Pony Express Gravel Dash
A Gravel Worlds finish was my summer highlight and I didn’t expect that to change. It remained my summer highlight until I was about 4 hours and 20 minutes into the Pony Express Gravel Dash 75 mile course. It started with my choice to switch distances. In the two weeks leading up to the Pony Express I had mulled dropping into the shorter course a number of times. For one thing, my friend Michael was doing the 75-mile course with his coworkers Dustin and Swiz. Besides that, I was actually tent camping over night (something I had never done before a gravel race), I was going to be on cyclocross tires (something I had never done during a gravel race), the race was on gravel outside of the Eastern Nebraska/Western Iowa area (something I had never done at all), and it took me over a week to feel normal again after 150 miles of Gravel Worlds. I didn’t want another long recovery. There were a lot of variables but I still knew I could handle the workload even if I would be sore for a week. That was until the Wednesday before the Pony Express. I was on the last lap of the first Star City CX Cat 4/5 race of the year. I took a banked turn too fast and went down hard onto my right side. The next day my right knee and hip were bruised and stiff and I finally decided to make the call and opt for the shorter course. A decision that I don’t think I will regret.
To say that I was not prepared for this race would be an understatement. Aside from the fitness I already possessed I didn’t prepare at all…in any way. I hadn’t studied where the checkpoints were or what I would eat and when. I didn’t have a strategy. I was just going on a bike ride instead of competing in a race. I told myself this and I probably believed it for a day or two. On Friday afternoon, I took about 15 minutes to hurriedly pack the stuff I thought I’d need and I was off to Marysville, KS. It was just a bit over a two hour drive down and I had plenty of time to think about the things I forgot. Chain lube? Forgot it. A second tube? Forgot it. A pillow? Forgot it. I ended up sleeping on the wadded up towel that I planned on using to wipe the gravel dust from my legs the next afternoon.
Marysville was a lovely little town with brick roads and old shops lining the main street. The nice thing about small towns is that everything is close. We camped out in the city park about five blocks from the start line. The race was set to begin at 7:30am and the close proximity allowed us to sleep in until about 6:15. It wasn’t until about 6:45 that I decided I was going to take this seriously and give it my all. With nothing but a ProBar in me for breakfast I headed towards the start line and found a spot just behind the back of the MUOR group. I was hoping I could ride their wake long enough to take a good chunk of distance out of the course.
The neutral rollout was short and quick. The police escort took us out of town and over the Big Blue River bridge. Our escort rolled just a bit past the first gravel road east of town and stopped. With a fast left turn onto the gravel we were gone. Right away I could tell this wasn’t the same as any Iowa or Nebraska gravel. The road we were on was so narrow that two cars would have trouble passing each other at one time. There were hints of red and brown in the rock below my tires and the dust was thick. This was probably my first time actually being in Kansas outside of Kansas City and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The roads they picked for this route were perfect. It felt as though they were meant for bikes because of how narrow they were. The level B roads were a mix of dirt, aggressively sharp rock, and steep but short incline and decline. I was almost lucky I lost the leaders when I did because some of the steep declines took a different level of technical skill that I wouldn’t have been confident using in a group. I would guess there was about 10-15 miles of level B roads in this race and they all posed some kind of obstacles to us. Some were shin high with grass, some had huge washouts, and others had shelves of broken rocks that forced you to find a line to ride through them almost as if you were riding singletrack.
Of the Gravel Grinders I did this summer this was my favorite course. That might be because of the novelty of riding in a new state on different gravel but I felt like it was the perfect blend of tight road, open road, harsh rock, packed dirt, grass, and technical sections. It took every skill I had in the bag to hang in there and I loved that. From mile 10 when I lost the lead group until mile 39 I pretty much went my own pace just taking in the scenery and loving the ride. I was riding at a strong pace thanks to the lack of long hills but because the 75-mile and 125-mile rides followed the same path until the split at mile 39 I didn’t know where I stood compared to the other riders ahead of me. I had guessed there were probably 5-10 who turned onto the short course.
