A Tale of Two Gravel Centuries.

 This post is going to be a double whammy. Two race reports in one, but combined to showcase the gravel scene. The gravel community is getting big. I could do a century every weekend if I had a jet plane and a million bucks. That would just be silly though. I don’t want to do every race. I want to do that ones that mean something to me. I pick and choose my races based on some sort of criteria. Fun, challenge, community are just a couple. The first race in this post is the Heck of the North. This race meets all the requirements listed above, but it goes beyond that. I met the race director at TransIowa, Jeremy Kershaw, and I knew I had to explore up North to see what he was drinking. My first taste of the Heck was last year. I made the 8+ hour trek with my Mother. Let’s just say I really liked the kool-aid and decided I would be back this year. The second race in this post is The 101. An inaugural event in Perry, IA. Directed by Dave Mable, I was pulled in by the lure of a coffee mug, an Octoberfest, and a fast course. Another challenge, most of the gravel I ride is hard and laborious. What would a flat, fast course be like? Read on and see!

Heck of the North.

October 4th snuck right up on me again. After completing some pretty long rides and taking a nice break I almost forgot about the 110 mile event I had signed up for. I had plans to head up with my boss Ryan Baker, his cousin, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law. A family event! We were equipped with every type of bike imaginable. Two Fargos, a Trek 7.3 FX, a Salsa Beargrease, and my Trek Boone. Every skill level was present too, from seasoned me to family members who have never ridden 100 miles, let alone on gravel. Needless to say it was going to be an adventure. Ryan, his cousin, and I piled into his truck and started heading North. Many moons later we arrived in Duluth. It was raining, possibly snowing, and gross out. I realized instantly that I didn’t bring clothing for this and started plotting where to acquire gloves, shoe covers, and a warmer hat. We checked into the hotel, ate dinner, and then readied our bikes. I would be riding my Boone as already mentioned, using a Revelate Gas Tank for snacks, two bottles of water, my handily crafted cue sheet holder (no GPS here), and my camelbak for extra water. I opted out of using the drop-bag. Clothing choice was extremely poor…I would be wearing my favorite Gore bibs, Gore Alp-X jersey, knee warmers, arm warmer, WOB vest, Giro shoes, and that’s all I brought. Good job, Andrea.

Waking the next morning I pounded some oatmeal with banana and peanut butter. I got dressed and went outside, instantly I wanted back inside. It was cold. Like right around 35 or something horrible. Arriving at the starting line I found Kershaw, gave him a hug and asked him for gloves. He graciously gave me some. I also acquired shoe covers from Ryan’s cousin, more gloves from Ryan’s sister-in-law, and a warm hat from Christina Anthony. I was now ready, after I had thieved all the warm goods. I really would not have finished this race if I hadn’t had those things. Ready, mostly warm, and raring to go we listened to Kershaw’s pre-race thanks and thoughts, then with a shout we were off! I stuck near the front half of the pack knowing what was coming up. We cruised a couple miles of pavement, onto the gravel, then onto double-track. I remembered this harsh road from last year, plus a creek crossing just to get the toes wet. Somewhere within the double-track/creek-crossing madness I found, Michelle, a friend I met last year. Flashbacks all around me! Only these puddles had happened during the last 15, not the first. This was going to be a trip.

Ryan's sister-in-law and company at the creek crossing.
Ryan’s sister-in-law and company at the creek crossing.

Heading out of the double-track were rode some miles of gravel then back onto a trail. This trail was full of humongous puddles. Puddles I could ride through, but didn’t really want to. Puddles full of rocks, big rocks. Once out of puddle city, we entered the land of pinch flats. I was smiling to myself, knowing how I met Kershaw I would expect nothing less than a slog of a gravel ride. My bike and I were already brutalized and I am pretty sure we hadn’t gone 40 miles yet. Brakes howling and bottom bracket dowsed we marched back onto gravel and found a good pace with some fast friends. The one fast friend I stuck with was Jeff Hunt, Benton Hunt’s Dad for those of you who pay attention to the guys that work at Salsa Cycles. Jeff was fast, and I stuck his wheel. We were riding into a headwind and I knew the checkpoint was close. A good 15 or so mile push with Jeff, but me at the checkpoint basically at the same time I had gotten there last year. Man, that guy is strong.

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Jeff and I at the checkpoint.

Stopping at the checkpoint I was lured in my the corn-dog. Why yes, I would love a deep-fried cheddar filled, jalapeno encrusted hot dog. WHY. I need a life-coach to just slap these things out of my hands. I ate it. Jeff rode on without me. 40 or so miles left, belly full of corn-dog, and head feeling food I left the checkpoint by myself. Last year this is where I cracked. This year I had a tail-wind and excitement of having a slight notion of where I was. Seven BRIDGES road was conquered, back onto the gravel I went. The miles rolled by and I decided to take some pictures. This is something I have never really stopped to do during a gravel event. I knew that Kershaw would want us to though. He goes out of his way to find the views that are worth it. Breathtaking.

10 miles left and I turned onto our last trail of the day. Soggy, rutted, and tricky. I rode on, knowing I was almost done. I was in great spirits too. A rare feat after such a punishing ride. Crossing the finish line I secured third place lady and a similar time as last year.

The last trail.
The last trail.

