Trans Iowa(TI) is a beast.
The 2015 version of TI(it is a different course every year) was to be a 331 mile gravel road bicycle race, but don’t let the word ‘race’ give you thoughts of the peloton or aid stations or support crews. You see none of those at TI. TI is self supported, meaning you are on your own. Completely. Any gear you may need, you carry with you. Food or drink? You carry that too. Resupply is allowed only at the convience stores and the like that you find in the small rural towns of Iowa that you pass through.
Oh, and you can’t plan your re-supply because you don’t know the course. The course changes completely every year and is not published. The evening prior to the start, there is a required meeting at a steak house in Grinnell, IA where you must sign in. Mark Stevenson, aka Guitar Ted, who is the race director, makes some announcements and each racer comes to the front to receive his or her race packet. The packet consists of a plastic grocery bag whatever swag there might be (this year it was a couple stickers) and a cue sheet with turn by turn directions to get to Checkpoint #1.
Checkpoints- this year there were to be two. The following is from the TI website:
- Checkpoint #1 53.49 miles CUT OFF @ 8:30am Saturday
- Checkpoint #2: 167.09 miles CUT OFF @ 8:00pm Saturday
- Finishline The Barn: 331.77 miles. Cut off time 2:00pm Sunday
- Convenience stores will be no more than 90 miles apart and all available stops past CP#2 are open 24 hours a day.
There are no entry fees and no prize money. TI is raw and unrefined, yet sportsmanship and the gentlemen’s idea of racing are held in very high regard.
In reality, when it comes to the ‘race’ that is TI, contestants don’t race each other. I mean, they do, but because of the possibility of rough weather in Iowa in April, TI is more a test of yourself against the elements. That being said, in 2015, the elements won.
Leading up to this race, I was severely under-prepared. I was up till 2:45AM Thursday night putting my bike back together. After taking it apart completely to clean and go through all the bearings and whatnot, I had failed to get things back together beforehand. So needess to say, I was scrambling.
Back up at 7AM on Friday, I ran around like crazy running errands, gathering my gear and doing a last second tear down of my rear wheel in an attempt to replace my free hub which was not working properly. Alas, I couldn’t find a replacement free hub and I had to put it all back together again. ‘Just go with it’, I told myself.
Jeneen and I left Farmington at noon to make the 6 hour drive to Grinnell. Things would be tight as I was required to be there to sign in no later than 6:30. Thankfully the traveling went smooth.
We arrived in Grinnell at 5:45, plenty of time to sign in and eat before the pre-race meeting. Relief! I made it to the start!
Friday evening was really cool. Not only was the meal amazing, but I got to meet some folks that I had only come to know beforehand on Facebook- Scott McConnell, Michael Lemberger and several others.
The big topic all evening, all week actually, was the forecast. After a low snowfall year and a dry early spring, early projections had been that this just might be a record setting year for TI finishers, meaning that the dry road conditions would make for a good riding surface and lessen the normally very high attrition rate. As the race weekend drew near, it was evident that would not be the case. After a wet week, race day forecasts showed highs in the mid-40’s at best, ENE winds at 25-30 mph and heavy rain. Not good for any race, but in particular, not good at all for a gravel race.
After the meeting, it was off to the hotel. After packing the bike and readying my things for the morning, I laid down for a very little bit of restless sleep. In bed at 10:30PM and the alarm went off at 2:30AM.
I got ready, ate and made my way to the 4AM start in downtown Grinnell. There was very little pomp. Guitar Ted said a couple things, we saluted him with a muffled, gloved applause and at 4:00 straight up, he tooted the horn of his truck and we were off.
Guitar Ted led us through the first bit of the course, out of town to the start of the gravel. After that, he took off and we were going.
The first 6 or 7 miles were due East, straight into the 25mph headwind. The road was a big sponge, engorged with water from the previous day’s of rain. With the difficulty of navigating the mush in the dark and the added winds, the pack of riders broke up almost immediately. I had started toward the back intentionally, as I didn’t want to go out too hard and blow myself up. When the big group fell apart, I fell off the back and was mostly alone. I wasn’t the only one, but we were all so spread out that there was zero protection from the wind.
Quickly I realized that my bike setup was far from perfect. I had made several adjustments and hadn’t ridden the bike to test it. My seat was angled too far down in the front. I had flipped my 7 degree stem to point up instead of the normal down so I would be more comfortable for the long hours of riding. This just put me more into the wind and made progress more difficult. My aerobars weren’t adjusted right and felt uncomfortable when I used them. My setup was crap. I was already having doubts and feeling hopeless. Then the lightening started.
