Jason and I just registered for Gravel Worlds 2020 and it has me thinking about our experience in this year’s edition. Since we did not have a blog at the time I didn’t write about it. So, here is a belated recap.
I am not at all sure of how to express my feelings about it. So I will just tell you the story and, in the telling, you will likely find my feelings.
Before I move on, the most important thing to say is: it was an incredible event and the organizers outdid themselves. You should ride it in 2020.
I was in a bit of a sad way in December 2018. We need not go into that in detail but life wasn’t as I wished it to be and I wasn’t riding my bicycle at all.
I had always wanted to ride the 150-mile graveler around Lincoln but I had not been able to commit to the training and effort in the past. Jason and I decided to do it and I knew it would bring me joy and give me the motivation I needed to get back on my bike.
I started “training” in February. Base building, as they say. Putting in the miles in a rather unstructured manner in order to establish a base fitness that I could build on later.
This is a good time to tell you about a problem I have. I love riding my bike. You may have already guessed that and that may not seem like a problem but sometimes it can be.
Once I start riding, I do not ever want to stop. Often, I don’t. By June, I had ridden too hard, too fast, for too long, too many times. I had knee and hip issues that kept me off the bike for a while. When I got back on they still kept me from loading up on 50, 75, and 100 mile rides in July and August as I had hoped I could.
As a matter of fact, as I rolled to the starting line for Gravel Worlds, I had ridden exactly one 40 mile ride and one 50 mile ride since February. I was not ready.
I had considered not starting at all. On top of my poor form and lack of fitness, I had found out the day before that a good friend of mine had passed away. I knew that the ride would be mentally tough and I wasn’t sure I had the fortitude to make it with the other things weighing on my mind as well. But, I was determined to start the race, and go as far as I could.
So there we were, in the dark, Jason, myself, and our friend Jose. We were standing over our bikes with hundreds of other folks ready to ride 150 miles. The morning was cool. It had rained just the right amount the night before to keep the dust down but not enough to muddy the roads.
I was certain that I wouldn’t make it to the end. I anticipated the disappointment I would feel when my friends finished without me. But in the first 30 miles, my legs felt strong. There it was: hope.
The route was so good and the roads were in great shape. I was enjoying the ride immensely. By mile 40 I was beginning to feel fatigue and the “good legs” feeling was mostly gone. My knee was starting to toy with me. I could feel it tightening and preparing to hurt me. But it wasn’t ready to do it yet. So, I focused on my pedal stroke and kept going.
I kept my heart rate within the predetermined zone and kept spinning. I wasn’t going fast but I was going. Now and again, Jason and Jose would gain on me and be up ahead on the next hill. I wanted to put in a quick effort to catch up. But I watched my heart rate and kept my pace steady. This meant yo-yoing on and off the back as we went along. If I was going to have any chance of finishing, I knew I couldn’t afford to waste any effort.
Mile 65 was the first official checkpoint. When we got there, I was tired. We collected our pipe cleaners to prove that we had made it that far. We filled our water bottles, had some snacks, and stretched. I was tired but not too tired.
We were getting ready to leave the checkpoint when I noticed my wife, my cousin, and her family walking our way. They had come to cheer me on. My cousin’s two boys, Gus and Howie came running over to me and Gus gave me a hug. I have heard and read quite a few accounts of people who claim that such visits from loved ones were the thing that enabled them to finish races or tasks. That they could not have gone on without it. Honestly, I didn’t need anything. The race was for me, I was going to ride for myself regardless of what else was happening in the world. For me, their visit brought me a remarkable amount of joy. A truly remarkable amount of joy. I took that with me for the rest of the ride.
We went on. It started to get pretty hot and I kept peddling. There were a lot of rest stops in the middle section of the course and we stopped at too many of them. Looking back, I wish we would have stopped only when we needed to re-supply. The time off the bike only made it harder for me to get back into a rhythm.
I became much less social after about 75 miles or so. I was already worn out and there was still so much road ahead. I kept my pace and slowly but surely we moved along.
We met a fantastic fellow riding an old steel Schwinn that had been updated with new components. His name was Marcus and he was from Chicago. He worked in the Public library. I wish I had been able to speak with him more, he was a hell of a nice guy. Also, I am not sure of this but I would bet that he was the only one to finish gravel worlds on a Schwinn.
