Trans-Iowa v9: The Longer Version

Or more accurately, the really long version. You’ve been warned.

Last weekend, I rode Trans-Iowa v9, a 325-mile gravel race that starts and finishes in Grinnell, Iowa. I dropped out at the second checkpoint, after 175 miles of riding in a little under 16 hours. Knee pain for the last 50 miles or so, which took me nearly 5 hours to ride, made it clear that continuing further wasn’t really an option.

Those are the bare facts of the matter, but Trans-Iowa is really so much more than bare facts and statistics.

And there plenty of other things I could tell you about my day in the saddle, but I’m still not sure whether it would help you understand just what it’s like to toe the line for an event like this, and to roll out with the idea that you’re going to ride for more than 30 hours straight, on hilly gravel roads, often in the middle of nowhere, in darkness and light, with little sleep to start with and none during the event. If you want to know what that’s like, there’s only one way to find out.

Instead, I’m going to offer a series of impressions and ruminations about Trans-Iowa.

Friends. Trans-Iowa wouldn’t have been possible without my friends. It was Michael’s bright idea to register in the first place, and that inspired both me and Grant to send in our postcards. We trained together, obsessed about bike setup and nutrition together, and rode Trans-Iowa together (sorta of).

Photo my Michael Lemberger

That’s Grant up the road, with me and Michael (taking the photo) behind. Without them, it wouldn’t have been as much fun as it was, and I probably wouldn’t have bothered. Trans-Iowa is definitely an event better done in company.

Photo by Nate Vergin
Photo by Nate Vergin

And without Nate’s willingness to come along to provide support, it wouldn’t have made sense to even start. We couldn’t have asked for a better person to take care of us, fetch us when we were done, and generally keep things calm–even if he didn’t bring his tool box.

Training. My training for Trans-Iowa consisted of as many 80-160 mile rides as we could fit in during the two months before the race, some of which were conducted in truly foul weather as winter hung on for an extra month. One twenty-mile stretch at the end of a cold, windy early season ride found us riding head-down into a full-on blizzard snow blowing horizontally; these twenty miles were some of the hardest miles I’ve ever ridden, and it’s just what I needed: hardening.

Photo by Michael Lemberger
Photo by Michael Lemberger

Despite this, I never felt that I was really well-trained going into Trans-Iowa. I never got down to what I consider a reasonable race weight, didn’t do enough intensity training, and certainly could have put in more miles. Given that, I’m extremely pleased with how my body held up and performed under these conditions, especially given the series of problems I had in 2012. The only exception: my left knee, something that hadn’t been bothering me at all during training. The rest of me definitely felt like it had another 150 miles in the tank.

Weather. It’s not often–especially in April in the Midwest–that the weather is near perfect for cycling. But it nearly was: 45 degrees and clear at the start, with winds under 5mph, highs in the mid-70s during the day with winds building to 10-12mph in the late afternoon and evening. A chilly night on Saturday with a low of 37, almost no wind, and a warm and breezier Sunday. For an event that’s often beset by cold, wet, and wind–often all together–this was about as good as it gets. It’s unlikely to be this good next year, or the year after.

Photo by Michael Lemberger

In fact–and it seems silly to even mention it–the only thing that made it less than perfect was that it was so warm and sunny. But this was only a problem because we’d not had a chance to acclimate to the warmer temperatures, at all.

Gravel. Let me reiterate: Trans-Iowa is 325 miles of gravel roads (well, more like 320 or so, since there are a couple of paved connections). This year, the lingering winter weather meant that many of the counties had spread fresh gravel in the week before the event. It looks like this.

Photo by Guitar Ted

Aggregate this size makes for rough riding, sketchy descents, and momentum-sucking climbing. And there was a lot of it.

B Roads. Each Trans-Iowa course is different, but they always include B roads–minimal maintenance roads that aren’t graveled, graded, or cared for much at all. They’re often rutted and rough, requiring something more like mountain-biking skills to ride. And that’s when they’re dry. When they’re wet, they turn into a muddy quagmire that often forces riders to walk and sometimes to carry their bikes.

