There is no easy way to describe the motivation for wanting to ride a bike for 300-plus miles on gravel in Iowa. You either get it or you just plain don’t. One of the great motivators for me to come to the U.S. to do these ultra events is that I get to hang out with people who, when told about an endurance race involving large amounts of suffering, don’t question “Why would I want to do that?” but instead ask “Where do I sign?”
In my eyes, Trans Iowa is the pinnacle of gravel racing simply because of the quality of racers that it attracts. I have to admit though, I was fascinated by thoughts of exceeding a triple century worth of gravel and the physical and mental challenges that it would put me through.
Months of the usual preparation were invested in this event; travel, accommodation and on-the-ground logistics are as big a challenge, if not bigger, than the race itself. After all, turning pedals is the easiest thing in the world, whereas hoping that the guy loading the bags at Heathrow Airport remembers to put my bike on the plane before his lunch break is just down to pure chance.
Although I had no control over getting my bike to the U.S., thanks to Guitar Ted I was to be adopted into the Fuller family from my arrival in Des Moines, Iowa until my departure. Steve Fuller is a gent and an awesome host, his family made me feel welcome and without them life would have been a ton more difficult.
Different continent or not, the pre-race deal is pretty similar when traveling to a race: unbox bike, dial it in as best as possible, eat as much food as your can, and rest as much as possible. This time was no exception with just the slight addition of traveling to the start in Grinnell, Iowa the day before the race for a pre-race meeting and meal.
I was so happy to meet so many people that I felt, through hours of online chat, I already knew, including the friends I had made from the Dirty Kanza the year before. I was feeling really relaxed about this event, with no pressure to do anything but turn the pedals for as long as I could and see what would happen.
Still, no matter how relaxed you are, I think the anxiety of just wanting to start gets to everyone. You have everything ready to a point where nothing can be changed and you are ready to go but yet a night's sleep is still in between you and the start. Luckily Guitar Ted, in an effort to reduce this period of limbo, starts the event at 4:00 a.m. in the morning! It was barely worth my head meeting pillow.
With 325 miles of gravel in front of us, you would think the start would be pretty steady; a lot of chatting and social riding for a hundred miles or so before the task of racing took hold. That is what I would of liked. Instead we started with a neutral roll out, drafting Guitar Ted's truck though the streets of Grinnel before hitting gravel a few miles later and immediately taking off as if it was a 100-mile race! Pace lining fresh gravel from the offset.
A little over fifty miles in, not far from the first checkpoint, my Salsa teamate Tim Ek got a flat. I was quick to eject from the crazy front group and stop to help. This race is LONG and I wasn’t gonna burn myself out in the first few hours. While fixing Tim’s flat we were joined by DK200 race director Jim Cummins and our first group of the race was formed.
The trick to surviving the Trans Iowa for most (including me) is to get in to a good group. This can be difficult as everyone has their own pace and race agenda but for the sake of sanity it is a must for me.
The trio of Tim, Jim and myself was great and we were riding at a strong pace. Tim has finished Trans Iowa multiple times and Jim was plowing through fresh gravel like he was riding tarmac. We were making good progress and quickly began picking up more riders. Some were passed, some joined, and soon our small group grew to seven or eight riders strong.
The dynamic of the race meant that the group constantly changed as we filtered in and out of convenience stores to resupply, but the constant was that Tim and I had decided to see this thing through together, so when he flatted for the third time I was with him again. With the same tire giving him so much trouble it looked like his race might be done. After what must have been the tenth check of the tire between us, Tim’s eagle eyes spotted a tiny piece of flint barely pushing through the tread and must have been scratching a hole over hours in the tube. Tim’s Trans Iowa was back on again!
As darkness fell and the temperatures dropped, the group had consolidated into what would be its final format; myself, Tim, my Iowan host Steve Fuller, Jay Barre, Ben Oney, Charles Parsons, Mike Johnson, Paul Carpenter, and silent most of the time but always there, Chris Wells. It was an eclectic mix of novices and finishers that came together by chance but were solid through the whole night.
The temperature took a few racers by surprise and as I would find out later resulted in the retirement of the other Brit in this crazy race, Vin Cox. He was simply too cold to continue even after raiding recycling bins for insulation. Tim managed to gather up some spare clothes from the group and when the final convenience store was reached he went all out and bought himself a Mountain Dew sweatshirt to see the rest of the cold night out through.
As dawn started to break again, we must of only had 25 miles left. The thought of the finish line, the realization that it was going to happen, and the lift in spirits from the rising sun meant that peoples spirits soared and the pedals seemed to turn a little easier. Every hill now was a little race between Jay Barre and I. While Tim eased back with some nagging knee pain, the miles went by easily as Jay, Steve, Paul, Charles and myself continued to play. Then, just as we were playing on another one of what must have been hundreds of climbs this race includes…BOOM! Tim comes past absolutely on the gas. He had lifted his saddle a touch which had instantly cured his knee and he was set on getting the race done as soon as possible.
As we rolled up to the finish line barn we were handed a well-earned beer and then the previous 325 miles didn’t seem so bad. The good thoughts prevailed, burying the bad moments out of sight and mind.
In their fury to finish and race each other Tim and Steve had hooked a wrong turn as they finished a few minutes after to again more beer and congratulations, both well deserved.
My Trans Iowa experience could not have been a better one. Steve Fuller really looked after me, the weather cooperated and was fantastically warm and dry during the day and mercifully dry during the night. The people I rode with inspired me to come back over and over again. The group I was part of was rock solid and every one of those guys contributed to me being able to finish. The Salsa Warbird I rode for 325 miles in Iowa and countless training miles in the UK? I could not have asked for a better bike for the task.
It's difficult to truly appreciate the enormity of Trans Iowa. Even having ridden the event I find it difficult to quantify the experience to anyone. I guess the experience is one you have to try for yourself.
A huge thanks to all those who helped me in completing this phenomenal challenge. From Guitar Ted (Mark Stevenson) organizing this thing, and his helpers performing a great job manning the checkpoints, the Fuller family for looking after me so well while I was in Iowa, Salsa Cycles for not only providing me with a great bike (a Salsa Warbird) but also making me part of the Salsa family and allowing me to ride with great racers like Tim Ek, and every single rider I met on course showing me that there others out like me willing to suffer to be rewarded by achievement.
Photos courtesy of ImagineGnat
The complete version of this story and additional photos will appear in the next issue of XXC Magazine due out early this summer.
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UK born and bred, Paul Errington came to riding bikes as a hobby, which soon evolved into an all-consuming passion. Riding fulfills a desire to challenge himself and explore adversity. An endurance bike rider above all else, the ever-progressive sport keeps him enthused. Every day on a bike is a good day. shoestring-racing.blogspot.com