Gravel cycling is this funny sport that I often question how I got involved with. At first it was for general fitness and to get some quality exercise time in. But, once I was able to ride 20 miles, I wanted to try 40 miles, then 100 kilometers, and then a 100 mile century ride. Then I wanted to train for the Gravel Worlds 150 in 2018. It was this huge stretch goal of mine because I was riding a lot at the time, but it was mostly flat roads and trails, and the Pirate Cycling League always packs a lot of hills into their courses.
Gravel Worlds 2018 start line with friends, photo courtesy of Rob Evans
Long story short, I finished and it was really really difficult… common sense would say, relax now and enjoy it but I felt a bit empty inside knowing that I didn’t have anything on the horizon to train for. The next year I committed to the Day Across Minnesota (a 240 mile point to point gravel race that traverses the state of Minnesota), and DNF’d it at mile 200! In 2020 I came back and wrapped things up placing in the top 25% of finishers. As I was making plans for 2021, I knew I wanted a true stretch goal, I wanted to complete a triple gravel century. I had a few options… but all the major events around the country were deferring or canceling altogether due to COVID reasons. I tried to get into Unbound XL but got the rejection email. I had followed Iowa Wind and Rock, a 340+ mile gravel race (IWAR). I knew about their notoriously low finishing rate, the accumulation of over 28,000 ft of climbing, and the poor weather conditions that riders had to deal with. I thought about it over and over, waiting until the very last day to register…I started riding a lot more. I knew it would be cold, so I rode outside when it was cold and wet. It was going to be very long, so I was putting in big days both outside and on the trainer. I knew there would be a lot of climbing so I focused on hill repeats to build strength and losing another 20 lbs to give myself an advantage on the climbs. During my IWAR training, Pirate Cycling League announced their plans for the inaugural Long Voyage (LV), a new 300 mile gravel challenge. AHHHHH! I only want to do one, but I can’t pass on the local epic ride! So I haven’t even toed the line in Iowa and i’m already signing up for the next one… What in the world am I getting myself into??? IWAR was everything I expected and more. It is literally the hardest thing I have ever done, and am grateful to have experienced it. We had rain and muddy roads, I got the 28,000 ft of climbing (with a swollen knee as proof!), and two night cycles. It took me 33.5 hours to complete, but I got it done. I spent the vast majority of the race by myself, and almost fell asleep on at least half a dozen hills while I’m grinding away at night. IWAR wasn’t really a race to me, more of a challenge against the course.
IWAR course, Photo Greg Grandgeorge
To prep for the long voyage, I rode a lot, way more than I needed to, but i’m a glutton for punishment :). I am blessed with an understanding spouse and a career that offers great work/ life balance. The new challenge is in my own backyard, and while we have hills, they’re nothing like the ones from IWAR… I focused on mostly endurance efforts while playing around with body positioning and gear. My diet consists of mainly unprocessed whole foods already, but in the months leading up to the event I went as far as removing alcohol completely and going 95% vegetarian in an attempt to maximize recovery between training rides.
Long Voyage Start, Photo Matt Pearson
I was nervous at the start of the Long Voyage because I knew exactly what we were getting into. Seeing all my cycling friends and family at the start line helped calm my nerves. Everyone started much faster than I was anticipating. I know what kind of riding I am capable of over of 100/200/300 mile distances and this was far too hard for an ultra distance event, but I went with it anyways. It was humid and I was going through water much faster than I thought which forced me to stop in Weeping Water. Thunderstorms were in the forecast and I hadn’t planned on stopping unless lightning was right on top of us. To my surprise, it never hit us but gave us this amazing show while we were hammering up all the steep climbs around Weeping Water. I rode with Toby and Carrie for a bit before we hit some greasy dirt roads that I was able to ride, and I think they had to stop. I slowly was picking off riders that were walking their bikes or riding the grass shoulder. One of my goals for LV was keep the pace going all through the night. I had a power target that was probably higher than it should have been, but it gave me something to use as a benchmark so I would keep my effort solid. The greasy dirt roads soon turned into MUD that was unrideable. I had to deal with about 4 miles of hike a bike. As a friend once told me, “It’s just a part of life” and there is nothing I can do about it except move forward. After the last mud, the course hopped onto the homestead trail and into Beatrice. I caught Robb and Paige at the C-store. I’m not sure how long they had been there, but I hurried up, got some junk food and started inhaling it as fast as possible. Robb asked if I was coming, and I hadn’t even finished eating when I hoped back on my bike. Anyone that has ridden through the night knows how hard it can be when you’re by yourself. It was so great I ran into these guys. When it was dark we didn’t really talk much, just put in work into the headwind. Robb pulled a lot, i’d tell him, “Bruh let me pull, stop speeding in front of me,” to which he replied, “This is why I get paid the big bucks.” LOL. Once the sun rose, we ran into Roger who I had ridden with earlier in the race. We chatted for a bit, but once we pulled into the C-store in Seward he went on his way. I slammed a cold brew, put one in my frame bag, restocked my supply of king size snicker bars and we were off on our last 75 miles. This is where the course started to become hilly, and my tired legs were going to have to put in some serious work. We soon reached the point where the Gravel Worlds 150 and 75 mile courses would overlap our own. So many happy and smiling faces on their own adventures. I pulled up alongside a female rider on the 150. We chatted for a bit, and she asked if we were doing the Long Voyage. I told her yes, and we’re almost finished! I asked which course she was on which she replied, “oh… only the 150.” What?!? That’s amazing! I learned that was the furthest she had ever ridden in her life! I finished the 303 mile course in 22 hours and 57 minutes in sixth place. The finish line was a hoot, Paige won the women’s race so she’s getting sprayed with champagne, the crowd is hollering, my family is yelling at me. I had never experienced anything like that, it was pretty rad. Once I collected myself, I got to hang with so many really cool people and relieve the adventure. The gravel community is pretty special.
Next week we’ll read a re-cap of Great Plains Bicycle Club’s Heatstroke 100.