After heading back into town and peeling off my sopping wet and sandy clothes I relaxed at the AWESOME BREWERY, soaking up wonderful beers, foods, and music. Finally stealing a chat with Kristin Riching, and just enjoying the community. Thank you Mr. Kershaw for an amazing event. My bike and I were housed with a capital H and it felt great. I rode more than I thought I could and was challenged in ways that Iowa can’t offer me.

THE 101
Th inaugural 101. A gravelly good time to be had. Dave Farber asked me if I wanted to join in on this event. Knowing I would be completing a century exactly a week before I was hesitant, but also curious to see what I could do. Replying with a, “YES” I readied myself for 101 miles of flat, supposedly B-road lacking gravel roads. Farber and I arrived in Perry, IA early Friday night and settled in to our hotel room. My set up for this weekend would be once again the Boone, donned with two bottles of water, no nifty cue sheet holder (GPS would be my guide), and no camelbak. I would be wearing Gore bibs, Gravel Worlds jersey, knee and arm warmers, a warmer than usual hat, but no vest. The weather was going to be perfect.

Getting to the start was pretty uneventful. Breakfast this time around a toaster strudel and oatmeal. We rode our bikes the 2 miles or so to downtown Perry, checked in at the Hotel Pattee, then mosey on to the start line a couple miles down a bike trail. Lining up I started basically first in line, which never happens. We listened to Dave’s pre-race rules and then headed out for a controlled start. The pace was civil and I watched the front group start to form. There were some mega fast guys in that group and I knew I wasn’t going to stick with them. I just wanted to make sure there were no women in front of me. We cruised down a hill, turned a quick corner, and the controlled start was over. I watched the lead group take off, Lee Venteicher attacking instantly up the first hill. This was going to be a fast race. Finally turning onto some gravel I fell into line with a huge group of people. Some 20+ people including Geoff and Darcy on a tandem, some ladies, and a handful of guys.

The group was cruising, hanging right around 19 mph. We were split into two pace lines. Tandem leading one, the other line switching it up. I am always skeptical when giant groups get formed so early in such a long race. We would probably miss a turn, and we did, approximately 8 miles down the road I realized we weren’t going to turn right onto our designated path.I shouted, “RIGHT” as the front of the group went straight and the back half turned with me. Then our giant group was whittled down to maybe 10 or so people. We were still a fast group though. Farber, Dee Mable, a guy on a single-speed, maybe 5 others, and me. We pushed up a couple hills and it seemed like the group wanted to slow down. I didn’t! I didn’t spend all this time pushing a hard pace to slow it down 25 miles into the race. So I jumped, picked up the pace, and hoped others would follow me. They did. The group was more strung out now, but we were riding comfortably enough to hold conversations.

Rolling into the first gas station I hoped off my bike and ran straight to the gas station. I have been having problems with needing to go to the bathroom as soon as races start. Not very enjoyable. Our group began to reform at this point. Derek, who was on a single-speed caught back up to us, surprisingly so because he had lost his cue sheets. Leaving the checkpoint our group was still feeling pretty good, then we finally met some hills. We were warned about the hills. and I welcomed them. A chance to get out of the saddle and stretch. The monotony of flat roads were getting to me and I needed something to change it up. I got something else too, a b-road. The pre-race email did state there would be no Guitar Ted-esque mud filled b-roads, but I knew better than that. We rolled up to what looked like a b-road. We all noticed some sort of mud, but didn’t realize just how much there was. I rode straight into it, and then quickly dismounted my bike after realizing I would have to spend 8 years cleaning the thick mud off my bike. Then I gracefully walked the ditch until the end of the road. You can’t ride 101 miles of Iowa gravel without hitting one b-road!

That B-road.
That B-road.

Once we got out of the hills we started rotating our little pace line. I was feeling pretty good, the hills opened my legs up allowing me to push the pace a little. I took a pull somewhere around mile 55 or 60, looked back, and the only person with me was Derek. He jumped in front of me and we took off. For a second I wavered, was it too soon to take off? Could I hold this pace for the rest of the ride? Quickly dismissing those thoughts I pushed onward. We crushed the next 20 miles taking turns pulling. Derek and I were still in good spirits, chatting every once in a while. But somewhere around mile 75 I hit a wall. The gravel was thick, sandy, and annoying. The wind was getting stronger, I just wanted to be done. I told Derek that he could pull ahead if he wanted, but he stuck with me. Granted he didn’t have the cue sheets, but he didn’t want me to get caught. That had never happened during a gravel race before.  Right around mile 80 or so we started wondering where the last checkpoint was. We were thinking it was closer to mile 87. Cresting a little hill within this thought we saw our checkpoint. The glorious, extravagant oasis full of Gatorade and Clif bars. Plus we had less than 20 miles to go! Dear, sweet Lord, I was going to make it. The last 15 miles were a blur. We started taking turns pulling at every intersection and that sort of helped the monotony of flat, thick gravelly roads. We picked up one straggler, boosting my confidence that I was holding that ridiculous pace from before. Crossing the finish line I was the first lady in, and I was done. My moving time was an hour faster that my century a week before. I was physically fried, but mentally stoked. That was my fastest century. Granted it was flat and I had people to work with the whole time, but that is kinda the point. A different kind of challenge.

1st Place Trophy Plate!
1st Place Trophy Plate!

 Two gravel centuries. An hour of difference between them. It is just amazing what you can get yourself into within 100 miles. These were both challenging, but for different reasons. Both of them very rewarding.  You get to choose your own adventure based on what rides you sign up for, so make sure to do your research and choose wisely!

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