Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Wicked Wind of the North...

As I pen this, the dust has settled on the 2013 Dirty Kanza 200 course. The navigation stakes are pulled, the Gel packets, ejected water bottles and forsaken riders have been plucked from the austere course. The lush green hills and alabaster gravel roads have returned to their wind-swept slumber - well satisfied to exist in a state of suspended animation until they are summoned once again, in the year two thousand fourteen, to burn with the intensity of a thousand suns for one EPIC day; when hard women and men will again test their mettle against this eerily beautiful yet unforgiving landscape...

Sh*t's About to Get Real...  Photo Credit: Kyle Thompson
Re-entry from the Dirty Kanza 200 is Hell, and I struggle to make sense of the day-to-day upon my return to city life here in Madison.  Blogs about this event have already begun to spring up like weeds in vacant lots from all corners of the gravel racing community.  To city dwellers, this event is a mere curiosity. But to those among us who live to CRUSH GRAVEL, the thousands of struggles that played out in the microcosm of this barren environment scream out like headline news.
Stretching out to the horizon   Photo Credit: Kyle Thompson 
The raw beauty of the Flint Hills was on full display this year thanks to frequent Spring rains. The course was as green as an emerald and provided a striking backdrop to the chalk-colored gravel roads that stretch to the horizon and beyond.  There seemed to be a remarkable number of cattle in the middle miles of the course, some choosing to run across the road unpredictably leaving riders with no option but to stop and wait or take evasive action.  There was abundant sunshine and beautiful fluffy clouds that added a dramatic touch to the entire scene and made for some incredible pictures by the many photographers stationed around the course.

You ARE in Kansas Anymore!            Photo Credit: Dave Leiker

My race got off to a fast start owing to the help of the Northerly winds as we headed South toward the first checkpoint.  The first leg had a few muddy hike-a-bikes and a gentle stream crossing complete with cheering spectators.  I had early on resolved to attack all water crossings with my shoes on, which saved me from having to make the decision on the fly.  True to form, at the creek crossing I never hesitated.  I was across and gone before other riders could even get their shoes off.  I hit the first checkpoint in 3 1/2 hours, feeling great and allowing myself to dream of a 14 hour finish.  At checkpoint 1, I followed my plan to be in and out in a matter of minutes.  Once my CamelBak was filled and I had my nutrition on board, I flew out - leap-frogging dozens of other riders who had beat me there.  As the second leg began, my race ended...

2013 may go down in history in the gravel crushing community as the 'Wicked Wind of the North'. I'm a little unclear as to how the organizers of the 2013 Dirty Kanza 200 had the omniscience to know that the winds on June 1st, 2013 would be howling from the North. It IS my belief that their clairvoyance led them to premeditatedly construct a route that exacted the maximum amount of Northerly travel possible from the racers without straying onto the Almanzo course. The unrelenting headwinds of this years race foiled many earnest attempts to slay the course (only about half of those who toed the line for the full 200 miles finished). The shell-shocked look in the eyes of the riders at Check Point 3 later in the day delivered the news, while the bleary minds behind those eyes struggled to weigh their options: go on and suffer, or abandon the field without shame in the hopes that they might return victorious next year. There is comfort in knowing that there will always be a next time in the Flint Hills.

The Emerald Gritty...                   Photo Credit: Kyle Thompson
I too was a victim of the wind, which blew relentlessly for most of the second and third legs of the race.  Despite being well-fueled, I simply wasn't strong enough to make the bike go fast.  The second leg was a death slog, and I was reduced to constantly watching the map in hopes that the next turn would align me more favorably with the wind.  But each successive turn on this leg simply turned us from bad to worse and then back again.  With no reprieve from the wind in sight, I put my head down and resolved to remain comfortable, positive and well-fueled in the hope that I could make up the time in the third leg.

At checkpoint 2, I felt great and took the time to take care of a few important tasks like sunscreen, bathroom, and chamois cream.  I didn't dilly-dally, but I did allow myself a few extra minutes to snap out of my wind-induced delirium.  Per the map for the third leg, our first 13 miles was arrow straight with the wind at our backs.  I lit out from the checkpoint and was killing it, but only for those 13 miles.  As soon as the course returned to its Northerly/Westerly meandering, I was once again reduced to a slow grind.  I remained incredibly positive however because everything else was going to plan.  I was well ahead of the cutoff time and knew that I could complete the race.  In these windy hours, I began to strategize about how to change my training in order that I might become stronger under these kinds of conditions.  My bike, a Twenty2 Cycles steel MonsterCross rig was taking everything that the course could throw at it and my confidence in my machine was supreme.  I soldiered on, counting down the miles until checkpoint 3.

