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Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Journey to Gravel Races (part 5) - Eureka! The Gravel Experience

Riding the inaugural Black Hills Gold Rush introduces me not only to the adventure of gravel races, but to the colorful assortment of cyclists drawn to them.  Yearning for more, I sift through the storied MidWestern gravel scene to unearth Odin's Revenge, a second year race smack dab in the middle of Cornhusker country.  What a gem.

Odin's Revenge is the brainchild of a motley group of local Gothenburg cyclists known as Team DSG, an acronym with a story for them to tell.  The prior year, 28 cyclists embarked on an unmarked, unsupported course of 170 rough, hilly miles through remote backcountry in the heat of summer.  Six finished.  There's a challenge.  And the vibe feels legit.  Post card entry mailed.

Mid-afternoon Friday, I pull into the campground serving as the start/finish/gathering place and immediately see that the people here make the race special.  The proprietors are immigrants from Great Britain, bringing a fun, friendly mix of sights, sounds and tastes of the British Isles to middle America.  Even with their campground bustling with typical mid-summer tourists, Gwen and Barry cheerfully carve out some space to stage a Friday evening pre-race gathering, as well as a Start/Finish area.  Off to a rousing start.

Guitar Ted and Paul Siebert kick off the pre-race party at Odin's Revenge 2013.  (photo by Odin's Revenge)
Setting up my little tent, I watch a steady stream of vehicles pull into the campground, many sporting bikes on board.  Before long, a small community forms, as folks set up camp, wander around to other camps, and strike up conversations.  Cyclists of all kinds are here, allured by the challenge of an unknown course through unknown country under unknown conditions, with only a simple set of written directions to follow, the gear on your bike and your own gumption.  The air is electric, as we compare thoughts and hopes.

Wandering over to the pre-race meeting, we find an enthusiastic group gathering, with local musician Paul Siebert playing a variety of instruments and Mark Stevenson himself, Guitar Ted of TransIowa and Gravel Grinder News fame, joining in.  Microbrews and other sports drinks flow, as folks meet and reconnect.  Eventually, Chad Quigley and Matt Bergen of Team DSG describe the course, walk through opportunities for water and supplies, explain emergency and bail out procedures, identify check points, point out particular highlights and hazards, and answer questions.  The evening is ripe with anticipation.

Spinning into the hills at the start of Odin's Revenge 2013.  (photo by Mark Stevenson) 
The predawn glow on the eastern horizon hints of the glorious morning to come, as a primed peloton of 40 or so pedals out of town for a couple of neutral miles on pavement before the gravel, and the racing, starts.  Soft, muted sunlight reveals a stunning landscape of rolling hills.  Wow.

There are no strangers in this peloton, only kindred spirits now connecting.  I enjoy the company of many, but seem to leap frog repeatedly with Mark Stevenson, grizzled old timer of the gravel scene.  He's the real deal.  Even to this new comer, he is genuine, encouraging, open, and chatty to the point of loquacious.  It's a real treat to share some early miles with him.

Mark Stevenson pacing me up the final climb to Check Point 1 at Odin's Revenge 2013.  (photo by Odin's Revenge)
As the miles pass, the small field stretches and I ride more by myself.  But my sporadic encounters with fellow racers are consistently positive and upbeat, as we crank through the rough, hilly roads in the growing wind and heat of the day.  The cheerful check point volunteers add to the festive vibe, offering encouragement, along with cool water and homemade treats.  I'm loving everything about this.

Up another dirt road at the 2013 Odin's Revenge.  (photo by Mark Stevenson)
After about 13 1/2 hours of remote road bliss, I spin into the finish to the boisterous cheers of the gravel clan reassembling at the campground.  That's good for second place amongst the single speeders, out of four starters.  More importantly, that's a great day on the bike.  Ahead lies a relaxing evening around the campsite, sharing stories of the day.

What an experience.  I'll do this again.


Addendum.  For a detailed race report on the 2013 Odin's Revenge, here are links to Mark Stevenson's five posts on his blog.  GT-Odin 2013-1;  GT-Odin 2013-2;  GT-Odin 2013-3;  GT-Odin 2013-4;  GT-Odin 2013-5.

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