Saturday, I raced the Inspiration 100 in Garfield, Minnesota. The event was my third gravel century race of the summer, and maybe the most fun. The Almanzo in May was brutal and the Dirty Benjamin in June was fast, but the Inspiration was pretty much a blast from start to finish – except for a few episodes of agony.
The event was already great twelve hours before the start, thanks to a nice long drive with my racer friends SK and JP, smooth-as-silk preregistration (and a beer) at Jake’s Bikes in Alexandria, and a wonderful dinner at the lakeside cabin where DS, the fourth member our Northfield group, and his wife were putting us up for the night. Talking bikes for half the day is a good way to get stoked to race, and sunsets like this don’t hurt:
We were on the start line well ahead of the 8 a.m. gun, ready to roll and talking happily about the good conditions: sunny, cool, a bit of a breeze. Being the first year of the Inspiration 100, the field was fairly small, more like 75 than the 100 maximum but including plenty of fast-looking racers and bikes.
My basic goals for the race were to avoid bonking, to avoid crashing, and to keep a steady pace the whole day. More ambitiously, I was aiming to finish under six hours. I thought over those goals while we listened to a last few words from one of the race directors, and then we rolled out with the usual whoops and cheers behind the other director in a sweet vintage Toyota Land Cruiser.
A minute or two later, we hit the gravel – very loose, an inch deep, and sandy as a beach – and the race blew up. I’ve never seen a field disintegrate so quickly. I let myself get pushed over to the far right edge of the road, where I struggled to keep up my speed while two columns of racers passed me on my left, one in each of the tire-track ruts.
By the time I fought back into one of the lines, I could see that a front group had already escaped. I wouldn’t see them again, but I did slot in with a decent group of folks, including SK and JP, and we made good time, moving past one person after another. I let my legs recover from the effort of the first couple miles, then went to the front of the group for a long pull. When I looked back, I was pretty much alone, so I found a nice cruising speed and kept going, eventually linking up with a small group I had seen up the road.
We hung together for quite a while, until we hit the first of two crazy and fun sections in the race: a mile of barely-there trail through tall grass at the edge of a farm field. The trail didn’t really climb or descend, but it was bumpy, twisty, nearly overgrown, and studded with water-filled potholes. Everyone had to work hard to keep out of these pits. I mostly did okay, but I did dodge one by riding off the track and into the grass, which wrapped itself around my handlebars, both derailleurs, and my shoes. I was grinning ear to ear through this whole stretch, but just the same I was relieved to hit the pavement, where I could pull one branch out of my brake cable and another off my left ankle.
I hooked up here with DS, who’d been in the lead pack early on and then kept going with a smaller chase group after the leaders went up the road. We rode together, connecting with some racers drifting back and a few more coming up to us, including SK. We had maybe eight or ten guys in our group, and we did a good job of working together. If we had one problem, it was keeping up our speed over the insanely bad washboard that covered long stretches of the road. At home, the washboard usually occurs in two parallel strips that line up with car tires. I’m guessing that a lot of people around Garfield drive WWII-surplus tanks, because we rode many, many miles over road on which the washboard stretched from one shoulder to the other. We couldn’t find a good line because there were no good lines, just spine-rattling corrugation that demanded steady pedaling and a tight grip on the bars.
Our happy group did eventually find something else to ride: the second of the two crazy and fun sections of the race, a two-mile “minimum maintenance road” that started like a narrower version of the gravel roads we’d been riding but turned into a twisty, rolling, rocky double-track trail through some pretty dense woods. I knew after 100 meters that this would be the most memorable bit of riding I’d done all year, and I wasn’t wrong. My speedometer told me that we were doing about 15mph – respectable on flat gravel, borderline nuts on this rough stuff. The white-knuckled riding was great enough to make me laugh out loud several times, but then Mother Nature sent a big owl flying down the trail ahead of us, close enough that I could see its tufted ears. The bird wisely zoomed off into the trees, but not before I yelled something really smart and insightful like “A fucking owl!”
