Trans Iowa, Truncated

Note: This is a rather long story of how my attempt at Trans Iowa v10 ended up being rather short. 

And it all begins with my jacket…

Everything leading up to this edition of Trans Iowa for me was going to plan, more or less. Over the winter I spent a lot of time riding the fat-bike and the single-speed 29er, and didn’t get sick at all. We started riding long as soon as the weather permitted (not that it really did), and I did most of those rides on the single-speeded Devil (including a long ride to Freeport, Illinois and the shorter version of Dairy Roubaix).

I sorted out the gearing (39×16 to 39×18 to 39×19) to just where I liked it for one rolling hill after another. I refined my baggage (or so I thought) and my gear. I stopped drinking beer for an entire month, cut down to one cup of coffee a day, and became intimately acquainted with the foam roller. I had the requisite mental freakout on the Tuesday prior to the race, and then spent the rest of the week successfully putting myself back in right mind-space for riding–and finishing–Trans Iowa.

There was only one blip during the period of training and preparation for Trans Iowa. About six weeks beforehand, I re-injured my back. Initially, it was bad enough that I thought I might be done cycling for the rest of the spring. I spent a few days flat on my back, stayed off the bike for a week, and stacked on the acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage, as well as other rehab exercises (some new, some not). Things began to come around, and I was able to ride long and hard without pain during or after a couple of long, hard rides in the run-up to Trans Iowa.

In short, I was ready–at least as ready as I could be.

After waking at 245am and making the usual preparations (eat, drink, get dressed, etc.) I made Mistake #1: I added the small Dill Pickle saddlebag to the bike (where there had been none) to carry my rain gear (jacket, booties, helmet cover, shell mitts) so that it didn’t take up so much room in my Camelbak.

I rode to the start wearing my Endura Pakajak, but found that I was going to be too warm if I left it on. While waiting for things to get going, I stuffed it into the rear-facing, outer mesh pocket on the saddlebag and cinched it down as tightly as it would go, making Mistake #2.

Mistakes #1 and #2 then combined to launch my jacket into mid-air while traversing a bumpy intersection of gravel roads somewhere around mile 5. My fellow riders called out to let me know–we were still formed up into a loose peloton at that point–and I stopped to retrieve it. A rider a little further back picked it up and handed it off as he went by (thanks to whoever that was–I never did see). In the space of time it took to stuff the jacket inside the saddlebag and get everything battened down, the bulk of the main pack passed by.

I got rolling again, passed some riders, got passed by others (the inevitable yo-yoing of riding a single-speed on rolling hills with gearies). Eventually, I fell in with another single-speeder (whose name I didn’t catch). Together, we made Mistake #3: we missed a turn, climbed a half-mile long hill, and then turned around and found our way back on course. In the time that took, more riders passed, putting me in what was effectively the back of the pack. But Trans Iowa is a long ride, and I wasn’t at all concerned about placement: it’s finishing that’s important, not where you’re placed before 8am on the first day.

It was a beautiful morning. After watching a red waning crescent moon rise above the hills of Iowa farm country, we were treated to an equally beautiful sunrise. The gravels were perfect. Fast, compact, with very little loose rock and no freshies. The three railroad crossings had presented no trouble. And single B Road before Checkpoint 1 was even partially rideable, even if I had to walk the rest and spend a little more time than I liked scraping the muddy clay from various parts of my bike.

And then came Mistake #4. It turns out that Mistakes 1-3 had put me behind another rider who was struggling with the hills a bit and not handling his bike well. While climbing another hill, I came upon him from behind just as he geared down abruptly, slowing from 11-12mph to about half that in a matter of feet. Because I was riding a single-speed, this isn’t something that I can do on a hill, so I shifted my line to the left in order to pass him. Doing so, I crossed several hardened ruts at the wrong angle and caught my front wheel. I went down to my left, hard. My left foot unclipped, but my right didn’t, which brought my bike over the top of me from behind. It was a most unnatural posture.

The other single-speeder–the same one that I’d been riding with when we missed the turn–stopped to make sure I was unbroken and able to go on (if you’re reading this, thanks–I owe you a beer).

Besides the abrasions on my left knee (destroying an old pair of PI knee warmers) and the rock marks on my ribs on the same side, I immediately felt my back bind up. With some 20 miles to Checkpoint 1, perfect gravel conditions, and a building east wind, I figured I would just ride it off and keep going.


But that’s when my Trans Iowa was finished. I just didn’t know it yet.

Shortly after I started riding again, my teammate Michael caught up to me, having also taken a wrong turn (shortly after the turn that I’d missed, it turns out). I told him what happened, and we set up a steady pace that would put us into Checkpoint 1 with plenty of time to spare, and that wouldn’t require me to push too hard while I was working out the kinks from having crashed.