About the time we finished the little slog into the headwind and turned north for a couple miles, there were a few flashes of lightening and the rain started. Stinging sideways rain pelted down and made the already soaked roads even more mush.
The route turned to the west for a mile or two and the tailwind was fabulous! Cold and wet, but not straining against the wind, I thought, maybe this will be ok. I recognized that I had been pushing pretty hard with the wind and mushy roads, so I thought I would check my average on my bike computer. I knew I needed to take it as easy as I could or I would be blown up for later in the day.
When I looked at my computer, I had come 10.4 miles. With the push of a button to reveal my average, I was horrified. My average was 10.4 mph. In order to make the first checkpoint on time and receive the cue sheet to carry on I needed to have an 11.9 average. Very doable for me on any given day, but not this day with the circumstances I had.
“But, I can’t quit this early!” I was only an hour into a 34 hour race. I didn’t want to quit at all!!! I put my head down and carried on. Surely I can suffer through this.
Shortly the route turned North again. This was to be a 5 mile stretch. It was horrible. Even mushier roads, the rain was coming down harder and it was a bit hilly. I just couldn’t keep any speed. I was looking ahead on the cue sheets and saw that not far ahead we would have an 8 mile stretch due East into the headwind. It became painfully obvious to me that I wasn’t going to be able to make the first checkpoint. Not with the conditions. I REALLY wanted to, but it was futile.
I knew I needed to make a decision. Stopping along the road somewhere in 40 degree temps with the rain would mean plummeting body temps. As long as I was riding, I was “warm”. I could carry on in an attempt to see how far I could go, but then I would find myself sitting somewhere cold while I wait for Jeneen to come get me. Also, I would be adding stress to Jeneen as neither of us are familiar with the area and many of the roads she would travel to rescue me would be just like the sloppy gravel I was riding. When I added it all together, it just made logical sense to call it right where I was and ride back. My competitive spirit hated that option.
A mere 13.7 miles into the beast, I called it. I was so disappointed in myself. Who prepares 6 months for a 331 mile race and quits at 13.7 miles? I knew it was the right thing, but I didn’t like it. Not at all. I texted my DNF to Guitar Ted, texted Jeneen to fill her in and turned back.
Feeling downtrodden, I took my solace in God. While pedaling through the mush and rain, passing folks going the other way who hadn’t made their call, I prayed. ‘Lord, help me to learn from this and not be bitter.’ Just down the road, in the pre-dawn purple hue, a pheasant got up and flew from the ditch next to me. That was all I needed.
It may seem silly that a pheasant made things ok, but let me explain. Many years ago, I hunted regularly, specifically game birds like quail. Where I live in Missouri, we don’t have pheasants and I always thought it would be so cool to go north to hunt those big beautiful birds. On our honeymoon, my wife and I went to Mt Rushmore and while traveling across South Dakota, I took numerous ‘shots’ with our cheap 35mm camera, or at least attempted to take them, of pheasants as they flew from the ditches along the highway. When I see some of those blurry photos, it makes me smile.
You see, pheasants represent something wild and beautiful to me. Whether it’s their beauty as they fly, or the remembrance of the wild frontier of the newly married, or the adventure and excitement of being in nature and hunting, the thoughts that I have when thinking of this simple bird are compelling and invigorating. Much like the excitement I feel when I ride my bike.
The simple act of watching that bird take flight in the rain brought me back to reality and gave me perspective. My bid to finish TI.V.11 may have been a failure, but I am not. I go do these things to test myself and get out for an adventure. I had done both of these things and succeeded. The weather won the day, but I will be back. Oh yes. I WILL be back!!
I rode through the rain and wind back to the hotel. Quite frankly, it was miserable. When I got back, I showered, ate something and took a nap. Later in the day, I found out the rest of the story on TI.
Of the 95 racers who took the line, only 1 made it to checkpoint #1 in time. Greg Gleason made it, carried on toward checkpoint 2 and decided to call it quits around 120 miles into the beast. He had bested the remainder of the riders by almost 70 miles, but the conditions of the race were more than he could bear. Congratulations Greg on an amazing and noble effort!
Looking back, I feel good about my attempt. It certainly didn’t go as planned, but I learned from it. I got to meet a whole bunch of really cool folks, made some new friends and take part in something epic. It’s all good. 🙂
Now, to prepare for a little cross country race called Trans Am Bike Race!!!!!