This Saturday past, I made my first foray into gravel racing at the Almanzo 100, in the company of my new riding buddy, Michael Lemberger. We agreed that it was inaccurate to call what we were doing racing, so we decided that well-attended gravel brevet was more to the point. Whatever we decided to call it, it was an adventure.
All photos are by Michael Lemberger, since he can actually ride and take pictures at the same time. And he remembers to bring his camera. Click a photo to see the original on Flickr (and check out the entire set).
And we didn’t even finish.
Before I go any further, I just have to thank (once again) Chris Skogen for organizing the Almanzo 100 and Royal 162. He puts on the best races I’ve ever attended, does it with a great attitude and a sense of humor, and does it all without charging us a dime (but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t donate to support the cause). And, his rider packets are top-notch.
Michael and I drove to southeastern Minnesota the day before the Almanzo. We checked into the Spring Valley Inn (which was very accommodating to a full house of cyclists) then headed to Rochester to register and pick up our rider packets. After a pint of stout at Glynner’s and a greeting from Chris Skogen, race director extraordinaire, we gawped at bikes in the parking lot (highlight: a titanium, belt-driven Spot single-speed crosser with Hed wheels) and headed to the City Cafe for a quiet dinner before an early bed time.
I woke up at 2:30am to the sound of rain pattering on the windows. After a half-hour of “shit, shit — this is going to suck” running through my mind, I feel back asleep to dream strange dreams. We were up at 6:30am and spent the next couple of hours drinking strong coffee, eating food we’d brought from home, and getting our bikes and kit together. And fretting.
At about 8:30am, we took the short ride from the hotel to the start at Kingsland High School. After more gawping at bikes in the parking lot and a couple of photos, we retreated into the school cafeteria for some warmth and pre-ride chatter. Met a few other Madison folks while waiting as long as possible before going back out into the rain.
All of the crazies that didn’t stay in their warm beds queued up behind the start line and sang a round of “Happy Birthday” to Chris Skogen’s five-year-old son. And then we were off.
At the start, the temperatures were hovering in the low 40s, the 12-15mph winds were gusting into the 20mph range, and the rain continued unabated. Conditions would not improve, but they didn’t get much worse either.
We rode over hill and dale through the farm country and creek valleys of southeastern Minnesota, almost entirely on wet and muddy crushed limestone roads. It wasn’t long before there was little of either bike or rider that wasn’t covered with a thin gruel of water and limestone mud.
After several hours of cold, wet, muddy fun (and I mean FUN), the cold and the wet and some minor mechanical problems got the better of me. My hands and feet were soaked, very cold, and nearly numb — and I certainly wasn’t generating enough core body heat to offset the evaporative heat loss. As Michael was of the same mind (and frozen extremities), we pulled the plug where the course crosses highway 16 just northwest of Preston and rode back to Spring Valley on the road. All in all, we rode a little more than 46 miles of gravel and pavement (courtesy of Michael, since my GPS is still dead).
We scraped off as much mud as we could, packed up the bikes, took hot (and somewhat painful as the blood started to return to the extremities) showers, checked out of the hotel, and headed back to Madison a day early — but not without a stop at Culver’s for junk food and shakes.
Even though I didn’t finish, I’m considering this a qualified success. I had a great time before, during, and after the ride. I can’t wait to race/ride on the gravel again and I’m already scheming for a return to the Almanzo in 2012.
It’s the sort of day that teaches you a great deal. I learned that more wool is better, a 29er running 32×16 is just the thing, and that a mouthful of water will wash the mud from one’s glasses.
Here’s my run-down of the technical bike geekery and gear choices for the Almanzo 100. Some things worked very well, and other didn’t.
Clothing, soft goods, and nutrition
Feet: DeFeet Woolie Boolie socks, SIDI Dominators, Pearl Izumi toe covers. My feet were fine until about mile 30 when ice cold water started to pool in the toes of my shoes and make my feet go numb. Full shoe covers might have helped, but only in combination with a plastic moisture barrier and something to keep the water from running down my legs and into my shoes (either gaitors or full rain pants).
Lower body: Pearl Izumi Roubaix cloth knickers. Worked well. My legs were warm enough throughout (as long as I was moving) and nothing rubbed, chafed, or caused any other sort of unpleasantness.
Upper body: Under Armour HeatGear long-sleeve compression top, Evil Cycling short-sleeve jersey, Pearl Izumi arm warmers, Showers Pass rain jacket, Specialized full-fingered gloves (and later, wool gloves). The bottom line here: not enough wool. The UA top worked as designed, and kept me cool — but that’s not what I needed. In retrospect, a wool base layer, and either a wool or synthetic long-sleeve jersey under the rain jacket would have helped a great deal. The Showers Pass rain jacket kicks ass. The full-fingered gloves were uncomfortable after about mile 15 and downright dangerous by mile 30. Switched to the wool gloves after leaving the course, which was in immediate improvement.