But instead of getting better, my back just kept getting worse. Tighter, stiffer, and more painful–though thankfully never the searing pain that I’d experienced six weeks ago. By the time we were within ten miles of Checkpoint 1, I was struggling to ride hills that I wouldn’t have even noticed otherwise. Muscles started protesting and refusing to do their job before my heart rate would go up.

That’s when I knew it was over–before it really began. We rode into Lynnville, Iowa and I stopped at Checkpoint 1, then sat in the sun at the Cenex and called for extraction. Trans Iowa simply doesn’t allow for that many mistakes.

The Hard Way

So what have I learned from these mistakes?

  1. Adding something different to one’s baggage setup at the last minute is never a good idea. I’d either used no saddlebag or the Revelate Pika on training rides throughout the spring, both of which worked well.
  2. The outer mesh pockets–at least the rear-facing on on the bag’s flap–of the small Dill Pickle saddlebag are apparently not well-suited to retaining their loads on rough gravel roads. Even though it was cinched down tight before we started, the toggle on that pocket was almost completely loose when I stopped to recover my jacket. I’ve never particularly liked the mesh pockets on that bag, and for a time I’d considered just cutting them off. But the bag is far too well-sewn to do that without ruining it, so perhaps I’ll just sell it and buy another without them.
  3. Missing a turn is a simple mental lapse that’s easily prevented. Just pay attention to the cues and the mileages and not where the rider in front of you is riding.
  4. When riding single-speed, I need to give other riders more space when climbing, especially when it’s not easy to shift from one line to another mid-climb. More of a buffer zone would have allowed me to choose my line earlier and avoid having to avoid another rider abruptly, get caught by a rut, and go down.

And finally, I need to pay even more attention to the fitness and strength of my entire posterior chain. With proper preparation, it would have been possible to recover from such a crash, instead of being felled by it.

The Aftermath

Michael continued on (though he would also eventually drop out and ride back to Grinnell after being pummeled by the 20-30mph winds all day) and our support crew went for a ride of their own. I hung out at the hotel, drank some beer, and tried to relax. On Sunday morning, we drove back to Madison.

I’d said before Trans Iowa that this would be my last. I said it again and again, after I dropped out and while we were driving home. I still think that’s true–even though the dissatisfaction with the way things went this year continues to grow and grow. Mistakes were made, and I made them. I don’t like that. At least the lessons I learned the hard way at Trans Iowa v10 will translate to other long-distance cycling events.


Trans Iowa doesn’t just happen. It takes hard work to put together and pull off. And each rider is backed by a support crew, near and far.

  • Thanks to Guitar Ted, for putting on the best events I’ve ever done, and probably will ever do (though there are other RDs doing their best to meet these high standards).
  • Thanks to all of the TI volunteers for making everything run smoothly.
  • Thanks to my teammates for the long rides, the adventure, and no fucking whining.
  • Thanks to Michael Lemberger for riding Trans Iowa with me again this year.
  • Thanks to Grant Foster and Nathan Vergin for coming along, putting up with us, and providing excellent support.
  • Thanks to all of the other riders at Trans Iowa v10. You rock.
  • And thanks to my lovely wife, for putting up with TI this and TI that and TI everything else for the last months.

4 thoughts on “Trans Iowa, Truncated

  1. A tough way to end the race, but a smart one, too. Chapeau again for putting in the saddle time necessary to even *consider* this bear, much less start it and ride through an injury. Maybe I’ll see you there next year, or at another gravel race this season.

    Re your back (and apologizing for being That Guy with unsolicited advice): ever consider CrossFit? It’s done wonders for my “posterior chain.”

    Keep the rubber side down!

  2. What a great write up for what must be a frustrating story. If it were me, I don’t know if I could have the positive tone you have here. Bravo! My best wishes for your complete recovery and all the adventures before you this season.

  3. Thanks, Christopher. As for next year, I’ve said it wouldn’t do TI again–not because it’s not a great event (it certainly is)–but because it tends to suck up all of the available oxygen for about 6 months prior to the race and because there are some other big things I’d like to do. But there are months before registration for v11, if there is going to be one.

    And don’t worry about being That Guy–we all know that you’re the farthest thing from That Guy possible. I’ve considered CrossFit, but there’s quite a bit about the gym culture of such places that drive me up a wall, so it’s probably not a good fit (as it were). Instead, I’m focusing on Foundation training, and more kettlebell work (once things are not stiff and sore).

  4. Thanks, Chris. I think writing it is actually what turned my mind back toward the positive, since I wasn’t really feeling that way for 24 hours or more. Recovery has already begun, and I’m confident things will be back to normal soon enough. Because yeah, there are more adventures coming.

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