Saturday’s Royal 162 gravel race was exactly the race I needed to have. In the weeks leading up to the event – my longest-ever, at least in terms of distance – I felt that I hadn’t done nearly enough riding to prepare but that I needed to do well to rebuild my sense of confidence in my riding.
My last race, the Fat Pursuit in March, had not been a failure, but I had not, in the end, crossed the finish line, which has rankled ever since. And in the month before the Royal, two separate illnesses (birthday strep and then a nagging cough last week) ruined my plans for several big rides and several other hard workouts – efforts that would have had good physical and mental payoffs, readying the legs and the mind.
So when I rolled up to the start line in downtown Spring Valley, Minnesota, just before 7 on Saturday morning, I had decided to just take the race as it came to me, aiming for a twelve-hour finish but ready to dial back my effort to whatever level would assure a finish, and maximize the chance of having some fun. I was confident of my kit, my nutrition, and my bike.*All I really had to worry about was pedaling. A lot of pedaling.
Almost two-thirds longer than the Almanzo, the Royal attracts a smaller field of racers. And since the start is at seven, we get a lower-key sendoff from Chris Skogen – the genius behind the Almanzo. The smaller, calmer start was a big help to keeping myself under control. Still, half an hour after we rolled out, I could tell I wasn’t at full strength. The first serious climb, a V-shaped brute on 135th Avenue, shook loose a spasm of coughing, and I just couldn’t hold the wheels I wanted to hold – namely, my Northfield pals Scott and Joe, who are usually close to me in fitness and speed.
As they started escaping up the road, I cruised along with a different Scott, an acquaintance from other events and the co-creator of the great Inspiration 100 gravel race. I rolled away from him and came up on my friend Derek, the other guy behind the Inspiration. I knew Derek was aiming for a 12-hour finish but that he was willing to go slower if needed to finish. We fell into a good groove – an all-day speed, like-minded approaches to the climbs (the long drag up Nature Road, the kicker on Keeper Road) and descents, a nice sense of camaraderie. Over the next hour or so, my legs warmed up, my lungs calmed down, and finishing began to seem more like an eventuality than possibility.
But goddamn, 162 miles is a long way to ride a bike – about 50 miles further than the longest gravel race I’d ever done, and a solid 25+ miles futher than the Arrowhead in January. With the distance in mind, Derek and I decided to skip the time-sucking stop in the little town of Preston, about 40 miles into the race, and push on at least past the point where the Royal course leaves the shorter, 100-mile Almanzo course. Once we made that turn, I started feeling like we were really on our way. I’ve ridden the 100-mile Almanzo three straight times, so I know and love the course, but I was eager to see new terrain.
Derek and I churned up the ascents and bombed the descents, occasionally catching other riders (including a small group I semi-accidentally named “the Pukes” owing to their disorganization and crazy riding habits), eating and drinking intelligently, enjoying the hard and fast roads, and taking short nature breaks as needed. The roads were dry and fast, which also meant that every passing car, truck, or tractor raised enormous plumes of dust. Before long, we reached Harmony, at mile 63 or so. We took our longest break of the day there, loitering in a Kwik Trip parking lot with a half-dozen other racers. Another customer wandered up to us and asked if we were on a charity ride. When we told her that we were just in a race, she said, “Oh, otherwise I was going to give you some money.” Note to self: always say you’re on a charity ride!
Refreshed, we headed out, now riding with the Pukes. We slowly dropped them, and were back on our own again, southing into the emptier and rougher countryside along the Iowa border. The riding in Iowa was hard as hell: all of the rollers that we get in Minnesota plus an incessant headwind for an interminable westerly section. Headwind riding is straight up gruntwork. You try to find the right gear and cadence, put your head down to get as aero as you can, and just grind it out. The legs ache, the lungs burn, and you just aren’t going very fast. And then there’s the constant whistle of the wind in your ears. Maddening. I was especially lucky here to follow Derek, who did all the wind-blocking and the navigating through the grid.
Eventually, we turned a literal corner, and the headwind’s parachute became a tailwind’s booster rocket. Blasting – or feeling like we were blasting – along on pavement and then back on gravel, I tried to recover from the headwind riding by downing food, drinking water, enjoying the quiet, and pedaling in an easy gear. My attention rarely reached further than my handlebars, or maybe Derek’s back, though we did notice several Amish men using teams of horses to plow seemingly endless fields. That right there was hard work.
The tailwind was one reward for surviving the headwind, but the tailwind also delivered us to another reward: a homey bar in a tiny little grain-elevator town called Florenceville, right on the Minnesota-Iowa state line. We stopped briefly for some soda and chips. The Pukes caught up to us there, but we left just ahead of them.
Soon after Florenceville, we made a navigational error that added about six miles to our ride – including three more tough miles into the wind. Derek was pretty ticked about the glitch, but I chalked it up to the fact that brains get tired after nearly a hundred miles. Correcting the error involved some fast tailwind pavement riding and some weaving along gravel roads that reconnected us with the Almanzo course.