Photo by Michael Lemberger

In the parts of the course that I rode, there are several B roads, so marked–but only two of the sort pictured above: one not long after the first checkpoint, and one leading directly up to the second checkpoint. Both were easily rideable all of the way through, though some care was required. The second had a little mudpit near the end that left a little more Iowa on my bike than there already was.

Riders. One of the great things about Trans-Iowa–and other events like it–are the other riders. Even though it’s a race, cameraderie is the order of the day. Everyone I met was friendly and mellow–whether we introduced ourselves or not, whether we rode together or not, and whether we finished or not. And everyone takes care of each other; any stop on the side of the road brings queries about how you’re doing, whether you need anything, and whether you’re ok. I’d gladly ride with all of them again, in Iowa or elsewhere.

Photo by Michael Lemberger

For an introvert like me, this is a little weird, to be sure. My default mode of social interaction is to smile slightly and nod–so I’ll just say this now: If you were riding with me and I wasn’t all that talkative, it’s not that I didn’t want to talk to you. It’s just that it takes me a little while to warm up, but that I natter on when I do. My usual riding companions will attest to that. Either that, or my knee was really giving me trouble. Or both.

Guitar Ted. Trans-Iowa is Guitar Ted, and vice versa. It’s not possible to thank him enough for organizing the event, putting together the course, and doing it all for the love of cycling, gravel roads, and the people who ride them. And he does it all without charging the riders a dime.

Photo of and by Guitar Ted
Photo of and by Guitar Ted

Thank you, Guitar Ted.

Volunteers. This event is much too large for any one man–even if that man is Guitar Ted–to run alone. There are a whole host of volunteers that help with cue-sheets, registration, the checkpoints, and the finish to make sure that the entire thing comes off without a hitch for the riders. It’s not possible to thank them enough either, but I’ll try. Thank you, volunteers.

Start. Trans-Iowa starts at 4am in downtown Grinnell, Iowa. That means that we were up at 2:45am after a few hours of fitful sleep to quickly take care of the morning necessaries before spinning to the start with the other Trans-Iowa nutjobs. The start itself, led out by Guitar Ted, also looked pretty damned impressive.

Photo by J. David Gonzalez

It also means that we’d be riding in the full dark for a couple of hours and the dawn gloaming for a while after that. And that we’d be treated to a beautiful sunrise laced with shreds of valley fog. It was ridiculously beautiful and worth the price of admission all by itself.

Stores. Trans-Iowa is self-supported, which means that the only way (other than asking a friendly farmer) that riders can procure more food and fluids is to stop at convenience stores along the way . The cue sheets don’t indicate where these stores are located, so it’s best to stop whenever you see one, even if it’s a little way off the course because you may not see another for a hundred miles. In Iowa, that often means a Casey’s General Store. They’re all over the place, and they often have real food in addition to the usual convenience store fare.

Once you’ve ridden some of Trans-Iowa, the familiar red roof of Casey’s gladdens the heart. I stopped at a couple (as well as one BP truckstop), and would have certainly stopped at a few more had I kept riding. And, I holed up in Casey’s in Grundy Center while waiting for Nate to fetch me home. By the time was all said and done, even driving by a Casey’s on the highway gave me a warm feeling.

Alone. After about 85 miles of riding, I hit a large stone–something the size of my fist–with my rear wheel, in a sort of glancing blow that kicked the wheel a half-a-foot to the left. Shortly afterward, the tire started to soften. I’d been riding a couple of hundred yards ahead of Grant and Michael at the time, in a loose group of a dozen riders or so. I stopped to check the tire; while I was re-inflating it, both Michael and Grant passed by. I told them I’d catch up on the downhill.

And I nearly did–but then the tire went soft again, and I had to stop to fix the flat. Even though it was a relatively quick change, that was the last I saw of both Grant and Michael for the rest of the day, until we regrouped at checkpoint 2, about 90 miles later. It turns out that they’d waited for me up the road in Eldora, but I missed them as I passed through town. It’s a big course, and that sort of thing will happen–though I do wish we’d ridden together more. C’est la guerre.

