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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

A Gravel Pilgrimage

Trans Iowa. The birthplace of today's adventure gravel bicycle racing.

Back in 2005, Trans Iowa was created by a couple of free-thinking bike shop jocks with too much time on their hands and too little sense to understand that one simply does not ride a bicycle across the State of Iowa on 340-ish miles of gravel roads, on an unmarked course, with no team support and no aid stations, in less than a day and a half in April. You just don't. And nobody would want to, anyhow.

Mark Stevenson and Jeff Kerkove, however, dared to think otherwise. Unconstrained by an aristocratic governing body, or by any other conventional thought, they dreamt up a mind-bending ride that challenged what one thought of as possible and then opened it up to anyone curious enough to give it a shot. In return, they asked for little more than a commitment to show up, follow a few rules of conduct and ride with all you have. A culture was born.

A Trans Iowa B-road, with a little April seasoning. (photo by Trans Iowa veteran Kevin Fox)

I discovered the initial Trans Iowa on the forums, simultaneously intrigued by the challenge and baffled as to by why anyone would want to do such a thing. But ride it they did, creating gripping tales of brave souls willing to go way out there just to see what's way out there, and to find what's within. Even afterwards, racers struggled to articulate their near mythical experiences deep in the gravel hinterlands of central Iowa, far beyond their perceived physical and emotional boundaries. Something special was happening out there.

As the years passed, Trans Iowa took root and endured, building a grass roots following, unleashing a legion of converts and sparking a movement across the country. All sorts of different grass roots gravel races, events and rides sprang from this humble beginning in Iowa.

I eventually experienced firsthand the blossoming midwest gravel scene at the 2013 Odin's Revenge, where an eccentric collection of bike geeks gathered to tackle an exceptionally beautiful and brutal 180 miles of rough roads in the middle of Nebraska. During some early miles, I happened across Mark Stevenson himself, the Trans Iowa co-founder and keeper of the gravel flame. Mark was a great ambassador, patiently introducing this new-comer to the mindset that made riding gravel special.

Mark Stevenson, aka Guitar Ted, pulling me up the final climb to Checkpoint 1 at the 2013 Odin's Revenge.
(photo by Kyle Vincent)
Now approaching 5 years later, I have thoroughly enjoyed many gravel miles with many others, but have not appropriately thanked Mark for his welcoming me into this gravel community or for his service to that community. I don't know if that's even possible. As a start, though, I offered to serve as a volunteer at this year's Trans Iowa, in whatever capacity needed. I'm honored that Mark welcomed me once again.

So, here's to you, Mark Stevenson, and to your intrepid partner-in-grime Jeff Kerkove, for your continued service to the cycling community.

I look forward to a memorable weekend in April somewhere out there on the back roads of Iowa.

Addendum 1.  Here's a link to Mark's comprehensive site for all things Trans Iowa.  And here's a link to Mark's daily blog.

Addendum 2.  For an entertaining insight into Trans Iowa, watch the documentary "300 Miles of Gravel," the trailer of which is linked here. 300 Miles of Gravel trailer.