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Thursday, May 17, 2018

Trans Iowa v14 - The Last Lap

After the conclusion of Trans Iowa v.14, Race Director Mark Stevenson announced that there would not be a v.15. For Mark, the time had finally arrived and he penned a heartfelt post skidding to an abrupt stop this pioneering event. The End.

This post was to be a Trans Iowa race report from a volunteer's perspective. Mark's announcement changed all that. I didn't know where to start or where to go. I finally stopped thinking and just started writing. Here goes.

Mark Stevenson, aka Guitar Ted, setting the table at the Trans Iowa v.14 Meat-Up.

I learned of the inaugural Trans Iowa in 2005 on the forums, which essentially operated as a crude clearing house of oddball cycling events. Trans Iowa certainly qualified as oddball - a bicycle race across the state of Iowa, on 340-ish miles of gravel and dirt roads on an unmarked course, with no team support and no aid stations, in less than a day and a half in mid-April. There was nothing else like it.

Although I never really wanted to ride it, the race accounts were compelling. As the years passed, I relished reading Race Director Mark Stevenson's musings about all aspects of the race - home spun registration by post cards, crazy hilly courses navigated by cryptic cues, equipment fails and successes, wild weather swings, eccentric rules enforced without waver, and especially the self-supported rider mentality, with all that entailed and nurtured. Trans Iowa truly was a "Guitar Ted Production."

I eventually sampled some gravel and stumbled across Mark during some early miles at the 2013 Odin's Revenge, a legendary 180 mile gravel/dirt road race in central Nebraska crafted in the spirit of Trans Iowa. Mark warmly befriended this newcomer and patiently introduced me to the gravel culture. I was just another mid-pack guy in an obscure gravel race, yet Mark welcomed me like a long lost friend.

At the time, grass roots gravel events were popping up like May dandelions all over the country, blown by the winds of Trans Iowa. But with growth came change. The sheer number of new events and riders introduced conflicting attitudes and demands, including those from the conventional bicycle racing establishment. Some new events catered to that market, while many existing events morphed to accommodate it, increasing their numbers but losing their character. Others, led by Trans Iowa, emphatically did not.

In just a few years, Trans Iowa became not just oddball, but anachronistic. However, Mark refused to grow for the sake of growth. More to the point, Mark repeatedly, loudly and defiantly refused to allow anyone involved with Trans Iowa to "hit the Easy Button." While the cycling world around him demanded accommodation and conformity, he did it his way and kept doing it his way. In the process, he inspired countless others to do it their way, too.

This represented something I felt compelled to support. But Mark did not seek, nor seem to want, more sponsors, more schwag or more publicity. With little to offer of any real value anyhow, I quickly realized that perhaps "thank you" might be a more accurate characterization than "support."

But how do you thank someone for a warm welcome? For inspiration? For modeling character? For selfless service? For creating and nurturing an opportunity for others to stretch beyond their perceived limitations? For sparking no less than a paradigm shift in cycling?

Not knowing what else to do, I asked Mark if I could volunteer at Trans Iowa v14. I thought I could invest some energy and somehow help Mark with something over the race weekend. Maybe afterwards I could write about it from a perspective perhaps different from others. It wasn't much, but it's what I had. A Gravel Pilgrimage.

Surprisingly, he welcomed me again. He didn't need me. He had plenty of long time volunteers who had stepped up to help over the years and the logistics were well dialed in. I realized that, once again, Mark was welcoming me, including me and valuing me, as he has done for so many others for so many years. In my attempt to support and thank Mark, Mark was serving me.

I'm left with gratitude. I am so grateful for the opportunity to participate in Trans Iowa v.14. I am grateful for the mere existence of Trans Iowa over the past fourteen years. I am grateful for Mark's service to the cycling community. And I'm particularly grateful for Mark's friendship.

Ride on, my friend. May we share some remote roads soon.

Here are a few pictures from my view of Trans Iowa v.14, captured for a race report not written.

Mark Stevenson holds court before the nervous, excited riders and supporters at the Trans Iowa v.14 Meat-Up.
In an evening full of happenings, the best moment came when Mark called each rider up by name to present their race bib, personalized by hand by Mark himself. So much emotion. So many emotions. The group hollered and clamored for all.

Waiting at the start, I meet Craig Cooper, owner of Bikes To You, opening his store at 03:00 am.
No, that's not normal. He's there to provide restrooms, free hot coffee and any last minute supplies before the 04:00 am start, which is right at his front door. Mostly, it seems he's there to help make it all happen, just a little bit better.

Checking in riders and handing out the first set of cue sheets at 03:30 am at the Trans Iowa v.14 start.
Craig Cooper of Bikes To You designed and fashioned the "GRINNELL, IOWA" sign out of glitter tiles.
(photo by George Keslin, for Wally Kilburg Photography)

With the racers deep into the hinterlands, a group of supporters and volunteers rode their own ride during some mid-day down time. A gorgeous, casual 24-ish mile loop around Grinnell for a taste of Iowa gravel, with some infamous Iowa B-roads thrown in. Thanks, Katherine Roccasecca and Jess Rundlett for organizing this little beaut. 

At Check Point 2, Mark Stevenson sketching out a map of the now famous cues
"BR on Keokuck/Washington Rd." and "Left on 120th".

The popular Check Point 2 fire at sunset, awaiting riders aching to beat the 11:00 pm cut-off for the next set of cue sheets.

Trans Iowa v.14 finish line gathering. The End was in sight. 


  1. Wow!........words fail. Thank you!

  2. Great words. Thanks for sharing

  3. Thanks for writing this! It means a lot to us Trans Iowa fans. Trans Iowa will live foerever!
    Slender Fungus Cycling Association

  4. Great write up. Was it your daughters cat we had to look for at CP2?

    1. Yes. Thank you so much. The look on Chani's face when we told her the story . . . Thank you so much.