Today’s gravel grinder in DeKalb IL was easily the hardest ride I have ever done. It wasn’t the longest—“only” a metric century—but the combination of unpaved roads, 90-degree heat, headwinds and a desire to compete with the racers combined to leave me near exhaustion by the end. My ride stats:
63.67 miles @ 16.5 mph average
3451 calories burned
149 average heart rate (81%)
172 maximum heart rate (93%)
By my count, I was 23rd in the 49-rider field and the 2nd finisher among the flatbar set. Most riders who attempted the course on mountain bikes paid a big weight penalty and were off the back almost immediately, but somebody who must be pretty strong beat me back to DeKalb on his singlespeed 29er.
The weapon of choice today was the cyclocross bike. There were a few road bikes too … and plenty of flat tires. Some of the roads were absolutely primitive. The worst of the bunch was Locust Road, a deeply-rutted mess of dirt and weeds that, if you were in a motor vehicle, dead-ended at a creek. If you were a bit of a moron on a bike you forded the creek, then carried your bike over the railroad tracks, then pushed it up an embankment to reach the next section of gravel road.
I was hanging on to about 15th place between mile 5 and mile 20, but then we turned south into a stiff headwind that just never let up. It didn’t help that from mile 19 to mile 40 we also steadily gained elevation. They weren’t proper hills; 6 percent was about as bad as it got and most were only 2-3 percent. But on gravel and going into the wind, even the little climbs took a toll on me. At mile 25 I popped, no longer able to hang with the group. I took the opportunity to eat on the bike. At mile 43 I stopped at the checkpoint to refill my water bottles and attempted to reintegrate with other riders, but I was dropped quickly when we resumed.
Then everything changed. At mile 44 we turned north onto a paved road. Alone but with the wind now working for me, I went into time trial mode and at mile 57 caught and passed a couple of guys I had chased all day. On three occasions I had been able to stay with them for a while, then got dropped. Things were different now. My legs had come back to me and I put about 5 minutes into them by the end.
Back in DeKalb, people were shattered. I helped one rider to his feet after he spent several minutes trying to work out a painful cramp. A neighbor left a garden hose running for us and we used it for impromptu showers. Legs were a filthy mess of sweat and road grime.
Post-ride festivities featured free beer from Half Acre. Great event. Great people. Everyone made a big effort and appreciated the effort of others. After the ride, one of the guys I passed at mile 57 said he was surprised to see me bridge the gap and then ride away. He and his ride partner had seen me struggle earlier. “I said, ‘There goes a tough guy,’” he told me. That made my day.