And so I ended up riding a good deal of the rest of the day alone–more than I planned on, but certainly not more than I minded. I like riding alone just as much as I like riding with others. There’s something to be said for being able to set your own pace, talk to yourself outloud a little, and just get deep into the the riding. I even left my phone off, so that I could just get down to business and ride.

Not that I was alone the entire time, mind you. I spent about half of that time riding with some good folks: Chad and Connor from Illinois, Kevin from Oklahoma, Matt and another single-speeder from Nebraska (I think), and a rotating cast of more than a dozen others. Sometimes my pace meshed with theirs, sometimes it didn’t–and less so as the day went on and I was spending more time nursing my knee and unable to push a bigger gear on the non-uphill portions.

Food. I went into Trans-Iowa thinking that I would carry all of my food, for the entire event. To this end, I carried about six pounds of food that consisted of homemade energy bars (cubed, in one feedbag), fun-size Twix and Werther’s candies (in the other feedbag), mini-wraps made of whole wheat tortilla, turkey, BBQ sauce and sweet potato mash, bacon-egg-rice bars, buffalo jerky, coconut-mango chews, chocolate-covered espresso beans, and stroopwafel-nutella mini-sandwiches.

The cubed homemade energy bars for the foundation of my nutrition system–I eat about 3-5 cubes per hour. Everything else gets rotated in as it strikes me, for variety of taste and nutrient mixtures. Everything is tried and true, it all digests well, and it all tastes good at any part of the ride. There’s nothing in this mix that I wouldn’t use again on any ride, long or short.

However, I clearly carried way too much food. For future rides of this sort, I’ll stick to carrying the homemade items (energy bars, wraps, rice bars, stroopwafel sammies) and rely on convenience store stops to fill out the rest. My bike was heavy enough as it was.

Water. Trans-Iowa was the first warm ride of the year for many of us from the Midwest. To put this in perspective, it was not only the first ride during which I removed my arm-warmers, but also the first ride wearing a short-sleeve jersey and warmers at all. It’s been that cold here. The unaccustomed warmth, combined with the need to supply oneself for 80-100 mile stretches, meant that I had to get my hydration system right.

To this end, I tucked a 100oz Camelbak bladder into a Revelate Tangle and added a drinking tube extension. I routed the drinking tube forward between the Mountain Feedbags, back over the bars, and then tucked the nozzle into the outer mesh pocket of the right-side Feedbag when it wasn’t in use. I also carried a single 16oz bottle in the seat-tube cage, tucked up under the Tangle. The bladder gave me massive water capacity and ease of access, even when riding on the roughest roads (and there were plenty of rough sections covered with fresh gravel). The bottle gave me a way to easily drink when off the bike, and a place to put liquids other than my usual water + nuun mixture, should I choose to do so.

All in all, this system performed flawlessly. I remained well-hydrated throughout the event, though I did have to stop at a farmhouse for a fill-up because I missed a stop in Eldora, Iowa. But that’s not the system’s fault. I’ll continue to use this same system on any long ride where stops are too far apart for three 20oz bottles or where the roads are too rough to easily get bottles in and out of the cages.

Clothing. Even though it had been cold enough that I’d not worn some of the clothing at all this year, my Trans-Iowa kit selection was flawless. I started out with a 150-weight wool baselayer, Endura knickers, a short-sleeve Twin Six Deluxe jersey (new), PI arm-warmers, Specialized full-finger gloves, a Nitto cycling cap, and Craft wind-jacket with zip-off arms, Adidas socks my parents, and SIDI Dominators.

At the start, I zipped the arms from the Craft jacket, but wore the vest until after the first checkpoint. After the first B road, I peeled off the arm-warmers and applied the first of several coats of sunscreen. I rode that way through the warmth of the afternoon and into the cool of the evening, then put everything back on at checkpoint 2 as the sun set for the ride into Grundy Center. It all worked well, to the point of not having any chafing, saddle sores, or other problems at all–even after 16 hours in the saddle.

