- 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.