We continue with part two of Eki's Trans Iowa epic. Click here for part one.
With the race starting at 4 a.m. I knew that staying safe early on was paramount. Also, experience has taught me that TI always goes off like a rocket…more like the start of a two-hour mountain bike race, than the start of a daylong effort. v9 wouldn’t be any different. We hit the gravel and within a minute I was on the rivet as racers traded surges at the front. I told myself that it was all part of it and that soon enough we would settle in. I just needed to be smart and keep up. Familiar faces were all around me as we jockeyed for position within the group. The speed was high and I was content to just be in the group. I knew I wasn’t as strong as some of the other riders, but I also knew that I had experience and mental toughness on my side. Plus, I’ve built a reputation that says I can take the pain. I hoped these assets would play to my favor.
I found comfort in knowing the Salsa kit that seemed to always be near me through those early miles belonged to Paul Errington of Newcastle in the United Kingdom. Paul and I met last year while competing in the Dirty Kanza 200, another premiere gravel event held in Kansas. Paul and I had talked the night before and I told him that I felt we had a good chance of riding together and that I hoped we would. Paul shrugged this off stating that he had no expectations in the race other than finishing. I let him know we were on the same page. I also knew that if I wanted to ride with Paul I would need to be on my game as I’ve seen him in action on the gravel. He’s smooth, controlled, and he can run his big motor wide open whenever he needs to. Most importantly, Paul is calm and I wanted that calm around me.
It seemed that my partner in the Salsa kit was shadowing my early moves, sticking to my wheel as I did my best to run in third or fourth position, high enough up to cover sudden gaps, but deep enough to hide in the valuable draft. Jim Cummins, director of the Dirty Kanza, was cruising comfortably in this lead group as well. Jim defines ‘salt of the Earth’ and would be willing to give up his good position in a race if it meant he had a chance to drop a compliment your way. He’s the type of guy you want to be around in a race like TI so that’s what I did. The position felt good, the speed was a bit high, and the gravel a bit soft, but the company I kept was what I was hoping for. I liked how the first few hours had unfolded and the good news was that my first sunrise of the event happening off to my left was a sight to behold. ‘It’s happening, TI is giving us our first gift’, I thought.
The pace was finally settling a bit. Truth told, I recall thinking ‘Finally I’m at about 85% effort and it’s only taken 2.5 hours to come down to this point’! I was handling it, but the pace would have to slow at some point. A glance to my right while climbing one of the hundreds of hills and noted Paul moving past me in a fluid motion as if the hill was just a slight inconvenience. Suddenly, the gravel felt unusually soft and squirrely, so much so that I began to check the road. Everything seemed fine, but my steering was wandering. It took about two seconds for the sickening feeling to hit my stomach. My front tire was going flat!
Without mercy the lead pack motored on. “Ahhhhh, I’ve got a flat!” I yelled as a gut reaction. Immediately, I spotted a good spot to pull over, but something struck me as odd. Off the back end of the disappearing group, a Salsa kit was slowing and the rider was looking back with concern. Paul from the U.K. was stopping for me. “Paul, you don’t have to stop. Go on!” I exclaimed. In his British accent, he calmly stated that it was fine; he’d wait for me. Soon, the gravel came alive with the sound of another rider approaching. Jim Cummins pulled up and asked in his Kansas drawl if everything was okay. He quickly assessed the situation and started to gather up my maimed tube in an effort to help, while I desperately and hurriedly worked to make a smooth change. “Solve the problem, solve the problem”, I kept repeating to myself as I searched the inside of the tire for a sharp object that might be stuck in the rubber, but there was nothing. With what seemed like a thousand flats in the past I knew that tires just don’t suddenly go flat for no reason and punctures that occur without leaving evidence are rare, but still I found no culprit. I chalked it up to one of those rare occasions…when a flat is just a flat…with no rhyme or reason. In a few minutes the new tube was in and I hit the valve with a blast from a CO2 canister.
Paul, Jim, and I left the side of the road together. I had one thing on my mind, ‘Get back to the front!’ We rode with purpose, but not over our heads, and it wasn’t long before a large group of riders appeared ahead of us in the distance. We’d join this group, slipping into their company like guests arriving late to a party. I was confident that holding steady with this crew would bridge us back, maybe not to the lead group, but definitely up to the business end of the race. The hours rolled on as the crispness of the morning was wearing off. I felt the heat building in the ‘night’ clothes that I started the race with. It was time to drop some layers.
