Solstice 100 Recap

100 miles can be a long way to travel by any mode of transportation. By car it will take you over an hour, by train it would be about the same, and unless you have a private jet it would even take a while by air after you factor in security, taxi time, and all that jazz. Running? Some people have done it and it and it can take less than a day for the elite. I am not them. Motorized scooter? No way, the battery wouldn’t last and you’d be stuck between pushing regular and mongo for the other 95 miles or until the tread wore from your shoes while the tab in your Lime app continued to rise. But by Bicycle? We’re talking hours. It is basically a work day and as we all know those can take a looooong time.

From my home in Omaha to the Solstice 100 Gravel Grinder in Malcolm, NE it was 62.5 miles each way. The 100 mile gravel grinder itself was around 80% of the total distance that I’d travel to and from it last Saturday. What I’m trying to say is that 100 miles is a long way. It’s even longer when you’re alone for most of it. Don’t get me wrong, I had an amazing time at the Solstice 100 and it left me feeling more confident and sure that I’m headed the right direction in cycling than any other race I’ve done this summer. I just had more alone time than the other two races I’ve done combined and it truly made me understand just how far 100 miles is when it’s just you and your thoughts.

I found out about this race through one of the people in cycling that I’ve known the longest and who has probably had the biggest influence on me in the sport so far, Matt Copeland. I text Matt with questions about bikes and racing at least five times a week. In late January Facebook’s creepy algorithm started showing “Matt Copeland is interested in…” notifications to me. They were all gravel grinders scheduled for this summer. That’s where I found out about the Solstice. I may be weird but not many things sounded more fun to me than spending the longest day of the year (or day after in this year’s case) challenging myself to bike 100 miles of hilly, gravel covered terrain. Once I got serious about racing gravel this summer I signed up for the race but it was full and I had to settle for the wait list. I didn’t expect to get in. “I’ll be on top of things next summer so I don’t miss out”, I told myself. Lo and behold in early May, after basically forgetting I signed up, I received an email letting me know I’d been chosen off the wait list! I’d get to add it to the pile of miles.

I mentioned the day of the Enduro was easy leading up to the race because I had a routine. Naturally, that didn’t work two weekends in a row. You see, we’re moving to a new place this week so everything was boxed up and stashed away Saturday morning. I couldn’t make a big brekky and my racing gear was all over the place. On the way to the race my dashboard lit up with the low tire pressure warning for my rear passenger tire. About ten miles later my low fuel light came on. This blame all falls on me of course, it was a chaotic time. I’m nothing if I’m not perpetually anxious but I made it to Malcolm despite the adversity.

I got checked in, geared up, and chatted with a few of the other cyclists that I’m beginning to get to know. The race was scheduled to start at 7am. At about 6:55 a flash of lightning flew across the sky and rain started to lightly come down. After the American Legion Gravel Mission when he heard that was my first gravel grinder, Robb Finegan was the one who told me, “Don’t get used to weather this perfect on race days because you won’t get it very often.” I let Robb know I was keeping that in mind on that rainy and blustery Saturday morning.

After an hour delay due to more lightning, the race was ready to get underway at 8am. The rain was light to almost nonexistent at this point and I felt ready. With most of the usual suspects being at all these races I’m starting to settle into my lineup spot at the start line, it’s usually about mid-second row near the outside. That allows me to stay out of the way of the lead riders but also to grab a wheel and follow for as long as I can.

 

The start line. Shout out to McColgan Potography and Orange Mud for providing free race photography.

The race got off to a fast start. We hit the first rolling gravel hills cruising about 24mph over the rounded tops. I was holding on with the lead group but also nervous that I was going to burn myself out at that fast pace. I felt fine but something wasn’t quite right, I didn’t feel 24mph fine. I was so young and naive. I’ll lay partial blame for the fast pace on the professional in the field, Ashton Lambie. If you haven’t heard of him just give his name a quick Google. The dude is GOOD at bikes. It was cool being in the same race as him even if I never had a shot to hang around. In the Gravel Mission I held onto the lead group for about 30 miles. During the Enduro it was 7. In the Solstice I made it a whopping 3 miles with the leaders until I got dropped. To make matters worse they dropped me on a downhill. My CruX is a cyclocross bike and is set up with an 11-32t cassette and one 40t chaining up front. I’ll be honest, like I said in my welcome blog…I don’t really know what that stuff actually means. But on that steep downhill it meant that I was already moving too fast for pedaling to actually add anything to my current speed. All I could do was watch the group of guys ahead of me ride away as we continued our first good descent. Even as they pulled away and we began to flatten out again I was still moving in excess of 20mph. It felt so easy and I couldn’t figure out where this new found strength was coming from. Until our southern progress took a left to head east.

A strong north wind hit me broadside so hard that I felt like my bike was going to slide out from under me. Just like that my easy 20mph pace was gone. I should’ve known better. I was now in a position where I could choose to keep my pace and go it alone as long as I felt good, or slow down and let the riders behind me catch up so I had others to fight against this variable north and east wind with. I decided to fight the wind and go it alone.