The Author: 120 miles into the race  Photo Credit Kim Morris
I rolled into checkpoint 3 with plenty of daylight to spare, and as I was refilling my CamelBak and preparing my lights and nutrition for the final leg, I began to notice that many of the riders who were sprawled out around me seemed pretty shell-shocked.  At this point in time, I felt great and was very happy.  Despite the wind, I was ahead of last year's time and confident that, barring a mechanical, I'd complete the race.  After some solid food a Coke and a candy bar, I hopped back on the bike and struck out for Emporia.  When it finally got too dark to see, I hit the lights and began the arduous task of navigating the course at night.  At this point, despite a change in overall direction and the slackening of the wind, darkness slowed my progress considerably as I was being cautious to verify each and every turn.  The last thing I wanted to do was add an hour to my time by taking a wrong turn.

As it turns out, I did take a wrong turn near Kahola lake where I followed another rider in the direction of the lake.  I felt that something was awry, but followed nonetheless.  Shortly after our wrong turn, that rider flatted and I began the process of rejoining the course.  Luckily, I'd only strayed a mile or so off the course and I soon saw the lights of approaching riders.  I picked my way through the remaining miles, being cautious and praying that I wouldn't experience a mechanical.  As I carefully navigated the darkness, several other riders joined me and placed their confidence in my route-finding abilities.  Unlike my experience at Worlds last year, none of these gentlemen who had been relying on me for navigation attempted to beat me to the finish.  Regardless, to ensure that I maintained my position, I picked up the pace and sprinted down the main street of Emporia to the cheering of a small yet enthusiastic crowd.

I was greeted by Kristi Mohn at the finish line, received my finisher's pint glass and dismounted my bike.  I was immediately joined by three of my compadres - Al Brunner, Josh Lederman, and Pete Chrapkowski (Pete, who despite finishing 5 hours earlier and placing 2nd in the Single Speed division, was still there with his bike cheering on the finishers!  Pete my friend, you are truly a gentleman and a scholar and you can CRUSH a bike!  Much respect bro...).

Peter Chrapkowski - Killing It!
Which brings me to the real reason for this post: Set aside for a moment your understanding of the blood, sweat and tears that flowed as freely as the muddy creeks of the Kansas countryside on Saturday, and peer behind the curtain at what's really going on - we have become a community. Ours is a community forged in the searing furnaces of this nation's ultra-endurance gravel events. Its bellows are the unfettered, soul-crushing wind that stalks these plains in pursuit of worthy mounted adversaries. From the strangers that we meet on virtual gravel forums to the riders that we happen upon as they engage the scree at the edge of town, we share a bond. And while at times the object of our desire crushes us, more often than not it allows us to crush it...

Band of Brothers: the Author, Pete Chrapkowski, and Al Brunner

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Thursday, May 23, 2013

2013 Dirty Kanza 200 - A Man With A Plan

With the Dirty Kanza 200 mere days away, I've been thinking long and hard about my bike set-up, nutrition and hydration. If the long-term weather forecast is to be believed, we'll be looking at temps on the starting line of 65 degrees, ramping up into the mid-80's by midday, and cooling back down to the mid-60's in the evening.  The weather has a bearing on both my bike set-up and my nutrition plan. The goal is to ride as light as possible but still have enough of everything on board to keep me fueled, comfortable, and prepared for anything on this grueling all-day event.

Twenty2 Cycles CX1 @ 2012 Gravel Worlds - Photo: Adventure Monkey

First the bike. Starting with my main ride: a steel, Twenty2 Cycles CX1 in graphite black powdercoat with an ENVE CX carbon fork. My frame was the first steel version of the CX1 that Twenty2 ever made (they're a titanium shop), and it was a blast having it built to my specs. (I rather fancy this machine as having been forged on an anvil by a burly, hammer-weilding Smitty as opposed to being woven one finicky strand at a time on a mold in an Asian sweatshop, but hey, that's just me.)

Its maiden voyage was at Gravel Worlds last year, which is both hillier and sports more loose gravel than the Dirty Kanza course. At that race, on two different occasions, this bike saved my skin on fast descents in the dark when I blundered into deep gravel and skidded nearly perpendicular to my line of travel. Miraculously, and probably owing to its slack angles, the bike righted itself and pointed itself downhill with its rider intact. I'm not saying that this machine is charmed...but it's damn close ; )

Rubberwise, I'm going with a newish set of tubed Kenda Small Block 8, 700X35's. These tires rolled great for me at Gravel Worlds last August and spent the winter warm and dry in my closet. Last year on the Dirty Kanza, I was rolling a SS 29er with 2.1" tires, so I didn't even need to pick my lines. I merely bounded over the babyhead rocks and washboards. These skinnies will probably require me to be a bit more careful on the descents - no need to ruin a perfectly good day with a gravely faceplant or a dented rim...

