There is a glaring omission in my palmares as a pretend bike racer, and that omission is that I have never raced bikes in Iowa, my state of origin. I didn’t begin racing bikes until after I graduated from college (my college days were spent matriculating, working odd jobs and doing other things that I do not have firm memories of), and by that time I was no longer an Iowan. I raced bikes throughout the Midwest, but never had the opportunity to race in Iowa, partly because I was living in Missouri and partly because there weren’t many Iowa races available for pretend bike racing.
In the name of brevity will fast forward through three more states, a marriage and two kids (I still have these), a pick up and four racing frames later and we are at the present day, and as luck would have it, I found myself in Iowa on the weekend of the Park Farm Winery Gravel Grinder. I have never claimed to be a smart man, and due to that circumstance, I surmised that entering the 64 mile version of the Gravel Grinder would be a fine idea. I began prepping for the race by driving from New Jersey to Iowa and then sitting in meetings for two straight days. With my preparation complete, I drove my Hyundai rental car to meet my gravel destiny in the hills of Bankston, Iowa.
See that tan colored road there? We totally raced on that!
For me, a new pretend racing experience is always a welcome one, as it helps broaden my imaginary racing life. I arrived at the race start and set about basking in the lovely view of the vineyard that spread out below the parking lot. I also set about contemplating the eternal spring road racing question, “What should I wear?” The forecast called for temperatures in the mid forties, which seemed like Speedo weather after a winter’s worth of polar vortex punishment. I decided to save my competitors the sight of my Road Racing Speedo and I dressed a bit towards the warm side, because it’s always better to be safe than have your fingers gnarled into frozen hooks by unrelenting wind and cold.
I rolled round the parking lot and chatted to a few of my fellow racers, and I even ran into a guy I went to grade school with. It was great socializing, but my conversations didn’t reveal any sort of intel about the racers with which I was about to assault the Iowa country side. I would be racing with the freedom of not knowing what the hell I was going on. Did you see what I just did there? I just turned a potential negative into a positive—the Motivational Jujitsu tapes are working! Soon I will be able to enjoy The Real Housewives of Dickeyville without an onrush of suicidal feelings. I rolled to the line for the start and shivered my way through the referee’s instructions.
After nearly proposing a group hug for warmth, I was relieved when we clipped in and set off. In hindsight that group hug might have been a good idea because I was shivering so much on the first downhill section that I gave myself a delightful speed wobble. I managed to regain control with out leaking any fear-based urine, but I had been dropped from the group like an expectation at closing time. Luckily the race hadn’t started yet, so chasing back was no big deal. Since I was still feeling the sweet freedom of ignorance, I went to the front on the climb for YOLO based reasons. Soon our group of 15-ish was pared down to six, and we all set about riding together in a mostly organize fashion. We even had time to chat a bit and take a very pro natural break together.
Because of gravel-logic, there were a few racers that opted to ride cross bikes, which made me wonder whether they would be at a disadvantage because of the extra weight and inherent un-pro-ness of cross bikes. My questions were soon answered when one of the cross mounted fellows named Maxwell took off on a downhill section, and was never to be seen again. Wisconson-ite John took off after him, and our group was down to three. Compatriot Jason and I set about trying to chase John down. John’s teammate Anderson was with us and sat in, because duh, that’s what teammates do.
I feel at this moment that I should describe what the course was like. It was a lot like a manure-scented groin punch. If you look at my Strava entry closely, you will notice that the wiggly line that indicates the race’s elevation dances about like a toddler that needs to go potty. So we were either going up or down. All. Damn. Day. On. Gravel. I cannot emphasize enough how much climbing and Strade Dubuque there was contained in this race. The course was relentless, like Battenkill with a Fargo accent. In comparison, the Gravel Grinder had 5,121feet of climbing in 63.1 miles, while Battenkill had 5,747 feet of climbing in 65.4 miles, and by my math, that means both races are repugnant methods of torture that border on being war crimes—with milk (Battenkill) and wine (Gravel Grinder).
Both of these things are tremendously uncomfortable.
Meanwhile back in the race, my early exuberance was rewarded with my getting spat out of our trio like a mouthful of mosquitos. Jason surged on one of the climbs, and I was gapped with 30 miles of racing left. I briefly considered stopping by the side of the road and having a nice cry, but I didn’t want to look weak in front of the livestock, so I soldiered on. After about 20 miles of solitude, I was reunited with Jason (who I found out is a coach), who had been dropped by Anderson. We began working together because there’s only so much riding alone one can face.
Maxwell ended up staying away and won the race, John and teammate Anderson finished together, with John second and Anderson third. Jason graciously allowed me to cross the line in fourth (I didn’t even have to offer any goods or services!), while he finished fifth. I gleefully clipped out of my pedals to end the day’s punishment, and I began devising a plan to schedule meetings in Iowa next spring so I can repeat the experience again.