- By Vin Cox
“It’s almost impossible”… “So difficult, sometimes no-one finishes”… 300 miles of gravel* in a distant land is the kind of challenge I can’t leave alone.
Due to my background (ultra-endurance adventure riding and cyclo-cross racing), I heard of the mother of all ultra-endurance gravel races some years ago. A few social media friends said this was a big deal, so I rather too casually thought I’d join in. I’ve picked out some lessons for the aspirational ultra-distance or gravel cyclist.
TransIowa is a quirky/cult event: No-one knows the route or how much over 300 miles it is until the evening before. The guy in charge is known as “Guitar Ted”, but his name is Mark. Entry is via postcard to Guitar Ted, which must arrive on a precise date and include a code word. The event website is a crazy stream of consciousness which riders must learn to live by. Riders are allowed no support at all – just sustaining themselves from occasional convenience stores and whatever they carry on route. And… the start is at 4am and the finish closes 34 hours later.
Somehow I got the entry organised and had my first go at TransIowa in it’s 9th edition (#TIV9 for short)… and I failed. After 220 miles, in the middle of the night I found myself getting dangerously cold in a freezing night. I raided the bins in a town and insulated myself with newspapers inside my clothes, but I couldn’t ride hard enough to warm up, and there was nowhere to shelter, so I called for help and quit. It was a real pity because #TIV9 was “an easy year”…
1) Traveling too light can catch you out.
2) Anticipate how slow you’ll be going after 24 hours of effort.
3) Don’t underestimate. Believe organisers warnings and descriptions.
For #TIV10 I was better prepared. I was fitter and lighter. I had a new bike and I knew what I was in for; or I thought I did. I at least understood that literally the WHOLE 330 MILE RACE would be on hilly gravel roads. I knew about the gravel being loose, dangerous and energy sapping. I had learned that rural Iowa has a lot of rolling hills and that 10mph was HARD to sustain. The weather was different this time though; we slogged into a gale for the first 160 miles, maxing out on effort just to reach the cut-off point in time to receive instructions to the finish. Then lightening and rain moved in. In a town close to our route a tornado killed someone. I slowed on the soggy roads, struggled to navigate, and eventually realised I couldn’t reach the finish before the time limit. So I quit again. Just a handful finished the race.
4) Both helmet and handlebar lights are needed for night riding and navigation.
5) Aerodynamics matter even going slowly on gravel.
6) Respect that mother nature is in control.
#TIV11 was an epic which I thankfully skipped. No one finished. Only one man made it to the first checkpoint (at 50 miles) in time to be allowed to go on, and then he couldn’t make the next check point, so he quit. The weather is the event’s most notorious participant.
7) Mother nature is REALLY in control.
I couldn’t resist returning for #TIV12. The community had claimed me, and the challenge was taunting me… I had to make TIV12 the one I finished. I flew out with days in hand to recover from the journey. A 150 mile shakedown ride to race HQ at Grinnell on race-type roads was good for me.
The weather was dry, but the wind was strong and some roads were still damp from past rains. We got very lucky that the first 60 miles headed into the wind – lucky because at 4am when the race started the wind was relatively gentle. The next 100 mile leg was a solo effort for me, carefully controlling my effort to leave energy for the 180 mile long slog to the finish through the night and into the morning. A group caught me up at the 200 mile point and we celebrated sunset together.
Iowa’s “B roads” would be called bridleways or white lanes in my home country. They’re unmaintained rights of way. The route always has a few interesting B roads to add excitement to the gravel normality. In the middle of the night my group traversed a beauty of a B road which had us walking and dropped our crucial average speed.
I found the B road strangely motivating, but then at 3am when we finally found a convenience store for the first time in 7 hours I was really shaken up by the experience. It destroyed my rhythm, got me too cold, and I struggled to keep down the food I’d force fed myself. This was my bad patch, everyone goes through something bad in a TI, so I did the important thing; I carried on slowly, and eventually I got over it as the sun started to come up.
Alone again, I was a real “gravel grinder” churning along in a slightly detached mental state. Tiny points of beauty and interest captivated me; a gnarly old fence, a puzzled looking cow, the star spangled banner fluttering perfectly from a flagpole beside a barn. Fresh gravel, big lose difficult rocks of it, absorbed all my complaints. One thing I always focused on was the route card telling me where to go – it’s a self navigated event and one of the easiest ways to fail is to go off course.
With 10 miles to go and nearly 4 hours to do it I dared to begin believing I was going to finish. It still wasn’t guaranteed, and people have broken their bikes that close to the finish in the past, but I hoped that I could walk it in that time if needed. I was a physical wreck by that time, and I stopped to stretch out as my back started spasming.