My mind was clear of worry as the early flat was behind me. I was looking to the future and beginning to auger in for the long haul that lay ahead. Cruising comfortably, conscious of the draft, I stayed in good position within the group as I knew that conserving energy was a top priority. The surroundings were bucolic as we moved through the farm country of Iowa. Trans Iowa had opened its arms and welcomed us into the world we’d all worried about for so long. A good feeling rose up inside me as I watched rookies embrace TI much the way I did that first time. Then, without warning my front tire wavered again and was losing air fast!
A second flat on the same tire? Something was definitely wrong. It was just too much of a coincidence. Again, my heart sank as I sprung the news to my group that I had another flat. Once again, Paul stopped to wait. As I contemplated his gesture I noticed the entire group had stopped. I was flattered by their consideration, but I needed to get to the task at hand. Former teammate and friend, Matt Gersib, went right to work on the problem with me. Like a panicked child I desperately tried to explain to him that something must be stuck in the tire. Calmly he told me to remove the entire tire off the rim and he would examine it. “But, I checked it before! I checked it! I don’t understand! What is wrong?” I franticly ranted. We inspected the rim and tire, nothing appeared out of the ordinary, so we put it all down under the fluke file and pushed on.
Now I was a wreck, completely consumed by thoughts of another flat. I couldn’t stop checking my tires, bouncing on my bike, as my uncontrolled paranoia ran amuck. ‘If I make it two hours with no problems I’ll buy into the fluke theory and be done worrying about this’, I told myself.
An hour and a half later, my concerns were slipping into the past as I began to feel some of the miles in my legs. I hadn’t been eating regularly as my worry over the tire had gotten the best of me. As I centered my mind on a better plan to manage my nutrition it happened again! “PAUL!” I yelled in an effort to stop him. I was out of tubes and I was hoping he’d donate one of his to my cause. He stopped yet again, curled back to me and in a stoic calmness flatly stated, “Another one?” I asked him if I could have one of his tubes as he was already removing one from his bag. I wanted him to leave me, to pursue his own race now. He’d done more than he should have for me. I felt that I was ruining his race and it hurt. My second thought was, ‘I’m done! I’m going to quit!’ Just then a car pulled up with a happy young driver curious as to what was going on. “A bike race,” I snapped. Pulling myself back together I checked my tone. “We’re in a 320-mile bike race that starts and ends in Grinnell.” He looked confused and tried to make sense of it with a few more questions. Instead of answering him I asked, “Where’s the closest town?” “About four miles down the road is Union”, he said. I looked to Paul and told him that I was going to push my bike to Union and call Amy, and that my Trans Iowa was over. Paul tossed me a half smile and muttered something I didn’t understand as I often had trouble with his accent. He wouldn’t leave, so I told him that we had to go through the tire more thoroughly than before in order to find the problem or else it would be game over.
Again, I stripped the tire completely off the rim and together we turned it over slowly in our hands. Two dirty men standing in the middle of Iowa on a lonesome gravel road, face to face under a brilliantly blue sky studying a piece of rubber as if they were performing brain surgery. Anything that seemed out of the ordinary I honed in on, but they were always false alarms, just little stuck pebbles. I turned the tire with Paul and suddenly noticed a cut in the tread. Immediately, I spread the cut with my fingernails and noticed the back end of a miniscule dagger. “WAIT, I’VE GOT SOMETHING!” I told my partner. I worked out the little gravel knife and placed it in the palm of Paul’s hand. It was no larger than an ant’s head, and shaped like a triangle with a sharp point. My eyes slowly raised up to his, our faces no more than eight inches apart as I stated, “I’m back!” Paul hesitated, then as a small smile crept across his face he simply said, “Back in the race.” I flew through the reassembly and accidently put the damaged tube back into the tire. Luckily Paul caught the mistake and soon we were back on the road, back on track in the Trans Iowa, right where I belonged.
---------------to be continued tomorrow...
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Tim (Eki) Ek
Tim Ek was born and raised in Duluth, Minn., and still calls it home. He’s always had a passion for competition and seeking his own extremes. Tim's true love is the woods: Out in the wild is where he clears his head and finds his peace, and he prefers getting there by bike. Tim Ek: The Eki Chronicles, ekichronicles2.kinetic-fitness.com