Rob Livermore at Gravel World's

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Admin note: This story is very long but well worth the read.

Written by: Rob Livermore

"Gravel World Championships." The 'world championships' part is totally tongue in cheek, but the gravel part is the real deal. 153.2 miles of rolling hills, gravel roads and minimum maintenance roads… nothing more, nothing less.

I've heard about it for the last couple years, and every winter I marked it on my calendar as a "race to train for." I’ve wanted to do it as a way to kick my renewed love of bike racing up a notch. But every year, life (and motivation) has gotten in the way and the training that I thought I needed to complete the race has gotten put on the backburner. So Gravel Worlds race day would come and go, and I'd try to ignore the fact that it had happened without me.

This year was different.

I had definitely decided that there was no way I was up for it. My kid's activities had once again trumped weekend long rides, and I had zero base miles whatsoever aside from a couple of MTB races over the last few months. I kept seeing Facebook posts from The Pirate Cycling League about how everybody needs to get their entry postcards in the mail, but I ignored them. Then the PCL extended the entry deadline indefinitely. "Hmm." Then I talked to a couple of guys who've done it the last couple years, but never finished... and they explained that there is ZERO shame in starting and not finishing because about 1/3 of the participants drop out anyway. "Maybe?" Then I saw a Gravel Worlds preview on a cyclocross website. "Wow, that's neat." Then I started hearing about how Dirt Rag Mag was coming so they could give a report for their next issue. "Alright, maybe I could do the first fifty miles, just to say I was a part of it?" Then I talked to my wife who told me, "You will do it, and you will finish." She offered to drop me off at the start and pick me up at the finish... and more importantly, come bail me out if/when I ultimately quit on a desolate dirt road somewhere.

So I said screw it. I sent an email to race director Corey Godfrey (Cornbread), throwing my name in the hat, but reserving the right to wuss out and hide at home on race day.

I was in.

The entry fee was free, as it always is. But to show you readers just how unprepared I was, I showed up at Friday night's check-in at Cycleworks and had to buy a required front and rear light because at 6 AM (race start time) it's still dark. I had never really done much night riding, and apparently they don't want any of us to get killed by a driver on the open course. I have a small seat bag for tools, but I also needed some kind of carrying vessel so I could bring Power Bars, Shotblocks, Nuun pills, money, and other things such as tubes, etc. So I bought a Jand frame bag too. That turned out to be sufficient.

I spent the whole evening cleaning and lubing my CX bike. I mounted water bottle cages. I fitted the bags. I’d fill them with stuff, then take everything out, reorganize, and refill. I also took a few minutes to sit down at my laptop and watch a Youtube video on how to do a geared to single speed conversion if you ever break your rear derailleur out in the boonies.

It was nervous energy, and I probably slept a total of four hours the entire night. Oh yeah... while all this was going on inside, a raging thunderstorm was pounding my house outside. Nice.

I woke up Saturday morning ready to go. I wasn't nervous anymore, just ready to get moving and try.

The mood at the starting line at the Lancaster Event Center was relaxed and light hearted. Everybody was nice to each other, and nobody (even the elites), were acting competitive. It was kind of a "We're all going on an adventure together" vibe. We rolled out on gravel east of Lincoln for a couple miles, and then turned north to start a big loop around the city limits. The rolling hills that this race is known for started immediately. Dig hard to climb, catch your breath on the way down the backside. I was just looking for a pack of riders who I could keep up with comfortably, but a pack that looked serious enough that they expected to finish.

It was dark, and I kept moving up a pack at a time, bridging to the next group. Then the sun started to peak out over the horizon, and all of the sudden I recognized that I was in the company of some serious Lincoln riders... probably a little out of my league especially considering my current state of fitness. But their pace wasn't too crazy, and I held on to any wheel I could grab. Occasionally, they’d look over and give me a “who’s this guy” stare, but they were more than welcoming. I could tell that I was cool with them as long as I could keep up, and not cause a wreck.