This wasn’t the milestone I had expected it to be. We were way off our 12-hour finishing pace, and we still had about 50 miles to go – including the water crossing and some of the hardest climbs of the day. I half-expected to see some slower Almanzo riders right away, but the only riders we enountered were the Pukes, who had gotten ahead of us during our detour. We caught and rode through them, heading through a familiar 20-mile stretch of rollers to the last water stop, in Forestville State Park. Getting down to the park entailed a long, scary descent and then a slow grind along the valley floor.
Seemingly from the heavens, we were met there by Derek’s compadre Scott, who had cut his ride short and then spent the afternoon offering cold Coke to riders at Forestville. He had a few left, and Derek and I gladly downed one each, plus more food. A few other riders came along as we rested, but the mood was quiet and – at least for me – determined. We had thirty-five more miles to go, divided roughly into thirds: ten miles to the water crossing, ten more to the day’s hardest climb, and then ten more to the finish.
Getting out of the park entails climbing a long paved road, immediately after which you turn onto an endless gravel road that first drops you down into the valley again and then forces you to climb everything again. It was painful, not least because I had forgotten all about that second climb. At the top, we started the zig-zagging that took us to Orion Road, an up-and-down interrupted at the bottom by the ford of the Root River. Getting our feet wet was refreshing, and the rough, mile-long climb up Orion was much easier than I had remembered – even though we were now again with the Pukes, who had caught us at the ford.
Back on what felt like the top of Fillmore County, we quickly covered the ten miles to the hardest single moment of the Almanzo course: the Oriole Road climb, a hill that starts after a sharp right turn and goes up for a long time. A couple Almanzo stragglers were walking the hill, but I was determined to ride it. I had not walked Oriole during my other three Almanzos, and I didn’t want to start during my first Royal – even if I had 55 extra miles in my legs.
I shifted down to my lowest gear, leaned forward until my chin was almost on the stem, put my hands down low in the drops, and turned the cranks. Much of the hill’s initial, steepest ramp was covered in loose, fresh gravel, and I spun out a couple times before finding more solid footing. I crept past the walkers, took a few gulps of air on the false flat at the top of the first ramp, and crawled up the last set of rises – gentler, but still supremely challenging. I rode over the crest, breathing hard, picked a spot on the flat ahead of me, and rolled up to it. Though I still had eight or nine miles to go, I felt then like I had conquered the race.
Setting the bike down there to take a break and wait for Derek felt great. He came along a few minutes later, looking as taxed as I felt. We took a few more moments to get settled before climbing back on our bikes for the home stretch. Honestly, these last few miles flew by. The light was fading now, which might have contributed to my sense of dilated time, but I also felt surprisingly good. I had downed a Red Bull at the water crossing, and it was paying off. We flew down a sketchy descent into a small park that’s just northeast of Spring Valley and ground our way up the hill on the far side, knowing this was our last climb of the day. At the top, we could see the town’s lights in the distance, giving me some shivers of remembering the slow approach to West Yellowstone during the Fat Pursuit.
As we weaved toward town, taking a couple turns that seemed frustratingly wrong to me, the fading sunlight disappeared altogether. Riding unlit along the highway was not how I figured to be finishing the Royal, but traffic was thankfully light. The last mile of the course is taped off like a cyclocross race, but even so we found it maddeningly hard to follow in the dark. We picked our way through the tape, onto a very twisty bike path, and suddenly around a corner to the finish line. The surprisingly healthy group of people there have us a hearty cheer, and we both got the traditional handshake from Chris Skogen, who waits for every single finisher, no matter how late.
The two Scotts were both there, too. I dunno if Derek and I were happier to see them, or they us. They helped us over to the cars, where we changed out of our race kits, bullshitted for a little bit, and then said our goodbyes. Scott and I stopped for burgers in Rochester on the way home, which was a great way to shift from race mode to regular life. My beer tasted amazing.
Swapping anecdotes from our respective races (Scott finished in 11:57, just ahead of his goal), a huge sense of satisfaction welled up inside me – a fraction of the feeling I enjoyed after the Arrowhead, but real just the same. Not only did I feel like I could tackle the Royal again in 2015, and go a lot faster, but doing 160 miles without blowing up encourages me to think that I could handle a bigger, longer race, like the 200-mile Dirty Kanza in Kansas in early summer or the 350-ish mile Trans-Iowa in April. Though winter racing is a markedly different from gravel races, finishing the Royal affirmed for me that I could handle the promised 200-mile second edition of the Fat Pursuit next January – and eventually, the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska. First, though, I have a 99-mile mountain bike race in June to anticipate!
The numbers (from Derek’s computer):
- 163 miles total (157 on course, 6 off)
- 14:23 time (gun to tape, including an hour or so of rests)
- 12.3 mph average speed
- 39.6 mph maximum (nerve-wracking)
- 8,250 feet of climbing
kit: knickers and arm warmers to fight the expected breezy 60-degree temperatures, plus good wool socks and the usual other garb
nutrition: water, a Red Bull, gels and bars, trail mix, some “breakfast biscuits,” and a dozen thick slices of summer sausage
bike: a Salsa Vaya that is as close to my perfect rig as I can imagine, freshly equipped with new Kenda Small Block 8s