Last Saturday, I headed up to Alexandria, Minnesota, to ride in the Inspiration 100 gravel road cycling race. The I100 is the real deal: perfectly organized, run over a great course, and – most importantly – as hard as hell. Of the seven gravel century races I’ve done, this year’s I100 was definitely the toughest – and also definitely the most satisfying (except for maybe my first-ever gravel race, the infamous 2011 Almanzo). I’ve never ridden at my maximum for as long or as productively as I did Saturday. I doff my disgustingly sweaty cycling cap to the hardworking folks behind the race, especially Derek and Scott, who thought this event up a couple years ago and have now pulled it off twice. They’re great guys, and the Inspiration 100 is a great race, one I’d highly recommend to anyone who wants to do a gravel race. It’s tough enough for an experienced racer, but not so tough that a rookie couldn’t gut it out.
Having done the race last year, I knew more or less what I was getting into, and didn’t either overpack or freak out about nutrition. Nor did I forget my helmet, my shoes, or my bike.
I carpooled up to Alexandria with my friend Bruce, which was great for conversation and lots of Neil Young music. Along with our traveling buddies Joe and Scott, we swung through the pre-registration at Jake’s Bikes in Alex, saying hello to Derek and Scott and some fellow racers, collecting our number plates, and downing a quick beer. Beforehand, I had helped secure some nice overnight accommodations at a cabin owned by the parents of a friend, where we enjoyed this evening view:
After dinner with Bruce, Joe, and Scott, we got a solid night of sleep. Breakfast was matter of fact, even if the sunrise was magnificent. We made it to the race start line well ahead of the gun. Much of the chatter on the line had to do with the conditions – 70 degrees and humid by eight o’clock – but it was also great to connect with friends and acquaintances and ogle each others’ bikes.
The race organizers Scott and Derek gave us the usual pre-race speech and then sent the hundred of us off onto a hundred miles of gravel. The first turn is onto this road, which gets less pleasant fast.
Though a group of fast men and women went off up the road right away, a sizable bunch of us formed up and stayed together for the first ten miles or so.
That paceline blew up when we hit the first minimum-maintenance road, which is really just a rough track between two farm fields. By sheer luck, I was at the head of the train when we reached that section, grinning like a doofus:
I hammered it, putting my summer of fatbike riding to very good use. I popped out at the other end of the MMR with a nice gap, but slowed to let my friends Scott and Bruce catch back up. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that my hammering had a cost: a deflated rear tire, no doubt pinch-flatted on some hidden rock.
Disgusted, I hopped off my bike, sent Scott and Bruce off up the road, and started to fix the damn flat. My hands were shaking from the exertion, so the change took longer than it should have, but not as long as it might have, given that I discovered that I had left my tire levers at home and that my mini-pump had fallen apart at some point over the summer. The watchword of these gravel road races is that "you are responsible for you," but honestly, it’s not true: you are responsible for yourself, but almost everyone else is eager to help out. Two guys who were taking a water break lent me a tire lever, and just as I seated the fresh tube, another Rice County racer pulled up and let me use one of his precious inflation cartridges to inflate the tire. Riding his gorgeous fatbike, he would need four or five cartridges for each tire if he flatted, so he was making a decent-sized sacrifice. That’s gravel grinding, though – racers helping racers.
With my bike back in order, I caught my fatbiking friend, chatted for a few minutes while I got my legs going again, and then headed up the road. I caught a racer or two every few minutes over the next thirty miles – mostly folks who had passed me while I was fixing the flat, but some fast starters who were already fading. Making these catches partly mitigated the inevitable onset of body troubles: my lower back was starting to ache and my stomach was protesting any attempts to eat solid food. I decided to try to handle both problems by stopping at the convenience store at mile 40 – the first of two places where we could get food and drink – to stretch my back and buy more drinkable energy. Sorry, trail mix and beef jerky: I’ll have to eat you another time. Just before the first stopping point at mile 40, I caught up with Julia and Chris, two racers who come up from Texas to do the race. They’re used to heat and humidity, but even they said the weather was horrible, so it must have been! We rolled into the convenience store at mile 40 together, but after grabbing some a bottle each of Gatorade and Coke, I headed up the road by myself.
My back had loosened up in those five minutes off the bike, and never flared up again – a testament to lots of time in the gym this year improving my core strength and to having a bike that fits well. My bike, a Salsa Vaya that I call Giddyup, is actually second hand, purchased from race organizer Derek. It’s a fantastic machine, and didn’t let me down at all. Caking a bike’s drivetrain in gravel dust is a recipe for disaster, but Giddyup operated perfectly all day. In the next ten miles, I caught a few more racers – including the guy I accidentally ran over last year – and then fell in with someone who was going at exactly my pace. We rode together for a few miles, but then took a wrong turn that – naturally – led us down a long hill which we then had to climb to get back on course. He turned around before I did, but I was so annoyed that he’d called the turn wrong (even though, yes, it’s each racer’s responsibility to follow the cues!) that I hammered till I caught him, then dropped him right away.
