No Plan B: Almanzo 100 Race Report (part I)

Trying to accommodate my athletic-endeavor verbosity, I’ve divided my race report into two pieces: this summary of the race and a separate, more detailed description of the experience, to follow soon. These 800-odd words are the one to read if you’re just passingly curious. And if you’re not even that, I don’t blame you!

Almanzo 100 (2011)
Almanzo 100 (2011)*

The Almanzo 100 is a hundred-mile “century” bike race on gravel roads around Spring Valley, Minnesota. As the organizer, the inimitable Chris Skogen, said, “These are challenging courses. 100 miles is no small task… and when you ride them on gravel they become something entirely different. It is going to punish you, but it is definitely manageable if you pace yourself and understand the big picture.”

True enough, but the hundred miles we rode on May 14 were different still, thanks to 40°F temperatures, 15-30 mph northerly winds, and a steady rain. It was – as one racer wrote online – “Hellmanzo.” The proof is in the final results: “730 people signed up to race, 177 people finished. Of the 177, 151 people finished the Almanzo 100 and 26 people finished the Royal 162” (a new 162-mile gravel trek).

More than anything, I’m pleased and surprised to be one of the Almanzo finishers. The rain and gravel combined to turn the course into a ribbon of sloppy gray-brown mud that quickly covered everyone from the leaders to the red lantern, and the wind helped make everything cold and wet, but I never really thought about quitting. Maybe it was sisu, the Finnish sense of determination, or just forgetting that I could stop. And actually, I couldn’t. Unlike apparently a lot of other racers, I had no Plan B – no car-driving friend meeting me at crucial spots, no stopping point to call for help – so I just kept going, turning the pedals over and over and over.

Apart from having no Plan B, I was also enjoying myself – a lot. For one, I’d never been on the race’s Fillmore County roads, so literally every yard of gravel was new. And it was spectacular: endless straightaways through rolling farm country, high-speed descents with “holy shit!” corners, and long grinding uphills through woods and limestone road cuts. The Almanzo course covered fantastic cycling terrain that became borderline magical when everything began glowing from the rain and my eyes went fuzzy from tiredness.

I bonked hard twice during the race – once around mile 60 for probably a half hour and then again for a few minutes around mile 80. The former bonk was one of the strangest experiences of my life: my body felt totally powerless and my brain felt like the bastard son of exhausted and drunk. After what must have been several miles of slow, slower, slowest pedaling, I realized that I had bonked – maybe I even said it out loud – and I dug a gel out of my bar bag. Those hundred calories did the trick, and brought me back to something like reality – making 10 mph instead of 6.

The bonks were the low points of the race for me. The terrain itself was one of the race’s high points, while another was the near-religious sensation of pushing my body to an extreme for a long, long time. A third high was talking with other racers as I passed them or they passed me. Unlike running races or even ski racers, there’s a lot of talking, about all kind of things: the shitty conditions, our bikes, gear choices, the shitty conditions, whether we’d missed a turn, food and drink, the shitty conditions…

The race was too hard and too long to remember much except for some snippets, but I do recall a few things: being surprised to see that other riders’ faces were just two eyes in a mud mask, studying the Specialized bike logo tattooed on one guy’s calf, wishing I had a rain jacket, wondering if another kind of shoes would have handled the wet better, laughing out loud at five black cows lined up from calf to bull watching us pass, gasping with happiness when we found a huge vista at the top of one mammoth climb, listening to the weird din of a poultry farm with all the birds in individual pens, enjoying the pleasing shock of the knee-deep water crossing, talking for a few minutes with an old guy who was out collecting cans in the ditches, nodding at a farmer who was standing at the end of his driveway clapping for us and saying “Dedication!” over and over, fantasizing about having two cups of coffee (one in each hand)…

The end result was that I rode for 9:08, averaging about 11.5 miles an hour and maxing out at 37 mph on one of the early white-knuckle descents. (I didn’t crash at all.) On the bike, I consumed six gels, two nutrition bars, two peanut butter sandwiches, 40 ounces of carb drink, 48 ounces of water, and 24 ounces of (flat) Coke. Against that, I burned something like 6,000 calories (about 2.5 days worth of calories). If I averaged about 90rpm, I would have turned my cranks about 45,000 times. And in the end I finished in 80th place out of 150 finishers – who were themselves less than a quarter of the 613 registered male, female, and tandem entries. Not bad: the top 15% of all registrants.

* This photo is a crop of a shot taken by Craig Linder and published to Flickr. Thanks, Craig!

9 thoughts on “No Plan B: Almanzo 100 Race Report (part I)”

  1. I don’t know what’s more impressive: that you finished, or that you wrote a report without using the word “epic.”

  2. Great writeup! I want to hear more details about the white-knuckle descents, gravel conditions (was it so greasy that losing control was always a possibility) and specifically what you brought with you and how you packed it. did you bring tools or was there some sag wagon?

  3. Were those actually all public roads or were some just some farmer’s trail through his fields and woodlots?

  4. Do you use the same tires on gravel roads as you do on pavement? Also, if I’m doing longer rides (not 100, but 15-18) should I get different tires than the knobby, trail looking ones I have now? An older gentleman at Lowes (I’m running errands on my bike now) said I need the bigger ones for roads. School me a little, I’m totally clueless.

  5. Great title. And “two eyes in a mud mask” plus “holy shit corners” is all I need to know to appreciate the conditions and the course. Bravo!

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