Gravel Worlds

Remember back when I wrote about the Loess Hills Enduro and jokingly mentioned the hills throughout the post like 5000’ feet of climbing was a lot? Oh to be young and naïve again. Gravel Worlds would come to put that to shame (less elevation per mile but more total elevation). It is put on by the Pirate Cycling League and billed as the Officially Unofficial Gravel World Championship. The whole culture of gravel racing is kind of like the Wild West. There are ground rules, 9 rules for PCL’s Gravel Worlds to be exact, and etiquette to follow but it isn’t an officially recognized racing scene and that is the best part of it. It’s rugged and gritty and saved for the toughest of cyclists. This race brought riders from the majority of the lower 48 as well as 7 different counties. Throwing myself head first into the world of gravel racing this summer has probably been the most beneficial thing I could’ve done for my success in cycling so far. I have learned so much more about bikes, racing tactics, training, and how it all fits in with my body’s ability. When you push your body beyond what it’s done before it is slightly terrifying but more than slightly exciting.

Like I said in my last post, I am now in uncharted territory for my biking “career”. I’ve never done this many miles, this much racing, met this many new people, or had this much fun on a bike. I knew Gravel Worlds was going to be the biggest challenge of mine so far. They promised 150 miles and 9,000 to 11,000 feet of climb during those miles. In the two weeks leading up to the race I did a lot of research. It’s not like I was going for a W but I still wanted to set myself up to do the best I possibly could. The other local gravel grinders this summer brought familiar faces to each race; Robb, Josh, Steve, and Travis. I always knew if those four were a few hills ahead of me over the first ten to twenty miles then my pace was survivable for me. The Gravel Worlds 150 race had a full field of 500 entrants. That’s far more than the maybe 50ish person average for the other races around here. I knew I couldn’t rely on seeing that same group of four ahead of me to know I was doing alright. This race was on me to know what I could do.

I did my research and reflected on past races to figure out how to face this race and turn it into simply taking the hills and miles and leaving the eating and drinking mostly to my subconscious. I nerded out calculating about how many calories and how much fluid I should have consumed at each stop based on time and the estimated temperature. I knew when I’d need to stop and how many snacks I’d need to switch from my saddle pack to the top tube pack for easy grabbing over the next gap until another stop presented itself. Going into Friday night I was nervous. I was also incredibly excited and focused on riding my best race.

Scribbles of my nutrition plan. Out of 1000 race photos I didn't find any of me and I can't justify buying pictures of random people so this will have to do!

As calculated as I thought I was. I was still schooled this entire race. So instead the normal race recap I’m jotting down the lessons I learned last Saturday. Taking yourself to new places means there is going to be a learning curve. Here is what I took away from 150 miles of Nebraska hills and gravel:

1. Don’t underestimate yourself at the start

I was hoping to finish in under 10 hours. I have a habit of looking around at other cyclists and judging their talent based on how they look and how their bikes look. This never works out. I placed myself in the crowd at a spot where I thought I fit in. That spot turned out to be way to slow and I spent the first 5 miles at a blazing pace trying to get through the sea of riders up to a group that I could fit in with. I did this last fall in cyclocross too. I just need to believe in myself a little more.

2. Maybe don’t wear headphones in a group

About 25 miles in I had split off from the group I found originally and was riding alone. I figured this would be my life for the next few hours so I put headphones in and found an album to listen to. A mile later I was caught by a large group and I jumped in with them. I wanted to zone out and just focus on moving forward so I left the headphones in. A while down the road, the group shifted to the right and I was moving up to take my turn pulling. Over the music I hear someone yelling at me, I guess they had been yelling for a while. I pulled my headphones out and he yelled that there was a car behind me. He laid into me with a short but mighty, expletive filled rant about turning down my music and taking my headphones out. In the moment I was rattled and completely lost my vibe. Rule #1 of Gravel Worlds was “don’t be lame” and here I was looking like a total jackass in front of 25 other racers having my headphones up way too loud. I sunk to the back of the line and hung out there in embarrassment for the next several miles. Looking back I understand his reaction, things get heated in a high intensity race like that and tempers come out. I did apologize to the guy and he also apologized to me for overreacting, so we’re good. To anyone else in that group, sorry about that. I should definitely know better by now so that is on me. I ended up not using headphones for the remaining 100 miles.

3. Don’t let go of your water bottle until you’re sure it’s back in the cage

This should be obvious. While in that same draft line I was hovering toward the back. I took a drink and thought I had my bottle back in the cage. I let go and it just fell onto the gravel road. Nobody was behind me so I am very lucky I didn’t ruin anyone’s day. I broke off from the group to grab it and knew I’d have to sprint to catch back up. Another guy had done the same thing about a quarter mile up so we worked together to get back on the end of that group. They were moving just over an 18mph pace with ease and I couldn’t afford to miss that speed while I was feeling it (I finished with an average pace well under that). I had never dropped a bottle during a race before and it ended up being a lot of wasted energy. It’s just something that is easier to avoid.

