I was glad I wore my mountain bike shoes when sections of deep mud forced us to portage.
After an hour and change, the gravel turned into a mud bog for a brief stretch and our group had to get on and off to portage several times. That’s when one super fast cat on an S-Works Crux with deep section carbon wheels and shaved legs drilled it into the distance as the course hit serious rollers. I chased after him and left the group I’d been riding with behind and tried to keep a visual on the guy in front as we caught up to packs of riders who’d started 15 minutes before us. I tucked into dodged the wind in a few different pacelines as I kept leapfrogging forward. I kept an eye on my odometer because I knew from looking at the map the night before–which I now realized I had left with Molly back at the start–that the point where the 200 (actually 205 miles) and the Half Pint (actually 109 miles) courses split would be coming up soon. But then it didn’t come.
A few miles later I saw course volunteers and stopped to ask them if I’d missed the turn. They said no, so I hopped back on my bike and kept pedaling. A few miles later, still no sign of the turnoff. This couldn’t be right. And wasn’t. I asked the next group I rode up to if they knew where the course split to which the lead rider replied, ‘Dude, that was seven miles ago. I’m not fucking bullshitting you, you have to turn around now.’ I did, and when I encountered the volunteers I’d stopped to ask about the course they said they’d realized after I rode off that they’d sent me the wrong way. Oh well, my bad for not paying closer attention.
As luck would have it, the seven mile detour I’d taken had been tailwind-aided, so now I had seven mostly uphill, rolling miles back into what felt like a 20-mile-per-hour headwind to get back to the Half Pint course. The ride sucked, for a moment, but the vast blue sky, cotton ball clouds and beautiful but punishing rolling prairie terrain made it a bit easier.
Enjoying more rolling hills and headwinds.
By the time I got to the single checkpoint in the race at mile 59 of the Half Pint course where Molly had now been waiting for more than five hours, I had ridden 75 miles and it felt like at least 45 of those miles had been into that unrelenting headwind. But this had been one of my favorite rides I’d done in months. The weather could have been brutally hot, but we’d lucked out and the temps had ranged from the mid 50s to highs in the mid 60s with some cloud cover. I’d seen less than five cars in all those hours and miles of riding and the cars I had seen had given me a wide berth and waved. The other riders had all been friendly and encouraging–no starting line stink eye, no elbows in the bunch, no mean mugging while passing.
After downing some coffee, half a Coca Cola, a hardboiled egg and a handful of chips and reloading my Camelbak with fluid and three Nuuns, I took off again. I made it four miles before I came across a guy on an orange Salsa Vaya on the side of the road having a mechanical. I asked him if he was okay and he said he was but I could tell he wasn’t, so I hopped off. Indeed, he wasn’t okay and didn’t know how to fix the derailleur hanger he’d severely bent after shifting into his spokes. He needed a hand, so I gave him one.
For me, part of the appeal of gravel grinders and events like them is that participants seem to embody a spirit of radical self reliance, toughness and stick-to-itiveness coupled with a willingness to assist each other and provide mutual assistance even if it means having to stop. Assisting each other and getting through the event is part of the appeal of the DK and events like it. Riders I saw at the DK ran the gamut from people in t-shirts on bone stock low-end mountain bikes to folks who looked like pro racers with bikes and kit that likely exceeded the cost of a new car. In a bike culture where everyone’s a cat 5 pro and at times it seems like the cost of fitting in is a thousand dollars of designer faux-dandy lycra couture, growing an elaborate waxed steampunk mustache and having just the right edgy tattoos, I found the vibe at the DK to be a breath of fresh air.
Sometimes it takes a village to fix a chain.
I wanted this guy, whose name I didn’t and still don’t know, to be able to finish his race, so I had to help him be able to achieve his goal. I didn’t have the tools we needed, so I flagged down two other riders from the folks pedaling by who did have what we needed. In a few minutes, we worked together like a NASCAR pit crew to remove the broken derailleur hanger and derailleur.
Duct tape–never leave home without it.
We shortened his chain, converted his rig to a single speed and as a finishing touch, I used the duct tape I’d wrapped around my pump two days before the ride–because you just never know when you’ll need duct tape–to keep the loose derailleur cable and housing in place and out of his spokes.
Teamwork makes the dream work.
A few miles of undulating hills later, I came across another rider facing the wrath of the gravel. She said she wasn’t okay, so again I hopped off. She’d blown through her Stan’s setup, three tubes and all of her CO2s and said she wasn’t good at repairing flats. I am and I had a pump–the same pump I’d used as a spool for my duct tape–so I got her up and rolling in under two minutes. In return, she gave me a bag of cookies.
Cookies rule everything around me.
They tasted great and coupled with the wonder gels and engineered food jammed in my jersey pockets, I did my best impersonation of hauling ass to get to the finish in downtown Emporia where I crossed the line and got a handshake and a DK half-pint beer glass for finishing from Jim Cummins, the DK’s creator and race director.
“Did you have fun out there?” he asked. I looked down at my computer–125 miles, 8.5 hours, 4,800′ of climbing. “I had a great ride,” I said. “I went off course a little bit so I got to have 16 extra miles of fun. Awesome event. I’ll be back.” He smiled, slapped me on the back and I pedaled off to find Molly and realized that my blown out spokes had held up. Miracle. A day later back in San Francisco, I put my bike together and an hour into my recovery ride, it finally gave way with a pronounced twang. But it had gone the distance when I needed it and that’s all that mattered.