Eventually, a few of the elite guys broke away from my group. We passed through an MMR at about mile 10, and it was totally rideable so I had some hope that maybe last night’s rain storm didn’t wreak too much havoc. And it didn’t... until about mile 22. That's when we came to an MMR that had the color of chocolate, and the consistency of peanut butter. You weren't going to ride that thing, no matter how skilled you are. The worst part was that the road stretched as far as you could see, and it was littered with footprints, clods of mud, and most importantly… other riders carrying their bike. So I got off and started carrying, and trying to clear my tires and brakes with a stick as I walked. That road lasted for two or three miles. The whole time, my shoes were caked with so much mud that they looked like snowshoes. I totally lost the group I was riding with somewhere along this road. Don't know if they jogged or what, but they were gone.

Soon enough (and after a little more cleaning and cussing), we were back on our bikes and heading toward our first checkpoint, which was a town called Valparaiso, NE. At each checkpoint, you were required to buy a Powerball ticket to prove that you didn't cheat the course. I got a chuckle when I walked into this tiny gas station, and here was this long line of grown men in spandex and bike helmets, covered in mud from head to toe. You know how people in small town Nebraska are... this had to be quite a sight for some of them.

After drinking a cold Coke, taking a little Ibuprofen, and waiting for somebody else to decide to leave (because I didn't want to go by myself), I was back on the road out of town. Out of the entire 154 miles, there were probably 5 total miles on cement, and this was one of them. I found myself seeking out big puddles, and riding through the water to help clean the mud off my tires and frame. It was liberating to just say screw it, and forget about the fact that I was riding a $2000 toy.

Outside of Valpo, I started to feel the distance a little bit. We were only 35 miles into the ride... but I'm a newb, and my longest rides have only ever topped the 40ish mile mark at a time. Thankfully I had some of the caffeine I spoke of, because it didn't take long before I felt fine again.

Here's where it got interesting. The next MMR came up on me at about mile 40. It was a mixture of mud (although nothing like we had walked before) and white rock. I could see several people on the side of the road working on their bikes, but this road was ride able as far as I could tell. So I coasted down the trail. And it was fine, no biggie. I lightly pedaled through, paying no attention to the guys wrenching. And that's when I heard it: The unmistakable sound of your rear derailleur sucking up into your spokes. Before I could even look down, I hear a guy say in an irritated way, "Annnnnd, you just did what I did." Yep, my derailleur was all sorts of screwed. As were the rear derailleurs of all those guys I had seen working on their bikes. For whatever reason, no less than five or six of us had demolished our gearing in the span of twenty yards. My mind raced for a minute, and then I remembered the Youtube video I had watched the night before. I guess it was single speed time... at least until the next checkpoint, which was 30 miles away. Then I'd call my wife to come get me.

Switching the bike to SS wasn't really a big ordeal considering it was the first time I'd ever done it. The worst part was finding a place to wrap the long, unneeded shifter cable. Soon enough I was back on the bike, and pedaling for Malcom, NE... with only one gear.

The rolling hills continued, and other than riding a single speed cross bike for the first time, the ride between miles 40 and 70 was uneventful. Although I did note to a fellow biker that every mile that went by was my personal longest on a single ride... which I was proud of. Once my body adjusted to the gearing, I found that not having to worry about shifting made things easy. You just pedaled hard up, and coasted down (because you were free spinning anyway).

At Malcolm's check point, you started to hear other bikers talk about dropping out. Several guys were waiting for rides. Others had already loaded their bikes up, but were just hanging out to give moral support to those of us who pressed on. The lady running the general store was super nice, and handed out free oranges, and compliments. I bought a box of donuts, another Coke, and of course my Powerball ticket. After inhaling the entire box of donuts and can of Coke within three minutes, I refilled my water bottles, and then just sat in the shade to figure out what I wanted to do. People were quitting, and that sounded good. I really wasn't sure if I had done my SS conversion correctly, and I didn't know if my bike would hold up anyway. On top of that, we weren't even HALF WAY YET! That was a scary thought.