At 5 miles to go I was lying down in the road to relax my back enough to finish when another rider caught me. I can tell you that after 30+ hours of shared torture and adventure, fellow riders are not rivals, they are comrades. My comrades helped and encouraged me along that road to the finish, where Guitar Ted and the huge TransIowa community were waiting for every finisher. I came 17th.
8) Catching up on sleep before an ultra is important.
9) Holding back something for the tough times is vital.
10) Friends will motivate each other.
11) If at first you don’t succeed…!
The 13th TransIowa #TIV13 is a day or two from now and the weather forecast is worrying my buddies over there (check it at https://www.wunderground.com/q/zmw:50112.1.99999). It’s going to be a tough one. Follow them on the race radio station http://ridinggravel.com/transiowaradio/ and the race website http://transiowa.blogspot.co.uk/
Ultra-endurance events are an exciting new frontier in British cycling too. There was a gravel ride last weekend; the Dirty Riever https://www.dirtyreiver.co.uk/ . I’ve entered a massive 3330 mile race around the country next year; Baa Baa Bikepack http://www.bikepack.cc/ . And this weekend in Plymouth at 9pm I’ll be cheering riders starting the Trans-Kernow challenge around Cornwall https://www.facebook.com/events/1799113573703765. I hope my experiences help other people succeed!
* The word “gravel” has a polarising effect on my cyclo-cross friends: Firstly, it’s a label which is now used to sell bikes – it’s a trend – which naturally creates cynicism. Secondly, most of my friends will never comprehend the scale and character of the gravel roads which sired the gravel scene in the USA, so some see it as nonsense. A third more positive note is that plenty of my friends only care that this word means a go-anywhere adventure bike or event, which many of us like.
Massive thanks to Guitar Ted and the community which has developed around TransIowa. Particular thanks to Steve Fuller for being my host, adviser, organiser, and inspirer. Other key inspirers include Sarah Cooper, Greg Gleason, Jim Philips, Bill Graves and Trenton J Raygor.
Thanks too to Genesis Bikes for this tough and adaptable 853 steel adventure and cyclo-cross racing beast. Also to Alpkit for the frame bag which held all my supplies and spares. My local bike shop Pave Velo in St Austell were also very supportive.
- By Vin Cox
10th April. 74 miles cycled.
I pressed the panic button at lunch: Asked the team how to get out of Sumatra fast… Not that Sumatra isn’t great, no; very friendly people, beautiful landscape etc. Just such hard going!
Many punctures today on road very very broken or not there in places. Sometimes it had been washed away, other times it was never fully there to start.
Plan now to go for Kota Padang 230 miles away south. Ferry or fly from there to Java.
Today saw: Chocolate trees, rubber trees, bananas, coconut palms, pineapple, rice paddies (so many terraces), Dorian, chillies, and peanuts.
Took 1 mile off total due to search for hotel. Also disbelieve cat-eye today as I saw it go mad when I was slogging away super-slow (<4mph). Garmin okayish – just thinks I’ve stopped when under very thick tree canopy.
74mi @ 10.9mph
“The panic button” was my terminology for phoning home and asking my family to see if Guinness World Records would sanction my using a port other than the one registered in the plan to leave Sumatra. The pendulum had swung too far from speed to adventure, and if I kept going like this I might miss the record. I did find myself thinking “if only I had an MTB and less time pressure, this would be paradise”. I had to return to Sumatra, but for now I had to find a way to limit my losses. Approval from Guinness WR would take a while to get, and I’d still have to reach a port, so the rugged adventure riding would continue.
A loaded touring bike with tyres fit for the road is simply not fit for mud and gravel tracks. My shoes, with their carbon fibre soles and large plastic cleat were also not suitable for hiking with the bike. It did all remind me of my cyclo-cross and mountain bike racing days – but the Three Peaks Cyclo-Cross was never anywhere near this hot! I was barely a hundred miles from the equator.
I really enjoyed passing through the villages and small-holdings where people were working their strip of land between road and jungle. Chickens would dash for cover and farmers would wave their machetes at me as I waved hello to them – it could have been threatening, but I convinced myself they were just returning my greeting gesture. Children in Sumatra would usually recognise me as a westerner and shout “Hello Mister!”, except in one village where they’d been taught wrong and all shouted “Hello Miss!”.That was my diary from precisely four years ago. I’m writing up each day on it’s fourth anniversary as a motivation to get this long overdue task done. These days I’m to be found spending my working days at a brewery, my leisure time cycling, and my family time with my wife and baby daughter. I hope this entertains, informs, or motivates you.