There was only one minor flaw in the system. Before we left the hotel, we all opted to go without shoe-covers, and I think we all regretted that. My toes didn’t thaw completely until about 8am, and I can only imagine how cold they would have gotten had I ridden through the night.

Bike. I rode the Albatross, my aged Surly Karate Monkey, configured as a gravel boondocking, monster-cross mutt: 1×8 drivetrain (34t x 12-34) shifted by Shimano bar-con on a Paul Thumbie, cantilever brakes (Tektro CR720), Dyad + XT wheelset, Salsa Woodchipper handlebars, 40mm Clement MSO Xplor 120tpi tires, Brooks B-17 saddle, and fenders (which I removed for Trans-Iowa).

This setup has been worked out over more than a year of gravel riding–with the exception of the tires, which are new this year–and it all performed just as expected. I did have a minor mechanical–a flat from a collision with a big stone–that also de-tensioned two spokes in the rear wheel. The wheel stayed basically true, and I ended up riding for another 90-odd miles this way–but I was also wondering when things would go pear-shaped and my ride would be over. It never happened; a good reason to ride 36-spoke wheels, in my opinion.

I can say, however, that I’m rather tired of riding this bike and I will probably only ride it a couple more times this spring–at Almanzo and perhaps one more gravel event–before I tear it down and reconfigure it in some other way while turning my riding attention to my sadly neglected road bikes.

Baggage. Between food, water, and other gear, I needed some serious cargo capacity–especially since I wanted to keep the weight off my back. Over the past couple of years, I’ve put together a near complete set of bags from Revelate Designs. For Trans-Iowa, I used the Tangle (water bladder in the large compartment; phone, wallet, and some other small things in the small one), the Pika (tools, tubes, spare food, and clothing), the Gas Tank (sunscreen, chamois cream, ibuprofen, some food), and two Mountain Feedbags (food and more food). That, and a generic cue-sheet holder, and things were pretty well loaded.

If I continue to ride this bike for gravel races and such, I’m going to find another solution so that I can avoid using the Pika. The Karate Monkey doesn’t seem to handle well with a full seat bag that extends to the rear; the swaying of the bag makes the rear end get squirrely–not something you want on a 30mph+ descent on loose, chunky gravel. Carrying less food overall should allow me to use a smaller seat bag. I could also use a full frame bag and carry more weight within the main triangle. Both bear testing.

Lighting. I only rode through the morning dark period, so I can’t say how well my lighting system would have panned out, but here’s what I used. On my helmet, a Princeton Tec Remix, zip-tied on, for reading cue-sheets and road signs, and for sketchy descents. On the handlebars, a NiteRider MiNewt 600 (for the morning darkness) or a NiteRider MiNewt 350 with two battery packs (for the long night).

Both the headlamp and the MiNewt 600 worked very well. The MiNewt 350 was never used, since I didn’t ride through the night. This is one area, however, where it seems I should be able to simplify things, either by procuring a third battery pack for the MiNewt 350 or by using a dynamo-driven headlamp with a single battery-driven backup.

Recovery. After Nate fetched me from Grundy Center, I immediate began a concentrated course of active recovery. I’d already drank a liter of water and a Coke, so, I drank some beer, took a hot shower (with another beer), and then continued to drink beer while going at my legs with The Stick while we ascertained that there is nothing–and by nothing, I mean nothing–open in Grinnell at 12:30am on a Saturday night for the procurement of food.

Sunday I devoted to eating: first and second breakfast (at the hotel), brunch and lunch (both at the Prairie Canary), afternoon snacks, dinner (at Lonnski’s), and evening snacks. A few more beers, a nap, and some concentrated laying around watching movies (This is 40: lame, with a few funny spots; Argo: excellent) rounded out the day.

By the time that I woke on Monday morning, most of the inflammation had devolved into a general stiffness that worsened on the ride home, and then went away entirely with more applications of the stick, a short ride, and some sushi at Muramoto with my wife.