4. Figure out lighter nutrition

I found some meal bars with 370 calories each and those were a game changer during this race. I felt amazing while using them but when they ran out things got tougher. I bonked at mile 120 and had to eat a ton really quick to get the hunger out of my stomach. I also just felt way over packed. I estimated a 10 hour race time and 250 calories per hour seems to be my sweet spot. I carried 3,000 calories with me in case some emergency happened. I also had two water bottles of Skratch and a CamelBak of water. All of that weight was really felt on the steeper hill climbs. Looking at the guys that finished ahead of me, many of them only have two water bottles and no packs on their bikes. I need to figure out those nutrition and hydration plans and mess with some of that next year. Although those 370 calorie bars were clutch, I felt way too weighed down during Gravel Worlds.

5. Be quick at the check points

This has been touched on in almost all the other GW blogs I’ve read so I won’t write about it but it is definitely an important time saver. I spent 24 minutes off the bike and could greatly bring that down next year.

6. Get some aero bars

Nine to ten hours is a long time to be rocked by gravel bumps while hunched over on a bike. By the end everything from your shoulders, arms, and hands all the way to your lower back, legs, and feet starts to hurt. I always thought aero bars were for triathletes only but I saw a lot of them last weekend and after the 100th mile I was jealous of those with them.

7. Pay attention to your GPS

At one point during the race we were coming up to a paved road crossing and riders from one of the other rides were coming at us on the gravel road across from us. We had been seeing those riders for quite some time so I just assumed we were going to continue onto the gravel and didn’t bother checking my map. I was fidgeting with a wrapper trying to get it to open instead. I knew Travis Loewens was close behind me so I yelled, “Clear” as I crossed the road. From behind me I heard him yell, “The route turns”. Luckily I wasn’t far into this new gravel road and made a turnaround through the ditch and onto the pavement without losing much time…good thing I took my headphones out but I should’ve glanced at my GPS first anyway.

8. Make sure your stuff works

I’ve been having rear derailleur issues all year but they haven’t been crippling. They started getting bad a week out from GW. I took it to the shop to get it looked at but nothing more than adjustments could be made on such short notice. Things were fine the first 80 miles but after that the dust built up in the derailleur and I couldn’t hit my third or ninth gears. If I wanted to ride either of those gears I’d have to shift a gear past them then shift back once in order to get my chain in the right spot. It wasn’t something crippling but it certainly got annoying over 70 miles.

9. Don’t forget sunscreen

The race started at 6am so I didn’t start with sunscreen on but I carried a little with me to put it on at the first checkpoint around mile 60. I got to that checkpoint with a large group and was in such a hurry to check in, refill, and go that I totally forgot about the sunscreen. My next planned stop wasn’t until mile 88. I ended up getting a decent burn but luckily didn’t forget to throw some on at the other stops. The worst of it is probably the helmet strap burn lines that are still on my face this week. I’m sure I could survive a race without taking time for sunscreen but I’d pay for it in the days to follow.

I briefly fell asleep after this finishing picture and woke up feeling like I was going to vomit. I left it all on the gravel that day. The gravel left it all on me.

Overall I had a great experience. Never once during this race did I get stuck inside my head. It was for sure the toughest I’ve been mentally so far this year and I’m glad I saved it for the toughest race I’ve done. I did have periods of fear like hitting mile 75 and realizing I was only halfway done. Or hitting mile 107 and realizing every mile after that would be the furthest I’d traveled on gravel. There was also the last 10 miles of strong crosswind and hill after hill just crushing my already aching legs. But I kept my breathing normal and just stayed relaxed. If you aren’t learning lessons and fighting your battles than you’re not going in the right direction. I felt way stronger than expected through most of the race and finished over 30 minutes faster than anticipated. Corey and Craig put on an incredible event. It was certainly like nothing else that I’ve experienced so far and it was awesome that it was basically in my back yard. With the sponsors, expo, and attendance it truly had the feeling of a world championship event. The coolest part being that nobody needed to have world championship speed to be a part of it. That feeling was awesome for someone still brand new to this sport, like me. The gravel family is dope.

I still have one more gravel race to finish out this year, The Pony Express 120, but I am already looking forward to next year. I feel like each average mile per hour finishing pace is another tier of athleticism. I already have goals set to push myself into the next tier next season and I can’t wait to get started. This year I have met people in their 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s who I consider great at this sport and still seem to be improving. That isn’t to say I think I can achieve the 21+mph speed of the world class guys up front in this race, but we all have our own definition of greatness. I think I can reach my definition of greatness. This year and specifically this race, gives me a lot of hope for how much I can push myself in the years to come. I’m certainly excited for that ride. It’s been fun blogging about my growth so far.

…Oh, and am I allowed to claim I’m the 84th best gravel cyclist in the world now?? Sure it’s technically probably not true but this was the World Championship after all!

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