What a blast! If you've ever ridden a bicycle and you live within a thousand miles of Spring Valley, MN, you really need to make a point of participating in the Almanzo some day! It's called a "race" but don't let that intimidate you. The event is super casual (although there is a solid contingent of serious guys too if that's what you're looking for), unsupported, with thousands of chill cyclists out to have a good time and willing to lend a helping hand if you get in a pinch. I'd call it one of the biggest rolling parties you'll ever see!
We had a nice crew of riders from CyclovaXC who came down to camp, ride, and sit by the fire drinking beer (my favorite part).
|Scientific Pre-Race Preparations|
This was my first stab at the Almanzo, so I was taking a low-pressure approach. The day before, I printed up my "bail out" map (the one you see above--sans the pithy comments...you can download it here if you want a copy). A couple of my friends asked me why I needed a map if I had a cue sheet. Well, cue sheets are great but I wanted to be able to plan a route back to my car if my legs blew out on me.
Spring colds and snow have kept me off the bicycle more than I wanted this year (I manned the bacon stop at our Mammoth Gravel Classic at the end of April...which is the perfect Almanzo prep by the way). In fact, I'd put less than 200 miles on my bicycle, but I've done two running marathons this May so I knew my fitness was solid. Plus, our campground was right at mile 70 so I didn't feel I was being irresponsible by lining up at the start. When in doubt, it's always better to line up and ride (with an exit strategy if you're not sure of your limits) than it is to stay home. Folks, you've heard it a hundred times, you're capable of more than you think you are--you'll surprise yourself.
|The CyclovaXC Contingent|
We had a perfect day. I could have done without the gale force winds...but there are always winds when you're on a bike so you can't complain about that. The temptation would be to say that it was a little bit on the cold side, but in reality it was just cool enough to keep you from sweating but not so much that you were really uncomfortable. Dehydration is probably the biggest thing that stops people from finishing most events (it's hard to carry enough water on your bicycle for a 10 hour endurance day), so in that sense, the weather really cooperated with us.
Our group lined up at the back of main street with the exception of Frank (Frank likes to hammer and he finished with an exceptional time of around 6:20). We set off at nice pace taking over the entire width of the road due to sheer numbers. The first 20 miles or so fly by since there are so many riders, and the big concern for that stage of the event is to just ride clean and avoid silly tangle-ups that might result in crashes.
I was doing the ride on 700X32 wheels, which really aren't all that wide. Although Almanzo is gravel, there are spots where the gravel is as hard as pavement. For the most part, the 32s were fine, but I think I might go a little wider next year just because as an old man I'm a bit timid on the downhills.
We had a safe start, but I heard later that one of our club guys had a crash at mile 32 and really banged up his shoulder. I totally forgot about this and the next day I gave him a congratulatory slap on the back only to have him just about drop to his knees. No more congratulatory slaps on the back from me...I still feel terrible about that...but dang, I was impressed with his effort!
In my riding group, our only minor issue was when Lone Wolf got a flat tire. One of my other friends hollered out, "Flat!" and I pulled over. We were climbing a hill and a rider who was coming along said, "now you have to decide whether to go back or make them come to you." I spun around as he said it and started coasting down the hill. The rider smiled, "you're a good friend," he said.
Tire fixed, we kept rolling and our group got more and more spread out along the course. One of our riders, Tod, wasn't able to participate because he had a mishap on a step-ladder which left him on crutches. Still, he didn't miss out on the day. He filled up a couple coolers with water, threw them in the back of his truck, and picked strategic points to meet us out on the course. At one of these points, a rider came up and asked, "do you have any duct tape?" The sole had separated from his shoe and he needed a makeshift solution. Tod dug around in his truck and came up with some electrical tape and got the guy back on the road. On Sunday it was nice to see the following message on our Facebook page:
I kept thanking Tod after the event, and he always would reply, "but I didn't do anything." His impression was that not many of the riders took water--but I filled up my bottle with him at a stop. It's funny, but in regular life a half a bottle of water doesn't mean much--on a bicycle, however, it means EVERYTHING! Tod did such a good job I might have to break his leg prior to this event again next year :) .
We got the tire fixed but I didn't completely trust it (it had been flat that morning too), so I stuck with Lone Wolf as we made our way towards Preston. The Velaski's came by us on a tandem kicking up dust and hammering along at a thousand miles an hour. They were having a great day, riding hard for a couple hours interspersed with frequent stops to eat, relax and enjoy the day.
South of Preston, things really got beautiful. The gravel roads pass through these picturesque forests with lush undergrowth populated with white flowers. Also, the riders were dispersed enough that everyone had begun to follow a single track down the road that you could see stretching off into the distance. It started to feel like you had ridden in to one of those retro Tour de France posters:
Lone Wolf had gone into the event with the plan of riding about 40 miles (he ended up hammering out 60), so I gave him one of my "bail out" maps (I'd brought a bunch of copies to give to people who looked like they were in trouble) and he went off course to get back to the campsite. He told me later that the map was a big hit, and he met a couple other "off course" riders who consulted with it to get their bearings.
A short while after that, I turned into a massive headwind and saw nothing but the back of a tire for the next 5 miles or so. Apparently I passed one of our team guys out on the course without seeing him, which was a shame because I would have liked to chit-chat with someone. At about mile 63 I caught up with Doran who told me he wasn't feeling well. We rode along and stopped at a conglomeration of little buildings just at the entrance of the Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park. A kind woman had a couple cans of Coke for us which gave us both a jolt as we got back on the bike.
We went along up to the entrance to our campground where a couple of our guys were sitting around and enjoying the day. Lone Wolf pulled up in his GMC motorhome, and Doran threw his hands up in the air, "Yes, a ride to my car!" I felt pretty good, but the prospect of drinking beer and hanging out with my friends appealed to me, so I started stripping my gear bag off my bike to load up into the motorhome. However, at the last moment, Doran changed his mind. "Nope, I'm going to finish!" he declared, and jumped back on his bike to head out. Lone Wolf sent him off with a couple encouraging bursts of the air horn.
The soft seats and the beer looked good to me, so I threw my bike on the rack. At the time I didn't think it would bother me to pull out. This was my first ever gravel ride (except for mile or two jaunts on my road bike), and everything had gone extremely well. There are a couple events on the calendar that I have an emotional commitment to which no amount of suffering will pry me away from. However, this was just my first date with Almanzo...
"Well, either I won't think about it again," I said to myself, "or pulling out will start to gnaw at me and provide an intense/painful motivation to train like a maniac for next year...either way I win."
Sitting here, writing this now, I think it's going to be the latter.
From now on, the Almanzo 100 is circled on the calendar. I'm told that Christopher Skogen waits around personally at the finish line to shake the hand of every rider who crosses the line. I think next year I'll take a copy of my novel Beyond Birkie Fever, put it in a ziploc bag, carry it throughout the ride, and hand it to him at the end. So I guess you'll all have to check in one year from now to see if that happens! It will be worth it for the picture!
In the meantime, I'll be recruiting more riders for this magnificent day in the saddle! Here's the Almanzo 100 web page...prep time for 2015 begins now!