He was riding by himself and as the day wore on we would pass him for a while and he would catch up. He would pass us for a while and we would meet at the next rest stop. He stopped to assist us when Jason’s tire exploded off of the rim, a result of a broken bead. Marcus pumped his heart out trying to get the tire bead to seat. It did not work but it endeared him to me.
Jose threw in the towel at mile 90 and turned back for home. Part of me wanted to go along. The bigger part of me however wanted to ride my bike more. Yes, things hurt but there were more good roads ahead and being that close to 100 miles, it felt like the worst was behind us. I felt empty, like I had nothing left. But Paul Newman once told me, “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand”, so Jason and I kept on.
I learned many things from this ride. Perhaps the most significant is that the human body is incredible. We can do remarkable things that seem impossible. My perspective regarding limits will certainly never be the same.
I thought I was out of gas many times. But I had more to give each time. Jason was kind and a good friend and he did not drop me as I became slower and slower as the day wore on. The last 50 miles were painful but it was really from mile 130 to 140 that I suffered the most.
Everything hurt. I wanted real food. I wanted to go slower but that was hardly possible. Jason tried to talk to me and I was out of words. That rarely happens. I wasn’t even really thinking. Just pushing the pedals and wanting to fall over. Then someone passed us. It made me mad.
It was getting dark and as we were passed again, I looked back. I could see headlights on the hill behind us. All of the sudden my mind was working again. I did a quick assessment, there was still something left in my legs. I hadn’t come all that way and worked that hard to get dropped by everyone in the race at the very end.
With five miles to go, I dug in. I shifted to a higher gear than I had used in hours and started to really pedal. Jason had been out front all day as a I bobbed around behind. Now I moved ahead. I determined to give everything I had left. We were not going to be passed again.
I picked my heart rate up from 130 to 155 and held it steady for a bit, finding a rhythm and settling into the effort. We caught the guy who had passed us earlier at the bottom of a hill and dropped him on the next rise. I settled in.
With three miles left, I put in another acceleration and raised my heart rate to 170. I was going to make it count. My fingers started to go numb. I kept pedaling. I still had something left.
It was dark and I remember that there were an incredible number of spiders on the road. They scurried away as our lights fell on them. I remember nearly losing control on a few of the descents, my tired body struggling to hold the bars steady as my tires were thrown by the large white rock and the loose gravel.
I don’t remember anything that Jason or I said in that last portion of the ride. I am sure we were not riding as fast as I felt it. But I was soaring. There is nothing I like more than riding my bike.
We crossed the finish line and there were still people there cheering us on. They announced our names as we crossed the line and people screamed. What an amazing feeling that was. I am grateful for those people, whoever they were.
Our wives were there to welcome us and mine brought me a cake. When I told my body it was ok to stop, it did. We didn’t take any photos; we didn’t celebrate. We just needed to go home and go to sleep.
We rode for 16 hours. That bothers me, still. I am proud that I finished the race. I am proud that I did not break down mentally or physically, that I could do it. However, I wanted to do better, to be faster, and I am not content to move on to other things.
I had told other people that I wasn’t planning to finish the ride. I had told myself that I wasn’t planning to finish the ride. But inside, I knew that I wouldn’t get off my bike before the finish line.
That ride was one of the hardest things I have done. I was in real pain physically and emotionally. I wasn’t prepared and I hadn’t known what to expect. The most amazing thing was, it was one of the best days of my life. Not because I felt a great sense of accomplishment, although I did. Not because I finished a race. I think I enjoyed it so much because it was the most time I had ever spent on the bike.
I don’t know how to express what cycling is to me. I certainly don’t know how to explain why it is so large in my life. Sometimes I feel that there should be other things that I am more passionate about. But passion is not a choice. Passion is a wave that carries you regardless of your intellectual desires or intentions.
Bicycles are simple, elegant, machines. They provide recreation and transportation but they do so while demanding that we connect with our world and environment. They demand that we invest our own effort and intuition in our movement. They demand that we respect nature and contact it directly.
I’m convinced that humans need those things.