Trans Iowa V6 Story
58 riders started at 4:00 am in Grinnell with temperatures 60 and a little fog/mist. It had rained hard all night and the forecast was for more of the same. A quick look at the radar showed heavy rain in the Des Moines area and our cue sheets had us going south and east through Reasnor and Monroe.
The distance was 44 miles to the first check point with an 8:00 cut-off. On paper this did not seem like a problem. Average 11 mph and you were good to go. Over half of the starters failed to make it by 8:00. We rolled out of town on 2 miles of pavement before turning on the first gravel road. I had worked my way towards the front to stay away from crashes and swerving riders. This turned out to be a good move because the gravel was like soup. It reminded me of riding in the slushy snow. Keeping you bike moving forward was hard enough let alone keeping it going in a straight line. You were surrounded by other riders trying to do the same. Everybody was looking for that smooth line but nothing was working. The soupy mud was flying everywhere, the ruts in the road pulled you one direction as you tried to go another. Your glasses got fogged up and bikes were fish-tailing to stay up right. Remember this is at 4:10 AM so throw in a little darkness to add to the thrill. I pocketed my wet and muddy glasses (riding one handed was a huge challenge) and pushed on as the pack thinned out.
After about 30 minutes the flashing taillights dotted the horizon like migrating fire flies being drawn to the first check point. I was a little ways off the main group and riding by myself starting to get comfortable with the erratic feel of the bike on the soft road. Just as you relaxed a frost boil would appear at the edge of the headlight causing you to change course and hang on. A frost boil is an area of the road that resembles a land mine exploding beneath the surface. The gravel is heaved up and very soft. Vehicles and bikes passing through cause deep ruts that must be navigated. There seems to be no pattern to the boils. The uphill boils brought you close to a standstill as you picked your way through and the downhill ones caused you to loose your momentum as you hit the brakes to keep from crashing.
At 5:00am the excitement intensified with a fabulous light show in the form of lightning. We were like crazed storm chasers riding towards the big storm with a rain coat as the only protection. I have ridden in some pretty intense storms but never in the pre-dawn darkness. The lightning strikes seemed close enough to touch at times as they lit up the blackened sky like a flash bulb. By dawn we were left with only the steady rain from the storm.
As the sky’s started to lighten with the rising of the sun we encountered the first mud road. This slowed the ride to a walking pace. The first portion of this mud section had grassy shoulders so there was a place to push your bike. At the halfway point the bikes had to be hoisted over a barbwire fence to stay out of the mud. Before leaving the mud section you had to lift your bike back over the fence. If you tried to push your bike on the muddy section you could make it about 5 feet before your brakes were caked with peanut butter like clay that had to be removed before advancing further. I had planned for this by carrying an extra tire lever in the outside compartment of my bag. This plan worked very well and unfortunately was tested too many times as the race progressed.
I made the check point by 7:30 and was handed the second set of cue sheets covering the next 87 miles. A quick stop at the only store in town to fill the already empty camel back had me rolling towards the next check point in….who knows. With the clouds breaking I was confident in taking off the grimy, wet rain coat before leaving town. I was in about 15th place and found out later only 27 made the check point in time. The roads in the next section were much more rider friendly as we headed straight, right, left, right then right then left, right, straight, nasty mud road…. Who knows where we were and I really didn’t care. The warmth of the sun washed away some of the morning chills and rejuvenated me as the miles passed by. It also baked the mud on the back of tights until it they were like body armor.
An hour after leaving the check point we hit the worst mud road of the day. The first half mile you could push the bike in the tall wet grass. The last half mile there was no shoulders so you had to carry the mud covered bike. My shoes were completely covered with mud and I was amazed that I could still clip into the peddles. Several minutes at the end of the road picking the mud out had me headed out once again.
37 miles into this leg of the race I rolled into the “town” of Otley. I was looking for a place to take a quick re-fuel break and lube my dry, grinding chain. The cue sheets do not list where towns or stores are located. You guess that when you turn on Main street that must be a town. Otley had nothing so I lubed the chain, slammed down a Salted Nut Roll bar and saddled up once again. Our less then vague cue sheets did tell us that at mile 45 there was a bike shop. I had no idea what town that would be but assumed that if they had a bike shop they must also have a store f some kind. As it turns out it were in Pella. An extremely welcome 20 minute break was the reward. I knocked the dried mud off the shoes and bike, inhaled an always delicious chicken salad sandwich, refilled bottles and camelback. The sadistic organizers or this crazy adventure were in Pella letting us know they had routed us around a mud road and told us we were headed to What Cheer in about 40 miles.
Got into the check point in about 15th place and there were 13 other riders “hiding” from the downpour under the check point tent and at the Casey’s not wanting to ride on. Three muddy, rain soaked riders were trying to map a bail out route back to Grinnell while others were waiting for the support people to rescue them from this weather wrecked adventure. The next section was 77 miles with a cut-off of 1:00 am. Given the less then 10 mph average pace we had ridden covering the distance from checkpoint #1 to checkpoint #2 I had little confidence that any of us could make the cut-off. In the back of my mind was the fact that a couple of years ago no body made the time cut-offs so there were no finishers. My train of thought was that I was not going to be able to finish. At check point #3 I would stuck in the middle of no where at 1:00am. After check point #3 it was supposed to be 107 miles to the finish. Currently we were only 45 miles from Grinnell so heading to Grinnell with the other three riders seemed like the most logical call.
This logical call would prove to be a little tougher then originally thought. Grinnell is North West of What Cheer and the wind had picked up to an impressive 20-30 mph out of the North-North East. Add in rain and the fact that we had just ridden 132 miles over the last 13 hours and the ride was going to be anything but enjoyable. In previous rides to and from the Des Moines area or out to RAGBRAI I had ridden the last half of the route we had mapped and knew that it was pretty hilly. I also am very familiar with the town of Montezuma that was at the halfway point. They possess the only convenience store for many miles and I have used that welcome stop on many occasions. It is ironic that many of my great cycling adventures over the past couple of years have led me through the town of Montezuma and now I would be able to add one more to the list.
We left the comforts of the rain protecting pop up tent and headed West towards our final destination and our race starting point that seemed like an eternity ago. As we turned North three of us were holding our own but one of the riders was starting to fade as we turned into the headwind going to Barnes City. We re-grouped and stayed together in the cross wind before reaching Montezuma for one last break before making the final push. At the convenience store one rider called his support crew in Grinnell to rescue him. He had had all the fun he was going to put himself through. We had 18 miles of rolling hills that consisted of 9 miles of cross wind and then the last 9 miles straight into the wind. The daylight faded as we pushed north taking turns pulling and fighting the winds. We now had our lights on not to see the road but to make sure approaching vehicles could see us. The last half hour the rain intensified and was driven by the rain into our faces. I can’t remember riding in that heavy of rain combined with that much wind. At times it was all I could do to stay on the road and in contact with my riding companions.
Finally you could make out the lights of the interstate and eventually the hotels that were our finish line. It was 8:15 pm and 16 and one half hours ago I had left the same hotel venturing into the unknown not sure how the day would end but hoping that it would not end this early.
The next day I found out that the race had been stopped 23 miles from What Cheer in the town of North English at 7:30. The eight riders that had ventured on past What Cheer got credit as official finishers. I would have been the third rider to leave What Cheer if I would have headed out on the route instead of detouring to Grinnell. I would love to enter the race next year and as a finisher would have got automatic entry into all future races.