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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Back in the Saddle at Odin's Revenge

Back to Odin's Revenge.  180 miles of the toughest gravel and dirt roads winding through the rolling hills and steep ravines of remote ranch country in central Nebraska.  Adventure gravel geeks of all sorts, seasoned and green, fast and slow, journey here to challenge themselves and each other.  Even more so, they look to the open western prairie for an experience to share with each other and with the friendly folks that put it all together.  Odin's Revenge represents the best of the gravel scene.

Finding my way, out there somewhere on the Odin's Revenge course.
Relishing a return to Odin's Revenge for the fourth time, I carry the unfamiliar weight of a DNF ("did not finish") from the 210 mile Gold Rush Mother Lode, just two weeks ago.  In addition to the emotional baggage, I know there's a physical one, as well.  I've ridden to work every day since without issue, but harder efforts on single track reveal the truth.  I have no power.  I still have not physically recovered from the heat of the Mother Lode.  Not sure Odin's Revenge is the place to do that.

So, I roll into Gothenburg with considerable concerns about the race ahead, while quietly hoping for a solid finish.  Seductive whispers of dropping the mileage down to the 60 mile "short course" creep into my thoughts during the six hour drive.  Such a decision would be easy to rationalize, but hard to live with.  I know, when it comes right down to it, I'm all-in for the full 180 mile course.

Chad Quigley, the Revenge behind Odin's, setting up the pre-race gathering at Walker's Steak House.
Nothing lightens the heart quite like the Odin's Revenge pre-race gathering at the Walker Steak House. Folks filter in over the next few hours, reconnecting with old friends and meeting new ones.  Some talk of rides in the past, but mostly of the day ahead.  What did Chad and Team DSG cook up this year?  Even more Minimum Maintenance Roads, or worse?  What about the heat, the wind, the rains?  Oh, what are you running for tires?  That may all sound like a bunch of Nervous Nellies, but, with this crowd, it's more like being excited to face whatever comes our way.  Anticipation fills the old dance hall, mixing with the aroma of sizzling steaks and cold beer.

Chad announces that he designed the course along the lines of the inaugural 2012 race:  two odd shaped balloons connected at a start/finish area, with a meandering southern loop of about 100 miles, followed by a northern loop of about 80 miles.  Racers must reach four check points along the way at miles 42.6, 69.6, 96.5 and 138.5, each with a time cut-off.  The finish arrives at mile 178.1, for those that manage to make it.  It all looks reasonable enough on paper.  Of course, those miles cover what most cyclists would not consider normal roads or, in some cases, roads at all.

If you're looking for sweet gravel, you'll find plenty at Odin's Revenge.  Just know that there's some other stuff, too.
Having finished the last three years, I recognize enough of the roads on the cue sheets to know that this course will be at least as difficult those in the past.  My game plan is simple.  From the very start, ride moderately, with just enough effort to complete the 100 mile first loop on time to get the cue sheets for the second loop. Then take a break, refuel, assess how you feel for the 80 mile second loop, and head out with an appropriate plan to finish within the time cut-off of 12:30 am.  No attack speed today.  This is all about finishing.

Back to the Blue Heron campground, I enjoy the camaraderie of several other racers preparing for the day ahead:  strongman Jeff Caldwell and his irrepressible daughter Piper of North Platte, NE joyfully spinning around on their fatties; gravel veteran Shane Buscher of Lincoln, NE; tip-of-the-spear racer Daniel Schneider of Colorado; Omaha JackRabbit guru Scott Redd of Omaha, NE; and the ever-smiling, fast-roadie-racer Lawrence Fitz of Champaign, IL.  Some familiar faces.  Some new.  All having fun.

That light must be an angel looking over me, as we prepare for the 6:00 am start.
(photo by Emilie Kenoyer)
As usual, I awake moments before the alarm is set to go off.  The forecast calls for temperatures in the upper 80's, with morning winds from the south, the direction we're starting into, and then shifting to be from the north late morning, the direction we'll be riding then.  So, warm and headwinds all day.  All the more reason to ride conservatively.

The start line at 6:00 am is a festive happening, with pictures and well-wishing all around.  It's easy to get caught up in all that energy, but I remind myself to ride conservatively.  Many, many unknown variables about the course, the conditions and, most importantly, my body.  Go slow.

Cruising past one of the very few structures out there on the southern loop.
Only twenty-five of the forty registered racers actually start and, at the first hint of gravel, most of them disappear over the first hill.  I feel much better turning pedals than expected, but resist the temptation to respond.  This in not the day to chase rabbits.  Let them go.  Let them all go.  Find your pace.  Keep it mellow.  You're in this one to finish.

I soak in the moment.  The slow awakening sun greets lazy clouds, light breezes and mild temperatures, as the low hills of the Platte River Valley roll by.  This is my favorite time of day and I'm doing my favorite thing at my favorite event.  So happy to just be here.

The difficulties of the hills pick up, both in pitch and in surface, but it's a kinder, gentler ride when not pushing the pace.  The hardest part of these early miles is riding alone.  Even at relatively small races,  I enjoy riding with others, off and on, at least through the first few check points.  Today, with my measured pace, that isn't happening.  I'm at the blunt end of the spear.

Topping another small rise, I spot Check Point 1 at mile 42.6, managed by Merrie Quigley and her enthusiastic crew of cowbell clangers.  Merrie's famous "protein balls" are always a special treat, along with the cold, crisp water served by Culligan Water man Gordon Sanders.  Notwithstanding my pedestrian pace, it's only about 3 1/2 hours into the race, almost an hour before the cut-off time.  I feel fresh and energized.

