Colonel Nathan R. Jessep, A Few Good Men (1992).
|Early on, I'm cranking hard into a steady 25 mph wind at 30-some degrees on gravel so soft it's hard to hold a straight line.
(photo by Jon Duke)
Huddling against the brunt of a wind chilled morning, a resolute band of intrepid cyclists gather in the community park of a small Iowa farm town. They scan the heavy laden skies, searching for a sliver of hope that the sun will somehow break through to firm up the surrounding gravel and dirt roads saturated from yesterday's drenching rains. Nervous excitement charges the air, as one race director bellows last minute instructions, while the other hands out cue sheets for the unmarked course.
Perusing the assembling bicycles, gear and racers, I immediately see that this field is experienced, determined, fun-loving, fit, and fast. I recognize several past Trans Iowa finishers and veterans, including last year's winner Luke Wilson and serial single speed champ Mark Johnson. This field is serious about having fun riding fast on gravel.
|The field begins to line up at Miller Park in Grinnell, Iowa for the start of the inaugural
C.O.G. 100 Iowa Gravel Single Speed Championship. (photo by Jon Duke).
Welcome to the C.O.G. 100 Iowa Gravel Single Speed Championship: 111 self-navigated, self-supported miles of unmarked central Iowa gravel and dirt roads, passing just one town at mile 83. All on a bicycle set up with but one gear. All on a course designed within the dastardly mind of Mark Stevenson, aka Guitar Ted of Trans Iowa notoriety. All within a 10 hour cutoff. This promises to be a difficult, challenging race under the best of conditions.
Today is not the best of conditions. At the relatively civil start time of 8:00 am, racers face a steady 25 mph northerly wind, 30-something degree air, ominous overcast skies, spongy gravel and relentless hills. None of the above improve during the day. Some worsen. Difficult turns brutal.
|After meandering along Kent Church Road for several miles, we actually rode by Kent Church.
Rolling out of town, we abruptly drop off pavement churning directly into that 25 mph wind. The soft gravel immediately gives ground and forward speed drops. To make the 10 hour cutoff, I'll need to average 11.1 mph, which normally would not be an issue, even with the wind and hills. But this spongy gravel demands much more work, so I crank it up.
After almost an hour of hard pedaling, I pass the 11 mile mark. So, I'm on schedule, but working way too hard this early. Conditions dictate prompt analysis. If I continue to push this hard, I will fall apart eventually and fail to finish. If I back off while waiting for the roads to firm up, I will fall too far behind pace to finish. Either way, for me to finish today, these roads must improve sometime. Alright, I'll keep pushing, hope for drier roads and give myself a chance.
I conjure memories of the Mud Year of Odin's Revenge, which started under similar circumstances and deposited me at the first checkpoint at mile 47, utterly exhausted after almost 6.5 hours of hard effort. But then the sun burst out and the roads firmed up. Every mile kept getting better, and better, and then better again. I eventually completed the 180 mile race well into the night, with some of the very best hours I ever spent on a bike. 2014 Odin's Revenge. Keep pedaling. It will get better.
|Who carries a bike down a steep hill? Apparently most of this part of the C.O.G. 100 field here.
(photo by Jon Duke)
Another mile, another hill. Normally, I love relatively short, steep rollers, flying down one side, maintaining momentum well into the uphill and powering over the top. On a single speed, an early top speed can mean much more speed at the bottom and that much more momentum to carry a bit further up the next. Timing just right the power stroke over the top is pure joy. It's all part of the single speed experience.
Not today. Regardless of the wind, I pedal down most of the downhills just to stay upright in the muck. Of course, the bottom of the hill typically is the wettest, which drains what little speed I carry. Seemingly every climb starts from the bottom with zero momentum, making every climb harder and slower. It adds up. It keeps adding up.
|Fatter tires are not necessarily better at riding through the muck. Sometimes they're just better at picking it up.
