Lanterne Rouge in the Gravel

Ever done a race on gravel? A really long one? Well, here is my first foray into writing a race report, and as a new member of xXx, I hope to keep it entertaining and informative.

First of all, I am getting old. Old enough at age 55 to really not want to crash out in a crit. My last face plant at 30 mph was four years ago, resulting in some tooth loss, a perforated lip, and 28 stitches. My son, Jake, whom you may know by his entertaining posts here, was there for that crash and suggested I not do that again. Crashing. Good luck on that. However, the seed was planted to get me thinking about other cycling genre, and as you may have noticed lately, gravel riding, racing, and “grinding” is gaining popularity. So, I began riding gravel and then entering gravel race events.

A slight digression here: Riding a bicycle on gravel roads, for me, is unlike any other type of cycling. It seems one part road bike, one part mountain bike, and one part snowboard. Speeds are slower, though I’ve reached 45 mph on gravel downhills. My gravel bike is similar to my ‘cross bike, but with slacker angles and a hybrid of road and mountain bike drivetrains. I run a 50/34 up front with an 11-42 in the rear. Yep a 42. Big pizza pie in the back. I’ve climbed 20 percent grades in Missouri at times, having to sit the whole time to avoid wheel spin. The snowboard part is the drift and slide riding gravel, especially on certain types of gravel where the rock resembles golf balls and baseballs. The variety and diversity of the terrain make gravel riding so very interesting and adventurous.

Now the race: The Tour of Hermann (MO) Gravel Challenge is a two day, 201 mile race that climbs a cumulative 15,296 feet, and is about 95% gravel. There are five distinct loops, two north of the Missouri River and three south of the river. Day one is 96 miles made up of three 32 mile loops and day two is two 52 plus mile loops. Time cuts are placed for each loop. Winner is the lowest cumulative time and you get a bottle of German wine for your winning efforts. The rest get a Mason jar full of gravel.

My buddy, Chuck, and I arrived a day early, to do a fifty mile “opener” on the KATY trail that slices east to west through most of the middle of Missouri. We checked into the Hermann Motel the previous night, last remodeled in 1973, but clean and challenging when the toilet seat falls off. A little diner is next door where we eat breakfast every morning with the same locals there, every morning. Conversation is the usual “How do you sit on that seat?” and “Why would you want to ride your bike for 200 miles this weekend?” or, my favorite, “I’d put an engine on that thing.” Friday night, three other friends arrive and we have our team with an agreement that no one gets dropped (for fear of the buck-toothed, porch-sitting banjo player commonly found near gravel courses).

Day one, Saturday. Thirty two degrees and sunny. Roll out with 142 other fools by following a pick-up truck that’s up so high you need a ladder to enter. About four miles of neutral start over the Missouri River bridge gets boring and I notice there’s a line of cars and trucks hauling livestock trailers (full of pigs) going just a bit faster than us. I suggest to my buddies that we draft a bit so as not to burn any matches prematurely. I jump on the bumper of a small sedan following the pigs and enjoy the pull for about 50 meters until the driver, apparently thinking the rules do not allow motor pacing, hits his brakes to send a signal and I avoid another 28 stitches by millimeters, but endure the wrath of 10 cyclists behind me swerving to avoid carnage. Snowboarding already.

The start flag is dropped just off the pavement and the selection already begins. We hit the KATY trail double, then single file as the pace quickens. In about five miles we pull off the trail onto a short section of pavement, then climb up to the first of many gravel climbs. And then the peloton shatters. This is where gravel racing reminds me of mounting bike racing. Race for the hole shot, single file, then, for the most part, time trialing solo. And so the first loop goes: some creek crossings, some drift on the descents, and no banjo players spotted. We narrowly avoid a farm cat; last year a rider went down after a collision with a cat, fracturing his collar bone and ending his 200 mile race after the first 10 miles. We cruise back to Hermann beating the time cut by an easy hour. Life is good.

Loop 2 goes south of the River and the road surface is very different: large, loose gravel constantly jarring my whole body. Pace is slower and I begin to focus on my nutrition. I’m making my own energy bars now and love the outcome, but the wrapping needs refinement and I lose a good deal of my bar to the bumps. I decide to eat only on the climbs, but they’re really steep and I slalom a bit while packing, chipmunk-like, the bolus of sticky rice, spiced beef and onion in my cheeks, then slowly eat between breaths. Works like a charm. And, yes, sticky rice, spiced beef and onion is really good. The secret ingredient is molasses. We find ourselves back to Hermann and the checkpoint with another hour to spare. No mechanicals. No bonks. Life is good.