The remainder of what's attached to the bike is determined by the rules of the Dirty Kanza, this year's course layout, and my needs related to comfort, nutrition and hydration. You can see that there are no bottle cages. 100% of my water will be on my back in the form of a CamelBak Rogue. I'll be adding CamelBak Elixir tabs to my water to keep my sweat salty. I know that many cyclists prefer not to have a Bak on, especially in the heat, but for me it's just so much easier to drink and keep my hands on the bars on gravel roads. The Bak holds the equivalent of 2.5 - 22oz bottles, which is what I've got dialed in as my hydration requirement for each of the roughly 50 mile legs of this year's Dirty Kanza course. So bottles and cages are out.

Otherwise, it's lights front and back per the rules; my Garmin Edge 800 as my odometer; and my new Revelate Designs tangle bag to hold everything else. And this year, "everything else" is going to be a lot less than last year - I gained a pound over the course of 19 1/2 hours of easy spinnin'. How funny is that?! This year, it's fast, light and minimal: tubes, tools, CO2, phone, sunblock, nutrition, and not much else - no helmet cam, no camera, no iPod, no kitchen sink.

Which brings me to nutrition. Last year, after Gravel Worlds and before IronMan Wisconsin, I went looking for a nutrition strategy that was based on science as opposed to scavenging convenience store shelves, endless PBJs, and mountains of candy. With the IronMan looming, I stumbled across the Pacific Health Labs website - PHL caters to triathletes, and makes Accel Gels, which my stomach tolerates very well, even in the heat AND while running.

PHL has a calculator on their site that shows you your calorie and hydration needs based upon your planned effort. I was kind of shocked to find that their fueling plan consisted entirely of Accel Gels and hydration - nothing more. This seems weird given that whether it's a gravel race or an IronMan, you're out there for an entire day. As weird as it seemed to not be noshing on bars and candy, I embraced their plan and used it during my first (and last) IronMan triathlon, sucking down gels every 45 minutes and hydrating according to plan - and it worked GREAT! I never felt hungry, although I probably ate a cookie or two on the run just because - and my stomach was golden.

Not terribly fast but whatever...I finished and wasn't even hungry!
Conceptually, my goal is to be very machine-like and disciplined. At each checkpoint, I'll fill my Bak, jettison the spent gels, put the next round on board and fly out. I was able to hang with some riders at Gravel Worlds last year who were obviously faster than myself simply because they'd hit the convenience store, flop down on the curb, guzzle, gobble and whatnot, while I just did a grab and go and launched out.  They'd catch me miles later and the cycle would repeat itself.  I ended up finishing 1 minute behind one of them!

Will this automatonic, gel suckin', water sippin' strategy work in the Flint Hills? Will I be able to redeem myself with a respectable finish time (my goal is sub-16 hours)? Only time will tell, but I've got the bike and I've got a plan, and I'll check back afterward and give y'all a recap!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

A History Lesson

The Wisconsin Gravel Syndicate is coming up on its first anniversary, and I see that we've rounded up over 140 hapless souls over the last however many months. Not sure how people found this group? Some were added by friends, others sought us out. Either way, the presumption is that the underlying thread shared by our members is a deep-rooted desire to CRUSH GRAVEL. And not just for an hour or so every other weekend, but in a BIG way by taking part in epic events like The Almonzo, The Dirty Kanza 200, and The World Gravel Championships.
Hapless Soul Crushing Gravel

Not coincidentally, the WGS had its origins in that same desire. I recall reading an article two years ago in Dirt Rag about a 200 mile gravel road race in Kansas.  At the time I thought to myself "My God, that's insane! I would LOVE to try something like that!" Then, I promptly forgot about it. Until, about a year ago around this time when the shuffle setting in my head retrieved that scrap. I sat down and Googled "200 mile gravel race in Kansas", and up popped a link to the Dirty Kanza 200 web page.  Like we all do, I immersed myself in the details of the event: the audaciousness of it, the distance, the weather, the rider's stories.  All the while weighing my odds of racing it, completing it, surviving it...
Sunrise on the Dirty Kanza 200

At the same time, it occurred to me that there must be others out there who might also share my new-found passion for all things gravel.  This thought, and my unrequited desire to be part of a community of like-minded people led me to create the WGS Facebook group.

Slowly at first, then with more regularity, people began to find the group, often bringing along their friends.  I began posting content, scheduling training rides, and recruiting team mates for the 2012 Dirty Kanza 200, which at the time was still many months away.  And although I didn't end up with the mob that I'd envisioned to accompany me to the race and join in the experience, I did end up pulling together two other serious riders and an amazing crew person to travel to Kansas for the race - and we had a BLAST!  So in that regard, it was mission accomplished.

In retrospect, I've found this process to be both rewarding and instructive.  I have much more to say in this respect, but this post is becoming voluminous so I'll cease and desist here with one final comment: The WGS will be going through a change of focus shortly. I've got lots of half-baked ideas floating around in my head, so stay tuned for future posts.