In retrospect, that effort might have contributed to the pure awfulness of the next ten miles of riding, the most physically and mentally painful riding I have ever done. The heat and humidity were mounting, I had fallen behind my drinking, and the flattish course that I remembered from 2012 had been replaced by one composed entirely of unrelenting rollers.** I wasn’t bonking, though I almost wish I had been, since then I wouldn’t have been so horribly aware of just how much life sucked and how stupid it is to ride a bike on gravel roads.
But experience paid off: a tiny but loud part of my brain reminded me to keep pedaling, to drink small amounts frequently (the Gatorade and the Coke were so good), to keep recalculating the distance until the second stop at mile 70 (being sure to add in the extra 2.5 miles from my wrong turn), and to keep repeating two bike-racing mantras: Jens Voigt’s immortal "shut up, legs!" and the truism that "the weather is bad for everyone."
Grinding on, I slowly caught a few more racers, including my pal Joe, and my brain and body came out of the bad place. By about mile 65 I was feeling back to what’s normal for being two-thirds of the way into a gravel race. With the second rest stop coming, I finished what was left of my water (spraying some of it on my jersey to get a few seconds of evaporative-cooling magic) and got into the drops to hammer to the stop. The cold darkness of the bar there was heavenly, and the free ice water was delicious. I refilled my water bottles, bought another Coke, and then – remembering how the day had gone so far – bought a can of energy drink to back up my back-up Red Bull. As I got back on my bike, Joe cruised by, and we headed out together. Thirty miles to go. Just thirty.
Joe and I have ridden many miles together, so it was great to share some of the Inspiration gravel with him. Not long after the rest stop, we came up on our friend Bruce, who was having a very, very hard day. We rode with him for a bit, then he let us go to suffer at his own pace. A couple more riders came back to us over the next ten miles or so, but we were mostly alone, taking turns pushing down long straightaways. Somewhere in here, I downed my Red Bull, which tasted fantastic despite being quite a bit warmer than room temperature. Somewhere else, I noted that my cyclocomputer was displaying a 100-degree temperature reading. And somewhere else, I lost Joe. I turned around to see if he was okay, and he was way off my wheel.
I was feeling strangely decent – not strong, but not suffering as badly as I had at the halfway point. I could pretty easily hit 17mph on the flats, keep my speed up around 10mph on the uphill side of the rollers, and push a bit on the downhills. Honestly, though, it felt good to not pedal all the descents, and even better to collect a few more riders. With my body doing what it could, my brain turned to two endless math problems: how many miles till 102.5 – the finish line plus my 2.5-mile wrong-turn tax? And how long would it take to cover that distance if I kept the mph above 15? Slowly, the mileage ticked up over 80 and then over 90, rewarding myself every time I hit another mile by sipping my remaining water and Coke. Making the penultimate turn back onto Pleasant Grove, I could see the cemetery that is just up the road from the start/finish line and laughed at the aptness of that sight. Up a slight incline on Pleasant Grove, a left turn onto the pavement, and then a half-mile to the finish line, where I was hauling ass so fast, the race photog couldn’t even snap me! (This is not true.)
Thirty seconds later, I was lying in the grass, elated and exhausted from head
Giddyup was just as dusty as I was, but less tired.
I wound up finishing in 22nd place of the 78 finishers. My friend Scott finished about 20 minutes ahead of me – a bit more time than I had taken to fix my flat. (Next year!) Joe came in a few minutes after me, and Bruce a few minutes after him, worn the hell out. Those wonderful post-race endorphins soon took hold, though, and we sat on the grass trading stories, swilling lots of water and a few beers, and eating everything we could find – including the freshly-grilled brats that Derek and Scott had waiting for us.
That these two guys were present and shaking the hand of every finisher tells you how dedicated they are to gravel racing in general and to their gravel race in particular. It’s personal in the best way, from the individualized entry-confirmation emails in August (in mine, Derek talked a little trash) and the low-key but homey pre-registration on Friday night to the way they sincerely and profusely thanked us for coming to their race and to the fact that Mrs. Derek was manning the bratwurst grill while the guys’ kids ran around.
That vibe definitely extended the endorphin rush, but when they finally wore off, the pain set it. I needed at least two days to rehydrate (despite having consumed two gallons of fluid during the race and at least that much in the eight hours afterwards), and now – three full days later – my legs are still remarkably sore. I won’t even mention that that much riding does some strange things to my, uh, digestive cycles. But really, the pain is a good thing, and anyhow it’ll be long gone before my next gravel race, the Heck of the North, on September 28. I’ll probably have forgotten almost about it by the time I roll up to the start line for the 2014 Inspiration 100 – just 361 days from now. Registration opens on July 1, 2014. My postcard is addressed, stamped, and hanging from my bulletin board.
P.S. It turns out the Inspiration includes about 3,500 feet of climbing, which compares pretty favorably to the 5,800 feet of climbing in the Almanzo, which is known as a hilly course.