay on my titanium bike and it too felt hot to touch. I made it to the 3rd and final checkpoint in Alma, mile 140. Someone told me I was in the top 30. I was elated....But I also knew I was starting to crack and needed some time to cool my core body temp down.
At Alma things got interesting. It was so incredibly hot. I was cooked. I ate my last peanut butter and chocolate chip sandwich along with some beef jerkey and cashews. I downed a chocolate milk and a cold Gatorade. After 30-40 minutes at the store, my body finally cooled down and I hit the road again.
Earlier in the week, someone told me that section 3 that I had just completed was the most difficult. In my mind I had mentally prepared myself that what I rode through was the hardest and that the rest would be easier. I was wrong. Things went up. Repeatedly and for long distances. At one point I stopped on an old concrete bridge to cool down. It was in the shade and I thought just maybe the concrete was cool. I lied down on my chest with my arms outstretched on the concrete. I was wrong again! It was hot just like everything else. I rested, ate some more CLIF Shots and then pressed on. Up and up the road turned. Where was this fabled convenience store folks were talking about so I could get more cold liquids? My map didn't seem to make any sense. I was missing course markings. After some 30mph gravel descents, I eventually made it to mile 165 in Eskridge.
There was quite a group of riders at the store in Eskridge. I caught back up to many folks that left the last check point before I did. Many folks were cooked. Several were dropping out. I was unsure. I ran cold water over my head in an attempt to cool down. I rested on the bench and my arms were twitching and my hamstrings were cramping. I was cooked. I knew in my head I could finish, but at what cost?
I said "I gotta finish", grabbed my bike and started rolling it away from the store. I quickly found out my tire was flat. I must have flatted again rolling into town and didn't know it. Now the stakes went up just a bit. If I pressed on, I knew it would be dark by the time I finished. Did I want to head into the night with only 1 tube left, no blinkly tail light because it vibrated and fell apart somewhere between mile 100 and 165, no other scheduled stop and most importanly, no one to call for help? I just didn't want to put myself in that situation. I decided the tire was a sign from above and called it quits. I walked over to a guy in a pickup truck that had a red Salsa Chili Con Crosso on the back of it and asked if he could give me a ride back to Emporia? He said yes. That was it. Finished. 165 miles. Not 200.
Here are the facts.
- My first race or organized event in 13 years
- My longest ride of my life as well as the most physically challenging thing I have ever done
- 13 hours of riding time (plus checkpoint time)
- Top speed - 35.4 mph
I am happy with the facts, but disappointed in that I did not attain my goal. It's hard not to think about 'what if'...What if I just would have booted the tire again and pressed on? That certainly was one of the two choices that I could make out in my head at that moment. However, I chose the other and I am trying to find peace in setting a big goal, going for it with gusto and stretching myself. The facts speak for themselves. I rode a strong race and pushed beyond my old limits despite not finishing. Sounds like a victory in my personal battle with the race. I'm good with that. I'm not looking back.
Salsa presents Ride The Divide at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis on June 15th at 7pm. Advance tickets recommended. Click the logo below to purchase. Here's what the press is saying about Ride The Divide:
Kick-ass feature film – Vail Daily.
The cinematography was stunning. – Adventure Cycling Association
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Growing up as a Minnesota farm boy, I developed an appreciation and love for land and open space. This appreciation has fostered two passions, cycling and photography. Both of these passions provide freedom, encourage me to explore and foster creativity. More importantly though, my journey with a bike and a camera reminds me that the world is big and I am small.