I was still thinking about seeing that owl – my favorite single moment on a bike this year – when we popped out onto a real road. Maybe because we had been stretched out on the trail, our group didn’t form up again. DS, obviously feeling great, went up the road with a couple others while I hung back with a few more, including SK and some locals who knew the course pretty well. We couldn’t get back up to DS, but we did stick together and make good time to the first of the three places to stop on the course, a convenience store on a intersection that was in the middle of nowhere but marked mile 40 on the course. Quite a few racers were there, topping off their water bottles and eating. I filled my bottles, ate as much trail mix as I could, downed a bottle of Gatorade, and jumped back on my bike as soon as a sizable group started rolling.
I tried to stay near DS, knowing he was feeling great, but I just couldn’t hold his pace. Instead, I slotted in with two other guys, riders from Alexandria, and we pushed on together. Behind, SK drifted off our wheels. I would have loved to ride more with him, but he’d said at the stop that he wasn’t feeling great, and I was feeling good enough to push a bit harder. I tried to work with the two locals, but our group was too small to function as a paceline, and, honestly, one of the guys was really big – perfect for blocking the strengthening winds. Which I was happy to let him do, since I needed to all my energy for the up-and-down rollers that had started in earnest. The normal strategy to ride rolling sections is to push hard over the top of each climb, pedal hard downhill, then let your momentum pull you partway up the next climb, at which point you start pedaling hard again. That method didn’t work too well on these rollers, though. The soft gravel and wide washboard made it hard to keep or build momentum, so every uphill was a fight and every downhill was too rough to cruise.
Everybody was riding the same course, though, which meant a few racers did come back to us, including a red-jerseyed guy on a full-suspension mountain bike – a pretty bad rig for this course. He fell off pretty quickly, as did one of the other locals, leaving just the big guy and me. Then I cracked a little bit, and my windbreak got a gap that he exploited on a couple long downhills. I was just trying to summon the energy to make the hard effort I’d need to get back to his wheel when he suddenly pulled off, midway down one of the longest descents.
Looking, I saw that this was the second of our three possible stops: a huge statue of the Virgin Mary, which a local guy had built to thank the Virgin for curing his wife of cancer – and which the race organizers had put at mile 66.6 on the course.
We grabbed a couple of the bottles of water that the race organizers (not God) had left for us, and I drank one with my sweaty butt parked on the genuflection bench. Oops.
We were getting back on our bikes when our MTB friend blasted past and out of sight. We used the rest of the downhill to get back up to speed, and then we set to work on the rollers. He’d just moved in front of me when he put his front wheel in a sandy pothole and crashed hard. I was too close behind to stop or swerve, so I popped my front wheel up and rode right over him and his bike. By the time I stopped, a bike length in front of him, he was already back up and moving – nothing broken or even seriously damaged on either him or, more importantly, his bike. I apologized for the mishap, he apologized for the mishap, and off we went.
A few miles later, we reached a highway that led into the town where we could make the third and last on-course stop – a bar which was also one point on an 800-rider motorcycle tour, which was just reaching the town as we did. My partner had determined that his crash (or my bike) had in fact messed up a brake lever a little bit, so he stopped to tinker with it. As I watched the machines rumble past, we were rejoined by the local who had been with us after the first stop. We headed into town on the shoulder of the road, moving much faster than the motorcycles, which were – as promised – congregating at the bar. The engines were deafening and the chrome was blinding, so I was happy that we didn’t even try to stop.
Turning back onto gravel a few seconds later, we traded pulls, but I found that they seemed to be topping out at about 12mph – a pace I found too easy. I downed some water, ate an energy bar, and then went to the front at a solid 15mph. It felt good to feel so good. We still had about 25 miles to go, but the last quarter of the race seemed to be a pleasant challenge, not a slog. For as long as I could, I resisted the urge to look back. When I finally did, neither guy was in sight.