Loop 3 also goes south of the river, but has more climbs, one requiring some of us to walk at about 20 percent grade. I ride, a source of pride, but notice my buddy walking faster than I am riding. My Garmin goes into “auto stop” mode even though I am moving. I will not walk...I will not walk. So, a digression here: Is generating 350 watts riding 2.2 mph burning those matches? Is walking smarter (though so uncool)? We finish the day in 8:32 total time, pretty spent, but ecstatic that we beat last year’s time by 76 minutes over the three loops. I cross the line 50th place out of the 142 starters.

We celebrate by eating Mexican in this German town. As with all events cycling, food never tastes better than after a hard effort: 4311 kJ, 8593 feet climb, and 96 miles, nearly all gravel.

Sleep is sweet in the Hermann Motel. Until the two waves of partiers roll in at 1:00 and 2:00 a.m. I’m thinking they are laughing inside our room, but they are not, and the ruckus dies as my legs also do upon awakening. Should have gone for that recovery drink.

Day Two: 105 miles of gravel in store. We roll out with a fraction of the group from yesterday. Maybe 50 starters today. This is a race of attrition! I remind myself to not motor pace behind the pig trucks this morning and all is well on the neutral start. Except the pickup this time is gone up the road quickly and the group decides to hammer at 28 miles an hour on the pavement. My group mutters we are burning matches at mile 2 of 105. Clouds darken and lightning cracks just 15 minutes into the day. Riders pull over on the gravel and don rain attire. Several riders seek shelter near a rock bluff. We push on into the large drops for a couple of minutes. Then the rain stops, but the road is a bit like peanut butter as we sink to rim level, spinning and drifting. It evidently poured buckets in front of us, then the cloudburst rotated away, leaving a slog for a good hour. Things are going south a bit.

At this point I will fast forward: Dropped rice cakes. Pulling off layers – it’s steamy hot now. A pinch flat. I’m running out of hydration. And finally, a buddy’s flat about 8 miles out. We calculate the time. Crap! We may miss the time cut. Change the tire. Hammer. Crap. My buddy’s saddle bag, left open, has left a trail of necessary bike minutia. Gotta go back and get it. Valuable stuff. An Easter egg hunt of sorts. Got it. Hammer. Pace line. Monster pull by Jeff. Into Hermann. Make the time cut by 8 minutes. Race organizer says, “The time cut is when you pull out of here!” Argh! Get new bottles, get new nutrition, get new chamois butter (ahhhhhh, feels sooooo good). And OUT. With 30 seconds to go. Whew.

Loop 5: We are high on adrenaline. Adrenaline will not last for four or five hours, I think to myself. But maybe it will? So, the last loop is really a kind of a multiple roller for 52 miles. No monster climbs like yesterday and we enjoy the coasters. An animal farm of sorts evolves: we spy deer, odd colored domestic ducks, lots of cows, horses, and Missouri mules. No banjo players. We turn a corner and right out of a Hitchcock movie is a gigantic dead tree with six vultures staring at us. We ride under the tree and the vultures alight, following us for a while, giving me the willies.

Perhaps the vultures are a harbinger to what happens next. I have my nutrition technique down to a science now: take half a spiced beef and onion rice cake, cram it equally into each cheek, like the chipmunk, add a couple of shots of water and let it sit for a while. Chew slowly and all is good. Ten miles from the finish! The pace picks up. I’m chipmunking it just fine. Darn. Need to breath a little more with the pace. I’ll breath through my mouth. At this point, the word ASPIRATE best describes what happens. A bolus of sticky rice/spiced beef/onion and molasses enters my lung(s). The sounds one makes when that happens cannot be easily described; perhaps a blend of a child’s high screech and a pig snorting, like I heard motor pacing the day before, comes close. I keep pedaling. Eventually, a kind of self-Heimlich causes what was once in my lungs to shower all over my bike and kit. I never stopped pedaling.

Two more flats and an hour later a magnificent white owl paces us overhead, just out of reach. We roll into Hermann at 8:08 moving time, but well over an hour of down time between mechanicals and the thunderstorm. 4200Kj, 6700 feet of climb, 105 miles The finish line is empty except for five Mason jars filled to the brim with gravel. We are, for sure, Lanterne Rouge.

Post-script: At the time of this writing, I do not know the final placement we received; it is not yet posted. We spoke to the 5th place finisher, who was camping nearby, who told us maybe 20 finished the entire five loops. So, maybe 20th out of 142? That would be the top 15%, eh? Or, dead last of the finishers. Lanterne Rouge never felt so good.

Keith Buescher, Springfield, IL

April 9-10, 2016 – Tour of Hermann