That's when Lincoln resident, and local ultra endurance legend Matt Gersib (MG) came up and asked what gear I ended up switching to. He had broken his derailleur at the same exact location I had... but he had decided that the Gravel Worlds weren't worth the hassle. He'd finished the Dirty Kanza 200 after a conversion earlier this year, and it just didn't seem appealing to do it again. We looked it over, and chatted, and then we both noticed at the same time that the link I had broken to shorten my chain was sprung. It would probably get me down the road a ways, but eventually it would inevitably fail. I was feeling bold and told him, "I'll go as far as my chain will let me. Then I'll call my wife to come pick me up... where ever that may be." He shook my hand, wished me luck, and walked away. A few steps later, he turned around and said, "Do you want the chain off my bike?" He explained how he was done for the day, and that he had his bike in the truck. I was welcome to take that chain (which was already broken down to SS size) and use it to finish. I acted like I was grateful, but I was also kind of worried because my reason to quit had just gone out the door. Once we tossed my chain in the garbage and put his on my bike, he looked up, shook my hand and said, "You're going to finish now. You got this." And I got confident. He was right, I was going to finish.

With that, I threw my leg over my bike, took a look at my cue card for directions, and headed off solo. I just wanted to go my own pace and ride alone for a while… which was a 180 degree difference to my exit from the last checkpoint.

The course took us up north near Branched Oak Lake. Of course, continuous rolling hills, but the farms and homesteads in this area were beautiful. You just pedaled your bike, listened to the gravel crush beneath your tires, and thought about things and life in general.

Fifteen or so miles up the road was the first "oasis" on the course. It was a nice little acreage, hosted by some welcoming parents of one of the few female competitors in the race. They offered huge pickles to eat, cucumber water, pop, beer, etc... and all they asked was a small donation that they would give to a local charity. It was a nice little stop because I had finally turned over the half way point, and the sun had come out. It was getting a little bit hot, and I gladly filled my water bottles with more icy cold water.

The rolling hills just kept coming. The MMRs were starting to dry up from the sun, and the miles melted away. This stretch of the race was long, and the next real checkpoint wasn't until mile 112 in Hickman, NE. I just kept pedaling, pretty much all alone. Once in a while a farmer would pass in his truck and wave, or you'd hold your breath as you cycled past a pig farm. I hit mile 100 without even noticing. I don't know exactly where it was because between keeping my legs spinning, and focusing on not missing the next turn on the cue card, I was preoccupied. In my mind, I had always thought that turning past the century mark on a ride would be this momentous occasion. But it was insignificant considering the beautiful location and most importantly the task at hand.

Finally, after an eternity, I made it to the gas station in Hickman. I grabbed another Coke, a couple more donuts, and I sat out on the curb to relax for a minute. I made small talk, and got many congrats for not bailing on the race after my derailleur issue. A few guys were eating pizza, and that did not sound good at all. Yuck.

It was time to move on. I was confident I was going to finish now, and I just wanted to get going because after all, I still had 40 miles left.

Along the way, I came across the “secret oasis.” This location was hosted by the brand new local bike company called War Axe Cycles, and was definitely the most interesting of all the oasis locations. Apparently, this is one of the oldest houses in the entire county of Lancaster. It is uninhabitable for now, but as luck would have it, I just happened to show up when the current owner was explaining the history of the building, and what he was doing to restore it. Sounded like quite an undertaking, but a definitely a project of love for him. And from what I hear, he’s already committed the house as part of Gravel Worlds 2012.

Soon enough, I was off again. Forget about making friends and riding companions. I had been pretty much on my own for the last four hours. Now that’s a totally unscientific estimate. I found that you completely lose track of time when you’re out on the road for one of these events. I was simply out to prove to myself that I could do this, and running single speed for the last eleventy billion miles only made me feel more accomplished. I don’t really need to share it with another person. The miles ticked away, and much like running a full marathon (which I’ve done in the past), four or five miles started to seem like a small investment when you look at the grand scheme of an ultra endurance event.

