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Monday, April 29, 2019

Gravel Family Love - Stretching The Notion Of Rideable

Not many folks actually enjoy riding a bicycle in the cold, wet or wind, let alone all three. To watch the number of enthusiasts plummet, add steep hills, sloppy gravel roads, and no coffee shop in sight. But it's not just the possibility of physical discomfort that keeps folks off gravel roads in poor conditions.

Recently an experienced cyclist told me that he decided against riding on messy gravel because his new carbon "gravel" bike would get muddy, and maybe even scratched. Another experienced cyclist expressed unease that the mud threatened his recent investment of a costly new drive train. Those sentiments are understandable and, depending on the equipment, may even be prudent. I've seen derailleurs, chains, pedals and even carbon frames utterly destroyed by muddy gravel.

Rim brake steel Black Mountain Monster Cross, running single speed, after the 51 mile Black Hills Gravel Series #3.
No drive train issues. No brake issues. Never stopped to clear mud. Just rode. Garden hose cleanup about 15 minutes.
Newcomers flocking to the gravel scene bring along their cycling experiences and preferences. By riding primarily pavement, dedicated roadies may be unaccustomed to the havoc inflicted on frames by gravelly bits, wet and dry. Indeed, the type of carbon frames, forks and wheels popular on uber road bikes may not hold up well on gravel. Maybe it is a better idea to leave those for pavement.

By avoiding muddy single track, even experienced mountain bikers may be unaccustomed to the level of drive train abuse dished out by messy gravel. It is not uncommon for a muddy gravel race to break expensive components, notably rear derailleurs, chains and pedals. Maybe for gravel it's a better idea to install components that are more durable or perhaps replaceable without financial pain.

Cyclocross racers certainly can encounter crazy bad conditions, but their equipment must hold up for only 45-60 minutes. At the higher levels, cyclocross races even provide a pit area for bike swaps and crew that is accessible each lap, which typically lasts less than 10 minutes. So, cyclocross may be a good start for equipment analysis, but dependability is measured differently for an unsupported, long, remote gravel ride.

Other than being in the wrong gear all the time, single speed worked great at the Black Hills Gravel Series #3.
When geared, I run a simple 2x9, with XT top pull front derailleur, LX rear derailleur and bar end friction shifters.
Choosing the appropriate equipment and adopting the right mindset can greatly expand the range of what one considers to be rideable conditions. Stretching those ranges is a good thing.

Last Saturday, the hangover of overnight snow greeted almost 100 cyclists at the Black Hills Gravel Series #3. The roads were a muddy mess. The sun never appeared for more than a few minutes at a time. The temperatures hovered in the forties. The soggy, often rutted remote roads on the Scenic Route demanded about 5,000 feet of climbing over 50 miles, but offered no warming huts, no aid stations, no convenience stores and no cheering crowds. To even consider such a ride, one had to bring the right equipment and the right attitude. Despite the difficulties, or more likely because of them, those cyclists understood that sharing such an experience can be empowering, enriching, rewarding, memorable, and fun.

Sometimes, crappy conditions are just crappy. Sometimes, crappy conditions create something special. Almost 100 cyclists ventured out last Saturday to discover what the day would bring. I loved being one of them.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Bike Transport Upgrade

I do not like transporting my precious bicycle on the outside of a vehicle. Never have. If I cannot ride from home, I prefer to secure it inside for the drive to the start. That generally has not been an issue over the years, with our versatile vehicles and typically just one bike to transport. For example, for the C.O.G. 100 in March, I drove almost 1200 miles round trip in my old Camaro with my Black Mountain monster cross bike tucked inside.

Now, I'm looking ahead to more regularly drive distances for rides, races and events, more often with a passenger and maybe with more than one bike. So, I've been researching options for transporting bikes on the outside of a vehicle.

Many friends use roof racks, which offer the flexibility to carry a variety of other things, such as skis, kayaks, and luggage. But I don't like them. It's always a pain to lift the bikes onto the roof, with the possibility of damaging the vehicle, and some require removing the front wheel. In use, they add wind noise and reduce gas mileage. Even worse, I'm always thinking of bugs and other air-borne particles at 75 mph being plastered onto the surface and drilled into every recess. Of course, there are the horror stories of even experienced cyclists driving into the garage with bikes on the roof. Roof racks are just not for me.

So, I quickly moved to rear mounted racks. I have used those clamp-on types that adapt to work with most any vehicle. They're inexpensive and work OK, with some fiddling. They're fine for what they are, but I sought something more substantial. I wanted something to securely and confidently transport a pretty hefty Jones 29+ LWB bikepacking bike and a not insubstantial Black Mountain Monster Cross bike. Something substantially more substantial.

Hitch mounts. Ooh. With trays. Yeah. That's it. That's what I'm looking for.

Several companies offer really nice hitch mounted bike racks, such as the Thule T2 Pro XT, the Saris Super Clamp EX, the Yakima Dr. Tray and the 1-Up Super Heavy Duty. I doubt one could go wrong with any of these.

Then I found the Kuat NV 2.0. Whoa. Form, meet function. A beauty and a beast. Now, that was a design that appealed to the engineer/patent lawyer still lurking within me. Reviews repeatedly raved of its high quality and versatile utility, with the primary negatives being relative weight and cost. But I'm hardly a weight weenie and the alternative racks cost nearly as much. My search was over.

A few days later, a large, rather heavy box arrived at home base. Some assembly required, but not much. Easy peasy to put together and put onto the Jeep. Even easier to put the bikes on the rack. This looks to be most excellent. Can't wait to get out there.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

The C.O.G. 100 - A Fine Mess

I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just say thank you, and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand opposed. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

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).