My 40 mm Schwalbe G-One tires did not ever look like that, but I certainly sank a bit all day. (photo by Jon Duke)
Miles pass like kidney stones. The wind howls. The temperatures sit. The hills mock. For a moment, I think I see the sun, but then realize it's little but wishful thinking. The roads stay soggy and, if anything, get more so south of Grinnell. The hard push through the muck drains. Despite my efforts, my pace drops.
I plug along. At an intersection about mile 66, I slog to a stop and slump over my handlebars. The dream of a 10 hour finish is dead, buried in the mire. The thought of a 111 mile ride today is dying, unless I ride well into the night. I need a long break and the solitary convenience store on the route is 17 miles away. With my diminishing energy and plummeting pace, that could well be two hours away, maybe more.
Hearing a groan, I see a sprawling cyclist prone in the ditch. It's Rob Evans of Nebraska, who assures me that he's OK and just waiting for a shuttle back to Grinnell. After talking with Rob for a few minutes, I weigh the risk/reward of plowing on into the night and decide to accept his offer of a shuttle. Just like that, my C.O.G. 100 is over.
|Now there's a firm surface to ride on! For a few yards, anyhow.
The final tally for the C.O.G. 100 Iowa Gravel Single Speed Championship: 97 entrants, 76 starters, 10 official finishers. It's that kind of day. It's that kind of event.
Now a week later, I've thought much about my C.O.G. 100 day. As a start, everything worked well. Despite the conditions, I cleaned mud from the bike just once all day, which I attribute to the relatively large clearances on the Black Mountain Cycles frame and the tread pattern on the 40 mm Schwalbe G-One tires. Tire width seemed less an issue than tread pattern and line selection. As usual, Time ATAC pedals work like there's no mud at all and Shimano XT V-brakes simply don't fail. My 34x16 gear also was spot-on and a lower gear would have been slower, not easier. Clothing, nutrition and hydration were not an issue, but that's simply the product of learning over time what works for me.
|Perhaps a foretelling of my future had I keep pushing into the night.
So, that puts it all back on me. I still believe, on a reasonably good day, I can race that course well under 10 hours. However, for an unreasonably bad day, I need to bring to the table a larger time margin. Certainly I can train harder and smarter, e.g., by seeking out nasty conditions for long training rides. But there's more to it than that.
In the cycling world, one often hears that the field was "strong" or the winner was "strong." I even heard someone call the C.O.G. 100 finishers "strong." Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. A tractor is strong, but a tractor can't compete at the Baja 1000. To race the C.O.G. 100 under such conditions, I need to train speed.
|Dave Roll (blue hat) and Mark Stevenson (orange cap) signing in folks at the Friday evening social.
Finally, a hearty thanks to Mark Stevenson and Dave Roll for creating and nurturing the C.O.G. 100 Iowa Gravel Single Speed Championship. From the git-go, you thoroughly communicated your vision of the race, bluntly laid out designed course details and unpredictable variables, and squarely plunked ownership of the experience on each racer. This is how gravel thrives. You guys rock.
To anyone considering riding a Guitar Ted Production event, read what he writes and believe it. It's that simple. There's no pretense, no deception, no omission, no sugar coat, and no apology. If you choose to venture into such an event, embrace it for all that it is. There's an awesome community of folks who will welcome you and joyously share the experience with you. To the grumblers out there, if you don't embrace it, don't show up. The rest of us will appreciate it.
Also, thank you Rob Evans, Joe Billesbach, and Carlos Torres for your companionship and shuttle back to Grinnell. And thanks to everyone else involved in such a special event. It's a real treat to re-connect with old friends and meet new ones. I love the gravel community.
For my thoughts leading up to the C.O.G. 100, here's a link to my post on the race announcement (Keeping It Real), an unsuccessful attempt to convince a friend to sign up (No. We'll Ride the C.O.G. 100), a red neck single speed conversion (Single Speed, It Is), and a final mental preparation (One Gear Or Another).