Rolling into the first checkpoint the only things I needed were a bottle refill and an envelope punch. The checkpoint markers were creative for this race. Many other races I’ve done this summer gave us pipe cleaners. Because this was the Pony Express, we got a laminated “envelope” with punch holes on the front and we were required to get a punch at each checkpoint stop. Turning onto the 75-mile course after my envelope punch I could see at least one rider up in front of me but with winding roads and the haze of late morning just beginning to lift, it was hard to see anything much further up. By mile 55 I was caught from behind by a group of two riders. They were taking turns pulling and I really liked their pace so I jumped in and started doing my part. Not long after I joined that duo one of them dropped off. I wouldn’t see that rider again until he crossed the finish line.
The remaining rider and I rode together for the rest of the race. His name was Kevin Burke and we passed the time from when he caught up to me until the second checkpoint chatting about mutual friends, what we do for work, biking, and just about any other typical chit chat that happens during a multi hour bike ride. There was a strong cross wind coming up we agreed to wait at the second checkpoint until we were both ready and fight the wind together. Coming into the stop, we caught the rider who had been just ahead of us and we all rode in together. Checkpoint two was a ghost town because we were so early. It even resembled a ghost town of sorts. The checkpoint was at Hollenberg Station, an original Pony Express stop. It would’ve been a really neat place to stay and look around but when we asked, “How many riders are ahead of us?” The volunteers responded with, “One! He was here 17 minutes ago.”
Suddenly it was a race again. Instead of sticking around we got on the bikes right away and headed for the final 15 miles. Our leisurely chit chat faded into focus. There were three of us and two podium spaces available. Since I had never finished this high in a gravel race I was really hoping to grab one of them. Kevin and I continued taking turns pulling and averaging about 17.5 mph. The third member of our group took one short pull and dropped back into the draft. I hadn’t really been in this situation so I was trying to read his energy level. I wanted to figure out if he wasn’t pulling because he wanted to make a move closer to the finish or if he actually didn’t have the legs left to take his turn. I wasn’t mad by any means, but I needed to know his intentions.
As we drew closer to the finish line I could see our drafting friend falling back on hills and catching us on the flats. I don’t know if he and Kevin were vying for position the same way I was but you have to believe that almost anyone in podium contention would want to give their best effort to get there. As the saying goes, “you practice like you play” so even if this was just practice for me I was going to try my best. We came across a sign that said two hills left and I took that as an opportunity to create a gap. I was in the lead and Kevin was right on my wheel (he was incredibly good at staying exactly on the wheel and out of the wind when he wasn’t pulling). I took the last hill of the course at a hard pace hoping to create some distance for Kevin and I to take advantage of. It worked.
I looked down at my computer and it showed 73 miles in. At this point, barring any catastrophe, I knew I had a podium position and Kevin had been such a good person to ride with I told myself that if he moved ahead and I couldn’t keep up, I’m fine with him earning second and taking third for myself. I was just happy to be in this position. But when we reached the end of the gravel and were back on the same bridge we crossed at the start, with the black inflatable Lauf arch in sight, I let the adrenaline take over. I hit the two turns before the finish and laid into the pedals. I’ve always had strong finishes and it worked out well in this race. I crossed the line in second place with a time of 4 hours 20 minutes and some change. That final 15 miles suddenly shot to the top of my summer highlight reel.
Looking back on that final 15 miles I had a lot of doubts running through my mind. This was entirely new territory for me and I wasn’t sure how I would respond when racing got real. With three people gunning for two podium spots I wanted to believe I was mentally tough enough to outlast my physical pains and claim one of those spots. I am so thrilled with myself that I accomplished that. This race was a perfect end cap to my first year of gravel racing. The course required every skill I had developed all summer. It gave me an appreciation for being on the open gravel road doing what I love to do.
I’m hoping to use this finish to propel me into next year. I have many of the same races on the schedule and a few new ones I’m hoping to get into…some that are very well known. Hopefully I come back faster, stronger, and more confident. I’d love to be one of those 40-year-old guys who just destroys the competition some day. Luckily, I’ve got time to work up to that! Now that gravel season is over for me, I’ll have to come up with some new content ideas. It’s been fun documenting my growth this summer. Thanks for reading along, friends, cheers!
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