Eventually the wind became too much for me to face on my own. I glanced over my shoulder around mile 25 and saw a group of 5 or 6 riders behind me, including my buddy Matt (Matt was racing single speed so the Solstice was my one chance to ride ahead of him). I let this group catch me and we started taking turns leading the charge. So far this summer I have learned how and when to eat on the bike, I’ve picked up riding and racing strategies, I’ve improved my handling in thick gravel and slick downhills, but I hadn’t been confident enough to pull anyone behind me yet. I knew I’d have to do it eventually because I didn’t want a reputation as the guy who never pulls. I was nervous. How fast do I go? How do I move to smoother road without hitting a wheel? When do I start and when do I stop? Like everything else I’ve picked up in the world of gravel racing, I was about to learn on the fly.

I finally took my turn pulling, something I had been pretty nervous to do so far this year.

Our little group rode together through the first checkpoint and slightly beyond. I think we dissolved back into individuals somewhere around the 38 mile mark. Once alone again I put in my headphones and opened my Spotify downloads, Verizon’s service wasn’t about to fool me twice! This race was fueled by Glass Animals, Rainbow Kitten Surprise, and The Killers (don’t judge any by name, give them a listen first). I would be alone for the rest of the race, maybe getting caught by or passing a rider or two along the way but never riding with anyone for the 62 miles that remained. Things had moved fast up to this point. There were more climbs in this race than the Enduro featured but they were spread over 35 more miles so it allowed greater rolling speed and less speed to be consumed going up hills. That would change between mile 40 and 50. Although the wind was slowly loosening its grip on the bike, gravity starting taking its own hold.

I hit my mid race lull during that 10 mile stretch when the steep hills kept coming and my pace slowed drastically. My quads began to tire and my knees started to ache again (Lesson one hundred something of the year: always check your hardware before a race. My seat post slipped about an inch during the Enduro and left me with some knee pain that persisted all week leading up to the Solstice). Finally with mile 50 behind me I knew the second checkpoint was less than ten miles away. If I could make it there I could take some ibuprofen for my knees and have enough gas left to finish the race feeling good. I cooked through that ten mile stretch with relative ease and I’m pretty sure I only saw one other person during that section. Coming out of that second checkpoint I felt strong again.

In the low sixty miles I knew that some riders had passed me and that I’d repassed some of them. I tried to remember how many where in that lead group and how many had passed me since and I came up with something like 8 or 9 people. As I’ve said, 100 miles is a long way. Even in the middle of races it is hard not to think about how good it would feel to finish where you’re currently at. I came up to a left hand turn and a guy was sitting on his truck bed. I gave him a quick wave and he help up 7 fingers. I immediately started daydreaming about how cool a 7th place finish would be and right there my racing tactics changed. I couldn’t see 6th place ahead of me and I couldn’t see 8th place behind me but I kept watching. Looking back during a race is something I don’t like to do. In high school I ran cross country. If our coach ever caught us looking back during a meet we’d hear about it until the next one. That still sticks with me. But I wanted 7th place and I became paranoid of getting caught. It took a lot of mental focus to get back to only worrying about my own race.

The earlier rain had soaked into the red sandy gravel that covered nearly every road we’d hit that day and the sky was clearing up. The humidity was starting to rise but I’d done an excellent job (for my standards) of taking in food and water at an even pace throughout the race and I was feeling incredible. The remainder of the race still featured some huge climbs but at one point I had almost 500 more feet of climb than descent. I was looking forward to some steady downhill rollers. I was watching the route directions on my bike computer instead of mileage to try and keep my head clear of the negative thoughts that clouded my mind during the tail ends of my first two gravel grinders. I was going to win the mental battle this time. I came over a hill and saw the mile 90 oasis; a water, snack, and beer stop set up on a farmer’s property for the riders. It wasn’t a mandatory stop and I knew I had enough for the last ten miles. I laid into the pedals and was determined to keep that strength across the finish line.

 

I needed a different pose for this race. I was feeling strong with 10 miles to go so what better way to show it than a flex.

I came across the finish line just south of the 6 hours and 15 minutes mark. One of my favorite things about gravel cycling is that everyone is basically on the same team and there to support one another in their own personal success of getting across the finish line. I was greeted by applause from the Solar Fiddy riders who had already finished, as well as from the five other Solstice 100 riders who had completed their trips…I had caught the sixth place rider around mile 88. I was thrilled with my finishing spot.

I felt great finishing that race how I did and I hope to hold that feeling with me for a few more days but I didn’t create this blog to celebrate top ten finishes. I created this blog to share the lessons and stories that I learn as I take on each of these journeys. I wanted to make something that new cyclists and experienced cyclists could read and relate to. The Enduro had a much larger field of competition. If the exact same field were here I wouldn’t have placed as well. I’m a realist and I kept that in mind. But what else I still would’ve kept in mind is that I won the mental battle against myself. 100 miles can be a long way to travel by any mode of transportation. Completing it by bike leaves a lot of time in your own head where a lot can happen while at the exact same time seemingly nothing happens. During this race I just happened to find some fight and confidence that I hadn’t come across yet this summer. I’m looking forward to carrying that onto the gravel from now on since it’s one of the few things that won’t add any weight to the bike. Now it’s on to prep for the next one, all 150 miles of Gravel Worlds…maybe 100 miles isn’t such a long way after all. I still have so much to learn and so much work to do but with each gravel grinder I finish, new doors to the cycling world are opening.

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