This Memorial Day weekend marked our first, and hopefully not last, participation in the Gravel Metric in DeKalb, IL: a 109km ride over the non-paved rural roads of the American heartland.
Given that this was my first “gravel ride” considerable time was spent in the days before thinking about tire choice. (For the Belgians, this is truly what we would call “veld rijden,” literally except that many roads have gravel and are endlessly straight. Indeed, we only had about 20 turns in 109km so this is a power timetrial course…) First I mounted my old 44mm Kevlar commuter tires, but even my cross bike couldn’t clear that width, so I put a 40mm other old commuter tire in the rear. With dry weather, I mounted a 28mm Gatorskin Continental slick in the front. The combination worked well, although I may put a slightly wider tire in the front next time to better cruise through the thick gravel (which was mostly the first hour).
All we had to do was sign our rights-to-sue away and we were ready–did I tell you this was an unheard-in-America free event?! (Thank you Axletree and Robots ❤ for the organization! We loved it.) It was still fun and giggles before the start:
The ride–this was a non-timed event, but it “often is ridden competitively”–was led out of town for 4km by police and a left hand turn led to “the start”. The route , with cue sheets and .tcx downloadable file (strongly recommended), was pretty much a giant rectangle. The first 4km segment was the only asphalt we’d see in a LONG time and the build up for the storm, which came with a right hand turn onto fairly deep gravel. All hell broke loose–this was the start of the hardest 20min in an amazing cloud of dust when the group selection started following natural ability (read: threshold watts). Below you see the power surge about 20min into the ride (times are Greenwich, the 1600 was 900 local). Looking at the 1min and 5min moving-average power clearly shows the hard moments: the separation happened during a 6min interval before 9:28 (recall the green line is a moving, hence trailing, average).
Eventually the lead horsepower group went clear with our own Sven (center of picture above), Eric Drummer and some pro riders (Jamey Driscoll and Ben Berden). We would see them again around km 62 where we rode about 1.5km left, got our armband ticketed and did a 180 turn back. At that point we were about 2km, perhaps 5min, behind the lead group. Not bad…
With Sven in front, the three of us–Al and Craig Bryant and myself–formed a well-rolling group with Dominic Casey. The focus was now on trying to maintain steady tempo and power, and form echelons to protect the group against crosswinds. (Few riders seemed familiar with these basics, so it took some encouragement.) We picked up others and our group grew. Until I rode passed a turn. (Did I tell you this was a non-supported, non-signed ride?) I was leading and heard some yelling. By the time I stopped and turned back, the others were gone and we got to chase. Thanks guys! (Eventually, we caught up with all of them and, over time, lost them all. This event is not about a lonely attack–you can’t stay ahead of a well-rotating balanced group unless your threshold is >20% higher…) After missing that turn, I switched the Garmin 510 into showing the tcx route, not to be surprised again. This was highly useful, as the turns were sometimes hidden. (The downside is that, somehow, my Garmin file got corrupted because “memory was full” but I was able to get my power data but can’t get the file to work as *.fit anymore because the end-of-file data is messed up.)
After the river crossing at full speed, which was fun, we unfortunately got to see Sven again… holding his shoulder walking back to the the creek. It turned out Sven had dismounted to safely walk through the creek. But this meant the lead group had gapped him and he chased back at full force. But the rural dirt road had deep, treacherous tractor tracks and Sven went down. Later that night an ER visit showed that he broke his collarbone and two ribs… (Sven: I will miss you, my Wednesday long-ride partner, but hopefully for not too long. Wishing you speedy recovery! Also a big thank you North Central Cyclery bike shop for driving Sven back to your shop! If you had to crash, the creek was best place given that a few folks were there with cars.)
Unable to help out, we continued on. By then, we were down to four: Al, Craig, Dom and I. Two other guys joined and then fell back again during that last 15km which was pretty painful, as we were all DONE. That’s what gravel, a majority of head and crosswind, and 30C does to the frail body. Luckily, we kept rotating well until the end, which was a god send–you could loose major time doing this last slog solo into the warm wind. We were all excited (the brothers even contested the sprint–see power spike at 19:52) to finish in 3hr52min, about 20min behind Eric’s 3h31min and pro’s Ben Berden and Jamie Driscoll’s 3h29min (according to Strava). Not bad for two end-of-40s office amateurs and two younger ones… Now that we know the four of us work well together, we’ve got to do it again!