Unfortunately, the race organizers had one more surprise in store for us down the road. At about mile 122, we came upon another MMR. This one was as close to the first nearly impassable MMR (the one that we had to walk) as any other stretch of the course. The only difference was that it looked even LONGER. Ugh. So me and two other guys that I had come up on threw our bikes over our shoulders and started huffing it. By this time, we were seasoned vets at these roads. We knew where to find less mud as we walked, and we used tricks such as jumping a fence and walking the edge of a field to find better footing. About this time I noticed that my shoes were starting to fall apart, and that sucked. The sole was coming unattached from the shoe. But really it wasn’t a huge deal, because by that time I felt like I could finish without any shoes at all.

Even with carrying our bikes, they still somehow managed to fill up with mud. After three or four miles (no exaggeration) the road was finally good enough to ride. So we all put our bikes down and cleared mud the best we could, hopefully for the last time. After that, we took off and I thought that maybe I had found a couple guys I could finish this thing out with. That optimism soon turned sour, as about fifty yards down the road, I had issues with my SS. It started slipping, probably because of the mud load. As the small group of guys I was with said goodbye and rode away, I cleared the rest of the mud, took my wheel off, removed the little part of my der hanger that was left, got everything realigned, and made it work again. All the while, people were passing me and asking if I needed help. It was nice to be able to smile, and say thanks but no thanks. I was being self sufficient and that was a good feeling. Then I hopped on and decided to see if I could go hard and catch those two guys again.

Fifty yards later, my rear tire was flat. Now it was getting comical. I had to laugh at my situation or I may have lost it and quit. But I think I made the fastest tube change of my life (I felt like quite the mechanic by this time). Two SAG vehicles came rolling up and asked if I was cool, which I was, and they moved on. As they drove away I started wondering if they were the people in charge of making sure the last place guy isn't dead on the side of the road somewhere. So I just attacked. The adrenaline from my quick tire change gave me some serious energy. I felt faster at that point than any other time aside from the very beginning of the race. As I topped a hill two miles down the road the two SAG cars were sitting there chatting. So I yelled out, "Am I in last place or something?!" They assured me that there were plenty of people still at the last checkpoint in Hickman, and to just keep going hard.

And I did. The sun was starting to fade, and it was cooling off. I could taste the finish line now. I knew there would be one last "oasis" about 10 miles from the end, and I wanted to go as hard as my lungs would take me to that point. There, I would stop and call my wife to tell her that I was bringing it home... so she needed to hop in the car to come pick me up.

When I got there, local bike scene organizer Schmitty (Craig Schmidt) was waiting. It was his aunt and uncles plot of land and he was a gracious host. Among other things, he offered pizza, beer, and also mentioned that I was in about 30th place by his estimation. All I wanted was more water, and to make my call. Alas, my cell phone was dead and so was my Garmin! I had been riding so long that I had outlasted the batteries for my two life lines. Never fear, Schmitty gladly let me use his cell. I made my call, dropped a dollar in the tip jar, and booked it for home.

I still had lots of energy. The roads were dry now, and I was excited that I had almost made it. It was weird to think back to the start early in the morning, because it seemed so long ago. But I was almost back to where I had begun this journey. It was full on dark now, the new lights I had picked up the night before were on in full effect, and it was probably a good thing. This was the only time I had a GI issue for the entire day. That sucked because I just wanted to get home, but I needed to stop for a little pit stop. And it was dark so if anybody came along, no biggie.

The finish was kind of anticlimactic. When I got there, all the lights at headquarters were off, the parking lot was nearing empty, and most people had gone home or to the bar. I crossed the finish line, and Troy Krause informed me that I had finished in under 15 hours… something like 14:48? Good enough for 31st place in the entire world! And good enough for a free pair of socks from Twin Six.

I promptly left, and went home. Yeah, I was a little cranky, but my wife and kids put up with me. When I finally stepped into my air conditioned abode, it was around 9:30 pm. Everything was where I had left it in the morning. Nothing had changed. I basically felt like I had just finished this huge, life altering adventure, and while I was gone my family went about their business as if nothing had happened.

So what did I do? Ate three hamburgers, a full bag of chips, drank two beers, and went to bed.

-Posted 9/4/11