A couple month ago Jeff Hunt told me about a gravel road century ride that was to be held in Iowa City. The unique aspect of this ride was the starting time of 8:00 PM. I immediately got on-line to get the details. I have ridden familiar gravel roads at night, unfamiliar paved roads at night but never unfamiliar gravel roads at night. This type of ride is what I like to call a bike adventure not a bike ride.
Most night time road bike rides have quite a few safely requirements. Check out this all the rules on Randonneurs USA. The Ultra Marathon Cycling Association has almost as many rules. Most of the gavel road races have no specific rules. They did recommend that you have a helmet, headlight and rear flashing light. Some of the riders rear light were almost non-existent and the rider that finished 2nd overall did not have a working head light for the entire race. He just rode in the light from the other riders when his failed. Each scenario shows extremes and somewhere in the middle is my comfort zone.
Another unique feature of many gravel road races is the entry fee. There is none. There might be a few merchandise prizes donated by some local suppliers and maybe some food and beverage. This makes for a very low key event with camaraderie becoming the over-riding theme. This was also the first race I have entered that served beer and pizza at the rest stops.
The forecast for Saturday was rain but un-seasonably warm with 10-15 mph winds most of the night. As the riders started preparing for the start the lightning was lighting the sky and long, low rumbles of thunder could be heard. The darkness made it hard to tell how close the pending rain was but there were tornado warning for three of the counties to the south. 30 minutes before the race started the rain began to fall and continued the rest of the night. The 25 nervous rides squeezed under the refuge of the pop-up tents and into the race promoters garage waiting for our last minute instructions. During this time I put on my rain coat, took off my rain coat and then put it back on again. I knew that once the race started there would not be time to make a clothing change. Staying warm took precedence and the rain coat stayed on for the start. Tights, long sleeves and wind proof gloves finished off my attire. The gloves only made it 15 miles and the rain coat was off at the 40 miles mark. Note to self, if the temperatures are above 60 no need for the rain coat or long finger gloves.
After the 5 mile roll out the race was on as we hit the first gravel road section. This was a hilly section and provide a great launching pad to get a select group off the front. I was ready for the attacks and was able to bridge up to the break away instigator, Drew Wilson (read his write up) with Jeremy Frye and another rider named Paul. Ben Shockey soon joined us and the five of us were flying along the rolling hills with no head lights behind us. We had a nice gap. It was then Ben pointed out why we had a nice gap. About three miles back we had missed a turn. After some deliberation, back over the rolling hills we flew in search of the missed turn. At the turn we came across three other riders who had missed the same turn. Navigation at warp speed, in the rain, over the gravel, cue sheet in a ziplock bag, covered in rain drops, using your headlamp is impossible unless you come to a complete stop at each turn and no one was slowing down. This haunted us again at the 20 mile mark when we missed a turn by 6 miles following a local rider who thought he knew the route. At this point the race turned into a ride. The three riders we had met decided to head for Iowa City and call it a night and only two of us, Jeremy and myself, had legible cue sheets the rain had not destroyed. Even I was missing a 10 mile section of turns that would lead us to the first check point.
At the 30 mile point on the route, 47 for us, we saw the flashing light of the vehicle that was manning the check point. They shared the fact that we were about 90 minutes behind the lead group and only 14 riders were still riding of the 25 starters. Water refills and a new cue sheet and we were headed off in the darkness to finish the adventure.
The five of us decided that we would stay together, slow down at each turn so I could read the cue sheet and just enjoy the adventure. We stopped a couple times for nature breaks right in the middle of the road. We even created our own sag stop sharing some food in the middle of no where Iowa. During the few times it was not raining it was a great night. Temperatures were in the low 60’s with just a slightly annoying wind out of the south.
The only mud road we encountered was just before the very welcome beer and pizza stop at mile 68 of the race,(mile 88 for us). This section was 3/4 mile long. The first section was rideable, then you had to push up the hill before remounting and sloshing your way through the thick mud. It was kind of fun and much easier then the peanut butter thick mud had been for the Trans Iowa race in April. Growling dogs met us as we left the mud and entered the gravel before the stop. A slice of pizza and a water bottle fill up and it was back on the road for the home stretch.
The next advertise obstacle was the water crossing shortly after the stop. It looked like a flooded road crossing that the weather channel warns you to “turn around and don’t drown” when you are in you vehicle. It was a good thing we did not have cars. The water was about 12 inches deep for roughly 20 yards. This gave you a chance to wash the mud off your shoes as you peddled across. Of course now your damp feet were really wet but with the finish in sight this was more then tolerable.
The last 20 miles heading to North Liberty and back to Iowa City were pancake flat and provided a nice finish to a fabulous adventure. Paul had called it a night at the sag stop but the remaining four rolled into town at 4:35 AM with 111 miles covered on a 91 mile route.
Thanks to Adam for organizing the event and to all the sponsors. This will be a “must” do event on my calendar next year. I just need to figure a better way to mount my cue sheet to avoid the navigation problems. Although it was nice to get the extra miles and being that far off the back allowed us to enjoy the adventure instead of beating our brains out all night.