Head: All-City cycling cap and Giro helmet. Both of these worked well. The cap in particular has a nicely shaped brim that kept much of the rain off my glasses. My head never quite got cold, but it was never warm either. More wool would have been better, and perhaps would have allowed me to limit heat loss.
Hydration: Because I can get only one small bottle in the frame triangle when using the Revelate Tangle bag, I bought a 100 oz Camelbak just for this ride (I don’t normally like wearing anything on my back for any distance). Not only did it assure that I was more than well-hydrated, it also had enough room for spare clothes and even more food. Had I gone the distance, I would have needed it all. Worked very well.
Nutrition: Before we started, I drank two cups of very strong French press’d coffee (I always bring my own setup for in-room brewing), and ate two 3×3 squares of home-made crustless quiche (eggs, bacon, ground beef, cheese, and kale) for about 500 fat and protein calories. On the course, I ate two 1×2 portions of homemade energy bar and one Larabar (leaving several more portions of each uneaten since we pulled out early). Water in the Camelbak and Nuun-water in the bottle. Nutrition was a raging success, though I’ll put Nuun in the Camelbak next time as well, especially if it’s hot since it’s the only thing that keeps the cramps at bay for me.
For this ride, I went with my newish-to-me Surly Karate Monkey (known to some as “The Albatross”). I’ve owned it for about 2 months, and it only coalesced into this configuration about 2 weeks before the ride.
- 18″ Surly Karate Monkey frame and fork. Nothing much to say here: it’s a good, solid frame that feels right. Typical Surly. My only wish is that I had a 2011 model, with the re-designed disc mounts.
- Surly (disc) 32h hubs laced to Mavic TN719 32h rims and shod with WTB Vulpine 2.1 tires and Salsa quick-releases. The rear wheel caused the big mechanical issue of the day. I bought these wheels at the eleventh hour, and didn’t have time to have the rear hub converted to a bolt-on axle. The rear quick-release, no matter how hard I torqued it down, refused to hold when I was climbing out of the saddle. Big mistake and one that won’t be repeated.
- Truvativ Stylo (175mm) cranks with OEM 32t chainring, 16t ACS Crossfire freewheel, and SRAM PC-850 chain. The freewheel and chain didn’t survive the post-race cleaning; both are cemented together with limestone dust. The gear ratio was just right for this hilly course, and had the rear wheel not been slipping, I could have climbed all but the steepest hills without resorting to the 24″ gear. The cranks are too long at 175mm; they’ll be swapped for a pair of 170mm at the earliest opportunity.
- Avid BB7 mechanical disc brakes with Avid levers. I was not a fan of disc brakes before this ride, and I’m even less of a fan now. These have precious little modulation, even when they are perfectly tuned. In part, the older KM frames make running discs in the rear a huge pain in the ass.
- On-One Mary bars with Ergon grips on a Ritchey stem. This combination made for a reasonably high, open — and therefore comfortable — cockpit that still allowed good power. Perfect.
- Brooks B-17 saddle on a Ritchey seat post. The B-17 is an old standby which performed up to expectations; it’s really the best thing when the bars are high enough in relation to the saddle to allow for it.
- Planet bike bottle cages, SKS clip-on fenders, and a no-name cue sheet holder. The PB cages hold bottles in a death grip, which is crucial on gravel roads. The SKS clip-ons kept some of the mud from spackling me from head to toe — and most importantly kept it off my saddle and backside. It’s a comfort thing. The cue sheet holder held the cue sheets, but wasn’t really necessary as we were never without about 20-30 other riders in mid-pack.
- Revelate Tangle frame bag. Nothing but awesome. This bag carried 3 spare tubes, tire boots, tool kit, spare bits and pieces, small lube kit, and a pump in the main compartment, and enough home-made food bars and Larabars to last the day in the small compartment.
The bottom line: the bike setup was — in combination with cold hands and feet — one of the things that prompted me to pull out of the ride early. The perfect storm created by a quick-release rear hub, fiddly disc brakes, and the KM’s less-than-simple rear disc mounts didn’t end the ride outright, but it did make sure that I had to either climb in the saddle or get off and walk. I was leery about this setup going into the ride — and I didn’t have it put together soon enough before hand to test it properly and reconfigure it. I knew better before, and I know even better now.
The next iteration of this bike will have cantilever or V-brakes, a bolt-on rear hub (the same one, converted), and shorter cranks. The drivetrain will remain pretty much the same, though I may also test a 38×16 fixed setup to see what that feels like.