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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

2017 Robidoux Quick & Dirty

Robidoux Quick & Dirty is a second year gravel road race rolling up 4,000 feet of elevation gain over 75 miles through the Wild Cat Hills of the Nebraska panhandle.  Created by the Western Nebraska Bicycling Club, this event showcases the pioneer history of the area by following part of the Oregon Trail over old Robidoux Pass and Mitchell Pass in Scottsbluff National Monument.  Nice event.  Good folks.

All the roads were saturated from days of spring rains that reluctantly relented just before the start.
Some pave, a lot of gravel, some dirt, here some sand.  It all stuck to everything.
Driving south from Rapid City on a late Friday afternoon, I watch as the skies grow increasingly heavy, the winds pick up momentum and the temperatures drop.  Cautious glances away from the paved highway onto the occasional abutting gravel roads bring a foreboding sense of reality.  As I drive further south, the gravel roads are getting wetter and wetter.  And there's more and more water standing on the roads, in the ditches, and in the fields.  Hmm.  It starts to rain.  It rains harder.

Socked-in steady rain greets me as I pull into the pre-race festivities at Five Rocks Pavillion, a nice outdoors amphitheater in Gering, Nebraska.  Unfortunately, a week of windy, cold rain petulantly persists past its forecasted finish, and well past its welcome.  The announced field of 105 registered racers winnows down to something less than half that at the pre-race.  As racers huddle around a shelter, Race Director Matt Hutt announces that a 20 mile chunk of the course is actually underwater and the rest is soggy, sloppy gunk of gravel, mud and/or sand.  The solution?  Detour around the parts underwater and slog through the rest.  Well, all righty then.  The group soon disperses.

I meet the effervescent Matt Hutt, sign in, devour a stone-fired pizza, study the modified course map, and consider a game plan.  Not much to analyze, really.  Unless this weather improves quickly and significantly, this race looks to be an all day slog in 35 degree windy rain.  So, just stay warm and dry until the start, decide then the quantity and quality of layers to pile on, and head out to take on the day as it comes.  Not much more to it.

Waking up to 37 degree drizzle and steady winds.  At least the hard rain stopped during the night.
Pitching a tent in the dark windy rain at 35 degrees challenges my objective of staying warm and dry until the start.  However, all turns toasty once tucked inside.  Of course, it rains all night and into the morning, before settling down to a dreary drizzle by about 8:00 am.  I dress like I was riding the Iditarod.

"Hey! Craig!" shouts a familiar voice at the chilly start.  It's the one-and-only Jeff Caldwell of Team White Tail Racing
out of North Platte, here with compatriot Luke Meduna to take on the Robidoux on a fattie.  Great to see you guys! 
Racers filter back to Five Rocks.  The later they arrive, the less layers they are wearing.  I skeptically drop a layer, then two.  By the 9:00 am start, the rain stops and a north west wind picks up, driving temperatures into the 40's.  Matt Hutt warns racers that the first 20 miles plows through soggy bottom land with soupy soft gravel and a few stretches of deep mud.  But the skies tease with a few, small patches of blue and the winds hint of drier roads soon.  A cautious optimism fills the air as the primed peloton streams into the rolling prairie.

Starting out on good gravel.  Just more than a little saturated.  Like those clouds.
But wait.  There's some blue.  I think.

We pedal south and east on well developed, relatively flat gravel roads that, if dry, would be very
fast.  But dry they are not.  Even on 40 mm Schwalbe G-One tires, I ride seemingly rim deep in gooey gunk for much of the first 20 miles.  At least one race ends with a broken derailleur in a particularly nasty mud pit.  It's that kind of day.

No one is in any danger of getting lost.  The few turns are well marked and staffed with volunteers cheering and clanging cow bells.  The interaction is fun and lively, but eliminates what little navigation skills the course may otherwise require.

Turning uphill and upwind into the Wild Cat Hills on firmer gravel, turning to sand.
Emerging from that initial 20 mile slugfest, we turn west and north onto firmer gravel up and into the Wild Cat Hills. These "hills" are bluffs that remain after an ancient inland sea receded.  Wind and water since have eroded these bluffs, further exposing layers and layers of underlying rock and sand.  Much of the 4,000 feet of elevation gain lies here, which now happens to be directly into the growing wind.  The slow climbs allow for a greater appreciation of the unique scenery.

Imagining life as a trading post entrepreneur in these hills in the 1840's.
The course winds gradually uphill on good gravel into pine covered hills up old Robidoux Pass, which runs by the site of a trading post established in about 1840 by Antoine Robidoux.  Yeah, that's not a typo.  1840.  Well before the Civil War.  That life had to be filled with adventure.  After a short, steep pitch, the course detours around the underwater section by turning onto Rifle Sight Pass Road.  This detour was the best part of the ride for me.  Big, sweeping views, long sight lines, firm sandy roads and a sense of remoteness.  Ahhhh.  Breathe deep the air of freedom.

The sand holds a week's worth of rain, but is firm enough so it feels like flying.
This hill generated a speed of 40 mph for this back-of-the-packer.
After a long, glorious descent onto the prairie below, the course rolls along again, with volunteers once again cheering and clanging cow bells at most every intersection.  The gravel remains soft, but rideable and with less standing water, before spilling onto pavement for a short pitch up Mitchell Pass in Scottsbluff National Monument.  Now, it's just a spin through the Gering Cemetery to the finish.

Yep, that's pavement over Mitchell Pass in Scotts Bluff National Monument.
And, yep, that Black Mountain Monster Cross bike is all blue underneath that fresh coating of gunk.
There's Matt Hutt at the finish line, giving high fives to the finishers.  He's a muddy mess, too, since he rode the entire course with everyone else.  Volunteers cheer and clang cow bells.  Music rocks the park.  The aroma of fresh burritos fills the air.  It's much more of a party, now that the wind swept away most of the heavy clouds and drove temperatures into the 60's.

Crossing the finish to a high five by Race Director Matt Hutt, who unfortunately is just out of the picture.
At the finish, my computer read just over 61 miles, with 6 hours and 7 minutes moving time.  For what it's worth, my official finish time was 6 hours 17 minutes, putting me in 23rd place out of 30 finishers.  I don't know how many of the 50 some folks at the Friday pre-race actually rode on Saturday.  But I do know that yet another 50 or so that pre-registered chose not to ride and missed a good one.

Here's Race Director Matt Hutt, showing some mud, but little other effects, from riding the entire course with everyone.
Nice work, Matt!
All told, the Robidoux Quick & Dirty turned out to be a surprisingly pleasant day on the bike, exploring unique country with history and scenery.  With well developed gravel roads, minimal navigation, relatively short distances and on course support, this event should attract a lot of interest from anyone wanting to check out the gravel scene.

Matt Hutt and crew created a fine event and overcame the challenging conditions with good cheer and good judgment.  Well done.

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