I’d also point out that it was only my legs that were stiff and sore. I’ve finally got my bike position dialed to the point where my neck, shoulders, and arms didn’t stiffen up at all during the ride, and so were in pretty good shape afterward. Reading in the car on the way home was harder in this respect than riding all day.

Aftermath. The hardest part of riding Trans-Iowa, for me at least, was the aftermath. Re-integrating back into regular life, going to work, and all the rest has been even more difficult than it usually is when I’m off work and away from home for days. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what doing something like Trans-Iowa means. I don’t have a definite answer, but I can say that I really like doing things that make me think about them this way. Perhaps I’ll let these thoughts simmer for a while longer, and write about them later. Or not.

Future. The one thing that everyone seems to ask, right after they ask me if I finished, is whether I’d ride Trans-Iowa again. If you asked me this question anytime between 6pm and midnight on Saturday, my answer would have been “no way in hell.” Sometime on Sunday, I was giving myself a 1-2 percent chance of ever doing it again. Nearly a week later, I’m now running at a steady 5 percent. For the time being, I’m just going to leave it there, and not think about it at all.

But if I do go back, it will be for two specific reasons (besides the sheer awesomeness of Trans-Iowa). First, because other than my left knee, everything else–bike, gear, and rider–was working well. So I know that with more preparation and training, I can do just as well or better than I did this time. Second, because I stopped before sunset and didn’t get to experience the pure hell of riding through the night on gravel roads after 16 hours of riding–and to my mind, the Trans-Iowa experience is incomplete without this particular flavor of bike fun.

The Bottom Line

If I were to ride Trans-Iowa again, I’d train more and better, lighten my food and baggage load, refine my lighting system, and try to remember my shoe overs. I’d take more photos (since I took none, that should be easy). And I’d try to ride with my friends more.

But that’s a big IF.

Will I ride again? Perhaps. I have the right to call myself a Trans-Iowa veteran now–but I wouldn’t mind changing that to finisher one day.

8 thoughts on “Trans-Iowa v9: The Longer Version

  1. Thanks so much for the write-up! I wondered what your experience had been like. How fortunate you had good weather and it looked as though the roads were dry. Sorry you ended up with such severe knee pain that you needed to stop. ALSO, I just have to say… Casey’s!! When I was in high school we would cut out to make a run to Casey’s. Man, did we live on the edge back then.

  2. Thanks for the fantastic recap! I may never do a bike ride that long, but it’s inspiring to read about those who do!

    I know yours is not a food blog, per se, but is there any chance you might share this homemade energy cube recipe? 🙂

  3. Wow! Great post! I enjoyed reading the details of your experience. As compared to my little 65-miler yesterday…well, it doesn’t compare. TI is some other far away mythical place for me, and I’m fascinated by accounts of those of went there and survived to tell about it.

  4. Well, there’s always next year. And I might just be cracked enough to try it again.

    As for Casey’s–I can confidently say that the one in Grundy Center is the hotspot on a Saturday night, if you’re between the ages of 14 and 25. I had about an hour until my ride showed up to observe the mating rituals of the local young-uns while I was refueling (read: a bag of fritos and a coke).

  5. Thanks, Katy.

    And yes, I will publish the homemade energy cube/bar recipe. We are going to make another batch this week, so I’ll put up a page with photos then. It’s much easier to tell when they are done by how they look

  6. Thanks, Chris. TI is now less mythical for me, but only just–which means that I either know enough to go back again, or know too much. I’m not sure which it is yet.

    And I can tell you: I’m more than happy to get back to our regularly scheduled round of 60-100 mile rides. Did a nice round 60 yesterday, with a good long coffee stop in the middle. TI-like stuff is for once in a great while; good rides with coffee stops are for always.

  7. Great read…I recently started riding again and did a 70mile gravel race a few weeks ago. Right now I’m like to say I’m gonna attemp this epic feat but time will tell. Thanks again and good luck nextyear, you know you’ll be back.

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