Now come steeper climbs, more deeply rutted roads and thicker talcum they call dirt around here.  This is much more work, particularly with temperatures and winds rising.  With each turn, the names of the roads evoke memories of challenging sections of prior races :  Cut Creek Road, Hansen Hill, Effenbeck Road, Cottonwood Road and the renowned Government Pocket Road.  But the climbs don't seem as steep, the ruts as deep or the talcum as soft.  Maybe it's the relaxed mindset, but I'm feeling strong.

I cruise into Check Point 2 at Potter's Pasture at mile 69.6, hosted by artiste Garrett Olsen and Jen Wilson.  Very upscale, with a party tent, cheese and crackers, and adult beverages.  It's a peaceful spot.  Sweet.  I lie down for just a minute, top off water and get back out there, with still almost an hour in the time bank.  That was nice.

Picked up this cool print from cyclist artiste Garrett Olsen, who volunteers every year at Odin's Revenge.
Not long thereafter, I find Scott Redd at the top of a hill on Gillman Road, taking pictures, of course.  Scott is a cycling aficionado who has ridden many gravel events, including this year's TransIowa, and is the creative force behind the eclectic Omaha JackRabbit ride in October each year.  Just a few uphill pitches and "it's all a downhill trend," he says as he gazes into a Garmin digital map he created last night from the written cue sheets.  We ride together the hour or so remaining of the southern loop, sharing our time and encouraging each other.  What a great way to spin into Check Point 3.

Cruising along the canal with Scott Redd, a strong rider and great companion as the day grows longer.
Sticking to the plan, I put my feet up in the convenience store at the Blue Heron Campground, inhale a bottle of chocolate milk and a can of Coke, study the cue sheets for the northern loop and assess the eighty-two miles ahead.  There's at least twenty miles straight north, maybe thirty, into the now stout wind on a variety of unknown, numbered roads, with stretches into uninviting places as "Roten Valley."  I also hear whispers in the air, cautioning of unrideable, even indiscernible, paths unworthy of the name "road," lying in wait to lure and entrap the unwary.

Whatever, dude.  I now have about an hour and a half in the time bank and I feel really good.  The slow, steady pace is working.  Let's see what's out there and get to that next check point, about 42 miles away.

The next 30 miles or so are the least pleasant part of the entire day:  generally uphill on a false flat or a real hill, directly into a headwind, temperatures in the low 90's, thick gravel everywhere and not nearly as scenic as the southern loop.  All pass from memory as I spin into the raucous, rocking venue that is Check Point 4.  Lane Bergen, just back from his 1400 mile bike ride along the Continental Divide, and his proud dad Matt, hoop and holler to the squawking squeeze box of musician Paul Siebert.  It's all quite the mix of sights and sounds, planted on an intersection of a primitive dirt road and a barely maintained gravel road in the middle of nowhere particular.  What a fun stop.  And, despite the difficult section just covered, I still carry a solid hour and a half in the time bank.

Matt Bergen at Check Point 4, as I take off for the final 40 miles.  Or so.
(photo by Lane Bergen)
Now, I know I'll finish this.  Whatever lies ahead in the final 40 miles will have to include at least 20 miles of riding south, some tailwind and mostly "trending downhill," as Scott would say.  After a quick few miles, my optimism for a fast finishing forty miles fades upon turning onto a series of "Minimum Maintenance Roads," where I am abruptly reduced to walking, dragging and carrying my bike, while attempting to navigate through waist high grass.  Fortunately, these parts of the "roads" are relatively short connectors and soon I'm back to cruising on gravel.  

I zone out for a couple of miles before noticing that a road sign does not match the cue sheets.  Oh, no.  This is not the time to go off course and get lost in unfamiliar, remote country.  I backtrack and eventually get back on course, losing maybe half an hour or so and a lot of enthusiasm for that fast finish.

Yes, this is the "road" on one stretch of Odin's Revenge.  Does that look like "Minimum Maintenance" to you?
(photo by Scott Redd)
But I carry on, now finally back on solid gravel roads, for the most part.  As the sun slides away with a glorious farewell, I'm determined to stay on course now that it's dark.  I stop frequently to ensure that the cue sheets and road signs stay true.  The miles grow longer, but pass.  I'm certainly ready to get off the bike when crossing U.S. Highway 30 and then the bridge over Interstate 70 to take the turn onto Willow Island Road for the final 6 miles.  Not even the chunky gravel here dampens my spirit.  I will finish this race, on this day.  

A truck approaches from ahead, flashing its lights and stopping for me.  It's Race Director Chad Quigley and his wife Merrie, out checking on the racers still out on the course.  He's the force behind the fabulous team that puts together this great race, taking care of everyone within the spirit of such events.  A few minutes later, Chad and Merrie drive off to find Scott Redd and Janine Copple, who apparently are somewhere behind me.

Eventually, the heavy gravel of Willow Island Road T-bones into paved highway 47 for a short coast to the finish line at the Blue Heron Campground.  The handful of volunteers, racers and crew still hanging around bring me home to a chorus of cheers and cowbells, right at 11:27 pm.  That's 17 hours and 27 minutes after the start and just over an hour before the final time cut-off.  While snapping my finish line photo, Emilie Kenoyer exclaims, "Craig, you're just beaming!" 

That I am.  Still.

There's a finish line photo of one happy camper.  (photo by Emilie Kenoyer)
  Epilogue:  Scott Redd and Janine Copple knew they had become too late to be labeled as "official finishers" on some list, but kept pedaling well into the night to finish the entire course at 1:21 am.  Such determination represents the spirit of these events.  And Odin's Revenge itself, created and nurtured by Chad Quigley and the rest of Team DSG, represents the best of the unsanctioned, grass roots gravel race scene.  Support them and others like them.  The experiences they help to create are worth having and sharing.

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