|My number plate, equipped, on the other side, with a purely decorative timing chip.|
Strange but true: prior to Sunday, I had never done a USA Cycling-sanctioned road race. I have many USA Cycling-sanctioned cyclocross and mountain bike races to my credit, including two in which I didn’t actually compete! But my only road races were Wisport events and three consecutive participations in Race The Lake, 2016-2018.
And I guess it’s fitting that my first USA Cycling-sanctioned road race should be a gravel road race. I’m the Cheesehead Roubaix guy, after all, and I’ve done other gravel events here and there. On Sunday morning I was the only Wisconsin racer to venture south of the Cheddar Curtain to Manhattan IL for the second running of the Little Apple 100: “Little Apple” because the other Manhattan is the Big Apple, and “100” because the race was 100 kilometers long. It was almost all gravel, too, and the promoters used apples to rate the difficulty of each sector in the same way Cheesehead Roubaix—as an homage to Paris-Roubaix—uses stars to rate its unpaved sectors. The 1-apple sector was easy enough, but I didn’t perceive big differences between 2-, 3-, and 4-apple sectors. Everything was eminently rideable, and the biggest technical challenges were the turns from one gravel road onto another. Nothing on the race course would have merited more than 3 stars on Cheesehead Roubaix. My slick 700x32 Continental Gatorskins were going to handle the Little Apple without much trouble.
I arrived early to ensure I wouldn’t miss a chance to register. Pre-registration was robust but I opted out because of an uncertain weather forecast … and because there was no financial penalty for waiting. Sure enough, it did rain in Chicagoland on Sunday morning, but that turned out to be a blessing. The rain stopped just minutes before the race began, and it settled all of the dust that the race would have kicked up on unpaved roads. As we lined up I felt well-rested and optimistic.
The race would be run in two laps of a 50-kilometer course. Lap 1 started sedately with a neutral rollout. The end of the neutralized section meant an increase in speed, but it wasn’t full gas. I was moving comfortably with the leaders for the first 23k or so. I then got into trouble after a change of direction put the group into a crosswind. I was too far back—plain and simple—and when the big guns fired at the front I got gapped and knew I couldn’t close it by myself. There were plenty of racers behind me at that point, but it would be a while before any of them would arrive to help me.
Getting dropped from the lead pack may have been the best thing that happened to me all day. I wasn’t going to hang with Cat 1 guys for 100k; it was only a matter of time before I popped. And I felt really lucky about 2k later when a big crash near the front of the race took out 5-6 top contenders. This video shows the moment everything went wrong for them.
I spent much of the second half of Lap 1 on my own, gradually losing sight of the leaders and yet staying beyond the reach of my pursuers. I was in No Man’s Land, and that couldn’t last forever. I grabbed my water bottle hand-up like a pro when I went through the mid-ride aid station, gulped down a bunch of Clif Bloks, and waited for the cavalry to arrive early on Lap 2.
Lap 2 would have been demoralizing indeed if I had been unable to raise my effort to the level of the new group in which I found myself. But it soon became apparent that I didn’t need to worry. Half of the group was content to follow wheels and not work on the front. Headwinds and crosswinds were definitely a factor on Sunday, and it became a source of irritation to me that there was so little cooperation. I tried on a couple of occasions to encourage the group to work together, but it wasn’t happening. I didn’t want to attack the whole group, potentially finding myself alone again with a long way to go, so instead I took a monster pull and split the field. That established me as the leader of a good group of five, and we never saw the hangers-on again. We worked well to the finish, picking off a few lone riders who had been dropped by the fast guys.
Sean Metz (xXx Racing), a 36-year-old Cat 1, out-sprinted Sergey Klibanov (Wolfpack Bike Racing), a 38-year-old Cat 3, for the victory. Their time of 2:55:19 was easily better than my time of 3:19:27. How many places separated us is something I may never know. The chip timing system failed and officials attempted to record the results manually, but there are obvious errors. For now, I’m credited with 45th place in a field of 112. That’s close enough to the truth and not a bad effort for a 54-year-old Cat 5.
Now it’s time to turn my attention to cyclocross, but I’m not ruling out another gravel race before the end of the year. There’s one in downstate Illinois on November 2, not far from where I used to live. If it’s cold up here and warm down there, then I might skip the Estabrook Park CX race and do the gravel grinder instead. We’ll see.