- By Vin Cox
My hand written diary is quite short for day 2, so I’ve added my reflections and hindsight as a post script. First the basics:
8th Feb: 119.6 miles
Coffee stop at Koksijde, 21 miles: Cold, sleet, headwind.
Finish 8pm. 119.6mi @ 13.4mph: Snow & rain & wind. Miserable in every way, so pleased to achieve okay mileage. Shorter route than planned (to be sure of making the Marseille ferry deadline) – have to make up those lost miles somewhere warm.
It was a dull dark grey day, with the wind blowing slushy iced water into my clothes and permeating my consciousness with it’s mood. Flanders (the region of France and Belgium) on this day was a land of miserable mist and mud without a horizon.
Visiting Koksijde was supposed to be a moral boost for me; an iconic and familiar place from cyclo-cross racing. But I stopped for coffee there and seriously contemplated failure because the headwind and conditions were making me so slow. Over that coffee I realised that I should respond to circumstances; turn south straight away rather than head for the Netherlands. It would turn out to be a great decision, but it felt like defeat there and then. The coffee also eased my tiredness, which was probably part of my low morale too.
I tried to draw strength from remembering that a hundred years ago this was the land the First World War was fought on. Our recent ancestors faced days like these and much worse, and if they tried to quit they were shot by their own side. In all honesty this little mental game of remembrance only made me feel worse; now I was a coward too… Then I stopped at a war grave site at the roadside. I had a cry. Eventually I was crying for the memory and respect of the lost generation rather than self-pity. I was stronger, if not happier, for the experience.
Facing some demons early in the challenge benefited me. Getting through it, and making acceptable progress on a bad day became part of my character. I determined to “persist in persisting” and “keep on keeping on” among other mantras rattling around my weary mind.
- By Vin Cox
There is an argument around disc brakes. Cyclo-cross is the current battle field, but the stakes are high because the industry is just warming up for the big sell to the road scene.
There are some quite rational reasons to resist this development. If you’re happy with your regular braking performance, you’d be crazy to mess with it; particularly when a change of braking systems means replacing not only brakes, but also wheels, frame and maybe even gear shifters.
The industry see the chance to get excited about something new and sell not only the brakes, but whole bikes AND make your garage full of spares incompatible.
Some people assum
e I’m a disc brake fanatic. Certainly I was an advocate for the rule change which allowed discs to be used in races – really that was just resisting pointless rules though. I do have a long experience with ‘road’ discs: Shimano used my 2010 Guinness World Record in some publicity for discs, and I was winning domestic UK ‘cross races on a disc braked custom Ti bike back in 2006. My reasons for going disc weren’t performance though…
This is a step-change. To go with it means selling your old kit and starting again, expensively, and discarding hard learned knowledge and experience with the existing technology. So why would you? What is the advantage? Well, there are some, but not massive ones. It’s a case of the old ‘aggregation of marginal gains’.
- Consistent brake performance in different conditions.
- Your wheel rims won’t wear out.
- Rims could be made lighter, or of any material.
- Brakes still run smooth on wobbly wheels.
- Improved modulation and power.
- No brake gunk on your tyres or hands when fixing a puncture.
- Less grit and water ingress into cables.
- Reduced clogging in cyclo-cross. (This benefit has been overstated by some)
There are technical down-sides to the new brakes. Heat build-up causing total failures on road descents is a serious fear (which has happened, but only to a very few strange people with non-mass-production equipment). Other issues include:
- Poor aerodynamic performance.
- Wheels having to be built differently.
- A weight penalty.
- They are ugly – to some eyes.
- Technical unfamiliarity.
- And the stuff I said before about making all your existing kit obsolete.
Some people have been saying discs will rub more, or be slow getting wheels in and out. I’ve not found that to be the case. In fact it’s been the reverse – there’s an advantage of not having to fiddle with your brakes when removing or inserting a wheel. There is also a good point that you shouldn’t want consistent braking if your tyres will not be giving you consistent grip.
So why did I swap to discs, and should my reasoning affect you? Eight years ago I thought ‘like it or not the move to discs will come’. Deciding the change was inevitable made it obvious I should not buy any more non-disc ready equipment. My old bikes and wheels would live out their lives while disc technology developed and occasionally joined my fleet. Seven years ago I got a new ‘cross bike with dual mounts and started racing with discs. So the only real thing I saw wrong with rim brakes was them becoming obsolete.
Do you want to try and keep rim brakes alive or get on with cycling on new brakes?