On long straightaways, though, I could see the red jersey of the MTB rider, way up the road. He became my goal. I got low on my bars, switched into my big ring, and pushed as hard as I could. Climbing each roller, I could feel a distinct line of pain on each quadricep and hear my pulse pounding in my ears. On one long climb, I also distinctly heard someone yell, “Stop! Stop!” Thinking that the two guys had ridden back up to me just in time to see me miss a turn, I sat up and looked back. Nobody was there.
That was a little spooky, frankly, so I rode easy for a few minutes and sorted out my cue sheets, the turn-by-turn directions that the race organizers write out to guide the racers. I hadn’t even looked at mine yet, having been riding with enough other racers to feel confident about staying on course. I could still follow the spaghetti mess of tire tracks, but I felt like I needed to be completely sure I only rode the 20 miles I needed to ride – no more or less.
The twists and turns of the course kept sight lines short, but finally – on an overpass above Interstate 94 – I saw my red-jersey target. He was far away, but not as far as he had been. I concentrated on keeping an even speed for the next few miles, confident that I’d catch him by mile 90. After paralleling the freeway for a while, I came out at another overpass – on which I could see my guy rolling. When I reached the overpass, I hit the gas, happy that my chase had worked and eager to make the catch. Alas: it didn’t happen. As I crossed the overpass, I saw that he had missed a turn and was heading toward a little town a mile down the road. I shouted for him a couple times, but he didn’t hear me, so I made the correct turn and kept going. I’m not sure whether that was sporting, but I rationalized my choice: maybe he was heading into that town to get water.
By now I was in the last ten miles of the race and feeling really good. Clicking through the screens on my cyclocomputer, I could see that I wasn’t going to finish in less than six hours of riding time, but that I could get awfully close to that goal. And just about then I started feeling the telltale bounciness of a deflating rear tire. I kept riding, thinking that the washboard was playing tricks on my brain and my butt, but I finally looked down and saw that I was running on my rim. I spent a couple miles rattling along, feeling every jolt in my butt, cursing up a storm, and trying to decide if I should stop to change my tube. I know it takes me about six minutes to change a flat in my garage, but I didn’t know if I could do it that fast after six hours of riding – or if anyone was six minutes behind me.
Finally, I decided to just try to reinflate the tire and hope it held some air. I stopped, pulled out my frame pump, and put it on the tire. 100 pumps later, I was happy to see that the tire was actually holding air! Maybe I could ride the last five miles on an inflated tube! I put the pump away, hopped on my saddle, and started riding. Instantly, the tire deflated and I was back on my rim. By now I was pretty sure that someone was going to catch up to me at any second, so I decided to ride the bike in, just like Lance Armstrong did in a mountain bike race a few years ago. Well, not just like him, since I wasn’t winning the race, but close enough. I almost crashed when the flat tire washed out in the gravel on the next-to-last corner, a mile from the finish, and then almost went down again when I popped out onto the paved stretch to the finish line. I rode the last descent to the finish pretty carefully, trying to minimize the back tire’s fishtailed, but by golly nobody caught me!
I hopped off the bike grinning from ear to ear and happy to shake the hands of the two race organizers. Thanks to my slow pace over the last five miles, I wasn’t even out of breath. Laying my dirty, half-deflated bike in the grass, I grabbed a bottle of water and joined DS, who had a really good race. Not long after that, the two local guys buzzed into the finish. I shook their hands and thanked them for working with me. They both looked as elated as I felt.
They came in a while later, looking pleased to be done. We cleaned up, ate and drank quite a bit more, talked with a few other racers – like the couple that had come all the way from Texas for the event – and soaked up the atmosphere. Racers’ kids were playing on the playground nearby, lots of non-racers were hanging out, food and drink was disappearing into our bellies, and everybody had huge smiles on their faces. Quite a few people were already talking about coming back next year – proof positive that the Inspiration 100 was a great event. I plan to be back on September 7, 2013.